Posts Tagged ‘American Culture’

The saga of a Chicago Cubs baseball cap

June 29, 2011

24 May 2011

There is not a possession of mine with more sentimental value to me than my Chicago Cubs baseball cap.

The hat is actually the third Cubs headpiece of mine, but the first was merely a visor, and the second was lost sometime in 6th grade. So for six years this cap has marked my loyalty to Chicago’s more popular baseball team. I’ve worn it on the grass of Wrigley Field in Chicago. I’ve worn it in some of the most beautiful cities in North India. Lately, I’ve taken to wearing it daily around Nagpur, a necessary weapon against the searing sun.

The cap is facing forward on my head as I enter a rickshaw sawari se, as I’ve grown accustomed to in the last two months or so – with others. My placement in this rickshaw is more awkward than usual, and both my knees are sticking out in the open air. Without a backpack, my Hindi copy and water bottle are perched precariously on my lap, and I use my free arms to keep myself in the auto. My head is facing the stiff wind as the rickshaw accelerates, and I can feel the air tugging under the bill of my cap.

The rickshaw turns a corner, speeds up, and my cap flies backwards off my head into the road behind us.

My first thought was whether or not it was worth telling the auto-wallah to stop.

My second thought was an immediate “yes”.

I instruct the driver to stop. It takes 50 meters or so for him to understand what I’m trying to say, but he eventually comes to a halt. I pay him and walk back towards the spot where I’d lost my cap. I can catch another auto later. Right now I needed to find my cap as quickly as possible.

Just after getting out, a lady on a bicycle tries to tell me something. She doesn’t speak English – only Hindi. I understand a bit of what she’s trying to say, but her speech is too quick and frantic for me. I think she’s trying to tell me she saw someone take my cap. Whatever her message, I’m in a hurry to run back and retrieve the headgear, and I turn to go and get it. But she keeps talking. Is she trying to tell me it’s out of my hands forever? That I should just let it be taken?

I walk back, moving as quickly as possible given the traffic and the absence of functioning sidewalks. Passing through a dimly lit tunnel makes my journey back a slow one. It takes two minutes for me to arrive at the spot where I’d lost my hat, and I scan the street left and right. Am I two minutes too late?

I look at the people in the surrounding shops. No one is wearing it.

I look for a flash of royal blue and a red “C” on every surface. It’s not there.

I begin to contemplate the fact that my hat has been lost forever.

It isn’t the beauty of the cap that I would miss. Jagged white stains cake the outside, salty preservation of my perspiration. Threads are missing or sticking out awkwardly at every angle, colored much darker than they were on the day of purchase. The bill has patches of something black and grimy – perhaps oil from the many times I’d adjusted the chains of bikes in our convoy of foreigners before adjusting my hat. My name is written, underlined, and accentuated with artfully drawn initials on the bottom of the bill – the novice art skills of my 14-year-old self rendered immortal with a Sharpie.

This cap isn’t just about my support of the Chicago Cubs – Lord knows it hasn’t done anything to help them win many baseball games lately. Rather, it’s about the things I’ve done with it on. I’ve played tennis in it in Champaign, and I’ve played cricket in it in Nagpur. I’ve been to baseball stadiums in it in America, and I’ve been to cricket stadiums in it in India. Friends have worn it. Family has worn it. My cat’s worn it. Even a goat in Jaisalmer wore it once – (though the knowledge of that would make my friends reluctant to touch it for some reason). In both America and India, the best moments of my life had come with it on, or not far away.

This hat meant more to me than it meant to anyone else in the world. And that’s why losing it felt so bad.

I finish looking and walk back where I came from, beginning a secondary sweep of the area in case I’d missed it earlier. It isn’t lying in the street. No one is wearing it. It isn’t to be found anywh…wh–

What’s that?

A 20-some year old mechanic is holding my cap in his hand, the adjustable Velcro strap in the back having been tightened to its fullest. Whoever had just been wearing it undoubtedly had a small head. My heart leaps. I call after him.

Bhaiyah!

He turns and looks at me, the blue-billed cap still grasped firmly in hand. I point at it and ask for my cap in simple Hindi. “Mera cap! Yeh mera. Haa, yeh mera cap hai.” My cap! It’s mine. Yes, it’s my cap.

The man seems sad to relinquish this treasured symbol of Western culture. His expression is akin to the one of the man who picked up my watch when I dropped it in the road one day. Then, too, I came back looking for it, and spotted it quickly. The man had responded with a somber “okay”, as if I was supposed to tell him to keep it. Most Indians love the idea of America, but they love America’s stuff even more. The man with my cap seems as let down by giving up the valuable as I had been just 30 seconds earlier. Reluctantly, he hands it over.

This cap has been through a lot lately. So have I. But we’re both still here – weather-worn but intact. This cap, like me, has survived another day.

Before I flagged down another auto, I fastened the cap around my head more tightly than before.

From now on, it will be staying firmly on me.

🙂

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RYLA, Part two

June 21, 2011

From 7-10 November, 2010, continued.

The third and final day of the RYLA camp had been the longest yet. Again we’d been forced out of bed before sunrise, awoken at 5:30 for yoga with a counselor yelling in our ears.

“GOOD MORNING!”

It had been another long day. Not so much because of the attention from the other students, which I had grown used to. Rather, I was tired from dance practice, which had been going on since 9 a.m. and eaten up most of my free time. At the beginning of the day, I’d had just one minute of our dance memorized. After the morning’s three-hour practice, I’d taken only half of the five-minute song to memory. And at the end of our final practice, the performance less than an hour away, I still had no idea what I’d be doing for the final 30 seconds of the song.

Nor did our choreographer, but he had an idea. As the song’s final chorus began, we’d break away from our positions and I’d run to the front. Whereas I’d been hidden at the back or shunted to the side for most of the dance, I was to be the centerpiece as the song came to an end. Sitting on the pool’s edge, surrounded by the other students, I was to sit down, put one leg up, and shake both my arms with my palms inward, each pinky and forefinger my only digits extended.

This, apparently, is the American “Yo!” and it’s how we party in the U.S.A.

I understood what this man wanted me to do, but he didn’t understand my English. This posed a minor problem. I vehemently disagreed with what he wanted me to do, but I had no way of offering to him my own suggestion. No way would I portray American culture like this. No, I told him. He had no further suggestions.

Steal the spotlight, or shun it?

I was left with three options:

Option one: Do exactly what had been suggested to me. Perhaps I could even find a black Yankees baseball cap and an oversized hooded sweatshirt for added effect.

Option two: Run off the stage before the end of the song and stand arms crossed, crying, as the crowd and the dancers look at me in disbelief.

Or option three:

Improvise.

———

Like a good boy, I’m doing exactly what’s asked of me. I’m sitting quietly, going over the dance steps in my head. I’m wearing the largest purple sequined shirt the dance crew could provide for me, though it’s still comically small. I’m even wearing makeup, though I know it won’t make any difference, given how far away the crowd is sitting.

Heh. They still don’t know my plan for the end of the show.

Oh yeah. I don’t know my plan either.

It’s too late to think of one, however – the presentation has begun. Actually, it’s technically a Rotary club meeting, just one in which the RYLA campers are playing a prominent role. There’s also several speakers, whose involvement in the community means little to the small kids fidgeting around me. The kids don’t understand the importance of the people on stage, let alone their English.

Franzi wins an award. Most Outstanding Camper, Girl, or something like that. If it comes to a shock to anyone in the crowd, it doesn’t to me. The man with the microphone is heaping praise on her – well-deserved praise at that. She was the first asked to come to the camp, and was the only Rotary student to come without hesitation. She was asked to make a speech minutes earlier, and she did. Franzi’s the only exchange student in Nagpur who would have been here no matter what. And though she later understates the award and the accompanying positive words of the camp’s director, no one at RYLA deserves an award more than Franzi.

I also win an award. Best Campfire Performer – Boy. The night before, we’d gathered around a fiery pile of logs and plastic, playing two games of luck and concentration. Mostly luck. In game one, a competition of shouting other teams’ numbers, I’d caused my team to bow out early, saying the wrong word at the wrong time. In game two, an elimination game which required knowledge of nothing more than the English alphabet and the first letter of one’s own name, I was one of the final five competitors. I earned a bar of chocolate and the award.

The chocolate was enough for me. This award won’t be going on my resume.

The power goes out. This is an outdoor venue with no backup lighting except two small lights and the stars above. We’re plunged into darkness, but the speaker continues to talk, unfazed. This is India. We listen, and wait for our performance to start.

The speakers finish. The lights turn back on. We make our way around the pool and gather backstage.

Franzi’s dance goes ahead of ours. Only later would I learn of the tension she felt before she’d gone onstage, something she could blame on learning just an hour beforehand how seriously her costume sari would limit her leg movement. But from my vantage point, it looks like it goes off without a hitch, and it can’t look any worse to the parents sitting on the other side of the pool.

It always looks better to the audience than the performer. I think that’s just a rule of entertainment – no matter where you are in the world.

Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani begins to play.

It’s time.

I’ll skip to the end, because the first four minutes or so go more or less as choreographed. I’m slow to remember my steps a couple times, but it’s nothing too noticeable. But then the final chorus begins. And I have no idea what to do. The spotlight is shoved upon me.

Steal the spotlight, or shun it?

Option three: Improvise.

I continue to shake my body and dance in tune to the beat, as do the others. But after five seconds of this, it becomes clear there’s a desperate need for additional choreography. I slowly make my way to the front of the stage, and the other campers are ceding the center to me, egging me on. Still I have no fixed dance to perform. I resort to the type of dance I know best – head-nodding, arm-thrashing upper body chaos. Better for the dim light of discotheques than the focused spotlight of the RYLA camp stage.

This doesn’t seem sufficient.

I look to the others. They’re looking at me anticipatively, shouting, wondering why I haven’t already begun my “Yo! Yo!” performance. But I have no intention of “Yo! Yo!”-ing in front of this crowd, however poor its view of the stage. I sit down and continue flailing my arms my own way, anticipating the final note of the song.

The song doesn’t stop.

The final 20 seconds of the song feel like an eternity. The music doesn’t cease. The bright lights don’t turn off. Unless I want to run off the stage in tears, I have no choice but to keep flailing my arms without coordination. It’s the least prepared I’ve ever been for a performance of this magnitude, but it doesn’t really matter. The audience doesn’t know that I’ve done anything wrong. Nor do they care.

They just keep watching me.

There’s just no avoiding the spotlight.

🙂

Cricket: A new kind of fandom

February 23, 2011

Ask anyone who’s known me since the age of eight to associate one word with me, and there’s a good change “baseball” would be the first in their mind.

It’s understandable. There’s no denying my obsession with baseball and the Chicago Cubs, which began in 2001 when Sammy Sosa‘s home run hops convinced me to board the bandwagon for both. Ten years later, I have no plans to leave either one. I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit playing fantasy baseball in recent years, and it’s possible I’ve used Bleed Cubbie Blue as a timepass more than any other website. I’ve bored a number of friends with my baseball lectures on Gmail Chat (intentionally, I have to admit). That said, without my knowledge of the sport, I probably wouldn’t have won the 2010 Illinois state sports writing championship.

Then I came to India, and fell in love with a different bat and ball sport.

For seven months I’ve lived in the land where balls are bowled, not pitched. Where a ball hit over the boundary is a “6” not a home run. Where games have just one or two innings, but take between three hours and five days to play.

Cricket is king in India, and no other sport even comes close. There’s not a country in the world with more cricket fans than India. Field hockey is actually the country’s national sport, but cricket’s popularity transcends any other. Badminton, basketball and soccer have sizable followings in India, but none is even a tenth that of cricket.

Admittedly, people here pay baseball its due when I tell them what country I’m from. Pride glimmers in me every time people are quick to acknowledge the sport – usually before basketball and (American) football. At least to the outside world, baseball is still America’s national pastime, and when discussing America’s landmarks, I always put Wrigley Field up there with The Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and The Golden Gate Bridge.

But cricket isn’t baseball.

I found myself on the learning curve for a sport for the first time in about a decade upon my arrival in India. This time, Sports Illustrated for Kids didn’t offer me much help. In the primal stages of my sports fandom I’d been eased into several games simultaneously. I acquired at least a baseline knowledge for baseball, basketball, football, hockey, golf, tennis, NASCAR and soccer, choosing to further pursue the sports in which I gained the most interest. In time, I became reasonably literate in other sports – swimming, volleyball, softball, lacrosse, track and field, cross country, field hockey. In July, I could probably have even gone on a tangent about billiards if you asked me.

But not cricket.

Before I got the news I was coming to India, I knew precisely three things about cricket: that it was played with a bat and a ball, that they used these things called wickets, and that it had something to do with tea.

I expected to learn about cricket while in India, but that didn’t keep what I learned from surprising me. The learning curve wasn’t so much steep as it was congested and full of detours. In America, baseball is packaged nicely into 30 teams belonging to 28 cities, thanks to the omnipotence of its preeminent league – MLB. You root for the team with familial ties in a familiar location, so the Chicago Cubs were a natural fit. Same for the NFL, the NBA and the NHL. You root for one club, and root against its opponent from some other North American city. It’s just how America does sports.

I ran into trouble when I applied that Western thinking to cricket. So Nagpur doesn’t have a franchise in the Indian Premier League (IPL)? Fine. I’ll just root for whatever team my host family roots for. So which one is it? The Mumbai Indians? The Deccan Chargers? The Bangalore Royal Challengers?

Eventually, I learned I’d been focusing my fandom onto a fledgling two-year-old league that used the newest, shortest and most controversial of cricket’s three main formats – T20. None of its teams had regional fanbases akin to those of American teams, and most here have chosen to root for teams with the most Indian players rather than those with geographical proximity.

The IPL is young, and has tremendous potential for growth. But real cricket fans root for their country’s team, not their city’s.

Team India is one of, if not the best cricket teams in the world. In any format, really, but Test Matches and One Day Internationals (ODIs) will get the most people to watch. There might not be anything that unites the 1.1 billion people in India better than its cricket team. For 12 months a year, up to 12 hours a day, you’ll find TVs across India tuned to cricket. Trying to find an Indian who’s not a cricket fan is like trying to find an American rooting against their country in the Olympics: they exist, but very few are willing to openly admit it.

Now the Olympics of cricket have come to South Asia. To Nagpur itself.

The Cricket World Cup is underway. And I’m going.

🙂

To be continued…

“Foreigner!” – The saga of standing out in India, Part three

February 17, 2011

In the last 32 days, I have heard the word “foreigner” 589 times.

That’s 18.4 times per day. 129 times a week. A pace of 6700 times over the course of 12 months.

Yes, I’ve been keeping track of this very diligently. I could even tell you the standard deviation if you’re interested. But these numbers don’t tell the story of life as a foreigner in India. And I have two more of those to tell.

The morning after Wednesday’s bike-scapade, Nisha and I took a rickshaw across town to Hindi class. As we walked away from the auto, a man’s voice called out to us. Another Indian intent on teasing us, perhaps?

No. Nisha’s phone was lying idle in the car’s backseat. The man had called our attention to it, in spite of the attention taking a foreigner’s phone would have provided. Nisha went to pick it up with gratitude. This wasn’t the first time she’d lost – and soon found – her phone since coming to Nagpur.

See, there are good people in India. They’re everywhere. The trouble is, good people give us the least trouble and the least attention. They stand by, awaiting the opportunity to make lives better – like pointing out when our tires have punctures, or insisting on fixing them for free when we don’t have enough change.

After Thursday’s class, Anaïs, Michelle and I went to fix our bikes. This in itself was another adventure, my third trip to a cycle-wallah in the last 18 hours. A group assembled around us as we watched our bikes being repaired. Three boys lingered without making the effort to conceal themselves, even going so far as to pretend their obviously working bikes were broken too. Understandable, perhaps. But nonetheless obnoxious.

Then again, after what we did the next day, are we any better?

We received a frantic phone call from Michelle about an hour before sunset on Friday. Foreigners had been spotted, and they weren’t exchange students. Anaïs, Nisha and I rode our now-functioning bikes back to Poonam Chambers for the sole purpose of meeting them.

Consider the rarity of meeting other foreigners in India. Aside from the places we ventured on the South Tour, whereon pockets of foreigners were found abound, I’d only run into Indian outsiders about once every two weeks. Usually we’d just pass each other by, an aura of significance exchanged at most, and one-sided obliviousness in the least. Sometimes we’d strike up conversations – as Anaïs and I did with an Austrian outside a zoo two weeks ago – but even those normally remained curt, however exciting the other’s presence was for either party.

The foreigners we met on Friday were mostly American, with one Canadian among their number as well. (This made Nisha very happy.) About 20 in number, they ranged from 20-somes to 70-somes – college-aged, middle-aged and retirement-aged. One of them even recognized my Chicago Cubs baseball cap. We spent half an hour orienting them to India, talking to them about the culture, showing them where to go in Nagpur, and discussing with them the attention foreigners receive – a fact they were aware of despite having been in India for less than a week.

I don’t think they knew we’d driven around Nagpur just to see them. I wonder how they’d have reacted if they’d known we did. It’s certainly not a meeting that would have taken place in the U.S., a country where foreigners melt in, meld in, and become indistinguishable from everyone else. Women in mini-skirts and burqas can be best friends. Only one’s accent or passport can give away one’s nationality in America, and even then, they don’t have to. I never appreciated the diversity of my friends, my community, and my home country until I came to India, where that diversity is of a variety that’s subtler and far more difficult to discern.

It may seem counterintuitive that Rotary every year sends foreigners to a country of over a billion people with relatively similar outward appearances. There’s no denying the unique attention foreigners receive here. The cynic would say exchange students are guinea pigs, nothing more than barometers for India’s perception of the outside world.

But that’s just not the truth.

I’m reminded of Rotary’s motto for the 2010-11 year, one that is splashed prominently across two of my T-shirts from July’s conference in Grand Rapids. I read it every time I put one on, and I’m often given a reason to ponder what it says.

“Building communities. Bridging continents.”

Every time I take my bike through the streets of Nagpur, I’m unable to suppress a grin as I consider how bizarre it is that I am where I am. I smile and wave when the neighbor kids shout at me as I pass – “Chris! Hi!” When people look and shout at me, I don’t want them to think I have it better than they do because of my appearance, that my heroism parallels my bike’s namesake (Hercules), that America is some magical utopian haven to which they can and should escape.

What I hope for those people is that they realize the ever-increasing truth:

For a place with nearly 7 billion people, the world is a pretty small place.

I just happen to come from the other side of it.

🙂

My favorite -ollywood starts with a “B”

January 25, 2011

About a week ago, I went online and looked at a list of popular American songs for the first time since coming to India in July. Before leaving, my musical taste was undoubtedly pop-centric, with about 25 songs from July’s Top 40 among my favorites. So it was with mild shock that I realized I hadn’t heard a single song on January’s list. I know it’s in the nature of such lists to change often, but seriously, not one song?

I guess Bollywood has filled the void for me pretty well.

Since the New Year, I’ve dedicated myself to finding the Bollywood songs that I’d been hearing on the radio and humming to myself for months. Whereas in December just three Bollywood songs had a home in my iTunes library, over ten times as many have now joined them. And I haven’t even tapped into my host brother’s vast collection (yet).

Note that I refer to the music that populates the airwaves here as Bollywood music rather than Hindi music. The reason for this is twofold. “Bollywood” normally refers to the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry, but its movies are known worldwide for their heavily choreographed song and dance numbers. Unlike in America, the music and film industries of Bollywood are very closely intertwined. The majority of songs you’ll hear in India come from its movies – in fact, I don’t think I’ve heard a song that hasn’t.

And after listening to songs like I Hate Love Storys (sic), is it really fair to call these Hindi songs? Like their accompanying Bollywood scripts, an increasing number of songs have at least some English. In most cases, use of English is sparse – with only repeated phrases like “People on the floor” or “Oh girl, you’re mine” – but some songs are nearly half English. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to label these Hinglish songs. Then again, that wouldn’t be fair to the many songs still written in pure Hindi.

But for me, even the pure Hindi songs are no longer the garbled strings of sounds they once were.

Since the end of December, I’ve been taking private Hindi classes five times a week, and my rate of learning has skyrocketed. I can now read almost every character in the alphabet, and I’m able to write a one-paragraph self-introduction in Devanagari script. Speaking Hindi makes bargaining with rickshaw drivers a lot easier, and I keep shocking my Indian friends by tossing new Hindi words into our conversations.

But the real rewards of learning Hindi come in understanding the words that are spoken. Bollywood songs have truly been instrumental in my language learning process. Frequent are the instances when I’ll recognize a word, pull out my pocket dictionary, and see if I’ve guessed its meaning correctly. I guess you could say I read the dictionary for fun.

In full disclosure, I’ve since added eight of those Top 40 American songs.

But I have to admit, Bollywood music is the far more educational form of fun.

🙂

P.S. Here’s a sampling of Bollywood music for your enjoyment.

A. Pee Loon
B. Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani
C. Aal Izz Well
D. Udd Udd Dabangg
E. Sheila Ki Jawani

Bonus question: To which of the above songs did I perform a Bollywood dance in front of 100 people at a RYLA camp in November? The first person to answer correctly gets a prize(!) and a detailed explanation of the performance in context.