The lessons of India.

I’m now back in the UK having finished my placement, and my time in India. It feels slightly surreal to be home after all these months, and saying goodbye was tougher than I had anticipated, but I think it’s worth reflecting on a couple of things before I close this blog, or get completely absorbed in Christmas here!

In India I was a teaching assistant, but through the experience, I learnt far more than I taught. For the first time in three years I was writing (this blog, my diaries, emails to friends and family) at least as much as I was reading. This was significant as I was constantly reflecting on everything that I did, and deliberately storing up events in my memory so that I could tell people all about it. At university, I had virtually no time for this, and simply read a pile of books and produced an essay or two per week, before moving on to the next assignment. Writing is great because it teaches us to be more articulate (this is why students who have trouble reading a language, or even people who don’t read books in their own language, have such a small vocabulary and sometimes find it harder to put their feelings into words). Not to mention the fact that the more I read over this blog, and my diaries, the more I learn about myself, and my perception of others.

India taught me to try and let go of expectations and prejudices about things that I wasn’t even aware that I held. The experience revealed some of the irrational things that I hold onto without even realising; why do I not want to put new shoes on the table, why am I surprised when students call me by my first name (“Nikita Ma’am”) and no one knows my surname. I enjoyed myself the most in the moments that I was able to let go of these inhibitions, and realise that the time and place we are in can define us as much as our upbringing, our traditions, and our native culture. I was able to overcome a lot of anxiety that I had in the first few months, and adjusted to my surroundings to the extent that even as I sit at home in my old childhood bedroom, I now feel oddly out of place.

Ultimately though, it is the people that make a place, and an experience. I started to feel at home in India, not because I became anywhere near fluent in Hindi, nor that I started eating spicy food for every meal (not at all!) but because I made connections with the people that I lived and worked with. As I became more familiar with them, I minded less that I was so far from home. People have so much to offer, as long as you take that initial step and start your first conversation with them, or tell them something interesting about your family, or where you live.

The world is yours as long as you are open to it, which means trusting people, and trusting yourself. The biggest personal lesson that I’ll take away from this experience is that it’s just not worth getting anxious in anticipation of things which might not even happen, or which will probably turn out to be far less of a problem than you had imagined! Trust that you can adapt to living virtually anywhere, without this underlying fear and nervousness holding you back, making you hide away from people and cut yourself off from the vibrancy of your new environment. Change is not a bad thing, and people are only strangers until you speak to them (obviously not advisable in all cases…).

Looking around at my HAPPY JOURNEY/ Merry Christmas cards made by some of the students at school, against a backdrop of wrapped presents and a lit Christmas tree in my conservatory, I am finally able to start appreciating everything that has happened over the past five months. It’s incredibly overwhelming and this blog could only ever capture a fraction of my entire experience. Even so, I hope that everyone has enjoyed reading it, and that those who were connected with me in India, can look back on parts of it and smile 🙂

Merry Christmas!

Nikita

 

 

Serendipity in a drawer.

As it’s my last week in India, I’ve been trying to take time to notice the little things. Like the fact that my room at the hostel has quite a stiff door, which has to be slammed shut, and so some of the paintwork has chipped off on the doorframe. It resembles the shape of a heart. A few nights ago, I was walking around the front of the hostel so that I could look more closely at some of the palm trees that grow there. You don’t really think about palm trees in the winter, or at least, I associate them with cartoons of Hawaii and Miami and clip art pictures for the search term “summer”. The palm trees had initials carved into their bases, and their smooth green trunks were partly covered by a thick brown layer which grew like a second skin from their base. I’m presuming that this is to keep them warm in the winter, but I couldn’t help but look at the places where this strange brown covering had been stretched, and had even come apart in places, worn away like fabric. I wondered whether it hurt, when it split like that, and whether a palm tree even registers pain according to our definition of it.

Something else came to my mind too, the contents of a set of drawers beneath my desk in the hostel. When I moved in, this room had clearly had a fairly long-term previous occupant. The door and walls were (and still are) decorated with multi-coloured streamers, and the walls were covered with home-made HAPPY BIRTHDAY MA’AM posters. I edited these, crossing out the words ‘birth’ and ‘Ma’am’ to produce motivational “Happy –DAY” prints. Most intriguing of all though was the contents of the desk drawers. To think that they could have contained anything, and yet they just happened to contain the very things which became for me symbols of my time at the hostel.

The drawers contained;

  • A plastic silver tiara (broken)
  • A bag of plastic white spoons
  • Rolls of coloured streamers
  • A glue-stick (half-used)
  • A roll of sellotape (barely-used)
  • A set of speakers labelled “030 Samiya Khan Lloyd”.

Admittedly the plastic tiara was almost immediately discarded. I considered donning it for a friend’s party here, but abandoned the idea when I realised that it was broken. It has spent the remainder of my time here perched on my mug-box, in the corner of my room, for some reason I clearly felt the subconscious need to display it. The bag of white spoons was slowly depleted, owing to the fact that technically we’re not supposed to take crockery or cutlery out of the Mess (canteen).

The roll of streamers have had many incarnations; I used them to cover words that I didn’t  like on the HAPPY BIRTHDAY MA’AM posters, I wrapped up cards and presents for various occasions in them, and I even used them in desperation to tie together the strings of a bag that was breaking. The glue stick served to assemble my scrapbook of my time here, and to seal the envelopes of cards brought for birthdays, an engagement and a 30th Wedding anniversary (turns out that you don’t lick them shut here…). As for the sellotape, it survives to this day and has largely superseded the duties of the glue stick now, as well as holding up the postcards of Oxford which I have stuck to my cupboards (visible from my bed). At one point, I even sellotaped shut my window in an effort to keep out the mosquitoes, until of course a pair of wasps got trapped inside my room and it all had to be hurried ripped off (with some amount of paintwork…) to release them.

Lastly, the speakers. I can only presume that they were perhaps confiscated from Samiya Khan of room 030 – as this is room 029, directly opposite that room. The reason I think that they were forcefully taken, rather than just left here accidentally, is the way in which the label on them is scrawled, hurriedly, and formally – room no. first, then the name of the girl, and lastly, the name of a popular local college – Lloyd. These are the basic details used to identify the residents of the hostel. If I’m correct about the previous occupant of this room being a warden, then this theory also fits. Needless to say, Samiya’s speakers have not yet been returned to her, but have instead enjoyed a new life with yours truly, internet connection permitting!

It was several days after moving in that I finally got round to properly exploring the drawers. Had I opened them earlier, would I have felt more immediately at ease here? Would I have in any way, been able to predict some of the experiences that I went on to have? Probably, in the first case, and probably not, in the second. Either way, in retrospect, the content of those drawers seems more than coincidental.

Yoshida Hiroshi, and India according to 20th century Japan

In the early 20th century a Japanese woodblock printer came to India, and produced a set of prints which are famous for their place in Japan’s shin hanga (“New Print”) movement, which aimed at returning to the more traditional style of ukiyo-e (浮世絵 “pictures of the floating world”) printing. This would see Japanese techniques combined with a “western” way of representing form.

A lifetime ago in Oxford, after finishing my exams in June, I visited a TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, which featured Yoshida’s Indian prints. It felt like fate. Like me, Yoshida travelled to the Taj Mahal, unlike me, he produced six different prints of it, deliberately depicting it during the day and night, at dusk and dawn. Like me, Yoshida also visited the Amber Fort in Jaipur, and saw the pink city gates, and another of his prints shows the entrance to the Jama Masjid – one of the first things that I saw in Delhi.

You can read lots more details about the life and career of the artist here, but this is not the place to copy out all of the notes of the exhibition. What interested me was that Yoshida’s life and career transgressed cultures and boundaries, he was born in 1876 at the time of the Meiji Emperor. He died in 1950, and would have known of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. His artistic career was varied, in that it doesn’t conform to the idea that Japanese art was becoming “westernised” during this time; in fact, Yoshida trained as a “western-style” painter in oils and watercolours, and only became interested in traditional-style woodblock printing when he was in his 40s. Perhaps this is why the prints were referred to as having a “quality reminiscent of watercolours”.

One sentence stood out to me at the time, enough for me to have noted it down, alongside various other scrawls which don’t make sense now; Yoshida was particularly fascinated with the quality of light that he found in India. I feel as though several of the photos that I’ve taken here have captured much the same thing.

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Maota garden, just outside the Amer Fort, Jaipur. 
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The interior of the Chaturbhuj Temple, Orchha. 

 

You can view all of Yoshida’s India prints here.

 

 

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?

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.