Saturday, July 16, 2011

Where to even begin???

I honestly have no idea where to begin in telling you all about my first two weeks in India. I guess this post will have to be a smattering of random things. Whatever I happen to think of while writing will be in this post. The rest can wait.

I arrived here exactly two weeks ago tonight. It feels both like a long time and a short time. Often I can't believe I'll be here for ten more months. And most of the time I can't believe I'm actually in India. Sometimes, as I watch the people around me go about their regular lives in a place that is so new to me, I get the funny feeling I've just dropped from the sky into a random scene. Sometimes I feel as if I'm in a whole different world. In our orientations, we learned about the "cultural iceberg." AFS uses an iceberg as a metaphor for culture, because you can only see the very tip of an iceberg above the water. 90% of it is hidden under the water. Also, icebergs are always moving and changing shape. Culture is similar in that there are certain things that are visible, but many things that are invisible. Tourists usually just see the tip of the iceberg. Someone who comes on a visit to India will notice the food, the clothing, the music, the dance, the literature, the art, and the holiday customs. I am here to learn about all that, but much more. I want to learn about the religious beliefs, the rules of social etiquette, the values, the work ethic, the child raising beliefs, the notion of friendship, why people act the way they do. Indian culture is very ancient, deep, complicated, and also fascinating, rich, and beautiful. People here interact differently, and communicate differently. They use different gestures. Tone of voice or facial expressions may be interpreted differently. There is a whole new set of social rules and norms to learn and follow. For example, you must not hand anyone anything, or take anything, with your left hand. You must do it with your right hand. And that rule is a very simple one to follow, because it can be vocalized and stated outright. One thing that has been strange for me is that you aren't supposed to say "thank-you" "please" or "sorry" to your family. The idea is that you are close enough that you shouldn't have to say thank-you, it is just understood that you want to do things for each other. Saying thank-you makes the situation more formal. You can show your appreciation by your facial expression, other words, and especially giving gifts in return. I have to bite my tongue every time my host mom does something for me, and I always feel so ungrateful not saying thank-you. I talked to her about it, and she promised to let me know if there is a time I should say thank-you and I don't, or I shouldn't and I do. Learning the deeper values and patterns of a culture takes time. It is hard sometimes to be patient, but then I remind myself that I've only just arrived here, and that I still have plenty of time to learn.
In spite of all these differences, though, once in a while I have to remind myself that I'm in India, because people are people wherever you go. Sometimes I'll be with my host family, or my friends at school, or my AFS coordinators, and think, isn't it amazing how people who live across the world from each other can be so similar? 

Host Family
My host family is wonderful. I really am very lucky to be hosted here. I have a host mother, Sujatha, and two host brothers, Sanjay (age 14) and Hashish (age 10). Their mother tongue is Telugu, but they also speak the local language, Tamil. There are almost always people at the house who are Tamil speakers, so I think they actually speak Tamil almost as much as Telugu.  My host mom has degrees in English, criminology, and business. She is an advocate lawyer. She also has an advirtisement company with her business partner. She is very independent, which I really admire. She told me that often women here may get educated, but they don't end up with careers, because they get married first. My host brothers are great. Sanjay, the elder one, is probably the more serious one. He is the vice captain of one of the four houses at school. Basically his favourite thing to do is play cricket. (I have to mention, before I forget, if I start writing with British spellings, please don't be alarmed. They use British English here, and I need to start spelling the way they do or I may get points taken off in English class). Hashish, the younger brother, is adorable. He loves video games and is very talkative. We also have three dogs, but I don't see them much, as they mostly stay outside in their pen. My host mom's business partner is often at the house, too. Her cousin-brother (my host mom's mom's sister's son is considered her brother, while her mom's brother's children are her cousins. It has to do with the bloodline changing) is staying in Chennai right now and comes over every day as well. His wife Lakshmi was visiting these past two weeks as well. She is so sweet. She's only 24. I spent a lot of time with her. She taught me some Tamil and did Henna (they call it Mehindi) on my hand.  

Class Divide
Although there is a growing middle class, there is a huge class divide in India. I must point out that I am living in a very luxurious lifestyle here. I hope my description of it is not uncomfortable for anyone to read, but it's been a big part of my experience so far. It certainly wasn't what I was expecting when I applied for the YES program! It's actually been harder for me to adapt to, I think. The house is very big. Most people live in flats in the city, but my host family has an individual house. There are three stories in the house. Everything is made out of marble (wood is unrealistic here because of the heat). I won't go into more detail about the house, except to say again that it is big. One of the strangest things for me here has been having servants in the house. My host family has three maids/cooks. I'm not sure exactly what their specific roles are. I also see other women cleaning at various times. They have a driver, and also a young man who takes care of household business stuff. Sometimes in the U.S., when people have people working in the house, it is more "hidden." They don't want the maid cleaning the bedroom while they are in it, for example. Here, the maids are always around. It's just part of the lifestyle. They actually live here. If someone wants something, they just call the maid and she will come do it. It's fine for them to be cleaning while you are right there. Before I came to India, some former exchange students explained to me that to some people it is looked upon as a responsibility here to have hired help if you can afford it, because you are providing respectable work to someone who might not have a job otherwise. Still, it's a strange adjustment for me. It also means that I can't do anything to help around here. And I often feel rather helpless, because if I do anything for myself, I'm taking away their job. I also don't want to offend them by doing things I shouldn't. They seem to feel that they're not taking care of me properly if I do things for myself (eg. open the fridge and get a class of juice instead of asking them for a glass of juice).

I am still working on adjusting the way I think and act to this new lifestyle. At first it was extremely awkward for me, and a lot of the time it still is, but I'm starting to ease into a more comfortable pattern. It's hard to explain, but I'll do my best. When Anandh, the driver, takes me somewhere, we listen to classical Tamil music together, because we can't really talk since he barely speaks English and I speak no Tamil at all. Anjali (pronounced UN-ja-lee), one of the maids/cooks, is only two years older than me. She is really sweet. I really want to learn Tamil so I can talk with her. We're getting better at communicating through gestures. At first we completely failed because our gestures were different. For example, one time I shrugged with my hands and she thought I was trying to give her a high five, which we ended up doing awkwardly. It was really funny. Whenever she sees me she goes "Zoe!" only she doesn't speak English so she pronounces it "Joey!". I really like getting to know her, but it doesn't make it less awkward when, for example, I'm eating breakfast and she's standing next to me just watching me in case I need anything.

I definitely feel like although this living situation was not what I was expecting, there is a lot to be gained and learned from experiencing this end of things in India, one of the fastest developing countries in the world. 

School is a lot of fun so far. I'm in 11th grade here, because all 12th graders are automatically registered for the board exam, a national exam which foreigners cannot take. In 11th grade, students choose a career "stream." At my school, Chettinad Vidyashram, they can choose between Science, Commerce, and Humanities (these are pretty standard, although some schools may not have humanities). In the humanities stream, I am taking psychology, sociology, world history, economics, english, and once a week, art. There isn't air conditioning in school, and it can get very hot. We have to wear uniforms: on Monday, we wear a white divided skirt, a white button down t-shirt, a white "overcoat" (button-down vest), white socks, white canvas shoes, a maroon tie, and two braids with white ribbons. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday is basically the same except the divided skirt and "overcoat" are bright blue, and the shirt is blue and white checked. On Friday, we wear a cream coloured salwar kameez and dupattah. Two Saturdays a month we have a half day of school with the blue uniform. Most girls don't bother with the two braids and ribbons, but technically it's part of the uniform. Since everyone is particularly watching me, as I'm the exchange student and I stand out, I really need to wear them. Which brings me to another point about school: people stare. A lot. The younger kids, the older kids, the teachers...everyone. My school is really huge. I don't even know my way around. There are some 10,000 students in the school, grades K-12. The school is especially known for its variety of activities offered to its students. For example, today and tomorrow we are hosting an inter-school Model UN. I ended up representing Libya in Security Council, of all things. The rest of the students have been preparing for a month, and I just found out a week ago. I didn't get most of the information about what I needed to do until last night. What happened was, my history teacher (the students call her "History Ma'am") asked me if I had ever done Model UN, and I said yes. She decided to give the Model UN committee my name in case anyone dropped out. Later that day, someone came in to tell me I would be representing Libya in Security Council! It was pretty fun, although I have to go to school all weekend.

The students at school are all very friendly and welcoming. They are all very interested in America, and are happy to help me out. Everyone asks where in the U.S. I'm from. When I say my state is called Vermont, I ask them if they've heard of it, and most of them say yes. I was surprised at first, because most people don't know about Vermont. Then I discovered that most of them were thinking of Vermont, California. I didn't even know there was a Vermont, California! I just tell people that it's near New York and Boston. You may be thinking that something isn't near both NYC and Boston, but they are famous cities that people know about, and compared to how big the U.S. is, it gives them a general idea.

My host mom is very involved with my school. Both of my host brothers also go there. She is on the school board, and knows a lot of people there. When we went to register for classes, she seemed to know practically every teacher we met in the hall. She is also close friends with the principal. This also means that she knows every single thing I do at school. Teachers and the principal will call her and tell her how I'm doing (all good things so far, thankfully). This is very normal in India, but I'll write about that another time.

The city that I am hosted in is called Chennai. It is the capital of the southernmost state of India, Tamil Nadu. It is the on the coast, and is the 4th largest city in India. It is a more relaxed city than New Delhi or Mumbai. It is also more traditional than the other cities. The south is still very traditional. Driving down the road, you don't see many people wearing western clothes. Many teenagers do wear western clothes, but I'm told that you see a lot more traditional clothing here than in New Delhi or Mumbai. That's not to say that Chennai isn't developed, though. It is a huge international IT hub.

The language spoken here is Tamil, one of the worlds oldest written languages. There are many people from other parts of India, so there are actually lots of different languages spoken here. Tamil is a very complex language. There are many sounds in it which don't exist in English. For example, there are three types of L's. One is made at the teeth, the next is made at the roof of the mouth, and the last is made deep in the throat and almost sounds like an R. There are also two types of N's, two types of R's, two types of T's, etc. It's hard for an untrained ear to distinguish. We joke about the words "Grandfather" and "Goodbye." Both are "Tata," but with different T's. My friend Jenny was at a wedding reception and she was trying to say goodbye to everyone but she kept accidentally saying "grandfather." Another confusing thing is there are two K sounds and two G sounds, and all are written with the same letter, so you just have to know how to pronounce the word.

I have started taking Tamil "tuition" classes. Tuition is what they call tutoring. Most students have extra tuition classes to try to be as academically competitive as possible. My host brothers have tuition with Hashish's teacher, and have been taking it with her since kindergarten. I have joined in, and she is teaching me Tamil. I love the classes. We go in the evenings, although not necessarily every single day. My host mom told me before I went that I would learn a lot from her, and it's true. She is very traditional, and lives in a small flat with her husband and two children. Her mother and two brothers live in another small flat on the fourth floor. I met all of them the first day I went, and they are so nice. Each time I go, I learn not only Tamil but something about Indian culture. And every time, I find myself thinking how lucky I am to be having this incredible experience. Her daughter, who is in college, likes to sit and talk with us too. I wear Indian clothes here, and they absolutely love it.

Indian Clothes
I am the only one of the 10 exchange students here who has started wearing Indian clothes. Maybe the others have a couple outfits, but since the first day, when my host mom took me shopping, I have worn only Indian clothes. This is partly because the skirts I brought are knee length, which isn't appropriate in this family (each family's rules vary, that's why it was so hard to know what to pack), I also can't wear the capris I brought, and it is too hot to even think about wearing jeans. The thing is that Indian teens don't really wear Indian clothes. But it's my one year to wear Indian clothes, so I might as well. When I see my American friends, they say I'm always so dressed up. Actually, I'm not, compared to how girls traditionally dress here. Girls wear complete outfits. What I mean is that they don't pick a kurti (tunic-dress) and then match it with whichever leggings they want, and then pick a random dupattah (scarf). The kurti is bought with the leggings and dupattah to match exactly. Since traditionally, all clothes in India are custom made, women will go to the cloth store, pick out the cloths they want, and then have the outfit made. The earrings, necklace, bangles, and barrette must also match with the outfit.

I will confess that once in a while, in the midst of all this newness, I wish I could just wear something I'm used to. Why a dupattah? Why a bindi? Why not just leave my hair down instead of always pulling it back? And why so much jewelry (it's kind of a must here)??? I'm reminded of why when I go to tuition and my teacher and her daughter can't stop talking about how nice it is that I'm wearing Indian clothes, and how glad they are that I want to learn about their culture. I'm reminded of why when I'm with my host mom, and everyone asks if I'm wearing the Indian clothes on my own accord and she proudly answers yes (it's not like she forces me). I'm reminded of why every time someone tells me, some way or another, that they appreciate my interest in the culture. It's my way of showing my host family, and everyone here, that I really do want to learn.        

There is a lot I have said and a lot I haven't said, but I think this post is already way too long. For the family members who I know are prone to worry, I am happy!!!!! And I am learning a LOT, as I'm sure you can tell if you read this post.

Please forgive me for any spelling/grammar mistakes in this post. I'm tired and I think I probably made some mistakes somewhere in there. Also, my camera is broken, which is why I haven't posted any pictures. I'm working on getting it fixed soon. I also have to say that I will definitely be repeating myself on this blog. I will probably explain things numerous times and may state the same thing over and over again. The problem is that I can't remember what I've emailed to people individually, what I've actually written on the blog, what I've just thought about, etc. So bear with me and please let me know if I keep writing the same thing over and over.

Best wishes to all. Thanks for reading :)


  1. Zoe,

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences in India with us. I really enjoyed reading this posting, and especially your comments about the culture and how you are acclimating yourself to what is for you really a "new world". You have a great attitude and while you sound busy you do also sound like you are having fun.

    Learn a lot and keep enjoying yourself.

    Warm wishes,


  2. Hi Zoe!

    It's so amazing to read about your time in India! You are a fantastic blog writer. I really enjoyed learning about everything, and especially about your experiences with the class system and the Iceberg "in action," like not saying thank you all the time. I think it's very admirable that you are interested in learning Tamil and wearing traditional dress. And taking on representing Libya in Security Council! FUN! You amaze me, Zoe. I'm so happy for you. Can't wait for more!