More to the Story

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Recently, there has been a lot of negativity in the press about India. I get comments like: “I can’t believe you went there.” and “I’m glad you’re not over there now.”

I feel compelled (and was asked) to share my own thoughts and reflections on my experiences in India and how they compare with the image of India that is being portrayed in the news. I am basing this response specifically on the CNN iReport that was widely circulated in the past few weeks, though I caveat this post with the following: I do not mean to trivialize anyone’s individual experiences there, nor do I claim to be an expert after only spending two plus months there. What I would like to do is add my voice and perspective to paint a more holistic view of what it’s like for the many Americans and foreigners who may not get(or choose to take) the opportunity to travel there.

I would first ask that you at least skim this piece and realize that this has become part of a caricature of the current state of affairs in India: http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1023053
(which I argue, while being an important part of the narrative, is not complete and therefore alone it stands as an unjust representation). Warning, the piece is a bit graphic. I will not be offended if you scan it.

Personally, I never experienced sexual harassment in the slightest which is why I feel compelled to respond. Though, I will be honest, two Italian girls were killed in the state I visited the week before I arrived. Many of the what we would call counties were closed to foreign visitors. While I wouldn’t take this lightly, I don’t find it remarkable either, having lived in Dallas, Washington, DC, and now outside of New York and Philadelphia. It’s not that it isn’t newsworthy, it’s just not unheard of (unfortunately).

Despite being in one of the poorest, most “backward” states (as classified by the government), I was working with a fairly “progressive” group of men–all college educated and interested in development, helping the impoverished, dedicating their professional lives to it. I would most closely associate my coworkers with 12 year old boys–even the married ones. I don’t mean that condescendingly, but in the way my brother’s and my relationship was when I was 16 and he was 12–it’s relating to a culture they are not fluent in and the norms for gender interaction are different–like speaking a different language.

So to that extent, some of my colleagues were awkward around me (as I’m sure I was around them), but always very kind. We developed a type brother-sister bond which I very much appreciated and made being far from home less difficult. When I left they called me “sister” (still sort of like a 12 year old brother would relate to his high school sister–sweet, endearing, a bit hard to relate to, though professionally treated me like an equal). I would say where I was it didn’t seem they don’t interact with many women professionally.

I also dressed as appropriate for my village (in a salwar kameez–the long shirts with leggings), followed customs for shoes, and didn’t venture far without a male escort (driver and translator were with me most the time). I don’t know how much of this was required, but it was appreciated. I didn’t go out after dark often. I stayed at my apartment in the evenings after work except to walk with a friend to the store or a nearby restaurant both within a 3 block or so radius of the apartment (and one rogue evening hanging out with some local college-aged women at the Pizza Hut).

I ventured to Catholic Mass most Sundays–about 40ish minutes away in an auto-rickashaw/tuk-tuk by myself–that was a little scary, but more for the arranged marriage proposals I received after Mass. (“Funny, I’ve had a difficult time arranging my son with an American Catholic woman. Can I have your father’s phone number?” Um, no. I’m still working on a more polite way of saying arranged marriage is just not my style in preparation for my next overseas adventure). [Side note: If Hillary Clinton is only worth two camels, I don’t want to know what they’d offer for me. I should clarify, this references a story that was in the paper all summer about a terrorist group putting ransom up for someone willing to kidnap Hillary when she was Secretary of State, NOT my colleagues wanting to marry her.]

I never felt particularly unsafe, except riding in a car in Delhi and that’s not because I am a woman–the sheer amount of traffic and chaos would frighten most American drivers. Did I stand out? Yes, my friend and I were the only white people in our part of the city. Everyone stared as we walked down the street–but out of curiosity. There is no feeling in the world that replaces this experience–being a physical minority and attracting attention just by your appearance–a very valuable life lesson.

If I’m honest, I did flirt with/was flirted with by some lovely gentlemen (mostly bartenders in Goa) in the more touristy/European areas, but nothing was threatening, and everyone was friendly. No major problems. One invited me to a party with his friends–which I SO would have gone to had my friend and I been traveling with a male companion, but we didn’t. We were cautious, even though it was probably fine. This to me is a reality of traveling in a country where you don’t speak the local language or even going out in the States by yourself or with only females.

I did have one colleague who always said things like (at the beach) that my friend and I should bring our boyfriends or husbands back so we could swim next time. He’d say that about most activities. As an independent, adventurous, and-yes-American woman, I thought, “Newsflash, we came halfway across the world by ourselves, we don’t really need our boyfriends hear to walk barefoot in the ocean.” But, of course, the truth is that is a part of his culture and no matter how you conceive of it or what similarities there are, there will always be some differences.

Also, I knew locals and India is a higher context society than ours. We don’t have a caste, so they have to know where to place us. My local contact was very well respected–so I felt that I was, too. Many Indians I encountered wanted to know what my parents did for a living, because their jobs have been traditionally divided by caste/social class.

It’s not that there were not difficult parts about it, but my most difficult parts were (keep in mind I was not in the most cosmopolitan of places, but rather in a more rural and less international area):
1) It’s just a different culture with different values. You have to learn/become “fluent” so to speak in the new culture. Body language, intonation, eye contact norms, etc.
2) The caste system made less and less sense the more they tried to explain it to me. It’s connected to their last same…so someone with a surname like O’Reilly or O’Connor is obviously of Irish decent and that you are Hispanic as a Garcia, Singh means warrior caste–it’s in your blood so to speak, who you are. Some people didn’t understand that I don’t have a caste. The divide between rich, middle class, and poor is incredible.
3) There’s a lot of materialism in the big cities like Delhi or Mumbai. I see materialism as the result of believing that faith causes conflict and that religion (all of it) is backwards.
While I also met a lot of very devout Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Muslims,Buddhists, and Baha’i followers, it doesn’t seem that most people they encounter from developed nations are religious (think about many Ambassadors, government officials, UN officials, aid workers, academics–in the U.S. many of them tend to be not religious–or not publicly religious).

I would keep in mind that I did not spend much time in major cities and that India is one of the most economically, physically, and culturally diverse places I’ve ever visited. More languages and races exist in this one nation than most other places in the world. More important than my individual experience is that there are many vast and varied experiences in India and not all of them are violent or chauvinistic or what we would consider immoral. The more we perpetuate this myth that these negative experiences are “what India is” the more fear we foster among our fellow human beings and the less open we are to working together to tackle common problems and share in friendship.

I know why the caged bird sings

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I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
an the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou

I have always loved poetry and these last several weeks I keep coming back to the above poem. I keep visualizing the free bird in contrast to the caged bird. I think between the racially charged news stories this week and the wonderful visual of wanderlust, this poem is just on the brain.

Wanderlust you ask? When I am on the move, experiencing the new and unfamiliar, I feel exhilaration. I can relate to thinking of another breeze and naming the sky my own.

But that leads me to wonder…what cages me in? What is there in my life that makes me or others feel that our wings are clipped, that our feet our tied–that keep us from reaching our potential? What cages do other people face that haven’t even occurred to me? What do we allow to hold us back? What cages others in that we allow by our silence?

Each time I travel, especially to somewhere foreign (not in distance so much as familiarity of culture), I learn something new. I learn to see from someone else’s perspective. And I learn more fully the types of cages that entrap others.

The universality of this poem is that we all have both feared and longed for things unknown. The oppression is very tangible in the poem–the bird wishes for freedom, but the narrow cage and bars of rage physically limit the bird’s potential, its ability to fly, to be free.

I was not an English major and I don’t have much experience analyzing poetry, but I love this poem. There is such a strong desire here, a spirit in the caged bird who wants so much to be free, even if it means facing the unknown. Angelou writes with such a clear voice, I can almost hear her reading this and feeling it, too. She without question knows why the caged bird sings–she has felt the bondage of the birdcage and she is intimately familiar with the bird’s cry. Like listening to a blues singer who has felt the pain of heartbreak, the reader is fully aware of Angelou’s fearful longing and can sympathize with her cry.

Poems, like music, have a way of bypassing your head, only to land on your heart. They have the unique ability to pose serious questions and critique society in a way that prose is often to direct for. (If I had a talent for writing in meter, maybe I would switch from prose to verse!)

Act I, Scene I

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And the Wanderlust Traveler is at it again. Never one to sit still for too long, I have accepted a communications position in New Jersey–a state I have only crossed by bus and train.

While the grand (I can’t actually confirm this descriptor) state of New Jersey may not appear that exotic–let me assure you, it looks nothing like Oklahoma, Texas, or DC or Italy, India, Nepal, or Thailand. At least not on Google Maps.

But I couldn’t be filled with more excitement and optimism. I am far from done seeing, exploring, hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling the world around me…but for now, I am going to work on changing my corner of the world–the New Jersey suburbs and the greater NYC area.

I have studied politics, art, languages, philosophy, and history–but my heart is still captivated by a love for people, culture, and places. And in a sense, I am taking on a new world and a new culture–a new professional industry (not quite along the lines of international development).

And I have found a job that gives me one of the best and worst feelings I have ever known. After months of searching. After hundreds of applications, cover letters, and resumes. After dozens of interviews.

And what is this feeling? If you’ve ever been on stage, there are those few seconds standing in the wings, your heart pounding, your mind and pulse racing. It’s a feeling I haven’t really felt since I stepped of the stage two years ago.  The feeling is one that drives me to do my best, but I have as of yet had trouble trying to figure out how to reincorporate it into my life (working, grad school, research, volunteering, and job searching sometimes-just sometimes-take precedence over theater).

Acting for me is a passion. I love being on stage and the energy of a live audience. I know the satisfaction of nailing a scene–lines well-delivered and emotion authentic–after hours of practice and preparation.

But no matter how much you love the drama, catharsis, organic laughter, and a job well-done–there are those moments, waiting in the wings full of anticipation. Because every time I walked out on that stage was a challenge to rise to my potential and an opportunity to improve. Each show (whether it’s Opening Night or the Sunday Matinee) requires the same energy.

So many jobs I applied for and so many futures I’d envisioned seemed to trap this Wanderlust Traveler. But this will be an adventure–full of the nervous anticipation, the excitement of a challenge. The feeling of a new beginning, new people, new location, new job is one that invigorates and frightens me–promising not to leave me bored, but also asking of me to show up each day ready to take on new challenges with dedication and energy. The drive to continually improve.

Finished preparing and practicing, I am waiting in the wings excited by possibility. (And that’s all this Wanderlust Traveler ever wanted in the first place, to dream and make possible).

End Scene.

Link

Wonder and Awe

My bucket list just got a bit longer. I don’t normally post links, but these photos were just too incredible not to share. Awe-inspiring in the true sense of both visually stunning and fear inducing (in a reverence for nature sort of way). What a beautiful, strange, and amazing world we live in!

The Next Adventure

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…No, I haven’t found a job yet. I am considering traveling in the next 6 months or returning to Nepal for awhile before those pesky student loans need to be paid off. Any ideas about where I should go?

But I did begin a new adventure this past month. Few things in life give me as much joy as writing about my observations and encounters and reading about the observations and encounters of others. (Some may call this a blog addiction…I prefer to thing of it as being in love with learning anything and everything about people, their thoughts and their values…call it what you will. :) )

For the first time, I met with a writers group. A few friends of mine from graduated school (Freudian slip? I mean graduate school) have probably discussed beginning a writers group for a year. We had a great time, reading each other’s work and receiving feedback.

We were all a bit nervous. Sharing your writing is a bit like bearing your soul. It’s personal when you receive criticism, constructive or otherwise, because (at least for me) word choice and tone are very personal. It’s the means through which you are sharing your experiences and your reactions.

In addition to soul-bearing, each author in the group writes completely different genres and styles. One has a great and pithy style, writing horror and other disturbing subjects. Another writes sort of sad stories–not totally realistic and not totally fantasy–with a point to get across. A third (who unfortunately missed this session) focuses on young adult literature.

And lastly, there is me–who may someday write YA fiction or short plays, but currently blogs about travel, life, searching for joy, my faith, politics, and other various non-fiction pursuits. We are quite eclectic, but I think that keeps us interesting and able to provide feedback from different perspectives.

Plus, who doesn’t love dinner with friends discussing your favorite books and your writing pursuits?

I am however the bad writer…I showed up without writing to present. Next month…

Solidarity, Sister

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Today, I went to one of the best panel I’ve ever attended (and definitely better than any I’ve planned/hosted/moderated). And, I have been to many panels in my day. This particular event was entitled White House Women in Foreign Policy, a part of the White House’s celebration of Women’s History month. Aside from the yearbook’s worth of photos I took of the East Wing, the even itself was just spectacular.

What about this event was so spectacular? Was it an audience of predominantly women listening to some of the most powerful women in foreign affairs? Was it all the cute professional clothes and shoes I now feel inspired (compelled) to go out and buy?

These were all wonderful accidents of the amazing substance. Hearing four accomplished women talking about their mid-20s was like having them read my mind. I ran into a friend from grad school in line for security and we ended up sitting next to each other. We kept glancing at each other with looks that said, this is down right creepy–it’s like they’re reading our minds.

These well-educated, poised women were up here talking about the fear and uncertainty of their 20s and onward–of their careers, of their families, of their first boss, and of their first jobs. What it’s like to be a minority in the field as a woman. They discussed work-life balance and whether or not it was realistic to “have it all.” Everything that has been on my mind–working abroad, working in government, working outside of government, careers, relationships, plans for a family, all of that were accounted for in the wonderful accounts these women gave of the ups and downs of their lives.

To say the least, it was encouraging. These women worried and planned. They got degrees and went through job searches. They had jobs and bosses they didn’t like. They got opportunities that changed their plans and careers. They sought out mentors. They worked their butts off. They failed. And they succeeded.

There is something immensely encouraging about knowing you’re not alone. And there is something immensely inspiring about knowing these women have trodden the path before me–that many of them blazed the trail. I find that there are few things more valuable in life than being an attentive listener to those that have walked before you and those that walk with you. There is a comfort in knowing that even if we don’t always know the answer, we’re not alone.

White House Women in Foreign Policy Panel

Linda Etim-Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa, USAID; Caitlin Hayden-Spokesperson, National Security Council, White House; Maria Otero-Under Secretary, Dept of State; Michele Flournoy-Under Secretary, Dept of Defense

Come Sail Away…

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I’m sailing away,
Set an open course for the virgin sea,
‘Cause I’ve got to be free,
Free to face the life that’s ahead of me,
On board, I’m the captain, so climb aboard,
We’ll search for tomorrow on every shore,
And I’ll try, Oh Lord I’ll try, to carry on

I’ve been singing Styx since a very young age. There was not a family road trip that didn’t involve rocking out to Styx (along with a few other favorites…The Night Chicago Died–who doesn’t love a song about gang warfare? And of course, a family favorite, Afternoon Delight…yeah, don’t ask). In fact, I remember a bus ride at camp singing Styx with one of my first crushes. Styx. That is true love. (I may have had better taste in men as a twelve year old…the jury is still out).

And this. This is the song that comes to me this weekend in the midst of a silent retreat. Have you ever spent 48+ hours not talking? I highly recommend it, especially in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Advice from friends, family, and mentors is great–often essential. But sometimes you have to quiet all the voices and listen to what it is that you want and what you need. Plus, I’m all about inner peace and tranquility; living life in a rather large metropolis focused on success and achievement sometimes requires that you take a step back to reestablish the inner calm among the chaos and the busy.

So here I am: thesis-ing, job searching, working, homework-ing (yes, I invent school related verbs), blogging, and volunteering. Well-rested, I attempt to attack my thesis and my upcoming projects with a more sane (less anxious) mind and a firmer sense of direction. I have come to realize in my silence that what I am really seeking is not just the next adventure or the answer to the inevitable “What am I going to do when I grow up?”, but joy. The joy of travel. The joy of family and friends. The joy of my faith, of new experiences, of exploring new hobbies, of celebrating life.

And to my future, I say…

On board, I’m the captain, so climb aboard!