Archive for August, 2010

An American Year: The other half of this exchange begins

August 30, 2010

Close your eyes for a moment, and think about what you think about when you think of the USA.

Perhaps you think of New York City and its landmarks – The Empire State Building, The Statue of Liberty, Broadway and Times Square.

Perhaps you think of the beaches of Florida and California, the Rocky Mountains of the West, the four faces of Mount Rushmore, or the flat, endless plains and cornfields across the Midwest.

Perhaps you think of Disneyworld, Hollywood, Six Flags or Route 66.

Perhaps you think of Friday night football fever in small towns in the fall, raucous crowds at college basketball games in the winter, or – if you’re like me – baseball’s Opening Day at the onset of spring.

Perhaps, inexplicably, you can think only of McDonalds.

Now be honest. Did Upper Peninsula Michigan come to any of your minds?

My host brother Mayank, also an exchange student, leaves today for his year in America. His town is surrounded by three of the five Great Lakes, sits closer to Canada than Chicago, and gets over 5 meters of snow each year. The people call themselves Yoopers.

And you know what? He’s going to have an amazing year, just like I’m having.

Before I came to Nagpur, I made a presentation about myself, my city and my country. I had over twenty slides prepared, most with several lines of text. I could have talked for half an hour about life in America, if not more.

Last week, six other Rotary inbounds and I were invited to the Rotary club of Nagpur South East. We were allotted four to five minutes.

How can you summarize American culture in four to five minutes?

You can’t, of course. Having more than a brief glance at a culture is a reason why our exchanges are so valuable. For the first time in my life, I’ve looked upon American culture as an outsider. I’ve found that American culture – or its approximation – plays an important part in the lives of many Indians.

But it’s just that – an approximation.

Sure, most Indians know most Americans are non-veg, and eat with forks and knives. They know we prefer T-shirts and jeans to kurtas and saris. They know there’s a city in southern California where most American movies are made that has a big white sign in its hills.

But those perceptions are a bit off. The “American style” wrap I had my first week was essentially cole slaw wrapped in roti and a paper French fry box. Teenagers wear T-shirts with cheesy slogans unaware Americans would find them cheesy. The American TV stations show a lot of James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Tom and Jerry.

America will not be what you expect it to be, Mayank. But that’s not a problem. Those differences are why we’re exchange students – so we can better understand the way the world works outside the comfort zone of our own countries. For over a month, you and your family have shown me firsthand what life is like in your part of India. Now it’s your turn to see America firsthand – albeit a part of America we rarely see.

Good luck, Mayank, and may Yoop have an excellent year in Michigan!


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My first day of college! …or was it?

August 28, 2010

I think today was my first day of school. I’m not sure. Was today my first day of school?

I should have known today would have been like it was. After all, the only reason I didn’t miss yesterday’s orientation was because my friend Jacob told me via Facebook message the day before. Jacob only knew because his host sister’s friend told him. I guess that’s how word gets around here.

Yesterday after orientation, Jacob turned to me and asked, “Wait, are we supposed to come to class tomorrow?” I could only shrug my shoulders.

You tell me if we should have come to class today.

This morning, I set my alarm for 8, but I awoke a few minutes earlier – perhaps I was eager to start. No one else in the house was awake. After a shower and some breakfast, I trotted out the door with my raincoat and my backpack, ready to fill my head with sociology, political science, economics, English and Hindi.

The problem was, the weather and roads weren’t cooperating, so Saket and I arrived at the college about ten minutes after the 9:06 start of my first class.

Were this to have happened at Uni, it would have caused me considerable distress. For some reason though, I felt unusually at ease at Hislop. The campus seemed far, far too quiet for a school with several hundred students.

Saket and I walked around, looking for the room and the building where my classes would be. We asked a man where the arts building was, and he pointed us in its direction. So that’s where we went.

– The good news: It was indeed the arts building.
– The bad news: It was empty, save for three or four students walking around, just as confused and disoriented as us.

So we continued our search, heading back to the main building, crossing the eerily quiet courtyard between. Deciding it would be best to ensure we were looking for the right room, we asked someone to help us find the timetable like the one I’d copied from yesterday. We were pointed down the hallway towards a large board.

– The good news: About a dozen schedules were posted on the three bulletin boards.
– The bad news: Not one of them applied to me.

As we walked around the campus in search of anything that could help us, we passed empty classroom after empty classroom. Occasionally we’d find small clusters of friends and teachers, but we only found two classrooms populated by both teachers and students. Having nothing to do, we decided to go home and try again Monday.

That’s when Saket and I found Jacob. Jacob, an exchange student from Washington, is also in my class at Hislop.

(I feel kind of bad each time someone asks him where he’s from. When he says he’s from Washington, the other will add “D.C.?” Jacob then has to explain “No, Washington STATE in the Northwest” and the other will look down, sad they haven’t met an American from the nation’s capital.)

With Jacob’s help, I found the classroom. It was about 9:40, near the end of English class. We looked inside.

– The good news: I had finally found the classroom.
– The bad news: It was empty.

Jacob had woken up at 6:30 to sit in an empty classroom for two hours.

Our political science class consisted of the teacher, two commerce students, Jacob and me introducing ourselves. It lasted about five minutes. The room seated about 50. And none of the others are taking political science.

That said, the morning wasn’t completely wasted. I met two teachers and three students. I explained to a student that the WWE isn’t a college sport in the USA. Jacob and I became a lot more familiar with the campus, to say the least.

Can I now say I’ve spent a day as a college student? As I expected, I went to school today and I learned something. It just wasn’t the kind of college or learning I’m used to.

Hopefully, class will start on Monday.


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“How is India?” and other questions about India

August 24, 2010

I hear the same question everywhere I go in India, and I hear the same question every time someone writes me from America. The words might be arranged in a different order, but the essence of the question is always the same:

How is India?

I will now attempt to answer this question once and for all…for now, at least.

When I’m asked this question by people here, I always give the same answer. “It’s different,” I’ll say, “in a lot of ways. But I’ve really enjoyed it so far.”

That’s my concise answer. The problem posed by that question, however, is that a concise answer doesn’t do justice to the richness of Indian life. Diversity, I think, is the most underrated aspect of Indian culture.

I prefer to lay to rest archetypes like “East” and “West” because of India. After all, in India, where does the East end and the West begin? You’ll see cows lying in the road across the street from a McDonalds. You’ll hear Hindu priests chanting prayers in roadside temples not far from the Reebok stores playing Akon songs. You’ll see people drinking Tropicana and eating locally grown fruits and vegetables.

India is diverse but not without unity; hot, but not unbearable; crowded, but not uncomfortable; festive, decorated, colorful and spicy; part Western, part Eastern, and always, always a place I’m glad I’ve come to.

Are you attending high school, or the intermediate stage before college, in India?

Everyone, it seems, wants to hear about school. So it’s a shame I have no idea when my classes will start. Because of some quirk in the legal system, my college – Hislop College – is one of only a couple schools in the city that haven’t been in session since June or July.

My school was supposed to start in a couple weeks before I arrived in late July. Then it was supposed to start two weeks ago. Then it was supposed to start last week. Now it’s supposed to start this week, and I’m checking the local newspaper every day for updates.

The education system is set up differently than in the United States. Primary school is the equivalent of grades 1-10. After that comes two years of junior college – standard XI which I will attend – followed by what Westerners think of as “college”.

I should also mention that students choose their careers much earlier than in America. 12 year olds may be able to tell you their career plans with much more seriousness than “taxi driver,” “astronaut,” or “basketball player”. Career changes are much more rare than in the US. Rarely will students change their intended profession as American college students are prone to doing.

When classes finally start – if they ever do – I’ll have more to say about school in India.

Are you learning to read and write Hindi?

Hindi is one of the classes I’ll be taking at Hislop. I’m quite anxious to start learning – if I could only take one class, it would be Hindi. With any luck, I won’t be too far behind the other students. I’ve also been picking up some Marathi. You can read more about my experiences with languages here.

About the Indian restaurant [from Independence Day], what new food was on the menu…

It was all Indian food! My memory is failing me, but it was similar to the Fourth of July in that most everyone ate their variety of traditional cuisine with their families. We didn’t have a cookout, however…

I plan on writing a more thorough “Indian food” post at some point, so keep your eyes open if you’re interested.

Played any tennis?

No. 😦

Tennis, by the way is called lawn tennis here. When I first told people I played tennis, they thought maybe I played table tennis or badminton. Hopefully I’ll find some other lawn-mowers soon, although I’d need to get my racket shipped.

However, I did play basketball this morning with Mayank and one of his friends. Every basketball court I’ve seen has been outdoors, and usually less furnished than most Park District courts in Champaign. It was still fun to play, although for some reason everyone assumes I’m better than I really am.

I wonder if it has anything to do with my height…


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Tabla, Tirakita, and avoiding the Indian timepass

August 20, 2010

Ti ra ki ta
Ti ra ki ta
Ti ra ki ta
Ti ra ki ta

For the past two weeks, three other Rotary students and I have been learning the tabla, an instrument made of two classical, audially diverse Indian drums.

During inbound orientation, all Rotary students were told to choose between the tabla, the Indian flute, and the harmonium. Given my lack of musical talents, tabla seemed easiest. It’s just two drums, right?

Suffice to say, I’ve needed all the practice I can get.

At the moment, I’ve only learned to make five sounds. But when you add the sounds I’ve found on my own, double that. When you add the combinations from those, it makes about 30.

I could do more math, but my teacher, Ravi Satfale, makes quantifying the sounds from the tabla rather useless.

Suddenly, the flute seems kind of easy, doesn’t it?

Except there’s one more thing: playing the tabla is really, really fun.

Ke ke ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta

We started with the basics. Tirakita is the foundation for much of the music the tabla makes. As we began, I made many mistakes. I’d hit the wrong note or I’d mix up the order. My fingers would be in the wrong position. My legs would be crossed improperly because I was wearing the wrong pants.

After some time, though, we’ve gotten into a rhythm. Like a train approaching full speed, my fingers move faster across the goatskin. When tirakita no longer gives me trouble, we add ke ke’s and ge ge’s. With enough practice, in come the ta ta‘s. Together, ta ta and ge ge make dhe dhe.

The more I immerse myself in tabla, the easier it is to play. At first, every note made me think – I was self-conscious of every note. My mistakes came when I allowed tabla to become part of my subconscious.

But it is impossible to master the tabla without allowing yourself to use your subconscious. The more you repeat an activity, the less you have to think about it. A few days ago, I noticed I could play tirakita without any thought. Same with an added ke ke. And ge ge.

Tabla had become a part of my subconscious.

Ke ke ti ra ki ta/ Ge ge ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta/ Ta ta ti ra ki ta
Ke ke ti ra ki ta/ Dha dha ti ra ki ta
Ta ta ti ra ki ta/ Dha dha dhin dhin dha

One month ago, I stepped on a plane in Chicago and stepped off another in India. Having spent over four weeks here, I’ve become accustomed to the customs which once baffled me.

I stare at the cows, goats and dogs in the street about as much as they stare at me. Bathing with soap and a bucket of tepid water has lost its original novelty. The omnipresent honking and orderly meandering of the roads’ cars, bikes and motorbikes no longer makes me flinch.

I keep reading books and articles that say I’m supposed to feel disoriented, depressed and uncomfortable by this point in my exchange. The funny thing is, I’m not. Does that mean something’s wrong with me?


Maybe the time for culture shock is later. Maybe I haven’t yet met enough people to relieve me of my ease. Maybe, a couple months from now, I’ll write something scathing and sad that makes me want to leave my second home for my first.

It’s for times like those that I don’t want to get caught in a timepass. Indians use “timepass” to express that they aren’t doing much – just passing the time.

I want to avoid the timepass. Not that boredom is inherently bad, but with exchange students, there’s a correlation between boredom and homesickness. The less I walk around aimlessly, the less I walk around glum.

Remember this, future-Chris: When you do find yourself in a timepass, at least there’s something fun you can do to pass the time.

Ti ra
Ki ta


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India-pendance Day: An American’s take

August 17, 2010

Yes, the title should read “India-pendence”, not “India-pendance”. Thanks to the dedicated reader who noticed my mistake. Although I wonder what the India pen dance would look like…


For one day each summer, three colors take over the country’s landscape. Special events are held throughout major cities, with loud bangs causing bystanders to stare. Flags of every size fly everywhere – on cars, from flagpoles, and above doorways. Citizens pay tribute to those who made their country’s independence possible.

Except those three colors are saffron, white and green – not red, white and blue. The loud noises are caused by a schoolgirl beating an Indian drum at a school assembly, not fireworks. The flags are Indian flags, and have three stripes, not thirteen.

It is August 15, 2010: India’s 64th Independence Day.

For whatever reason, I didn’t expect much patriotism in India. I knew diversity to be a hallmark of life throughout India – with citizens strongly attached to their regional customs – so I figured Independence Day wouldn’t mean much to most people.

It seems I underestimated India’s nationalism.

Early Sunday morning, Saket, Mayank and I put on our nice kurtas – mine bought the day before – and the latter two of us headed to a local school with our friend Nathan, his sister, and his mom.

In some ways I was reminded of my schooldays at Dr. Howard. Antsy children talked amongst themselves while the teachers attempted to silence them. Flagholders, shifting weight from leg to leg, were told to correct their posture. A group of first year students softly sang patriotic songs in front of smiling parents as only six-year-olds can.

Patriotism was inescapable. As we rode to a restaurant for An Indian Lunch, small children walked amongst the cars and motorbikes selling small Indian flags. Brigades of a half dozen vehicles rode down the street with a man on a motorcycle waving a large flag. The restaurant – which normally served Chinese and Continental food in addition to Indian food – had a special Independence Day menu.

If I learned anything from this Independence Day, it’s that India has a strong national identity. Every Indian born after World War II has lived all their life in an independent democracy. Various regions of India have their differences – just as they do in the USA – but the Indian identity pervades India as much as the American identity pervades the USA.

Perhaps India’s variety is just spice for its identity. If America is a melting pot, India is a bowl of curry. Americans think of curry as just one type of spice, when in reality curry varies as much as India’s cultures. Over time, “curries” have become “curry”. The cultures of India have become Indian Culture. Because diversity is inseparable from life in India, such diversity inherently becomes Indian.

That’s what people were celebrating on Independence Day: the Indian identity.

Those who wave the tricolor do so because they are proud to be Indian.


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