The service learning co-ordinators at LDC have asked me to write 3 reflection papers while im here. The first one is just about the initial reaction to being here, what i've struggled with etc. I sat down and wrote it all at once and its kind of just a bunch of random thoughts exploded onto a page, but i think I got out almost everything that I needed to say. So here it is:
My first impression of India was, in a word, overwhelming. When I first stepped off the plane the heat was stifling, there were so many smells, there was a vast pit of garbage by the airport, there were cows blocking traffic. I had spent the last 29 hours in various planes and airport terminals and it had been a good 32 hours since I had slept. It was too much to process all at once and all I could think about was letting my family know I arrived safely. Lack of sleep and jet lag meant that the next few days were just as bewildering, trying to get organized and not really knowing what was going on. That first week really felt like I was going through the motions...a word of advice to future BBers: please sleep on the plane, your sanity will thank you later.
I’m the type of person who likes everything to be neat and organized and who needs everything scheduled and arranged, but that’s simply not how things are done in India. Everything is much more loosely scheduled if scheduled at all and things just happen when people get around to it. That was a hard adjustment for me. I would say that it still is. Some days I am great at just going with whatever happens, “oh that class I planned on isn’t happening? Ok I’ll do something else. “, “oh my auto driver is half an hour late? Guess I can’t go to the orphanage; I’ll go to Peoples Watch instead.” The fact that everything runs just a little late is something I have adapted to well, with a few exceptions and I am very proud of myself for easing up on my need for schedule and control; I’m getting much better at just going with it. But some days, especially when I’m not feeling well or I’m particularly homesick, I get frustrated. At home, structure is what I cling to for support when I’m having a bad day, and that structure just doesn’t exist here. Some days I get frustrated that things don’t just work the way I’m used to. One day last week I tried to go to the post office to mail a package and I was there for an hour and a half and nothing got done. They didn’t take visa, so would have to go change money but still they insisted on proceeding and opened, weighed, repackage and reweighed all my gifts, they stood around and talked in Tamil for a while and no one explained to me what was going on, then they hand-sewed the parcel, I paid and when the parcel was done they asked me for more money and would not explain why – that would be the illusive foreigner tax – and then finally told me they were closing and I would have to come back another day. At home this process would have taken 10 minutes and I could not understand the lack of urgency and all the standing around. Peolpe would tell me to sit but I didn’t want to sit I wanted to know what was going on. Talking to my fellow foreigners once I returned all I had to say was, “I went to the post office” for this statement to be met with “oh no”, groans and hugs, “it’ll be alright”. As foreigners they understand my complete bewilderment and frustration, but here that’s just how it works. I have a phrase that I have been using with my family when I try and explain my frustrations and am met with “well why don’t you just ___” , There is no such thing as “just” in India.
As a foreigner everything takes so much more effort. I can’t pop over to the corner store and grab whatever I need, I don’t even know where to begin to look. And so I have to rely on other people. For me this has been I huge struggle. I am very independent at home and I like to be in control. I love that I can just hop in my car or on my bike and run into town. But it’s not so simple for me here. I have a hard time relying on other people and feeling like a burden. On one hand I realize that I can’t do some of the things that I want to do on my own, but the independent side of me still wants to try. I had a hard time adjusting to the gate card and having to let someone know where I am at times. As a 20 year old at home I do not have to ask permission to go anywhere. When I am at home with my parents I tell them where I’m going out of respect or because they asked but when I am at school I just come and go as I want. And that’s clearly a cultural difference. I’ve noticed that girls, even women, don’t go out much on their own and especially not at night and that is very different than what I am used to. I fully understand and accept that these precautions are in place for my safety, it was just a difficult adjustment to make. From making observations about student life and talking to the other foreign students I appears that socially there is no real equivalent age/peer group for 20 something year old Westerners. Women my age are either married with lot of responsibilities or still living at home, maybe attending college but not living independently. I would really like a chance to just talk to some girls about what their lives are like, hang out during unconstructed time where everyone is free to talk and there’s no pressure. Then maybe we will be able to bridge the gap. I have made friends with a few of the students and I’m looking forward to getting to know them better.
I have heard Madurai called the most India part of India, one of the most authentic Indian experiences. At first glance it is chaotic but the longer I am here the more I figure out what everything is, where everything is and I am feeling more at home. I have been here 5 weeks already and I feel I have barely seen anything, there is so much here. I usually get accustomed to a place by walking around seeing everything and really getting a feel for it. Until recently I hadn’t done much experiencing of Madurai but know that I have begun, I’m feeling more confident about being out in the city. I like the freedom that I feel when I can go out on my own and the sense of accomplishment at a successfully negotiated auto ride or shopping trip, it feels good.
That’s also what I liked so much about going to Pondicherry. It was just a little quieter and a little bit more manageable to right away I was free to wander and explore and I did really well. It’s a beautiful area plus it was great to be able to speak a little bit of French to people and it didn’t matter so much that I don’t speak Tamil. I also got a chance to visit Auroville which was very different and thought provoking. On one hand it would like to be a place that is free of the constraints of everyday society, free from socio-economic, cultural, national, and religions prejudices or biases, where people can live free and in contemplation of the greater universe. It suggests its members give up materialistic desires and possessions, and the whole system runs on credit, not money. It sounds wonderful in theory. But in reality, on the other hand, there are a number of problems. While they preach anti-materialism they run gift shops to make money and their meditation centre is a giant marble sphere plated in gold. They also enjoy some sort of tax free status akin to what a religious organization would have but they present themselves as anti religion. They call it a place for all “mankind by all mankind” but it is a closed community and not everyone is allowed in. These types of contradictions aren’t just present in Auroville but all through India. There are such lavish, bejewelled clothing, fabrics and jewellery and some of the finest silks I have ever seen and yet step out of the store and into the street and you see squalor and poverty, and even in such modern and progressive times I still see clear segregation of men and women, and I still see women treated poorly, or at least differently, when compared to the men. It was a culture shock to be so clearly aware of the gender divide here. I don’t feel that I am treated badly by any of the men here, but I do feel like my feelings are not always considered. I am a novelty for them to enjoy. No man has been rude or derogatory towards me as I have seen them do to other women, but they walk up to me thrust their hands at me, stand to close, bombard me with questions, with no real consideration of what I happened to be doing or whether I want to be touched or photographed etc. As I discovered in the Gandhi Museum men will treat me differently than they will treat Indian women, but it’s just as disrespectful and rude.
I find this a lot actually, that I am treated differently because I am so obviously foreign, and its not always something I feel comfortable with. A friend explained it to me as, “you are a foreigner so there are no expectations placed on you.” Sometimes this is nice, I don’t follow clothing restrictions as tightly as other would be expected to; people are thrilled when I make small efforts like wearing a bindi or bangles etc. But a lot of the time I am really uncomfortable with the attention and special treatment that comes with my foreigner label. Recently when we went to the Monkey temple I was blown away by the special treatment we got. We had just gone for the fun of the hike, to see monkeys in the wild and see what the temple looked like, but there were people who were there for religious devotion, and who had come from far away to worship and get healing water. Yet they pulled us out of line, we paid a little extra and got a guided tour, line cuts and all. I could not believe it when the tour guide took us to the front of the line and scolded others for taking so long and making us wait, the priest stopped in the middle of the puja he was doing and took us aside to do a special puja, and took flower garlands off of an idol to bless us with. I felt sort of like we had cheated, and I felt so bad for all the people that had to wait or who were scolded. Nothing gives us the right to get to go first or get special treatment, or that makes us any different from anyone else, and I was very uncomfortable being treated as if there was.
There are so many cultural norms and social niceties at play every day in Indian life and I’ve come to the realization that no matter how long I am here I am not going to fully understand all there is to know about Indian and Tamil culture, it is just so different from my own. In order to truly appreciate the finite balances and the complexity I would have to be spending years here rather than months. But I want to learn as much as I can in the time I have. I can observe, participate, learn and listen and approach every day with an open mind and heart and make the most of this extraordinary opportunity.