It’s a little early, but with five months left to go I have been thinking about the things that have brought me back to India twice, and why India will most likely keep bringing me back for more. The things that I love, and the things that I still do nott know much about. Who knows if five more months with be enough for all of them, so I wanted to get some of these thoughts down now, and also capture some other themes for my life right now. Here are a few examples:
1.) Still don’t know how to cook Indian Food
Street food – the the friend that comforts my taste bud and the enemy that keeps me from learning how to cook Indian food. It may kill me one day, but I can’t stop! I mean come on, this side of the world does has some of the best street food. Especially in India, the variety, the flavors, the enthusiasm of eaters – it’s hard to resist. And so spicey. . . Some of the spiciest food I have had has been on the streets of India, along with some of the most foreign tastes I have had. And the prices? How can such delicious, tasteful and creative street snacks like chaat or dosa be so cheap? It is ironic how poor the street food scene is back home in the US given it’s strong fast food culture. Maybe I should just learn how to make all the chaats and open up my own taco/chaat cart back in NYC. Gotta watch out though, there are risks.
2.) Monotony here is just too adventurous
Even though the daily grind is not my thing, there is always something happening in Mumbai on the way to work that makes me smile, laugh, make me feel uncomfortable or totally confused–albeit many other feelings. Like I said in my last post, I appreciate it whenever I am having an existential crisis or just a bad day. Check out this short video I made to know what I mean. Even commuting to work is an adventure that never gets old!
3.) I still can’t speak proper Hindi
“Khana khao!” “Sidha jao aur phir vo nukkad se bayain lena.” “Yeh hai Hindustan meri jaan!” “Kya pachaas rupiye bhaiya?? Bahut mehanga hai! Sabse sasta price do, please.” “Sorry, main samajta nahi hu, aur dhire bol sakta hai?”
I have these conversations everyday. A lot of what I learn is Mumbai’s version of Hindi, or Bambaiyya – a pidgin form of Hindi that is mixed with so many other Indian languages. Still, I can manage, and I am impressed with how much more Hindi I am beginning to understand, read and even write. I love Hindi, and honestly how it is spoken helps you understand a little bit of the common Indian attitude. Speaking the slightest Hindi as a ferung will get you a lot of respect (and countless laughs, no matter how good you get). So many foreigners here just won’t make the effort, something that makes you seem even more foriegn. I don’t understand why some expats here still don’t get why they feel so foreign when they don’t know any local languages. Language breaks down barriers, and although it’s great to have a ‘global language’ of English, you will only be able to relate to people in their own language.
4.) A wave of the hand, a nod of the head . . . I can have a whole conversation without words
Nonverbal communication is just something most Americans don’t practice, at least the ones I know. In fact, a lot of them call me rude for trying it. Here on the other hand, I can have a whole conversation with an auto driver or a friend sitting across the office without even words. Whether it is a half turn of your hand from top to palm–with the palm slightly curled, your fingers pointed outwards (think of classical Indian hand moves or the ‘lightbulb’) with a tilt up of the head to say”kya?” or “how much” to someone–or squinting your eyes twice to say hi to someone, or even holding your hand up next to you in a slap position to joke with friends if they say something funny. Words are not always needed. It is a whole other language here and it is more direct than I am used to. I love the expressive nature of it.
5.) I have not even come close to finishing my project
Every time I live abroad, time is sacred and there is never enough of it. My first time leaving the US was 4 weeks in Europe when I was 20. I remember thinking, “Wow, four whole weeks, everyday waking up in Europe and experiencing life there!” In retrospect, I realized that it was not nearly enough time to learn anything. Then I graduated on to 2 months in Buenos Aires, with 2 months backpacking around South America after. It felt like a lifetime and impacted me tremendously as a person, but the truth is that within a couple months of returning, I knew all of the South America was disappearing inside of me. I was loosing that passion I picked up in South America. Then – India. First time was a month, second time was 3, then a stint in Ghana for 6 months taught me about really working on a project for a longer period of time. Even that project was never fully finished though.
And now a year back in India. Between all of the cancelled meetings and delays, I am about 700 chai breaks away from finishing my projects. 5 months are gone, and I look forward to the latter 4. The seed of India is being planted inside of me, and sometimes I can’t even remember how I used to approach things before with only a Westerner perspective with no cultural competency of thinking outside this box or understanding alternative methods of dealing with issues. Even with this amount of time, I can not see how I will finish the projects I am working on. The learning curve has been steep. I mean, after 5 months I just found a veggie-wala who doesn’t rip me off! Oh yeah, and then there is trying to gain trust from community members to work side by side with them? There is so much to do for my NGO, and the people I really like the most are just beginning to give me more opportunities for meaningful work.
6.) Too much Urban. Not enough Rural.
Living in Mumbai is challenging, but it is also turning me into a city slicker. I need to experience more rural India before I leave for a different kind of challenge. There is so much beauty and wonder to be experienced, and one stop I have to get to is the North East.
Using an eastern toilet is one example of my spoiled city life. i don’t know if I know how to do it. Sure, I have used them a lot, but there are still situations I get into where there is no toilet paper at all and only a small cup of water. I walk away feeling like I did something wrong and all I can wonder is, “how the heck do you do this the right way?!” I have used banana leaves and water in Ghana, but only water with your hand? And when there is no soap? Really? I have to get to the bottom of this, and I need to get out of the city more to discover even more foreign things to me.
Studying Global Poverty and Practice at UC Berkeley, I remember my Indian professor telling all of us in class that while working in development – theory without action is useless, and practice without theory is hopeless. I didn’t know what this meant until now. In school, I was always interested in the idea that poverty has been created, that we have all participated in the creation of a capitalistic machine that breeds great winners and a majority at the bottom of the pyramid — that both breeds and perpetuates inequality. In all of my classes, I studied what anthropologists call the rural-urban continuum — the trend and force of massive numbers of people from rural lands into urban metropolises. A veil labelled of progress, or “development,” has been pulled over the grave chaos that this has caused: over-crowded cities, a broken food system, limited resources, environmental degredation, food as commodity, an enslaved working class — to the structural adjustments of the IMF and World Bank that have all created a “planet of slums.” In school, I obsessed over the connections between health and social development, and the impediment on both that neoliberalism continues to achieve, as well as the engrained structural violence that continues to exclude and abuse the most marginalized people. From all of this, I have been able to discover the significance of education, skills training, food sovereignty, decentralization, the need for basic health services and the rise of social movements across the globe against capitalist oppression. Before coming, this was all academia jargon though and felt too abstract and stories I read in articles. Now, I see it everyday — Naxalites fighting in Jharkhand, farmer suicides, Western aid and development frameworks in foreign contexts, rights to the city and to their homes for slum residents, mass exoduses of rural farmer becoming city migrants in search of jobs, a failing public sector and the permanent rise of the super-private. What being here in India allows me to do is be closer than ever to these issues, and experience what I already know theoretically. It gives me a platform to combine all this theory and practice into Praxis. It is not always fun or so efficient, and sometimes I just want to freak out at work and start telling people to go faster or do things better! Other times I miss the crazy comfort of the Bay Area – my liberal idealistic friends who had similar perspectives as I on these issues and how to approach them. At times, I really just want to do whatever famous writers like Arundhati Roy or Raj Patel would do. But these challenges are part of the game, we are swimming against the tide and that takes more energy and time by ordinary people. This sort of praxis is a reality check for me — bringing me closer and closer to the things I have studied before and challenging me enough to ultimately make me a better practitioner.
This one’s easy: I will not leave India until I get into a Bollywood film! 4 months to go, who wants me?
9.) Addicted to Chai
It is hard to find a middle point between being yourself and fitting in. Sometimes, I don’t even try to pretend I’m Indian or that I understand what is going on – the blonde hair, super white skin and blue eyes stop that from ever happening. Also, even if I was under the radar, sometimes it’s all just too different for myself to comprehend. Yet still, most days I find my accent changing to sound Indian, I find myself hustling those who usually hustle me, I wind up holding hands with my guy friends, constantly nodding my head sideways and better, modifying my dance style to include many moves that keep my hands in the air — and I went from consuming very little caffeine to 5 cups of chai a day.
I have always been into ethnographic style research and attempts to “go native” in foreign places to better understand a different culture than my own and see the operation of a society. Yet, sometimes it is the opposition to a society, or the conflict between your own notions of normalcy and another’s, is where you learn the most. This happened a lot over chai. Eating a million biscuits and drinking so much chai everyday was difficult at first, but eventually became a time for me to better understand India. Breaking down my own barriers and giving up my own controls (like how much caffeine I should drink a day) lets me loosen up and bond with people. I am normally a fast moving person who can’t sit down for too long. Chai also slows me down, while simultaneously speeding up my heart rate in case an auto driver wants to rip me off (oh, don’t mess with me when I’m on 3 cups of chai). I have to understand how things work here, even if they are contradictory to me. I have to know when to give respect to certain people, which customs to follow and which to dismiss, how to get basic things done the right way, and most importantly — when to say yes to a chai offer. There are still some things though that I do not sacrifice, and this is how I realize what my core values are. There is a lot more self discovery to be done over chai. . .
10.) I still don’t get this place
What is India? That is always a funny question or conversation. I feel bad for Indians when they get asked this painful question, since it is so hard to describe as one tangible or uniform entity. In fact, I would love to meet the person who can tell me the right answer, since it doesn’t seem to exist. In one day, I encounter a “typical Indian” that has no toilet and defecates on the railway tracks everyday. The same day, I will meet another “typical Indian” that has a maid and driver. Another one will claims that Indians are so frugal and can live off of Rs. 50/- per day, while many I know spend thousands of rupees a day without even thinking. “Indians are passive?” Not the one’s I know. “Ah ha! Rickshaws are Indian!” but actually are found in most parts of Asia and other parts of the world. India is Hindu, but also has every other religion on earth. There is rural, urban and between; there are Zoroastrians and Goan Christians; those with traditional family backgrounds mixed with all the disfunction of an American family; love-marriaged and arranged; there are even those who still follow the caste system and those who despise it. You just can’t classify this place – which is what I love about it. I can keep coming back, and I will never know it all.
Sri Aurobindo, the great Indian Rishi, wrote of भारत माता in 1905: ‘For what is a nation? What is our mother-country? It is not a piece of earth, nor a figure of speech, nor a fiction of the mind. It is a mighty shakti, composed of the shaktis of all the millions of units that make up the nation.’ The daily strength and struggle may be what characterizes India as one place. I know that is what seems to define my time here, anyway.
(check out my personal blog “Una Aventura Real” for more)