Meera naam – What’s in a name?

Indian Dream

 

Meera naam nikita hai

(मेरा नाम निकिता है)

It’s a simple enough start to any conversation, a polite way of introducing yourself. Had the above quote been said by an Indian woman, there would probably be little surprise, with Nikita being a relatively common name in India.

For that reason, when I say the aforementioned words, the reactions are more mixed. Is this blue-eyed, golden haired foreigner joking? Has she adopted an “Indian” name, because her own European name is too difficult for Indian people to pronounce? My friend at the hostel, Kyra, has found this issue particularly tiring, as her name is normally said like the name “Keira” or “Kira”, but here people always default to “Kie-rah”. The only way she has been able to get round this is by explaining that the correct pronunciation of her name is very similar to the Hindi word for cucumber – “kheera”. Cue a lot of laughter, as she not only attends Hospitality college here, but her surname, “Fikke”, bears resemblance to the Hindi word for “tasteless”, not a fantastic combination.

In that sense then I have been far luckier, more people here can spell my name correctly than in Britain (where extra hs, and es, or even the occasional additional k are added) and everyone can pronounce it. Kyra and I often laugh when we introduce ourselves to Indian people, as we pre-empt their reaction to each of our names.

The reaction of most Indian people to my name is the incredulous outburst “but that’s a Hindi name?”. They then usually insist on finding out how I got my name (especially important I guess because in traditional Indian culture, all names have literal meanings, and even the first letter of a child’s name might be deduced from the astrological calculations of a priest). My appearance normally rules out the idea of Indian heritage or ancestry, and people are quite disappointed by the reply “my parents just liked the name”. Names are virtually sacred here, so the idea that I might have just been given a name with a “nice sound” (or, in reality, from the 1993 French Film of the Year La Femme Nikita) seems unbelievable to a lot of people here. However, it does get people talking to me!

Our names inevitably change our travelling experience. Whether our name means something ridiculous in another culture, or is unheard of, or actually belongs to a culture that you are immediately judged to not be a part of. I haven’t bothered mentioning to people here that actually, Nikita is also a Russian boys’ name, and my name is also well known in eastern Europe – though as a masculine name.

Names are a crucial part of unlocking meaning in another culture. They represent not just changing tastes and fashions, but a lot about the more ancient heritage of a country. For example, when I tell people that my father’s name is “Paul”, those that have been given an education by Christian schools here respond “St. Paul!”. People then link the name with the Bible, and presume that my family must be quite religious, and that people in the UK are deliberately named for Biblical characters. Likewise, learning the meaning behind the Hindi names of my students has taught me a lot about Hinduism – “Manav”, named for the creator of the world, “Parvati” – one of the trinity of Hindu goddesses, alongside Lakshmi and Saraswati. Of course names can also be adopted for each gender, so “Lakshay” is a male derivative of Lakshmi.

For my own part, I like the fact that my name excites discussion wherever I am, in the UK it is seen as unusual, in eastern Europe it seems misplaced (as a female name) and in India it is a mystery – how did a European with seemingly no links to India end up with this name? Is it a sign of India’s increasing cultural capital in the world? Is it a colonial hang-over, another one of the things that the British stole from India? Regardless, it helps my own introduction to do exactly what any introduction should do – start a whole new conversation with a stranger.

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?

The pros & cons of (non-human) roommates

PROS

  • Even if we’re talking about spiders here, they eat mosquitoes and flies! (This point obviously then, does not apply to mosquitoes and flies, who also like to share my room.
  • Company when things get too quiet, esp. at night.
  • Like being in a live National Geographic documentary.
  • Don’t have to worry about leaving my possessions unguarded.
I've named this one Mr. Smiles. Yes, I genuinely believe (or like to) that it's the same one each time...
I’ve named this one Mr. Smiles. Yes, I genuinely believe (or like to) that it’s the same one each time…

CONS

  • They don’t contribute towards rent or cleaning duties.
  • Not good at sharing food. Or respecting the labels on mine.
  • My mentor is starting to get tired of my ‘animal stories’ as an excuse for being late to leave in the morning, once more I’ve “got a frog (or is it a baby toad?) under my bed” or “a gecko has got into a gap in the wall”.

So, overall they are an asset then. Which is good thing, because with my room being next to the ‘garden’ here, and with the summer drawing to a close, the non-human roommates just keep coming, and, as an outnumbered human occupant of this room, I don’t seem to have much choice 😛

Day #49 – yesterday.

“No King Cobra!” I said firmly, reprimanding a very disappointed group of boys. Luckily they were placated with some plastic Indian Air Force style toy helicopters being sold by a nearby vendour, and although these looked pretty lethal, a few test-flights on the bus home proved that they weren’t capable of much.

Today Yesterday (sorry, I’ve been working on this blog quite slowly for a while…) was my 49th day in India. I accompanied a Class III (aged 8/9?) class on a trip to Delhi where we saw Raj Ghat (memorial to Mahatma Gandhi) and the Red Fort.

Most memorable moments;

  1. [a Class III student speaking about me, talking to their normal class teacher, who doesn’t like junk food] “See, Nikita Ma’am is a good Ma’am, she eats whatever sweets I give her”. I’m always happy to help. Anything for the children really.
  2. [arriving at Raj Ghat, memorial to Gandhi]. Teacher, “Ok everyone, shoes off, out of respect. Just leave your shoes on the bus”. Me: “but there will be a closer place for me to leave my shoes right, like at a security gate or something? It’s just that there’s a car park and a road and stuff to cross…” Teacher, “It’s completely your choice…” *I attempt to leave the bus with my shoes on* Teacher, “Of course, Gandhi-ji is the father of this nation and -” I leave my shoes on the bus, and join the children desperately hoping around moving buses and along concrete walkways, whilst my soles turn to ash.

Highlight;

Seeing a snake-charmer with a king cobra just outside the gates of Raj Ghat. As the man played his pipe for a tourist, the snake rose up out of a little wicker basket, swaying, and revealing a white diamond- patch pattern on its black, funnel-shaped back. I almost walked into the road because I was actually quite mesmerized by the fact that there was a cobra in a public place, basically a tourist attraction. Some of the boys who were walking close to me watched it longingly, and leaned towards it like they did the soft drinks and toy stands.

Verdict; 10/10 Would definitely accompany again, sign me up for the next trip.