Tag Archives: Uncomfortable Moments

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.

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My Daily Commute-Uncomfortable Moments

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I’m back in DC…amongst the hustle and bustle of the rush hour commutes, the endless grad school papers and reading assignments, and of course the never ending to-do list that is life. It’s great to be back with friends and only an affordable phone call away from family. It’s nice to be somewhat settled in my new apartment (though the decorating style of choice is still half full Home Depot moving boxes at the moment).

But man…I haven’t stopped moving since I landed on American soil. Perhaps, it was the decision to come back the day before classes started or the need for me to return to work or maybe even my need to reconnect with everyone I missed spending time with this summer. It also might’ve been the move, being in a wedding, hosting guests at my apartment, and getting sick on re-entry.

I have come back the same, but different. Cliche, I’m well aware. But I can’t help but see my daily routine with new eyes. The bus stop on my morning commute has a small shelter with a single bench. An uncomfortable, curved, and narrow, not-really-meant-to-be-sat-on sort of bench. What is the point of that? I can’t help but think the city is trying to avoid inadvertently creating a place homeless people to take up residence–either sitting or sleeping, as they often do in other parts of the city.

The problem is symptomatic of something greater. A societal problem which makes me uncomfortable even in my home environment. Sure, the first thought might be what’s the big deal with providing a place for the homeless to find temporary respite? But the larger issue here is homelessness in the United States. Why don’t they have a shelter in the first place?

Experiencing what other countries handle well and what they handle poorly has illuminated what the United States does well (and for these numerous things I am eternally grateful to be American) and what they handle poorly. Homelessness, at least here, is also a symptom of a larger problem. An inability and discomfort with mental illness. Both homelessness and mental illness are issues to me which are very uncomfortable. Part of it is the worry that takes root in me from the unknown and unfamiliar. I have thankfully not dealt with homelessness personally, but the foreignness of it and the risk of it makes it all too scary.

I don’t think we know quite what do with homeless people–mentally ill or not. Many people like to reassure themselves that if they work hard, it is avoidable. Thus comes the mindset that “if these people only worked harder, they would not be homeless” is an easy trap to fall into. Really I think that mentality is one of fear. If it’s in your own control, you can prevent it. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Mental illness (e.g. I’ve read many homeless people are former veterans with PTSD) and addiction play a huge role–both are seen as warts on society that are both difficult to deal with and difficult to talk about. As do many factors outside of one’s own control (the economy, for one).

I’m not entirely sure what I as an individual can do to overcome my discomfort with these issues, but I am more aware of them now than ever. The poverty that plagues the United States. Why aren’t the people I see on my commute seeking out shelters? Why aren’t shelters seeking them out? Why are the ones struggling with illness not receiving the help that they need?

This brings me to my final point–and please forgive me, it’s election season and I live in the Nation’s Capitol. I firmly believe there is a legitimate debate over how to answer these questions and societal needs. Both government and civil society (individuals) are capable of working on a solution. I am not here to voice my opinion in favor of one method or another (whether governments or individuals should lead the efforts in ameliorating these problems), but rather to bring these issues to the table for discussion and urge that we do something to address them.

I may have never noticed the bench I stand next to every day outside my bus stop if it weren’t for my time away from it. I may have never noticed the homeless man at the Farragut Square who’s there every day working as he can for his livelihood. It’s not an easy world to get established in without a hand up occasionally…establishing credit, trying to pay off medical bills, or find a job with a living wage. But each of these people that I am uncomfortable around have inherent human dignity. I am still trying to find ways to look beyond what the concept of what they deserve to what I can give.

It’s time to forget about what some people think the homeless or mentally ill deserve (and to forget about what we think “we deserve”), and instead focus on the giving of ourselves for the benefit of others. DC is not so different from India insofar as the most uncomfortable moments are the ones most ripe for growth.

It’s all Thai to me!

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I wrote this about a week and half ago at the end of my travels. I plan to continue my blog as I continue my travels and new experiences. I will also blog occasionally on re-integration and processing lessons and experiences from my travels. Please stay tuned! (And forgive the lack of posts towards the end, I got busy assisting with the conference!)

Many places I’ve been most, if not all, of the workers are not proficient in English. I understand that I can’t and shouldn’t expect everyone to speak my native language–the fact that most the world does to some extent is very lucky. However, communicating food allergies, directions, and other logistics necessary in conducting a conference has been much more challenging in Thailand. Perhaps because they weren’t as heavily influenced by the British…I can’t expect everywhere to be Delhi! (And frankly, as much as I enjoyed it for a few days, I would not the whole world to be Delhi anyway).

Perhaps even more challenging than the Thai has been the conference I’m at on disability policy. I was charged with airport pick up for the students in the masters program on disability policy. This was definitely a challenge for me, as I was waiting at the Bangkok airport–sometimes with a colleague and some days alone–armed with a welcome sign. No indication was provided as to what type of disability the person had.

I realized that shouting out a person’s name is useless if they are deaf, as is waving a sign in front of a blind person. I was unprepared once again for what lay before me. I would have to spot them in the crowd and adapt to my situation, as many of these students have done their whole lives. Then, after meeting up with each one, I had to call the driver who only spoke Thai to let him know he was needed and where to meet.

I also had to go on a quest for table cloths for a banquet. I don’t think I’ve ever mimed the act of putting a cloth on a table so many times. I went to 3 stores–the third finally having one possibility. A bolt of fabric hung out of my reach as I tried to explain to the store associate that I needed 15 tablecloths, 85cm long each. She spoke no English. She cut one and tried to send me to the cashier. I tried explaining 14 more and got one more…and was once again sent to the cashier. I needed 13 more. The message finally was understood, only to lead to more difficulty. She had to communicate that there were not enough centimeters of fabric for 13 more and I had to ask if there was any more bolts of fabric in the back. Between her calculator and my drawing skills (thank goodness I doodled my way through undergrad), I think we came up with a mutual understanding. And we laughed at our charade through the whole process.

Talk about frustrating moments. And, honestly, uncomfortable moments. To be almost completely unable to communicate with those around you is somewhat scary. What if a van driver got lost or didn’t understand where we were trying to go? What if someone had a medical emergency? Luckily, at least we were spared an emergency (I won’t comment on getting lost…).

I don’t speak Thai. I don’t speak American Sign Language. I don’t read braille. I didn’t learn Hindi or Oriya or Nepalese. And more importantly, I’ve come to realize that no matter how much schooling I have, how many countries I live in, or how many new places I visit, I will never be able to speak every language in every corner of the earth. That sounds so obvious when I spell it out like that, but I have a desire to adapt and fit in with my surroundings. I want to learn Thai, sign language, and every other language I have the opportunity, but realistically, I won’t learn every one.

This realization is an acceptance of my limitations.

In a society where children are raised to believe they can accomplish anything, it is actually difficult to come into your own–able to both identify your strengths and assess (or admit) your weaknesses; it is a challenge. In my two weeks at this conference and in my classes with these disabled students, I have learned something that many of them are already highly skilled at–adapting to their situation and capitalizing on their strengths. It is very true as one of my friends in the program said (and I paraphrase) that before this degree program, they were seen for their disability, but they are now recognized for their abilities.

Seeing yourself accurately in your abilities also means accepting and adapting to your limitations–skill-wise, monetary-wise, opportunity-wise or otherwise. I think that in expanding my wings and seeing more of the world, I have come face to face with my limitations. And accepting that is hard. But perhaps it is only when we are confronted with are limitations that we are most challenged to grow. To see ourselves for who we are and to use what we have been uniquely given where we are able to make a difference.

I think in summary that this is my internalization of the mantra think global, act local. I cannot single-handedly learn every language, visit every place, or even cure all of the poverty I’ve seen in my travels. But this journey has taught me more about what I want out of life and why I want it.
Riding camels through the desert I thought to myself, I love every life decision that has led me to this point. And I have no regrets about the decisions I’ve made and actions I’ve taken.

However, I have learned a lot during my travels. Life is a lot harder without a support network in close proximity. Achievements and successes mean less without my family around to share in them. And just because I have the opportunity to do something or the ability, that is not the same as the obligation to take it. I never want to stop traveling or to stop learning, but there are so many people I want to share my experiences with–as in experience it with them. I’ve also realized that there are also many things that though I am confident I could adapt to if I had to, there are somethings I don’t want to do or try and that is okay too.

This summer has been challenging. Definitely not an easy trip, but most things I can handle. I still don’t like squat toilets, but I can deal with it. However, the most difficult part of the summer was not material. There’s a line in the film Sweet Home Alabama which I’ve always related to that articulates the most difficult part of doing what I love. “You can’t have roots and wings, Mel,” the dreamy blue-eyed (you know what I’m talking about, ladies) Josh Lucas says to Reese Witherspoon’s character. But I think that describes my biggest challenge pretty accurately–I can be so restless in one place, but I hate to be far from friends and family. To a certain extent it’s definitely a limitation. I will not be moving to rural Peru to do fieldwork with a tribe anytime soon (though how cool would that be?!)–I couldn’t stand to be that far away from my family for that long or out of contact. And unfortunately, it’s difficult to pursue international politics from Oklahoma or Texas. However, as far as limitations go…what a gift it is to have the desire and opportunity to experience the world, as well as amazing friends and family back home!

If I walk away with only one lesson this summer, I hope it is a deepened appreciation for life. My life-the new friends, friends from home, family, my education, my opportunities…the amazing support network. And also, the lives of others that are different from my own.

I can’t wait for my next adventure…I’m thinking Africa. Who’s with me?!

Uncomfortable Moment-Part II

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Now before posting this, I wrote it out at the same time as Part I on the airplane to Odisha. First, let me assure you that I will get to posting about daily life in Odisha, my research project, and the incredible cast of characters with whom I work.

This post however, brought up an interesting debate in my mind…the liminal between my private thoughts and the insights I share. That is what of my thoughts to I want to save for my journal and what should be thrust upon the world wide web. I think this is a tough debate for my generation–instant sharing, “like”ing, retweeting, etc. Even when looking for jobs, self-branding is important and blogs, LinkedIn, digital resumes, and more could give us a needed leg up in this challenging market.

But focusing on the internal is important, too. I know for some it’s a prayer life or meditation, or just time alone to process experiences and new ideas. We need that nearly extinct quiet time with only ourselves where we’re not thinking in Facebook statuses or pithy 140-character comments and where we’re not being inundated with constant “updates” from others. (Not to say that new media can’t be a great tool, I love blogging and keeping up with friends and family…just to say sometimes we need a break).

So it is in the spirit of deciding whether or not to publish this, I offer you my second installment of Uncomfortable Moments…for the whole world wide web to see.

The next “uncomfortable moment” is related to my experiences traveling and the role of women in society. Glass ceiling? Didn’t that break when my mother entered the workforce? (She’s now cringing as she reads this–at my naivete and at the fact that I tossed that out like it was ancient history–you’re not mom…ancient that is.)

In my defense, I have been blessed with strong female role models my whole life. My grandmothers are definitely the matriarchs of our large, loving, close-knit clans. I never saw them unable to accomplish anything to which they set their minds. Of my 13 aunts, almost all have a college education–some advanced degrees–and every single one of them is an accomplished and respected mother and professional. My female cousins have globe-trotted, are intelligent, and know how to stand up for themselves and achieve their goals. I could go on…

But there is something different here in India that I noticed on my very arrival in the Delhi airport. Among high-powered female executives, intellectuals, politicians, and even some of our pilots and airport security officers, there is still a very specific role women fill. One could argue that women always fill a unique role in society–and I agree insofar as women provide a distinct perspective and contribution to society (and not to mention the many that bear children and are primarily responsible for their upbringing).

But this, this felt different. Standing in line for airport security for the umpteenth time that week, I put my carry on bags on the conveyor belt. The security officer directs me to walk through metal detector #4. Assuming (which I should know by now ALWAYS gets me into trouble) this #4 was the same security lane I was in, I proceeded to walk through the detector. I’m stopped as I’m halfway through and redirected to the other end.

Ah, the infamous portal #4…alas we meet. What is so special about metal detector #4? It’s for women only. This is when I notice for the first time that the other 3 metal detectors and screening lines are for men only. As Allison and I take this in, she points out the ratio of male travelers to female. It makes sense. There were actually many female travelers surrounded by children, but almost all seemed to be accompanied by men.

A look through portal #4 revealed a tent for security screening reminiscent of a white changing tent on a beach. The affixed sign said, “Ladies” with a silhouette graphic sporting a figure even Barbie would envy. Uncomfortable moment.

I’ve read about developing countries, poverty, and other cultures in which women are treaty differently. I’ve studied the UN Development Programme and UN Department of Peacekeeping Operation’s focus on women and women’s empowerment (both within the organization and for aid-recipients).  But never. Never have I been confronted with it.

Uncomfortable moment–making me grateful that I’ve had family members, teachers, coworkers, and friends value me for my contributions and my personhood–not biased by my gender.

This is not to say that I saw any individual man disrespect an individual woman. I haven’t. The organization I work for fosters women’s empowerment as a secondary goal to livelihood and microfinance. The man that works at the grocery store kindly carried Allison’s and my groceries all the way from the store to our house when neither the store or us had bags. But I have learned (observed?) that it is difficult for NGOs to operate locally here if women’s empowerment is their main or only goal…at least it appears that way. Society does seem to be catching up with educated individuals within it and with human rights norms throughout the world.

This blog post is merely just commentary on the societal differences. Between my past experience and the reality confronting me. You can’t tell the difference between a real advertisement for flawless new airline stewardesses and the PanAm tv show ad–a male pilot sporting aviators surrounded by stewardesses 155 cm tall of proportional weight and clear complexions.

Perhaps, to each his own…but nonetheless there is something uncomfortable in the juxtaposition of my past and even my future, and this, their, present.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NEXT POST: After having talked about what has thus far made me uncomfortable, I will write about “Guest is god: India Hospitality”, discussing some of my favorite parts of India culture.

Uncomfortable Moments-Part I

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Here is a blog entry I wrote in Thailand last Thursday. More to come this week on my new apartment and neighborhood in Odisha!

There are always those uncomfortable moments when experiencing something new that cause me to shift my previous (even sometimes firmly-held) perspective. That moment when something which is one’s own—be that my own expectation, modus operandi, etc.—clashes jarringly with something new I see or experience in the world. I’d like to say my week of travel and initiation into Asian cultures has been all sunshine and daisies, and really, it mostly has. But devoid of these moments that shake our core and cause us to reconsider, what is the worth—the expense (time, monetary, or energy expended) of travel? Once experienced, those uncomfortable moments force me to incorporate them into my knowledge, opinions, decision-making and ways of thinking.

Precisely when we have left our comfort zone is when we have the most to gain, to learn about ourselves and the world around us.

As we embark on our last flight to Odisha, I can think of two particular “uncomfortable moments” which have caused pause and reflection my own perspective. The first of which I’ll detail in this post, and the latter, I will save for another—as this is already a long post!

The first of these encounters takes place at the small Thai Resort near the airport. For those of you that are not aware, I have an auto-immune disease known as Celiac. Now this blog’s purpose is not to discuss that journey, or the battles and victories so contained—that could fill a blog in itself. I’ll spare you (though I promise to take pictures and discuss food here, it’s just too good not to)! However, traveling poses challenges to ensuring that my food is free of gluten and cross contamination, to say nothing of the language barrier. I’d spent 6 months research “traveling with Celiac” and “Celiac and [insert my specific destinations here].” I created a gluten free manual and came armed with my allergy cards—which explain my dietary issue in Thailand, Hindi, Nepalese, and English (there was no Oriya card, I checked). I felt prepared for most anything and resigned to both having half of my luggage space devoted to safe foods and foregoing the food markets and other uncertain local eats (normally something I’d love!) to avoid being sick. This is me—researched, prepared, and able to adapt.

At the little resort was a restaurant staffed with locals. Armed with my Thai allergy card and an empty stomach, I attempted to hand it the waitress prior to ordering. She looked down at the card and then from me to Allison, unsure. She may have said something in Thai before she hurried out, leaving me unprepared for this. She was illiterate. Uncomfortable moment.

She very helpfully brought someone from the front desk to tell her what it said. But that moment in which my past experience and expectations didn’t meet with the reality in front of me struck a chord. How could I assume…? I felt guilty for creating the situation in the first place. After all, hadn’t I (or shouldn’t I have) read about literacy rates in a news article or a guide book? I hadn’t that I remember—and who knows if that would’ve helped—but the “I should’ve known/been more sensitive” feeling washed over. Upon reflection, this uncomfortable moment was just an in-my-face reminder that 1) I cannot prepare myself for everything and 2) people have vastly different lives, opportunities, and desires—some shaped by our own choices, some by our society in which we live, and some by our circumstances.

This caused me to reflect even further. I have a fairly extensive book collection. My mom even once said when helping me move in or out of a dorm room during college that I might be one of the only college-aged girls with more boxes of books than clothes (rest-assured my storage in DC is now about equally bursting at the seams with books and clothes). I try not to take my book collection for granted; I’ve worked hard to buy many of them. But reading? A skill I acquired when I was 6 years old? Which ever since has felt as natural as breathing? That. That I’ve taken for granted. Up until that very moment.

Sometimes, even often, we need these experiences to throw us off kilter, to reframe ourselves and how we view and judge the world. It is also an important reminder that our inherent worth, our human dignity is not derived from what we have accomplished or what we are capable of doing. Beyond that, our worth and the worth of those around us come from merely being.