As an Indian Sees America

November 1 1911

As an Indian Sees America

November 1 1911

As an Indian Sees America

THERE is SO much truth and so much real interest in Mr. Saint Nihal Singh’s articles under the above heading in the Hindustan Review that we think it wise to reprint a second of this gentleman’s articles. The punctuation is East Indian.

For my own part, he says, I do not mind being stared at as if I was a rare specimen of some five-legged beast which had made his escape from the zoo and was now at large on the American boulevards, for the special purpose of regaling Americans. Three years in the United States have rendered this thing a matter of course to me; and unless the rudeness is of too pronounced a type to escape my notice, I fail to take any cognizance of it whatever. But there is an ungainly, patronizing treatment that the American accords to the stranger which I most deeply resent, and I may say frankly, I am never at a loss to express my resentment in words. One day I was traveling on an mter-urban car to a suburb of a Western town. I had an experience there that aptly illustrates the point I am making. I got into the car as soon as it was on the track, and sat down, absorbed in reading my evening paper. Before the car started, it became quite overcrowded, and I noticed that while many men sat in their seats, looking out of tthe windows or reading the yellow, sensational sheets otherwise known as newspapers, many women were standing, hanging to straps with one hand, and carrying bundles’ in the other.

I did not have it in my power to seat all the women when who were hanging from straps: but there was one little woman— a frail thing, with pallid cheeks and sunken eyes, and a waist laced in so tightly with corsets that I could span it with my two hands, standing just about where I was sitting. I rose from the seat and gave it to her. As the car sped on its way, the seat next to this woman became vacant, and I jumped into it with alacrity. No sooner had I done this than I heard : “Say, are you Chinee?”

I had grown tired of being taken for what I was not and I said, partly in chagrin and partly in mischief: “Yah!”

“You talkee English?”


“We are doing China mucliee good. We send missionaries to your heathen people to make Christians.”


“By an, by, your people losee their savageness and become Melicanized—civilized.”


“Say, John ! Isn’t it awful the way your women bindee their feet?”

“Yes. And is it for your good, and for the good of your progeny, that you should crush in your waist?” I asked impassionately, almost savagely. In my exasperation at the holier-than-thou feeling exhibited by my tete-a-tete I forgot that I was pretending to be a Chinaman who understood English but imperfectly.

My words, uttered without any accent, so far as the effect they produced was concerned, might as well have been a thunderbolt hurled at the woman from the clear, blue vault of the sky. They “stung” her. She at once rang the bell. The conductor stopped the car at the next crossing, and she left me to ruminate over how I had taught at least one American to cease from flinging stones at other people’s glass houses so long as she was the occupant of one herself..

When I related this occurrence to an American friend, he shook his head. “Lucky the woman did not have you arrested. And if she had done so, it would.-* have gone mighty hard with you ; for, in this country, in a case like that, what a woman says goes,” he said. Then my friend related to me that a young countryman of mine, while riding in a car in Seattle, came to grief through a much smaller offence. A young lady riding in the car accused him of staring at her, with intent to hypnotize her. The poor fellow was hauled before the Police Court Judge. An American lawyer took an interest in the case, pleaded free of charge in behalf the Indian, and had him set free.

Be this as it may, it seems queer to me that an Oriental Should permit Americans to rudely stare at. him without paying them in their own coin, or that he should bear all manner of lies promulgated in the United States about the women of his land being brutally treated by his countrymen, and not have the liberty, so to speak, to laugh when he sees a waiter girl in the cafe wdiere he eats, laced so tight that she cannot bend down to pick up the dirty napkin she has dropped from the tray she was carrying back to the kitchen, and is obliged to ask a boy to pick it up for her. The American woman wears shoes one or two sizes too small for her, and her feet are hideously deformed by corns and bunions: and yet she talks insultingly about the savage manner in which the Chinese woman maltreats her feet. Yet you dare not talk about these unsavoury things in America without being dubbed a “chronic grouch.” The American expects you to allow him to rail at you; but he does not have the courtesy to let you rail back at him. This does not mean that the American does not

live in a glass house. He does. We hear a great deal about the American traveler being duped by the native curio sellers in India, Japan and other Oriental countries. But how about the Oriental traveler in America?

The Asian has to be very careful in his dealings with Americans. This for a very obvious reason. The minute he naps, he is lost. The American has reduced overreaching to an exact scientific art, and God protect you if you transact your business with him carelessly.

You go to a restaurant. The bill of fare tells you what the Cafe has to offer, and what prices you will have to pay. Y ou order mutton chops and the menu tolls you that with the meat order you will be. served with French or German fried potatoes, another vegetable, bread and butter, tea, coffee or milk. The bill of fare tells you that you will be assessed, say 50 cents. (Rs. 1-8-0) for this order. When you have been served, the waiter girl leaves a bit of paper on the table beside your plate, on which is pencilled or printed what you have to pay the cashier. The waiter is polite. The side of the paper containing the writing is next to the table, so the young man or woman eating by your side will not know what you have been taxed. When you take this cheque to the cashier and along with it hand $1 note, you may be surprised to see that you get only 40 cents instead of 50 cents in change. If you are the least bit inclined to be bashful—as was the case with the writer during the earlier months of his sojourn in the country—you will pocket your change and bear the loss without a wTord of protest or, if you have the courage of your convictions, you will tell the cashier that she gave you the wrong amount of change. As you do this, every one in the place stare at you in an insulting manner. The cashier fumbles through the cheques—the proprietor of the restaurant comes up—the waiter who served you is called, and a great seance takes place. The waiter is apt to say that she brought you “lamb chops” and not “mutton chops,” and that lamb chops are priced at 60 cents, or the cashier may tell you that service is not included in the price, and that the 10 cents which you claim as an overcharge are to go toward the salary of the waiter. Ten to one you are not likely to get back

your 10 cents. This kind of thing is not confined to any one city or one restaurant. I have visited many American cities, eaten in all grades of restaurants, and find that this kind of swindle is quite common.

You go to an Express company to have your trunk removed from a certain house and stored for a period, and you are told that it will cost you $1.50 (Rs. 4-8-0). You transact your business on this basis. Finally, when the time comes to settle the biil, you are told that you owe the company $2.00 (Rs. 6). You tell the clerk—invariably he happens to be other than the one with whom you originally made the bargain—that you had a distinct understanding that you were to pay $1.50. “No,” he will say, “that cannot

be. The moving are $1.50 and the storage charge is 50 cents, $2.00 in all. These are our regular rates. You must be mistaken.” And you have to pay $2.00, as they have your goods, and you are without a written agreement from them as to the price. Naturally you are at their mercy.

I had one experience with an Express company that illustrates to what lengths these corporations will go in order to grind money out of the trust-ridden public. My book, Essays On India, was brought out while I was travelling in Canada, by a Canadian publishing house. After I had been in the United States for a short time, it became necessary for me to send to the publisher for a few copies of my book in order to supply the American demand for it. In accordance with my instructions, the copies were sent to me by Express. These books were delivered to me in due time, and the driver of the wagon collected from me the charges for carrying them. Nothing was said about any customs being due, and it never entered my head that any duty had been assessed. In the United States, as in all countries, protest against customs charges must be made within a certain length of time after the delivery has been made. Long after the time for protest had expired, the Express company presented me with a bill for $3.30, for customs due on the books. The company said the driver undoubtedly was in blame for forgetting to collect the duty when he delivered the goods. The charge was exorbitant, by at least $3.00 and I refused to pay it. as it was presented to me

too late to allow me to enter a protest to the government. I declared that, had this customs bill been presented to me on delivery of the books, I would not have taken them out of customs at all, but would have allowed them to be confiscated rather than pay such a duty. The company employed every device that the cunning of man could conjure up to force me to pay that money. Again and again a collector was sent to me. Then a request was made that I go to the general offices of the Express company and talk the matter over with the manager. I did so, and again refused to pay the bill. A visit from an attorney employed by the corporation followed. In the meantime, I had been notified that a package was waiting for me at the district office, on which $3.30 was due. I went to the office and asked to see the package, as I was not aware from whom it came or what it contained, and I did not wish to pay for something I did not want. The man in charge of the office insultingly refused to show me the package, and when I insisted, refusing to pay the charge in advance, he cursed me in a most shameless manner. I left the office, telling him to return the package to the sender. As a matter of fact, there was no package there for me. It was simply a scheme on the part of the Express company to work the money out of me which they had demanded for customs duty on the other parcel, and then laugh at me. When the attorney visited me, I related the incident, and told him I intended to sue the company because of the insulting treatment I had received at the district office. He knew that I had a good case if I wished to push it. Beaten, he slunk away; but since then this particular Express company has had a grudge against me, a grudge which has followed me all about the United States and whenever it has a package to deliver me, no matter where I may be located, all the charges possible are added to the legitimate charge for carrying it.

Before an Oriental has been long on the American continent, he becomes convinced that everybody in the United States is in league to cheat him. The woman from whom he rents his rooms smilingly charges him $3.25 for the first week, then suddenly changes her base as soon as he is settled, and she feels sure of his staying

with her, frowns sullenly, declares he uses too much gas, although he may spend every evening outside his room, reading at the public library or seeing the sights of the city, only lighting the gas while he prepares for the bed, and shamelessly raises his rent 25 cents a week on the strength of her allegations. The poor Asian is lucky if he is able to find a room at any price, for the landladies have a way of telling him their rooms are all rented, when he rings the door bell and asks to be accommodated, although the “rooms for rent” sign is in the front window, and he is certain that he could have his choice of several rooms in the house, if only he had a “white” hide instead of a yellow or brown one. The laundry office on the corner unblushingly filches money from his pockets, and he is unable to protest. The sign outside advertises that the laundry washes and irons shirts for 6 cents each, but after the work is done, 10 cents is demanded for the work. If the poor heathen complains that the sign reads “shirts, 6 cents,” he is coldly informed that this refers to shirts buttoned down the front—or back—whichever may be the opposite of what his shirt was, and that he must pay 10 cents. He has no recourse but to give up the extra 4 cents or leave behind a shirt worth probably $1, at least. If he engages a cab, it is safe to predict that he will be “stung.” The cab driver will charge him many times his legitimate fare, and threaten to take him to the police station if he protests. He is not likely to question the amount, however, for few people—even Americans—know the legal rates, above which the cab drivers are forbidden by law to charge, and he is at the mercy of the Jehu.

The street car conductors are the cause of frittering away many a cent of the bewildered Asiatic’s money or forcing him to walk many weary miles, because of petty frauds they perpetrate upon him. Before I became acquainted with American ways, again and again was I cheated by street car conductors. It is their custom to work off old “transfers” (the tickets that enable a passenger to transfer from one car to another on an intersecting line) upon unsuspecting strangers— transfers that are not good on the next car—and thus forcing the traveler to pay

another fare or walk to his destination. Some conductors, be it said to their credit, are really “white” men. They accept the transfer at its face value and do not put the defrauded one off the car. Others are inflexible in their fealty to the interests of the company that employs them, and turn a deaf ear to all protestations of honest intent or explanations of how it happened.

I met a “white” conductor in St. Louis, Missouri—white in every sense of the word. I wished to visit the Missouri Botanical Garden, which has the reputation of being one of the largest botanical gardens in the world. I did not know how to get there, and asked tthe conductor on the car to direct me. He was quite ignorant of the location of this historical spot, in the city where he lived and worked, but I casually mentioned that I had been told a Vandeventer car would take me there. “Well, I can give you a Vandeventer transfer,” he surlily replied, and haded me a slip of paper. I watched the names of the streets until we came to Vandeventer Avenue. There I found a car standing on the corner and boarded it. I handed my transfer to the conductor, and he looked it over carefully and told me it was no good. It was too old for him to honor. I told him I had come directly from last car to his, and it must be a mistake of the conductor on tthe other car. He tore it in two, saying, “It’s too late for me to take up. That is all I can do with it.” But he did not demand another fare. After a few minutes had passed he returned, saying that a man on the back platform had ridden out in the same car with me, and remembered that he had seen me on the other car, and that I need not pay another fare. In this instance, my unusual appearance, which had attracted the attention of the passengers in the car on which I rode, stood me in good stead. Had the conductor chosen to be stern, however, he could have forced me to pay another fare or walk two or three miles to the Garden.

When an Indian first rides on an American railway car, he is likely to be impressed with the flattering attention which the employes of the company bestow upon him. All too soon, and more than likely to his sorrow and the depletion of his savings, does he discover that there is a method in their madness, and that if he

dances, he must expect to pay the fiddler. The obsequiousness of the porter and the news agent on the railway car have a price attached to every act of thoughtfulness on their part. The porter carries the traveler’s heavy suit case from the station into the car, insisting on doing so, and the bewildered Oriental believes he has wandered straight into heaven, until the porter stretches out his hand for a tip for the service. No more is he settled in his seat and started on his journey, than a news agent passes through the car and places two or three books or magazines in his lap. He ruminates upon the beneficence of the railway owners in America, who pay so much attention to the comfort of the traveling public, opens the book and begins to read. Before he realizes it, the news agent is demanding his price—an exorbitant one, always—for the book or magazine he is reading. Pretty soon another man passes through the car and lays a package of nuts or candy, or perhaps an apple or an orange, on the seat, beside him. Not warned by his former experiences, he eats the ‘gift,” and reluctantly digs into his pockets for the money to pay for it, when the man comes back and asks him +o settle for the supposed “present.” As the shades of evening deepen, the porter passes through the car and suavely asks, “would you like to have a pillow for the night, sir?” The Oriental takes it as a part of what is coming to him from the company, and says “yes.” In the morning he curses his unlucky karma when he is forced to give up 25 cents for the luxury (?) of a small, hard pillow.

So far as my personal experience has gone, I have been “stung” offener by newspaper and magazine editors than by any other class of people. I am all the time meeting with new experiences of this kind. While I was in Chicago, Illinois, I wrote two articles on Hindu immigrants in Canada for a well-known Canadian magazine. As I was about to leave the city, and needed money for traveling expenses, I asked the editor to advance me Rs. 75 of the amount due me for the work, and pay me the balance on publication. 1 asked this as I knew it would more than likely be some time before the articles would be published, and I wanted the money right away. He complied

with my request, after considerable pressure and argument on my part. Time passed, and several months later the articles were published. I counted the words, deducted the Rs. 75 I had received from what was due me, and sent him a bill for the balance. He wrote at once saying that he considered that when I accepted Rs. 75, I accepted payment in full for the articles. I reminded him that the receipt which I had signed bore, in my own handwriting, the words, “on account.” After considerable parleying, he finally paid me what he owed me. In Des Moines, Iowa, I had a new experience with the editorial genus Americana. Arranged to write an article for his paper at “space rates”—that is to say, so much a column —and agreed to accept a comparatively small rate for the photographs I furnished to illustrate it. To my surprise, when the article appeared it had been cut down from a page to a little over two columns in length, and the three cuts had been so enlarged that one covered five columns in width, and another three columns, and the third two columns. Thus, for a few cents, the editor had filled his space with what he would have been compelled to pay me many dollars for at ‘space rates,” if he had used what I wrote instead of the large cuts.

I think probably the crowning piece of impudence I experienced in America occurred in a small Western town where I was stopping as the guest of a friend. The Baptist minister came to me to find out if I would lecture in his church, and asked me how much I would accept for my lecture. I told him that I was in the habit of charging Rs. 300 for a lecture, but that since I was visiting in the town, and thus would not be put to extra expense, and since my friend was a member of his church, I would deliver a lecture for a much smaller sum, guaranteed. At first it was his intention to have the lecture on a weeknight and charge admission, but because a rival church was holding revival services at the time, he did not feel like breaking in on their meetings with such an attraction as my lecture, and he asked me if he would have any objection to lecturing on Sunday night, and accepting the collection. He explained that he had a great influence in the town, and that he would go around among the business

men and see to it that there would be a large crowd in attendance, prepared to put worth-while contributions in the basket. I told him I did not care how he arranged it, but that I would expect my fee, whether it was collected from the audience or raised in some other way. The night arrived, a rather stormy one, and the crowd which the preacher had guaranteed would be there failed to materi-

alize. The collection basket was passed around, and, after the lecture was delivered, he unblushingly came to me and put Rs. 9-8-0 in my hands as my honorarium. He made no apology, no explanation of any kind, and I was so hypnotized by his gigantic audacity—by his monumental gall—to use an Americanism—that words failed me, and I said not a word of rebuke or protest.