Telling My Stories

A life lived outside

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Posted by catkisser on August 8, 2009

In the earlier entry called Life’s Turning Points I talked about my “feminist awakening” in the pre-dawn of the Second Wave of Feminism. How I became aware of male privilege by having it extended to me by my father and I rejected it causing a rift that never healed between us.

I had trouble since his death forgiving him still. Privilege is a hot button topic these days but having lived a life essentially outside I have had unique experiences with it. I was born in Grosse Point, the wealthiest place in America at the time. I joke I was born with a plastic spork in my mouth because we were the “token poor folk”, my father being a teacher at Detroit University School. I attended nursery school, kindergarten and first grade with the wealthy elite but not one of them. Class distinctions were something I was aware of at a very early age as a result.

The summer of 1964 we moved to India. Perhaps because of my early experience with class in the supposedly classless society of 1950’s America, the culture shock for myself was quite different that those of my American classmates. I say American classmates because the American International School in New Delhi was truly international. Students from all over the world attended. I knew and socialize and played with kids from Soviet blog nations, South America, India, Europe. And it was not lost on me how ill equipped many of my American classmates were to deal with a society with the caste system. I ate India up……..loved it. Unlike my peers, I listened raptly to stories from our “servants” about Indian culture, religion, ghost stories. And apparently, in retrospect, they knew more about me than I realized.

Our live in cook was an incredible man named Lakshman. It was strange enough suddenly going from suburban middle class to having servants but here was a man who spoke seven languages and could read and write in five of them…and he was a servant because of his caste. Lakshman never once called me by my birth name in two full years even in response to others using it when answering the phone or in conversation. He insisted on calling me Jackie instead, often to the great confusion of those trying to leave me a message. It took me years to figure out why along with remembering some very stern warnings he gave me whenever I planned a trip to villages outside the Delhi metro area. During this time shortly after the assassination of JFK, Jackie Kennedy had a position in the rest of the world similar to that which Princess Di would have later. She was literally the royalty to the world. Calling me Jackie was Lakshman’s way of telling me he knew me and who I was and he approved and honoured that. He used to warn me that my hair colour, red, would get me in a lot of trouble if I was seen as female. At the time I made no sense of why he would tell me this but he and others (all Indian) repeated this to me constantly. Red haired women were considered witches outside the urban areas. I did not know at the time about the Hijra, no one told me of them and if I ever met any, I was unaware of it………but every Indian knew of them and apparently recognized my similarity to them with no problem.

Other than Christine Jorgensen, no one in “polite” Western circles ever discussed people like me. Despite having devoured my father’s psychology text books from the time I first cut my reading teeth, I found almost nothing but very vague references to anyone like me, anyone intersexed but Indian myths, religion and folk tales were full of them. It was at my first “western” party I met first person who set off my intersex radar as well. Western kids in India socialized with dance and music mixers at each other’s home a lot. New arrivals were expected to bring along the newest records from the US and England so the parties were a big deal. At my first one I met a girl who was leaving India for the States and something happened between us I’ve rarely experience since. She and I were drawn to each other like we were opposite poles of a magnet and it wasn’t sexual. We talked all night long as if we were long time friends and I can still see her face clearly in my mind..but I have never been able to find a picture of her in the school yearbooks from the immediate prior years. I am certain she was intersexed like myself.

In India I cut across all class lines and borders constantly. Many classmates were from much poorer situations, some from totally different cultures and ideologies. I met with adults who would later be a head of State, the governor of the state I was to live in later, servants and beggers and even did volunteer work in a leper colony. Economic class never meant much to me after that and the rest of my life I went from poor to well off to poor many times without much concern. Racism was also a concept pretty much outside my personal experience until my senior year of high school in West Virgina.


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