Tsukumo’s Week 4: Back-to-School

Month-long summer vacation for students is now over, and Vidyashram-The Southpoint School is back in session for a new school year. There are about 150 students at this school, from Preschool to 12th grade, studying on the same campus. The campus that I had known to be pretty quiet is now full of children's laughters, which is quite exciting. Administration of Vidyashram-The Southpoint School is one of the key components of NIRMAN's work. This private school serves as a model of education system in the new age by bringing in students from diverse backgrounds. Instruction is in English, with the exception of some classes in younger grades and Hindi/Sanskrit classes. There are a few ways that Southpoint differs from the traditional Indian education system. First, Southpoint provides scholarships for students that require financial assistance to attend, as well as free nutritious lunch every day. In India (and many other parts of the world I'm sure), education has been only available for those that can afford it. In offer for children to attend school, they need to come from families that are willing to support them financially and morally; however, this support is difficult to gain for girls, Muslims, and children from lower income families, just to mention a few. Southpoint strives for a diverse group of students, with different religions, genders, and social classes represented. Second, Southpoint puts emphasis on cultural activities including theatre and visual art. Students engage in one large theatre production every year, and take classes in various art forms regularly. Southpoint students are trained in Indian vocal and instrumental classical music, as well as some visual arts. Finally, Southpoint engages students from nearby villages by having a separate campus in Betwar, in the outskirts of Varanasi about 15 km away from the main campus. This campus houses 60 students, from Preschool to 5th grade; after 5th grade, students are bussed to the main campus where they can complete 6th grade and above. I had a chance to visit this campus on Sunday, and it was very nice and serene -- in the middle of the fields where they grow food crops such as rice and lentils, right by Ganga river, surrounded by birds, flowers, and plants of all kinds. At Southpoint, I am teaching music to 8th and 9th grades, as well as history to 8th grade. Working with these students is both fun and difficult. I am very happy that they are excited about learning music with me for this month; all of their music classes have been on Indian traditional music, so what I am teaching (basic Western music theory and English songs) is new to them. However, teaching music has been made very easy because they have good ears and tonal memory, most likely because they are taught music by ear from younger age. On the other hand, teaching history has been challenging. Some students are more interested in history than others, and some students don't behave. Some students don't have the books necessary for the course, while the others have all the homework completed. I'm learning how to manage a classroom full of naughty 13-year-olds for the first time, and hopefully this won't take too long. I am working with another intern, a master's student from Bangalore, to conduct a research on how these differences affect the experiences of students, families, and staff members. It is still in the early stages of planning, but we will be collecting data from students, teachers, and staff to examine the impact Southpoint has on various people. More on this later. I am now halfway done with my 7-week internship now. I'm hoping to make the second half an enriching experience with full of learning and meaningful connections.
Class 9 students in music class.

Class 9 students in music class.

Share This:

Flashbacks: Varanasi

At first glance, the mighty Ganga struck me as quite small. Having seen the Brahmaputra in Assam, I expected this river to span a seeming infinity. But, it was mid June and monsoon was coming late this year: maybe Al Gore was onto something. Riding from the airport, I sensed a distinct vibe that permeated the city’s outskirts. Although the the placeless aesthetic remained pervasive, the whole area exuded some intangible subtlety that I remain unable to put into words. Down a few more intersections, my driver pulled up to an obscure alleyway. Outside, the host of my guest house greeted me. Pointing down the dimly lit crevice, Sonu instructed me to follow. We made a right, then made a left, then made a right, shuffling down one tight corridor after the next. These were streets, not alleys, I soon realized. Cars weren’t allowed – because they wouldn’t fit – and only the occasional motorbike made its way through the musty cobblestone breadth. I kept imagining a young Steve Jobs roaming down these streets, drawing influence, affirming good taste. After unpacking at the guest house, I departed and found my way to the closest ghat. Down the staircase and across the concrete steps, I ambled between strangers coming from all directions. Before, behind, beside, between, every next local propounded a boat ride. Past another flight of stairs, there it stood before me: the river of legends, the key to Moksha, the Mother Ganga. Crouching down ten feet from the water, I looked across to the sandy banks exposed on the opposite side. I didn’t know what to think. Is this the medium of a holy goddess or is the semantic notion of holiness just an extension of economic importance, one, in this case, that bears on millions? When I was younger, my father would spout mythology to me, recounting the river’s sacred aura and divine importance. Yet, I now stared into its depths, and all my mind could do was go blank. I felt something, but no words could articulate clairvoyance. To my right, a group of teenage boys jovially waded into the water, yelling and shoving another into the shallow depths, like boys at the neighborhood pool. To my left, an elderly man and two women alternated between bathing, prayer, and washing their clothes. The raggedy, aged fellow particularly caught my attention, him methodically scrubbing each centimeter of cotton dhoti. Every minute or so, he muttered to himself, sending an embittered glance to the boys playing off to my right. From the distance, a boat veers off towards us. Painted red and white on its side: Airtel 3G & 4G. Even the Ganga has a weakness for the banknote, all the watercraft reflecting the familiar corporate landscape. While a shirtless local cranked the paddles in cyclical succession, one man laid stretched out on the canoe, sprawling in the sunshine. Yet, instead of looking out across the water or observing the masses along the banks, his eyes were glued to his phone, taking selfie after selfie, searching for the angle of his face that would generate the most traction on social media. It was disgusting. Yet, the more and more boats I looked out to, the more I saw of people trained on their phones instead of embracing the aquatic serenity. Continue reading

Share This:

Namaste

One of the hardest parts about my trip thus far has been attempting to communicate India’s excellence to people back home. As with any adventure, when I am asked the question “How is it” I am at a loss for words, not knowing how to put one month of learning into a concise sentence. One thing that always remains consistent, without fail, is mentioning the people who I have met and the relationships I have made. It is because of everyone who I have met that I am unable to write India off into one neat and tidy little thought. This beautiful country cannot be explained unless you experience it for yourself because so much of what makes up India lies within its people. Each person that I have met has been genuinely welcoming. When I first arrived here my coworkers and my host family carried out small acts of kindness. Admittedly, I thought that these were done to make me feel more comfortable, as I had just arrived, but I began to notice that even after a couple of weeks things continued to happen. I also saw them carried out in the larger community. Each day I come across small acts of generosity, performed absentmindedly by strangers for strangers, by one coworker for the other and by one loved one onto another; there was no shortage of kindness. Whether it were someone offering up their seat on the bus, liberally passing their lunch, or greeting each person that walks in the room, these small acts of love are a part of daily life. Each of these acts has stood out to me and has held great significance in my experience. With respect of the individual so frequently diminished in my own community, it is beautiful to be somewhere that places such a large emphasis on respect. I am aware that being a white woman living as a guest in India grants me a certain amount of privilege in this community. Therefore respect is also granted to me more easily. However, I have also taken note of these acts done to colleagues, friends and family members. These acts are, as I have said, performed in everyday life. All of this can be better explained through a more in depth explanation of “Namaste”, which was clarified to me by one of my close friends. One of my first days here I was surprised that I had never known this meant hello, to which she clarified that it is indeed a greeting but also much more. Namaste is a Hindu greeting that literally means “I bow to you”. Delivering “Namaste” along with folding the hands in the namaskar, are symbols of the belief that the life, the divinity, the self or the God in me are the same in all. When I first learned the meaning of Namaste I, of course, remember thinking it was beautiful but I don’t think that I could fully grasp what it meant. It is only while living here that I have been able to see its true beauty, which is carried out through people’s actions. Each time someone is greeted with the namaskar they are given faith, they are given love and they are given respect. The faith, love and respect are then carried out into daily lives through the littlest of tasks that make huge lasting impacts.

Share This:

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In this segment the Lifeline Express is focusing on orthopedic, plastic, reconstructive, and ENT surgeries. These can be especially painful, tense, and chaotic as we rarely put patients “under” with general anesthesia and instead give them simple shots of lidocaine. While legal and humane, the results are brutal but due to the sheer demand for surgery we change the lives of more people by performing the operations this way. June 17, Friday              Medic, we need a medic over here! Today I woke up and hopped into the LLE car to find two women already waiting. Surprised, I soon learned that they were two medical students from Mumbai and were here for just three days to assist and observe surgeries with the orthopedic surgeon. After arriving at the train I stepped inside and began to chat  with the new batch of doctors as best I could. Some spoke English and I soon had fond opinions of the two plastic surgeons and their anesthesiologists. The orthopedic surgeon was a different story. As we scrubbed in and began operations it was clear that this part of my experience would be different. Instead of speaking calmly and leading the rural nurses through procedures they had never dreamed of assisting in, the physician seemed tense and hurried. Truly, we all were stressed out. The staff that had already been working with me for almost two weeks gave each other reassuring smiles and patted each other on the back as we did a dangerous tango with this man’s ego. In the meantime, the two operating theatres were more different than night and day. I enjoyed my time in the reconstructive plastic surgery unit (as I am leaning towards this medical focus) and was fascinated for several hours. With soft music playing in the background the physicians carefully repaired cleft lips and treated severe burns. Although this was painful, only the infants were put under general anesthesia to keep them from squirming. While the soft moans that patients had were sad, the smiles on their faces when they saw how their faces, arms, and skin had been repaired was priceless. No matter the salary, the satisfaction I got from being a part of these operations was priceless. Continue reading

Share This:

Tsukumo’s Week 3: Let’s (not) talk about money

The teachers at the Southpoint School are busy preparing for the new school year to start on June 27, but they also don't forget to enjoy themselves before the busyness of long school days starts to hit them hard. I am assigned to teach music to Class 8 and 9 (8th and 9th grades), and planning to teach basic music reading and some English songs. I'm excited to finally meet these students, and teach the subject I love most. I appreciate that the teachers take time to talk with me and get to know me, a stranger from abroad. During their downtime, they often teach me Hindi, talk about their food, and ask me what I look for in my husband. (Although I'm not quite ready for marriage yet...) Another thing they are interested in talking about is how much things cost in the U.S. How much did your iPhone cost? How much do you pay for school? How much does a shirt like ours cost? How much is a typical lunch? To each of these questions, I give out numbers that are unbelievably high for them. A typical kurti (cotton shirt) costs around 300 rupees ($4.50). For 100 rupees ($1.50), you can get yourself a nice lunch. Local "fast food" stands sell finger food starting at 5 rupees (7 cents). Compare that with iPhones that cost $400 (26,800 rupees), a dress from H&M for $15 (1,000 rupees), or my out-of-state tuition for U-M. Talking about money makes me uncomfortable. Saying that I can afford all of those things is like flaunting my privilege in their faces, which is something I'd rather not do. But of course, my discomfort is not comparable to that of people that constantly face financial difficulty. A young teacher, just a year older than me, explained the pressure she has on making a choice between marriage and career because of money. She receives no financial support from her parents, and teaching job barely pays enough for her to live. Her parents suggest that the easiest way to support herself is to marry a person that can earn some good money, but she wants to be financially independent and defies marrying against her will. "What do I do?" She asks, but how can I say anything in response? It has never been my reality. I also had a brief conversation with a young woman I met at Assi Ghat, on the wide steps facing Ganga river. She told me, "I have a brother with an engineering degree who got a job in the U.S. but his visa was denied and he couldn't take the job. Can you help him find a job in Michigan? Also, is there any jobs available for me there?" Realistically, I know I can't help with finding jobs, especially for those who need work visas. But she believed that I can make their immigration happen. I am saddened to crush their hopes, but also realize that I'm not the one that's hurt the most by this news. I am very privileged, and I am still struggling to approach my privilege with the locals. I may have a lot more material wealth than they do, but I'd rather not take a part in the colonialist, capitalist narrative that defines me as superior because of it -- but am I already doing so by coming here? As clueless as I am, I try to do the best thing I can do right now -- to tell these stories that I have the privilege of learning about, with respect and sincerity to do them justice.
Indian currency, rupees

Indian currency, rupees. One US Dollar is about 67 rupees.

Share This:

Enfin, SISA and Bubbles Actually, Literally Changed My Life

Like clockwork, the winds would blow, the storms would descend, the luscious yet desiccated gardens would flood and quickly subside, the giant Labrador, Kelly, would come creeping into the fullest room to seek shelter from the imminent threat of thunder, and the wifi would slowly fade away. The increasingly dizzying smells of curry, the decreasing utility of each bite of paratha, and the stagnant promise of buzzing crowds colored my bittersweet time in India. "A country of contrasts" is what my host mother calls it—a nation simultaneously difficult to love and impossible to hate. How do I criticize without being culturally inappropriate? Where should the boundaries of my judgment lie? Where can my love and appreciation be genuinely placed? This post will reflect upon the ways in which my summer in South Asia impacted me personally, academically, and professionally. My response will be truly reflective in nature, as I’ve only just begun to process my experiences in India and what they mean in the context of my life back here in the States. I am at odds with the nature of my personal growth in India. I cannot tell whether I’ve accepted the growth I endured or if I’ve remained apprehensive, as it manifested in so many unexpected ways. Here, I’ll present a few muddled quotes, whether they be from my host parents, the wonderful people I met at Bubbles, or passersby on the street, that sum up the crooked path of my personal growth.
“You can’t change everything about the world. Some things are just meant to be the way they are.”   On feeding wild animals: “You’re doing them a disservice. You’re depriving them of the skills they need to survive in the wild, on their own. It’s more selfish than altruistic, if you think about it.”   “You speak Hindi? You look Indian. You are like my sister. I give you Indian price.”  
Continue reading

Share This:

Day 23: Teaching Reflections

Teaching English as a second language is definitely not as easy as I thought it would be. Actually, that's not true. I knew exactly how hard it would be. I was anxious about having to teach for months before coming to India, because the fact of the matter is (and it's no big surprise) -- I've never taught English before. Okay yes Mom, I've tutored before, but it's not the same thing. I've never been THE teacher in a classroom. Never Madame Hanna. Never the omniscient authority whose job it is to bestow knowledge upon a group of wide-eyed six year olds waiting patiently for instruction. Although they're young, it's still intimidating being the one in charge. Especially since I know I'm only a 19 year-old college sophomore. "I'm not qualified to do this," I think to myself. "These kids deserve better than a lousy college student. What can I do? I'm not even a real teacher."
But I'm getting more confident everyday. Not only are the kids quickly soaking up what I have to offer, but I'm learning too. About what it actually means to be a teacher and all the subtle intricacies that you don't pick up on until you're the one standing at the front of the class. Each day I enter the classroom with more experience and more wisdom than I had the day before. And so do they! Each subsequent day becomes easier because I can build off what we worked on the day prior. It's so gratifying to hear them say, "Today is Monday June 13th!" when just a few days ago they were struggling with the days of the week. However I still have this small voice that whispers in my ear from time to time that says, "You're not the right person for this job." But I've come to two conclusions...
1) I think it's a good thing to acknowledge that there is room for major improvement in terms of foreign aid. Most ESL teachers are young and untrained, including myself. Although enthusiastic and good-intentioned, they are simply not qualified, and usually only stay in a given school for one to two months at a time. Yes, something may be better than nothing, but we should be working towards more solid and lasting forms of educational support. At present, ESL teachers are bandages at best. They patch up the holes for a short period of time, and then fall off.  It's important that I acknowledge that I'm playing a role in the system that I want to see improved, else I'm playing a role in upholding its weaknesses. And 2) I may feel inadequate and inappropriately named as a teacher because I, myself, have gone through an educational system led by professionals who've trained intensely just to carry the title of "teacher." However that doesn't mean I can't serve my time here in a meaningful way. What little knowledge I do impart on these children holds value, even if it is in a small degree. And moreover, they're getting just as much cross-cultural experience as I am. They're learning from and interacting with an individual from an entirely distinct culture who knows a language far different from their own. It is a unique opportunity that I'm so happy to share with them. We are learning from each other everyday, and there is supreme value in knowledge gained through this sort of personal, intimately connected, experiential vein.
Continue reading

Share This:

Day 18: Blessings in Disguise

If I've learned one thing on this odyssey, it's that patience truly is the mother of all virtues. After sending emails and posting blogs two weeks ago, I went to the main street to catch my 3:00 ride back to Zangla. I sat on the curb, roasting in the sun, waiting, waiting, waiting. No taxi. I happened to spot a villager whom I recognized, and inquired about the taxi. Apparently the taxi driver was waiting for a passenger who would be arriving by bus later on in the day. Okay, fine. No problem. I'm a patient girl, I'll just wait it out. What else could I do?
I ended up waiting for six hours on the side of the road. But I remained light-hearted! Sure, that was a hell of a long time to wait. But at least I was fortunate enough to use the Internet today! I was trying to count my blessings.
The ride home was grueling. The road felt especially rocky, I felt sick from sitting in the sun all day, and the 8-person vehicle was stuffed with 13 passengers. The taxi bumped violently over the uneven terrain for an hour and a half, knocking me around. By the time we reached Zangla, I was sure my hip bones were fractured from being squished so tightly in-between people. Though slightly peeved and thoroughly exhausted, I remained optimistic. At least I had a warm bed and an even warmer family to return to at the monastery. Not everyone has that, I reminded myself. I was still trying to count my blessings.
Continue reading

Share This:

Tsukumo’s Week 2: Modernity and Post-colonialism

My first full week at NIRMAN was full of learning, as I continued attending teachers' training workshops. From Monday to Thursday, we had a professor from an U.S. American college lead intensive workshops on theater design. Since NIRMAN schoolchildren produce at least one major performance each year, it is important for teachers to learn about costume, set, and light design. On Friday and Saturday, teachers presented their research projects on topics they chose, and we engaged in discussions afterwards. During my free time, I have been reading textbooks on modern Indian history (from British rule to independence), preparing to teach on this subject once school opens in a week. I've been kept busy. All of these experiences have been stimulating my thoughts around what it means to be 'modern' and 'post-colonial'. Here are some anecdotes. Continue reading

Share This:

Taste and See

Due to limited wi-fi access these next three posts will be very long and will comprise an entire week aboard the Lifeline Express. Each week will focus on the theme of the operations that are currently being performed. So grab some caffeine and tackle this beast of a blog post. A word, let me state that I love this country. The students and I that blog on this site are merely travelers and the crazy, exciting, and awkward stories we have may not be indicative of real Indian culture and often may be a disservice to it. Indians are disciplined, brilliant, and a truly vibrant people. While our cultural differences may separate us, I hope that no one reading my blog is offended by any of the stories or content I present. I wish only to convey my respect and fascination for a culture very different from my own.  Day 1 – Wednesday, June 8     Sight to the blind It’s hot. It’s hot, it’s hot it’s hot. So hot, in fact, that even Indian people are surprised by the 115-degree heat. I know there is one of you reading this who sees 115 degrees and thinks “yeah but it’s a DRY heat, he’s a wimp”. To you I say, “Get off your couch and sit in a Sauna with your clothes on, tell me 12 hours later whether you care if the heat is dry or wet.” To make things worse, today I was doing screening all day. To prepare for cataract surgery patients who have been informed about the program several weeks ahead of time are brought to a District hospital that unites all of the 6 regional hospitals within Bhind. Then, one by one, they walked in front of a physician and myself as they were evaluated for surgery. If deemed operable, they would be given a full blood panel, pathology, and physical before operations began the next morning. As we pulled up to the hospital I realized that it was a single story compound of buildings, this surprised me as American hospitals are traditionally massive structures. I was even more surprised to see pigs feeding, a boy peeing, and a man defecating amidst buildings that performed surgery 7 days a week. If you’ve read some of the posts from anyone in this fellowship you might think that we talk about bowel movements and gastric distress more than a third grader who just discovered the word, “poop”. But as one of my fellow travelers put it, “I’ve never been more worried and aware of where I might suddenly soil myself than while in India.” Honestly, she’s right. The food, heat, and travel make for a deadly combo. Being so accustomed to this, public defecation shouldn’t bother me. Yet somehow, every time I see two men talking about cricket while crop dusting their own sugar cane fields I can’t help but lose my grasp for words. This awkwardness is even more distinct when the metaphoric sugar cane field is a very concrete hospital. Continue reading

Share This: