Thursday, December 23, 2010

photos and cherokee wisdom

Click here for some photos from November.

After a fast-paced but fun morning (Buchanan's christmas program! More on that later), and a long, standing-room-only train journey to Aluva...we made it! Maggie, Jim, and I are now at Thomas John Achen's house, where we will be spending Christmas. It's 1:30AM here, so that's all for now. Buenas noches :)

In lieu of a quote, a popular story that I thought I'd share...

'An elder Cherokee was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, "A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.

One wolf is fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too."

The children thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?"

The old cherokee simply replied,"The one you feed."'

Monday, December 20, 2010

the beauty of busy, the beauty of nothing, and my Buchanan stage debut

This post was written on December 18.

I’d like to thank all of you who have given me such positive feedback about my blog. The emails, facebook wallposts, etc that I’ve received throughout the past months are all nice reminders that I’m not just writing to myself. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent that while I could write for days about my latest cultural observation, or the random sentiment of any given moment, I kind of suck at the whole writing-about-what-I’ve-actually-been-doing thing.  So I’ll try to give you a summary update every once in a while.

Today is Saturday and this is my first ‘nothing’ weekend in who knows how long.  ‘Nothing’ doesn’t mean nothing, of course…today, before 9AM, I had already been to prayer, gone jogging, had breakfast, washed clothes (HANDwashed, mind you (sorry, just gotta throw that in there)), and cleaned my room.

By ‘nothing’, I mean it’s the first weekend that I haven’t had to attend one or more major activities away from Buchanan. In past weekends, these have included visits to different churches, two different Harvest Festivals, the Kottayam Mixed Voices Choir Concert, celebrating Jim’s birthday, finally seeing Harry Potter!, and a memorial lecture given by Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. 

While each of the above events could probably merit its own blog post, time won’t (nor your interest, I’m sure) permit this as the power is currently out and my laptop battery life is running low. Suffice it to say that they were all super :) This weekend, however, has so far proven to be an enjoyable time of rest and relaxation with the hostel girls. Sometimes it’s nice to just do nothing. Even if ‘nothing’ is chores.

Other noteworthy events of the past few weeks…
-attended a housewarming
-went on a fieldtrip with the students of one of the Lower Primary Schools where I teach on Wednesdays
-went to a funeral. Betty Kochamma’s brother passed away :(

In addition to these events, the normal routine has been progressing as usual. Teaching English at 5 different schools keeps one busy, you know. Also factor in the writing project, my Spanish class, visits to the KNH hostel, activities with my own hostel, and the myriad activities that have been occurring—well, I’ve been a busy girl!

On a parting note, I will tell you that last week I was asked to teach a dance to some 5th grade students for the Buchanan Christmas Program, which is taking place on Thursday, December 23. This has been more of a joy than I ever could have anticipated, and it is more than obvious that the girls are thrilled that I’m teaching them. They have picked up the steps well, but have trouble remembering the order; without my direction, all turns to chaos. So while there were originally supposed to be 11 girls dancing to Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas is you’ on stage in front of the 1000 students and teachers of Buchanan, there will now be 12. Except one of them isn’t in 5th grade. She’s actually 22.

“My advice to the women of America is to raise more hell and fewer dahlias” –William Allen White

Friday, December 17, 2010


‘Madison is gregarious and a friend to all.’

This was my kindergarten teacher’s yearbook description of five-year-old Madison. I’d say that seventeen years later, that’s probably still true.

Sometimes I like to tell people just how much I love them, just for fun. Sometimes I like to talk about totally random things. Sometimes I like to ask questions about others’ opinions on controversial topics. I like to know about the experiences of others; what brought them to where they are today. I like to talk out what’s been bothering me; I like to be available for other people to do that, too. I draw energy and fulfillment from such interactions.

Here’s the thing: it’s hard to be gregarious or friend-ly when you don’t speak your community’s language. And having to sort of ‘subdue’ myself has been a challenge about my time in India that I never really foresaw. Rather than discussing life experiences, I discuss how many members are in my family; instead of talking about world views, I talk about if I’ve had tea that afternoon or not.

This is frustrating at different times and for different reasons. It’s frustrating when I want to tell Sherly Teacher how I love that she calls the cooks “chechi” (a respectful title for an older sister), which I’ve never heard any of the other teachers do. It’s frustrating when I want to ask Divya why she’s been crying, and see if I can help her in some way. It’s frustrating when I want to know about Gracy Kochamma’s life; her interests; her background. But I just don’t have the words, and neither do they.

There’s a lot of redeeming qualities about this sometimes difficult reality, though. Number one, I appreciate the meaningful interactions that I do have all the more.  The people I can speak to freely—Jim and Maggie, Thomas John Achen and Betty Kochamma, Jaimol Kochamma, and a small handful of Buchanan students—are like a breath of fresh air. I have also come to appreciate my simple interactions with the rest of the students and teachers even more. In the Malayalam arena, while discussing whether I’ve already had tea or not isn’t exactly higher-level subject matter, let’s remember that it wasn’t too long ago that I couldn’t say even that. And on the English side of things, I know that many of the people by whom I’m surrounded are uncomfortable conversing in English, especially in front of a native speaker, so the fact that they make an effort to begin with is in itself something for which to be thankful.

More than anything, I am lucky to be part of a community that I love, and who (I think?) loves me—even if we don’t have the words to say it.

(But for the record, “I love you” in Malayalam is njan ninne snehikunnu :))

“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company... a church... a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past... we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you…” -Charles R. Swindoll

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A public letter to Mrs. Melissa Joiner

This post (letter?) was written on December 11.

Dear Mrs. Joiner,

It’s funny how sometimes the most random moments stay with you. One such moment I’ve spoken to you about before—it was in your 9th grade English class. An impressionable little freshman (can it be that almost a decade has passed?), I remember that I liked your style. And I remember being so intrigued by your energy and enthusiasm.

I can’t say with certainly whether it was I or another student, but someone commented on these qualities of yours. It is your reply that has stayed with me throughout the years. You said something to the effect that you expected the best from your students, so shouldn’t we expect nothing less of you in return?

I have frequently thought of your words in the various contexts—work, school, or otherwise—that I have found myself in since, some near and some quite far from Vanguard High School in little Ocala, FL. Did you ever imagine that this admirable ethic of yours would continue to impact me 8 years later and 8,000 miles away?

I tell ya, this teaching thing can be tough. There are times when I just want to yell quite loudly at little 5th graders to stay in their seats, or even to throw chalk at them. Sometimes, with my 8th graders, I want to give up trying to make them stop talking, instead letting them continue and taking a nap at my desk, figuring that they probably wouldn’t notice, anyway.

But then, I remember your words. I smile as big as I possibly can and, fighting the desire to yell, speak a little more sweetly. I summon a little more patience from who knows where and proceed with my lesson. Sometimes, I think the children are amazed at my reaction to what they know is bad behavior. But you know, there’s some sense in the whole give-what-you-hope-to-get philosophy. It’s really kind of Ghandi, be-the-change-you-wish-to-see -esque, when you think about it.

I wish I could say that it always works. But even when it doesn’t, there’s more than adequate consolation in knowing that even when dealing with little hellians, I did the best I could. In fact, I’ve got a small piece of paper taped by my bedroom door, right at eye-level so that I always see it as I walk out; it says, ‘are you giving your best?’

Of course, there are days when that little paper totally mocks me; days when I know I probably didn’t give my best. The really rewarding days, though, are when I can return to my room, see that small paper out of the corner of my eye, and with much satisfaction, think, “yes—I really did.”

So thanks for your wisdom, even all these years later :)

Love from India,

“When we seek to discover the best in others, we somehow bring out the best in ourselves.” -William Arthur Ward

my love/hate relationship with the word 'fine'

This post was written on December 8.

How would you typically respond to the question: ‘how are you?’

Chances are, you’d say ‘I’m good.’ Or, for you grammar-conscious people out there, you might say ‘I am well.’ Or if your day hasn’t been so fabulous, perhaps you’d say ‘I’m okay’, or ‘I’m alright.’ If it’s been a REALLY good day, you might say ‘I’m great!’

In Kerala, however, there is only one answer to the question ‘how are you?’ I would be willing to bet that 999 times out of 1,000 (I would say 1,000 out of 1,000, but hey, you’ve got to account for the one person who doesn’t know even this basic phrase in English and stares at you blankly), ANYONE will automatically respond with the same 3 words, without fail, every time: I am fine.

In the US, if someone says ‘I am fine,’ they probably mean that they are NOT fine. But here, there seems to be only one state of being: fine.

Frankly, I have grown to hate this word. The reason that I had to say ‘love/hate’ in the title, however, is that now I’ve fallen into the trap, too. I am ‘fine.’ When someone asks me ‘how are you?’, it has become an automatic response: I am fine. Even if I’m not fine, I say, ‘fine.’ And if I AM in a pleasant mental state that could be likened to fine, I say ‘fine.’ And immediately after think “what is happening to me?! Since when am I ‘fine’?’!?!”

I guess I’ve got to face the fact that ‘fine’ is going to be part of my life for the next 7 months. However, I very much look forward to, 7 months from now, being ‘good’ once again. I’d even settle for alright. Or not-so-good. Anything but FINE.

One of these days, maybe I’ll tell someone I’m spec-freaking-tacular. At least I’ll know what I mean.

Update: Just so you know…all of the above is only written in mock annoyance. …Sort of :)

“Some people confuse acceptance with apathy, but there's all the difference in the world. Apathy fails to distinguish between what can and what cannot be helped; acceptance makes that distinction. Apathy paralyzes the will-to-action; acceptance frees it by relieving it of impossible burdens.” -Arthur Gordon

Friday, December 3, 2010

a day (or two) in the life

This post was written on Wednesday, December 1.

Just for fun, and so you have an idea of what an average day looks like, here’s a play-by-play of my day today.

6:20: woke up
6:30-7: morning prayer
7-8:30: read the newspaper, got dressed, reviewed/modified the day’s lesson plans
8:30-9: breakfast
9-12: taught 4th grade English class at Pakkil Lower Primary, and 3rd grade at Mooledom Lower Primary
12:30-1: Lunch
1:30-2:30: taught 4th grade at Buchanan Lower Primary
2:30-3:30: checked email and studied Malayalam
3:30-5: Visited the girls the KNH hostel, a home for underprivileged/orphan/semi-orphan students of the various school’s on Buchanan’s campus. We played games, talked about favorite movies, and just hung out. My weekly visits to these girls are based on the principle that any English interaction, whether formal or informal, is good for them. Plus, it’s fun—for all of us.
5-6: taught Spanish to some students from my hostel. This Wednesday, 5PM class is a recent addition to my schedule. They asked me if I would teach them, so I am J I also teach Spanish to 6th grade students on Thursday mornings. (Who knew that Spanish would be so handy in INDIA—thank you, Mrs. Baker!). It actually helps their English, too. Since I teach Spanish through English, the girls are able to review basic English along the way.
6:30-7: evening prayer
7-8:30: wrote some email drafts, cleaned, finalized the next day’s lesson plans.
8:30-9: dinner  
9:00 (yes, I am an old woman!): read, then went to bed

Since each day is different, here’s a play-by-play of yesterday (Tuesday). Instead of going to different schools, the day was spent entirely spent at Buchanan.

6:20: woke up
6:30-7: morning prayer
7-8: read the newspaper, got dressed, reviewed/modified the day’s lesson plans
8-8:30: breakfast
8:30-9:10: Met with the ‘Writing Club.’ I meet weekly with a group of students from all grades who are working on pieces for the English publication we are putting together. We aim to have it finished by February in time for Buchanan’s anniversary. I assist them with the writing process, editing, etc.
9:10-9:45: assembly
9:45-12:35: taught two forty-minute periods: 7th grade and 5th grade. In between these classes, I hung out in the staff room.
12:35-1:15: lunch
1:15-3:25: taught 3 forty-minute periods, all 8th grade
3:25-4: took the bus to nearby town, Chingavanam, to pick up a churidar I was having altered.
4: tea time!
4:15-5: laundry
5-5:45: taught exercise class (zumba)
…the rest of the evening was spent in the same manner as the first description.

Anyway, between those two days, you get an idea of what an average day is like. It feels like I am always going from one activity to the next, but I’ve found that my busiest days are often my best. Life is good :)

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” -Helen Keller

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

thanksgiving, retreat numero tres, and harry potter (...)

At a Jain Temple in Wayanad
In India, Thanksgiving was on November 24.

Let’s backtrack: In India, Thanksgiving wasn’t at all. Except for at Achen’s house, that is. And we celebrated a day early due to the fact that we would be traveling all of the next day. Our destination would be Wayanad, the location of retreat number three.

The aforementioned Thanksgiving celebration was much anticipated by us India YAVs, especially since there was rumor of pumpkin pie.  Luckily, the rumors were true!

In accordance with my question-asking nature (I’ve been told I ask a lot of questions. 1) this is accurate, and 2) I own that title with pride :)), I asked the Thanksgiving table the following—What are you most thankful for? –and made each person answer. While we each had several things to mention, what resonated with me most was Maggie’s reply: laughter. So obvious but so true. I was reminded of Bill Cosby's words: “Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.”

After a hectic morning and the long journey to Aluva, there was something very simple and wonderful in sitting around the table and enjoying each other’s company, remembering the things for which we were thankful, and laughing a lot, too. Although there’s nothing really profound about all of that, since isn’t that what Thanksgiving’s supposed to be about, anyway?

We awoke early the next morning to take the train to Wayanad. The main purpose of this retreat was to learn about tribals, a group of people who have faced similar struggles as Native Americans in the US. In the context of India, like dalits, tribals are often poor, discriminated against, and have little access to quality education, etc.

At one point the government had a big initiative to give land to tribal people. The tribals, however, were given the land without any accompanying education about such matters. They were in turn taken advantage of by people who offered them a little money and a lot of alcohol in exchange for their land. Not knowing the value of money, they fell into the trap. The result has been tribals working land they don’t own, and widespread alcoholism.

Speaking of which, we spent the weekend at a de-addiction center, which is also the home of a Mar Thoma achen, his wife, Anjana Kochamma, and their adorable 1 year old son, Aaron. (By the way- ‘Achen’ is the title by which one addresses a pastor; ‘Kochamma’ is the title used for a pastors’s wife. 'Mar Thoma' is the name of a Christian denomination here in Kerala). Anyway, they live at and are in charge of the de-addiction center.

One night, we accompanied them to an AA meeting, where two men were celebrating one year of sobriety. It was actually incredibly moving to be a part of that event. One by one, each person spoke about their experiences, the length of their sobriety, their triumphs, and their challenges. Some could boast over 50 days of sobriety; some over 300; some over 1,000. Some could merely stand and say, ‘by the grace of God, I have not partaken of alcohol today.’
Beautiful Wayanad

The vulnerability, trust, and support that we witnessed in that community was really amazing. At the end of the meeting, Jim, Maggie and I were asked if we wanted to say anything. I stood and told everyone that I admired their strength and courage to be there on that day; that there was no bigger gift that they could give to their families. Achen translated all of this, of course, but one didn’t have to speak Malayalam to sense the profound sense of not only struggle, but also community in that place.

On Monday, Jim, Maggie, and I were to return to our sites. We decided that on the way, we would make prolonged stop in Kottayam so that one of our dreams could finally come true: seeing HARRY POTTER. Let me tell you, a lot went into putting this plan into action. We took an earlier than necessary train from Aluva so that we might arrive in time for the 11AM showing. We were worried that the train would depart Aluva late, but much to our delight everything appeared to be on schedule and at the designated time, we were on our way to Kottayam.

The train ride to Kottayam is two hours long. Strangely, however, three hours passed and there was still no sign of Kottayam. We thought this was maybe due to the greater than usual number of stops the train had been making. After a while, however, we began to get nervous, and as the clock ticked past 11 and 11:01, it became obvious that we weren’t going to make the 11AM showing. We quickly devised a Plan B—we would see the 2PM showing—and Jim went to ask someone if we were nearing Kottayam.

He returned to Maggie and I with some interesting news: we were on the wrong train! Apparently, just because the train we were on had arrived at the time OUR train was supposed to leave didn’t mean that it was, in actuality, our train. Having no idea where we were, we disembarked at the next possible stop, Haripada (which is curiously pronounced just like Harry Potter, but without the ‘r’ at the end), and, learning that we were about 1.5 hours diverted from Kottayam, made it our next mission to reach Kottayam at all costs by 2PM. To this end we hired a taxi, which cost a ridiculous amount (in rupees…it wouldn’t be considered that much in dollars, especially compared to taxi prices in the US), and off we went. A little late, sure—a little detoured, sure—but Harry Potter was in sight.

We arrived to Kottayam a total of five hours after we originally departed Aluva. It was 1:50. Having no time to leave our bags at Jim’s place, we rushed to the movie theater with all of our bags in hand. We knew that as soon as we were seated in the air conditioned movie theater, hearing the beginning sounds of the Harry Potter theme music, the crazy journey would be worth it. Full of joy and anticipation, we approached the movie theater.

Harry Potter was no longer playing.

We weren’t sure who to blame—India? Harry Potter? JK Rowling???—and found ourselves relying on that time-tested cure, laughter. And you know, the whole debacle just might have been worth it for how funny the Buchanan teachers found the story the next day.

Tuesday, I was walking around Buchanan and was approached by a group of 5th graders. Shyly, they held out a card. Puzzled, I opened it—it was a Happy Thanksgiving card that they had made themselves. This was primarily amazing because it means they actually understood my Thanksgiving lesson!!  Also, it was very thoughtful of them to make me a card for a holiday they don’t even celebrate, and whose knowledge about said holiday is limited to the fact that it has something to do with being thankful and a turkey.

Totally not Thanksgiving-looking, with two hand-drawn parrots on the front, lettered in tropical colors, and covered in flowers—it’s probably the best Thanksgiving card I’ve ever received.

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow." -Melody Beattie

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

puppies, coffee, crocheting, and hand turkeys galore

I love animals. I love puppies. So when 4 puppies showed up at Buchanan in a box, how could I NOT play with them?

As I reached down to pick up the first one, I could practically hear the voice of the travel nurse at the Alachua County Health Department. I seem to recall some warnings about staying away from stray animals…something to do with diseases, rabies…But that quickly faded away as I held in my hands a fat little black puppy who could have easily been baby Kiba. Let me also mention that I was the only one in the crowd of students and teachers who would touch the puppies. As I did so, they eyed me with a mixture of amusement, bewilderment, and probably a little disgust, too. But I just couldn’t help myself—they were so darn CUTE! For you germaphobes out there, you’ll be relieved to know that I washed my hands afterward.

Last Monday and Tuesday, Buchanan hosted a district-wide ‘exhibition’—basically, the equivalent of a ‘science fair.’ In addition to science-related projects, however, there were also the categories of work experience (what we would think of as handicrafts), math, etc. Students from other area schools, accompanied by their teachers, came to Buchanan to compete. Since classes were canceled due to the exhibition, the Buchanan teachers and I found ways to entertain ourselves. For me, that was helping out at the bake sale—specifically, selling coffee. It was a good opportunity to practice Malayalam numbers. Oru kappi (one coffee), for example, was ezhu (seven) rupees. Randu (two) coffees was pathinalu (fourteen) rupees. It didn’t get much more complicated than that :)

Recently, I decided that Gracy Kochamma (the warden of my hostel) and I needed a bonding activity. She is a sweet, grandmotherly figure with a sense of humor, but she speaks very little English, which really limits our interactions. So, having seen her on multiple occasions knitting, saree embroidering, etc, I asked her to teach me something. Basically it was a great idea—we’ve spent more time together, and I can now officially crochet. I’m making a blanket, and right now it’s about the size of a scarf. I’ve got a long way to go. Perhaps another benefit of this venture on my part is that now that several of the girls have seen me crocheting, they also asked Gracy Kochamma to teach them. We’re a sight to see, me, 6 or 7 girls, and Gracy Kochamma, all on the front porch of the hostel, crocheting away.
My lesson plans for last week/this week have been centered around teaching the students about Thanksgiving. With the younger grades, this has included an art project—that’s right, hand turkeys! After explaining the concept of Thanksgiving (‘Thanksgiving is an American holiday in which we celebrate the things we’re thankful for, like family and friends. A special food eaten on Thanksgiving is turkey. (And then I had to explain what a turkey was, and show a picture)), I had the students name what they’re thankful for. Then, I had them trace their hands, write one thing for which they are thankful in each ‘feather’, and color their hand turkey. The coloring part was definitely an exercise in organized chaos, but it was a fun lesson, both for the students, and me.

Sunday, I went to Jaimol Kochamma’s church for the first time. It’s about an hour away from Buchanan, and required that I take two different buses. There was a considerable amount of concern expressed on everyone’s part about me traveling alone to somewhere I had never been. But armed only with my spirit of adventure, a paper with some directions, and no aversion to asking questions or pantomiming, off I went. And I made it there just fine, and it was a great day :) Jaimol Kochamma’s mother-in-law was hilarious. When asked to guess my age, she thought I was considerably older than I am (a common misconception about Americans, in general—since we are usually taller than Indians, they often think we are older). Upon being informed of my real age, she was at first incredulous, then thought it was really funny, and then exclaimed, “And your mother let you come to India alone?!” 

"Spread love everywhere you go... let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God's kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile." -Mother Theresa

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

snippets of time

Some vignettes, if you will, from the past few weeks:

It is a Monday. Achen and I are sitting in the waiting room at an eye hospital. Maggie has been having trouble with one of her eyes, and she is currently in another room waiting for the doctor, who is supposed to arrive at 9AM. Without warning, he walks in through the exterior glass double doors, self-assured and well-dressed. It’s 8:57—he’s EARLY, I think. This guy has got to be good. He enters his small office, and through the cracked door, I can see that he is praying. I notice a painting of Krishna on the wall—he’s Hindu. A few moments pass, the doctor finishes his prayer, and he strides into Maggie’s room. I know she is in good hands.

It is a Tuesday—bath time, to be precise. I turn on the faucet to fill my bucket with water and…nothing. No water. What to do. I know there is a well outside but have never had to draw water from it. There’s a first time for everything, I think. I walk to the well, bucket in hand. I peer down to the bottom and am greeted by the earthy smell of cold, wet stone. Hand over hand, I pull the rope until I am rewarded with a bucket of clear, cool water. It takes two of the well buckets to fill my larger bucket. Mission accomplished, I walk back to my room, mentally reciting Jack and Jill.

It is a Friday. I am at Sanila Teacher’s house, still psychologically recovering from a rough day at school. We have just finished tea and are now waiting for the neighbors to arrive for her weekly prayer meeting. She tells me she has been hosting it at her home for the past ten years. There is a knock—the door opens—several people stream in. A little boy and I simultaneously spot each other; he looks about four. I smile at him. He makes a beeline for me with an outstretched hand, which I shake. Surprised at the brazenness that isn’t typical of his age, I think that’s sweet. He doesn’t let go of my hand. Instead, he curls up next to me, his head on my shoulder, holding my hand all the while. Throughout the prayer, he sporadically whispers to me; my English-only ears have no idea what he’s saying (or what anyone else is saying, for that matter). He holds my cheek in his little hand, smiling at me with adoration. I am overwhelmed by these pure, simple, unexpected acts of love from one so small, a stranger.

"We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” -Jawaharlal Nehru

Sunday, November 7, 2010

chitrangal (photos)

I finally got some time to post photos from our backwaters boat ride, the tamil nadu trip, and this past weekend

Not writing more now because enniku ksheenam aane (I'm tired). But first! I think I'm going to start including random quotes in my posts. So here's today's:

"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and to endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Buenas noches :)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

and then...

Having just finished ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ and wanting nothing more than a hug from each of my much-missed friends, I debated what to do next. It was POURING rain outside. For all I knew, the little girls next door were sleeping or still restricted to studying. But feeling emotionally exhausted and wanting human company, I poked my head out my door to see if anyone was around. All that was visible outside the exterior window was the pouring rain.

As I turned to reenter my room, I saw a flash of color outside the window. I thought I heard laughter. Going closer to investigate, I found Nimmy, drenched, jumping in a puddle and with a huge smile on her face. A second later, the rest of the younger girls came careening around the corner of the building, shrieking in delight as they ran through the rain.

Upon seeing me, they immediately beckoned me to come join them. I was momentarily torn. But it only took a half-second of consideration to reject any notions of age-appropriate behavior and dash out into the rain.

There’s something incredibly renewing about playing in the rain. And it was perfect timing, that all the love I had been desperately missing just a few minutes before, I found right outside my front door. Nine pairs of small bare feet, soaked from head to toe.

"I'll keep a part of you with me, and everywhere I am, there you'll be"

There was no school on Friday due to a Hindu holiday, Diwali. All of the TTI (Teacher Training Institute) girls went home for the weekend, leaving me, Serene, and Nini (both of whom are students at the nearby Speechly College) alone in our hostel. Let me tell you, this place has never been so quiet!

Next door remained Gracy Kochamma and the nine younger girls, who were not allowed to go home since they have more exams next week and were supposed to dedicate the weekend to studying. I can in retrospect tell you that it’s been a LOT of playing, with some studying here and there. Friday morning, though, they were studying, and Serene and Nini were napping, so I found myself in the rare circumstance of having nothing to do and no one to hang out with. But thanks to Maggie, I had a few dvds laying around, and decided to watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ I’m not sure how it’s possible, but I had never seen it before.

You know, it takes a REALLY good movie to make you cry from happiness. The end, it just got me!! Does it get you, too?

Clarence the angel’s parting note—‘remember: no man is a failure who has friends’—got me to thinking about mine, and how much I miss them. I thought of my roommates—my married friends—my soon to be married friends—my pregnant friend!—my college friends, my childhood friends—my study abroad friends—my adult friends—KIBA!!—my family, who are also my friends—my friends, who are like my family.

Friends, this one’s for you. I miss you every day. Thank you for being part of my life.

“What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” –Helen Keller


This post was written on November 4.

The first day I arrived to Buchanan, I already had a letter awaiting me. It was from Sarah, Buchanan’s previous volunteer. The letter served as an introduction to Buchanan and the people and daily events I would encounter. Regarding life at the BI Boarding Hostel, she mentioned that each day revolves around two things: prayer and food. I had no idea at the time how true of a statement this was.

Every day, seven days a week, at both 6:30AM and 6:30PM, the girls meet for prayer, led by Gracy Kochamma. ‘Prayer’ isn’t really a sufficiently descriptive word, though. We begin with song—in the morning, only one, and in the evening, three or four—read a passage from Psalms, and a passage from the Old or New Testament, and then pray. The whole thing takes about thirty minutes.

Of course, it’s all in Malayalam. And while I don’t always love the sound of the 6:30AM prayer bell, there’s something nice about the fact that all I have to do is show up and beat the table to the rhythm of the song. It’s not a bad way to wake up, actually.

Let’s talk a little more about this Malayalam thing. Sruthy always helps me follow the words in the songbook, and while I now know most of the alphabet, I’m still not nearly fast enough to read at the pace of a song. But that’s totally fine. It’s actually kind of fun to challenge myself to see how quickly I can read the words. And the best part is that during the course of the past couple of months, I’ve learned the tune of most of the songs.

So no, I can’t sing along. Yet. But for now, gosh darn it, I can hum. And I think God likes that just fine.

Side note: the Indian version of Fritos that I just discovered and have been munching on while writing this post are amazing. I just had my last one. Of course, I said that ten bites ago, too.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

retreat numero dos

This post was written on November 2.

This past weekend, we had our second retreat. This was exciting for a number of reasons. 1. It's always nice to spend time with Jim, Maggie, Achen, Betty Kochamma, and Binu, and 2. It signaled the completion of two full months in India.

I can't believe so much time has gone by. True, there are nine more months left, but I am already starting to suspect I am going to be very sad when July arrives. Today I had an evaluation meeting with Jaimol Kochamma, where I had to respond to the question: "What are some things you appreciate and are thankful for about the site?" After having conscientiously thought about that question, and naming the things for which I am thankful (which were many!), I can already tell it's going to be hard to say goodbye. The one consolation, albeit temporary, is that that day is pretty far away. For now...

But enough with the sadness, and back to the retreat. We stayed at Maramon Retreat Center, near Kozhencherry. There were some interesting Pentacostal folks there who made quite a racket. They even had two Americanos preaching. So Maggie, Jim, and I were always on the lookout for the white guys, who we decided couldn't be nearly as legitimate as us since they both ate with silverware. Who does that?

The main focus of this retreat was to learn about dalits, also known as untouchables. In the scope of Indian society, dalits are considered so low that they fall entirely outside the caste system. The caste system is abolished in theory, but not practice. As we learned from our guest lecturer, a professor and dalit himself, caste permeates all aspects of daily life.

The 'rules' that affect dalits can be extremely oppressive. We were told about how in some places, they have to travel on separate streets, and their homes must be on the east side of the village so that the wind coming from the west doesn't hit them first and spread to those of higher caste. They have to cover their mouths when speaking to someone of a higher caste.

India YAVs at the church we visited. The kids were SO cute!
Of course, these are some manifestations of dalit realities at their worst. The above conditions don't exist in Kerala. That is not to say, however, that the life of a dalit, even in less oppressive areas, is any easier. A dalit cannot marry outside of his/her caste. They are confined to the most menial, dangerous, and degrading jobs in society. Oftentimes someone of a higher caste will refuse to rent their property to a dalit. They don't have access to good quality education, have few opportunities for advancement, and are usually very poor.

On the third day of the retreat, we visited a dalit community. Their homes, which at one time were thatched huts, are now concrete block structures, thanks to government initiatives. On Sunday, we attended their church. They were some of the most welcoming people we have encountered in India yet (and that's saying a lot--everyone here is welcoming!).

Having taken several Southern Literature classes in college, I found myself thinking about the years surrounding the era of slavery in the US, and the concept of 'passing.' Black people who were light-skinned enough would move to an entirely new place where no one knew them and live as white people, thus escaping the curse of their skin color. As we spent the weekend learning about dalits, I found myself wondering why they don't do the same. Why don't dalits just move somewhere and tell people they are Brahmins?

The answer to this question, as I learned from our guest lecturer, is that this is virtually impossible. Number one, dalits don't have the financial resources to accomplish such a feat. And even more significantly, caste is such an integral part of one's identity, it is inescapable. Your caste is easily revealed by your appearance, your manner of speech, where you live, your occupation, the people with whom you associate--even your name. For dalits, there is no such thing as upward mobility. And as our guest lecturer pointed out, "Heirarchy without mobility--without free choice--is slavery."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

decisions, decisions...

I'm going to take the liberty of operating on the assumption that if you're reading my blog, you have at least some minor degree of interest in my welfare, not only as a YAV in India, but beyond my time of service here. In light of this, this post has nothing to do with India. It's about AFTER India. 

You're right--it's a little early to be talking about 'after India.' ...But not really. While that time itself is, indeed, rather far away, I have to decide what post-India life is going to look like. What will I be doing this time next year? And I have to decide soon. 

Here are my options:
1. Start Seminary. This has always been my plan. YAV India, then Seminary. After 3 years, I'll have my Masters in Divinity. There are opportunities for me to pair the m.Div with a JD, Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy, or a Masters in Social Work--all of which I'm interested in. I've visited Louisville Seminary, Austin Seminary, and Columbia Seminary. Though I was unable, I've wanted to visit Union and McCormick. The aforementioned dual-degrees are only offered at some of the above schools--not all. If I'm going to start Seminary next year, I need to start applying in the upcoming months.
2. Do a second YAV year, at a national site. I'm most interested in Tuscon, AZ, where YAVs work primarily with organizations that deal with immigration and border issues. I think this would be SO interesting. Immigration is such a controversial topic, and regardless of one's position on the matter, there is much to be gained from further exposure to/experience with this issue, especially from a faith perspective and in a Christian context. Also, I speak Spanish, which would undoubtedly come in handy (it isn't much help here, that's for dang sure!!).

If I apply for Seminary this year, intending to enroll in Fall 2011, I'll have to make decisions re: the dual-degrees, and possibly rule out Union and McCormick entirely, as I can't really envision myself committing the next three or more years of my life to a place where I've never even set foot. Ruling them out so arbitrarily seems, to me, unwise, and would be doing an injustice to myself and my theological education. However, if I do a second YAV year, I'm putting off continuing my education by another year. The pros are that I would possibly be able to visit the remaining schools and have more time for discernment and figuring out which path, exactly, I want to take. Not to mention all the inherent growth and learning that comes with any YAV year. 

But do I really need more time? My gut feeling is yes. But then I wonder...Do I need more time, or am I just putting off making decisions and going back to school in favor of another adventure?

All of the above has been on my mind a great deal recently, and as you can see, I'm quite muddled. So I'm going to be very Presbyterian right about now and invite the discernment of the community ;) If you have any thoughts/suggestions/cautions/etc about my discernment dilemma, I would love to hear them. Feel free to comment, or just email me at 

Muchas gracias, mis amigos!

Sunday, October 31, 2010


This post was written on October 26.

As I was walking to the post office today, I had one of those whoa-I'm-in-India moments. I thought, "look at me, I'm walking to the post office. In India." I meandered down the dusty road, coming close to getting run over about every five seconds, and passed a few people along the way. By myself. Like it was the most ordinary thing to do. And I guess it was.

But the thought of it makes me happy, as, until recently, I didn't even know where the post office was. Accomplishing such a mundane, quotidian errand signifies that I am slowly crossing from the realm of visitor/outisider to member of the community. Well, as much as a madama (white woman) possibly can. (By the way, anyone who says we live in a post-racial world where no one sees color has never been to India...Hmm, possible blog topic for later...).

Anyway, the aforementioned transition--my successful little walk to the post office--the ordinary-ness of it all--well, it's a good feeling.

I also made a new friend on the way. As I was contemplating the fact that I was walking to the Post Office, in India, I heard someone beckoning to me. It was a middle-aged woman, calling to me from the front porch of her house. Unsure of what she wanted, and fighting hard to resist the US 'stranger danger' mentality, I paused as she approached me by the road.

India's culture is known for its hospitality, and I've heard multiple stories of one being invited to tea by a perfect stranger, though I had never experienced it personally. Until today, that is. Letta, as I learned her name was, was offering me one such spontaneous invitation. She was very kind, spoke English pretty well, and we even had a small exchange in Malayalam. And as much as I wanted to accept her invitation, I had to return to Buchanan in time for Zumba class.

Next time Letta spots me walking by, I'll take her up on it. I know I'm not supposed to accept candy from strangers...but no one ever said anything about tea.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

where are they now?

The other day, I saw a homeless woman sitting under an overhang, attempting to shelter herself from the rain. She was barefoot and had her few belongings gathered next to her. It wasn't long before I noticed she was holding a tiny bundle in her arms--an infant. It couldn't have been more than a few weeks old. I wonder if that child will make it even to its first birthday?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Tamil Nadu

This post was written on October 18th.

It was Wednesday. I was at one of my schools, Pakkil Lower Primary, preparing to teach a class of 4th graders. My phone rang, and I saw Jaimol Kochamma, my site supervisor at Buchanan, was calling. "Madison, the standard 10 class is leaving for their Tamil Nadu tour this afternoon--would you like to come?" I had known about the trip for some time but never expected to be invited, and the fact that it was just hours before departure took me extra by surprise. "Um, am I allowed to? I mean, I would like to, but are you sure that's okay?" I stammered, taken aback. "Yes," she said. "Pack when you return to Buchanan and don't forget your passport." And just like that, I was released from the rest of the week's teaching duties and was about to embark on a long weekend of my first outside-of-Kerala experience.

The trip to Tamil Nadu, a neighboring state of Kerala, was an overnight bus ride. It's so funny to me how in some ways, the schools here are so rigid--for example, the depiction I have you of Buchanan's morning assembly--and yet, this bus was nothing less than a party bus. Picture a Greyhound without air conditioning, flashing colored interior lights, and booming music. 10th grade girls dancing to the latest Hindi and and Tamil hits for hours in the aisle. No one seated, all clapping to the music. Even the teachers got up and danced sometimes.

There’s no way I can describe everything we did and all the places we went throughout the course of the weekend, but here’s some favorite moments…

-visiting multiple famous Hindu temples, including RameswaramMadurai and others whose names I don’t remember. The funniest part of the temple experience as a whole was that most temples have an inner area where only Hindus are allowed to enter (usually dictated by a sign). The teachers and students, most of whom were also Christian, seemed quite sure that this rule was unenforced and that we should all be able to enter with no problem. Which we were. Well, they were. At each temple, I (and only I) was quickly stopped from entering by guards. “I’m sorry, only Hindus are allowed in this area,” they would say. The ironic thing was that, as I mentioned before, the majority of the people I was with were Christian, too—I just happened to be the one that, as a non-Indian, was obviously not Hindu. (Whoa, quick tangent. You have to remove your shoes in these temples, and the floor is often wet. Thousands of people come in an out every day. I definitely found myself cringing more than once at the thought of what microbes were living in the murky puddles I was walking through…)

-Exploring the beach at the southern-most tip of India, from where you can see Sri Lanka.

-Freezing in Kodaikanal, a mountainous region of Tamil Nadu. Yes, a COLD place in India! (When packing for India, I thought that surely I would never use the one pair of jeans and one sweatshirt I was bringing…but as I wore them in Kodaikanal, I was sure glad I brought them!). Activities in Kodaikanal included horseback riding around a lake, visiting Pillar Rock and Suicide Point, and admiring the view from atop a huge dam at night. The mountains, flowers, and waterfalls were gorgeous.

-Hanging out with the standard 10 students, with whom I have no regular channel to interact, since the highest standard I teach is standard 8. It was also wonderful to have quality time with Jaimol Kochamma and the 5 other teachers who came as chaperones. One morning in Kodaikanal stands out, in particular. Jaimol Kochamma and I had shared a hotel room and awoken freezing. After hot showers, Vanaja Teacher and Jainy Teacher, who were staying next door, came to our room for a time of devotion and prayer. We had about 30 minutes to kill afterward, and the four of us sat cross-legged on the bed, talking. They asked me why I had cut my hair, and if my sister was as beautiful as I was? I embarrassedly pushed aside the compliment and told them that I thought she was even more so. They asked about my high school and college years and the types of jobs I’ve had (at which point I found myself fondly remembering the JRF crew!), and other questions. They told me about their families and their lives. It was in many ways an ordinary 30 minutes, but I will always remember that relaxed time, wrapped in blankets, talking to these women, most of whom have children close to my age. There is no replacement for my own family, but I am rapidly finding, through this experience and others like it, that amongst Jaimol Kochamma, the faculty of Buchanan school, and of course Achen’s wife, Betty Kochamma, I have many Indian mothers.

Is it weird that, while this weekend afforded me my first opportunity to wear Western clothes since arriving, I found myself wishing that I was wearing a churidar? And that when people ask me what my favorite food is, I find myself naming foods like biriyani and kappa and meen curry?

I’m kind of loving this place. These people. This way of life. I have a feeling it’s all going to go by way too quickly. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

happy life

This post was written on October 12.

Though I'm teaching standards (grades) 4-8, there's a special activity I do only with my standard 8 students. At the end of every class, I give them a writing prompt, and they have 10 minutes or so to respond. I collect their work, which I read and make corrections, give feedback, etc., and return at the next class meeting.

Last week's prompt was "tell me about the best gift you've ever received." I expected disjointed sentences about a bicycle, or a necklace, or something similar. This was the first paper I read, by a student named Reshmi:

The best gift I ever received was my happy life. My parents love me. My god give my parents my birth day. I am very studying very well. I am doing for anything my parents. I love my parents very much. There are very nice persons. I love, I love, I love.

Is it just me, or was there no mention of a bicycle?

I've never considered myself overly materialistic, but some attitudes are so ingrained within us that we don't even realize we harbor them. Sometimes it's unexpected moments that reveal to us our own hidden structures of thought. Having such a moment, I sat in the Buchanan staff room, awestruck. And even then I thought, "oh, that's sweet, now bring on the bicycles." But the awestruck feeling persisted, as I had expected to read paper after paper describing the joyous receipt of some much-desired item, and yet response after response mentioned gifts like friends, family, and happiness.

Reshmi will never know that though I taught her about superlatives that day, she reminded her teacher of an infinitely more important lesson--that material things can never replace the people and blessings that are the truly important gifts in our lives. She reminded me that I'm thankful for my happy life, too.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Teaching English...or something like it?

This post was written on October 4th.

Amidst the slew of random/reflective blog posts, you might be wondering: What are you doing over there?!?

In the spirit of a more nuts-and-bolts update, here's the scoop: I've been teaching miscellaneous English classes for the past couple of weeks, usually no more than two periods a day, just to get a feel for the students and the classrooms. It's gone well. We've covered introducing one's self, played a few language games, and delved into some grammar basics. The girls have been respectful, attentive, and excited to have a new face at the front of the classroom. I also started teaching Zumba classes last week to the girls at my hostel, a total of four days per week. It has been VERY well-received--they love it! And, true to Zumba form, I always leave in better spirits than when I came.

Suffice it to say that the past couple of weeks have been easygoing, flexible, and fairly unstructured. Until today, that is. Finally, I got my weekly schedule. I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry.

I am teaching...
Mondays- 8C, 7C, 8E, 7B (at Buchanan High School)
Tuesdays- 7A, 5D, 8B, 8D, 8A (at Buchanan High School)
Wednesdays- mornings at Pakkil Lower Primary, afternoons at Buchanan Lower Primary
Thursdays- 6 (Spanish), 5C, 5B, 5A (at Buchanan High School)
Fridays- mornings spent at CMS High School, afternoons at CMS Lower Primary

The numbers refer to grade level, and the letters denote separate classes, or sections, of that grade level. Each class averages around 35 students. The subject matter of all classes is English, with the exception of a 6th grade elective Spanish class.

That's a whole lots of classes and a whole lot of students at five different schools, up to five periods a day, out of seven periods. That's five different headmasters/headmistresses I have to get to know, not to mention the names of the members of five faculties.

You don't have to be a math whiz to know that's a lot of people. And a lot of teaching. Especially for someone with zero teaching experience.

How will I handle this, you ask? Prepare (lesson-plan wise) as much as possible. Maintain a positive attitude. Channel 'the little engine that could'..."I think I can, I think I can!"

Sink or swim. Hopefully swim.

Update: I'm swimming! It's going to be tough, but more manageable than I originally thought. So far so good :)

Tuesdays with Morrie

This post was written on October 3rd.

I realize this post has nothing to do with my India experience, other than the fact that I am IN India (that counts for something, right?), today was Sunday, and I found myself with some extra reading time.

In continuation of this observation, a disclaimer: If you know me, you know that I enjoy writing. So via the channel of my India blog, my occasional writing musings have now been given a platform--muahahaha!--and are bound to come out every once in a while.

Back to my original intention. If you haven't read Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, you absolutely MUST.

I don't care if you don't like to read. I don't care if you're too busy. I don't care if you haven't picked up a book in ages. READ IT. This fairly quick read offers a much-needed perspective on the meaning of life that could probably, in some way, benefit everyone, regardless of age, experience, or circumstances. It's also a wonderful testament to the legacy of teachers, and is written with both humor and poignancy.

Expounding on the 'if you know me, you know that I enjoy writing comment,' you might also know that I'm very much a quote person.

Some favorites from Tuesdays with Morrie:

(I don't think I'll ruin the book for you if I tell you, for the purpose of context, that all the following insights come from a dying, long-time professor, Morrie, who dialogues with former student, Mitch, about topics like death, aging, greed, marriage, family, regrets, society, forgiveness, etc.).

Morrie's response to Mitch's questions regarding how one could ever really be prepared to die:
"Do what the Buddhists do. Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks, 'Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?'"

Morrie on status:
"If you're trying to show off for people at the top, forget it. They will only look down on you anyhow. And if you're trying to show off for people at the bottom, forget it. They will only envy you. Status will get you nowhere. Only an open heart will allow you to float equally between everyone."

Morrie on interdependence:
"'In the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive, right? And at the end of life, when you get like me, you need others to survive, right?' His voice dropped to a whisper. 'But here's the secret: in between, we need others as well.'"

Morrie on death:
"As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without ever really going away. All the love you created is still there. You live on--in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here...Death ends a life, not a relationship."

And lastly, my personal favorite.

Morrie on the source of satisfaction in life:
"Giving to other people is what makes me feel alive. Not my car or my house. Not what I look like in the mirror. When I give my time, when I can make someone smile after feeling sad, it's as close to healthy as I ever feel. Do the kinds of things that come from the heart. When you do, you won't be dissatisfied, you won't be envious, you won't be longing for somebody else's things. On the contrary, you'll be overwhelmed with what comes back."

Morrie, I couldn't agree more.


This post was written on October 2nd.

At 7:00 this morning, I had my first experience with bucket laundry. How I've made it this far without doing laundry is a mystery even to me. All I know is that for about the past week, the girls from the hostel and I have had daily exchanges like this:

Me: Is today a good day to do laundry?
Hostelmate: Probably not--there's not much room on the clothesline/it's going to rain/etc.
Me (with relief): Oh, okay. Well maybe you can show me how to do it tomorrow, then.

Due to a combination of legitimate reasons, but mostly my own reluctance, 'tomorrow' turned into the next day, and the next day, and the day after that.

Today, however, I could no longer escape it. Prompty at 7AM, Renju and Hari came to my room and said, 'come, we will show you how to wash!' So I gathered the necessary supplies--my dirty laundry, two buckets, a scrubbing brush, soap powder, and bar soap--and resignedly followed them outside to the oh-so-intimidating washing stone that has been eyeing me for weeks.

'Renju and Hari' soon turned into a throng of girls, as I think they were quite intrigued at the spectacle taking place before them. Hand-washing is so second-nature to them--they've grown up doing it every day, from an early age--that of course the idea of someone of 22 being totally without this skill made my first experience worth observation.

My onlookers were all great teachers. They didn't know many of the words for the actions involved in washing clothes, so it turned into a mutually beneficial language exchange. They pantomimed, for example, churning the clothes in the bucket, and said thuni mukuka (the spelling of which I am probably completely butchering--this applies to any Malayalam words I endeavor to write throughout this description). Beating the clothes on the washing stone with soap was sopa tekuka. Accompanying the motion of wringing-out was the phrase pidiuka, which I told them, in English, was 'squeeze.' There was a good amount of delight at learning this word, and lots of laughter as we taught each other. It actually helped pass the time pretty quickly, and before I knew it, I had two buckets full of perfectly washed and clean clothes. All that remained was to vidikyuka, hang them on the aya, clothesline. And voila!

There's a good feeling that comes with accomplishing something with one's own two hands. And all before 8AM.

Cultural differences, part 2

This post was also written on October 1st.

Possible conversation scenario in the US:
Person 1: That outfit is really flattering on you.
Person 2: Oh, really? Thanks!
Person 1: Have you been exercising?
Person 2: Yes.
Person 1: I can tell, you look great.

Actual conversation I had this morning in the Buchanan staff room:
Manju (a teacher): You are looking less fat than you used to.
Me: Oh, thank you. I've been exercising with the girls in the hostel.
Manju Teacher: That is good for you, you need it. You are looking more slim. Continue to improve. I know you are going to look very byoo-Tful in a saree.

Yes friends, true story. At one time I might have been horrified at the way this conversation went, but as it happened this morning, and as I am recounting it to you now, I find it no less than hilarious, and was not at all offended. One, I think there's something to be said for being able to laugh at one's self, in any respect. And two, if you could have seen the giant smile, devoid of mean-spiritedness or judgment, on Manju Teacher's face, you wouldn't have been offended either. She was honestly saying I look improved, and you could tell she really meant it when she said she couldn't wait for me to wear a saree (I can't either, by the way! I still need to buy one!)

The difference between how Manju Teacher made her remarks, and how one might make the same remarks in the US is...tact. In a culture (the US, I mean) that values beating-around-the-bush, in the name of tact, such comments would undoubtedly be considered at least slightly offensive to the recipient. But as I have experienced on more than one occasion, Indians, simply put, like to tell it like it is. Not, however, with any sort of ill-will or malice.

Another such occasion: Jim, Maggie, and I spent our first week in India at 'orientation' at our site coordinator's house. One activity with which we filled our days was Malayalam lessons. During one lesson, in particular, I was told that I was 'very slow' (I learned, later, that this was due to the fact that I was asking lots of questions; in the US, this is usually taken as a sign of higher-level thinking/analysis, while in India, it basically means that you're just not getting it--yet another cultural difference). To be honest, I took that with less humor than the you-are-looking-less-fat incident, mostly because, at that point, I was still unaccustomed to the Indian manner of directly stating one's opinions. But now, I find it very funny, and am also proud to say that my Malayalam is coming along quite well.

So, don't be surprised if this tendency toward candor rubs off on me and I come back to the US and tell you what I've REALLY been thinking about you all this time ;)

Update: My site supervisor, Jaimol Kochamma, took me to buy my first saree yesterday! :D

Cultural differences

This post was written on October 1st.

Every morning, promptly at 9:10, the girls of Buchanan School gather for assembly. Picture a large hall, filled with a few hundred girls of all ages standing shoulder to shoulder, row after row. During longer assemblies, they maintain this formation, but seated on the floor.

I shudder to imagine an attempt at a similar arrangement in the United States. I recall times during my schooling when entire classes--very rarely the entire school--were made to congregate for a special occasion. Some degree of pandemonium usually ensued, if only from the chatter of hundreds of students.

Here, the girls quietly assemble in the hall in the same organized fashion every day. I'm not sure I will ever get over the ease with which this occurs.

The teachers, myself included, sit around the perimeter of the room. I wonder how you are sitting now, as you are reading this? Perhaps your feet are on the floor. Perhaps one of your legs is crossed over the other. The latter alternative is how I often sit, and this morning at assembly was no exception.

A teacher, Valsamma, after seating herself next to me, whispered in my ear: 'you should put your leg down.'  I smiled and complied, meanwhile thinking, 'Was I doing something wrong?? ...but my legs were crossed! And I'm not even wearing a skirt!' I did my best to dismiss my chagrin, though my face was probably coloring. Clearly the way I had been sitting every day, for all these weeks, was improper, and I'm sure many, the hundreds of girls included, had noticed.

After assembly concluded, I asked Valsamma Teacher to expound on what I had been doing wrong. She kindly explained that, as I suspected, it is not considered proper for women to sit with one leg crossed over the other, especially in the presence of a male speaker (as was the case at this morning's assembly). I told her I was thankful to her for cluing me in, and to please not hesitate to tell me in the future if I were to unknowingly commit any other social faux pas. And I really meant it. The last thing I want to do is perpetuate the myth of American indecency, so I appreciated her taking the time to gently inform me of my mistake.

This small episode got me to thinking about the concept of indecency, in general. It's interesting how the notion of what is proper or decent changes from society to society. Indian women look down on their American sisters for wearing shorts (bare legs, the horror!), having uncovered shoulders, or low cut necklines. In the US, such attire is acceptable; women wear skirts that show their knees to the workplace, or sleeveless shirts to school. And yet, while most dress codes for an educational or professional setting in the US discourage or prohibit the exposure of one's midsection, in India, women are most commonly seen wearing sarees, which show plenty of midsection. Can you imagine if someone walked into the office with a bare stomach?

The obvious lesson is that, like most cultural variables, it's all relative. At the end of the day, I am not indecent for crossing my legs, just as Valsamma Teacher is not indecent for showing her midriff. But depending on one's context, the former or the latter may be inappropriate. The challenge for me, in India, is to abandon ideas of what I have learned to consider to be acceptable, and adapt to the social etiquette of a new place, which might be different, even opposite, from my own. It's one of the things I love about cultural immersion, and is one of the keys, in my opinion, to assimilation, no matter what faraway lands to which one journeys.

From now on, both of my feet will be planted firmly on the floor :)