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 :)