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.
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.
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 ShoreandGetting 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.
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.
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.
One of the challenges with living and writing from India is the limited connectivity. In my three previous posts, I could not add any of the photos I had prepared. I will add all of the photos as individual posts. Thank you for sticking with me!
In Part I of this posting, I mentioned the visits I made to family and friends. My list includes the visits to the gravesides of paternal and maternal grandparents and great-grandparents, and great-aunts and uncles. In our custom, even though they are gone, our elders are always with us in our hearts. We pray to them regularly and offer prayers on their death anniversaries either graveside or in church.
I would like to take a moment to explain the value of the blessings from your elders. As a grandchild born into any family, there are great hopes attached to you. Along with these hopes, are the blessings of your elders for your prosperity in life and family. I did not understand the value of these blessings until I lost my last grandparent but I think of it often now. When you have your elders with you, you learn about your parents and their lives growing up. You learn about who they were and who you were as you grew. Sometimes you learn that you have always been spunky and funny or that you were always serious. I learned that I was always curious, always had an answer for every question, and wanted to explore everything.
Since I was born in India, I was the only one of my siblings who knew my grandparents and great-grandparents. I have memories of them during my short time in India before moving to the United States. Over the years, we lost these elders one by one. In 2012, my remaining grandmother passed away about a month after my sister’s son, Jonathan, was born. I was quite surprised how keenly I felt that loss. It’s actually not that surprising when you consider that I was with her for two years when my Mom first moved to the United States. A day later, Jonathan’s paternal great-grandmother passed away, also in India. This little boy, who is a pride and jewel of our family and at that time, the only grandchild of my parents, lost two of his elders without receiving their blessings and love. Unfortunately, Jonathan’s paternal grandfather had also passed away many years ago, so he started out with only three grandparents.
None of those who have passed will ever get to hold him or whisper their love to him. Now Jonathan is almost five and he has a sister and a cousin-sister through my brother and his wife. None of these children will ever get the direct blessings of the elders who have passed. The next best thing is to learn about these elders from those who remember them. Unfortunately, small children cannot fathom the enormity of this loss but in their hopeful way, they can reflect the blessings, love, and prosperity that we all look for. The rest of us who are with the children can offer them the unconditional love and blessings they would have received. I also think it’s possible to pray to those whom we have lost and tell them about the children who are in our family now. I would like to believe that all the elders we have lost can see how their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are growing and send their blessings to them anyway.
Although my focus has been on biological family so far, I would like to take a moment to talk about the new folks I have met on this trip. Some of these friends have become my family through my choice. Others, I avoid like the plague after the initial meeting, also by choice. Some I met through church, others through extended family, but all now are a part of my world. Initially, I may appear interesting to new folks because I am new and different in their social spheres.
Sometimes folks are overly excited to meet me, especially when they find out I live and work in the United States. I find that to be disconcerting at times because I have learned the hard way that some people will use you to gain something better for their lives. To be fair, the overly enthusiastic people could just be offering the respect and affection they have for my parents to me, which is a wonderful thing. Other times, they have no idea who I am beyond the U.S. passport.
Imagine for a moment that you are stuck in an inescapable place or moment in life where your day to day existence is interminable. The opportunities for you or your family to succeed or to make money are very limited. If you are in this position, you might decide to avail yourself of any chance that comes along no matter the cost to anyone else. Some of us who have had arranged marriages with men or women from abroad understand this firsthand, so a reluctance to engage with those whose excitement overflows like a geyser upon hearing that you work and live in the U.S. is normal. My caution might be off putting for those who have never experienced being used for a ticket to the United States. It’s been many years since this happened and I have come to understand and respect the depths someone will go to in order to “rescue” themselves from their terrible situation.
However, I am still on guard for those who may see me only as a potential ticket or conduit to attaining their wishes. They are quite easy to spot. Once they realize that I cannot bring them to the United States or that I do not have the money parents have, they stop communicating with me. Rather than being annoyed or irritated, I take it for what it is. What they are doing is not personal nor is it a reflection on me. Here in India, that’s life. What can someone do for you? Nothing? Well, then let’s not waste time pretending that we are friends.
From an American sensibility, it might seem opportunistic or selfish, but is it really? Isn’t this what we do with old coworkers, friends, or neighbors when we take a new job or move to a new place? How about the folks in our networks who we’ve stopped communicating with on LinkedIn or Facebook because they do not contribute anything positive or constructive to our lives? Have you considered those whom you have not heard from in a long time? Whatever the reason may be, don’t judge. Just appreciate the people who are important and present in your life.