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Getting packed

6 July 2013

Tomorrow morning I leave for India, which means today I’m trying to tie as many loose threads–here/now and, in my imagination, there/then–as possible. I want to pack enough, but I want to travel light as well. In my nutty organizational system, I’ve created a pile on the floor of my office of sundry items, similar only in that I worry that I’d be lost in India without them (e.g., passport, travelers cheques, portable water purifier, resistance bands, a large bottle of Pepto Bismol, an unlocked cell phone, lesson plans and handouts, and books to read on the long plane flights).

As long as a tropical storm or hurricane doesn’t hit Florida while I’m away, everything should be relatively smooth here. My son had a chance to mow the lawn for the first time this morning, and we’re all hoping the romance of piloting a gas-powered engine continues for at least the next three weeks. My daughter is the designated technological communications specialist, a sort of Lt. Uhura in T-shirt and gym shorts, with an iPod that can Skype.

Many of the messages I’ve said or texted recently have included a caveat like “pending available wi-fi connections over the next three weeks.” For all I know, I could be off the grid entirely starting tomorrow.

I received two letters from students at the school I will be visiting. Both expressed interest in natural disasters and popular music specifically by African-Americans. It will be interesting to see how our images of each other’s country will be transformed by this visit.

I just finished reading India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking, by Anand Giridharadas, a gift from a graduate of the Class of 2013. I keep thinking about one of the last chapters describing two brothers’ families living in the same house in Punjab. The author travels there with an acquaintance who is the two brothers’ niece. One brother’s family lives downstairs, and one lives upstairs. Downstairs Chacha (Punjabi for father’s younger brother) does things traditionally, everybody gathers on the bed, where meals are eaten, stories are told, the television is always on (though not always listened to), fidelity to one’s own is demanded, and shame is constant threat. Upstairs Chacha is seeking to move up economically and live more in a modern way: each family member sleeps in a separate room behind a closed door. I couldn’t help thinking of Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty because many of the “hidden rules” she described as framing the behavior and choices of the poor seem similar to the assumptions held by Downstairs Chacha, while Upstairs Chacha seeks to transform toward the “hidden rules” and assumptions of the middle class, with its emphasis on individuality, achievement, and choice.

The more I think about it the more I recognize that one set of rules is not necessarily better than the other; in one sense the challenge of the 21st century–especially in postcolonial cultures–involves how to meld the two viewpoints into way that supports the benefits of modernization–comfort, choice, self-fulfillment, and indoor plumbing–without suffering its costs–isolation, fragmentation, materialism, mental illness, dissolution of the family, and what Milan Kundera called The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Or, to force another allusion, these postcolonial, postmodern times call for what the narrator of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children calls “the chutnification of history,” blending seemingly opposing flavors into a chutney of one’s own.

By the way, I have learned just enough Hindi to read–very, very slowly and deliberatly–the name of my host school in Hindi at the top of that website. OK, it’s not hard to figure out Kendriya Vidyalaya and Jorhat, but the stuff in the middle reads vayu sena (which according to an online translator means “air force”) and sthal (which means “site,” or I suppose in this case “station”). Aren’t you proud? There is a pretty cool series on how to write in Hindi letters (called Devanagari script) here.

Hindi, like many languages, does not have one of the problems we have in English: gender-specific pronouns for non-gender specific occasions. In other words, in English, it’s grammatically incorrect (or to use the current term of art, nonstandard) to say, “Each student must bring their book” (even though everybody says this). But it is politically incorrect to say the old standard, “Each student must bring his book” (still the standard in Associated Press style, by the way). The grammatical and political solution is “Each student must bring his or her book,” but, c’mon now, who wants to use all those syllables!? Anyway, here’s an academic who allows his students to write singular they, as long as they include a footnote in their papers explaining why. I just found it an interesting proposal.

Final random paragraph, from a response to a post on a U. S. Dept. of Ed. website from a Minnesota teacher: “We are caught between two worlds. Do we prepare our teachers for what teaching should be – deep study and inquiry; or what it is devolving into – testing and compliance?” From what I’ve read so far, this seems to be an international conundrum!

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From → India travel log

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