Tag Archives: Culture

And Away We Go!

Standard

She’s at it again, they’ll say! Will she ever settle down?

Yes, I am at it again. And no, other than the whole got married part, I doubt my incurable wanderlust will dissipate.

This summer, I will be heading to South Africa, as part of Rutgers University South Africa Initiative.

We will be meeting with universities, schools, community organizations, government officials, and change agents. How do schools and education more broadly lead to social change? In post-Apartheid Africa, I will learn more about how schools educate and communities transform through major social changes.

One of the things I am interested in is how social change, reconciliation, and forgiveness have and continue to shape a community marked by violence and racism. How have students help lead that change? What lessons or observations will I learn/make during my visit that will relate to some of the struggles we face in our own country?

We had our first of a handful of orientations last night where I met the other 8 or so participants–who are PhD students (like me), current teachers, masters students, or education and community leaders.

I hope you will join me in this journey by:

  • Reading the book Knowledge in the Blood: Confronting Race and the Apartheid Past by Jonathan D. Jansen and/or Social justice and transformative learning: Culture and identity in the United States & South Africa by Darren Clarke and Saundra Tomlinson-Clarke with me and sharing your insights
  • Following my blog
  • Suggesting other reading or giving me travel recommendations

Fair warning: True to my previous entries about my travels to India, Nepal, and Thailand, these posts (as demonstrated) will not be short entries. Sorry not sorry.

Why South Africa?

Listen to the Day of Affirmation speech Robert F. Kennedy gave at the University of Capetown during his 1966 trip–even just the first minute and 15 seconds is enlightening.

More to the Story

Standard

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.

My Culture

Standard

A friend of mine told me about a book that talks about the difficulties women have dating because they are ambitious and career-oriented, but want to have a family and be stay-at-home moms. That apparently men who are supportive of career-driven women may not see the value in a stay-at-home parent or that men looking for a wife who would value a stay-at-home parent may not know that about his ambitious female friends.  (DISCLAIMER: I haven’t read the book, I was just told about it. So this is my interpretation of what I heard. I also think she said it was specific to DC, or urban areas. Regardless…)

I can’t say this worry had ever occurred to me personally. Certainly, I have been in real experiences in which that conversation is necessary. I’ll out myself as an ambitious woman who would love to eventually have a family and be able to stay at home (I say stay-at-home loosely, I’ll probably be “on the road.” 🙂 ) But, it has never been a difficulty in finding someone to date. And let’s be honest, there are a lot of necessary conversations in any relationship. (Like my addiction to international travel…my bank account and I already go back and forth on that. I can’t imagine my future spouse and I won’t have to have that conversation. Or better yet, we should just have the same addiction to adventure. Hey, girl can dream!**)

This post drifts from away from a strictly “travel” blog here and shifts in to one about culture and values. As I was contemplating the existence of this book, I didn’t quite get it. But it did lead me to think more deeply about why staying at home or having a more flexible job as a parent would be important to me. I came up with this: my desire to create a culture unique to my future family. I love traditions, holidays, and rituals. These are what make life so rich. They are the very reason I yearn to travel—to see how others celebrate the joys in everyday life and in the monumental occasions (life, death, birth, marriage, coming of age…). Life is beautiful and it is the celebration of the joys and how we handle sorrows that makes one ordinary moment different from the next.

This thought led me to something else. I have these beautiful friends that aspire to own a farm. They have an amazing blog where they chronicle their made-from-scratch recipes and other craftsmanship projects. I see them value the hard work and the virtues that come with those efforts and I admire them greatly. They take their values and live them. Admittedly I have wondered to myself, if I really wanted to create a culture as I said above, would I be making lye soap or beeswax candles? After all, I like the values they hold that lead them to do this. But let’s be honest…I love projects, but I don’t ever see myself making detergent from scratch more than once for the novelty of it.

Part of the reason my friends’ blog has sparked so much thought was a debate in my Global Ethics class about particularism versus universalism in tackling poverty—that is are we more effective in our efforts to help our own and do it well or are we more effective in helping the most objectively impoverished though they may be in far corners of the world or isn’t the most effective use of resources? While most of my fellow master’s students argued in favor of universalism, I found myself defending a greater responsibility to our own children and our immediate neighbors. (How did I end up in an international affairs program instead of social work, if this is the case? I may never know.) In this same vein, I found myself inspired to volunteer and support local NGOs, dedicated to ending hunger and homelessness locally, upon my return from India.

If I truly feel particularistic—in that I can most effectively help the world by the children I may raise or serving those in my own little corner of the world—would I not be doing something radical like my friends’ in saving for a farm (or whatever it may be that you value) to create that particular culture that fosters those values?

But I have come to a conclusion. (Besides the fact that I think too much about things that haven’t happened yet…) It is through my love of people and exploration of culture—learning what and how people attribute meaning and significance to in life—that leads me to this frame of mind, to my desire to build a domestic culture. I know traveling has taught me so much—it’s pushed me to my limits and beyond on more than one occasion, but it’s also stretched me and forced me to grow. (In retrospect, I think relationships, families, and living together is similar–pushes your limits, but ideally challenges you to improve).

If I have values, I want to live by them…otherwise, they are no better than a presidential campaign—all rhetoric and no substance. It has just occurred to me that some of my specific values are learning, exploring, and finding meaning in it all. Maybe international travel is my farm–the a part of the way I live out my values…and maybe it doesn’t have to be particular OR universal.

***Speaking of dreamy: For anyone who saw The Bachelor finale this week, I wouldn’t mind riding off into the Thai sunset on an elephant either.

Out and About in Odisha-Part I

Standard

Here are some photos of our Wednesday journey! We took the day to go to the Peace Pagoda, Konark Temple, Puri district, the beach (Bay of Bengal off the Indian Ocean), a heritage artisan crafts village (never seen anything like that in my whole life!), and a market place.

This is Part I. I came prepared with 4 extra AA batteries for my camera (that I bought here), at least so I thought. They last for 1 photo at a time, so Allison took pictures for both of us. Stay tuned for more Konark, art village, and other pictures! Luckily, I also found the extra batteries I brought from home for future adventures.

Tea time, Newspapers, and Power Outages

Standard

Here the power goes out frequently—multiple times a day. At first we thought that would stop when the monsoon came…cooler temperatures and I don’t really know what would affect the power grid. But everything I’ve ever learned about a good thunder storm living God’s Country (and by that of course, I mean Tornado Alley) tells me that a good t-storm also often is accompanied by power outages.

When the power goes out at work, the computers (sans Allison’s and my laptops) shut down, the fans stop whirling, and the lights go dark. The internet’s done for. Our saltbox cubicles turn into saunas and we migrate to the front lobby of the office—a few pieces of furniture huddle around a table scattered with newspapers.

What is one thing I love about life in Bhubaneswar? Time every day to read the paper. This method is one of my favorites for learning about a culture—who is in the front page news every day? Here? Pakistan. What did they do today? What themes are important? Education and hard work. What’s in the Lifestyle/Culture section? My horoscope and news about festival and fashions. Thanks to my newspaper reading, I now have a trendy anklet, just like all the other India women. I also know that wearing gold and red bangles on both wrists means you’re married—as do anklets on both ankles. I also know that children’s boutique clothing (costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars per piece) is gaining popularity in Mumbai and New Delhi. What’s going on with Bollywood stars? I know.

What the wealthy value, what the community is doing to help the impoverished, and what foreign policy attitudes and agendas are held are exuded from the  pages of the daily paper. Cultural rituals, religious devotions, and daily life are all recorded in one location. …I wish print news was not a dying art in America. I’ll take my Wall Street Journal any day of the week. Now for the time to sit down with a cup of tea and read it thoroughly…that I am still searching for!

But when the power goes out during the monsoon, the sky is already dark and eerie. The rain comes down in buckets, flooding the partially paved partially dirt roadways. There is no light to read the paper.

Yesterday, this daily ritual occurred as it often does, during tea time. (I have since begun to measure the passing time at work by morning tea, the homemade Indian lunch, and afternoon tea time). Armed with all of our teacups, the men in the office and we stood out on the covered porch, watching the rain rage on. And what did our coworkers decide it was time to do? I think the phrase was “take a click” or “take a snap”…as in click or snap a photo.

So I run inside to search for my camera in the sea of my oversized bag in the depths of the dark office. I fish out my camera and return only to find Allison and Ashok posing as they “cheers” their teacups. And so began the photo shoot of Allison and me with our coworkers—first one by one and then a group photo.

I spent the afternoon in the dark and arrived home soaked to the bone from the auto-rickshaw ride of a lifetime (don’t worry, I didn’t slip out the side…but we did forge some roadway rivers a la Oregon Trail). But I am so glad we don’t have a generator. With a generator, we all would have watched the power flicker, remained seated at our desks staring at screens, and continued the craziness that ensues as the foundation attempts to get financial reports from local partner organizations to submit to European donors and as Allison and I analyze our research. We can do that tomorrow and every day after that.

Work is wonderful and necessary. But so is play brought on spontaneously by a power outage and a rainstorm.

You would think from their facial expressions that Allison and I were the ones suggesting we take photos!

If you can use some exotic booze, there’s a bar in far Bombay!

Gallery