Monthly Archives: August 2011
The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota are two of those places that make you love humanity. At least that is the effect they have had on me and the many an out-of-towners who have fallen in love with my hometown. And what’s not to love? The smiling strangers, cute neighborhood coffee shops, ample and clean park space, backyard gardens, historic homes, tree-lined streets, and a thriving theater scene are just a few of the Twin Cities’ many charms. Most large businesses in the area will tell you that while it may be difficult to recruit employees to Minnesota it is even harder to send them elsewhere once they have settled in the North Star State.
New Delhi, on the other hand, is huge, dirty, disorganized, and its residents are much too fond of their horns. If ever appointed mayor of New Delhi I would outlaw honking for one week just to see how Delhites handled the silence. New Delhi has the hot humidity of Hotlanta without the Southern charm (or soul food) and the meanness of New York without…well I don’t think anything balances NYC’s meanness either. New Delhi is not unlike many other megacities around the world. There isn’t much to be loved in the traffic jammed mess of humanity that characterizes the world’s largest metropolises. Sure they inspire awe, fascination even, but I’ve never stood in the middle of one such city and thought “gee, look at these lovely humans and what they have created.” Boasting a bustling population close to 14 million and lacking in infrastructure New Delhi is no exception.
These days I feel like I am feeling my surroundings with every nerve in my body – nerves that have been grated raw by the constant sensory assault of honking horns and the metal-on-metal sound of old brakes. So today when I emerged from the library to the velvety green blanket of a calm evening I felt its full embrace with unrivaled satisfaction. The soft orange light of the setting sun was still bright on the green vegetation that lines the paths. The air, humid but not hot, kissed my skin and hugged me with its weight. The light brightened me from the inside and put a smile on my face. Growing up in Minnesota I have become very attentive to the intricate changing of the light as seasons shift. Today’s dusky and dappled light felt like a message from home.
My time in India has been full of huge hurdles and small victories. This week’s biggest accomplishment was buying a rack to dry laundry, a small achievement rewarded generously with the fresh smell of air dried laundry washed with Tide detergent. India has taught me that we don’t need much and, though small, the victories are made all the sweeter in contrast to the ample opportunities for disillusionment. I would love to have stayed in the soft cocoon of this evening forever. Instead I will hold it with me, conjuring up this feeling of calm whenever I see the peach of a setting sun at the end of another crazy day in India.
On a current events note, Daniel has written a great outline and update post on the anti-corruption movement which gained a decisive victory today. I visited the protest grounds on Monday and will write my own update soon.
I am writing to you after a delicious dinner of macaroni and cheese and fresh steamed green beans. I had reserved this cherished box of mac for the end of a rough day when needed comfort food from home, but instead I made it tonight to celebrate a happy end to what began as a difficult week. Thursday marked my one month anniversary of arriving in India. It feels like I have been here much longer than one month. Spending a whole year somewhere has a much different feeling than spending one semester abroad, as I did in Chile, but the initial period of adjustment is very similar in both cases. This week I reached the point in that adjustment period when I was questioning everything. Why am I here? Why did I leave home? And what in the world will I do for the next ten months? The root of these existential crisis-y feelings I might have been the boredom that also crept up on me this week.
As a child, whenever I complained of being bored my mom would tell me one must learn how to be bored, as life has plenty of boring moments to offer. Her lesson was not that I would live a dull life. Far from it. What she was trying to instill in me rather is that boredom, like frustration, anxiety, stress, and others are natural emotions that we will feel at various points in our life, on different days, in different places. These aren’t feelings that we need to run away from though. Rather, we ought to make friends with them because in doing so we learn that we are always in choice and in charge of our own experience. As a famous quote puts it, “you cannot change the wind, but you can adjust your sails.”
Three things turned my week around. The first moment that turned my week around was dinner with my host Rotarian and Indian grandfather, Gobind-ji. I visited him on Wednesday evening and had a simple but delicious home cooked meal followed by tea and discussion of the day’s events over the evening news. All of my family and friends back home should know that my Indian family looks after me always and especially when I’m feeling blue. It has been clearly articulated by Gobind-ji that I should feel like one of the family, so I am always welcome for dinner, and can bring home my laundry and get my own water or food out of the frig.
Second, Daniel and I took an afternoon outing on Thursday to the India Gate to see if we could catch a glimpse of some of the action of the anti corruption protests. There was only a small crowd at the India Gate, most protestors were likely at Tihar Jail where Anna Hazare in a tug of war with the police to meet his conditions for a public fast. Protestors or not, it was great to vent to Daniel about my frustrations and talk about what we missed most from home. He lived in Minneapolis last year as an Americorps volunteer so he knows exactly what I’m talking about when I say I miss lakes, Grand Avenue, fall in Minnesota, and Minnesota nice. After our outing we got dinner, Indian food, and ordered two sides of French fries. We reveled in the fried deliciousness with ketchup and the utter American-ness of it all. Then we decided we should probably have a drink to top off a great afternoon and toasted Kingfisher on his rooftop terrace looking out over a New Delhi night.
The third moment which really just completed the change from boring to great was an impromptu lunch and afternoon of fun with two new school friends, Anushree and Preeti. I met the two at the public meeting on campus I mentioned a few posts back. They are first years studying Spanish. Anu heard me speaking Spanish at the meeting and we struck up a conversation. They are as new to Spanish as I am to Hindi so we are perfect language exchange partners. I have been frustrated by my lack of comprehension of this new and difficult language, but speaking Spanish always makes me happy so it takes the edge off my steep learning curve. The two are very outgoing and we had a lot to talk about. We are all in the same boat – first years at a new school far from home (they are both from states in eastern India), learning new languages, and making new friends. I had lunch with the two of them in the canteen in their hostel (what we would call a dorm in the U.S.). It was neat to see more of campus, it’s a really beautiful area and being in the hostels makes me feel more a part of campus life. After lunch, a hostel tour, and great conversation, we got stuck in one of the magical monsoon downpours that happen often this time of year. We decided to ditch the one umbrella we had and splashed around in the rain for about half an hour. We all agreed the afternoon was one to remember.
On Friday night my roommates and I hung out with some Indian friends on campus. The highest point in New Delhi is on the JNU campus, a rock crested hill that reminds me a lot of the Heartley Park overlook in Duluth. The wooded path to get to the rocks reminded me so much of the path to Watab Island on the SJU campus. Walking around the streets of campus at night reminded me of many a late-night walk home from the Clemens Library at St. Ben’s. Delhi is not known to be a friendly city, but all will agree that the JNU campus is a cozy little bubble, more safe and much less conservative than the rest of the city. This week’s adventures have confirmed that I will do my best to spend much more time on campus from now on.
After living with myself for almost twenty three years I’ve learned that boredom and frustration know where to find me whether I’m at my parents’ house, in my college dorm room, studying abroad in Chile, or here in India. Wherever I go, there I am. So I spent the first part of this week sulking a bit, frustrated with Hindi, missing home and the advent of my favorite season: fall. But here I am at the end of the week celebrating a turnaround with Mac n Cheese (which Lesly tried for the first time and thinks is fabulous, cuz it is). And the cherry on top of all of this was an email from my Uncle Tom today letting me know that he’ll be in Delhi for business in September. It will be so great to see him and, as he put it, hear a real live Minnesota accent!
I hope all of you, my faithful readers, are enjoying the beginning of a wonderful week.
History, as written by Wikipedia, has already added another chapter to the story of Gandian social activist Anna Hazare.
On August 16th, the day after India celebrated the 64th anniversary of its independence, Anna Hazare was scheduled to begin an indefinite fast and sit-in at one of New Delhi’s largest public parks. He actions are a renewal of a 98 hour fast he head in April of this year in response to the government’s refusal to establish an office and ombudsman to handle corruption. This comes at a time when the ruling government is embroiled in numerous cases of corruption and graft and a nationwide student movement is growing in vocal opposition to corruption. A recent poll cited corruption as the biggest threat to freedom, according to young Indians. Following his April fast Hazare named August 15 as a deadline for the government to create the anti-corruption office. Until now the government has done little more than propose what is seen as a toothless anti-corruption bill so Hazare announced he would resume his fast indefinitely on August 16th.
For the past many weeks Mr. Hazare and his team of supporters – Team Anna – have been fighting a battle with the Delhi Police for the right to carry out this protest. The main point of contention has been the location of the protest. Last week Delhi Police slapped Team Anna with a list of conditions including that the fast must last no longer than 3 days and attract no more than 5,000 supporters. Replying with a refusal to comply with the authorities’ conditions, Team Anna announced it would launch the fast and massive sit-in as planned. In a surprising (to me) turn of events, Delhi Police arrested Mr. Hazare at his home early Tuesday morning and have taken him and other prominent supporters to Tahir Jail, a mammoth complex in the city. Cities around the nation have erupted in protest calling the arrests undemocratic and unconstitutional. In a video recorded prior to his arrest, Mr. Hazare urged supporters to protest and fill the jails if he was arrested. Since his arrest he has refused bond and will begin his fast inside the jail, saying he will refuse even water if force fed. He has called upon Indians of all ages and walks of life to give eight days of their life in non-violent protest and if necessary to fill the jails, a tactic as old as civil disobedience itself.
Yesterday one of my professors reinforced the importance of recent events saying, “I don’t want you to think I expect you to be in my class when there is history in the making.” Indeed I was one of two or three students who showed up for my classes today. In addition to the activity around Hazare’s arrest, the university is on strike as students march to the Supreme Court in support of their case to reinstate the JNU Student Union.
As with all social movements, opinions of what is to come are mixed at the onset. Some I have talked to believe this is the beginning of something huge – India’s 2nd Freedom Struggle. Others brush off current events as yet another wave in India’s protest politics, saying things will be noisy and exciting for awhile but no real change will take place and Hazare will soon be forgotten. For a view from Hazare’s camp click this link, and for a recent statement from the Indian government click here. As a bystander and non-member of the Indian citizenry I can see valid points on either side. Hazare’s supporters call the arrest undemocratic and unconstitutional. The Indian government claims it had no other option than to arrest Hazare and it is unjust for one citizen to impose his will on a government elected to represent broad interests. I think what Hazare is doing is incredibly gutsy and draws much deserved attention to India’s endemic corruption and challenges citizens elsewhere to shed light on the corruption that threatens freedom in their own country. The fallout of the next eight days will be interesting to watch.
Reporting from New Delhi, Anna Schumacher.
I’m posting from my favorite New Delhi coffee shop, Gloria Jean’s. Its ice cold AC and delicious iced mochas remind me of my neighborhood Starbucks. In a great show of globalization, Gloria Jean’s patrons come from all over the world. This diverse crowd, and the Michael Jackson soundtrack now playing overhead, makes this corner in New Delhi feel like any street corner in one of the world’s large capital cities.
On Wednesday evening I had my first Hindi class. I am taking classes at a private school called Zabaan, recommended to me by Sonya, another Ambassadorial Scholar from the States who studied here last year. In the first 90 minute class (6:30-8pm every Wednesday) we learned, or at least tried to absorb, the Hindi alphabet. I have been excited to dig into a new language and knew Hindi would be a challenge. So far the languages I have tackled with a degree of success (Spanish, French, and Italian) have been Romance languages, sharing the same grammatical structure and alphabet, give or take a few letters. But Hindi is a whole new world. Cultural anthropologist Wade Davis beautifully articulates that “every language is an old-growth forest of the mind”. Indeed each language does not simply assign its own set of sounds and words to the world around us – each language is a unique human exercise in understanding the world and our place in it.
I already experience the world fluently in English and Spanish. I know what it’s like to go through the point in language acquisition when you feel like you’re losing all ability to communicate proficiently, an uncomfortable period when you feel befuddled, unable to express yourself in either tongue. But the emergence from that linguistic limbo can be likened to putting on your first pair of glasses after squinting through fourth grade, or touching down in a new hemisphere. You see things you didn’t see before, feel things you hadn’t felt before, and meet a part of you that was always inside but didn’t know how to introduce herself until now.
The first two weeks of our course will focus on learning Devanagari, the Hindi alphabet. It is an ancient script used also in Sanksrit, Nepali, Marathi, and others. More than learning new sounds and structures, I think getting a new alphabet into my brain will be the biggest hurdle in this process. This is what my practice looks like so far.
After class at Zabaan I took an auto to the JNU campus to attend a public meeting held regarding the students’ three year long struggle to restore the JNU Student Union. First, some background: JNU is a centrally (federally, in U.S. terms) funded institution with a long history of political activism among students. In 2008 the government of India disbanded the JNU Student Union, the students’ governing body, citing it had become “over politicized”. Since 2008 JNU students have been locked in a battle with the Supreme Court of India and barred from electing a governing body to represent student interests. Imagine if one day the MN Supreme Court eliminated the University of Minnesota Student Government Association on the grounds that U of MN students were protesting too strongly the wars in the Middle East, holding the prolife banner too high, or had become overly involved in any other issue of national interest. Now realize that the political climate at JNU resembles that of Macalester College or UC-Berkeley. JNU students have put up quite a fight.
At 9:30pm a large crowd gathered outside the Student Union offices. Many were yelling slogans in Hindi and English – “Long live JNU Student Union!” etc. As a light rain started to fall the crowd moved inside and hundreds of us took a seat on the floor of the JNUSU basketball court. A panel of eight professors attended the meeting to voice their support on the side of the students. Each of the professors took a turn at the mic as did leading members of student organizations like All India Student Association (AISA), Students Federation of India (SFI), and National Student Union of India (NSUI). Between each speech, one more passionate than the last, students shouted more call-and-response slogans. References were made to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the fact that the meeting was taking place in a court was highlighted as appropriate, given the French Revolution had taken place in a tennis court. Professors spoke to the noted absence of the student union saying an important piece of campus life is missing. A couple of the professors had attended JNU as undergrads or grad students and spoke of elections past and the role of JNUSU.
I was particularly interested in learning more about campus politics having served a term as Cultural Affairs Board Representative on the Saint Ben’s Senate. I learned more than I can quantify during my time as a Senator. The opportunity to participate in student government as an office holder or student voter is great practice for civic engagement on a larger scale. In my opinion, student representation in university affairs is a right that should be preserved for students everywhere democracy is the national model of governance. Many of the speakers noted that the disbanding of the JNUSU signaled a national effort to tamper student activism and youth involvement in politics. The struggle to reinstate a student union at JNU is one fascinating piece in the puzzle of a country whose citizens and politicians fight daily battles over land use and corruption.
This is a holiday weekend. Saturday is Rakhi, the siblings’ holiday I explained in my previous post, and Monday is Independence Day. Many people try to leave Delhi for a long weekend in the hill stations of the Himalaya. I’m expecting a relaxed weekend, perhaps some sightseeing, and definitely more Hindi practice. On Tuesday, August 16th, Anna Hazare, a prominent social activist and public figure in India will begin a hunger strike in protest of government corruption. That story, and the “Team Anna”/“Gang Anna”/“I’m with Anna” signs seen around Delhi, are great fodder for another post coming soon.
Have a blessed weekend. Namaste.
One week after last Tuesday’s low point I am in great spirits and all academic frustrations have been resolved! My course schedule is as follows:
Ecology and Sustainable Development, 9am-10am MWF
Water Resources, 10am-11am MWF
Polity & Society in India, 12:15pm-1:15pm MTW
Science & Technology Policy Analysis, 11:30am-1pm M,Th
and French I Optional, 2pm-4pm T, Th
I dropped my Environmental Economics course because it conflicted with Polity & Society and because things got very technical in the last section I attended, which is not what I am looking for this semester. The last two classes listed do not start until August 15th, and the science policy seminar will conflict with Polity and Society, a political sociology course, on Mondays. So my plan is to attend the first 45 mins of Science & Technology Policy Analysis on Mondays and the full seminar on Thursdays. However, there is a chance that the course participants and professors will decide to hold class earlier in the day, in which case I won’t be able to attend at all on Monday. We shall see!
The great thing about this schedule is that my first two classes on MWF are with the same group of students, the third semester cohort of the M.Sc. in Environmental Science. So I’m getting to know a great group of Indian students. We are learning about ecosystems and the Millennium Development Goals in our first class, and the hydrological cycle and use of water resources in the second. The professor of the second thinks it would be great if I do my term paper on the water resources of the Mississippi River. I look forward to presenting on the Mighty Mississippi to my Indian classmates! Polity and Society is a course on the interaction of government, power, and society in India. It is fascinating and the professor, a good friend of my professor Manju Parikh at CSB, invites more discussion than in my other courses which I really appreciate. There are about eight international students in the course so the professor often calls on us to expound upon examples of Western political culture and forms governance. The Indian higher educational system is structured around lecture courses mostly, and grading is based on a mid-term exam, final exam, and term paper. Some classes have smaller assignments or quizzes as well. I miss the highly interactive environment of my liberal arts upbringing. Yay, liberal arts!
With furniture shopping complete and the arrangement of my course schedule out of the way I am feeling much more comfortable and happy. I have energy to think about how I want to focus this year and the possibility of developing a project in the community through Rotary. Daniel and I have met a few times to discuss how we are settling into Delhi life, and what we hope to do as Ambassadorial Scholars. I am, as always, extremely happy to have his company in this journey. Tonight I will start Hindi class, which will take place once a week. I am very conscious not to overburden myself or spread myself too thin. Right now I feel like I have achieved a great balance of academics, cultural, and social activities. I have time to read the newspaper each day and am working through Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.
Thank you all for your continued comments and support, I love reading them every day 🙂 And finally, here are some pictures of our apartment and campus. Thanks to Lena for sharing them!
Sunday morning I got a lesson in Indian style urban planning. I woke up early to meet Gobind for a Rotary event, a rally to raise public awareness for a newly established blood bank. As we drove north, out of the city, we caught the DND (Delhi Noida Direct) Flyway. The expressway was broad, three lanes on each side, with plentiful vegetation in the middle. Early on a Sunday morning it was not congested by the sparse but mixed crowd that shared the road. Speeding along next to us were other passenger cars, trucks, buses, and men, couples, or families on motorcycles – dad driving with one child in front of him and mom riding side saddle on the back with the smaller child in front of her. Along the shoulder, a number of people traveled on foot, by bike, or pedaled a rickshaw headed toward the city. The open lanes and sunny day made me miss the freedom of getting in my own car to head north. I wished wistfully that I could hop on I-35, destination Chisholm, and open my windows to the smell of crisp pine air.
Once you enter Noida, the DND Flyway turns into the Mahamaya (The Great Maya) Flyover, named after the chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh. I asked Gobind to explain what looked like a large shrine being built on the side of the expressway – a large stone building with the typical Taj Mahal-esque domes and turrets, flanked by two 3-story fountains, pillars, and other large structures. He explained that it was a park, a very controversial project because of the fact that it featured statues of the chief minister, other political heroes, and thousands of elephant sculptures, the symbol of her party. At an expense of $200,000,000 (yes, USD) its self-serving largesse made the sort of pork barrel spending we complain about in the States look as innocent as a soup kitchen for elderly veterans and widows.
The thousands (perhaps millions) of hectares north of New Delhi, once jungle and green space, have all but completely been developed over the last ten and twenty years. I got the sense that we were driving through the Woodbury of India. The remaining green space has already been purchased by commercial developers with designs for golf courses, malls, schools, private clubs, and planned communities. Gobind commented that when I return to India in ten years with my children this place will look incredibly different. No doubt.
After the blood bank event, where we made an appearance and got nice Rotary T-shirts and hats, we drove around the expansive India Expo Park built when India hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games. We stopped at the site of one of the future private clubs in the area. A high wall ran the perimeter of the large and mostly empty area. We pulled up to the gate and stepped out for a few minutes to venture inside and survey the construction. Most of the laborers and their families were milling around, enjoying their day of rest, but others could be seen shoveling sand, mixing concrete, and bracing the wooden support beams used to hold up each floor of a newly constructed building as the cement dries. Construction workers are a migrant workforce and hundreds or thousands of families arrive monthly to India’s three largest boom cities – New Delhi, Bombay, and Bangalore – to erect the edifices of a nation on the rise. Gobind explained that Calcutta, while also a large city and commercial hub, does not draw as much business as the three boomtowns since the surrounding state was under communist rule for forty years. He asked someone who looked like the foreman about the specs of the project and told me the club will have thirty or forty villas and something like 18 servants quarters.
Land use is a huge and hot topic in India. Every day there is news of legal battles between farmers and private developers over land rights and the price of land. This is an issue we discussed in my environmental economics course – should the price of land be determined by its value prior to or after development? What is a fair purchasing price for farmland that will soon be home to shopping malls and luxury apartments? The real estate value of developed land is obviously much higher than farmland, but agreement on a fair price is hard to come by.
I really enjoyed the opportunity to get out of the big city and see somewhere new, a different part of India. I look forward to traveling around during the year and gaining a broader understanding of this diverse and energetic nation.
This is the first of a few posts from over the weekend. My internet access has been limited, so I’m posting them in one bunch. Enjoy!
Thursday was the first day I felt at home in New Delhi. I slept through the night, waking up refreshed to the sound of rain outside my window. An hour or so of heavy rain made the morning cool and serene. After a breakfast of mangoes and pomegranate in yogurt I lazed around the flat, watching TED videos on my iPad and journaling. None of us had classes so after a midday visit from the electrician to fix our doorbell we left to pursue various errands.
I returned to my host’s house to pick up my phone charger which I had there on Sunday. I was greeted by his sister and offered lunch. She sat with me and we chatted about her faith and the upcoming Hindu festival of Raksha Bandhan, when sisters will tie small bracelets on the wrists of their brothers and the brothers will return the gesture with a gift of money or jewelry. What a lovely holiday. I spent a couple hours at the house catching up on your emails and comments. I called home on Skype, waking my mom, and we chatted about settling into a routine and my new space. Gobind returned from work around 4pm and we caught up over a cup of tea. Walking the familiar steps out of his neighborhood to the metro stop where I caught an auto to bring me back to Munirka, I felt calm, capable, and happy.
I walked back to the flat though Munirka Market. The day before, we had finished was seemed like the endless task of furnishing our place. Today I experienced the market in an entirely new way. With no necessity to buy a bed, table, chairs, or linens, I was able to walk the crowded streets of the market as a passive observer. The economist in me has always relished in the exploration of outdoor bazaars, flea markets, farmers markets, etc. There is something beautifully raw and about the gathering of vendors and buyers to exchange the products of daily life. Today’s experience, much different from the previous days of dread and drudgery, made me realize that I love market shopping when I don’t have an urgent need to buy anything and can simply browse. I purchased pears, cucumbers, yogurt, and a gnarled ginger root to make tea, as well as supplies for my afternoon craft project, making curtains for my room.
Now I don’t want to brag, but I could call it quits and leave India tomorrow feeling quite proud and accomplished simply knowing that I fashioned some pretty stellar curtains for the windows in my room out of a bed sheet and matching pillow cases. I spent the afternoon in the living room using a Leatherman from Dad as a seem ripper, safety pins, tacks, and packing string to create matching curtains for my windows. Okay, so I will brag. This slide show displays my McGyver meets Maria Von Trapp domestic abilities.
More than the rain and falling temperatures, the process of “nesting” in my new space with my new roommies who are as foreign here as me has brought about my new found comfort. The first morning I woke up in our apartment I walked into the kitchen to find Lesly making breakfast…for three! The simple kindness of her consideration almost made me cry. Last night Lena made dinner, an improvised ratatouille with cauliflower, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and paneer (a mild Indian cheese similar to mozzarella). We also had potatoes (half Belgian, Lesly is a potato expert), cucumbers in yogurt, homemade garlic toast, and mangoes with pomegranate for dessert.
We each pitched in to put dinner together and as we sat down to eat I read “The Beginning”, a Taoist reflection I keep in my red travel book and read at the beginning of any big adventure. We commented on how lucky we are to have found such great company for the year, how nice it was to share a meal together, and dreamed of the future meals and celebrations we will share in this new home. After dinner our French friends Albin and Manu came over. They brought Kingfisher (great Indian beer) and the five of us stayed up until 1a.m. chatting and playing cards on the living room floor. As we sat and played I forgot I was in India. This group of young people from Germany, France, and the U.S. could be anywhere in the world, sharing beers, card tricks, games, and stories from home. I think the increased opportunities my generation has to share these simple moments with our peers around the world is a sign of good things to come for all of us.
Until next time,
For many of my college friends, home is a sunny island in the Bahamas or Trinidad, a bustling neighborhood in Los Angeles or New Jersey, a megacity in Asia, a charming town in Bosnia, or a vibrant city in Latin America. Surviving four years in the Nordic climes and small town atmosphere of Central Minnesota is no easy undertaking for many students at CSB|SJU. The food is bland, the wait for the bus too cold, and the desire to return to more familiar surroundings and one’s “normal” is never far away.
A question that was often brought up on my college campus was why do all of the international students sit together in the dining center? On Tuesday I gained an entirely new understanding of the international (or out of state) student experience (Tiffany, you were right). As I walked around campus, melting in the humid heat, I hoped to see familiar faces, craved familiar food in the canteen, and yearned to hear the sort of Midwestern English that my brain can process without trying. Instead I was greeted by perplexed and questioning stares, an unfamiliar language, and more red tape between me and a set class schedule. In many moments I wanted to give up and go home. The international student experience, which I always understood on a philosophical level, is now a “duh” that I can feel in my gut.
When you are an outsider there are a few of you and a whole lot of “them”. I have found comfort in the company of the other international students I have met. Whether from the U.S., Australia, Germany, France, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh, we are equally outsiders, not part of the 1.2 billion Indians inhabiting this country we will call home for one or more years. However I know from my experience studying abroad in Chile that I would miss out on an incredible opportunity if I confine myself to this comfortable circle of foreigners for the entire year. I am excited to meet my Indian classmates once I settle into a course schedule, and learning Hindi will no doubt increase my ability and comfort level to interact with other students.
My day took a turn for the better when we decided to hit up one of the huge malls for curtains. We arrived by auto to DLF Emporio, a gaudy complex complete with landscaping and fountains. I was surprised, and questioned whether I should be appalled, by the instant comfort created in the luxurious capitalist surroundings. I think Anna four years ago would have balked at the tragedy of globalization and overindulgence of the world’s economic elite at the expense of the poor and the world’s unique cultures. But today was no day for judging. I was looking for reprieve and the first thing I saw was an enormous Forever 21 billboard calling my name. We enjoyed an hour or so of air-conditioned retail therapy, though it was mostly window shopping. The familiar surroundings of the shopping complex gave me the energy to tackle an afternoon of furniture shopping in Munirka.
As we drove back from DLF to the sunny and dusty furniture market to buy desks and living room furniture we passed one of Delhi’s slums. The economic contrast less than one mile from the mall is overwhelming and indescribable.
Even though it is right in front of me, I find it impossible to understand the harsh poverty of the slums or discern an appropriate response to the street children who beg at every corner. I was told not to give money to beggars, as it condemns them to a life of poverty, but every time I brush past a needy person on the street I feel hardened and helpless. The conflict I cannot resolve inside me is the fact that I did not choose to be born a Caucasian female in the United States or adopted by two college educated parents in an upper middle class income bracket. I did not choose my place and privilege in this world any more than those children chose to grow up in an urban slum in India. Sure, I’ve worked to get where I am. I spent long hours studying in college and practiced my public speaking skills to gain the chance to study for one year in India. I love my life and would be hard pressed to change anything about it, but why was I, Anna Schumacher, born at a starting place more economically advantaged than so many people in this world?
The same Anna who would have been disgusted by the extravagance of the mall also felt extremely guilty that postion of privilege. My white privilege, Christian privilege, American privilege, economic privilege, educated privilege, were burdens that I carried with me and often tried to conceal. It has been an inner journey to accept these privileges as gifts and tools that can provide an advantage not only to me, but to those around me in the human family. Once I stopped trying to hide or negate my privilege I found incredible new stores of energy from which to draw in my work for the world. I started taking care of myself, suddenly feeling deserving of such care, and found renewed energy to take care of and stand alongside friends, family, or strangers.
I was reminded in a letter from home recently that this year in India is an experience to be lived through the HEART, not the mind. The answer to my question of privilege and place is not a logical one that I can uncover with rational thought. It is an answer I must seek in my heart. If you ask yourself the same question you will discern a different answer and the feeling that comes with it will reside not necessarily make sense in your brain, but it will resonate in your innermost self. It makes me think of the first line in the Rule of Saint Benedict in which we are invited to :
Listen with the ear of your heart.
There are certain realities in life which we cannot understand cerebrally; certain things that must be felt. These experiences are the subjects of paintings, dance, theater and spoken word, the experiences only sound and movement can convey. The reason National Geographic has so many pictures is because the most powerful parts of the human experience are impossible to convey in words. Each day I am offered a multitude of such realities. Each is a blessing. I am listening, with the ear of my heart.
Q: What did you learn in school today, Anna?
A: I learned that J.N.U. was not designed for casual student of the liberal arts persuasion who wish to take multiple courses from different departments.
I was spoiled in many ways at College of Saint Benedict especially when it came time to register for classes. Each semester I received a sticker from my academic advisor. On this sticker was listed a PIN number and my personal registration slot, a set time during which I could log onto our institutional database and reserve my classes. I had to do the prep work of preparing a list of possible courses for the semester (found in the comprehensive course schedule published promptly half way through each semester), including a few alternatives in order to prevent panic if one or more of my courses were full once it was my turn to register. I have always been a bit obsessive about my courses, so the first week of each semester was always spent sitting in on five to seven courses in order to select four. Pre-registration time included multiple visits to the very patient and caring sages who were my academic advisors. The fact that I can’t walk into Claire, Louis, Joe, or Matt’s office right now, plop down on a chair and say “tell me what to do with my life” makes me want to cry.
The casual student registration process at J.N.U. is quite different. Nothing is online, timetables (course schedules) are published the day classes start in most cases, and are subject to change at the whim of the professor and students in the course. Degree seeking students enroll and take classes in one particular department. As I mentioned before, each department has a different way of doing things, and timetables for each department are posted at different times. Casual students are able to take courses from any department. This freedom is fabulous, but also creates problems when trying to orchestrate a schedule for the semester.
This morning I learned that three of the courses I’m interested in are overlapping. So I decided to attend one today and see how I like it but the professor never showed up. I will go to Environmental Economics tomorrow at 11am, but the other 2-3 courses I’ll take this semester are yet to be decided. I spent the afternoon after my attempted course walking the halls of three floors in four different buildings (School of Intl Studies, School of Environmental Studies, and School of Social Sciences I & II), noting the course offerings of each deparment. There are some promising options in the School of Environmental Sciences and the Center for Regional Development. The process of actually getting enrolled in 3-4 classes for the semester has been the most challenging and frustrating part of my time in India. This is the experience that has made me most miss the comfort and logic of American higher education and the security of the small liberal arts cocoon that I flew out of in May 2010.
My opportunity in this challenge, or perhaps my challenge in this opportunity, is to maintain focus. Many people gave me this advice: focus yourself during your time in India, it is such a crazy place that if you don’t focus yourself you will get swept away. I trust that in the next two weeks I’ll be able to put together a schedule that makes sense and does not put me off course of my intended direction of study. My advisors also know that for me the term “direction of study” looks more like a fisherman casting a large net toward promising waters than an archer shooting an arrow at a target. Wish me luck!