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Archive for November, 2010

My Inner American

The other night, or rather very early the other morning, a group of men decided to have a loud conversation directly outside my window…at 2am. I don’t know who they were or what they were discussing, but they were using their “outside voices” and, at 2am, that’s all that really matters. So, after lying in bed awake and thinking about my 5:45 wake-up time for more than 10 minutes, I walked to my window and slammed it shut as loudly as possible in hopes of making my point…passive aggressively. They pointed a flashlight at my window, walked a few paces away, and continued their discussion. Nobody else seemed to be bothered.

The next morning marked the start of the annual Krishnamurti Foundation of India gathering – held this year at Rishi Valley School. Each year, hundreds of people from all over the country come together for 3 days to discuss the philosophies of the school’s founder, J. Krishnamurti. I’ve been reading quite a bit of Krishnamurti to better understand his ideas on education, ecology, community and the founding principles of the school. I’ve really enjoyed many of the discussions I’ve had with some of the school elders and feel like I’m very much on the same page with many of them. So, aside from the EXTREME quality increase in the Dining Hall menu to impress our visitors, I’ve been pretty excited for the upcoming week.

The lecture that morning was really interesting and a good introduction for the discussions to follow. As the school’s administrators spoke, I thought about how lucky I am to get to spend the year with these wonderful people and know them on a more personal level. I have a deep respect for many of the staff members here and the way they educate and interact with students.

But then the question and answer session begin…and I totally checked out. Perhaps it was because of my 2am wake-up, maybe not, but as I sat listening to some of the participants ask questions to the speakers, I got genuinely frustrated. So many of the questions were on the text – the literal words on the page – and not the big ideas and meanings behind it all. I felt like some of the people were simply looking for answers – direct, concrete, step by step solutions to problems they face in their own lives. It simply bugged me, and I can’t explain why.

Afterwards, I approached a new friend of mine from Holland who is staying here for a few months and vented my irritation of people focusing on the small details rather than the big picture. Why not just forget the details that you don’t agree with and live your life according to what you believe to be true? Why get hung up on whether your interpretations of the words are correct when the philosophy behind it all is what matters? She listened intently, nodding her head in understanding and then said, “Ah, that’s a very Western way of doing things!”

And there it is again…

The thing about living here – and probably many places – is that no matter how open you are to the lifestyle and culture, there is a certain way that we, as Westerners, have been conditioned to think and act…and I haven’t quite figured out how to turn that switch off. I have fully embraced the clothes, the food, the crowded buses, the lack of toilet paper and showers. I’m slowly learning the language, am absolutely loving the pace, find comfort in the music, and do my best to keep up with politics, pop culture, and current events. I say things like “shift there”, “all the best”, “no problem”, and words like “dhobi”, “tiffin”, and “chappos” have totally replaced their English equivalents in my vocabulary. But I’m still Western-made, and always will be. The way that I form my thoughts, opinions, and worldview is shaped by the society that I was raised in. Although what exactly those thoughts, opinions, and worldviews are will change drastically over the course of my life (as already made clearly apparent in a mere 26 years) – I’ve noticed that the way in which I derive those conclusions has a very Western flavor to it…perhaps even American.

In the spirit of the upcoming philosophical discussions I will be a part of this week, I’m going to take it even one step farther (get excited)…examining the way that I personally am conditioned to think relative to those that surround me makes me wonder if we ever genuinely accomplish anything on a global scale when we all come from such different perspectives? “Perspectives” may even be an understatement, for it’s really how we have learned to formulate those perspectives that matters. To some, it’s the big picture made up of small details, to others it’s the small details that leads to a whole.

Last week my Telugu teacher taught me an obscure Hindi expression that went something like (paraphrasing), “The water tastes different down the stream but it’s still water to all the villages”. In return, I bestowed some of my obscure American wisdom upon him with the expression, “Tomato, Tamato.”

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The Limits of One

(Also posted during November on the AIF Fellow Blog.)

During a visit to Chennai over the holiday, a friend and I stopped to rest in a village while coming back from a bird sanctuary north of the city. We drank a glass of tea, ate a biscuit, and thanked the shop-keeper as we climbed back onto the motorcycle to continue on our way. As usual, a few people had stopped to watch my every move and ask where I was from. “America”, I announced to the quickly forming crowd. As I put on my helmet, one man approached me and began to speak in his native Tamil. I didn’t understand what he was saying so asked my friend to translate.

“You’re from America? Obama is in India.”

Excitedly, I replied, “Yes! Obama is in Mumbai right now!”

His friendly expression turned stern and he spoke vigorously. “You tell Obama to help the poor people. You tell him that the rich people should help the poor people.”

My friend started the engine. Confused at what I could honestly say that would tell him how much I agreed with him but how complicated it was, I simply replied with an “OK” as we drove off.

If only I could. If only it were that simple.

***

I have a friend here that is the same age as me – twenty six. She speaks Telugu and a little English; I speak English and a little Telugu. I know that she has one brother and one sister; she knows that I have two sisters. I know that she lives in a tiled-roof house in a nearby village, is married, and has a beautiful daughter who I love to take pictures of. She knows that I live at the Rishi Valley School, am from the U.S., and am not married (despite my concerning age…). She’s a sweeper and the lowest caste. I come from a different world.

Yesterday we did some more talking. I learned about the village she was from before she got married and was sent here to live with her husband and his family. I showed her the sentences I was writing in Telugu and she helped me pronounce the phrases, “I speak a little Telugu” and, “Speak slowly, please”. She laughed at my inability to roll my tongue properly, which made me smile.

I asked about her mother – where was she? Her eyes became watery and filled with tears as she looked away from my face. She started to speak quickly, using too many words that I didn’t understand. Her mother lived far away. She made motions with her hands against her face – she was beaten. Who was beaten? My friend was beaten? No, her mother was beaten. Was her mother beaten to death? Is she dead? My friend continued to cry. I listened painstakingly to everything she said – hoping to hear just one word that I could understand that would help me know what to do, what to say, how to fix it. But I didn’t understand. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. There was nothing I could fix.

So I took her hand, touched her arm, and hoped that she understood the words that I didn’t know how to speak.

***

I don’t know what it’s like to be my friend – to grow up in the life that she did and to live the current one that she has. I don’t understand why she is “her” and I am “me”. But I do know what it means to be human, to feel, to connect. I know that our lives are intertwined – they always have been and always will be – and that the political, cultural, economic lines separating our worlds exist only on paper.

The thing about letting people in is that it changes who you are. When you let someone in as a friend, as a neighbor, as a partner you share in their happiness and take ownership of their pain. But what if you as an individual, as one, can’t change the Way Things Are? What if the Way Things Are is bigger than any one of us? Where does one – an individual – begin?

*** 

This morning my friend came up to me, very quietly, as I was talking to a colleague. She took her hand and tucked a loose strand of hair behind my ear. She smiled at me and without saying a word walked away.

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Photo Updates…

I just uploaded a bunch of photos from my trip to Chennai including the promised pics of me getting “saree’d”. Please note the bright red scrunchi which completes the outfit…oh yes, it’s totally making a come-back. Watch out, world.

I also updated the Rishi Valley set with some photos from around the farm and seedbank. Enjoy!

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Home, Home-aku

I arrived safely back to Rishi Valley last night after a particularly long and wet bus ride from Chennai. I left the city just as Cyclone Jal was hitting the shore and nearly strangled an auto driver in the process of getting to the bus stand in a torrential downpour. It was one of those India mornings where you expect a giant hug but get punched in the face instead.

But then, a surprise farewell from a friend, tea and samosas from a student I had played Frisbee with and her family who were also traveling to Rishi Valley, two different passengers using my shoulder as a pillow, and a baby that wouldn’t stop smiling at me….India hugs me again.

Perhaps I’m being a bit overdramatic given that it was only two weeks, but I’m not sure a place feels like home until you return to it and find everything – and everyone – exactly the same as when you left. It’s a pretty wonderful feeling…the comfort of familiarity makes me feel even more a part of this place.

Equally as comforting as seeing the familiar smiles of the inhabitants of the Rishi Valley, was arriving to three letters from home that had been successfully delivered in my absence by the great miracle known as the Postal Service! I’ve had my doubts, but it seems as though the mysteries of the agency transcend all human logic and reason…alas, my faith has been renewed. I look forward to savoring every written word and feeling that connection to the home I left and all the familiar smiles I remember halfway around the world.

Love to all.

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I’ve been in the city of Chennai for the past few weeks now while the health clinic has been closed down for the school holiday – tackling my “to-do” list that I spent the past month (eagerly) constructing and soaking up all the perks of an urban lifestyle…namely, shopping and eating really good food. I’m not necessarily proud, but when you’re in a place where you can get a cup of French pressed coffee, you do it.

In addition, I’ve been meeting lots of fantastic new people through my wonderful friends who have graciously let me crash in their tiny living room for 2 weeks (really, really graciously). I bought my first saree for a wedding I attended, have seen many of the city’s hidden nooks and crannies from the back of a motorcycle, sampled more street food than I care to admit, successfully smashed a few gender barriers and bought liquor from a village tasmac (long story…), put my feet in the Bay of Bengal, and woke up to watch the fishing boats head out to sea just as the sun was rising….amazing. Friday was Diwali so I also got to experience the madness of the holiday season by dodging kids lighting explosive firecrackers all throughout the streets and rooftops…at all hours of the day. I’m excited to get back to the quiet of my Rishi Valley but being back in “adventure-mode” for a few weeks has been a refreshing change in pace. It’s reminded me in a different way of the twisted love affair I have with this country and the many aspects of our world I have yet to understand.

Chennai has quite a large “ex-pat” community of foreigners from all around the world that come to live and work here. I went to a party the other night and it was super cool to be in a room with all these 20 and 30-somethings from so many different countries experiencing the same thoughts and feelings that I do. On my roamings around the city, I’ve been finding the local “hubs” of foreigners. I could go all day without seeing any other Westerners and then walk into a certain café or shop and not see an Indian in sight. It’s a pretty weird feeling to be so immersed in a country but have the blatant option to be removed whenever I want…a huge contrast to my life in Rishi Valley. A traveller here could easily see the whole country without really seeing it – completely missing everything beautiful.

I see Westerners living lifestyles that they could never afford back home – myself included. It’s hard to resist an elaborate, three-course meal for $10, a spa package for under $20, or being treated like royalty everywhere you go because of the color of your skin. Little do they know that I can barely afford rent back in the U.S. Privilege can be a nice feeling, but one that doesn’t help me sleep at the end of the day – figuring out that precious balance is an ongoing war I wage with myself. I can’t change the color of my skin, the language I speak, the country I’m from, or the family I was born into…but it’s how I use what I have that makes the difference.

Besides, to me at least, a 5-star dinner on the roof of the Taj is like eating grits on a pile of bricks compared to experiencing the unexpected kindness of a stranger.

Headed back to the Valley tomorrow morning – missing you all.

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