Posts Tagged ‘USA’

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.


Christmas in India: Part eight

January 22, 2011

With Boxing Day just an hour away, I had one last thing to do before my Christmas would be complete.

But that last thing was the most important of them all.

Minutes after arriving home, I called my mom just as I’d promised. I was disappointed to hear the familiar greeting and beep of the answering machine, but far from dismayed. She was likely en route to my grandma’s place, picking her up for the traditional Christmas family dinner at my aunt’s house. I’d be calling my aunt’s house that afternoon, so I could talk to her then. I left a one-minute message anyway.

I’d coordinated things with my aunt via email beforehand. If everything went according to plan, Christmas dinner would follow the usual schedule, and everyone’s plates would be cleared by two in the afternoon. I planned to call as the gifts were being opened, just as everyone was settling into their post-meal routine. That way, I’d be able to talk to everyone at the dinner table without hanging up the phone.

But I still faced a two and a half hour gap between my last phone call and my next one. So I spent that time talking to some other people I cared about. I had a good conversation with my host parents before they went to bed, and I wished some of my friends Merry Christmas through Facebook Chat. But mostly I was just waiting for the clock to strike 1:30 local time. Thanks to the 11.5-hour time difference, sleep once again fell low on my priority list.

Nearly two hours after midnight, I punched in the thirteen digits that would create a direct link between Nagpur, Maharashtra, India, and Champaign, Illinois, USA.

My aunt told me beforehand to prepare to be homesick, and I know why she said that. I missed my family. I missed my younger cousins Claire, Henry and John, and I missed their parents, my older cousins Dawn, Cyrus, Chris and Lisa. I missed my Aunt Julie, who always does such a good job hosting Christmas dinner each year, and I missed my Uncle Larry, who always cooks up a scrumptious meal. I missed my grandma, with whom I hadn’t yet talked from India, and I missed my mom, with whom I’d talked several times from India, but was still anxious to speak with all the same.

Was I homesick? No. But before calling, the gap between my family and me was larger than it had ever been.

I picked up the phone, and it was as if I was entering another world.

My aunt’s “Hello” was the first thing I heard. In the background I could hear wrapping paper being torn and exhilarated voices shouting out. Familiar voices. Voices I hadn’t heard in months…

As the phone made its way around my aunt’s house, I exchanged Christmas greetings with almost everybody there. Everyone had something nice to say, and almost everyone had questions about my life in India. People seemed particularly interested in the balmy weather here, and given the climate they described to me there, I can understand why.

Champaign is the kind of city that gets more than its fair share of winter weather. Several deposits of snow fall each winter without fail, sometimes of the knee-deep variety. In spite of this, I hadn’t experienced a white Christmas in Champaign in years – either the snow would melt in time for the holiday or it would wait until January to fall. So as person after person recounted the scene out the window – six inches of fresh powdery snow covering everything in sight – I wasn’t shocked, but I understood the significance of the moment. It was certainly nothing like Nagpur.

All of us were getting used to temperatures in the 20s. I just happened to be the only one using Celsius.

For over 90 minutes, I painted a picture of Indian life to the eight people I talked with. Our conversations bounced from topic to topic, from how I was enjoying cricket to how I was living without meat. Time slows down when you’re enjoying yourself, and when my uncle asked me what time it was in India, I looked down at my watch and told him: 3:30 a.m.

What is it about absence, they say, that makes the heart grow stronger? Of the eight people I talked to, I hadn’t heard the voices of seven in five months, and I hadn’t seen any of them since leaving for India.

It’s precisely because of that absence that the phone call I made that night was life-changing.

I’d always taken my family for granted. That’s not a rude statement, or an offensive one. It’s just a fact. Christmas dinner with my family was always a given, as predictable as the fireworks that shoot off each New Years at midnight. They were always with me in the same area code, or at least usually within driving distance. I grew up incredibly fortunate to live so close to the people I love, and I grew content with them being there, whether I needed them or not.

Now I was in India for Christmas, and I could no longer take my family for granted. Sure, they were all still there at the table, quite solid in their seats. But for the first time in nearly two decades, I wasn’t. There’s just something about being halfway around the world that makes Christmas different. Quirks and petty disagreements don’t matter when you’re 8,000 miles away.

It’s still my family, no matter what.

And that’s all that matters.


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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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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Shots! (Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots!)

June 25, 2010

From Japanese encephalitis to hepatitis, typhoid to tetanus, dengue fever to yellow fever, I’ve learned more about diseases and vaccinations in preparing for my trip to India than I thought I’d ever have to know.

It’s been a hassle getting everything I need for my trip. In the past month, the vaccines I’ve gotten and the medications I’m supposed to take have blended together in a blur of travel clinics, referrals and prescriptions. If my mom didn’t have an M.D., I don’t know how I’d be getting through.

I feel lucky to have lived as healthy a life as I have. I did break my wrist two years ago when I was viciously mauled by a 12-foot grizzly bear (by which I mean I fell off my bike). And every year I get stricken by the seasonal flu once or twice. But I’ve never suffered any major injuries, been sick for more than a week, or taken medicine for more than a couple days. And for an American kid, I’m about par for the course when it comes to health.

But my health has very little to do with luck.

One number tells a story far better than any anecdote I could give you: 78.4. That’s the life expectancy for an American baby born today. With a rank of 38, that number puts the US akin to countries like Luxembourg, South Korea, Chile, Denmark and Portugal.

India’s life expectancy, on the other hand, is 63.7. That puts them at 115th in the world, just behind Iraq, and just ahead of Kyrgyzstan.

Those two numbers say more about how good we have it in the US than how “bad” it is in India. The rest of the world hasn’t caught up either, with the mean just shy of 69.

India’s also come a long way in recent years. The life expectancy there has risen 21.3 years since 1960. Compare that to the world’s increase of 16.4 in that same time period, and the 8.6 year increase by the US.

In short, we have a lot to be thankful for in the US.

Life expectancy can’t tell the whole story, of course. It’s just a crude estimator of the health of a country. But the fact is, the health of Americans is relatively stellar. For all the deficiencies the US has, the infrastructure for healthcare is outstanding.

We have ambulances that get to emergencies quickly in every city. Our streets are paved, sweeped, and shoveled of snow. Our water is not only pure, it has added fluoride. There are countless problems that never concern us and likely never will, because the infrastructure is in place. We can afford to walk outside without bug spray and ignore our mosquito bites.

These are luxuries afforded us in the US that won’t be there in India. These shots I’m getting are a testament to how nice it is in America, just because we never need them in day-to-day life.

If only there were just some way for me to go to India without getting all these shots…

Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots! Shots! Everybody!


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