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Faith for this BrownGirl

I have officially moved to Delaware to start my life as a doctoral student.   It may seem to some that I am starting a brand new life but I am really just continuing my journey in a different place.   This is an important distinction.  Although, I am a new doctoral student, I am still the same person I have been.   Although, since my time in India, I am more aware of the similarities of people in spite of perceived differences. In some ways, I feel wiser and in some ways, I think I am more cantankerous and ornery. In any case, I recognize there is far more to religion and faith than just my faith and just my perspective.  To be a person who fits into the global world, we must be more accepting of people in the realm of faith and religion.

For the purposes of this post, religion is the organized body of a particular belief structure and faith is an individual’s spiritual leanings and practice.   Before I started my travels, I used to work as a disaster manager for an American faith-based social service delivery organization where I worked with people from many faiths across the United States.    In the space between religion and faith is the realm where life exists for people who are affected by disasters. My work often centered in this space and I became efficient at navigating between religions and faiths.  It turns out that every organization has a need for competent administrative functioning in order to help people.   I focused on what I could do to help people and kept my opinions of the politics to myself. After all, disasters do not discriminate against people or religions and politics helps no one.

Lately,  I have been very honest (cough, cough) about my personal feelings for the charlatans in the religious world. Recently, I was chastised on Facebook for seeming to have a vendetta against Christians because I shared a meme about requiring churches to pay taxes because of an affluent Texas televangelist. For the record, I am a progressive Catholic and this was not my first post challenging Christian religious practice, as it is known in certain areas.  While a few just admonished me generally for having the temerity to constantly challenge religious notions, others gave me information to correct the error I had made in this meme.  I did indeed make an error by sharing this meme. Fortunately for me, I had friends who took the time to do more than admonish me or question my faith or challenge my standing as a human being. They explained the tax law for the pastor versus the tax law for his church and reminded me of all of the small houses of worship out in the world that do so much for so many people with so little money.

How could I have forgotten that all of this is always about the people?  Faith is always about people. People sharing of themselves even when they have nothing.  Remember how I said I used to work in disasters?  Well, my best memories of that work are about people who came from the local communities or around the country to give of themselves to help a stranger who may have lost their home because of a tornado or a flood.  No one asked what faith or religion the affected persons belonged to or practiced. They just practiced their own faith and helped someone in need.

Understanding, Acceptance, and Decisions

I am back and fully integrated into life in the United States. There are so many things I wanted to do but I chose to focus on re-connecting with my family and friends. So much of who I am is wrapped up in the ones I love, so personal connections are vital for my quality of life. As I made my first round of visits, I could feel my cup filling up with sunshine and goodness. Yes.  I am corny!   I am learning to embrace this part of my identity.

Accepting myself as I am is a curious thing, actually.  Full acceptance means understanding my quirks and nuances and acknowledging them as mine regardless of who .  Admitting that I missed my friends and family while I was in India does not mean that I did not enjoy my time with my parents. When we were younger, our worlds may have been filled with concrete black and white options. We either liked something or we hated it, like broccoli or pavickka (a bitter gourd from Kerala).   Most of us kids hated this bitter vegetable from India. We hated it so much that we shuddered whenever we had to even try it.

As adults, we recognize that our lives are filled with shades of colors and tastes. This is the beauty and the bane of adulthood.  Having to decide what is more important to us either at that time or for the future is the true decision. Balancing our feelings and wants with those of whom we love or care for also fits into our decision matrix. Accepting that we miss one group while we enjoy our time with another is a realistic reflection of our lives. It is possible and normal to feel multiple conflicting waves of emotion. Our responses to these conflicts is what determines how well we know and accept ourselves.

My time in India made it possible for me to have a variety of experiences that will influence the rest of my life. I missed so much of my life in the USA, but I approached life in India as a temporary duty assignment just like when I was stationed in Fort Irwin, California or Landstuhl, Germany.   While I was a soldier, I went from duty station to duty station. During this time, I met many people and had new experiences. All of it enhanced my life.  In India,  I re-learned that places we visit are often temporary but the important people who are in our lives are not.    With this approach, I can happily choose to  make a decision to enjoy the time I have for I will focus on the current experience with people I am with rather the other places I should be.  By the way, I love pavikka now.   Isn’t it funny how our tastes and perspectives grow with age and exposure?

 

My Return to the United States – Part II

I got back about three week ago and I am readjusting to life in the United States.   There are many things about America that I missed but I would rather talk about how Indian has changed me and why. Here’s the link to Part I in case you missed it.    

Since January, I lived with my parents and had been a part of their daily lives in a way I had not been for many years.   Adult children do not often get to experience the daily lives of their retired parents or even see them as regular people.  My parents have full and rich lives in India and are very active in their faith community.  During my extended trip, they took me to see many relatives.  Some I met for the first time and others who, unfortunately, may not be alive for my next trip to India. In some cases, we were visiting graves and lighting candles.  Despite the sadness, I felt quite blessed to make these connections.   Many of my relatives were just names to me.  Now I have faces, names, childhood stories, and in some cases, I am Facebook friends with them too. Thanks to my parents and their generosity, I traveled across some parts of India for the first time.  I had the opportunity to study Malayalam and Hindi and to just be an Indian girl hanging out with her parents drinking hot chai or kappi and eating masala dosa or parotta and egg roast during road trips.

While I enjoyed myself and the adventures with my parents, I also learned a great deal about myself and who I am. It is often harder to be true to yourself than it is to move across the country or take a new job. Believe me, I have moved across the world and the United States for different jobs. None of that was harder than being honest with myself about who I am, what I want, and most importantly, what I do not want for my life. Because of my time in India, I know and accept that I will always be a modern Indian woman no matter where I work or live. Modern, because I deeply respect our values but I, respectfully and sometimes not so respectfully, object to some of our cultural practices and expectations.   Part of my journey was to explore my motherland as a woman in her forties, and I have done that. I will never be the traditional Indian woman with a husband and children perpetuating gender assigned roles or embodying the typical (sometimes stereotypical) submissive and accepting quiet female who does as she is told by her male relatives.  This is not for me.   However, I will always be my parents’ oldest child and Leenamama or Aunt Sue to my nieces and nephews.   In addition to knowing and loving who I am now, I look forward to the next part of my life journey.

Before I left India, I was excited about starting the new PhD program and moving on to the next phase of my life.  Now that I have been back in the U.S. for three weeks, I am even more grateful for these last five months in India.  Without India, I would not be who I am today.  Without my culture and history, I would not be who I am today.  My family may joke that I am still a FOB (a Fresh off the Boat Indian) in many ways, and I will agree with one modification – I am a modern FOB and I am damn proud of it.  

My Return to the United States – Part I

I landed in India in January and in five days, I will be returning to the U.S. to begin the next phase of my journey.  During my last few days here, I am going to enjoy the time I have left.   It has been quite a blessing to spend the last few months in India away from all the chaos in the world.   I have been learning patience and learning to be more appreciative of the good things I have in my life.  It seems everyone knows India is a developing country but it is another thing to see it for yourself.  What is most amazing is the striking contrast between those who have and those who do not.

There is poverty here like you may not imagine or even know and right alongside is amazing wealth.  There are people who do not have enough food or a place to live.  There are children here without anyone to take care of them.  Women are treated rather poorly here.  You might be thinking that I somehow missed the gender disparity, poverty, and homelessness in America.  I didn’t miss it; I just processed it differently.  Like so many who live in developed countries, I did not see it every day and became desensitized to it.  Here in India, you cannot ignore it and it never leaves you.   Before I sadden all of us with my observations, allow me to emphasize my appreciation for my blessings.  Taking note of what is in my immediate environment reminds me that I have much to be grateful for each day especially since I am returning to the States.

In August, I will start a PhD program that will enable me to continue my work in disaster human services.  While I conducted my informal preparedness research here, I realized that people in India are like people in the States.  They have the same worries about feeding their families, keeping a roof over their heads, and making it through it each day.  Preparedness is so often someone else’s job.  Here when you ask, who is supposed to help, the answer is the state government or the national government.  I guess I am not surprised at that answer.  After all, aren’t we all primed in some ways to expect others to help us?    This leads me to my next discovery.  Some of us have so much support than others.  Frankly, this wasn’t a discovery so much as it was confirmation of what I already knew and had studied about the importance of social capital.  In India, your place in society determines what you often get and how much of it you get.  Finances play an enormous role as does your social capital.

If you are wondering if I am deliberately veering down the road of sadness and sobering observations, you are right.  I am.  But, why are you surprised?  I have been in India for the last 138 days not utopia.  There are a lot of sad and unfair things that happen here but there are many sad and unfair things happening all around the world.   My point is that we cannot hide from the sadness.  We must endeavor to forge on without forgetting its existence.  I choose to let it be the impetus for my work.     It helps to remember that people are like the hundreds of starfish found on the beach. For each one we throw back into the ocean, we have affected its whole world.   I know I cannot help everyone who crosses my path, but I can help a few of them.

Stay tuned for Part II.

A PhD Program and Being Our Best

Earth Day 2017 was yesterday and , I have just passed my 112 days in India.  While many of you were attending  #EarthDay and #MarchforScience events across the world, I watched via social media platforms.   For the last three months, I have had to watch from India and support from afar.  Believe me, I do feel separated from everyone else because of the physical distance and the time zones but I have kept up my pursuit for the next major journey of my life. I am very excited to share that University of Delaware accepted me into their Disaster Science and Management PhD program, so I will also join the effort to support truth using science and evidence.

While my classes do not begin until late August, I have already begun my prep.  As I enter the program, I will have plenty of experience as a disaster human services practitioner but no experience as a PhD student.  Fortunately, there is a bevy of information available to me.  In addition to the usual statistics, research methods, and writing courses, I have decided to review two additional books Grad School Essentials: A Crash Course in Scholarly Skills by Zachary Shore and Getting Organized: Improving Focus, Organization, and Productivity by Chris Couch.  Both books are dedicated to improving the skills of getting work done and having the right mindset as I start my journey.  It’s not that I do not know how to get my work done, but that I recognize a new system is important to keep up with my new pace in graduate school. It’s been eight years since I completed my Master’s degree, so it only makes sense to review what I need to improve.

I am a good student but every good student can use help getting better.  Perhaps that is what our journey is all about – the pursuit of the best version of us.  Reading both books, I realize I must change many ingrained behaviors and beliefs but I am prepared to do just that.   I have not always been a fan of change but I have learned change is the one constant to always expect.  With that in mind, it occurred to me that the more flexible and adaptable I become, the better I can change when a situation requires it.

The most important point lesson I have learned so far is that I do not need to be anyone but me.  I have enormously talented colleagues who are more intelligent than I am but I get to work with them.  We learn from each other.  In my twenties, I felt insecure working with so many sharp people but in my thirties, I learned we all possess different skills.  Some folks will always be better than you in some ways and you will be better than others in different ways.  Simply put, we must learn to be the best version of ourselves, and then share whenever possible.  Getting my PhD will not change my desire to keep improving.  In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize I have much to learn.  Seems like a good reason to continue to be a life-long student.

 

My Evolution as an Indian Woman – Part II

 

In Part I, I mentioned some of the adults from my Indian church in New York tried to push me out.  The man who used the laughable insult of “girl” was the leader of this makeshift group but I had an opportunity to end his campaign by sharing sensitive information about his family’s current scandal. Another church member gave me this information to share widely to crush this man and his family to deflect attention away from me. If I were a big political player, I would have shared, maybe.  But, I was not a big player. I was just a woman trying to get through another horrible experience in her life. Fortunately, I realized that this guy was bullying me because he thought he could win by leveraging the community against me.   Ultimately, I did not share that information because it would have disparaged a woman in his family and I am not a gossiper.  Most importantly, I recognized I could survive a fight with this guy.  I lived in America. Even though, he could ostracize me from that church, I would still survive. I did not depend on the Indians for my well-being.  I worked at a hospital, had my own apartment, and a completely independent social circle.  By taking the attention off me, I would leave him free to focus his madness on another woman who may not have been as independent as me.

Another woman who was solely dependent on the Indian community could not survive it.  In fact, exclusion from your community is an active measure wielded to control or get someone under control in many cultures.  Who know what would have happened if he attacked another female about anything else?  Would she be able to withstand his onslaught?  I did not want to take the chance, so I did nothing with that piece of information.  As all scandals are eventually forgotten, so was this.  In due course, this group moved on to attack others who dared to offend their sensibilities but I did not escape unscathed.

I found out from some of the children and one of the Aunties at church that I had been labeled a “bad person” by the parents of my church.  Basically, I represented everything that could go wrong if an Indian child did not heed his or her parents. Apparently, the parents used me as an example of someone who did not behave or respect her elders (read that as all males in her vicinity). I was hurt by this, but the children told me they loved me anyway because I always treated them with respect.  The Aunty also told me she heard the adults say how horrible I was but she had never seen any of that from me. She mentioned that she noticed how the children loved me and if they loved me, I could not be all bad.   Her unexpected support surprised me as did her candor but I appreciated it.

I know I did the right thing by not sharing that scandalous bit. Another woman would have been ridiculed for not being satisfied with her repressive and confining life as an Indian wife.  What kind of a woman would I be if I used the destruction of another woman to save myself?   If Indians in America could be this cruel, what could I possibly expect from Indians in India.  I shudder at the thought!  As I sit in Kerala, I know that I am doing the right thing by not injecting myself too closely into the community here.  For them, I am simply a visitor.  However, I am not visitor in my own life but my life is not really here in India.

My Evolution as an Indian Woman – Part I

 

Because the pace of life in India is much slower, I have had plenty of time to think about my life, where I came from and how I got here.  Although I am about to start a PhD program and come from a family that is considered moderately affluent, I am not married and I do not have children.  Worse, I have opinions. Being a woman in India is difficult on many levels but being an Indian woman in America is no walk in the park either.  None of this is new to anyone who has read my blog.

I am learning to moderate myself.  I am not liking it but I must adjust because this is my parents’ world, not mine.  If I were to call out every indignity or insult, my parents would probably leave me at home every time.  More importantly, I seem to invite this attention because I say things like, “I don’t need a husband to take care of myself” or “I don’t want to have children.”  Clearly, I upset their world views; I challenge their beliefs.  Some might call me a coward for not confronting every insult or hurtful remark, but why would I want to subject myself to it?  I won’t change their minds.  For them, I am an anomaly to be kept away from the children so I do not set a bad example.  So, I keep quiet a lot.    It got me thinking of how I used to be, railing at everything with little use for strategy.

Here in Kerala, I conform but there was a time when I did not.   Over a decade ago, a few people in my Indian church in New York tried to kick me out because I decided to divorce the husband who married me only to come to America.  Many of these people had known me since I was small.  I was a member of that church long before these members even came to America.  Truthfully, these people just did not like the fact that I stood up for myself and would not let them bully me.  The leader of that group, a man, told me I was not a “girl”.   In his eyes, he was handing me a crushing insult because I did not fill the standard role of a girl in Indian life. It was rather silly to use that insult on me.  It betrayed his lack of awareness of women like me. He relied on limiting gender-assigned roles from his childhood in Kerala.  Most of us who fight for equality don’t see ourselves as girls anyway.  We are women.  We are adults and we have functioning brains. We do not exist just to cook, clean, and to carry babies.  Even back then, I did not defer to men just because they lived and breathed.  To be clear, I also did not just listen to women either.  I listened to reason and logic.  I used evidence practices to make decisions. In short, I was an adult even if he only saw me as  a little girl without enough sense to listen to everything he said.

To be continued in Part II – Stay tuned.