Wednesday, September 26, 2012

It's All About the Food.

 As some of you might imagine, India is very into it's food. We eat rice at almost every single meal without fail, and they are always asking if we are "veg" or "non-veg". It's a big deal here, because many Hindus are strictly veg. They assume that Americans are hardcore carnivores and are always shocked to learn that someone in my group is a vegetarian.

Trying a fresh coconut.
People here are big on breakfast. Literally the first thing people at school as you in the morning is "Had your breakfast?". Like, actually EVERYONE asks. Even all the way til lunchtime. It gets really awkward when I say that I haven't and they ask why and I have to explain that I don't really like eating breakfast and they ask if I don't like Indian breakfast foods and I have to say that I really don't eat breakfast anywhere and they act like it's the strangest thing they've ever heard (which it definitely ISN'T--you should see some of the bizarre articles published in the newspaper here!). I've concluded that much of the time, the simplest answer when anyone asks this question is "Yep!"
Classic "mess" (cafeteria) food.

 As per Indian custom, we eat with our hands here. You take your four fingers and mush some liquid into your rice, form a kind of ball and then lift it up with those fingers and push it into your mouth with your thumb. I'm terrible at it. I can't ever get my ball formed right, so I'm essentially just shoving fingerfuls of food into my mouth. It was really hard at first to be so bad at eating and have all the girls around me staring and giggling while I tried. It doesn't bother me as much anymore, either because I've gotten better at it or they've just gotten over it...I'm not sure which.
Cooking in the wok during cuisine.

The meal we made during my first practical cuisine class.
 I've gotten pretty good at eating all the spicy things they throw my way, although according to my cuisine teacher the Indian catering students we have class with use significantly less chiles when preparing dishes that the American students are going to be eating. And they're STILL hot! Not to mention we taste test everything here and my teacher likes to just plop some piping hot thing into your palm. A few times I've chickened out right before the food left the spoon and pulled my hand away. Whenever I do this, the Indian students think it is hilarious that I can't palm some curry or other that's been simmering for ages. They can all just pour things onto their hands no problem. But everything that we've made has been really delicious.

Making dinner in the apartment.
 On Wednesday and Friday nights, as well as weekends, we cook dinner for ourselves in our apartment. I've been making a lot of stir fries or simply heating up bagged curry dishes (the Indian equivalent of a microwave frozen dinner, I think) to eat over rice. I also bought some pasta, pine nuts, and sun dried tomatoes (those things all cost a fortune, but that's okay since it'll be nice to have a more American...okay, Italian... meal) that I'm really excited about cooking up. And then there was the one time that my apartment ordered some Pizza Hut delivery and watched a movie. That was so much fun and it was real pepperoni and it tasted ALMOST exactly like American Pizza Hut!
That one time I ordered Pizza Hut delivery in India...

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On Being American.

Probably anyone reading this blog is sitting somewhere in America, wanting to know what I’ve been up to here in India. Probably, along with the rest of the country, you all have been hearing from the media about the crazy Muslims throughout the eastern world who are attacking US ambassadors and the like. Perhaps you have even been wondering if I’m okay or have had any exposure to these troubles. (Rest assured, I have been completely safe during my stay in India.) In fact, if I were in America, I would probably be sitting in my dorm room, completely in the dark about whatever was happening except for maybe the occasional blurb on Yahoo news. But I’m not in America; I’m in India. I don’t have the luxury of ignorance or nonchalance here because I am in the part of the world where the trouble is. The biggest problems happening in India right now are in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu—which is the state I’m living in. Chennai is quite a distance from my city, but still. It is a little tense even here in Coimbatore. On Friday there was a protest put on by a group of Muslims called the TMMK trying to get the government to ban the film “The Innocence of Muslims” during which an American flag and an effigy of Obama were burned. The US Consulate in Chennai was attacked and has been shut down for the past few days for safety reasons.

It is interesting to read the newspapers here and understand this situation from a non-American perspective. All over the world, Muslims who feel victimized are calling for their governments to ban this offensive film and for the American government to ban it on their end. Coming as I do from a good understanding of what American freedom of speech is, I understand that the leaders of America’s hands are tied. There is nothing they can do to stop the video from being publicized. I get that, and I think that the people criticizing the American government for not taking action need to consider that it would be constitutionally illegal to censor this video. These people are being a little ridiculous by asking for the movie to be banned stateside, in my opinion. That being said, I feel equally endangered by the men who made this movie as I do by the people who are up in arms about it. The producer of the film supposedly said that though it is regrettable that people have died in response to this film, he will not stop its production nor does he regret making it. I was completely appalled by that statement. I haven’t seen the video, but cannot fathom that it is worth the lives of multiple people. What makes them think that their opinions are valuable enough to not even care that people are dying for their offensive content.

It is foolish and unnecessary for the general public of Muslims to resort to violence about some stupid thing that Americans did, because everybody knows that Americans make stupid offensive blunders all the time. But even more horrific and embarrassing to me is that I am from a country where someone can think that his personal opinions are more valuable than another person’s life. How selfish. How uncivilized. And who’s to say that I won’t be the next person harmed over this film? Or the other students in my group, or director of the India Studies Program or one of his young children? Or some other American student studying abroad in a Muslim country, just trying to learn about a different culture, to bridge a gap of misunderstanding and judgment that results in unnecessary violence? We’re just people. Nobody that I’m here with has seen the movie in question, and we certainly weren’t involved in the production of it, but to an angry mob of protesters our pale faces represent a selfish, rude individual who refuses to respect their culture. The color of my skin incriminates me. It is virtually impossible for me to blend in now, which was awkward when I first got here but now would be better described as alarming. I don’t want to die for some arrogant jerk’s video that I haven’t even seen. Yet he doesn’t feel compelled to stop the publication of this film. He doesn’t even feel compelled to adequately apologize. All I can say about this situation is that I am deeply disappointed in both parties responsible for the deaths of these innocent people.  

There was a small article in the newspaper a few days ago that called for the Muslim riot bands to wise up. It said that they were doing more harm than good and destroying anything beneficial that had been accomplished by Arab Spring. The article pointed out that by taking a reasonable and non-violent protest against the offensive video they would have surprised the westerners and probably would have earned some respect and perhaps even made headway in the issue. I was disappointed by just how little space the article took up in the paper because I thought it was well articulated and perfectly reasonable.

Throughout this entire fiasco, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be an American and be proud of that fact.  During other trips abroad, I’ve been aware of the general view the rest of the world has that Americans are lazy, stupid, rude, and immodest, but it hasn’t ever really affected me or my experiences. I’ve never been ashamed to be American before. I still don’t know if ashamed is the right word to describe my emotion toward my nationality, but pride is certainly a far cry from what I’m feeling. I don’t know how we’ve convinced ourselves that we are greater or better than our neighbors around the world, or that what we do doesn’t affect them, or that their opinions don’t matter, but this view must be wrong. I’m not sure if our freedom is worth what we think it is. If the application of freedom on American soil means that Americans abroad, who don’t have the benefit of protection due to freedom of speech, are endangered, is that freedom real? And if so, is it worth it? Though free from legal repercussions for voicing our opinions, there is no freedom from the real life consequences of our actions.  

Anyway, those are some of the things that have been swirling around in my head over the past few days. This post is simply my thought process, me working through all of the difficult moments that I’ve been faced with recently.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Lesson Two: Look Both Ways AND Listen.

Possibly the most dangerous thing I’ve encountered in India is the road transportation. The first rule of Indian driving is that there are no rules. I mean, I’m exaggerating but only kind of. In the time that I’ve spent here, I’ve not seen anyone enforcing road rules at all, which means that for actual driving purposes it’s as if no rules exist. When I say “look both ways” what I really mean is look right then left then right then left then right then left then right again before even stepping into the road. The best way to tackle crossing the street is to cross the first half and then deal with crossing the second half, even if there isn’t a median and you’re just chilling in the middle of the road. Crosswalks (they’re called “zebra crossings” here) don’t really matter. I’ve seen a few, but they don’t affect the way anyone drives. I’ve also never seen a stop sign. There are a few traffic lights in the big intersections of the city, but that’s it. Cars drive on the left side of the road, which is confusing enough for an American even before you take into account that the right side isn’t considered the “wrong side” but rather just the “other side.” Which is how I draw the conclusion that you have to be basically all seeing before you can cross the street. The sense of sound is also valuable in this endeavor because instead of using a blinker to signal when a car is turning, Indian drivers just like to honk their horns a bunch and the cars here play music when they are in reverse, similar to the way large trucks beep in America, but with an annoying ice cream truck type jingle. I would like to say that I’ve pretty much mastered the art of crossing the street in India during the daytime! Hooray for me! Unfortunately, as soon as the sun goes down endeavor becomes completely terrifying all over again.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Lesson One: Take Off Your Shoes

Coming from a background of dorm living, where I’ve trained myself to never be barefoot, this was a really hard adjustment for the first day in a new (third world) country. In India, feet are considered repulsively dirty. As with many countries in this part of the world, the ground is dusty and dry which in turn makes shoes absolutely filthy. When entering a home, temple, or various other places that deserve reverence, it is Indian custom to remove your shoes. Furthermore, the bottom of the foot is considered dirty by association and shouldn’t be pointed at other people. That means no propping your feet up on the coffee table and that even crossing your legs isn’t a totally nonchalant position like it is at home. It is weird that in America, which is on the whole a much more cleanly place than India, I spend all of my time with at least flip flops on to keep my feet safe from germs and yet while I’ve been here I’ve spent an astounding amount of time in public places barefoot. It is reassuring to know that Indians take great pride in keeping a clean home and sweep sometimes several times a day. All I can say is that I hope I don’t get ringworm.

Escaping City Life.

On Saturday, the students from the India Studies Program were sent home with some of the students from BACAS (the college I’m attending here in Coimbatore). Now, many of the students who go here are from places far away and live in school housing which is called “the hostel”. These students are referred to as “hostelites” and have LOTS of rules. But the remainder of the BACAS students live in and around Coimbatore with their families, and those were the students we were sent home with.

The bus drivers wanted a picture with us. 

Ashley, a fellow ISPer from Pennsylvania, and I went with a girl named Yoga to her family’s home. We rode two busses in a journey that ended up being about an hour and a half long just to get from the school to her house—which she makes twice every weekday. It was crazy! Anyway, Coimbatore is bordered by some sort of mountain range which can be seen even from in the city but are quite a ways in the distance. Well our bus journey took us all the way to the last stop on the 3 bus and almost to the foot of the mountain range. It was amazing! Yoga lives in a small village that her family has lived in for over two hundred years, according to her uncle. Several of her family members all live within a few houses of each other and we spent a significant part of our day simply visiting with each different aunt in her family, touring their homes, and attempting (and failing) to refuse the food that EVERYONE in India offers to (read: forces on) guests. Unfortunately, almost nobody in Yoga’s village knew fluent English, even Yoga herself. Her uncle who is a lawyer in the city was able to converse with us, and another sixteen year old uncle (Yeah, I don’t get it either…) also knew pretty advanced English. I only know about two words in Tamil at this point (hello and thank you), so communication was limited. But it was nice to get out of the city for a day.

Yoga’s family has traditionally been farmers and they still own their farmland and employ ten to fifteen people to farm it, so Ashley and I got to journey on the backs of motorcycles along a rutted, one lane, dirt street to the farmland the family owns. At that point, we could literally see the base of the mountain. The landscape here is remarkable because the land is completely flat and then the mountains just bust up out of the earth.The farm was pretty interesting. Not really what someone from America would picture a farm as. Everything was still all dusty and didn't really seem like good soil for growing things in.

While we were in Yoga's village, we visited a local government run school. Because we were foreigners and guests to the village, we were able to walk through the rooms that the students were working in. They were all so adorable that I just wanted to take them all home with me! I was dying. All I had to do was wave at a little kid and they would be so excited they couldn't even sit still. It was precious.

By the end of the day I was so tired that I almost fell asleep on the bus ride back to the city! And it was only about 4:30 in the afternoon. I can't believe that Yoga rides the bus an hour and a half every morning, sits through a day of school, and then travels all the way home again in the evening. I thought it was bad to ride in to Hall-Dale from Richmond when I was in high school. At THAT was in my mom's van, not public transportation. Overall though, it was a great day and I was really glad that I got to spend a day away from the noises and crazy traffic of the city!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Vannakam! First looks at India.

My semester abroad began with a drive to Boston, a flight to New York, and two international flights containing minimal sleep and a few icky plane meals. Upon arrival in Mumbai (previously known as Bombay) I met up with one other girl from my group and we waited together for the other members of our group to arrive. We were supposed to all meet up there and catch a domestic Indian flight to Coimbatore, the city our program is in, but we sat there for about seven hours and never saw anyone else we were supposed to meet. Eventually we moved forward through the airport and discovered another pair, and at the last possible moment we all moved through security and happened upon the remaining three members of our group. It turns out we’d all spent the night in different parts of the airport, all worried that the other participants weren’t going to make our group flight.

Crazy traffic patterns at one of the few stop lights in the city.
First rickshaw (aka auto) ride without an adult!
Upon arrival in Coimbatore we were welcomed by Kirk, the director of the India Studies Program, as well as several Indian students who are assigned to us as mentors. Each of them had a flower for one of us and they were super excited to meet us. That entire day was kind of a blur of settling into our apartment, getting an introduction to the college campus, and meeting lots of different important people.

During the first few days here, there have been many introduction and orientation activities happening. We went to a neighborhood called RS Puram (puram means neighborhood in tamil) that is kind of a shopping district in order to buy outfits for school. The shirts are called camiz, the pants are salwaars, and the scarves (which are NOT optional to the outfit) are called duppattas.

The first day we went to the school, some of the students from the design program made rongolis. They are these really cool Indian designs drawn first in chalk and then filled in with brightly colored sand or flowers. They were absolutely beautiful. 

Who knew I was going to Piza??

Even though I’ve only been here for a week, I have learned MANY lessons about Indian culture and how it differs from American culture. I’m planning a series of posts about all the things I’ve learned since getting here, so keep your eyes peeled for that! Lesson number one will be how difficult it is to find internet access, let alone wi-fi so that I can use my own computer. UGH.