Archive for July, 2010

On the digestion of Indian culture

July 31, 2010

For days I’ve been telling myself to write another blog.

I wanted to write something pithy here, like ‘Everything’s the same, despite being halfway around the world’ or ‘Everything is different because I’m halfway around the world’ or even ‘I can feel the earth spinning more quickly here.’ (I can’t, by the way.)

Then again, I’ve only spent ten days in India, and I’ve been blessed with each of the five symptoms treated by Pepto-Bismol for the last four of them. At the moment I’m completely healthy, but as I laid in bed earlier this week, I thought about what I could definitively say about India.

Here’s my pithy statement:

India overwhelms your senses.

All five of my senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch – have been in overdrive since I got here, as I’ve digested the culture both literally and figuratively.

I’ve heard mosquitoes buzzing and birds chirping. Our family’s two dogs bark, and the three parrots squawk. Chainsaws buzz next door and a man calls out prayers from the street each morning. The air-conditioner, however, always hums loudly enough to keep me asleep.

In the streets, burnt gasoline from the cars, rickshaws and scooters dominates the air. In my house I’ve encountered dozens of smells – from wafts of bug spray to the now-familiar smells in the kitchen. The nighttime air in Mumbai had a distinctive fresh smell, one shared by parts of Nagpur. Of all the senses, smell is the hardest to describe.

The food – when I can safely digest it – has been wonderful and often surprisingly similar to Western food. Not all Indian food is spicy, by the way. Unfortunately I’m not well enough versed in the food to describe it well either, but I’ve had potatoes, rice, toast, cereal and some delicious pizza. The pizza, however, has less sauce and cheese, and more fresh vegetables. Milk, tea, and juices are also very common.

But my eyes have worked harder than any other part of my body so far, even my stomach. Everywhere I look, there is competition for my attention.

People vied for my attention – arms outstretched – when I approached a currency exchange booth in Mumbai. Signs vie for my attention in the streets, each more colorful than the next – written in both Hindi and English to make sure everyone understands the meaning.

There’s no shortage of things to see: cows, motorcycles and colorful people in the street. A palm tree sits just outside my bedroom, as do a dozen other plants. Everything seems more bright than in the USA, just painted less thoroughly.

In time, this will all become ordinary, rather than overwhelming.

For now though, I’m in the process of giving my eyes, my stomach and my head some time to digest it all.


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Hinglish, soccer in the streets, and Indian video games: Answering your questions about India

July 25, 2010

August 12, 2010: UPDATE: Marathi is also commonly spoken on the streets in Maharashtra. Hindi is a secondary language for most people. See this post for more updated information about language in India.

Ask and you shall receive.

How many host families will you have?

I have only one host family the whole year. So I’m very happy that I got placed with a good one! Everyone in the family has been supportive and helped me learn all the new facets of the culture. One of the students I met at the conference had five though, if I remember correctly, so the number of families varies from student to student and country to country.

Are you going to go through an intensive language week or two through Rotary during your first few weeks? I know they do that in some of the European countries.

No, but I actually wish I did. Almost everyone I’ve met speaks English, and most speak it well. When someone wants to talk to me in English, I’m usually able to understand what they’re saying without any difficulties. I have become self-conscious of my American accent, since it’s quite distinctive.

But almost everyone here speaks three languages fluently: English, Hindi and Marathi, the latter two of which are quite similar. I find it remarkable how so many people are so fluent in all three languages. In the house, Marathi is commonly spoken. On the streets, everyone understands Hindi. Friends often talk amongst themselves in Hindi and Marathi, so I wish I had learned more of each before I came. They’ll interchange between Hindi and English a lot, so I guess you could say everyone speaks Hinglish.

Are you taller than anyone you see?

Yea… In fact I haven’t seen a single other person with blond or brown hair since I left the Nagpur airport. But I haven’t gotten as much attention for my difference in appearance as I thought I would. A small child noticeably pointed at me a couple days ago, and a baby girl stared at me as I rode by in the car, but if adults have been looking at me, they have been discrete. No one has come up to me and tousled my hair or anything like that.

Are there kids playing soccer in the streets?

Cricket is the big sport here in India, but it’s definitely not the only popular sport. Basketball and football (I’m just going to call soccer football, so hang with me) are very popular. Field hockey, badminton and volleyball are also played a lot. But these are all played on well-maintained courts and fields for the most part.

So no, I haven’t seen kids playing soccer in the streets. 🙂

As for football, I was going to go play this morning with my host brother, cousin and friends, but it was raining too hard.

Have you got a phone yet that works?

No, not yet. Everyone I talked to beforehand said I shouldn’t bring a phone, so that’s why I remained one of those weird people without a cell phone in the months before the trip. One of my friends here recommended I just change the SIM card on a phone from the US, but I really didn’t know enough to do anything.

I don’t know if I’ll be getting a phone eventually, but seeing as I survived 15 of my 17 years without one, I’ll think I’ll be able to survive one more. 😛

Watching tv??? What about… video games ?

TV is to India what the internet is to the US. Actually that’s an overgeneralization. But TV seems more influential here than in the US. My host brother, cousin, and friends watch a lot of movies in their free time, clicking between HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, and the Indian Disney Channel. We’ve also watched the WWE.

Yes, I know. I didn’t come to India just to watch TV…

As for video games, some people play video games on their PCs. Internet cafés, I’ve heard, are filled with teenagers on World of Warcraft and Age of Empires. I haven’t had the chance to play anything yet.

I did, however, sing YMCA and We Are The Champions on the family karaoke machine…

Did you take your malaria pill?

Only you would ask that, mom. Yes, of course! No worries.


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From Nagpur, India: Blog number one

July 24, 2010

To prepare myself for my trip to India, I acclimated myself to the heat, got my medicine and my shots, read three or four books about India, talked with dozens of people about India, watched a couple movies about India, watched YouTube videos of Nagpur, ate Indian food, went to a conference with people who had been to India, listened to Bollywood music, and heck, I even started this blog about India a month and a half before I’d be there.

None of that, however, compares to actually living in India.

Never in my life have I spent time in a culture so different than that in the United States.

In America, you’ll hear honks when one driver wants to signal to another that they’ve made a mistake. In India, a honk means I’m coming through!

In America, you’ll find only cars and trucks on the roads, with bicycles and pedestrians along side it. In India, the road is shared by cars, motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, cows, dogs, goats, and pedestrians alike.

In America, indoor smells generally only come from an individual’s perfume or deodorant. In India, there is a distinct smell everywhere you go indoors and out – the exhaust from the motorcycles in the street, the incense burning in houses, or the food cooking in the family’s kitchen.

In short, there is a lot to adapt to.

My first “India” moment came immediately after our plane landed in Mumbai Wednesday night. As I approached the plane’s exit, I was expecting a walkway, just as there was in every other large airport I had arrived at in my life. Instead, I was directed down the steps and onto a bus.

Imagine the most crowded city bus you’ve ever been on in the US. Now increase the number of people by about 50 percent. That’s about how crowded our bus was. Yet no one complained. The short ride to the terminal was an ordinary one.

Welcome to India, Chris.

Several shenanigans later, my plane arrived in Nagpur. Whereas outside an American airport the size of Nagpur’s you might find a few taxis and a couple dozen people milling around, in Nagpur there were maybe 100 people crammed alongside each other behind a railing, vying for passengers’ attention as they walked to the street.

I didn’t need to worry about that, however, as the District YEO, and three members of my host family waved at me, the only young American in the vicinity with blonde hair and a pin-speckled Rotary jacket.

My host family is excellent. I live with a host dad, mom, brother, cousin, grandmother and grandfather. The family dynamic is at the crux of Indian life. Everyone has been extremely helpful and hospitable, despite my trivial foibles thus far.

I’ve had to get used to the Indian style of meals – eating with the right hand and serving with the left. The learning curve is short, however, and the food has been excellent. Each meal has roti, rice, water, and a variety of other foods – some spicy, others not. The roti is held with the right hand and used to scoop up the other food on the plate. The rice is picked up with four fingers and pushed into the mouth with the thumb. There is no silverware, except a spoon to spread jam on the bread in the morning.

All that said, Indian life has its similarities to Western culture as well. I have air-conditioning and house fans, use a Western-style bathroom, and watching TV is a popular form of entertainment. I have opportunities to rest each day. My bed is comfortable. I am safe. I am healthy. I am happy. I have adapted.

My internet is slow, so on most days this will be the only website I check. I will post as often as I can without spending too much time online. If you have questions, please ask them right here. You know what you want to know better than I do.

Until next time.


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Thank you

July 19, 2010

This is for all of you. If you feel snubbed, it’s entirely my fault.

Thank you for reading this.

Thank you everyone who’s ever commented or rated one of my posts.

Thank you to the eight of you subscribed to this blog.

Thank you Bill Volk for being the first person to sit down and talk with me about Rotary.

Thank you Mr. Stone and Ethan Stone for telling me about youth exchange and making me excited to go on one.

Thank you Mr. Krull, Ms. Kim and Mr. Vaughn for teaching me about India in 6th, 8th, and 9th grade, respectively.

Thank you Mr. Porreca for giving me my first audience to write to.

Thank you Lisa Micele for preparing me for the four years after this one.

Thank you Mr. Rayburn for giving me the idea to write a blog about India in Nonfiction Writing.

Thank you Abhilasha Malhotra and Shawn Bird for teaching me about India and Rotary, respectively, despite the fact I’ve never met either of you in person.

Thank you Beth Scheid for Culture Shock and for telling me and my mom what to expect in India.

Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Shah, Bill Johnson, Ananth Nann, Ben Zehr, Fred Held, some Facebook friends of my mom, and about a bajillion other people for talking with me about India.

Thank you Tom Redington for everything you’ve taught me and everything you’ve done for the outbounds and District 6490.

Thank you Jagdish Khatri for being the first person from 3030 to reach out to me.

Thank you Rotary and everyone involved with it for making this trip possible.

Thank you Gibson Wirth for teaching me about cricket.

Thank you Jack Gillette for our “psychic” connections.

Thank you Brittany Scheid for giving me the idea to take a gap year, even though I never told you that until now.

Thank you Katherine Allen for meeting me at the Savoy 16 on the eve of two of my biggest milestones the last two months.

Thank you Andrew LaPointe for epitomizing kindness.

Thank you Daniel Wilson for your input on this blog’s color scheme and letting me in your house unannounced yesterday.

Thank you Jared Doyle for the car rides and sticking with me for five years.

Thank you Lisa Boyce, Jasper Maniates-Selvin, Stephanie Overmier, Tianna Pittenger, Mr. Sutton, US History and everyone else for baseballbaseballbaseball, which I will be taking to India.

Thank you Eric Chen, Daniel Cheng, Jefferson Fu, John Hadley, Mohammad Jaber, Adam Joseph, Andrew LaPointe, Robbie McMillen, Stephanie Overmier, Tianna Pittenger, and John Vaughen for signing the baseball which I will be taking to India.

Thank you Greg Atherton, Eric Chen, Danny Ge, Jefferson Fu, John Hadley, Jie Han, Mohammad Jaber, Kevin Kuo, Allen Luo, Sid Madhubalan, Robbie McMillen, Alex Mestre, Ananth Nann, Chris Nguyen, Edo Roth, Johnny Shapley, John Vaughen, Simeon Washington, Richard Wang, Yulun Wu, Mike Zhivov and Mr. Bergandine for all the memories from tennis, which I will be taking to India.

Thank you Eric Chen, Mohammad Jaber, and John Vaughen, for being a receptive audience with both tennis and this blog, and for being three of the greatest friends I have.

Thank you Claire Billingsley, Maria Gao, Hadley Hauser and Tianna Pittenger for taking the same post- or mid-Uni leap of faith that I am.

Thank you Wesley Wiltgen, John Hurst and Jerryl Banait for talking with me for several hours about India, Nagpur, and your years halfway across the world from home.

Thank you Joe Chang for showing me good people live all over the world.

Thank you James Claxon for Fat Princess: Fistful of Cake and the memories from Pontiac, Chicago and Grand Rapids.

Thank you Saurin Shah for walking around the U of I with me the other day, and showing me exactly what it means to be adaptable.

Thank you Jefferson Fu for the curry stereotypes, but mostly for teaching me that underclassmen can be cool people too. LI

Thank you Stephanie Overmier for all the GChat conversations, Cracked, making me a Blackhawks fan, and teaching me to teach.

Thank you Jason He for the LOLLERSKATES, LMAOBERRIES, and showing me how the internet can bring people together. So far, yet so close.

Thank you Daniel Cheng for the frisbee games, the bike rides, the world-class one-liners on Buzz, and your exceptionally accurate moral compass.

Thank you Tianna Pittenger, who I owe everything in my transformation into an outgoing, social person. b 😀 d

Thank you my three little cousins for making me smile and laugh. I’ll teach you cricket when I get back! Enjoy your time now, because we all grow up faster than we’d like.

Thank you Aunt Julie and Uncle Larry for the graduation party with the Indian food and the hospitality you always provided for me.

Thank you in advance to my host family for taking me in and giving me the chance to live An Indian Year.

Thank you Grandma for teaching me that being nice to people gets them to be nice back to you. Thanks for all the times you’ve been there for me over the years – this blog is for you.

Thank you Mom, for the last 22 years, bringing me into this world, and having the courage to let me go. You, more than anyone else reading this, know what I mean when I say that.

You all can learn a lot from each other. I learned a lot from you.



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Why to be a Rotary Youth Exchange student

July 14, 2010

Nine months ago, I put on my best clothes, got in the car, and went to the Illinois Terminal in downtown Champaign to interview for Rotary Youth Exchange with a nervous stomach and a cynical mind.

The word “Rotary” had a different ethos to me last October. I’d heard how youth exchange changed people’s lives, and I was aware the idea was to send 16-18 year olds to another country for a year, but Rotary was just another option, lost in the myriad of colleges I was considering at the time. Why put off college, anyway? What need was there to spend an entire year in another country? I knew it would be an interesting year, but would it be worth it?

I spent last weekend with hundreds of other exchange students, and I can now wholeheartedly tell you this:

Rotary Youth Exchange is worth it.

I could make your eyes glaze over by recounting the events of the weekend. I could retell the stories I was told, reteach the lessons I was taught, and regurgitate the information I digested.

Instead, I’d prefer to tell you about the people I’ve met through Rotary. If I learned anything this weekend, it’s that amazing people, whatever their difference, exist everywhere. Here’s a far from complete list of the people who I spent time with.

-Jerryl Banait, an inbound from Nagpur, one of the most likable people I’ve met and someone who makes me excited to be spending a year in his hometown.

-Wesley Wiltgen, a rebound who spent about four hours alone just walking and talking with me about his year in Ankleshwar, India, one-on-one.

-John Hurst, another rebound who’s been to Nagpur and eased my fears of everything in India from shopping to stomachaches.

-Saurin Shah, an outbound headed to Brazil who’s shown incredible adaptability and stayed chill despite the fact his host country has changed twice in two weeks.

-James Claxon, an outbound who will be taking The Game with him to Germany in spite of my protests.

-Joe Chang, an inbound from Taiwan whom I wish I’d had many more than seven days to hang out with over the last four months.

I’m just sad the world isn’t populated by 6.8 billion people like those I met through Rotary.

But there are people like those in Rotary all over the world. With Rotary, you’re not alone. After I spent my first meal in the dining hall alone Thursday night, I rarely walked the campus alone. I had about a dozen best friends.

The Rotary process can be complicated at times. Submitting the initial application is a pain. Getting in touch with someone for the first time can be a challenge. Depending on the country you’re assigned, the paperwork for getting a visa and plane tickets can make you and your parents want to pull your hair out.

But what other program pays for your food, schooling and housing for a year? You will have to pay for the plane ticket, insurance, gifts, medical fees and any extra trips you want to take in your country. But Rotary actually gives you an allowance equivalent to about $50 a month, depending where you go. What other program does that?

But that’s not why you should be a Rotary Youth Exchange student.

Do it because of the people you’ll meet.

You won’t regret your decision.


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