Forgetting and Remembering

September 11th, 2013, 12:06pm IST

I woke up later than I meant to this morning – despite how much time I give myself to sleep here, I never seem to fully take advantage of it. There are too many exciting things to be doing and thinking about, both related to my present and future. Despite knowing I was going to be late to work, I turned on my internet just to see if there were any important e-mails I would need to address that day, or any pressing news about Syria. Inevitably, I wandered over to Facebook, and greeting me was a picture of the twin towers set against an American-flag-patterned sky and a status update saying “Never Forget”.

I checked the date, thinking it couldn’t be 9/11 already – I had just gotten back to India. I knew my birthday was sometime next week (the 19th!) Apparently I had forgotten one of the most important days in our nations recent history, and one that the next generation will read about in history books (if they even use paper for books in the future). But living outside the United States will do that to you. I forgot my mother’s birthday this past year (which I made up for in spades with a hilarious card and flowers) because I was busy saying goodbye to friends here and was studying for a statistics exam and the GRE and was generally overloaded with life. The present is so all-consuming in India in the most wonderful way, and it the primary reason I haven’t been blogging much this year. (The other reason is that pictures take SO LONG to upload, but I will try not to let that be the reason I don’t blog anymore).

There have been exactly three times when I have been living abroad since August 2010 that I have wanted to go home. The first time was in October 2010 in Indonesia when I got really stomach sick for the first time in my life and I was certain I had something much more serious than Suharto’s Revenge. The second time was on and around May 2nd, 2011, when Osama bin Laden was assassinated. I had a lot of conflicting feelings about how he was killed and his burial and so did the majority of the Muslim community in which I lived. My anger and frustration and initial disagreements with those who had grown to be my Indonesian family made me want to hole up in my room and watch something inane, like Anchorman. Eventually, this lead to a further understanding of my friends and Indonesian family concerning religion and politics and the conservations I had surrounding that day were some of the most honest and chilling of my life. Only through talking through my differences with my community was I able to get over my anger and mitigate my isolation. The third time was on and around April 20th, 2013, the day the Boston Marathon was bombed, which I discuss possibly too extensively here. On those three days, all I wanted to do was to beam myself home to be able to be with people who, even without talking, knew exactly what I was going through because they were experiencing it themselves (minus the getting sick part).

On September 11th, 2001, I was also relatively far from home. I was in a forest in New Hampshire, a few days into a two-week orientation program called Bivouac for high school. I had turned in my cell phone and hadn’t even bothered to bring my laptop, as there was no internet to be found. I had just gotten back from watching some boys throw axes into a nearby tree (which was definitely against the rules – I forget how they managed that) when the emergency bell sounded. This meant we had to drop everything and run up the hill to the common meeting place. This was in the afternoon, several hours after the planes hit the Twin Towers. While most kids my age were sitting in front of TV monitors watching the events unfold live or near to that, we huddled around our staff who had one black and white printout of the news between them and very scattered information about what had happened. As they told us about the planes hitting the Twin Towers, some of us actually laughed, completely incredulous. Some people asked to see pictures. I remembered that my Dad was scheduled to fly to New York from Boston that morning, and panicked. After several attempts to contact my dad to no avail, I called my Mom, who told me his flight never took off. That night, we sat around a campfire saying nothing, exhausted from analyzing the little information we had, just watching the flames, occasionally attempting to talk about anything other than 9/11. After I came home a week later, I watched the footage of the planes hit the towers once, and never wanted to see them again. In some ways, I’m glad I was far from a TV or the internet when the planes hit – those images are not burned into my brain, perhaps like some other Americans.

I have two friends from the US here and one new one who just arrived. At the end of today, I will be texting them to ask if they remembered it’s September 11th today. I want to know what it means for Americans to still remember 9/11.

September 15th, 2:10 pm IST

It turns out that none of us remembered it was 9/11 until we went on Facebook, where other people reminded us, or checked our usual news websites, where the reminder to remember started. That night, we all gathered for some drinks and appetizers at a friends house to welcome new volunteers to Jagori – Cassie, an AIF fellow from New Jersey; Heather, studying abroad through UChicago; Kiran and I, new (and old?) Shansi fellows; and my friend Vasu, from Delhi, who had recently stopped working full time at Jagori to become a volunteer. We asked if the war on terror had netted us any gains, and questioned whether striking Syria would lead us anywhere. We talked about ways to prevent terrorism and if hate can ever really be snuffed out for good. We talked about Kashmir and border conflicts in India, wondering if one country can learn from the other country’s mistakes in time to stop making their own. We questioned the phrasing around 9/11 of remembering fallen heroes when neither of us could recall names or even how many people died that day as a result of the plane crashes or the rescue efforts involved. We instead thought that remembering the stories of the heroes and the events of the day would be enough to honor the dead and to acknowledge the ways in which our country was scarred that day. I’m not sure what good it does to tell people to “Never Forget” 9/11 – it is unlikely that our nation could forget the events, and that people who lost loved ones would ever naturally forget 9/11. If the point of never forgetting leads to something productive, like collaborating with other countries to share information on known terrorists, or sharing counter-terrorism strategies with other like-minded countries, or creating education programs or cultural exchange programs that attempt to halt terrorism before it begins, then I am all for remembering. If remembering is a cathartic process that leads to emotional outpourings and remembering loved ones lost on that day, I supporting remembering 9/11. But I think it’s crucial to question why we’re remembering. If we’re remembering because we’re afraid that the fire of hatred that so many felt towards the perpetrators of the events of 9/11 (or the countries they came from or the religion they were followers of) will go out, then that’s not a healthy reason to remember. That aspect is 9/11 is one I hope our nation will work together to let go of, and perhaps even forget.

On 9/11, I reflected on the reasons to remember the events of that day, tell people I loved them, and wrote essays on why I would like to pursue a diplomatic career. I will personally never forget what happened on 9/11 – how could I? There’s nothing we can or should do to erase the memories we all have as a nation of that time and place, but as a nation, we should constantly be seeking ways to find community in tragedy and to channel our pain, frustration and anger into finding informed, productive and respectful ways to move forward. We should acknowledge when we are broken and seek help from without and within in putting ourselves back together, today and always. I am feeling very patriotic from so far away.


Boston, You’re My Home

“For Boston, for Boston, we sing our proud refrain
for Boston, for Boston, ’tis wisdom’s earthly fane (meaning a temple or a shrine)
for here are all one, and our hearts are true
and the towers on the heights reach the heavens own blue.
For Boston, for Boston ’til the echoes ring again!

For Boston, for Boston thy glory is our own
for Boston, for Boston, ’tis here that truth is known
and ever with a right shall our heirs be found
’til time shall be no more and thy work is crowned
for Boston, for Boston thy glory is our own!
– The Dropkick Murphys, For Boston

I’m not usually one for tradition (I’ve mainly sought to break with it since I first got to high school), but I think this past week calls for something a little old-fashioned. To me, the Dropkick Murphys screams Boston – it was one of the first shows I ever went to in high school. No matter where I go, Boston will ALWAYS be my home. This does not mean I will eventually settle down there when I get back from India – I may never live there again for any significant period of time. But ask many people who have once lived or studied in Boston – they’ll tell you that Boston gets under your skin and doesn’t leave. The good (the wicked pissah North Shore accents, the killer clam chowder (thick and thin), Sam Adams Brewery), the bad (the clogged Green Line, the Charles River water which used to give you tetanus), and the ugly (rush hour traffic on 95 and 90, drivers getting out of their cars to yell at each other and pick fights over a fender bender or a loud horn honk) are with you for life. So when Boston’s in trouble, we come running, physically and in spirit, from all corners of the globe.

20th April, 12:45am IST (Indian Standard Time)

I’m writing this as my family and friends dig in for what will hopefully be a short-lived lock-down as a manhunt is underway in Boston for the suspects in the Boston marathon bombings. My mom, dad, cousin and sister are out of the official lockdown zone in Lexington and Arlington – several friends and significant others of family are in official lock-down in Cambridge and the surrounding area. As of right now, they are still going door-to-door in Watertown and there is no one on the streets of Boston. It’s very strange to be so physically distant from this when I am so emotionally involved. I was the first person to tell my family there even was a lock down – they’re not the type to check the news when they wake up, and mostly I’m glad we’re not that type of family that’s always wondering what’s going on outside our lives. I can’t sleep, even thought I have to get up early to catch a bus to teach English class tomorrow. It’s hard to think and plan for something that mundane right now. For the first time since leaving home for India, I wish I could snap my fingers and be home in Lexington with my family, just until the lock down is over. I’m writing this more as therapy for myself than anything else, especially given the fact that there are very few people to talk to here about the attack on my hometown.

I feel unsettled knowing that my route to my high school, BB&N in Cambridge, was the scene of a high speed chase to catch Dhzokhar Tsarnaev. The square where the late-night shootout took place is a place I drove and walked through every day without thinking it was anyplace of significance. In the photos of police-ridden Boston, I recognize the T stop where my dad used to exit to go to work guarded by a SWAT team member, the endless loop I used to drive around South Station waiting to pick my friends up from the bus and train, swarming with police with not a civilian in site, and a SWAT team helicopter hovering behind an empty Watertown Mall that I used to hang out at after school and near the DMV where I got my driver’s license. I find it amazing that simply at the urgency of the Boston Police and Mayor Menino, everyone is staying inside today. No one is being forced to, but so many are complying. Is this a good sign? Does this mean we trust our local government and local law enforcement?

On a more positive note, there has been an amazing outpouring of support and community reliance that started the second the bomb went off. Among my favorite stories, runners in the marathon who were not injured kept running to hospitals to donate blood, random stranger dragged other random strangers to safety, and citizens opened their homes to those without shelter, food or water. People credit Bostonians with these acts of kindness and with the resilience shown on the face of the bombings, but the truth is that so many people at the marathon were from outside Boston and outside the country. Perhaps Boston the place brings people together in this way (I would like to think that there’s something magical about my city that uniquely brings people together in this way) but I think what happened in Boston was a product of humanity, and an indication of what people do every day for others here and across the world. The news doesn’t capture everyday acts of kindness – we don’t hear about the nice, mundane things in life because those stories don’t sell newspapers, etc. – but the people who rushed others to safety, like this guy, most likely weren’t looking to be made into heroes. They were probably acting with the same mindset that they have any day of their lives. They probably weren’t weighing their own safety against the lives of the injured when they rushed to the sides of the injured and made tourniquets out of their belts to attempt to save their limbs and prevent loss of blood. I would wager that, given what happened in Boston, the first instinct of most is to help us all survive. Other indicators of overwhelming community building around the bombings include the story of thousands showing up to block the potential Westboro Baptist Church protest (which I don’t believe happened), and this article about how so many people across the nation and world have spent time at one or more of Boston’s universities, making the support for Boston international in nature.

Speculations about the suspect’s life anger me – I refuse to read articles detailing where he lived before he immigrated to the States, about his religion, or what this will mean for immigration reform for the States. Until we attempt to give this person a chance to tell their story, they are still only a suspect. I’m not sure he will ultimately have an opportunity to tell his story – he may end up killing himself or give the police no choice but to take him out – but I hope he lives to be able to explain himself.

It’s also strange being so far away because no one here, even the people I care about and who care about me, knows what is going on in Boston, and even if they did know, they probably wouldn’t care, because it’s a city that’s thousands of miles away from them that doesn’t concern their daily lives. I was so in need of someone to talk to about what was going on here that, in one of my English classes, I created a “check-in” session where we talk about how we’re feeling that day before class starts. All of my students, perhaps misunderstanding the point, launched into how much they loved English class (which made me feel great, but wasn’t what I was getting at). When my turn came, I told them about the events in Boston, and that I was from there. The words felt so wrong coming out of my mouth – I had to explain what was going on in very simplistic terms – and I almost felt guilty spilling my guts when I was supposed to be teaching. I felt wrong complaining about a bombing in my privileged, largely safe-from-terrorism city when every day there are border skirmishes with Kashmir and where Delhi is under near constant threat from some form of terrorism. There is no reason that my friends and coworkers here should care about the events that happened in Boston, partly because India has its own problems right now, and partly because it takes place in a city that, despite its proximity to New York (which almost everyone knows, as well as California) most people I talk to here have never heard of. Similarly, when I read headlines such as “[x number] people killed, [y number] maimed/injured/in critical condition in [z location]”, I glance over the headline, feel sad for a few seconds and contemplate what a tragedy and human error violence is in general, and then move on with my life to drink my coffee (or in my current case, some overly sweetened chai). I don’t pay much attention to these things because they happen so often somewhere in the world. To the rest of the world, should Boston be just another “lozation z”?  This article explains a little about what makes American bombings stand out. This article, and the reactions around the world to the bombings in Boston, help to remind us that our safety is such a privilege, and that our expectations of safety, when compared to the rest of the world, are very high. We don’t live in that kind of world anymore though, and we must accept this fact without living in fear of what is to come.

The top photo’s message can be read in a lot of ways, but I read it as both a sincere offering of sympathy and a reminder that Syrians are constantly under attack for the way they live and Boston should realize that what happened in Boston is a drop in the bucket of violence by bombing that Syria and the rest of the world experience. Hopefully Boston will never have to experience the hardships currently experienced by the citizens of Syria, but we should all keep in mind the larger context of where our experienced violence is situated in that of the rest of the world.

21st April, 3:15pm IST

The suspect in the bombings was caught the evening of the 19th of April and is in serious but stable condition at Beth Israel Hospital. Like everyone in Boston and around the world who has been following this, I am so thankful to the Boston Police, the MIT Police Force, the SWAT teams, the Watertown Police, and all other law enforcement officials and first responders who contributed to catching Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I hope he survives and gets the best medical care so he can see exactly the kind of dedication and kindness that went towards saving the lives of so many victims of the bombings, and I sincerely hope he receives a fair trial and sees the best aspects of the justice system. I hope we can all learn from this experience and hope that we are aware now that while Boston is not immune to terrorism. We must remember the victims who lost their lives and their limbs in this tragedy (I can’t even imagine what it must be like for a marathon runner to lose their legs).

We must not live our lives in fear, especially given the very low incidence of terrorist acts in the US. Instead, we should shift our gaze from a random act of violence we cannot anticipate to one that we have the ability to save ourselves from. Our country has massively failed to reasonably protect our citizens by killing a bill in the Senate that would have expanded background checks. We may be able to stop terrorism in its tracks in less than a week, and thwart many other attacks, but apparently our senators are incapable of doing what their citizens have been asking them to do since the Sandy Hook shootings, the shooting in the Colorado movie theater, and the Sikh gurudwara massacre, to name a few – make it harder for people who will most likely misuse guns to acquire them. A very vocal minority of gun owners is currently running congress on this issue, and had 42 of the 45 dissenting Senators in their pockets. If my city can look fear in the face and lock it down, can our nation pass some sensible laws to prevent further bloodshed? After this week’s vote, that remains to be seen.

by John Cole, original source

This article tracks the public shaming on twitter of Nate Bell, an Arkansas senator who quite insensitively commented on the Boston bombings: “I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?” Most of the comments are both indicative of Boston pride in the wake of the bombings and the way people are feelings after the vote to leave background checks, or lack thereof, as they are. In America, we might not have as much direct corruption as other countries, but that doesn’t mean that the actions of our government can’t be classified as corrupt. Given that I am currently assisting on a research project that seeks to evaluate how accessible the lower judiciary is for litigants seeking justice for their economic and social rights, I’m finding that, like everything in India, corruption sullies the judicial process and particularly inhibits the ability of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, the poor and illiterate, and women to access the judiciary if they don’t have either connections or money. How is bending to the will and succumbing to the threats of the NRA and selling them your vote in the US any different than taking a bribe to halt a case’s progress in India?

24th April, 7:55pm IST

Similarly, there have been discussions of why Mr. Tsarnaev could be charged as an enemy combatant and taken into military custody when comparing his case to the Oklahoma bombing and the Aurora Colorado shooting (turns out he will be tried by a civilian court). Some have pointed to the fact that Tsarnaev’s being Muslim is the cause. Others evaluate how the media is demonizing the entire Chechen ethnicity based on the actions of the two brothers which reminds us just how nuanced racism can be. Others have pointed out how ridiculously and dangerously wrong it was to charge Tsarnaev with “unlawfully using and conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction … against persons and property.” We make a huge deal out of bombings and “other” those who are responsible in any way we can (whether we label them as mentally ill or fanatic, etc.), but somehow consider gun violence as less serious (I strongly disagree with this author’s view of Boston as cowering, etc. and I believe the lock down was the right thing to do but otherwise think the article has merit) or a somehow necessary by-product of our right to bear arms. This hypocrisy must be dealt with in a society that claims to be the land of the free and the home of the brave. I will always love my country (indeed, being far from it makes me incredibly patriotic), which is why I will always point out its seemingly endless flaws. I sincerely hope we can learn from this tragedy, but I have so much trouble reconciling my feelings about the amazing response from the Boston etc. citizenry with the way the media has portrayed the entire thing and the sell out of Congress to the NRA, etc. I am grateful for the perspective that being in India has given me, however, and know that despite my desire to be home with my family this past week that this is where I’m supposed to be.

My First Holi

I know I haven’t updated in a while, but consider this mini-post to be a harbinger of many more posts. On Tuesday (Holi is celebrated officially on Wednesday, the 27th, but sometimes people start early), the Jagori team and staff (those brave enough to come outside, that is) played “Holi”, which involves throwing a combination of water (either from a bucket or in balloon form) and smearing colored powder (either in the balloon or bucket of water or just on your hands) all over your friends, family, and innocent passersby. This is in honor of spring’s arrival, among other things. Often people will spray water and color on people who really aren’t up for it, and then if the Holi-players are met with angry words, they simply proclaim: “बुरा मत मानो” – bura mat maano, which means “don’t take it badly”. On Holi, anything is possible – I got thrown in a tank of dirty water, and got covered in pink, purple, red, green, and yellow powder. I had the time of my life!

New Project, New House, Diwali and Farewells

One of the things I’m looking forward to the most when I come back from vacation is a singing project I’ve recently become a part of. A Hindustani classical artist in the area, along with some other singers and musicians, is composing a CD of music set to English translations of poems written by a person associated with the Karmapa’s temple in Sidhbari. I am singing the melody on at least two of the tracks and helping, where I can, to compose the tune and to give bits of advice on whether the composition sounds Western enough or not. My friend Taylor is also helping out by singing, playing guitar and playing drums. I’m so excited that I can use my voice again in a way that is culturally satisfying to me!

I also have a new house, which I am thrilled about! Some awesome features it includes: space to entertain guests (and a place for one other person to sleep), a working shower head, a lovely landlady named Didi, it’s a 20 minute walk to work (uphill), and a cute neighborhood dog named Ginger. I’ve really been settling in nicely there and getting to know the expats in the community I’m living in. In January, when I get back from my extended vacation, Ginger will be living with me for two whole months! With the addition of a dog and my new space heater (it gets COLD here in the winter), it will feel even more like home.

Some holidays I missed telling you about: For Diwali (a festival involving worship of Laxmi (goddess of luck and good fortune), I ate lots of good food, sat in on a pooja (prayer) ceremony welcoming Laxmi into the house, went to many Nepali neighbors houses for singing, dancing and more food, and set off fireworks with my immediate neighbors and some fellow volunteers. For Thanksgiving, I helped my landlady’s daughter, Maya, make garlic bread, and at Thanksgiving dinner (chicken and bacon casserole, salad, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce made from dried cranberries, gravy, green beans, and pecan and pumpkin pie) with Didi, Maya, my co-worker Vasu, her mother, two Australian nuns of the Chinese Buddhist ordination, and an Englishwoman named Jo. We talked about feminism and what solutions we saw to the world’s problems and ate far too much food.

Over the past two weeks, I said goodbye to nine volunteers who had become my close friends here: seven of them were from Canada, one was from Switzerland, and one was from Scotland. It was really hard saying goodbye to them, and I’ve realized that a lot of people will come and go over the course of my fellowship. At the same time, I am so lucky to have known these women and I now have friends in three countries I never had friends in before! Eva, a volunteer from Germany, and Anshi, a volunteer from Chandigarh (India) will be working with me until at least the end of February, so I’m in good “foreign” company.Though it’s always hard to say goodbye, I look forward to new volunteers coming and going, so we can build friendships and communities together, even if the latter are only temporary.

Next post: A very Rajasthani vacation from October!

16 Day Campaign and Changes at Work

Apologies on a lack of writing in one’s blog because someone is having a good time are boring and pointless. Therefore, I will keep mine short. I was moving and vacationing and working until steam came out of my ears. Then I got sick, and better, and now here I am – on vacation in Tokyo and catching up with you all!

Firstly: Christina, what are you doing in TOKYO? I am on vacation visiting other Shansi fellows in Japan and China until around January 10th, 2013. Right now I’m staying with Lissette, who is teaching English at J.F. Oberlin University in Machida (and meeting her co-fellows Peter and Matt), and then in a little less than a week, I’ll be moving on to Beijing and Taigu, China, where I will reunite with Ricardo (in Beijing), and Veronica and Amelea (in Taigu), all Shansi fellows from my year, and Rebekah (also in Taigu), who is also teaching English and studying Chinese. I’ll fill you in on the work I’ve been up to since my last post.

The main project I have been working on is the 16 Day Campaign addressing Violence Against Women. At Jagori, the campaign actually is focused primarily on women, but worldwide the campaign focuses more on gender-based violence (i.e. including men and other genders in addressing violence against ALL genders).

The campaign is named “the 16 Day Campaign” because it lasts from the 25th of November (the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) until December 10th (International Human Rights Day). Jagori has been busy planning events addressing violence against women in their community. From the 25th to the 27th of November, Jagori team members performed a street play in three locations across the Kangra District. The play mainly tackled the issue of the 33% seating reservation for women on buses. The reservation (there is also one for children and senior citizens) exists to give women a place on buses that is free from harassment by men. Also, women tend to be the ones carrying children, groceries, and other heavy loads during bus travel, and should be given a place to sit. It’s not that women deserve special treatment BECAUSE they are women – but women in Kangra (at least, if not all of India), because they have more of a burden to carry and are simultaneously subject to many forms of harassment on buses, should be given a safe place to rest during travel. Until the burden is shared more equally with men and women are free from this harassment, it is the belief of my organization that this reservation must be upheld. My job during the street play performance was to take pictures and to interview people about their reaction to the play, what they learned, and what must be done to end gender-based violence. I also helped to write a press release for the campaign that was sent to three area newspapers.

Photos of the 16 Day Campaign:

On the English teaching front, things have also changed. I am now teaching English twice a week for an hour to staff members of Jagori. The class members are drawn from administrative staff and two other teams at Jagori that I don’t get to work with very often, so it’s a really diverse group and I really enjoy getting to start and end my week with them. I’ve been teaching them whatever they want to work on, which includes some grammar, but mostly practice in speaking. They are so enthusiastic (and mostly show up to class when they’re supposed to), they only want me to speak to them in English outside of class, and more often then not, they do their homework! For me, this is just an opportunity to be available to them as an English resource, whatever they want me for. I don’t structure class very formally, and even if only one person shows up, I make the lesson into a private tutoring session. So far, I’m really enjoying teaching and bonding with my coworkers!

My student English class is slowly morphing into something resembling a successful class, but it needs a lot of work. We’ve started with a blog project involving the Tremont School, a school my mom helped to found and that my sister works at as an art therapist. This project involves my class in India writing blog posts to the class in the States, and vice versa, and both classes comment on the others’ posts, ask questions, exchange ideas, etc. So far, two students in my class have introduced themselves to the Tremont school class in posts, and one of those students has written an essay, which I posted, about the appreciation of fathers in families and Indian society. The Tremont school kids have commented on both of the introduction posts, and asked good questions, so we do officially have cultural exchange happening, even if it’s on a small scale. There are two problems I see in this class, however: there are three girls in my advanced class, and I’m realizing that one is not advanced at all, and the other two have very different levels of ability. The other problem is that in order to get internet at the site I teach the class at, we need to go to an internet cafe nearby. Often that cafe is crowded and noisy, and it’s hard for us all to concentrate. I will slowly figure out solutions to these problems, but it just makes me realize that my time at Jagori is all a work in progress!

In the week leading up to my vacation to Japan, I also got involved in a research project that Jagori has been working on for the past two years. It’s a legal research project funded by the Ford Foundation investigating how accessible people perceive their government and the legal process in Himachal Pradesh to be. It’s also aimed at figuring out the extent to which corruption still exists in those systems. I summarized data collected from interviews of 47 litigants who had filed cases in district courts into a 15 page report. It was hard work but really interesting! Hopefully I’ll be doing more with this project after I get back from vacation.

I also have a new schedule that allows me to have more time for myself!

Monday: 9-10am: TARA Staff English Class (@TARA), 4-5pm Advanced Blog Class in Khaniara
Tuesday: field day/AWAJ team day
Wednesday: field day/AWAJ team day
Thursday: OFF
Friday: 9-10am: TARA Staff English Class (@TARA)
Saturday: field day/AWAJ team day
Sunday: OFF

I really needed an extra day for cleaning my house, reading, and working on a new music project I’m really excited about.

Next post: a singing project, new house pictures, holidays, and hiking pictures!

On Earthquakes, Corruption and Familiar Visitors

This post was begun on October 2nd.

Today, I was awakened to my bed vibrating slightly, as if my alarm clock had grown hands to shake me into starting my day. In an instant it was over, and I thought nothing of it. Bleary-eyed, I opened my computer and attempted to connect my internet. It wasn’t until I was deep into my bowl of oatmeal that I considered that what might have woken me up was an earthquake. I wasn’t in Indonesia anymore!

I went downstairs to take my trash and compost out and asked my landlord if he felt anything like an earthquake this morning. He smiled, nodded, and said quietly, “You are very sensitive to these things, hai na (aren’t you/right/no?). I told him about my time in Indonesia, and his eyes widened, impressed. “Oh yes, there are many earthquakes there!”, he said, almost excited by the fact. He went on to talk about the 1905 earthquake that happened in Dharamshala that I hear about constantly from people (people talk about the earthquake here like Bostonians talked about the Curse of the Bambino to newcomers, at least until 2004) like it happened yesterday, like he somehow had lost something in the destruction as well. “This concrete jungle we’re living in is so fragile.” He told me that another big earthquake could happen any day now, and that all one could do was live one’s life and try to forget about it. A friend told me that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has some monks actively focusing their prayers on fault lines to prevent such a catastrophe from occurring again.

I thought about all the times an earthquake had happened somewhere in Indonesia, far from me, and I would get a Facebook post from a friend or relative asking, “ARE YOU OK?!?! There was an earthquake in Indonesia!” I would always assure them that I was at least 500 miles from the zone where one had to be even remotely concerned about ones safety. There were some small tremors in Gorontalo, small enough that I thought I was imagining them, but the only time I worried at all was when I was in Surabaya and I got a call from one of the AMINEF (American Indonesian Exchange Foundation) coordinators to tell me that if  was in Gorontalo, to stay away from the northern beaches because the tsunami that hit the Fukoshima power plant was on its way to Indonesia. It petered out somewhere around Taiwan, I think, and nothing came of it (that didn’t stop me from calling everyone I knew in Gorontalo to tell them to run for the hills…)

While taking pictures at a local Gramsabha meeting (a quarterly meeting between panchayat (town/city council) members and members of their communities) in Rakkar (near the Jagori office) later that day, I leaned against a wall for support. The wall began wobbling and again, I thought I was going crazy. Another earthquake! The meeting immediately turned to questions of disaster preparedness and emergency services. Prior to this, the panchayat had raised the issue with the community about building a boundary wall around the school for the student’s protection. Since this would cut into public land, most of the citizens did not support building a boundary. The panchayat brought up the issue of safety for the children at the school (it’s right next to the road and supposedly the boundary would prevent children from running into the road) and that got people riled up and worried about children’s safety. Eventually we all went over to the proposed site of the boundary, and that’s where things got interesting.

I was with my friend Gaytri, who was translating all this for me (if my Hindi was good enough to understand all this first-hand, I would jump for joy!). She told me that the community wasn’t supporting the boundary because there were only 30 kids at the school and there has never been an accident at the school. She was saying all this with a smile on her face. “What they propose is corruption,” she said, still smiling. The community doesn’t want the boundary because they know that if the panchayat undertakes the project, they will do it in a corrupt way. “If the project requires 50 bags of cement, they will order 100 bags, and keep the money” – the officials tend to create a need for projects so they can order more materials for the project than is required. They then keep the money they didn’t spend on extra building materials for the project. Everyone except me (and the other volunteer who came with me, Maura, from Switzerland) knew this – they were just playing at it because you can’t yell “corruption” in a crowded panchayat meeting. Again, I’m not in Indonesia anymore…am I?

Pictures of panchayat meeting:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Knowledge of corruption, of course, causes some sort of action to be taken – whether the action is effective or not. There are seemingly endless checks and balances on these panchayat members, and still they seem to get away with stealing from the community.

1) In Rakkar (and I assume at every panchayat) there exists a social responsibility/order committee of sorts (the exact name is escaping me right now). This committee of nine citizens (not government officials) are supposed to keep track of the funds utilized by the panchayat to make sure they’re being used properly. It was decided by the community that during this meeting, seven new members would be elected because seven of the existing members were not doing their job on the committee. Five of these positions were to be reserved for women. Gaytri and Vandana (a Jagori team member and friend who works on the SATH team) volunteered, among others, and no one objected.

2) A man in a fancy Jeep showed up, at which point Navneet (SATH team member, friend and the person I work with on my English classes) said “more drama is about to start”. The man took a seat and immediately everyone focused on him. Gaytri whispered to me that he was the Panchayat Inspector who checked on about 10 panchayat in the district of Dharamshala to make sure they were doing their jobs. He talked (in between about 20 phone calls to lord knows who) about the importance of the people and their participation in governance. He chastised the panchayat members for focusing on the boundary issue from before and not on the issues at hand which were more important, like water and waste management problems. He seemed sincere enough, but he was gone in less than 20 minutes, off to check up on another community. It seemed that both the government from a top-down perspective and the people from a bottom-up perspective were, at least on the surface, attempting to provide oversight and demand accountability from their leaders.

3) Gaytri (about my age) also told me that she ran for the pretan position (the head of the panchayat) against an older woman she pointed to who was sitting in a chair under her dupatta, trying to hide from the sun. This woman beat Gaytri and won the election by 40 votes – 230 to 190. While Gaytri spent Rs. 2000 (about $40) on her campaign, mostly using it for advertising, while the other woman spent 1 lakh rupees (Rs. 100,000, about $2,000) paying people to vote for her. Gaytri says that she’ll see about running again in five years, when the position opens up again. She’s my new superhero, right up there with Hillary. I don’t get to work with Gaytri very much, so it was really inspiring to see how dedicated she was and to see how much she loved her community. (Sidenote: Rajni, the head of the violence division of AWAJ, was a pretan in a village around Shahpur for five years.) These are some serious women I’m working with who seem to really live out the values the are currently working so hard to protect.

Later that day, I got to practice my Indonesian with a Malaysian visitor (Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia are very closely knit languages) attending a human rights conference at the TARA (Training and Research Academy) at Jagori. The Indonesian jolted out of my mouth awkwardly as I remembered phases, but then couldn’t link them with essential words, or some Hindi would plop itself in the middle and I would get frustrated. The Malaysian said it was so nice to be speaking to someone in her native language before we parted ways, but it left me feeling like I was standing over a widening precipice with one foot in Indonesia and one in India. I’ll just have to learn to balance in such a precarious position until something can be done to unite my new experience here with my familiar experience there. I’m not in Indonesia anymore, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be reminded of it or see helpful parallels to my experience here.

“I’ve Been Waiting For You!”

I don’t know what happened, or why, but somehow things just got a little easier. The world slowed down a little for me. I feel less dizzy at the thought of being here for so long.

OK, so there are a few things that have happened that could make me feel this way. Let’s put them all together.

First – the roommate story.

I was told about a week ago that I would be getting a roommate. At first, I internally freaked out. NO WAY I said (in my head). I am 26 years old, making me too old for this…situation. But then I realized I was kind of lonely and maybe it’d be nice to have one. A few days later seven Canadian students (Clarke, Ceinwen, Esaba, Jane, Marie, Christina (I know…) and Cheryl) from McMaster University in Toronto arrived to spend three months here working on women’s health issues. With Helen (from Scotland and totally baller) and me, that makes 9 volunteers, which might be a record for Jagori. There’s also another girl from Switzerland joining us on Friday, and another volunteer from Germany who is coming in October. It’s starting to get a little crazy over here!

Because of last minute planning on both the parts of the Canadians and Jagori, I took on TWO of the Canadians (Jane and Marie) who are staying in the other bedroom in my apartment. They have been quite a sweet pair – they cooked me dinner the first two nights and because they eat rice for at least two meals of the day (both are Korean) I am never without it! Often we’ll have the same work schedule and will walk to work. I also tend to worry about them like the mom that I am, like if they’re eating enough veggies and stuff…:)

Part of the reason I think I am over the first hump of culture shock is that I have finally realized, through pathetically comparing myself to people who have been here for less time than I have, that I am beginning to know my way around here. Somehow, imparting the little of what I know (how to walk to work from our house, where to find yoghurt, how to take the bus) to the new kids makes me feel more competent than I have been feeling ever since I got here. I have also realized that I have had to figure things out A LOT by myself, which has made that knowledge stick that much better and makes me feel like I’ve earned it more. Also, my experiences in Indonesia have been helping me A TON (how to turn on and light a gas stove, tips for avoiding ants in the kitchen, how to keep your bathroom floor clean and dry).

Second – my work!

I haven’t gotten my schedule completely figured out, but here’s what I do at Jagori, at least for now:

Sunday: FREE! (unless something fun at work comes up in which case I take a free day some other time)
Monday: teach All-Level English Conversation Class (available to all kids of all ages) from 4pm-5pm at the Khanyara Knowledge center (30-40 minutes walking from me/10ish minutes by bus)
Tuesday: FREE or field work*
Wednesday: teach Advanced/Blog Building English Class to more advanced level English speaking kids in the community from 4pm-5pm**
Thursday: field work*
Friday: field work*
Saturday: FREE or field work*

NOTE: I generally will have 2 days free per week – they may be different days every week but I do need to take breaks!

*Field work has included one of any number of things so far:
a) going to make connections in new communities, i.e. visiting a new panchayat (like a city or town council) to tell them who Jagori is and to ask them if they have any domestic violence cases the need help handling (which Jagori does);
b) doing health check-ups on women who have been given medicine or supplements via Jagori and seeing if it is helping or not:
c) going to women’s courts and hearing different cases, often having to do with domestic violence:
d) attending youth meetings to educate mostly girls about their bodies, sexuality, being a woman, etc.
Generally what I do in the field: after getting a sense of what’s going on that day, during the meeting/event I write down everything I can understand in Hindi (which ends up being anywhere from 10-30% of what is going on), then ask questions to my fellow team members about what has happened in the meeting, and then writing reports based on my experience. The listening in Hindi part is exhausting but really good for me, like broccoli. My understanding of spoken Hindi is rapidly improving. Also, by asking clarifying questions in English to Jagori team members, I am helping to improve their English and forcing us to communicate in detailed ways. This work is also exposing me to what the team I’m working on does, and will help me as an outsider to get to know the communities that will be participating in the 16-day women’s campaign that I’m supposed to help plan in late November-mid-December, as well as the One Billion Rising campaign in February.

**I have an idea for a class that combines cross-cultural communication, computer skills and English speaking. Hopefully, I will be teaching the students in my advanced class a) how to make a blog, b) have them write blog posts about various topics together, and c) have my sister Casey’s middle-school class in the States write back to us! I think it’ll be interesting to me and the students, and will combine a lot of the skills they’ll be using in a creative way.

Field work pictures:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I am incredibly excited about my work here. It’s hard not to feel like a burden on the AWAJ team because they’re taking a huge risk by having me along on these site visits. On more than one occasion I’ve had to question whether my presence as a foreigner/outsider helps or hurts the work they are doing. However, in most circumstances, they are incredibly happy to have me along. Apparently my broken Hindi is enough to set the people we see in the field with at ease. I have made someone who was previously crying while dealing with her court case laugh at my broken Hindi, so at least in some way I am helping! The connections I’m making with the team members of AWAJ seem already to be pretty strong, even if there are significant miscommunications because of language barriers.

It’s hard to be patient when things seem disorganized, or when the team seems to get off their regular schedule because an important workshop is going on. Slowly I am getting the hang of things though. I try to picture my experience of this organization and living here as a giant, brilliant, intimidating and foreign machine that I have two years to figure out how to operate. Every day, I push a different button to see what happens. So far it’s functioning fine. There may come a day when I push a button that causes some mayhem and chaos, but then I’ll find a different button that will make it mostly better, if not erase my mistake in the first place. Sometimes I want to push more than one button in one day, but that causes pressure to build up and parts to fall off. It just doesn’t work to rush things here. One button at a time, largely through trial and error, I’ll figure out my path in this strange, new and beautiful place.

The title of this post refers to what one of the girls in my English class said to me upon hearing I was the one that was going to be teaching her English for the next two years. Initially, I was lackluster in my attitude towards teaching English – however, with the low amount of classes (2) + the adorableness of my students + the ability to shape these classes in seemingly any way I want, I think it’s going to be a good year. “When you walked in the door I was so happy you were here!”, she added. This made me feel like the Grinch when his heart grew three sizes 🙂

Indonesia and India – Part I

Comparisons to Indonesia

I would be inhuman indeed if I didn’t walk around here and think of how my new home compares to my last home away from home (in that it’s human to compare things). It simultaneously is interesting to me to do so, is something I can’t help, and is something that makes me sad. So I should stop doing it, right? Here goes:

– People here honk to let people know that they’re coming up around a bend on motorized vehicles, etc., but they honk REALLY LOUDLY – I try to make this remind me of Boston, somehow. In Indonesia, people have a way of honking so politely and cutely that you can’t be mad.

– I constantly find myself trying to say “Is this ok? This is no problem, right?” etc. Indonesian has a saying for this that can be used as a question (Tidak apa apa? Is this ok?), before a subjunctive phrase (Tidak apa-apa kalau… = It’s no problem if…), or as a follow up to pretty much anything. To me, it was a safety phrase, or a CYA phrase – I would always ask if something was a problem and usually received an answer to the effect of “It’s no problem! No worries!” Here in India, you can’t use the phrase “koi bat nahiin” (in Hindi script = literally “it’s not a matter”, it’s no problem) in the same way. People laugh at me when I use it too often – I guess you’re really only supposed to use it in response to “Thank you”. This is a product of me being me (I apologize for things I don’t have to apologize for) and me being used to the nuances of a different foreign language.

– I REALLY LIKE INDIAN MUSIC AND FILM. I was not as into dangdut music in Indonesia as some of my Indonesian friends. I do miss karaoke in Indonesia though!

– Surprisingly, I like Indian bus rides (the longest one I’ve been on was 12 hours, and that was actually fine). Over the past few days I’ve been on a few through the countryside during the day, and when I’ve gotten a seat the views have been breath-taking.

– I miss the people in Indonesia always saying hi to me. I know this was mostly because I was such an alien, with my white/single female traveling alone/foreigner stamp on my forehead, that often translated into “THAT GIRL’S PROBABLY GOT MONEY”, but I also know that people talked to me because I smile and I am a nice person. Here, maybe because white people are not as much of a novelty, or maybe because it’s not culturally appropriate/done to say hi to people you don’t know, very few people say hi to me (again, I should just remember that Boston is that way and not be so homesick). It hasn’t stopped me from trying to say “Namaste, Jii” to people on the street though.

– Drinking water was easy to come by in Indonesia, at least where I lived. Most people I knew had a water cooler similar to the ones in offices, and it was extremely easy to get it filled up every week or so. Here (see last post), I worry about my drinking water, and people worry for me, which makes me worry even more.

– People where I live are QUIET. In Indonesia, there was always someone awake doing something. I couldn’t sleep for the first two weeks very well at all because there was some chicken squawking or some students singing or gym class at 5:30am or the call to prayer at 4:30 – it drove me nuts the first few weeks, but then I joined in. I added something to the noise. And noise is a huge part of my life – I am a singer, to some extent, after all. Living next to two nuns who are on a silent retreat (in that they can’t verbally communicate with me) is proving to be a bit difficult because even before bedtime, they like it quiet. More on this later.

– Where I lived in Indonesia, there were very limited transportation options – I could take a small motorized pedicab/bentor or a bus/mikrolet around town, a car to a farther away city, or a plane. Planes were pretty much the only efficient way to get to other islands. In India, there are TRAINS (which they do have on Java in Indonesia) and BUSES that can pretty much take you anywhere. It kind of amazes me.

There is a mosque that I just began hearing that sings the call to prayer several times a day (including 4:30am)! The first time I heard it, I was instantly emotionally transported to my home in Indonesia, and tears came to my eyes. It’s nice to associate that sound with a homey place – it helps me keep thinking I’m meant to be exactly where I am.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Next up: more details on my work here, and a surprise Canadian roommate!

Dhire Dhire

Hello from Sidhpur! That’s the name of the village I’ve landed in, and I just discovered today that it’s pretty easy to get to Dharmshala (धार्मशाला) (known to me basically as the place to buy things more complicated than basic food items, and delicious Indian desserts) from where I live by bus, for only 5 rupees/10 cents!

I’m sorry I haven’t updated this blog as often as I’d have liked. I’ll blame my awesome friends at SASLI, my Hindi class itself (especially finals), the awesome two weeks I had at home with many of my friends and family, and the intense travel schedule I had up until about a week ago. Highlights from that time include a beach party (with a cake that had a pretty decent map of India on it), a visit to my grandparents house for the last time, and spending time in a climate controlled environment for the last time in quite a while.

Settling In

After a car ride, 2 plane rides, several taxi rides, and a bus ride later, I ended up here in Sidhpur. I actually thought I would be staying at Jenna’s (a fellow that came before me) old place, but instead I’m staying at Sarah’s (a fellow from another program that was here this past spring) place, which has a kitchen, small bathroom (with HOT WATER and a FLUSH TOILET, both of which I appreciate a lot) and a general room with a desk, my bed, and other things. I now know my way around the neighborhood enough to make VERY light conversation with shopkeepers, and where to buy decent milk, yoghurt, eggs, peanut butter, and BAKED GOODS!

This week has been all about settling in – and no matter how hard I try, it can’t be rushed. I want to feel comfortable here so badly that I’ve been doing as many home improvement things as I can, from buying a foam mattress to replace my thin cotton mattress I had to buying a (what people tell me is really good) water filter and storing device. It even has a toll free number I can call if I have problems.

I could write a whole blog post on making my water clean, but for now I am either a) buying bottled water (at around $.40/liter this can add up though) or b) first boiling my water AND THEN running it through my water filter. This is difficult because I can’t put near-boiling water through the machine so I store it in two one-liter apparatuses (non-BPA-leaking water bottles/thermoses) until it cools, THEN I run it through the filter, which takes a while too. Is this worth not contracting giardia, etc.? I sure hope so! Apparently after monsoon season ends, I don’t have to boil the water and then put it through the filter. I would give myself two weeks of this before I just cave and stop boiling before filtering…we shall see!

My Work So Far

Things at my organization, Jagori Grameen, have been progressing somewhat. I’ve been going to various meetings with the SATH and AWAJ teams, including a planning meeting about a mother-daughter fair (mothers and daughters, believe it or not, don’t get to interact as much and talk about being women as much because the sons in the family are paid attention to far more), two women’s counseling meetings with the legal team (they hear applications brought by men and women related to dowry disputes, land ownership, and domestic violence, among other things, and try to see how they can solve the situation out of court), a women’s village meeting where they talked about the problems of alcoholism and land ownership (women are rarely given the opportunity to own land), and follow-up meetings with women and men who Jagori gave medicine to for hyper-anemia (the villagers around here don’t get much iron in their diets, especially women because they tend to be the last to eat at the dinner table). I’ve been getting to know the team members, and have become especially close with Vasu, a New Delhi girl who came to work at Jagori in April on the AWAJ team. She’s one of the counselors that works with the nari adalat, or women’s courts, and other aspects of the AWAJ mission. The entire team has been very welcoming, and calls me a team member often and presents me to other people as such, which makes me feel really good.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The title of my post, (धीरे-धीरे) which means little by little, is said all around me all the time. “Dhire dhire apko Hindi aatii hai” (little by little, Hindi comes to you). I am adjusting little by little, day by day – and all I have to do is be OK with that.

Next post – my initial feelings on India and Indonesia.

What Sticks to My Heart

Culture shock can hit you when you’re only one time zone away from home. When first arriving at our place on Gorham Street, my taxi driver’s description of the apartment neighborhood I’m living in (to both Naila and I, on separate occasions): “Forget frat row! This street is where the party is at! You’re living in a party house, girl!” These are not words a 25-year-old post post post POST undergraduate girl who is committing her summer to learning a year’s worth of Hindi in eight weeks wants to hear. But although the raucous party from the next house over did keep me up until 3am the first night I got here, and one Saturday morning I was awakened to poor quality drumming, I really like our apartment. My plan to remedy this was to become less of an old person, and blast my fan/close my windows if I want to sleep on Friday or Saturday nights – I have succeeded on both fronts! We are right across the street from a lakeside park and a totally doable walk from the promenade area around State Street. We have a really nice, if largely absent, roommate who seems to love living here and has some great tips on exploring the city. Since we’re only here for eight weeks, I feel like a guest in another person’s house – it took me two days to put my things in the bathroom for fear of intruding on other people’s space! Slowly and persistently, we are settling in and getting to know the area. We just came down from a record-breaking heatwave (the previous records for the past four days were in the 1910’s and 1930’s), and are grateful that our AC-less apartment has ceased to be a furnace.

Farmer’s Market on Saturday near the State Capitol

There are samples of so many kinds of cheese here – you can try them all before you buy.

Studying Hindi has consumed my life in the best way possible. We have class for four hours each day, and are expected to study for three to four more hours. The workload generally ends up being a lot more, but I don’t mind. After having so little to do for four months (besides walking the best dogs ever and hanging out with lots of great friends and family), especially with my brain, I am really enjoying drowning in all the work. There are also several people I’ve befriended that will be going to India next year – three Fulbright scholars (one of which will mostly be in Dharamsala!), a Lutheran missionary, and some students (undergrad and grad) studying Hindi through a program in Varanasi/Benaras. The teacher I’m studying under now will also be in Varanasi next year, giving me more people to visit.

Picnic in the park before the fireworks.

Getting ready to tour the Capitol building.

Hindi itself is proving to be a beauty of a language. The writing of the alphabet takes a long time, and correctly identifying द (retroflex aspirated “dha”) and ढ (dental unaspirated “da”), is still giving me trouble. Learning it so fast can make it hard to appreciate sometimes, but occasionally one of our teachers will tell us the meaning of a word or phrase and I’m completely floored by what I hear. One such word is िदलचसप (this is almost the correct spelling but I haven’t figured out how to merge consonants on the keyboard yet), or “interesting” (pronounced dilchuhsp). It literally means “that which sticks to my heart”. Also, in Hindi, everything happens to the subject – for example, the way you say “I am very hot” is literally translated from Hindi as “Heat is striking me”. The word order is something I still need to get used to. As much as I am enjoying learning the language and I feel comfortable with what I’ve learned, I know the ultimate test of communicating with Indians who speak at a normal pace will be something I initially will bumble through ridiculously.

Inside the State Capitol.

A view of Lake Monona (left) and Lake Mendota (right) from the top of the Capitol building.

The rest of today will be dedicated to preparing for my midterm exam – it’s hard to believe my program is almost half-way through. More later on Hindi and my excitement and anxiety about leaving in 7 weeks.

नामासते! (namaste – goodbye!)

करिसटीना जेमस (Christina James)