I experienced my scariest moment in India last week. We learned about cultural sensitivity the hard way.
A team from America had just arrived to the home for 10 days. They were sent on a scavenger hunt in the city market in order to overcome their fear of communication and become immersed in the culture. Ben and I took part because we had missed out on this experience when we arrived 7 weeks ago.
After an hour of picking up random cheap items, we had almost finished our list and had to take a picture of all our items. So we spread out everything on top of the newspaper in a local language (one of the scavenger items) and took a picture.
Then I started to notice some people crowding around us. “Oh they are just interested in what we are doing” I thought. So we didn’t pay much attention. Then I noticed that the crowd got tighter. I turned around and was a little uncomfortable at all the staring people surrounding us.
Then we heard her.
A Muslim woman was yelling and pointing her finger at us. We had no idea what she was saying. She got louder and louder and shook her finger down at our items. She was beside herself angry. We were confused. “What’s the problem?” I thought. We tried to figure out what was making her so angry as more and more people crowded around to see all the commotion. She pointed to an item on the newspaper, the pair of chapels (sandals). Thinking that she thought we had stolen it, Ben grabbed the matching sandal in its bag and showed it to her. She was not appeased. We were still confused.
Then we got it.
The paper was a Muslim paper, which meant it had religious symbols on it. We had placed shoes on top of it. It was extremely offensive to her. In India, your feet or shoes are the ultimate sign of disrespect.
We tried to apologize to her, told her we didn’t know it was a Muslim paper, and grabbed our stuff quickly, but she wouldn’t have any of it. She was walking out into the street yelling to people, trying to get others to respond, screaming obscenities about Americans. Most of the men just stared at her, unsure of what to say.
I was pretty terrified. We grabbed our stuff, caught an auto, and left. As we left, the woman began scolding the newspaper stand for selling something Muslim to Americans.
And finally, when we relayed the events to Tammy later that day, she told us how they had to shut down some streets in Mumbai after riots started when someone threw their sandal at a Hindu temple.
Hmmm… won’t be making that mistake again anytime soon.