Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Where is the weekend?

The first Friday I was here, I asked a couple of the students if they were excited it was the weekend. Similar to many questions I ask, I got the side-to-side Indian headshake, indicating yes, but with an expression on their faces that is easily interpreted as, I have no idea what you are saying. Typical to most conversations, I repeated myself using different words to explain what I trying to ask, but unlike most conversations my second attempt did not clarify anything. I thought to myself, maybe the idea of a weekend is foreign because the schedule at Nicholson is SO strict. The girls have school on Saturday mornings eliminating any reason to be excited its Saturday. At lunch, I asked the teachers the same question, again it was the headshake with a confused look. I stated it more simply by asking if they had plans to do anything because it was Friday. I again got the same answer.
After school that Friday, I came back to my room disappointed. Craving pizza, I was hoping to at least celebrate the completion of my first week and the arrival of the weekend by going to town and drinking pineapple juice and eating my favorite Indian biscuit with the teachers. Instead I prepared for the same week-day routine, Malayalam lessons at 6:30 followed by evening prayer and dinner at 8pm. I had a hard time motivating myself to go to language lessons when it was Friday. I also had a hard time wrapping my head around evening prayer on a Friday night- “Give us a break from praying, its Friday night for pete’s sake,” I thought. Well the next night I found out was no different- I was expected to be at language lessons and evening prayer. My enthusiasm was non-existent especially because I knew that church on Sunday began at 7am. Evening prayer may be understandable but I couldn’t even sleep in before I went to church? No wonder the girls gave me blank looks. Where was the weekend?
This feeling of ‘fun,’ or lack-thereof stuck with me the following week. I asked one of the teachers what she does for fun-she shrugged. I began to feel bad when thinking about it. Here I am doing a year of service, obsessed with finding ‘fun,’ while the people here in India have no concept of fun?
This past weekend at our monthly retreat, I clarified that there is no idea of the weekend of India. The response given was that their fun, or relaxation time was worked into their work-week. This made sense- I have noticed myself enjoying more of the little things…even the joy of my own breath. While I just assumed it was due to the most down time I have had in 4 years, I see clearly that it is apart of their culture. I must admit waking up at 6am, 7 days a week is rough and thinking about my alarm going off at 6am for the next 320 days straight is even rougher- there is a lot to be said about incorporating ‘fun’ into your daily routine instead of saving it all for Friday night.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The First Dip in the Journey

Saturday was my first true experience with frustration. In the past 2 weeks, little things have frustrated me and I have had to mentally talk myself through them but today it was a feeling of complete helplessness. On Saturdays I don’t have any responsibilities at Nicholson so I am trying to find other places in the community I could spend some time. I decided to go a home where people who are orphans and have a variety of developmental disabilities live. A teacher from the school accompanied me so I could get there. Amidst trying to figure out how I would remember what the bus stopped looked like, I was trying to gauge my emotions. I was thinking about what I thought my emotions should be versus what exactly I was feeling. I thought most people would be nervous so maybe I should be too. However, the ever-present feeling of, “I have no idea what this will be like, all I know is I will be there shortly,” is the only lucid thought I can put to how I was feeling.

Upon arriving I met with the ‘Supervisor’ of the home. He gave me a little background and then asked me how things differed in the United States. I was struck that no funding they receive comes from the government. I began explaining to him the differences however, the language barrier blocked my ability to explain all the differences. In India, all funds are collected through churches and outside offerings. The idea of family is much stronger in India. Family is expected to take care of family, eliminating the needs for retirement communities, as we know them.

After briefly talking about the home, I was given a tour. During the tour, I met most all the residents. I was able to hold everyone’s hand and exchange a smile and head nod. Soumia, the teacher who accompanied me translated our conversations, missing most of what I was trying to communicate but attempting to carry on a conversation. After eating lunch on a plantain leaf, Soumia asked me if I wanted to visit some more. I really did- however, I knew she was going to her home after the visit and I didn’t want to take up more of her time. She was very patient and said she didn’t mind staying if I wanted. This is where the frustration began. I needed Soumia to be there to communicate. I was completely helpless. My attempts at asking a resident their name failed due to my Western pronunciation of Malayalam words. After an hour more I decided I needed to leave, I was becoming too frustrated. Even with my efforts to sing and dance with the residents, the simple fact that I couldn’t talk to them was beyond frustrating. As we were leaving Soumia asked why I wasn’t happy anymore. I tried hard to hold back the tears but her question opened the flood gates- I wasn’t happy because all I wanted to do was carry on a conversation. The residents of Darmagiri Mandiram rarely got visitors and there I was to visit, but what good is a visit when one can’t even understand your pronunciation of “What is your Name?”

That night my Malayalam lessons meant more. I had a huge motivation to go and continue striving to learn the letters, (despite the fact they all sound so similar and my tongue cannot physically make the sounds,) so one day soon I can go back and communicate with the Darmagiri Mandiram residents.

I ended the night positively as I read the young girls a bedtime story. It may have been more therapy for me than them, but the expression of love was something I needed at that moment. The feeling of helplessness I experienced earlier in the day transitioned to a feeling of joy as we read about Franklin the Turtle and his adventures.

Finding A Balance

This week (last week as you read this) began my first week of teaching. It was exciting, intimidating and humbling all at once. I was given very little information so when I entered the classroom, I felt like students were my teachers. Holding on to every last word I said (or maybe just trying to understand me,) the students were very attentive and disciplined each other when needed. I quickly observed that my prepared lessons plans would be too difficult and scrambled to think of a game I could teach. Heads-up Seven-up was a favorite of mine as well as the first game that came to mind, so after introductions, which I think I caught maybe 3 names out of a class of 20, I gave it a stab. One student ended up translating the directions but I noticed in all the classes I have taught this week- the students’ ability to understand/speak greatly varies within a class. While this increases my challenge, its very understandable.

A struggle I faced this week was the idea of communal effort. Last week as I was observing classes, I noticed all the students answered questions in unison. Being as though this is not the way it is done in the United States, I was quite taken back at first. However, I thought maybe it was the specific teacher and didn’t think much of it. As I began teaching this week, I noticed that whenever I asked a question, all the students would answer together. I tried to explain the concept of raising your hand to be called on, but this was foreign…more foreign than an American in India. J I also noticed students’ tendency to look off others’ work, this bothered me. These may be occurrences that just happened in my experiences thus far but these experiences may also speak to level of communism in India.

We, in America speak of ‘rugged individualism,’ idealizing the need for citizens to be independent and self-sufficient. Often times, especially in a social welfare context, we have a negative attitude towards this idea. We wish individuals could accept help and we wish it was socially appropriate to admit our weaknesses without being seen as weak. As I was thinking about the observations I have made thus far, I saw strengths in the idea of individualism that I haven’t thought about before. Where is the ability to think and express yourself when you speak in unison? Where is the ability to let creativity flow on paper when you are directed what to write by those around you?

I don’t conclude here as I have been in the classroom for a week. While you can observe what is happening around you, it takes time to fully understand what is occurring. I will come back to this idea later in the year, but now I can confidently say there needs to be balance. My life motto, Balance is Key, rules again. Communism needs a little rugged individualism to let creativity flow and rugged individualism needs a little communism to take away expectations and let others in.

Monday, September 13, 2010

La La La

My first adventure out by myself was successful with only one minor set-back. Earlier in the week I met a man who is the choir director for a local community choir. He was excited to meet me and invited me to sing with his choir on Sundays. Amidst our conversation, he asked if I had any prior music experience because, “our choir is very talented,” he said. I had to laugh at this, while I did sing in the church’s youth choir growing up and I carried the clarinet in marching band, my music skills are minimal if existent at all (and I’m not being humble!) I told him I would give it a try but I’m not terrific. I received a warm Indian welcome when I arrived 15 minutes after the rehearsal’s start. I was in luck as the song they were singing was in English!! However, at one point the woman sitting next to me whispered in my ear, “We have a problem, you are singing the wrong notes.” I’m sure I was as red as a fire truck but I couldn’t help but laugh. The initial job description I got from Nicholson said I was to teach music, scared to death to have this responsibility because I can’t sing and now I find myself in a community choir? Ironic.

I was feeling very confident as I caught the bus back to Nicholson- flagging down the bus to Thiruvalla is the hard part, I had done this, I could surely get back. Well, I managed to get back to Nicholson but when I got there the gate was locked. I didn’t have Susama Kochama’s number so I attempted to crawl through the gate, this didn’t work. I thought about jumping the wall but decided that a white girl jumping the fence may look bad. So I pulled out a book I’ve been reading and just stood there hoping someone would come. After 20 minutes and with the sun-setting I decided I needed a more promising plan. I ended up calling Achen to get Susama Kochama’s number. In the meantime some man walking by came to the gate, fiddled with it and it opened. I was embarrassed. I decided to journal and shower before dinner, I lost track of time and was late for dinner. I was embarrassed again.

Tomorrow I will begin to find my schedule. I’m excited to plan out my days and get into a routine. Here’s hoping that the days to come cause less reasons to turn red.

Mind Over Sanitation

Since I’ve last written, I’ve experienced yet again another round of firsts. I found my new best friends, Joseph and Annie, washed my clothes by hand, semi-figured out how to get to town by myself and subscribed to a newspaper (Kerala is known for their newspapers- its in English. J) These small accomplishments are comforting as the newness fades and reality sinks in.

Two nights ago after dinner, I was scraping my scraps into the waste bucket and walking over to the trough that we wash our own plates in as I took a tumble. I try not to think much as I do this process as the lack of soap and make-shift sponge leave me to wonder if the plate is actually clean. This was evident as I was not watching where I was stepping and fell into a drain. It was drain that dirty water and food waste run through. I screamed! Susama Kochama quickly ran over because she thought I was hurt, but really I was more upset that I was now covered in half eaten food and dirty water!! She was very concerned, I tried to reassure her I was fine but I think my disgusted face left her thinking otherwise.

For the past couple days, I have been challenged as I face what it means to do “ministry of presence” work. Before I left I thought I would be great just ‘being.’ People talked about the challenges it brings but in the United States I enjoy just ‘being,’ so I assumed this part of the year would be easy for me. “How could a ministry of presence be hard, I can just sit there and smile all day and I’ll be great,” I thought. Now I can say, it IS different and while I don’t think it’s a matter of being great or not, it is something that takes a lot of stamina. While many of the students speak English (I’ve noticed the students from Northern India are much easier to understand,) the teachers speak little English and it’s very difficult to carry on a conversation. Also, smiling at someone longer than 15 seconds without saying anything begins to get awkward. Patience and the willingness to try, try again is greatly needed.

I experienced this first hand as I went to an old age home yesterday. I was very excited to get out of Nicholson and see the surrounding area. I was even more excited to see what a retirement community in India looked like as I did my fieldwork at a Jewish retirement community in Cincinnati. So I wander in, escorted by one of the teachers at Nicholson. Her body language told me she was very uncomfortable so I tried to lighten the mood with a joke, this was a dumb idea as the language barrier prevented her from understanding (Mr. Hickman-you would have laughed.) Neesha introduced me to the supervisor of the home, I tried to communicate but it was evident she has no idea what I was saying, so I said thank-you (in Malayalam they don’t have a word for thank-you therefore everyone understands thank-you) and proceeded on to a room. I introduced myself to a couple residents and seeing that language was going to prevent any interaction, I asked Neesha if she wanted to leave. As excited as I was to be there, the frustration with the language had already set-in. As we were leaving I walked past a room where a man, Joseph, began talking in English to Neesha and I- I was so pumped!! I asked if I could come in, he introduced me to his wife, Annie, and the three of us visited for thirty minutes. It was the highlight of my day if not my week, being able to understand and to be understood felt great! Joseph asked me to come back, I said he didn’t have to worry about that, without a doubt I would be back. I’m excited to get to know Joseph and Annie better, they sound like they lived an interesting life!!

Neesha and I went into the closest town, Thiruvalla. I got some pineapple juice and a Mango Ice Cream bar. Neesha took me to the seamstress so I could have another churidar made. Leaving Nicholson and learning how to get around helped me to feel like a had a little independence and I’m not stuck in the confines of Nicholson. As you might imagine constantly being surrounded by 400 children calling your name is draining.
I also helped myself gain a little control by cleaning my room and making it livable for a year. The small things that I looked past in the US are making differences in my daily life here.

Friday, September 10, 2010


The internet connection is not the best at my site- so I have decided to blog from the comfort of my room and when possible upload the posts, so like today you may find a couple posts at once.

Going to the Chapel and We're Gonna Get India!

Confirmation India is the place for me…they burp freely-in-class, at dinner, amidst meetings, on the bus....everywhere! Although, I doubt I could do this in any place (in India) but the comfort of my new room, I loved watching this. I did catch myself a few times wanting to say, “Excuse you,” but stopped realizing everyone was doing it. I also caught myself today when I almost asked if I should go get the silverware…slow learner.

Today I spent the day observing. It was a good day, with a lot of positive moments. However, the gawking is old already!! I once again experienced the formalities of this school, as the girls rose when I entered a room and asked my permission for before they walked past me. I’ve decided that as soon as I begin teaching I will ask them to show their respect in other ways.

However, the most exciting event of the day was an invitation to a wedding. Achen assured us we would all have the opportunity to go to many weddings….first full day and I already got invited! Although I can’t pronounce the woman’s name and I only maybe could pick her out of a crowd, I’m invited. I was very excited to text Madison and Jim this news only to receive Jim’s response that he had ALREADY been to a wedding. Day 1…this year has excitement in store.

Well, its 9pm and I am exhausted. I must get some sleep so I can get up at 6 for morning devotion. Crawling into my mosquito-net covered bed….goodnight!

Here I Am

So here I sit…in India, in my new home. My first thought once I got here was sh**, I’m really here. The place I have been imagining for months, the girls I have been eager to meet, the fish curry that I’m been dreading to try is here-I am here.

Our 40km drive from Achen’s house to Nicholson took 6 hours to complete as we weaved in and out of cars, dropped Jim and Madison off at their sites and sat in some Indian traffic jam with horns beeping constantly. I was happy to drop Jim and Madison off, as I was able to see where they both will be learning and serving. Jim has a bachelor pad by Indian standards; a large apartment with 2 beds, plenty of space for himself. Madison and I have smaller rooms, but rooms that will serve the purpose for the year. I must admit I was a little taken back at first, but after putting up some pictures, a map of the world and laying blankie on my pillow I was ok . I appreciated the time Susama Kochama, my supervisor gave me to set-up my room. It was nice to take a deep breath after arriving and eating my first meal but it also the first time since this journey began that I was completely alone.

At 4pm I joined Susama Kochama for tea. She introduced me to my language tutor as I ate my absolutely delicious biscuit (Mom, this makes 4 things that I like…don’t worry.) It was interesting to see how the girls shyly peeked around the corner, staring out of curiosity. I invited them to come talk but later realized that as I was sitting with one of the four head teachers, they were too embarrassed to speak English. I soon realized what was happening and asked if I could go play with them. They taught me a game and we played until their prayer time. Although I couldn’t repeat a single girls name correctly and I had a hard time mimicking their dance moves, we lit up each other’s lives immediately. I am so excited to get to know each of the girls better. Although I’m miles away from loved ones and miss them like crazy already, these girls are the ones I meant to love now, in this place.

The rest of my evening was pretty uneventful. I sat with the teachers for evening prayer and ate with Susama Kochama and Sara Kochama. I politely but also directly told them my eating preferences. In Indian culture, the need to be firm and decisive is a necessity. This doesn’t come naturally to me, but as I thought about it the idea eating fish for a year and I was easily able to muster up the courage to tell them I prefer other foods. I found out, Sara Kochama doesn’t care for fish either, I felt much better knowing this.

The first post from my new home would not be complete without a little description of the place. Nicholson Higher Secondary School sits on 26 acres. Some of this land is part of a rubber plantation (I’m fascinated by the looks of these plantations,) other parts are fruit trees with one central building in the middle. I described it to Madison and Jim as the jungle of Kerala. The center of the building is a courtyard where the girls hang their laundry to dry. There appear to be other buildings that are used for classrooms but my tour was interrupted. Approximately 400 girls attend this boarding school Last year was the 100th birthday for the school. Although I missed it, I was assured that this year’s party will be just as great!
The girls are used to discipline and routine. The single chime of a bell rings to tell the girls what time it is and when they need to be in their next activity. Each girl I met formally greeted me by stopping what they were doing to stand-up and acknowledge my presence. I was so tempted to wave like a queen as I have never experienced such formal or royal treatment before. There are 2 curriculums or syllabuses used for the girls. I’m still trying to figure out how these schedules and syllabuses fully work. More to come when I fully understand.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Flesh into Bread

The lull in blogging is in no way a reflection of lack of activity on this side of the world. Since I’ve written last I have; swam in the Arabian Sea, visited Vasco de Gama’s original burial site and the oldest synagogue in the British Commonwealth, eaten off a banana leaf, sang in front of an Indian congregation, picked up our churidars from the seamstress and fished from a Chinese net. While the effects of jet lag are still rudely knocking on my door, the routine of Indian life is becoming much more normal, at least for now.

Tomorrow, I will travel to my site placement, and begin the process of finding my ‘home away from home.’ This is a bit scary, knowing that I am leaving my new friends behind to a place of unknown. I am able to find peace in the fact, that I have gone from being stripped of my communities back home, then the large YAV community, and now the YAV India community AND through it all, I am still alive and kicking. With each phase I have found a niche, so the comfort lies in a niche to be found at Nicholson Higher Secondary School. Achen gave each us a little more information on our individual sites. He started my individual meeting saying “Relax.” I found it funny and in a way comforting, that no matter one’s cultural background, I am still being able to understood.

I am very thankful that the church we attended was in English. I don't think I will have this luxury every week so I enjoyed it while I could. It was an interesting experience with all the fun of figuring out how things are done in a new place. On this particular Sunday we shared Communion. Amidst trying to figure out how the distribution system (women receive the bread and wine before men, women cover their heads when receiving Communion and the wine is scooped from the cup into our mouths,) worked and trying to open my mouth wide enough so that spoon didn’t touch any part of my mouth (which definitely skimmed my tongue,) Achen’s words from our bible study the day before echoed through my head. He reminded us as we read 1 Corinthians chapter 11, that when we come to the table as a community we need not be so concerned about turning the bread into flesh, as remembering to turn our flesh into bread. Achen put his Catholic colleague’s words so eloquently that chills ran through my body. While I doubt I am able to convey the same power of these words, my hope is next time you break bread, you reflect on turning your flesh into bread in your everyday life.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Learning to Adjust

Today I only woke up at 6 am compared to 4:30 am yesterday. Today I found it normal to hear the Muslim call to prayer while taking our lessons from Achen. Today I woke up completely comfortable knowing I would eat with my hands. Today I looked at a newspaper and was able to identify Malayalam (the language spoken here in Kerala) vowels. Today I will ride an elephant! Today might even be the day I try to use the hose after I use the restroom (I tried yesterday but only managed to pick the hose up before putting it down immediately.) This is only some of the adjustments, Madison, Jim and I have faced over the past several days. This is also, only just the beginning of the adjustment period itself. The differences in daily living our most noticeable now, but as this becomes routine other differences and adjustments are sure to arise.

Yesterday and today have primarily been filled with lessons on food, culture, politics, religion and language. Each morning we begin with a short devotion. Yesterday we looked at 2 Kings chapter 5- the words in this passage were powerful as I sat as fresh as the morning sun and as powerless as the girl in the scripture.

As we sat through our first formal language lesson yesterday, I became very thankful Xavier offered sign language. The phrase, “up the creek without a paddle,” has never been more appropriate. Language has never been my thing. While I have every intention to learn the language (or at least attempt,) it surely will be a struggle- the characters are crazy and my tongue/ear synchronization is AWFUL. By this I mean I can’t get my tongue to mimic what I hear with my ear.

While this post is only a small (and choppy) snippet of our new lives, know that the start of our adjustment period is only the beginning of a year of transformation. Thanks for being apart of it!!


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Just the Beginning

Hello from India!! I am safe and sound, writing from my host family’s house. With patience, many laughs and help from friendly strangers we made it to the Cochin airport after 40+ hours of travel. Many notable things happened that kept the trip fun and the ‘experience of India’ real. People on the flight from JFK to Mumbai were extremely friendly and I even got the email address of a doctor on the other side of the country, just in case? At one point in the flight I was awoken by an announcement that said local authorities require the flight attendants to spray a midst. The cabin was then filled with a delicious and refreshing smell. However, the real India experience began when we got off the plane and were immediately greeted by men who took our connecting flights tickets, and nonchalantly told us our flight was delayed 7 hours but at 2 am there would be a snack handed-out, as if this was more important than the flight being delayed. Following this we experienced our first gender segregation as Madison and I, as females, had to go through a separate security check-point. Jim ended up waiting 25 minutes for us, as there were only 2 scanners for women as opposed to the 4 for men. We quickly exchanged money and called home to let people know we were safe in India. Promptly at 2 am we got our meal in Indian (free because of the delay,) ….KFC, couldn’t be more ironic! Apparently the Mumbai airport does not have an intercom system as every few seconds people walk around announcing which flights were boarding and/or leaving. We found this hysterical, even after 7 hours.

Around 6 am we boarded our flight to Cochin and were given yet another meal. At this point I had eaten 4 meals already. I tried to politely decline the meal but the flight attendant insisted I take it, true to Indian form. Madison had a lovely experience as she put her purse on the plane’s carpet only to pick it up and find it wet, most likely with urine from the lovely smell.

Once in Cochin, we quickly gathered our bags, went through customs and met Thomas John or Achen. We crammed into his car and were off to his house. His wife, had prepared breakfast for us (meal #6.) Even though our body time was telling us something different we fought the exhaustion and hung tough for a full day. This included going to town to buy our house slippers (flip-flops) and towels (more like a thin sheet.) While on this excursion we ran into a Hindu parade complete with a bedazzled elephant. The funny part was it seemed as though we were more of the attraction then the parade as we were a source of stare for many.

Achen gave us lots of useful information, Kochamma gave us lots of yummy food and we even began practicing our Malayalam this evening. Today was a great adventure and I imagine only a glimpse of the adventures that are before us in this coming year. I just took my first bucket shower and am off to bed to rest up for our busy day tomorrow.

Sending lots of love from 8,000 miles away.