Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving, India style.

On Thursday, everyone in the India Studies Program had to go to their internships for the last time. In case any of you were wondering, there is no Thanksgiving in India. It's a purely American thing. (Actually, Canada has one too, but it's a different day...)

We wanted to have a Thanksgiving meal with our neighbors, but we knew we wouldn't have time to do all of our cooking if we had internships all day. Instead, we dubbed Saturday our official Thanksgiving celebration and called it good. I mean, our neighbors didn't care! So yesterday we cooked all afternoon and had a delicious feast with seven of our neighbors, one friend, the program assistant, and the seven of us ISPers.

The challenge that remained was how to cook Thanksgiving using almost exclusively stovetop. We had long since given up the idea of turkey because you can't even buy them here, not to mention non of us has ever cooked one. And some of our neighbors and Hannah are vegetarians. But we still had to look up lots of versions of recipes to be cooked on the stove. We had a stovetop stuffing (no, not the brand; it was cooked from scratch in the wok), mashed potatoes, honey glazed carrots, and apple crisp (that's what I made!) all prepared exclusively on the gas burners. Additionally, Kelly made a green bean casserole that utilized our neighbor's microwave oven and Morgan made biscuits in the McClelland's oven (which is only about the size of a small microwave and sits on the counter in their kitchen). Morgan's family is Southern and she had a different biscuit recipe than mine. I still prefer my Bakewells, but hers were really good in their own way and I was impressed because she hasn't made them very much before and she had to modify the recipe for what was available here!

To make my apple crisp, I cooked oats, chopped almonds, brown sugar, and butter up in the wok til it was crunchy (basically, a stovetop granola), and cooked apples, raisins, sugar, and cinnamon in the wok separately. The recipe tells you to put the apples in a pan and then put the crunch over it, but because I made such a huge amount, we didn't really have enough space for that. So instead, I left them in their separate bowls and we put them together when we served them onto everyone's plates. It came out pretty well for what it was.

Since there were so many of us that we wouldn't really fit into any one apartment, we had a picnic on the roof. We spread sheets out and lit little Indian lamps and had all the pans of food up there. I bet none of you have had a nighttime picnic on the roof for Thanksgiving before! But it was like the perfect temperature up there and it was really lovely!

I think for me the most memorable part of the Thanksgiving time though was when I talked to my family on the phone. They all got together for desserts at about 5 pm EST, which is 3:30 am for me here.I wasn't planning on staying up to chat with everyone, but I ended up being awake until after 7am my time because I was working on a final project anyway, so at 3:30 I called them up. It was really nice to have a few moments talking to everyone individually, but the most impactful conversation was the one I had with my brother, Zac. Honestly, our ten minute conversation was probably the longest that I've had with him in a few years. At one point in the conversation, he commented that it's weird because I'm here living in India and he has literally no idea what that's like, no idea what India is like at all. That was the first time anyone acknowledged that verbally to me before, and I know it's something that the other members of India Studies Program have been dealing with, too. Most of us called home or skyped for Thanksgiving, but a lot of people felt more distant after skyping than they did before. It boils down to the fact that even though it's kind of a better glimpse of our lives here, skype will never do justice to our lives in this place. Even when we go home we'll never be able to fully articulate what we've experienced so that our friends and families will understand everything that's happened here. Several of my fellow participants have expressed their frustration with attempting to explain things to their families and not getting what they felt was an appropriate reaction. So we all thought it was neat that Zac took the time to verbally acknowledge that he literally has no clue what it's like for me to be here. After that fact was established, I explained a few small things so that he might have some kind of picture, but it was nice to have it out in the open that he didn't, couldn't and wouldn't fully grasp what I've been up to.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Change of Plans.

A change of flights. A few weeks ago I made the decision to go to Nepal before I fly home. Mostly because roundtrip tickets from Delhi to Kathmandu are only $200 and postponing my flight from Delhi to Boston a week was only $138. I dare you to get to Nepal for $338 ever again. It'll never happen. So I figured I'd go for it. A few of my friends here will be going with me. We're just going to chill in and around Kathmandu for a week before flying back to Delhi to catch our flights home on December 23rd.

In the meantime, things here in Coimbatore are wrapping up. We've got just over a week left in the city for all of our tests, papers, projects, and presentations. After we finish that all up, we're heading out on November 29th for a few weeks traveling around the rest of the country. Our first stop is in Hyderabad, the capital city of the neighboring state to the north, Andhra Pradesh. Hyderabad a seventeen hour train ride from here. And yes, we are doing all in one go. Bring it on, India, bring it on.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I Can Hear the Bells

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get invited to an Indian wedding. One of my friends here in Coimbatore was friends with the bride when they went to college together and the invitation he received was also extended to "the foreigners." So one of the other ISP participants, Morgan, and I headed down to a place called Trivandrum for a week-long break called Pooja holidays (that is, a week-long break from school because there were Poojas, a Hindu ritual, and Bakrid [otherwise known as Eid al-Adha], a Muslim holy day). We traveled by train for the very first time! It was interesting. Honestly, it wasn't as bad as people had been mentally preparing me for. It helped that I am little so that my feet didn't stick off the end of my bench-like bed in the sleeper car. At every stop, chai and coffee wallahs troll up and down through the train cars calling "Chaichaichaichaichai" and "Coffeecoffeecoffeecoffee" with an accent so thick you can barely understand them (think "Peanuts! Get your peanuts here!" at a baseball game; those people are American and I still don't know what they're saying half the time). But they don't only sell drinks-- there are dishes of biryani (a rice dish that is considered a national specialty but is prepared differently everywhere), plates of vada (a savory doughnut-like fried snack), and so many other things to choose from. And that's just what they're peddling ON the train! If you have a longer stop, you can leave the train to buy other things at the station.

When we got to our stop, the bride, whose name is Siji, and her mother were there to pick us up. Morgan, Poornith (the friend who invited us), Sonali (another friend of the bride who was our travel companion), and I crammed into our small cab with the two of them and the cabbie. Siji's family lives in a sort of complex. It's difficult to describe because there isn't really any relation in America, but there was one main entrance to the street with several of her extended family's homes back there. Even her grandparents were buried behind the houses! Because we were staying with the bride's family, we had behind the scenes access to Indian wedding preparations.

The day before the wedding, the bride gets all dressed up and has a kind of reception in her home where she receives her extended family members, family friends, and just about anyone who wants to come wish her well and see her off. They all pose for the camera standing next to her, and each visitor gets a piece of candy before they leave. This goes on for hours as people trickle through. The last people to come are the representatives from the groom's family-- basically, everyone from the groom's family except for the man himself. They bear all the gifts that are traditionally given to the bride for the wedding day; platters of fruit, flowers for the ceremony the next day, her wedding sari and veil, even her shoes and undergarments arrive on big silver trays in the arms of the groom's mother, sisters, and cousins. After dropping these items off and posing for the thousand obligatory photographs, the groom's family leaves for home again and everyone heads to bed for the big day.

This part of our stay was particularly fun for me because I got to hang out with the group of Siji's friends who were attending the wedding. Of all the people that were there, only six of the guests were the bride's college friends. They arrived at the beginning of this event and stayed til the very end despite the fact that the four boys were staying an hour away because one of them was helping photograph everything. While Siji was receiving guests, the rest of us all sat out on the porch chatting and having fun. It was a unique experience because at our college, boys and girls don't really interact. At all. So other than the only boy in my ISP group, I've barely even talked to guys since I got here. It was fun to just sit and shoot the breeze with a mixed group of males and females. Then, Siji came out and joined us for a while as she waited for her future in-laws to arrive and we all sang "action songs" together (basically songs I learned at China Lake and they sang during their years leading chapel choir at BACAS).

The day of the wedding was intense. Siji was fawned over by all of her female relatives. We were supposed to leave by ten at the latest, and didn't get out of the house until after ten thirty. Morgan, Sonali, Jenny (another friend of the bride) and I were shuttled in a minibus with the rest of the bride's family to the church where the wedding was held. The service was more than a little boring. Because it was a Christian wedding, they have VERY traditional vows and ceremony. There were hymns and LONG prayers said during the service, and even an entire sermon by one of the important clergymen. After the service was the first of two official receptions. It was in the same church complex as the ceremony but in a different building. The bride and groom stood on a stage and received hordes of guests, again posing for pictures. This was also the part where they fed each other and their families cake.

After the first reception, the bride goes home with the groom's family and they new couple is fed bananas and milk. Those two items represent something, but I don't remember what anymore. Meanwhile the rest of the bride's family and our group of friends retreated back to Siji's family's home to rest and change for the second reception. This was the one we wore our saris to! One of the aunties helped Morgan and I get dressed. We left with the family in two minibuses and trekked an hour and twenty minutes to the site of the second reception. This one was at night and was much fancier than the first. Again, the newlyweds were on stage, receiving guests, taking presents, getting photos taken. Also on stage was a whole scenic setup behind them including live doves! The photo ops with the couple are really awkward because not only do they take your picture, but the entire thing is filmed by video camera. As in, they make a video of you standing there and smiling. So uncomfortable. Anyway, the food at this reception was delicious! It included American-style dinner rolls (something I haven't had since being here)! And there was ice cream for dessert. Yum.

After the reception, we were bussed back to Siji's house to sleep for a few meager hours before getting up to catch our train. We did a lot during those few days, but at the same time, much of it was only sitting around and watching people interact with the bride. What I concluded is that being an Indian bride is really exhausting because you have to act so enthusiastic toward everyone, even when you don't know who they are. And there are a lot of people that you don't know who they are! So strange.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

If You Attempt a Titanic Pose with Your Photo-phobic Friend...

You might end up with a truly awkward series of photos. Kinda like this.

Lesson Four: Come Hungry. Or, On Hospitality and Gandhi.

Hospitality is a huge part of the culture in India. When you go to someone's house, you bring them a hostess present of some type (we usually get fruit or half a Kg of a famous sweet from the shop near our school). In the same way, when you leave, it is typical for the host to send you on your way with some small gift in return. If you stop in someone's home for any amount of time at all, expect to be pressured into tea of coffee and a small snack at the very least. This is just the way things go here. For the most part, it has been a really interesting study in loving your neighbor and caring for one another. It is part of the Indian culture to show people you care for them by feeding them. Hospitality is of the utmost importance.

The drawback to this insistence on hospitality and feeding people is that we are often stuffed full of food to the brink of exploding. And try as we might to refuse the snacks people push on us, it is considered insulting to refuse someone's hospitality and we feel pressured to oblige them. Last weekend, when I opted for only a small amount of rice at a meal following a church service, the young man behind me in line made a comment about, "we're not feeding rats!" took the scoop from the girl who was dishing it out, and plopped a bunch more rice on my plate. It is practically impossible to eat a small amount unless we're in the cafeteria or else our own apartment.

The conclusion I've drawn from this is that Gandhi had a ridiculous amount of willpower! I mean, it was already impressive that the man fasted for so long. But now that I have experienced the will of the Indian woman to make people eat, I have a whole other appreciation of Gandhi's dedication.

In all seriousness though, I have learned a lot about reverence for a leader from the people of India. In my contemporary India class, my teacher was brought to tears recounting the dedication Gandhi had and the sacrifices he made for this country. Reflecting upon it, I couldn't think of a single American leader who inspires tears in the American people, especially more than fifty years after their death. Martin Luther King Jr. is probably the closest we get, and even he doesn't inspire as much reverie as Indians have for Gandhi.

The lessons here are to go places hungry (do NOT eat before you go!) and respect your leaders. Or maybe elect and follow leaders worth respecting.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On Being American, Part II.

In case anyone has been living under a rock (in which case you probably wouldn't be reading my blog, so that statement makes little sense...), today is voting day. I sent in my absentee ballot about six weeks ago in the hopes that it would make it home to Maine in time for elections. I have no way of know for sure, but as all the rest of my mail has arrived in ten to fourteen days, I think it's safe to assume that I have successfully voted in my first Presidential election.

It's weird and a little bit challenging to be eleven and a half hours separated from Eastern Standard Time. Right now it is actually almost 4 am Wednesday morning for me in Coimbatore, and yet much of America will still not have voted. For me, today has been a long day of jitters every time I remember that the fate of the America I return to will be decided in the next twenty-four hours.

The US Presidential elections are a big deal even in a place as far away as India. In fact, as some here have pointed out, the policies that the president will put into effect might have more of an impact on the average Indian than they will on the average American. Controversies like approval of FDI (foreign direct investment) in India are hot-button topics for people here. Starbucks has recently come to India, and Wal-Mart is on its way in. Globalization such as this could be really harmful to the economy of India, which is already so fragile to begin with.

With all the publicity this election is getting here, people have been asking us frequently about our political beliefs and who we want to win. As a politically diverse group of students from all over the country, this is a difficult question to answer. Instead, we've been deflecting and attempting to learn the Indian perspective on the presidential candidates. It has been really interesting. Apparently, most of the countries in the world, India included, support Obama over Romney. A conversation I had with a few women earlier this week confirmed this opinion. The women said that they liked Obama's charisma and that it wasn't his fault he took over during such a tumultuous time. They said that if he were president instead of George W. Bush, America would have been in a much better place back in 2008. They also said that they want him to have another term so that he can actually have some time to start getting things done.

As much as I agreed with most of what they said, it was all I could do to not contradict them at that statement (and one of the women was the secretary of the college I attend here -- a role similar to the president in Indian colleges-- so it would have been really inappropriate to do so). Four years is the term of the American presidency. It shouldn't be a requirement that a president have two terms to get things done. The first term should be long enough. I really don't want Romney to be president, but the reasons these women were giving frustrated me as a participant in the American political system. It's hard to represent a country that everybody thinks they have some right to an opinion on. Yes, America is influential in the world. Yes, people here are more informed about my politics than I am about theirs. But to have die-hard opinions about the governing system of a country you've never visited and is nothing like your own seems a little ridiculous to me.

That being said, I am even more interested to hear the results of the Maine-specific topics that I voted for. I want to see Angus King in the Senate. And most of all, I want everybody in Maine to have the chance to marry whomever they love. I don't think it's fair at all that some people are denied basic human rights because they happen to love someone who is the same sex as they are. I will be seriously disappointed if Maine chooses to deny this right to people during this election. All I can say is that at least I voted this time. I think.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Things I'm Looking Forward to at Home.

Things I'm looking forward to at home:
(Vaguely in order of how much I want them, but not really.)
(This list is not comprehensive.)

1. Ovens
2. Supermarkets
3. Jeans
4. Dryers
5. My mattress
6. Shower
7. Flushing toilet paper
8. Meat without bones
9. Eating with silverware
10. Coffee
11. Juice
12. Driving
13. Sweaters
14. Socks
15. Using my iphone
16. Stars
17. Electricity
18. Ice cream
19. Salad
20. Water
21. Free time
22. Kitschy arty crafty stuff
23. Bacon
24. Sandwiches
25. Not having to worry about cultural appropriateness
26. Starches that aren't rice
27. No (or at least fewer) bugs
28. Cheerios
29. Reese's
30. Bagel Mainea
31. Panera
32. Ice skating
33. Having an income
34. Foliage
35. Reliable mail
36. Chocolate
37. Beef
38. Earth-conscious waste systems
39. No language barrier
40. Bookstores
41. Wifi
42. "Breathe easy, you're in Maine"
43. Straightening my hair
44. Watching movies
45. Interacting with guys
46. Maine culture
47. Seeing the babies
48. Late night in Lane
49. A campus that has places to hang out
50. Blankets

Friday, November 2, 2012

Halloween Party

We can do it!
Sometimes, you just need a little bit of American culture in your life. After seeing everyone in the world’s (okay, not really everyone in the world…but still.) pictures from their Halloween parties last weekend, we in the ISP needed a bit of Halloween ourselves. Not to mention our director’s children, who are two and four years old, have never really experienced Halloween because they have been living in India for the past year and change. So we decided to throw a little shindig. We told ourselves it was for their benefit, but really we loved it as much as they did.

Kirk, Jireh, Nadine, Kairos, Hannah.
Everyone dressed up and we served no bake cookies, apples cooked with cinnamon (after the caramel totally failed), and wassail. I know that wassail is technically a Christmas drink, but it seemed like a pretty good option for fall festivities, especially as an alternative to apple cider. Not to mention all the candy we had. In fact, each of the people in our apartment hid in one of the rooms and all the children (Kairos, Jireh, and their neighbor, four-year-old Nadine) came “trick or treating” to the different rooms.
Enjoying my wassail.

Pin the leaf on the tree.

Then we played pin the leaf on the tree which was a variation game where there was no objective and nobody won, but we all successfully pinned our leaves on our tree. And it's still up and super cute. 

Garden gnome and friends humored me.

But the best part was that everybody involved had a blast. And that's about all you can ask for.