Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What I Learned in India: Week 5

The past few weeks here been pretty great for the most part. We celebrated my aunt's birthday over the course of a few days—the only way a birthday should be celebrated—and I started my classes. After the chaotic mess that is registering for classes as a SIP student here—a mess that makes the Hunger Games of registering for classes at GW look like an episode of Teletubbies—I've finally got a schedule I'm happy with. I'm taking Globalization and Communication, Communication and Social Change, Hindi, an independent study called Modern Indian Thought (which explores everything from Vivekananda to the contemporary Indian diaspora and is basically the greatest class concept I could've ever imagined), Yoga, and Kathak. And I have Fridays off!

And as the time has gone by, I've also gotten comfortable with commuting alone. I take rickshaws by myself nearly every day and although I'm admittedly horrible at bargaining, I know how much to pay for my ride to campus and back. And after having a little too much fun at the mall with some friends, I have plenty of kurtas and outfits for class.

I'm also loving many of the people I've met here. My program is run by amazing individuals who are more like wise friends than authoritative administrators. I'm loving being around my family and spending hours talking to my aunt or vegging out with my uncle. And I've met some amazing people from my CIEE group and have made local friends from my classes, too.

{the inside of a Dunkin' Donuts in the mall}
Beyond this though, the aftermath of Rohith Vemula's death has been very hard on our community. I can't imagine the loss that several students and professors feel, and for many of us in the Study in India Program, things are confusing and frustrating. Classes have been cancelled for a week and half and we don't know when they will resume. We can't travel, so we've just been trying to pass the time by exploring the city but there's only so much to do. I'm trying to remind myself that only the boring are ever bored, that I can find ways to have fun if I put in a little more effort, but it's hard to do so when this isn't a vacation—it's a time of loss and political unrest and chaos.

I'm still happy to be here, even though it seems like I'm already in a slump. It's just weird feeling this way, because it reminds me of the slump I felt halfway through my time in Spain and I really hated that feeling. What's different this time is that I'm not alone, that many of my friends feel the same way, and talking about it with them makes me feel less isolated and bored. Also, because I recognize the symptoms, I'm making more of an effort to be proactive and counteract what I've been feeling. I've been focusing on applying to internships, planning travel, working out, and writing. Hopefully this feeling will pass, and I'm hoping that returning to a routine will help that happen. Until then, here are a few more photos of my time so far:
~ V

Friday, January 22, 2016

One month in India

When I got to India a month ago, I wasn't sure what to expect. I mean, I knew I'd be taking certain classes, I knew I'd be spending time with my family, and I knew to expect hot weather and sunburn. But beyond these small details, I had very little idea about what my time here would bring. For the most part, this was intentional. I wanted this trip to be what it would, rather than forcing it to become some idea of what studying abroad in India should be like. And beyond that, I really didn't know much. I hadn't seen photos of my room here, I hadn't even Googled the city or the campus, and I hadn't spoken to any of the students in my program.

And a month in, I'm so happy to be here. I've learned so much in a way that is extremely frustrating for a writer; so much has happened and I can't find the words to begin explaining or sharing, whether it be here on my blog or with my friends.

I mean, sure, I've Skyped with some friends and shown them the shopping I've done. I've been updating them on the people I've met and the places I've explored. But it's hard digging into the nitty gritty of how much being here has taught me.

Last night, a few friends and I went out in the city. We sat in a cabana and our conversation managed to become a bit heavier than what is the traditional, typical banter of an evening out. And at one point, we got to talking about the way we view things, the way we make sense of what happens to us, the way we try to understand our lives. 

One friend spoke about how rational she is, how easy it is for her to distance herself from an event to then process it logically. And although I've only known her a few weeks, I saw it. I knew her well enough to see that this was really how she looked at the world. And even still, I was stunned. I am so deeply emotional and tend to look at things based on how they make me feel or how they could impact me emotionally and mentally. Of course, when it comes to my career or my academics, rational thought works best. But when it comes to something that is heavy, I don't often detach myself from what matters to me. I can't, nor do I know if I would want to. And even though I value and admire her outlook, I know that it simply isn't mine.

In that sense, talking about India is hard. Thinking about India is hard. Writing about India is hard. Being here means so much to me and I am reminded every day of how glad I am to have made the decision to come here. But trying to explain it isn't simple.

For one, I love it here. I love the small things, like drinking coconut water, taking auto-rickshaws, riding my bike around campus, hanging out with my friends, and living with my awesome aunt and uncle.

And I love how much I'm learning here. I love that I get to constantly think about my dual identity, that I'm focusing more and more on this country's history. I love that India is helping me shape my values and that things here aren't always easy, because that is how you learn sometimes.

Last Sunday evening, a PhD student at my university here committed suicide. And the circumstances surrounding this death, along with the aftermath on personal, communal, and national levels, are so complex and deep in ways I am still scrambling to understand. It's impossible to talk about this with people who aren't here so when it comes to friends and family back in the US, I haven't. And here in India, my friends and I have been trying to understand the issues amongst ourselves, which has been hard. For one, it's the emotional depth of this situation. I couldn't help but think about the people I've lost to depression and suicide and the people I am afraid to lose. And beyond that, I didn't understand the political, social, and historical intricacies that go into a situation like this. Nearly a week later, after dozens of conversations and articles and phone calls, I'm still trying to process and think and learn and understand.

So for a while, I've refrained from writing about this. This death is not about me, and so I felt as though posting about it here would be disrespectful, especially with my lack of understanding. 

But classes have been cancelled all week and there have been protests on campus and I am learning so much that it feels weird to not write about it, as though by not posting I'd be censoring it out of my experience here.

Of course, there's no way I or maybe anyone else could have expected this. But it is important that we meet the unexpected by striving to learn and understand to the best of our abilities. American media hasn't picked up on this, but as one aunt pointed out to me, there's no surprise there. But wherever in the world you are reading this from, I urge you all to read into what's been going on. And if you can't find the sources of information you're looking for, please reach out to me and I'll try to help in the best ways I can.

At times like these, when things are hard or confusing or scary, I turn to Vonnegut. So I'm going to end this post with a few quotes. And as always, thank you for reading.

A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.

"Maturity, the way I understand it," he told me, "is knowing what your limitations are."

He wasn't far from Bokonon in defining maturity. "Maturity," Bokonon tells us, "is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything."

"What is sacred to a Bokononist?" I asked after a while.

"Not even God, as near as I can tell."
"Just one thing."
I made some guesses. "The ocean? The sun?"
"Man," said Frank. "That's all. Just man."

Many people need desperately to receive this message: 'I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.

And so it goes.
~ V

Friday, January 15, 2016

On India, religion, and belonging

It makes me laugh when people talk about India being their Eat, Pray, Love experience. Even if I momentarily push aside how problematic and offensive the suggestion is, I can't help but appreciate the irony of the implication that this is why I came to India. For one, I take great pride in knowing and appreciating truly good food. And although I appreciate paneer and garlic naan and dahi puri way more than is probably healthy, I didn't come here for the food. And unless Hrithik Roshan or Farhan Akhtar is suddenly considering dating a twenty year old, some overdramatic Bollywood fling isn't what brought me here. As for the praying—well, that's complicated.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about how I don't really belong anywhere. When I'm around my Indian-American friends, I'm me; identity doesn't really come into play when you're around people who all identify the same way. But of course, I don't live my life in a little bubble, nor would I want to.

I remember speaking with a Creative Writing professor about a year ago about how the only time we're aware of our identities is when they're made unique, when they're made other. I rarely feel uncomfortable about my racial and national identities at GW, but I spent the majority of my life before college being ashamed of my Indian background. 

And it's weird, going from being the Indian kid in America to the American kid in India, and now, when I'm with my friends in my study abroad program, being the Indian(-American) kid among Americans in India.

But I thought I had come to terms with that. I thought it was an initial shock or a surprising sort of irony of winding up in this situation, that I had adjusted to that. But we visited a temple last weekend, and it made me really uncomfortable in a way I hadn't expected. 

I've been an atheist since seventh grade, since I was twelve. In the eight years that have passed, I've visited temples more times than I can count and have pretended to pray for the sake of placating family, for the sake of avoiding conflict and avoiding explaining myself to people who might not care to listen, who might never understand.

When I first started telling people in my family I was an atheist, over a year after some of my close friends knew, I wasn't received very well. Some told me I was going through a phase; others went so far to tell me they pitied me. And for a while I did, too. It's not easy losing religion. It's not easy reconsidering all you've ever known. It's not easy being twelve and being the only one in your entire family who isn't Hindu. But after an understandable period of time in which she adjusted and opened up, my mom came to accept my faith, or lack thereof. She stopped urging me to go to the mandir, stopped encouraging me to pray before exams or long trips. She gave me the support I didn't know I needed. She allowed me to have a bit more strength in myself, and so I got to do me.

I've been okay with what I am for years now. I'm not angry at religion, I'm not angry about being alone sometimes. I'm secure in what I am, so I was confused when my group and I attended a temple and I got weirdly choked up. I just sort of shut down, avoided my friends, tried to walk around on my own. And I got really, really sad. I started thinking about the factors that caused me to question religion and Hinduism in the first place. I started thinking about how isolated I felt as an atheist sometimes, how I'm still sometimes afraid to identify myself as so, how I use euphemisms for the sake of not offending others, as if even though I'm not offended by others' faith they should be offended by mine.

And I thought about how isolated I feel as an Indian-American sometimes. It took me years to get to the point where I can explore my identity, to where I don't hate being Indian, to where I don't recognize being American as the only way or the better way to be. But being there reminded me that I'll never really belong anywhere. The ship has long sailed on being Indian, pun fully intended. And at the same time, I'll never be American—not simply American, not only American. I am so incredibly grateful for every part of my identity for all that it has taught and continues to teach me. But sometimes it's hard and sometimes it's lonely and sometimes it hurts.

I'm so happy I came to India. I'm so happy I'm around people who are critical and questioning and open and welcoming, all at the same time. I'm with friends and family who are supportive and engage in conversation with me, allow me to talk about the things I've been sitting on for years.

In a way, I'm happy I got upset at the temple, at the fact that I got choked up because the smell of the incense reminded me of my grandma and how much she means to me, that the marble steps reminded me of the many staircases I've walked up when I didn't want to, that the faces around me reminded me of the bindi I didn't want to put on my forehead and reminded me why. I think of these things as growing pains. It hurts because it matters, and maybe someday it won't.

It's only been three weeks so far and although I haven't booked my return flight, I know I have about four months to go. I'm glad that I came here even though I repeatedly considered going elsewhere, even though I considered not going at all. I'm not in India to ~find myself~ but while I'm here, I'm able to explore my identity and what's important to me and I'm able to open up myself to parts of me I spent years shutting out. I'm here to be me.

~ V

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

On moving on and learning to live in the moment

{view from my bedroom; barn full of bulls not pictured}

We're two weeks into 2016 and I'm just now thinking about how this is the first year I didn't make a resolution. On New Year's Eve, my family and I gathered around a table talking about the year that had passed and the goals for the one to come. The night before, we had discussed what had been good  what we had accomplished and overcome and learned. I spoke about how 2015 had been the best year of my life so far. I grew, I moved on, I gained, I lost. Living in Spain and all the travel I've done this year have had so much to do with why this year meant so much to me, but if I'm being honest with myself 2015 was about even more.

For one, I became closer to people who have been part of my life for various amounts of time. I built stronger bonds with different parts of my family. I opened up to some friends in ways I never knew I could. I met new people from different parts of the world and different sectors of my life, people whose presence and friendships I am so grateful for. Sometimes, I can't believe how lucky I am — how many friends I can call family, how much of my family I consider friends.

At the same time, I decided halfway through this year to move beyond relationships of all kinds that didn't make me happy. I decided to let go, to remember what sort of friendships were worth waiting for through the rough patches, and what sort of friendships were just rough. And letting go definitely isn't easy and it definitely doesn't come naturally to me, but I did it and I'm happier for it and next time I won't wait so long to do so. I'm learning everyday to be more open, less scared. Happy people are kind people, and I've been working on both aspects of that, too.

So that had a lot to do with not making resolutions. This year's been good. I've let go of a lot of self-doubt and anger and hate and I've learned to move beyond certain aspects of my life that make me unhappy. I'm not in a perfect place and maybe I never will be. But I'm working on making progress and being in India is helping with that. I'm pushed every day both emotionally and mentally. I'm often overwhelmed by what I have to deal with, what I've been fortunate enough to never deal with. So India is making me think and feel and in my books, that's almost always good.

But as happy as I am and as focused as I am on moving forward, sometimes I can't help but feel stuck in the past. For one, I can't stop missing Spain. I think about it every day and talk about it nearly as much. Yes, it was a part of me and always will be, but why can't I just focus on now, focus on being here in the present?

I get frustrated that I'm missing Spain here, now, in India. After all, it's not as though I'm unhappy here; in fact, I'm grateful to be doing all that I am and so excited for the classes I'm taking and happy to be around the people I'm with. Yet here I am thinking about how I should have gone out more in Madrid, about the cities I'll visit when I go back, about the people I met and the people I miss. Is there something wrong with me? Or am I glorifying my experience? Am I remembering it with rose-tinted glasses?

{exploring Segovia with some au pair friends}

Part of me knows how much Spain meant and means to me, even through the days and weeks when I was weary of traveling and lonely and restless and underwhelmed. And when something means a lot to you, it's hard to let go. This can be said of relationships of all kinds, of experiences that change you, of aspects of your life and yourself you have to accept as part of your past.

So I think I'm in grief. Not deep, painful, agonizing grief the way you feel when you lose a loved one forever. Because if I truly wanted to, I could go back this summer, go back right now. I know I can't, that I shouldn't, but if I wanted to, I could. But I think it's grief nonetheless.

I've been following blogger and social media kween Ella CerĂ³n for quite some time now. She wrote recently about how she spent her New Year's at a party deleting old contacts from her cell phone. And when I read that, I immediately began doing the same. Former classmates I hadn't spoken to since high school, bosses from jobs I'd been happy to leave, acquaintances I'd met in the freshman year rush to make quick and close friendships, and all the other people I knew I'd never want to hear from ever again — all gone.

It's amazing how much crap we hold on to. How many years we spend holding onto a phone number just in case, how much time we invest in a friendship that's better off in the past, how much energy we put into glorifying the past and worrying about the future.

I still think it's important to look back. You are where you come from, where you've been, where you're going to go. But sometimes it's important to just shut that all off and appreciate where you are right now. So I'm working on living in the moment.

At times like these, I always turn to Vonnegut. One of my favorite Vonnegutisms, coming not from Kurt himself but from his uncle Alex is, "If this isn't nice I don't know what is." Maybe I need to practice mindfulness, need to allow myself to feel the pain and grief of missing people and place and time, but throughout that, I need to focus on what I'm grateful for.

And in the spirit of appreciating how fortunate I am, I just want to thank you for reading. Whether you've been following OMS for the year and half we've been around or whether this is the first post you've read, thank you — I love this blog and put a lot of thought into what I post, and it means the world to know that you care to read what I have to share.

{celebrating my aunt's birthday with dinner at the Jewel of Nizam}

~ V

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

What I learned in India: Weeks 1 & 2

{parrots outside my aunt's window, Mumbai}
I've been in India for two weeks but have been busy nearly constantly. In between spending time with family, sightseeing, and participating in orientation activities for my abroad program, it seems like I hardly have enough time to sit by myself and just decompress, never mind write. But writing has always helped me to process what I experience and so here we are, at the beginning of a new year and a new experience abroad.

Rather than always doing a numbered list for things I've learned in India like I did in Spain, I think it's best for me to write in paragraph form. In Spain, it was easy to understand what I had learned by finding what was new, what taught me through novelty. My experience in India differs—at least thus farin that I've already been here, in that the culture is my own. Noticing patterns in the vernacular, picking up on behaviors and customs, and acclimating yourself to a new way of life is a bit different when these adjustments are familiar, when you've grown up knowing and then compartmentalizing them into a particular sector of your life. 

But even when things are familiar, they allow you to learn from them, to gain and to grow. And even though I've been to India multiple times, even though I was born here, even though the culture lends itself to my own hyphenated identity, I find myself learning new things and experiencing the growing pains that come with doing so. 
Adjusting to India was hard for the first few days. But seeing family and focusing on my abroad program kept me focused and soon enough, I acclimated myself to life here. My university is definitely different from GW, and although I haven't started classes yet, I'm really excited about my tentative course load and some extracurriculars I've already found. I love having Indian food every day and I love riding my bike around my ginormous campus—3,000 acres and two lakes! Beyond this, I've met some amazing people. The staff running our program is just incredible and is going above and beyond to make this experience the best it can be for us. We're well-fed and taken care of and we've had some really interesting lectures and guest speakers.
{Chowmahalla Palace}
I definitely wasn't as excited when I first got here though. For one, being in India and around family brings out another side of me. For a few days, I found that I behave a certain way when I am here, or at least I am expected to. And when I was around the other CIEE students, all of whom are American, I reverted back to who I was in DC, the "American" version of myself. It's weird, flip-flopping especially in this setting. Indian-American kids learn quickly and early on to compartmentalize aspects of their lives and personalities. Doing so in India is so unfamiliar to me because for once, the Indian aspect of my identity is the dominant culture. For once, I take pride in speaking Hindi and knowing who Shah Rukh Khan is and not being fazed when I see cows on the street. 

Growing up, I was definitely made fun of for being Indian. I wasn't bullied or anything, at least not in the traditional sense, but I learned quickly to not discuss Indian music or bring Indian food for lunch or speak in Gujarati with my friends. I didn't want to be the weird Indian kid, I wanted to be "normal," to fit in. It's weird having those same things I suppressed now carry cultural capital, to now be things worth mentioning or at least having pride in.
{sunset from Hussain Sagar}
I told a new friend about how ironic it was to travel 8,000 miles and still end up the only brown girl in a big group of kids. I felt like I was the only one with a dual identity, the only one navigating through which parts of myself to hide and which to share, the only one deciding how Indian to be or how American. 

But now after a short-lived transition period, I'm so incredibly happy to be here. For a few days, I found myself reconsidering it all. Who the hell goes to India when they can go to Amsterdam? I asked myself. I looked at the streets and the university buildings and the heat and the inability to travel or even wander by myself and freaked out. Why did I come here? Was coming here truly necessary to learn what I wanted to learn? Could I have just come here for winter break in between semesters or before studying in Amsterdam or Cape Town? And then I sat down in my classroom of the first day of orientation and calmed down. I was going to be fine, I told myself. Everything was organized and planned and orderly and I could handle whatever was new or uncomfortable or uneasy. 

{vendors, Mumbai}
So an hour into that first day, I got really, really excited. I bounced in my seat a little and grinned and told myself to calm the hell downI was in public for god's sakes. Had I had too much coffee that morning? For once, noI'd had none. I was just excited for my amazing classes and to meet all the cool students and spend more time with my family and really, really experience living in and acclimating to India. 

And now, two weeks in, I feel like I've adjusted. While I'm still a bit overwhelmed at times, I don't find myself scrambling to adjust. I feel like I've regained a balance, that I've found some great friends, and that I have some cool classes and extracurriculars to look forward to. I'm already thinking about how leaving will feel like, but I'm excited to be here for whatever time I have. Until then, here are some photos from the past two weeks:
{the sweetest welcoming from my Mami}

{the hospital in which I was born}
{excuse the nails but look at these chikoos!}

{friendly stray cat, Mumbai}

{home circa 1995-97; ours was the window on the top left}


Believe it or not, these are only 38 out of 675 pictures I've taken so far. I can't wait to bring my camera with me as I explore the city. Stay tuned from more from Hyd!

~ V