We hopped into a seven-person van and drove three hours south to the Christian Student Movement conference on Life, Faith and Education, watching the scenery change back and forth from hectic street-life to rice paddies. Thomas John “Achen” was asked to lead a day of the conference. We were looking forward to our first opportunity to engage with Indian college students. We knew Achen to be an engaging speaker and trusted it would be an invigorating, challenging day. The five of us spread out among the students at the conference, smiling as Achen was introduced, and listened patiently through the morning of Malayalam (of which we all knew about two words). Achen brought up the topic of globalization and asked us to break into small groups. We were asked to discuss globalization in our group. After much confusion and some semi-formal and awkward introductions, the discussion in my group began as all eyes fell on me and one of the students asked, in beautiful English, “What do you think about the issue of globalization?”
Two issues at the forefront of Kerala’s politics are the current and recent ban in Kerala of Cola-Cola, which includes an on-going dispute over the factory use and contamination of water as well as the health alerts against the product itself. The second issue is the number of farmers committing suicide due to excessive loans and a lack of support on many levels from the Indian government. What can I, an American who just arrived in India, say to a group of Indian students? They began to list examples in Malayalam and translated a few for me, a humbling project in many respects. I was thrown in the pot much sooner than I had anticipated.
Anticipation is a dangerous thing. My image of India was based mainly on stimulating, color photos and the India Standard Buffet on Belmont in Chicago, as well as some delicious novels and museum exhibitions. Alain de Botton in “The Art of Travel” said of anticipation, “…those eyes were intimately tied to a body and mind that would travel with me wherever I went and that might, over time, assert their presence in ways that would threaten or even negate the purpose of what the eyes had come there to see.” It was at the conference that I realized my need to set aside all images I had of India previously in order to leave some blank space to be filled. I am here to learn: from my supervisors, from the women who concoct every curried meal I eat, from Mrs Lelamma my Malayalam tutor, and from my elementary-aged and college-aged students.
Botton says, “Journeys are the midwives of thought.” I already recognize, in the short time I’ve been here, that my mind is processing the world around me in a new way. Questions arise that I would have never asked in other circumstances. I have changed my lifestyle to best engross myself in Indian culture. My interpretation of books is through a newly forming lens. I struggle with aspects of my American lifestyle, something I can never completely leave behind, as I learn what I have taken for granted (much more than I realized).
My day is scheduled around four main events: breakfast (curry), lunch (curry), tea and dinner (curry). All consumed in haste and with only quiet chatter between juicy bites. I feel ridiculous when my stomach grumbles before dinner, realizing that after the meal I will have to stand up with difficulty to wash my tasty fingers. Surplus is causing a bigger struggle for me than I anticipated. I packed too much (two carry-on sized pieces filled with three outfits and books). I eat seconds and sometimes thirds of rice-based meals. The rupee is half the worth of the dollar. I have a very expensive plane ticket home hiding in my sturdy suitcase. I am a walking symbol of abundance. How do I lead a simple life while I remain entrenched by the surplus I thought I had left? How will I lead a simple life when I return to the U.S.?
“Living simply is not enough,” Achen challenges us. One must act. Don’t allow your surplus to just “trickle-down” (that sentiment was reiterated in a political cartoon in a recent copy of The Hindu, a national English newspaper). Act. Engage in change. “Be the change,” as Andy quotes, one of the volunteers who is notably articulate and concise. The question remains for me, what can I Do here in India?
During the Global Missions training in Chicago from August 19-29, Isaiah 42:20 was mentioned by Rev. Rafael Malpica-Padilla. “He sees many things, but does no observe them; his ears are open but he does not hear.” I am no expert. In my vulnerability I am able to learn best. I may not be able to necessarily act on the frustrations that confront me; I will not change the world. I can attempt to engage the students I am learning from, helping them to learn English as I learn from what they are articulating. One of the teachers at Bishop Moore reminded me that in India it is very difficult for young people to find jobs (as it was in Italy as well). Knowing English enables mobility, allowing a person from Kerala who speaks Malayalam to move to another state in India where a different language is recognized and dialects abound. The difficult part will not be the teaching, it will be the vulnerability.
My pre-trip butterflies have been replaced with double-boiled rice and payasam, as my previously anticipated images are being replaced with reality like a rickshaw ride (speedily and haphazardly). Creating an empty space is a conscious part of every day, so that I may best “observe and hear” the people from whom I am learning.