…and here we are, two months later. Two months in India, two months as a teacher, two months living in a Hindi/Urdu/Telugu-speaking, Hindu/Muslim/Sikh/Christian-practicing, sari/lungi/kurta-wearing country. It already has been a crazy ride.
I knew this time abroad would be different than my four months studying journalism in Morocco. That experience was motivated by my resume. I hoped to see everything, report it all, and get a clip or two that could add an international touch to my applications. Then those four months ended up being so much more than that, an internal and external adventure that healed a lot of me that I didn’t know needed it and challenged me in a way I couldn’t have imagined. It was great for my career of course, but way more significant in terms of my life at the time, finishing up college and heading into the real world.
With that being said, I documented everything in Morocco. Every holiday, festival, trip, excursion, afternoon drinking coffee was properly photographed and reflected on in my blog. It was necessary for the time, but also a little bit draining.
With India, I wanted to retreat a bit more from the daily grind of writing for an audience, so my reflections exist in my journal and in bi-weekly emails to friends and family. This experience has been a bit of a leap of faith for me. I never thought that being a journalist was playing it safe (given that it is a pretty crazy career to begin with) but I sometimes hid in the comfort of writing, reporting, tweeting, and facebook-sharing with little thought to the true impact of my work on myself or others. I felt I was always on the way up, but I wasn’t sure where exactly the summit was. Pulling myself out of the everyday Internet-and-email-and-telephone-reporting grind has really pushed me to prioritize what I want out of journalism and storytelling as a career. I don’t have the answers yet (hey, I still got another 3.5 months!), but everyday as I walk down the chaotic narrow streets Abids to get on a rickety bus and greet my students in Secunderbad I ask myself: is there anywhere I would rather be right now? So far, the answer has been no. This is where I feel best.
In order to spare my fingers (and brain) from rehashing all the experiences of the last two months, here are a few excerpts from those emails, plus a few of my favorite photos so far, to get you caught up on my life in India.
Email on July 7, 2014
“It has been a week where each day has felt like three days, jet lag has rendered me wide awake at 3:30 am and drowsy at 4:00 pm, and no matter how widely I keep my senses in tune with the world, it always feels that there are a million details missed walking through our bustling Old City neighborhood of Abids. Hyderabad, which is about the size of Chicago in population, certainly feels like a big city. The traffic: auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, and busses travel like a chaotic school of fish, moving at lightning speed yet incomprehensibly missing deathly accidents by inches at every turn. The diversity: Hindu temples peek from below highway overpasses with massive billboards advertising American brands like Converse and Levi’s while mosque loudspeakers reminds Ramadan-observers to pray. The unbelievable food: I’ve sampled paneer skewers in a buffalo-esque sauce from a thumping bar in a mall, creamy dal at an upscale hotel restaurant, and I’m working my way down the menu at the express food spot down the street – masala dosa, idly, and dal so far.”
Continued: “We also did an activity called the “Cultural Ethnicity Autobiography,” where we had to reflect on our own background, race, and cultures and how it had affected our lives and identity thus far, then distill it into a 5-7 minute presentation. At first it seemed a simple assignment: I am white, mostly Norwegian, with upper Midwest American tendencies. I’m Lutheran by habit, though more agnostic in thought, gone through public school and private college, and I’ve lived a pretty privileged life. But when it came to articulating how these things have actually influenced my life, how it affects my story and how it will now interact with me teaching in India, the gray area and internal questions rapidly expanded. Though I jotted down pages of notes, when attempting to present it to the other fellows, Piya, and Remy, I found myself tripping over my thoughts, confusing the timeline, and unsure of how it all built on each other. We are often asked to think about these things in an academic sense, especially in sociology and ethnic studies classes, but rarely do we sit down and just write a narrative of how it has all stacked up in our own lives. The questions grew long: how does my Norwegian ethnicity play into my day-to-day life versus heritage? I understand and believe white privilege exists, but how has it affected my day-to-day life, and how has that built up in my identity over time? What does being an American mean in Minnesota versus Telangana? Do external experiences and stories of other cultures impact my own cultural identity? It was extremely challenging, and has proved to be discomforting- but in the best way. Bringing those questions to the surface is the first step to better understanding your function in the world, and how it may change depending on the circumstance. Like when you move from the United States to India.”
Email July 24, 2014
“Where we live, in the old city, there isn’t much to do. There is a nearby wine shop, but our Muslim Malaysian doctor roommate does not allow alcohol in the apartment (fair enough). There is a rooftop bar at the hotel down the street, but it has been ambiguously under construction since we arrived. So if we want to grab a beer, our best bet is taking a 100-rupee auto-rickshaw to the hip Banjara Hills neighborhood. You want to go to the happening joint in town? Head to TGI Fridays or Chili’s. Yes, everyone’s favorite neighborhood chain has been exported all the way out here to Hyderabad, and it is a popular spot, one of the few where young men and women can drink together, say our new local friends. However, I cannot attest to this myself as I have not actually hung out in one just yet because- I kid you not- the lines have consistently been too long on weekend nights. I will report back on that soon. The next spots are mall bars, which are just like normal bars but in the various megamalls that line the main roads in the cool neighborhoods. These are strangely often British-themed, and tend to have a DJ that turns the volume of his EDM tracks up to unspeakable levels starting at about 8:30 pm, regardless if anyone is on the dance floor (or in the bar) or not. It begs the question: if a DJ spins to an empty dance floor, did he really spin at all?
After these bars close at about 11:30, most of the city shuts down. Unless there is a festival, in which case the dancing, drums, and spectacle will last all night. Case in point: the Bonalu festival we attended with our friend Ranjith in Secunderbad last night. Bonalu is a big deal in the newly formed state of Telangana, so pretty much the entire city had off the day to celebrate. Essentially it is praising the goddess Mahakali in all her forms.”
Email August 12, 2014
“Today I gambled, and it paid off. The 86K trundled to the stop behind the 86R, and I nearly slapped a man next to me waving both my arms at the bus driver to stop (in India, the busses arbitrarily decide when to stop—your best bet is either to wave your hands wildly so the bus driver sees you, or hop on the bus as it slows to a joggable speed). The driver stopped and I hopped on. I took out my 10 rupee note and waited for the ticket man to snap in my direction, asking my destination. I turned to him and started to form the word: “Seetaphal….” but as the word came out of my mouth I recognized the ticket man from my previous two rides. At the same time, I saw him preemptively nod and reach for the 10 rupee ticket in his ticket book. We exchanged currency for ticket, nodded, and parted ways.
I got a “guy” in Hyderbad. A bus guy, but a guy nonetheless.”
Continued: “It is pretty dazzling to see these students working on a photo project, given where most of them started. In my last email, we had just begun classes. Everything with students was good, but there was a sense that we had not yet dove below the surface, that their shy smiles were more out of pity for the American TMS teacher who speaks English with a funny accent, than out of comprehension. But the other day, Nandini (one of my cofellows) and I both came home from class most impressed by the journey of some students in such a short time. Immediately I thought I had the shy, loud, teacher’s pet, clever, and troublemaking students pegged. Within a week, nearly everyone had morphed personalities, almost all for the better. Students who hadn’t said a word greet me every morning and chime in with whatever words they know, those who spoke out of turn listened when I asked them to raise their hands. Students that initially were stumped by writing prompts now at least have ideas, if not the syntax and spelling quite mastered. No longer am I seen as a strange anomaly in their school; I’m now TMS teacher for good.”
Email August 27, 2014
“Mumbai is also often called “The City of Dreams” as it is the place to go if you want to make it big in some way, shape, or form, and I truly felt the spectrum of that title while there. There was evidence of dreams that had come true beyond wildest hopes, like the constant view of the world’s most expensive house—a 27 story gray behemoth for 6 people (with 600 attendants). Dreams deferred in the restless looks of young men lazing on Chowpatty beach during a workday. Dreams being chased in the energy of nearly everyone in the city. Unlike Hyderabad, people move in Mumbai. Everyone seems like they are in the city not just to live, but prove their existence by making their mark. It is a feeling I’ve felt mostly in New York, LA, and certain parts of Chicago. Ironically it is that sense of wanting to prove something that has turned me off of living in NYC or LA, but here it felt so genuine, it was impossible not to get caught up in its liveliness.
But for a city built on dreams, it also felt the most honest depiction of humanity of any city I have visited. For the upper and middle class in America it is so incredibly easy to get away from what makes us uncomfortable. In Chicago, if you don’t want to think about gun violence you just don’t leave the confines of the North Side. In the Minneapolis if you want to stay away from homelessness, you avoid Nicollet Mall. If you don’t want to face the complex difficulties facing rural poor you move to the big city. We’ve built ourselves a country of bubbles, and it has come to bite us time and time again (most recently in Ferguson). In Mumbai, there is no getting away from any part of the socioeconomic spectrum. Sure there are areas that have higher concentrations of wealth and poverty. But never have I seen some of the wealthiest and poorest humans on the planet existing in such close quarters. Giant malls teeming with a growing middle class, swiping credit cards at European clothing stores open their doors to a highway overpass that shelters a mini-slum, with both the rich and poor shopping at the same vegetable stand that exists in the middle. In one way, this honesty felt refreshing to me—at least there is no denying the problems of poverty and inequality. But in talking with a few Indian friends, it also creates a sense of complacency—since it is so apparent, it starts to feel like it is just the way things are and how they always will be. How do you solve something that is reinforced in citizen’s minds the second they step out their doors?”
-Mein Hindi seek rahi hun! (I am learning Hindi!)
-I have fallen in love with Indian food and particularly street food called “Chaat”. It is like a rollercoaster for your taste buds, ascending from extra flavored to painfully spicy to tears flowing from the heat, then slowing to a satisfying stop once you neutralize it all with yoghurt or a Thums Up cola. What other food takes you for a ride?
-We have only traveled to Mumbai so far, but will be heading to Kerala and Tamil Nadu for an extra teaching session in October.
-My classes are done with our first projects, and I will be sharing those soon!
-Hyderabad and Secunderbad, which are the two main cities that make up the greater Hyderabad area, are nicknamed the Twin Cities. So yes, I am living in the Twin Cities of India. And not only that, but Hyderabad, which is the Minneapolis to Secunderbad’s St. Paul, is nicknamed “The City of Lakes” because it is centered around the medieval man-made freshwater lake Hussain Sagar. MINNESOTA YOU WILL NEVER LEAVE ME.
Well that is a pretty substantial update I would say, but from now on I will try to be better about writing small posts about the particularly interesting phenomena that happen almost every day.
Just know that India is an incredible place that is often overwhelming and always fascinating. There is nowhere like it in the world.