Changez points out a group of young women wearing Western clothing. He says they’re attractive, and suggests that they might be students at the nearby National College of the Arts. He contrasts them with the women sitting near them, who wear traditional Pakistani clothing. He observes that one of the young women has caught the Stranger’s eye, and asks him if he has a lover, male or female, back in America. When the Stranger shrugs in response, Changez says that he will tell him about his lover back in America, a Princeton classmate named Erica.
Since The Reluctant Fundamentalist is limited to Changez’s voice, it’s hard to get a picture of the area where he and the Stranger are sitting; the mention of the College of the Arts makes the picture a little clearer. The contrast between the students and the older women suggests that Pakistan, like Changez, is caught between local and Western culture. We also start to get a clearer picture of the Stranger — he’s slowly beginning to relax and people-watch, although his apparent shrug when Changez notices his gaze makes it clear that he’s still reluctant to open up to Changez.
Changez meets Erica the summer after they graduate from Princeton. Changez’s college soccer friend, Chuck, invites him on a vacation to Greece. Chuck and his friends, including Erica, come from wealthy families, and are members of Princeton’s most exclusive “eating club,” a kind of social club at Princeton. While they can easily afford to travel to Greece, Changez pays for his trip by cooking his own meals and cashing his signing bonus from Underwood Samson. The group regards Changez as an interesting and exotic friend.
Although Changez recognizes that he’s different from his wealthy classmates, his employment at Underwood Samson is already exposing him to richer people and lifestyles. His travel group treats him differently because they recognize that he’s exotic, but for now, this “soft racism” doesn’t greatly offend Changez because it seems to actually give him certain benefits. His outsiderness is interesting to those who are inside.
When Changez arrives in Greece, he is so attracted to Erica’s “regal” appearance that he offers to carry her backpack. Erica wears a t-shirt with Mao’s head on it, and, Changez eventually learns, practices tae kwon do. When he meets her, he’s unsure if she finds his manners attractive or old-fashioned.
Erica’s clothing and interest in tae kwon do suggest that she enjoys the non-Western world, but also takes that world out of context. In a way, she is a “consumer” of the non-Western world without even realizing it. Changez’s behavior around Erica represent his feelings toward America itself — he’s attracted to her, and becomes conscious of his outsiderness in her presence.
The Princeton group heads to Greece’s coastal city of Piraeus, where Changez sees other men flirt with Erica. One man tries to impress her by playing American pop music on the guitar, but he embarrasses himself, and Erica laughs to Changez about him.
Even in Greece, Erica and Changez encounter American pop culture, and bond over it.
A member of the Princeton group, Mike, tries to woo Erica while they eat dinner at a restaurant in Santorini. He sits next to her and puts his arm around her chair; Erica doesn’t ask him to remove it, but, she maintains eye contact with Changez for most of the meal, much to his delight. After dinner, Mike and Erica spend time alone, and Changez finds it hard to fall asleep. The next morning, she comes to breakfast by herself, not with Mike. Changez is relieved, and the two of them eat breakfast together, sharing food.
Erica’s suitors fail to woo her because they “come on too strong.” Changez is clearly smitten with Erica, but he doesn’t make his intentions obvious, as Mike does. For this reason, Erica seems to find him more interesting and more attractive than her other friends.
Erica tells Changez that she’d like to be alone in Greece, writing, but that she isn’t good at handling solitude. Changez tells her about growing up with a big family on his grandfather’s estate, and Erica replies that he seems calm and peaceful. Changez tries to continue the conversation, but he’s soon interrupted by the other members of the group. Still, he senses that he’s established a strong connection between himself and Erica, and waits for another time to talk with her one-on-one.
Erica doesn’t tell Changez about herself, but she’s so fascinated with Changez’s big family that she can’t have come from one herself. Even as he feels a connection with Erica, he begins to see the insecurity behind Erica’s charismatic exterior.
While he waits for another time to be alone with Erica, Changez enjoys his vacation to Greece, especially since he has never seen the ocean, or Europe, before. His biggest annoyances on the vacation, he comments to the Stranger, occur hen he sees his Princeton friends spending money too readily, or arguing with the Greeks whose restaurants and hotels they patronize. Since he’s been raised to spend money carefully and respect his elders, Changez often feels uncomfortable in Greece. He wonders how it can be that such young, impolite people as his Princeton friends can be some of the most powerful in the world. Still, he tells the Stranger, he may be misremembering or exaggerating his irritation with his classmates, because of his later experiences with the United States.
When Changez wonders how such impertinent people can be so powerful, he’s implying that manners — the way we treat other people — have a major effect on politics and foreign policy — how one country treats another, or how the West treats the rest of the world. The fact that Changez is surprised by his peers’ behavior, even after four years at Princeton, suggests that he still holds fast to the lessons of his upbringing, but also that his employment at Underwood Samson, which makes his vacation possible, introduces him to a new side of American life. Changez also hints here that he may be an unreliable narrator, that his later experiences may have affected his memory of earlier times.
Changez gradually realizes how difficult it is to catch Erica on her own — she’s always surrounded by other people. Although this is because she’s attractive and charismatic, Changez also notices that she seems distant, as if she’s secretly deep in thought.
Changez is an insightful observer, and seems to understand Erica in a way that her friends and admirers don’t. He may also see some of himself in Erica, since he, too, often feels out of place.
Back in Lahore, Changez observes that the Stranger hasn’t been paying attention to his story; he’s too distracted by the sight of the young women. A bearded man approaches the women, but he quickly moves on. Changez explains that in Lahore, women who feel harassed by men have the right to call upon other people in the crowd for help, and that lewd men who stare at women — as the Stranger is doing, Changez notes — are often beaten up. Then Changez continues with his story.
The Stranger is “loosening up,” allowing his eye and mind to wander. Beneath Changez’s casual tone, his explanation of the punishment for lewd men carries a clear threat to the Stranger. It also suggests that the West isn’t as “civilized” as it likes to think — the kind of lewd behavior that the Stranger can get away with in America carries strict consequences here.
Changez and his classmates come to the end of their trip on the island of Rhodes, where ancient fortifications against the threat of the East stand alongside modern military forces that serve a similar purpose. One day, Erica sunbathes topless while Changez sits close by. She notices him looking at her, and he blushes. She asks him to accompany her for a swim, which he does. In the water, Erica tells Changez that she likes how respectfully and politely he treats others. In response, he asks Erica, very politely, to join him for a drink. Erica agrees, gently making fun of his politeness.
In Rhodes, Changez sees the continued hostility of the Western world toward the East, where Changez is from (The city named “Rhodes” also suggests the historical figure Cecil B. Rhodes, a Western imperialist, and the Rhodes Scholarship he founded, a symbol of Western “soft” imperialism). On the beach, it becomes clearer that Erica likes Changez (she knows he’s watching when she’s topless). She finds his manners charming, if a little amusing. Like her Princeton friends, she might consider Changez an exotic novelty.
On their bus ride into Rhodes, Changez notices that Erica is sitting very close to him. In Lahore, Changez tells the Stranger that being in Pakistan, where women wear more clothing, makes men more attracted to women on the occasions when they do see their bodies. Although at the time he met Erica he had already spent four years in America, where women wore less clothing, his Pakistani upbringing continued to make him especially attracted to women’s bodies.
Erica’s behavior around Changez indicates her interest in him. Changez’s upbringing in Pakistan makes him especially attracted to women’s bodies, but also unlikely to act on his attraction. It’s possible that this is partly why Erica likes Changez — she knows he’s too polite to touch or kiss her. Changez makes clear to the Stranger the extent to which Pakistani culture continues to influence him.
Changez tries to make conversation by asking Erica about the men’s shirt she’s wearing, which is visibly worn. She replies that it belonged to her boyfriend, Chris, who spent some time in the hospital, and died last year. Changez says that Chris had excellent taste in shirts, and Erica agrees — he was handsome, and interested in grooming and dressing himself. She adds that Chris had the appearance of being part of the “Old World.”
Erica reveals her continued feelings for her past lover, Chris — this is also a sign of her obsession with the past in general. From her description, Chris seems as thoroughly Western as Changez is Pakistani. The fact that Erica shares this information with Changez shows that she trusts him, but also, of course, complicates their relationship in that Changez is not competing with out suitors for other suitors, he is competing with an idealized past.
When their bus arrives at its destination, Erica and Changez have a beer together, and she asks him about Pakistan. Changez tells her about the country’s natural beauty, and remembers that he’d have to purchase alcohol through a Christian bootlegger, since it’s illegal for Muslims. Erica drinks in his stories, and seems to enjoy them. She says that he must miss home; Changez merely shrugs, since he’s enjoying his time with Erica now.
Erica is genuinely interested in Changez and his culture, but her interest seems to diminish Changez — he’s something exotic for her to consume, not a human being. She seems attracted to the things Changez takes for granted, such as a home and a family, which she feels she lacks. Changez plays up the exotic aspects of his upbringing; his story about a Christian bootlegger seems calculated to elicit a reaction from Erica.
Erica shows Changez the leather notebook she writes in, and asks him to show her Urdu writing. He writes her name in Urdu, and underneath, his.
Whether or not Erica genuinely respects Changez, she makes an effort to understand him and his culture. By showing him her notebook, she implies that she’s willing to share intimate personal information with him.
Erica tells Changez more about Chris. Both he and Erica were only children, and best friends from an early age. Their interests complemented each other perfectly: they both loved comic books, but Chris loved to draw, while Erica loved to write. They kissed for the first time when they were six, and again when they were fifteen. Around the time that they were both accepted to Princeton, Chris was diagnosed with lung cancer. Throughout college, Erica visited Chris in the hospital, up to his death in her junior year. She concludes by saying that she misses “home,” and her home is Chris.
By talking about her dead boyfriend, Erica reveals her feelings for Changez, since she shares personal information, but also pushes him away by implying that she’s still in love with someone else. It’s as if her love for Chris is an obstacle that she can’t get over, even if she’d like to. The “home” Erica misses is the idealized past, which is safe simply because it is idealized and past. Nothing can change or harm it.
Later, Erica and Changez join the rest of their group for dinner, Erica sits near Changez. Chuck does amusing impressions of his classmates, including Changez. Changez thinks that Chuck’s impression of him is too exaggerated, but he finds the other impressions to be perfect. When Chuck asks everyone what they would like to be one day, Changez jokes that he wants to be an Islamic dictator with nuclear weapons. Only Erica laughs, and Changez has to explain that he was joking. Erica tells the group that she aspires to be a novelist. Changez feels as if she’s speaking directly to him, even though they’re in a large group.
Even after weeks of living and traveling together, Changez’s classmates feel uncomfortable around him because he’s Pakistani, making his joke fall flat. At the same time, his joke is somewhat aggressive and implies that he has unresolved resentment about the power of these people and of America in general. Changez, for his part, is still unsure of how to interact with them — he “plays up” his Pakistani roots, but sometimes, he does so too much. This problem makes Erica seem all the more attractive to him. At the same time, it’s not clear if Changez judges his peers any more fairly than they judge him. Chuck’s exaggerate impressions of Changez’s peers may seem accurate to Changez because he sees them unfairly, with their Western qualities heavily exaggerated.
Changez and Erica aren’t physically intimate in Greece, but Erica gives Changez her number, since they’re both moving to New York after they graduate. Changez returns to the United States deeply attracted to Erica, and excited to begin his career at Underwood Samson.
Even after weeks of feeling like an outsider around his Princeton classmates, Changez is still optimistic about living in the United States. There may be impolite people there, but there are also good, respectful people like Erica, and powerful businesses like Underwood Samson.
Changez notices that the Stranger’s mobile phone is ringing. He encourages the Stranger to answer it, assuring him that he won’t eavesdrop on the conversation. The Stranger sends a text message instead. While waiting for the Stranger to put his phone away, Changez stares after the women from the National College of the Arts.
Changez’s assurance that he won’t eavesdrop on the Stranger he makes him seem even more likely to eavesdrop. The Stranger, perhaps still suspicious of Changez, keeps his communication private. Changez engages in the same behavior — staring at women — that he warned the Stranger about. Perhaps they’re not so different.