Different Worlds: A Conversation with Tanvi Mittal
An anthropology sophomore from Boona, India talks about the challenges and balances of being an Indian woman and studying in the United States.
After switching from single sex to co-ed education, what were the major differences you found between the two in India?
I had to deal with how to interact with boys, but there was a huge differentiation between boys and girls. We had to sit separately, it was like they wanted us to interact but they didn’t want us to interact. It was a very awkward environment created by the school. It was only after high school that we learned how to deal with it. In my head, in the way I grew up there isn’t much differentiation. I know I can be friends with them, but there are girls in India who won’t let boys be close to them.
What were the dynamics in the classroom compared to the expectations outside?
It’s very interesting because in the classroom, we were equal. We could work on projects with boys, we could do lab work and homework together. If I told my teacher I wanted to meet with a boy to help him with homework, that would be okay. But if I just wanted to sit with him it wasn’t okay.
So if it was for education, you were equal, but otherwise it felt unequal?
Yes, the staff were very apprehensive because they don’t want to encourage you to date anyone. It’s very taboo in India. My mom told me not to date anyone until college, because that’s the appropriate age. But we have this media and we’re connected to the world, we see people dating at 14, so it’s hard for us to make a balance of the two…our culture doesn’t let us do that.
Do you have friends looking into arranged marriages? Is that a big part of our generation?
Yeah, in every strata of India it happens. People stereotype it as lower class but it’s not. Maybe dowry has increased or decreased, but it still pertains a lot. I’m 20 now, and I have friends whose parents have started troubling them recently, asking if they should look for a boy for them. I have friends who had stood up and said no, but the majority of the time people give in. I have a friend 4 or 5 years older than me who had to leave her house and family and move to Delhi because her grandmother put so much pressure on her getting married but she wanted to pursue her education. My brother’s friends are getting married now, and there’s a high majority who just accept their parent’s choice.
Did you have to talk to your parents about arranged marriages?
My parents were a love marriage. It was very difficult for them, in their generation it was unacceptable. But I’m a different case; they’ve been okay with me having a boyfriend. But I could see my uncles not being okay with it.
If you asked them for an arranged marriage would they help you?
I’m sure they will. I don’t think any parent would say, “No I won’t help you,” but I think they’ll advise me to find love because they believe in it.
Shifting gears here, how do you feel about the rape cases in India?
Being a girl from India, I am just as annoyed and angry as everyone else is. A lot of people have different views on it. It had to have happened. We hear about thousands of rape cases every day in India and this wasn’t any different. If you know about the Holi festival, I used to hate it growing up in the North because I would always hear about 10 rapes during the festival because it’s fun and you throw colors because it’s fun and crazy, but everyone gets mob mentality. I wasn’t allowed to play outside or go in a car near the festival because my parents were scared about rapes. Sometimes people would stop a car, pull a girl out, and rape her. So growing up hearing about those things, I was always protected because my parents could protect me. Like molestation on the bus is normal…You can’t go to the police knowing they might rape you too…[I]f something were to happen my parents would not go to the police, they would call people they know to help.
So, it makes it an internally solved issue?
Yeah. A lot of things have enraged Indians over the years, especially corruption. If we had a good police system I would not feel as threatened. But knowing I can’t go to them, or they’re even worse, is awful. The Delhi rape case is a very normal case in India. It just reached the threshold for people’s patience. When it came out, three other cases came out, and then women from all over India came out and said, “I was raped, too.” I’m in a more difficult position because I’m out of it now. I don’t have the anxiety every single day when I’m walking down the street, but it’s still built in me. There are times I find myself looking over my shoulder out of habit. The only feeling you have toward this is anger.
It seems as though since there aren’t institutions and proper authority to solve the problems, it pushes the society back to patriarchy. You’ll look to the males in the family to “solve” a problem or a rape.
Exactly. It definitely does. Sure, equality is growing. But it’s still a male-dominated society, for sure.
Are a lot of your friends here at Penn from India?
Is it difficult going back and forth between the two worlds?
It sort of is, because I don’t have a white parent. I’m just Indian. So when I go back to India I change my accent, when I come here I change my accent. It’s more difficult to find your own identity between the two worlds; it’s easier to adjust. But to find that middle ground is the real challenge. I still love going back home, and I really like being here.
Are most of your friends in school in India?
Do you notice any difference growing between you given your experiences in the states and theirs in India?
Definitely. I have friends who I was very close with in high school, but I found myself growing up differently. I don’t connect with one of my friends like I used to. We’re on different planes, it’s not higher or lower, but our interactions, values and interests are different.
Do you want to go back to India after Penn?
Just depends what I do. I’ve chosen anthropology. But I feel like there is more to do with anthropology in US. I think it’s hard to go back to India with a four-year degree from an Ivy League school and know that you could have done better. The degree still matters there, but I’ll regret there would be more opportunities in US for women in general.
If you had to pick the most difficult or most obvious differences between being in India or being here…how would you fill in, “In my daily life I notice…”
I can wear whatever I want. Like today, it’s just comfort. I have work to do, I’m going to tie my hair up, wear a V-neck. In India when I pick out my clothes it’s harder now, I have an Americanized wardrobe. I have to think where I’m going. When I go with my friends and we go to a cheap street place, I would not be comfortable wearing shorts. When I visit my grandparents up north I don’t wear shorts and it’s 123 degrees. I wear jeans. There’s a continuous feeling that you’re getting looks. Here I don’t have that. Also, people smile here. People think you’re a lunatic if you smile at them in India.
I think I know the feeling. When I was in Southeast Asia, I found I couldn’t blend and it was that uncomfortable feeling of being watched.
For me it’s not even blending, I’m just like the other girls there but everyone notices me. Or any other girl. Bare legs get stared at. Even jeans are seen as more modern and exposing. In India there’s a huge population of men who believe rape happens because of how women dress. If you wear jeans, you want us to rape you, so we rape you. Don’t tell us we’re wrong. Part of it is also the scarcity of women.
You said you have more of an Americanized wardrobe, is that something you initially felt pressured to have?
I know there are many people who believe they should dress however they were raised to dress. For me, I didn’t have Indian clothes it was still the same clothes as here, they were still shirts and jeans, just different cut. Eventually you do just buy new clothes, and once you buy new clothes you feel better because it’s like you blend in, fit in. I believe in adapting and I like it.
Have your parents visited? What do they think of the States?
Yes. They’re a minority, they’ve been to over 120 countries. When they came to US they didn’t feel weird. But if you look at the first time my mom visited US it would be very different. The one thing she notices is a too deep neckline in shirts. But eventually, you get used to it. Things are changing in India. It’s basically women saying let us wear jeans, they ‘re more comfortable. We’re still going to wear higher collar stuff, but there is Forever 21 and H&M. Things are changing.
It’s two different worlds. Whenever someone writes about India I want them to mention, my US and my India are not too different. My friends have a different India than I do. I travel in the car, go wherever I want, go to the clubs. My friends don’t do that. They have arranged marriages. It’s who you want to write about. If you want to write about all of us, the only thing that connects us is living in India.