Posts Tagged ‘School’

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.



Clarifications about my college life

September 10, 2010

My last blog entry caused a little more outcry with a couple people than I think was necessary, so I thought I’d clarify something.

I’m not unhappy at Hislop College.

Of course it’s impossible for me to make assumptions about all schools in India – I’ve spent 99 percent of my time in two cities. I don’t yet know enough about all the schools in India, all the schools in Maharashtra, or all the schools in Nagpur.

My secondhand knowledge of Indian schools exceeds my firsthand knowledge. Firsthand, I’ve only seen Hislop College, the school where the Independence Day celebration was held, and the school where we have our tabla and dance classes. Other Rotary students and area kids have told me about the schools in Nagpur, but I’ve only read books that talk about schools elsewhere in India.

Schools vary everywhere, though. Anyone from Champaign-Urbana could tell you there’s contrast between my old high school and Urbana’s other high school. Michigan Tech is a much different college than Massuchusetts Institute of Technology. I’d appreciate the feedback of anyone who knows more about schools in India – and how they vary.

Given what I know, then, I feel I may have misled people in two ways: 1) as far as I know, Hislop College is not actually that different from other schools in India, and 2) I do not feel uncomfortable there.

True, there’s no air-conditioning and no Powerpoint presentations. At most Indian schools, teachers are more likely to be truant than in America. Pens – rather than pencils – are the norm, as are notebooks with covers that seem to be chosen by American third-graders.

But the teachers aren’t necessarily “bad”. They can be quite passionate about what they say. Whereas some teachers get to class five minutes late and leave ten minutes early, our sociology teacher kept us ten minutes after class on Thursday to talk about the difference in stigmas between graduating from arts, commerce and science colleges in India.

In English, mostly.

The people aren’t all bad, either. I’ve become good friends with many of the kids who always go to class – the people who aren’t just interested in me because I’m American. In the hallways, the others don’t give me trouble, just attention, and even that’s beginning to wane as I become a more familiar face. Since I’m a regular in the classroom, it’s become a comfortable place.

As for now, I’ve got a three-day weekend to deal with. More on that later.


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Hislop College: Not your ordinary college (even for India)

September 7, 2010

I’d heard the rumors from past exchange students from India – who told me they didn’t see the point of going to school after a few weeks.

I’d heard the rumors from current exchange students in India – who had already been going to school for a few weeks.

I’d heard the rumors from people in Nagpur: When I told them where I would be going to college in town, they would often give me a sympathetic half-smile or look down and shake their head.

My first day at Hislop College gave me just a glimpse of daily life at the school. My first week, however, gave me a larger sample size with which to test those rumors – many of which I’ve found to be true.

I’ve found my enjoyment of each class depends greatly on the answer to these four questions:

1- Is the power on?
2- Is the class in Hindi or English?
3- Which students came to class?
4- Is there class?

When I walked into my first real class last Monday, the fans offered me no relief to the classroom’s 85 degrees and humidity. Nor was there any air-conditioning. None of this would have been a problem, except I was already covered in sweat from my ride there.

I’d heard about the frequent power outages in India before I came, but I’d been pleasantly surprised by the constant stream of power we had in our house. What I didn’t realize was that our house uses a generator. Power outages occur frequently throughout Nagpur and India, but our family is lucky enough to never have to worry about them in the house.

So I just had to get used to a little heat, right?

Everyone had told me Hislop was an English-medium school, and I’d heard the same for the other schools Rotary used. But I couldn’t understand a word of what the political science teacher was saying. Nor the Hindi teacher. The history and sociology teachers also spoke in Hindi half the time. I can understand the security guards not knowing English, but I’m perplexed as to why I was never told half the classes would be in Hindi.

Even when our classes are in English, it’s easy to lose focus. The rumors I’d heard about the teachers mostly turned out to be true. Teachers will usually just read from textbooks, and sometimes they’ll tell us to take notes. At least in my classes, the blackboard seems to be there only for decoration. Unfortunately for me, the teachers only seem passionate about what they’re saying when they’re saying it in Hindi.

And that’s if there’s class at all.

About 25 percent of the time, teachers just don’t show up – sometimes with notice, sometimes without. The concept of a substitute teacher doesn’t seem to have caught on. Perhaps that’s the reason most students don’t show up for class either.

The same ten to twelve students usually show up from a roster of about 40 for each class – boys on the left and girls on the right. As a general rule, the people who go to class tend to be better people than those who bunk and spend the day in the courtyard joking with one another. I’ve spent as much of my time as possible in the classroom with the three or four students I can trust, away from the mass of kids in the courtyard calling out to me with choice Hindi words. I’ve had to be far more cynical in choosing friends than I’ve ever wanted to be.

What gives me hope is that I know not all schools in India are like this. A couple of the exchange students are quite happy with their schools and the people in them. The infrastructure is similar elsewhere, but the people that populate the halls aren’t all like those that roam the courtyard at my college. Hislop may not have as many good people as I’m used to, but I’ll keep going to class because of the ones I’ve met.


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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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