Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The last segment of my India journal

8/2 – I am on the last hour of my flight to Dubai and dreading spending another day on planes, but excited that Nate and Ryan have agreed to meet me during my layover.  Looking forward to friends and family has made leaving Kolkata more manageable, but I am still sad to be leaving behind friends and places that became dear to me. 

In India, Kolkata is called the City of Joy, and that name is fitting despite the impression the rest of the world has about it.  I think that most people think of it as a destitute and backwards place, and it is that, but it is that layered with all types of progress and wealth too.  I think that every city is complex and full of contradictions.  The complexities and contradictions in Kolkata are just more overwhelming because the population is larger, the religious diversity is broader, the combination of technology and the old world is constant, and the people are more expressive about their highs and lows.  I have never spent time in a place where life is lived so fully by every person.  Because there are few (if any - except the Oberoi) quiet and private places to retreat to, people live in front of each other and embrace the wide range of human emotions that they are likely to see at any moment.  Everyone is so accepting of human nature because they must confront it and display it in the open.  There is not one day that I didn’t have a moment of experiencing something that I had never experienced before.  Not all of those experiences were pleasant, but I am leaving with a better understanding of the ultimate goodness of humanity.  Some of what I saw was ugly and heartbreaking, but mostly what I saw was a city of hundreds of millions loving one another and doing their best to make their communities and the globe better.  It was heartwarming to experience and witness the selfless generosity of people who have so comparatively little. 

On our way to the airport, Janet, Drew and I discussed India’s lack of social programming and how ordinary citizens compensate for that by helping each other.   This is behavior that is both instinctive and learned.  The school where I taught has classes take turns bringing in food and clothes to distribute in the slums and there were always fundraisers to help the citizens in the north who had suffered some serious flooding.  Yet, there were also just spontaneous acts of charity where people handed over the leftover food they were carrying out of a restaurant or gave money to beggar.  I know these things happen the world over, but remember that Kolkata is packed, so these things were happening constantly and beautifully. 

Later -  I am now less than 2 hours from landing at Dulles and I have never wanted to be home so badly.  I think that I have decided that flying is dumb and painful.  My entire body is achy and I am starting to dislike children.  No good.  I am trying instead to use my last hours to reflect on what I want to take home with me. 

I know that I want to take home memories of my students and how hard-working and hopeful they were.  I was consistently in awe of how much time and effort they were willing to put into any assignment.  I know that most of my students in the States are the same way, but for my Indian students there was a desperation to learn that is unmirrored in U.S. education.  Students in India know how much their families are sacrificing to put them through schools (especially the more expensive English medium schools).  They know that they are the hope of their families to escape poverty by raising a doctor, engineer, astronaut, etc.  My students in India often were not learning for themselves only, they were learning for the welfare of their families and the lengths that they were willing to go to were incredible.  I think the idea that there is no safety net of social services also spurred them on.  In India, I never heard anyone blame a teacher or lack of support as a reason for failure; there is this internal belief that they are responsible for their own destinies that drives their studies.  That is why they go home and try to make sense of content heavy instruction that is delivered in a very lecturey way.  I don’t know that I want my American students to have to feel the same kind of desperation or responsibility for the fate of their family, but I do want to remember how beautiful that spirit of determination is.

I also want to take home the hospitality and selflessness that I witnessed.  I am not sure that I have done as many kind deeds for others in my whole lifetime as were done for me in the course of a month.  I hope to remain inspired to share what I have less selfishly.  This will be hard for me.  I am especially selfish with my time and always setting boundaries on how much time I am willing to spend doing something; in India, nobody ever made me feel like they were enduring me until they got to what they really wanted to be doing.  They never made me feel like I was asking too much of them or taking more of their resources than I should.  The generosity in Kolkata is a special sort.

I also want to remember how many times I felt thankful that, as much as I loved Kolkata, for me it was temporary and escapable.  For so many people all over the world, they don’t have the same options of mobility and upward progress that are available to me.  They are likely never going to experience huge change in their situation, but they don’t resent the lives they were given.  While they might long for better; they keep living what they have. 

I still have much reflection to carry out, and I don’t doubt that India will continue to change me from afar.  I am a lucky girl to be carrying back so much love and friendship and insight into another place.  I am lucky even if I am in an uncomfortable seat with some baser aspects of humanity showing through in the tired and cranky passengers around me. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Yesterday was a lot of things

Today is my last full day in Kolkata, and I woke up early with the intention of going to school with Janet and Sarah to see their send off ceremony, but because I couldn't sleep last night, I decided to nap and blog by the pool instead.  Last day of this extremely rough hardship of poolside service and beauty.  I couldn't sleep last night because yesterday was too overwhelming, and I had so much metaphorical baggage to unpack and too much literal baggage to pack.

Yesterday, I woke up, went to the gym and breakfast and then went to school like normal, but because of exams and my busy day, I only stayed a couple of hours where I received many gifts of jewelry, makeup, handbags, etc.  Last night was my going away party, and my amazingly sweet coworkers were determined to make me look like a proper Indian girl.  I might have disappointed in the makeup category, but I wore more bangles than you can imagine.  So after school, I ran back to the hotel to do some errands.  I wanted to get my school and my mentor teachers some of my favorite books to add to their libraries, so I went to Oxford Bookstore and then picked up some photographs that I had printed in the opposite direction of the hotel.  During all my running around and toting of the myriad bags of stuff, the Oberoi staff was calmly and efficiently helping me.  At least 4 different guys hauled heavy bags for me, and Yojna kept reminding me to relax and have fun.  Easy to say when you aren't the one who is utterly unprepared for a crazy night.  Eventually, I made it back to my room with all the gifts, some wrapping paper and the tape that I borrowed from the gift shop.  I had made an appointment at 2pm to have my sari tied because I had to be at the American Center by 3 for a press conference.  I have mentioned before that Indian time tends to be a little less structured than American time, so I was thrilled at 2:45 when Priyanka arrived to dress me.  The extra time gave me some chances to wrap gifts and write cards which I really should have done the previous night.  Luckily, when I arrived about 20 minutes late to the American Center my group had not accomplished much except being shuffled through multiple security checkpoints and standing in line for badges and to wait for escorts.  So I joined them for a meeting with the director of the center and then for the press conference where we got to share some of our experiences in education at home and in India.  It was pretty hilarious to have about 4,000 photos snapped and every word that I spoke recorded by an room full of press.  Once again, it made me want to share with India that I am not actually a celebrity.  We are all constantly asked for our autographs by students and treated like dignitaries by adults.  This coupled with the craze for taking photos of us has made me confused about my peon status at home.  Apparently the paparazzi have been neglecting one of the international sensations of the world - ME!

Then my school sent a car to the American Center for me and 4 of my fellow teammates to attend my going away party which was overwhelming.  My principal LOVES to talk, so he praised me for a solid 40 minutes of unconnected thoughts.  At one point he was listing the American presidents, their wives, and what countries they visited.  Apparently this was connected to me because I was continuing the tradition of American friendship with foreign nations.  I am not sure whether or not he knows that I am significantly less important than heads of state.  Then he made every senior teacher, the directors of USIEF, and my 4 friends that I dragged along stand up and give speeches about me.  It was very touching, but a bit too much attention.  I am not severely adverse to attention as many of you know, but 2 straight hours of compliments and gifts are a bit much even for me.

I was of course really upset to be leaving my amazing school where I have been so happy.  The teachers that I have befriended in the staff room and their classrooms are an amazing and dedicated group of ladies, and I will miss them all dearly.  Some of my enjoyment yesterday was tempered by my sadness at leaving them, but also by some tension I was feeling toward my administrators.  On Tuesday, one of my friends from work invited me to her house which was so sweet, but the administration was unhappy with her for doing so because they told her that she was endangering my safety.  She was not.  It made me feel a little angry because they were insinuating that she didn't care about my safety or happiness when in fact she had gone out of her way to plan for my comfort.  She had prepared some boiled eggs and a fruit tray and purchased bottled water for me.  She also showered me with gifts and painted my nails for the party.  It was amazing to have the chance to talk to another teacher about home life and see a day in the life of a teacher, but it was interrupted by calls from our administrators.  I was so upset because I thought that she was going to be in trouble for her kindness to me.  I called our program director at USIEF to express my displeasure that the administration would treat me and a teacher at the school this way.  I know that I am in a foreign country and that I have to be careful about safety, but I am an adult who was being attentively cared for by 4 other adults who only wanted to welcome me into their lives.  I was most upset because this incident confirmed some of my suspicions about the inequality of treatment that various teachers receive.  Obviously, I am in a different culture and I need to respect that American traditions of equality and informality are not going to exist between bosses and employees, but it is hard to swallow when I am used to a different system.  I think that most principals at home think that the best way to elicit quality work from teachers is to treat them like dedicated professionals who are equipped to meet the interests of students.  The pay scale at home advantages age and seniority over competence, but the treatment does not.  I love knowing that I have earned the trust and respect of my bosses through my hard work.  It is not that the administration here does not recognize and praise good work, but it is that there is in place a deeply entrenched system of hierarchy where senior teachers are offered more respect than younger ones.  Favoritism exists in both systems, but here I was elevated too quickly to the role of favorite not based on any of my abilities but rather based on my position as an ambassador of a powerful country.  All of this is unsettling, and I am rambling here mostly to make sense of my own feelings.  This is definitely something to continue to think about, and I hope that my friends here are less upset about the inequality of treatment than I am.  Obviously they are all way too polite and humble to ever address this issue with me.  It probably didn't help either that I was a special pet of those in power.

After my party which we escaped only because of the pressing deadline of our next meeting, we went to a restaurant just off of Park Street for our final team meeting.  We had exchanged names and re-written biographies and created awards for each other.  It was awesome to hear the hilarious biographies and creative awards that everyone wrote and received.  Dear Janet had to write mine, and it included everything from pig judging to soup, so I know that I have made her endure far too many of my stories.  I am sure that she is sorry that I am so reserved.  It was good to have another debrief with the others about our experiences.  I am so lucky that I traveled with such a loving and hysterical group.  I never really had feelings of isolation or homesickness (the unbearable kind - I of course missed you all in addition to longing for fresh cucumbers and chocolate milk) because I always had a group of people with whom I could honestly dissect my feelings about what happened and how crazy amazing but also terribly heartbreaking Kolkata can be.  Our friend Niladri told me to always carry Kolkata in my heart, and this will not be tough advice to follow.  For better or worse, I LOVE this place, and this will not be the last time that we meet.  I could absolutely not live here long term because I learned that I have a need for quiet spaces, the ability to run outside, and more access to nature.  These realizations will help me figure out where I am capable of moving when I leave to teach abroad.

We got back from dinner before midnight, and even though I was exhausted I spent time admiring my MANY gifts and mentally preparing to say goodbye to my summer home.  You will all be proud that I only publicly cried once during the goodbyes.  Unfortunately, it was when they instructed me to say goodbye to the children during an assembly, but I am getting over the embarrassment of being an overly emotional being.

Even though I am coming home, I will still do a few more blog entries (including the one about bathrooms) when I finish sorting through the tons of photos that the others on the trip took.

The rain has stopped and the sun is inviting me to cool off in the pool.  See you cats stateside soon.

Monday, July 29, 2013


I am tired, but I wanted to post a few pics of my week thus far.  Why is time moving so fast?  I have so much to do, and no time to do it.
Some of the teachers at my workshop on Saturday morning.

    Rupa is on the far left, and a few other sweet morning shift teachers.  

Occasionally the hotel gets a little frustrated with the way that I drape laundry all over the room, and they will passive aggressively suggest that I do laundry by moving the laundry bags from inside the closet to a drawer on my dresser. 

The little green "auto" or "tick-tick" is a primary form of transportation in Kolkata, but this was the first time that I saw one that was blasting some sweet jams out of huge megaphones.  Obviously, what Kolkata needs is more noise, so I loved this.

No big deal.  Just moving some sticks.

Niladri gave us a fantastic tour of old Kolkata, and we loved the architecture.  The sitar on the top of the building behind him is divine.  

There was a little boy in the top right window. 

Just some random street shots.  I now know how difficult it is to walk the streets of Kolkata in a sari, but I doubt this woman raises as much of a fuss as a group of Americans do.

It is his turn to do the dishes.  I hope this also means it is his turn to choose the radio station all day.  

I am going to miss Kolkata.  The streets are always so random.

Pick up game in a back alley.

A swimming pool with some high dives.  I was concerned about the depth, but John questioned the water quality first.  His point might be more essential.  

Niladri and Caitlin at the end of our tour.

The whole crew plus Niladri.  It was raining, but the ring around my waist is actually just sweat.  I wore the wrong colors that day.

My first trip on the tram...with these characters.  I eventually gave up my seat to a naked baby which made Janet, who was sitting beside me, very nervous.  She was pretty sure that he was not old enough to be potty trained, but we made it home without witnessing an accident. 

Four sari wearing hotties before our English presentations.

Some of the teachers who came to our professional development.

Part of the crew dressed in our best Indian garb.  Obviously we make quite a scene around town.

The back of my sari has somehow come undone, but Sarah's face steals the show.  She wears a sari like she was born for it.

Sumanta and Caitlin.  

Sumanta is our favorite, so the poor man had to pose with each of us.  He might love us secretly, but we live for him.

Some of the dancing at the reception.

We love Richard and Yojna.  Best Oberoi staff members!  

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Spot on

I just read an article by Clinton S. (Tad) Brown called

Buffalo boy’s Calcutta crush!  It was published in The Telegraph in May.  The excerpt that I am including is a very accurate portrayal of Kolkata.  I am not sure that I love it as much as I could if I stayed longer.  Right now, I am still too overwhelmed by all of its contradictions and tensions, but when I read this article, I totally identified with his feelings.


I believe that, more than birthright or bloodline, the essence of being a Calcuttan is to accept and embrace the city in all of its glory and madness. Not to like it so much as to love it. “Liking” is easy, too easy.

And Calcutta is, quite frankly, not very likeable. White sand beaches and quaint ski villages are likeable, nice places to visit.

But they are not lovable because they are practically devoid of life, real life. Calcutta, by contrast, is teeming with life, throbbing with life. It is a living expression of the human experience in all its rich contradictions, the energy and inertia, the creativity and the chaos that somehow coalesces into a semblance of order before spiralling again into seeming chaos, the vibrancy, the ambition and despair, the rot and decay.

To walk the streets of Calcutta, even to sit stuck in traffic, is to, at the same time, marvel at the endurance of human accomplishment and to muse on its futility. Stately buildings and imperial monuments stand testimony to feats of greatness accomplished in centuries past while the crumbling bricks and disintegrating mortar remind us that dust goes only to dust. The frailty and finality of the human condition are never far from view in Calcutta, and you cannot live here, as you can in so many other places, and not think from time to time of your own mortality.

Calcutta does not try to sweep these realities behind a curtain — it couldn’t if it tried. Rather, the city has somehow found a certain peace or, if not peace, perhaps understanding. This is why Calcutta is not likeable and can only be loved, or hated. I fell in love more than a decade ago, when I first arrived as a tourist from neighbouring Dhaka. I’ve fallen in love, again and again, over the last three years. In my affection for Calcutta, I can’t help but see a reflection of my attachment to my hometown, Buffalo, New York. Both cities have spent decades down on their luck after prolonged periods of greatness. Both have become the butt of national jokes and are fiercely defended by proud diasporas that have moved away in search of employment but otherwise remain tethered by loyalty to their native place. Both have inspired and continue to nurture world-class artists and thinkers.

I leave Mumbai and L.A. and Chennai and Manhattan for those who are drawn to gleaming glass and tall towers. Me, I’m looking for a city to live in, not in comfort or at ease. A city that will remind me I am alive even when I’d rather forget, a city that celebrates life.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Random pics

Afternoon assembly at my school. 

Close-up of "Sir" during afternoon assembly.
Some other people trying to avoid the rain that we hid from under an awning the other day.

The man who was pretty sure that he should be able to sell us an umbrella during the storm. 

The sari shopping crowd.  I can't wait/am terrified to show mine. 
Caitlin joins us to evaluate our choices.

Making the sweet men pull out all our saris to show Caitlin.  I don't think they minded because most of us bought a sari and a suit which was about 4,000 rupees each ($67ish).  

Update time

26/7 – 9:20am –
One week from now, I will be a couple hours into my flight from Kolkata to Dubai where I am losing hours of my life and being sucked into horrible jet lag.  Not something I am looking forward to since it means leaving all my dear friends here in Kolkata.  This has been an amazing experience that I will reflect on for my entire life.  It was so important for me to get out of my comfort zone and experience life outside my normal routine.  I have become reenergized by my time here, and I am eager to get back to my own students to share my experiences.  One of the first units that I teach in AP Lang is a unit that examines differing arguments about education, and I will need to find a way to bring in a text about the differences between American and Indian education.  I think that I have learned so much about my own practice and what I value and do not value in education. 

27/7 – Yesterday was quite a day.  After school, I stopped by the mall to try to get my ears pierced, but it turns out that the salon at the mall doesn’t do that.  Now I am not sure if I will get it done or not since they (the teachers at my school) are worried that my ears will not heal quickly because of the weather.  They told me I can do it only if I get permission of the doctor at my hotel and medicine from him in case I become septic.  The use of the word septic sort of dissuaded me from my plan even though I wanted to pierce my ears because it is the only complaint that I get about my appearance here.  They all gush about my evident beauty, and then bemoan the fact that I am not flaunting enough baubles to enhance my look.  Hilarious.  I thought that I would appease them with ear piercing in addition to wearing the bindis that they are now putting on my face every day.  I guess though that I will wait until I arrive at home and send them a picture of my ears.  They assure me that girls with earrings are more likely to find husbands.  I know that they are serious about marrying me off because they have asked for my birthday many times which is the first step in determining whether I am a good match for any single men they know.  Additionally, they have spent much time and energy convincing me that my future happiness depends upon marrying a Bengali man.  Apparently as “kind, caring, warm, and perfect” as Bengali men are, they do want a girl who can sport some dangly earrings.  I guess I am out of contention and will return home without a husband.  I know this is not what my school here wanted for my life. 

On my way out of the mall, I asked a cab to take me to New Market (the shopping center beside my hotel).  I learned that they don’t overcharge me as much when I ask to go there as when I ask to go to my super fancy hotel that makes them think that I have money to burn.  The cab driver didn’t want to use the meter, and I didn’t want to fight because it was raining, so we settled on 160 rupees which was probably about 30 too many, but whatever.  So we get in the cab and the drive is going smoothly enough considering the rain until we are about 2.5 kilometers from my hotel.  I recognized where we were, and knew we should be getting on this one overpass, but there was a police barricade and a few officers standing there, so we went around.  I had texted Caitlin earlier to ask if she wanted to go help me find a piercing salon after her meeting since I assumed that we would get home around the same time.  After we pass the barricade, traffic becomes CRAZY.  Not typical Kolkata crazy with beeping and disregard of lane lines and traffic rules, but seriously nobody will ever move again CRAZY.  Several times, I considered telling my cab driver that I would get out and walk since I knew where I was, but my bag was really heavy because I had taken my laptop and some presentation materials to school.  Good thing I didn’t because I got a text message from Caitlin who was at an English teachers club meeting at the American Center saying that the American Center was being evacuated due to a Syrian protest (in Kolkata) against the Americans. This naturally scared me even though she told me that the Indian teachers that she was with were utterly unconcerned.  I guess the thing that worried me was that my cab driver reached back to roll up the window in the back seat.  They usually leave ventilation up to the customer, so I was a little concerned that he rolled it up to protect me from people squeezing through the vehicles to cross the street. So I of course decide that this is a great time to hide my white skin even though everyone sitting in the cars around us clearly knows I am American and probably wishes I hadn’t caused this traffic jam.    Caitlin called a few times to check on my progress, and she had me give my location to one of the doormen at the hotel.  He made me feel better because he said it would take forever, but I would make it home.  I then confessed to the cab driver that I was in fact going to the Grand Hotel rather than the market, and that if he would drop me there, I would really appreciate it.  I am pretty sure that he might have figured that out during listening to my phone conversations anyway, but because he didn’t say anything and because I was overwhelmed by my safe return, I tipped him 140 rupees an hour later when he finally returned me to the hotel.  The meter might have climbed that high anyway with all the traffic, but we will never know since he bartered with me instead. 

By the time that I finally reached the hotel, the rally was over, and it was perfectly safe to leave the hotel.  In the lobby, I ran into John W. and Caitlin and we decided to go back to New Light for the evening.  New Light is an amazing NGO here in Kolkata that rescues children who are at risk for ending up in the sex trade.  New Light was founded by a woman named Urmi Basu who I met with last Wednesday before dinner with my bosses.  You can read an article about her here  (seriously read it even though it is terrifying) I was instantly impressed with her mission to save these kids and fill them with confidence and give them an education that offered them choices other than following the pattern of generational prostitution.  New Light provides these kids with a place to eat, sleep, and study, though you would cringe if you saw the facility and realized that somewhere between 40-85 children a night sleep in such a small space.  Additionally funds from the NGO pay for school tuition for the students as well as meeting their clothing, food, and medical needs.  All of these children have mothers in the sex trade, and what is really novel about the approach of this NGO is that it doesn’t separate children from their parents.  The kids are free to come and go from New Light as they please, and some children eat dinner with their families or sleep at home.  They do take roll every morning and night, and the community at large knows which kids belong to New Light.  This knowledge might endanger them since traffickers hate New Light, but Urmi brilliantly befriended the entire neighborhood by purchasing everything they need for the shelter from the merchants on the street who now protect the center because it is their primary source of steady income.  While of course a charity like this can always use money, Urmi said that their more pressing need is volunteers.  She wants the children to know that the world sees them and is on their side.  She wants them to be loved by adults who have no ulterior motives. 

We went last night and it was amazing!  I have to go back another night before I leave because I was instantly in love.  When we walked in a few students were in a yoga class, and other groups were scattered throughout the space.  One group of kids about 3-6 was making origami boats.  I decided to also show them how to make a fortune teller which became a big hit even though we didn’t get to the writing bit.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough paper for all the children who became interested which led to some of the fortune tellers being ripped to shreds by competing children.  The younger kids obviously didn’t understand my requests to share nicely since they are not English speakers yet.  After a bit of madness where I am folding paper with multiple children crawling over my body, the students had evening assembly where they take roll, sing the national anthem, and have a period of meditation.  Ever seen a 2 year old meditate?  It is adorable!  Then after assembly they pull out tables and benches and the students break themselves up into age groups and any available volunteers tutor the students and play games with them.  My group of 10 year old girls was really into playing matching games with math problems and written numbers.  In one column I might write 800+67= and in the other I would write eight hundred sixty-seven.  They found this great fun.  Then as an added challenge and to not waste more paper which I am not sure is that plentiful, I would make them find the sum of all the numbers on the page so that we got to practice adding in the thousands, hundreds, tens, and one columns.  Don’t be afraid of my math teaching skills, I observed Dan’s lesson on mixed fractions the other day and feel more confident about math than I have in a long time.  The students last night didn’t want me to make them work with mixed and improper fractions even though I felt eager to do so.  Caitlin was teaching a geography review session and I heard John drilling the kids in verb tenses.  It was one of my favorite experiences in Kolkata, and I wish that I had discovered it sooner so that I could spend more time there.  Seriously if anyone ever wants to stay in Kolkata for awhile, New Light will put you to work.  And it is good work!

Caitlin teaches geography.

One of my math matchers.

More math matchers and sweethearts!

Could they be cuter?  This is part of my fortune telling crew.

He really wanted a snap of just the two of us, but we were photobombed about 15 times.  This is the best that Caitlin could get.  Then he took my camera and took many unflattering photos of just me.  

The little ones during assembly.  

John W. with the girls that he made giggle when he taught them to conjugate the verb to cheat.

Caitlin and the kiddos.

Matching - before I introduced the idea of addition.