Posts Tagged ‘Rotary’

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.


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:



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.



RYLA, Part one

June 20, 2011

From 8-10 November:

Five days before my tour of South India. I’m standing by the only swimming pool I’ve seen in four months. My costume, which has been given to me minutes earlier, consists of jeans, sneakers, and a purple sequined long-sleeved shirt about two sizes too small for me. A crowd of small school age Indian kids has gathered around me, some costumed and sitting quietly, others in plainclothes and joking loudly in their native tongues. The choreographers of our Bollywood dance have their cameras out, and they’re pointing them at me. The sun has set. Loud speakers are blaring loud Hindi music to entertain the hundred or so parents of these children, but the stone bleachers on the other side of the enormous pool are mostly empty.

Funny. If the people sitting forty meters away knew they were about to see a 6′ 3″ blond-haired foreigner perform a choreographed dance to Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani, there probably wouldn’t have been any empty seats.

The three-day Rotary Youth Leadership Award camp, otherwise known as RYLA, has culminated in this performance. My group has spent the last three days learning a dance to a recent popular Bollywood song, and several other students – including the camp’s only other foreigner – have dances to perform as well. I’d been coerced into the optional performance just 32 hours before, under the impression it was compulsory. Thus I was shocked when all but three of the boys my age opted out. Now it’s too late.

I didn’t realize I had a choice.


In the weeks before RYLA, the Nagpur exchange students and I had been bombarded with requests for activities, usually on one or two days’ notice. We attended some. We turned down others. Some were interesting. Some were awful. It was always better when the others were present, so at least if the proceedings were unbearable, we’d have each other. But I was relying on the other exchange students for my RSVPs. I needed assurance that I wouldn’t venture into the unknown alone. Otherwise my response to an invitation would be “maybe.” And “maybe” normally becomes “no”…

Franzi, who had turned into a courier of sorts for these activities, was the one to break the news of RYLA to us. In fact, she’d given us a week’s notice, enough time for us to discuss amongst ourselves whether or not we should go. But except for Franzi, we’d all decided not to go, unwilling to subject ourselves to the attention we’d receive. It wasn’t worth it.

My host dad had found out about the camp the day before its onset. I told him I didn’t want to go. “Why aren’t you going?” he said. A legitimate question. I had no reply. For a month and a half or so, I’d been caught in the daily timepass I’d vowed to avoid. And indeed, I had no valid reason not to attend. So it was set. I packed my bag, and the next morning I was out the door. But reluctant to leave, I couldn’t help but think:

Why am I doing this?


Indeed, I considered that a legitimate question as I ventured the grounds of Bhonsla Military School just outside Nagpur on the morning of 8 November. I was the tallest and oldest in a group of about two dozen boys, but I was having trouble standing up straight. The sanitation of the breakfast that had been provided was suspect, and the bus ride in had violently jarred the contents of my stomach. Now my innards were in disarray; even though the Hindi-speaking army officer in full military regalia was instructing us to stand straight, I couldn’t.

I wanted to go home. I wanted to quit.

But a military camp is not the place to be weak, show weakness, or quit.

As the day went on, I was relieved to learn RYLA wasn’t really a military camp. Saket-dada had told me stories from camps in his childhood, how he’d been forced to run for miles on end and had been deprived of sleep for nights on end, unsmiling officers in the background shouting and pushing him on. But quick glances at the other members of the camp showed me it wouldn’t be like that. Though some of the boys came within an inch of my height and a year of my age, many of the boys and girls stood about two-thirds my height and looked as if a 100 meter jog would exhaust them – let alone a 10,000 meter one. So we spent the morning walking, not running, through the Bhonsla grounds and Vidharba fields, stopping at regular intervals as much for our rest as the attractions we were stopping for.

My stomach settled as morning gave way to afternoon, which was good – otherwise the day’s swimming and horseback riding would have been impossible for me. There was nothing significant about these activities to me – I’d ridden horses before, and I’d spent regular intervals each summer in swimming pools. But seeing the excitement of the younger kids vanquished my apathy. I saw it as the small kids smiled proudly on horseback – probably their first rides on such steeds, maybe their last. I saw it as they splashed wildly in the swimming pool large enough to accommodate five times as many campers as it did – especially in India. I saw it in the dingy Spartan sleeping quarters – a place where ones goods mattered not as much as the good friends around you.

Naturally, these kids took an interest in me, the likelihood of an ulterior motive correlating with age and ability to speak English. I was surrounded at every available moment, asked the normal foreigner-in-India questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? How do you find India? Do you like Indian food? What kind of music do you like? How do you find the heat? After dinner, the crowd around me had swelled to 30 and the questions had ventured into dangerous territory: Indo-Pak relations. Which country do you like more, Chris?

I was relieved when the group dissolved to assemble for the night’s nature walk.

Day two was more of the same. An early morning run through an obstacle course. Some laughably inaccurate attempts in riflery and archery. Military men teaching us about guns. People trying to teach me the prescribed steps to Anjaana Anjaani Ki Kahani. Again, I was unintentionally surrounded by kids for an evening interview, and again the questions ceased to relent.

This time I tried taking a different approach, seizing the opportunity when a brief lull arose. I turned the same questions back on the people asking them: What are your names? What are you all studying? What are your hobbies? These were group questions, and their replies were curt; they seemed uninterested in giving me the same information they were requesting of me. Most of these students were in the higher standards; the younger ones generally stood idle, either unconfident or unwilling to try their English on me.

It soon became clear there were two rather distinct groups of boys. The first group mostly consisted of 9th or 10th standard boys who would ask me peculiar, often crude questions and follow up my answers by turning to the others with laugh-arousing remarks in Hindi or Marathi. Unable to understand them, their remarks didn’t frustrate so much as confuse me.

(And these were only boys. The girls were strictly separated from us for almost every activity of the camp. My contact with them was limited to the occasional brief conversation with Franzi or a quick five-second self-introduction. It was probably better that way. Most members of the camp were wrongly convinced Franzi was either my girlfriend or my sister.)

But whatever this older group was saying, it was clearly affecting the members of the younger one. Most of the younger boys were in my camp – at least that’s the way it was made to appear. On the eve of night two, a group of older boys were sitting on bunks 12 feet away from me, telling jokes in Marathi that I couldn’t understand. The young Hindi-speaking boys around me couldn’t understand them either, but they’d gathered the older boys were speaking of me unfavorably. These small children – none probably higher than 8th standard – had firmly chosen righteousness, and to them, that meant sticking with me. Despite their difficulties with English, they sat in the bunks surrounding me, trying to communicate to me the atrocity of some things that had been said against me, surprised that I remained unfazed.

I reassured them that I was fine. I was.

They were just trying to help. But I didn’t need it. Not this kind, anyway.


North Tour: Kolkata: Something India shouldn’t have

June 12, 2011

Saturday, 26 March

NAGPUR: It’s impossible to deny the speed at which India is evolving.

India’s growth is a phenomenon you’ve probably heard about in the news, and the results are visible across the country. Smoother and better paved roads. The rise of cell phone use across caste and class. Projects by organizations like Rotary to sanitize water and quite literally build bridges.

Unfortunately, there’s something else still quite visible in India.


What is it about India that makes people see the world differently?

From Buddha to Mother Teresa, historical figures from North India have regularly been motivated by the pain they see in the people before them. Even in the richest areas, you’ll see children begging on street corners. At train stations, you’ll see ladies holding babies, asking passersby for spare change. Walk the streets of almost any city, and you’ll intermittently see homeless sitting with arms outstretched, begging passively because they don’t have the energy to get up.

Not that the poverty is especially bad in Kolkata. It’s striking everywhere you go in India. And it makes for some painful internal conversations:

“What can I do to help these people?”


“But I should be able to do something!”



“But how do you help? How do you relieve the suffering? What can be done?”

It’s a vicious cycle of nothingness that usually ends in pity and a morose turning of the head while your arm is poked softly and persistently until the beggar decides some other rich foreigner can provide better luck. You’re almost conditioned not to feel anymore, to tune out their calls of “Hey Baba“, look away from the hand to mouth khana [food] gesture, and pretend the rapping and tapping on your forearm isn’t there.

Occasionally we do give – perhaps a piece of candy or a two-rupee coin. But the initial delight of doing good is almost always mitigated when larger crowds gather around us. What makes the small child to whom we gave a Parle-G any more special than the others with outstretched arms? Besides, there’s a hierarchy within each beggar family, one where males and elders always come at the top. Pathos is pointless when so often the sad face before you doesn’t reap the reward of your good deed.

A terrible internal fight ensues between mind and heart every time a beggar comes around. Give in to immediate gratification and reward their begging? Or look the other way and do nothing but hope that they’ll one day become self-sufficient?

Here is where I really start to hate India, because there’s a solution to this problem – just not an immediate one.


No country in the world today can claim it is great unless it adequately educates all its children. I’ve written about school in India before, however inaccurate a bellwether my college may have been. But at the very least, school is a place to study. Whereas American students might complain if they’re made to wear uniforms, Indians wear them with pride, a symbol of the fact that they, at least, can study. So many children in India don’t go to school, can’t go to school, or are barred by their family from going. And it just irks me.

I wonder what my life would be like if my education had been cut off at grade five, or cut off entirely. You certainly wouldn’t be reading this, as I’d never have learned to write. What would I do all day if I had to beg to ensure my stomach was full, nothing to do all day but search for spare change? What if I came home to a slum, and not a well-furnished 2,000 square foot home? What if I had no place to call home at all?

I wonder, and I can only ever wonder, because I’ve lived an astoundingly good life by these standards. I’ve been lucky enough to have. To own. To eat. Every day.

I’ve never had to beg.

What can I do? What can I, Chris Yoder – of privileged background, privileged host family, and privileged life – do to help those begging for it?

What can anyone do?

Steps have been taken to abolish poverty. The rate of it, at least, has decreased in recent years. Projects have been completed. Fundraisers have been held. Items have been donated. Organizations and NGOs have done what they can. Rotary is right there, its logo splashed throughout India, a marker of progress.

But what progress? A lot of times, it’s hard to think of progress. When you see a man finish his meal and use the ground as a trash can. When flies and mosquitoes are buzzing loudly around your head, sometimes landing on it. When the taps on your arms, shoulders, or whatever part of you the beggars can reach don’t cease, it’s hard to think of progress.

But India has progressed.

I know this, even if I haven’t been around long enough to see it. Perhaps hanging with the same circle of privileged people has just created an illusion in me, but I can’t forget the people I’ve met with good lives. I’ve met scores of people who do good things, who can earnestly say, “I’m proud to be Indian.” The world has changed since Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya and Mother Teresa ventured to the slums of East India. India is now much more than a pitiable mass of humanity. Much, much, much more.

The perception has changed. And it’s still changing.

Our two month-long tours have taught me plenty about why we are envied in India and what India has to be envied. They’ve shown me what India is lucky to have and what I am lucky to have. India has come a long way.

But I’ve seen a lot of people who’ve shown me India still has quite a ways to go.


“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.


Something to make you smile

January 29, 2011

Thanks to a team of doctors from England, 100 small children are now able to do something they couldn’t before.


With the assistance of a Nagpur Rotary club, a group of English doctors flew to Nagpur for the week to repair cleft-lips and -palates of infants and small children. For upwards of 12 hours a day, the team rarely left the hospital, working around the clock to improve as many lives as possible. For free.

And we got to watch.

After Hindi class on Monday, Michelle and I went to Memorial Hospital with Franziska, eager to see this act of charity firsthand. Michelle and Franzi had already been inside, but this was my maiden visit. In fact, it was my first visit to any hospital in India, and it was unlike any I’d seen in the U.S.

I grew up accompanying my M.D. mom to work, so I know what hospitals are supposed to look like. Large, modern, sterile structures impenetrable except through a pair of automatic glass sliding doors. Patients sitting two or three in each well-ventilated room, guests only allowed with a prominently-placed visitors pass. An anthill of activity: bustling with white coats and blue scrubs, teeming with clipboards, stethoscopes and blood-pressure cuffs.

This hospital was nothing like any of those I’d visited before, although given the relative wealth of its patients, it could have been worse. It was like a well-polished black-and-white TV – carefully maintained, but outdated and limited in scope. The three-story main building looked like it was constructed sometime between the first and second World Wars. The recovery room wasn’t quite overcrowded – especially by India’s standards – but it was still just one room all the same. Without ventilators available for the patients, an assistant had to do the breathing quite literally by hand.

That said, I never would have been allowed to see such an operation in America, so for me this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I put on some of those pale blue scrubs and – careful not to touch anything – joined the others in the operating room.

The Englishmen actually referred to the operating room as the “theatre”, which seems appropriate given the spectacle we saw. We had to be careful not to trip over any trailing wires, but other than that the room was an oasis of modernity in an otherwise aging hospital. Four or five doctors were crowded around the patient, as was most of the high-tech equipment you’d expect in such a situation. One of the off-duty doctors was kind enough to give us an overview of the operations, talking to us about the room’s cords, clamps and clefts. The atmosphere was much more relaxed than I’d expected, but the aura of concentration remained a constant ubiquity.

But the most remarkable thing about these operations was why they were performed. Comparable surgeons were available throughout India, but at a price the families of the patients couldn’t afford. Three of England’s 25 doctors specializing in this field were in Nagpur for the project, and they stood in three neighboring rooms, implanting smiles surgically into their patients, and indirectly on the faces of the parents waiting outside.

This time, the smiley face at the end of my post has an added meaning. Because thanks to this program, that’s what 100 children will now be able to do.