Orchha – one of India’s hidden gems.

Unexpected weekend escapes are one of the major perks of working abroad.

Having made no real plans for the holiday of Dussehra, I was very happy to end up going to Gwalior with another teaching assistant who’s working nearby, to meet up with another pair of British Council TAs. The ‘last minute’ nature of this plan did make travel more stressful (e.g., buying our return train tickets on the Sunday morning, knowing that we had to be in work on Monday!) but it was definitely worth the hassle (and approx. 20 hours spent travelling there and back from Greater Noida…) as Orccha ranks as one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in India.

Orccha is a medieval fort city in Madyha Pradesh, about 3 hours’ drive from Gwalior. We hired a driver and car and set out to explore temples, a fort and a palace complex, set along a stunning backdrop of mountains and rivers. It certainly made a change from Delhi! Although there were buses of tourists arriving, and the main street of the city was bustling with shops and stalls, the place didn’t have an annoyingly commercial feel to it, once you moved away from the designated tourist bus stands. The main attractions – the fort, the chhatri buildings along the river, and Lakshmi Temple, were not as crowded as those in Delhi and Agra, but even more spectacular. At one point, my group found themselves alone in an almost ‘secret’ gated garden compound, which was full of small temple structures and flowers. Later, as we were about to leave, we were able to sit by the side of the river on some rocks, and speak to some local children in Hindi!

Chhatris are elevated, dome-shaped pavilions used in Indian (Mughal) architecture.
Chhatris are elevated, dome-shaped pavilions used in Indian (Mughal) architecture.

All in all, weekends like the last one are a fantastic cure to the boredom that comes with any working Monday- Friday routine. When everything seems so much more complicated and illogical than at home, seeing such a magnificent place reminds me of why I chose to live and work in India.

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“A is for aam”. The Indian Education System – a few stats (and why I’m here.)

As most of you already know, the entire purpose of my time in India has been to work as a Teaching Assistant as part of the newly-launched Generation UK-India programme, run by the British Council. Consequently, I’ve spent the majority of the last 2.5 months working in a fee-paying school in Greater Noida (there are many, and this area is well known for its numerous new colleges). Most of the teaching assistants on my programme have been placed in what in the UK we would refer to as ‘private’ schools (and confusingly, in the U.S, are called ‘public’ schools). However, many of the schools in India are at least partly government-funded.

The following statistics are taken from Indian School Education System, An Overview (Dec. 2014), a British Council publication, written by Arijit Ghosh and compiled by Sasha Sheppard. It can be accessed at: http://www.britishcouncil.in/sites/default/files/indian_school_education_system_-_an_overview_1.pdf

The Indian Education system is expanding at a massive rate. Perhaps the most significant piece of legislation in enforcing this has been the 2009 Right to Education Act (effective from April 2010) the Act granted the right to free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of six to fourteen, ‘in a neighbourhood [local] school’. [1]

Between 1999 and 2009, the average spending on education by both rural and urban families in India has quadrupled their expenditure on food. [2] Meanwhile, if we look at India as a whole, the Indian allocation of existing spending on education surpasses that of China, Russia and Brazil, though they are closely followed by Indonesia.[3]

India accounts for almost 18% of the world’s total population, with 1.23 billion people (behind only China’s 1.35 billion). It is also one of the ‘youngest’ countries in the world, with a median age of 27 years [4]. This provides both great scope for opportunity, but also an increasing crisis – what can be done with such a large population, if education is not provided to a decent standard, and so the Indian students of today are not ready for the job market of tomorrow? With population growth showing no sign of slowing, the race continues to educate India’s youth.

I fit into all of this in Greater Noida, which, although technically part of the National Capital Region (NCR) actually belongs to the state of Uttar Pradesh, not Delhi. Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populated state, accounting for 16% of the total Indian population [5]. Uttar Pradesh experienced one of the highest jumps in state literacy rates between 2001 and 2011, with an increase of around 15% [6]. Closely following were the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar and Dadra and Nagar Haveli, which also saw a significant rise in literacy. A gender gap between male and female literacy rates remains, but this gap has declined considerably over the last decade, and is now below 20%. [7]

So where do I fit into this grand-scale?

Ok, so I don’t wake up every work-day morning and think of my role as some sort of educational mission (especially not with the colonial connotations of missionary) nor do I see myself as a symbol of knowledge in a place of ignorance (a.k.a, ‘white saviour complex’). Instead I just like to think that maybe some of the students I help know me as the funny little British lady who tries to make English lessons fun. I’m the ‘teacher ma’am’ not in a saree at school, who clutches her own water-bottle and cartoon animal pencil case tightly as she walks around school, looking slightly dazed.

Yet I am part of something bigger, and so is every slightly botched game of hangman, every failed attempt to teach ‘Old MacDonald had a farm’. I’m trying to show my students (the lucky few whose parents can afford to pay for their education from the age of three or four) something different and exciting, so that they engage with learning, enjoy their education, and want to share this privilege with others. It’s too much to ask that they’ll remember me specifically when they grow up (most of my students are only just five!) or that this experience will directly motivate them to enact change in their communities and society. But learning English will help a lot of my students reach university-level education in India at a good college, in about fifteen years, and there, these kind of ideas might be more accessible to them.

When I was having a bad day (and a pretty disastrous lesson) last week I was struck by a single sentence, uttered in Hindi and initially completely incomprehensible to me. A small boy who was normally called out for speaking in Hindi (not technically permitted in the school) and other bad behaviour, came up to me and asked me something. “Speak in English”, was my curt reply, but I turned to the class teacher to ask what he wanted. The student in question is the first in his family to attend school, and is from a local village. “He wants to know your name”, explained the class teacher. “He says that he wants to know your name so that he can tell his mother about you”.

References

[1] Indian School Education System, An Overview (2014) pg. 37. For more information see http://mhrd.gov.in/rte

[2] Ibid, pg. 32. Estimates from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) India.

[3] Ibid. Credit Suisse Emerging Market Consumer Survey (2011).

[4] Ibid, pg. 8.

[5] Ibid. See http://censusindia.gov.in/2011-prov-results/data_files/india/Final_PPT_2011_chapter3.pdf

[6] Ibid, pg. 9. Data from the Census of India 2011.

[7] Ibid. See http://populationcommission.nic.in/content/933_1_LiteracyRate.aspx

The best and worst of working abroad – some thoughts.

The Good

  1. You’ll actually be motivated to learn another language. Although I tried pretty hard to learn French in school, this has absolutely nothing on the determination that I’ve had, since being in India, to pick up Hindi words and phrases. Necessity is a massively motivating factor. Beyond the “I need to know how to ask for water” type stuff, there’s also the desire to understand a society which can only come with learning the language. For example, I teach in a lot of primary classes and was surprised by the prevalence of the name “Harsh”. In English, this word means severe or strict, like a “harsh punishment”. In Hindi however, Harsh means ‘glad’. Mind = blown.
  2. You *might* get the chance to travel (but see below on this as well). Travelling as a tourist can offer a lot, you’ll see the highlights of a place, you might have some of your travel arrangements sorted by your travel company, and you might be able to organise things through a hotel so that you can skip the queues at major attractions. Travelling whilst working obviously has the advantage of the fact that you’re earning money as you travel, and you don’t feel as though you’re constantly eating up your savings. Plus, travelling whilst working in a country might mean that you have access to more local knowledge, and so you can find places that those on the tourist-trail might miss out on.
  3. You’ll gain a new perspective (and often appreciation) of your ‘normal’ life at home. I don’t ever think that I really appreciated always having access to clean, hot water until I lived here. On a deeper level, I really didn’t understand how much liberty I had to be able to wander around the streets where I live alone,or to walk to the nearest shop unaccompanied to buy food.
  4. You’ll be immersed in a new culture.This is great because it really does show how relative most aspects of human life and society are. Gender roles, educational methods, family structures, these all vary so much by time and place. Things you thought were the norm are actually merely your norm.
  5. You’ll grow so much as a person as a result of the above.Not only do you have to learn to drop the whole “well, in MY country we do this…” attitude, but after coming away from your native country and culture, you’ll be in a much better position to assess your own strengths and weaknesses. Taking myself as an example – since working in India I’ve found that my resourcefulness can be boundless given the right conditions, but I need to work on my overall pessimistic outlook which can often lead me to presume the worst, or to think of problems which never materialise.

The Bad, and sometimes Ugly

  1. The food.So you thought that because you have Indian/Chinese/American food where you come from, it’d be roughly similar to what you’d find when living abroad. Nice springrolls, Chow Mein, Chicken Tikka Masala, maybe the odd Korma, or at least a McDonald’s cheeseburger if all else fails…wrong. The reason that this is a real issue when working vs. travelling/holiday-ing/tourist-ing is that if you’re working in a specific location you may be unlikely to have the time to really seek out food from your own country (probably only found in the nearest large multi-national supermarket or big city). You need to adjust to local food, but sometimes, having no choice over the meals in your work-provided accommodation or work canteen, can feel restrictive.
  2. Accommodation.Again, having work provide accommodation for you can bring its own problems. Work might be able to intervene if there are any problems, but it might not be exactly the kind of place that you were expecting.When I was told that I would be living in a ‘hostel’ with a shop and a gym I expected some sort of walled city, or miniature town in this compound. Instead, there’s really not a lot here, and most residents, including me, have to turn to their laptops for entertainment instead.
  3. The work ethic.This applies especially to Asia. Whereas I’m only contracted to work Mon-Fri, basically everyone else at my school works Saturdays too. Schools functions (PTMs, Sports Day, Annual Day) mean working weekends, even for me. I arrive at work by 7:50am and leave at around 3:15pm. However, that’s another arrangement which is tailor-made for me. The other staff must remain in the school until at least 3:30pm – an hour after school ends. There’s a 20 minute lunch break at school, but most teachers don’t sit down, or even eat during this time. They don’t sit together, or talk, and tend to either supervise their class eating in their classroom, or get on with yet more work. I’ve never seen anything like it.
  4. Adjusting expectations. When you signed up for this job you saw yourself becoming practically fluent in another language (well, near enough fluent, after about 6 months) and you’d have travelled all over the country, beyond the big landmarks. Yet when you arrive, you realise that everyone is going to insist on speaking to you in English, and you don’t have quite as much time or logistical ability to travel beyond the locality in which you’ve been allocated.
  5. Differing cultural norms. Cultural exchange is fun, right? Maybe, until you realise that in this country, people don’t say bye, they just walk away when they feel that your conversation is/ should be over. As for work, you’d better stand every time your boss enters or leaves the room, and ask for permission to sit down. You’re not in Europe anymore, so there’ll be no ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ when someone wants you to do something. You’re welcome.

Somehow though, all of the everyday annoyances are worth it. You empower yourself by overcoming the little challenges that you face everyday, and realise that some of the things that you saw as obstacles a month ago, just aren’t as formidable any more. You will learn some of the language, and see some new sights, even if they aren’t those that your Lonely Planet or Rough Guide recommended. You start building bridges around yourself instead of walls – you’ll change a little bit and so will those around you, as a result of having you there. After all, does it really matter that there’s no toilet paper, when you can use the same word for ‘tomorrow’ as ‘yesterday’, and buy a king-sized meal for under 50p?

Travelling, and the authenticity of experience.

This is just a quick post on something that’s been bothering me for a while.

Staying in backpacker hostels on my weekends has proved to be a great way to see new places and speak to travellers. Obviously, it’s very different for me, working in India rather than just travelling around, but I was starting to get annoyed at the way in which people just seemed to be ticking off places, and listing the ones that they’d already been to as some sort of superior achievement.

I’ve always preferred to be based in one place (e.g., Washington D.C, Beijing, Zhuhai, Greater Noida) and then explore the locality and a couple of special places (like NYC when I was in Washington D.C, or Hong Kong when I was in Guangdong). I can’t help feel that the quantity of the cities that you’ve visited in a country doesn’t mean that you know more about it, or that your experience has somehow been “fuller” or more comprehensive than someone who’s spending months in a country but doesn’t cover a large geographical area. Just my two cents.

I think another thing that had been bugging me in the back of my mind was that the placements that the other Teaching Assistants on my programme had were somehow better than mine. Obviously, everyone’s placements have their advantages and disadvantages, which is part of the beauty of the British Council’s programme, but I was really bothered by the fact that everyone else seemed to have been able to explore more places than me. They were either located closer to Delhi/ the metro, and so could travel around easier, or, they were in a pair/ living with a host family, which generally means that they can either make outings more easily, or be taken directly to places by their host families.

However, since then I’ve been thinking a lot about my experience in India and it’s authenticity. Was my experience any less real because I spent a lot of time in a provincial girls’ hostel? No, I had learned as much about Indian culture (and probably, a little more spoken Hindi) due to this. Did the fact that I hadn’t really travelled out of the state that I’d been placed in invalidate my experience? No. I’ve learnt so much about how Indians from U.P view other states and their history, even if I haven’t snapped the perfect photo of the blue roofs of Jodphur (which I’d still totally love to do…) What about the fact that some of the others had seen more sites of historical interest (e.g. Lodhi gardens, palaces in Jaipur and Udiaphur) and could discuss these with their Indian hosts? Again, I reached the conclusion that the things I had learnt about myself whilst living and working in Greater Noida, especially in a hostel where so many girls my own age live, had just as much value, even if they were less picturesque and Facebook-worthy.

I may not have been to as many bars, or scenic beauty spots, or house parties as some of the other people that I know or have met here, but I’m starting to accept that maybe that’s not me anyway. That’s not who I am when I travel, otherwise I’d have set off to Australia or Thailand, or road-tripping America, taking pictures at each landmark, partying, and moving on. It doesn’t matter that I spend most of my days here moving between two air-conditioned buildings (the school and my hostel), by the time I return home I will have learnt as much about contemporary India as any boastful gap-year teen or graduate, and understood much more.

Things you will and (probably) won’t need in India

What NOT to bring;

  1. Tight clothes/ formal western wear – unless you’re planning on seriously hitting the clubs in Delhi, or you’re heading to Goa. I brought a dress with me because it was knee length, and covered my chest, back and shoulders, in fact it’s long sleeved. However, the fact that it is quite tight (it’s made out of an elastic-type material) has made me realise that I can never wear it to work functions or British Council India events whilst I’m here.
  2. A waterproof raincoat – when it’s not the monsoon season! Though an umbrella might well double as a sunshade. I think for those arriving in India in July (depending on the geographical region) this might have been more useful. I haven’t opened mine once in the two months that I’ve been here.
  3. A long, formal dress – which doesn’t cover the shoulders or chest properly. This dress was suitably loose and flow-y, and it’s also floor length. Great! Nope. It’s strapless and so isn’t really modest enough, again, to wear to most events here, though obviously at a friend’s party, or just around the girls’ hostel where I live, it’s fine.
  4. Waterproof bags/ sacks(!) Ok, so I kind of convinced myself that there would come a time when all of my possessions might be soaked in an absolute monsoon deluge. Maybe I’d be travelling somewhere far away, outside for some reason. Or I’d be trekking over rivers and streams. So far, this hasn’t happened, and seems very unlikely to on my placement! Again, I guess this might depend on your specific plans, but my stuff has survived the monsoon fine in my hostel room, and most ordinary bags can hold out even in a monsoon downpour, as long as it’s only for a couple of minutes.
  5. Bags and packets of western medicine. Ok, so some of this is a good idea – like paracetamol. I’ve never taken ibuprofen, and I’m reluctant to try seeing as my mum can’t have it and I’m also asthmatic. Bringing some paracetamol was a life-saver when I was ill and didn’t want to negotiate the Indian brands of pain-killers, searching through ingredients labels etc. On the other hand, bringing loads of generic cold and flu relief type sachets has so far proven useless – especially as I’m place in a city with multiple pharmacies selling very similar, non-specific products. So if you want/need a particular medicine, bring it, but rest ashore that as long as you’re not heading into the middle of nowhere, you’ll be able to locate a chemist in the nearest town with many of the same type of products as in Europe/ America!
  6. Make-up. It’s around 34 degrees here today. Wearing anything other than a tiny bit of mascara (and absolutely necessary concealer for blemishes) seems pretty pointless – it will literally melt off your face as soon as you step outside. Vaseline is worth bringing though – or at least, it has been for me – the constant air con and temperature change between the inside and outside of buildings makes my lips crack.
  7. The national flag flies at Connaught Place, Delhi.
    The national flag flies at Connaught Place, Delhi.

Very quickly – things that you probably haven’t thought of, but ARE a good idea to bring;

  1. Vitamin, iron and protein supplements. Vitamin C because travelling wears you down; your tired and constantly on the move and coming into contact with so many new people and places (read: germs). Also, fruit and veg. rot quickly here and can be hard to come by – few people get their 5-a-day! Iron and protein because you might want to avoid meat entirely when you first arrive in India, to allow your body to adjust to the climate, and your digestive system to get used to some of the spices. Also because you’ll still be sussing out what’s safe. Dropping meat from my diet completely (the hostel I live in, and the school I work in, only serve vegetarian food) has often left me feeling lethargic and sleepy – probably because I haven’t found a decent substitute. Hint; taking vitamin B12 supplements will stop you being bitten by mosquitoes. The yeast in the tablets comes out through the pores in your skin and mosquitoes don’t like the smell (though humans can’t smell it, don’t worry!). Trust me on that last one – I’ve been doing it for years!
  2. A cheap pair of flip-flops. Not suitable for hiking or long-distance walking, but surprisingly good for exploring cities and urban area. Easy to wipe clean, soft to walk on, and flexible enough to absorb some of the shock of the rough ground that you’ll be walking on. I brought mine in Primark for £1, intending to use them for my wetroom in the hostel (which gets absolutely flooded every time I use the shower…) but I’ve worn them everywhere. They’ve lasted me over 2 months and I prefer them to the sneaker/canvas shoes I brought with me. They’ve even been to the Taj Mahal!
  3. Sunscreen. You can find it in airports and I’ve seen it in Delhi, but it’s ridiculously expensive because only tourists need it. Believe me though, even if you’re not heading to the beach, parts of India are so hot and sunny in September and October that you will need it!
  4. Postcards, pencils, keychains and fridge magnets of your home country. Sounds like a complete waste of space, but these are lightweight and make great presents for the people you’ll meet, especially if you’re staying in one place for a couple of weeks, or with a  host family. They’re authentic, and people really appreciate them as presents that will remind them of you when you’re gone, and as things that they legitimately can’t get in their country. Plus, if you’re moving abroad for 6 months or so, having the odd familiar postcard to look at in your room can be comforting 🙂