May 26, 2011
My 7-UP of Shame
I had a free day here in Mysore a couple of weeks back. All of our recruitment efforts for the study were done and we were just waiting to get some calls of interested participants. I went out with no particular destination in mind, as I heard this kind of roaming around in a new city (or country) is the best way to learn about the area and meet new people. After about 30 minutes, I came past a rickshaw driver and we exchanged looks and either he liked seeing a wandering foreigner that he could take around or he was just happy to see someone smiling back at him; whatever the case may have been, I gladly approached him and asked him if he could show me around Mysore. I was thrilled when he responded with very decent English and my memorable day officially began.
I’m still very disappointed in myself; after the first and only time he told me his name, I forgot very shortly after and never summed up the courage to ask him later. With our exchange of names and a look into his decal-clad rickshaw, we found we were both Muslim and got to talking a little bit about Muslim life in India, and he thought it would be cool to take me to some historical sites of Tippu Sultan, the last Muslim ruler in the area before the arrival of the British East India Company. My new friend served as my unofficial tour guide, and after about 15 kilometers (an absurd distance to travel in a rickshaw), we arrived at a burial ground for many members of Tippu Sultan’s family. There were several coffins adorned with colorful flowers and the whole site was very impressive. We continued to several other sites around the city, including an entire museum dedicated to Tippu Sultan. When he asked if I was interested in buying some silk or sandstone, two staple goods of the historic city, I gladly agreed and we started driving to one store he told me was particularly fond of.
As he had been doing on our previous stops, my friend/rickshaw driver/tour guide sacrificed other fares and parked the rickshaw to join me in the store, which has both beautiful silk cloths and an adjacent store filled with sandstone items with its own mini-factory. At this point I can’t remember if all the tips my friends and trip advisors gave me about shopping in India were shuffling through my head; what I can clearly remember is that none of those tips were put into practice, and very soon after I would wonder how I could possibly spend so much money.
The silk store was very nice and so were the merchants. They sat me down in front of a mattress they would stand, brought me a cold drink, and began showing me some amazing silk pieces that I wanted to get for my mother. My friend Eman, a Summer in South Asia fellow last June, wisely cautioned me to not show too much enthusiasm when I am presented with any goods, as this would tell the seller that I was overly-interested in buying the item, sacrificing any bargaining power I might have had (to be fair though, I think my bargaining power dropped as soon as they saw me). As I mentioned, this advice was not put into practice and I was beaming with every piece the merchant showed me. He of course assumed these smiles signaled a “yes” to the question of my interest in the item. He had stacked way too many pieces for me to take, and even after I pushed hard for him to cut the pile in half, I was still carrying too much. I bought several other things from the silk store, and when I was done, I handed my debit card with very little hesitation, partially arrogant with my dollar’s purchasing power and partially proud of my ‘bargain hunting.’ They actually had to split my bill in half because it was too large, so they swiped the card twice and my initial worries came but quickly left. The cashier kindly gestured me to the next shop, filled with sandstone items.
There were so many wonderful things here too and I had so many people to get gifts for, so I began plucking off small items like pens and lion figures assuming they would be relatively cheap, and again when I went to the cashier, I was fine with my slight splurge in spending since I took care of all of my gift-shopping. I went to the cashier and when the card wasn’t working, my worry officially set in. My card usually works even when there’s a slight overdraft, but this could only mean I had gone way too far. I was actually semi-relieved because I unabashedly gave them the false promise that I would come back another day perhaps and purchase the items, since I didn’t have cash with me. For some reason or another I told them I had enough cash to pay at the PHRI house to pay for the goods, and instead of trusting me to come back, they sent one of the young clerks in the rickshaw back to the house to get the money on the spot. After I had counted out the rest of my trip’s cash for the young fellow, I returned to my room and was glad my suffering could finally stop.
After a couple hours of working on my project, I logged onto my bank account to make sure there were no problems and my heart sank when I saw my statement showing a large number in parentheses that meant I overspent by a good amount. I didn’t spend THAT much money, I thought, and my clever, soon-to-be-proven silly detective skills pointed out that the card indeed did work on my final purchase and the store inadvertently asked for cash as well, doubling my purchase. I rushed downstairs to speak with the staff and to seek their help, and Dr. Reshma and Lakshman gladly skipped going home on time and accompanied me to the store to help me deal with the miscommunication. At the time, I really wished I could take a picture of the scene. To prove the mistake in the sale, the store managers kindly allowed me to log on to the computer with Internet access near the cashier to show them my bank account. They even brought me a 7-UP to sip while the computer was loading and I was logging in to my account. There were several people crowded around me at the computer, and I was worried that I would either upset these store workers who had helped me earlier or make a fool of myself. It took several minutes of shuffling through the bills and doing the Dollars-to-Rupees math to figure it out, but one smart worker finally discovered our (my) slip in thinking: the statement shown on my bank account was indeed a different purchase than the one I made in cash, I had simply confused the transactions since the amounts were only a few cents in difference. I went through everything I bought, added it up, converted it to dollars, and the clerk was indeed right. I had simply neglected one of the sales and, in hopes of minimizing my damages, tricked myself into thinking I was charged twice for a sale. Dr. Reshma and Lakshman were gladly explaining on my behalf the whole time before the discovery, but I grasped the whole ordeal very quickly and my heart sank even futher. I had dragged two of the PHRI staff from their families and wasted time of several of the workers so they could sort through my messy logic. I was embarrassed and began to get up from my stool but the workers insisted that I relax and enjoy the rest of my 7-UP. They overlooked all my insensitivity in asking them to explain themselves, and were persistent in asking me to relax and finish my drink. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what those last drops of 7-UP tasted like.
I gave myself a couple of weeks to write this blog because I knew anything I think to include in a post immediately would be extremely bitter. I definitely did not like India after contemplating how much I spent and how i got ripped off. My friends at PHRI estimated that I was charged probably four times as much than an Indian would have been charged, or at least have been to able to bargain for. But looking back now, I feel blessed for several reasons. First, my parents trusted me with enough money to cover for a mistake like this, and were only concerned with my safety as opposed to my bank statement. Second, the folks at PHRI were also very warm in reassuring me and showing me support. I was visibly distraught after the entire ordeal and they didn’t hesitate to pick me up. Looking back on how down I was makes me laugh because of how ridiculous it seems now, but I definitely appreciated their support at the time. There are about 25 staff members at PHRI, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I received about 10 different lectures about why I should ask that particular staff member to go with me when I go shopping and that I should have known better. Some were so concerned that the physical toll of shopping spree actually transferred to them; Siddhu, in his limited English, simply pointed to his head and said, “Tension, tension,” to say that he himself was upset and worried for me.
I have made a full recovery and am glad to say that I’m in love with India once again after our brief turmoil. If any other Summer in South Asia Fellows or future travelers to India are reading this, I wanted to quickly offer three suggestions based off my experience to append the advice you’ve gotten from Ms. Zilka Joseph, the Center for South Asian Studies, and other friends you may have spoken to, among other sources:
• The main thing is mindset: shopping in India or anywhere else for that matter is a means, not an end. Have a purpose for when you shop, because having an end goal that you want to reach through shopping will help you remember that you aren’t in the store so you can just say you bought stuff in India. What happens if you make shopping an end as opposed to a means? You will buy everything you like and will not be able to say no. If your purpose is to get gifts for several people, it becomes a cinch to say ‘no’ to that button down shirt, something I couldn’t do embarrassingly enough. Making shopping an end will make you buy that shirt and other equivalent items of better value available in the US that can be bought for the same price or cheaper, since your goal will be to shop in India. If you want to get gifts, write down all your names and just get that many items.
• Before you walk into the door of the store, leave your credit cards in your room and walk in only with the amount of cash that your budget would allow you to spend at that particular store. If you have the discipline to carry the credit cards and not spend them, that’s great. This approach may lead to you not being able to get all the things you want at once, but this will give you time to re-prioritize your goals for shopping (read above!) and check again just how much you have to spend. In terms of saving money, it is always better to spend on separate occasions than all at once.
• If at all possible, take someone you trust well with you to shop, especially for the more fancy stuff like silk. Even if you have some grasp of the language and are confident in your bargaining skills, the merchant will still be able to tell in a heartbeat that you’re a foreigner and most likely don’t know the true value of some goods anyways. There’s no shame in saying you know less than someone who’s lived somewhere his or her whole life when it comes to knowing how much something is worth. Note: this person you trust can’t just be some nice person you met on the street, except in very rare circumstances! Someone like that would see you once then leave, but the people you work with for example care the most about you and won’t get commission off of what you spend!
Sorry if this seems patronizing or redundant, I don’t mean for that. I do assume that everyone probably has better strategies (please share them!) but I really hope no one feels bitter for a couple days like I did. If anything, it’s just a reminder to be focused when you shop, lest you be generously offered a soft drink that you’ll have to drink with shame.
May 24, 2011
The First Days in India
Hello to all from Adampur, Punjba, INDIA! First, I would like to thank everyone involved in the Summer in South Asia fellowship, Zilka, Nancy, and most especially our kind donor who made this once in a lifetime experience possible. I never would have thought that my dream of going to India would be fulfilled, let alone while I was an undergraduate!
After two seven hour flights, one seven hour layover, a twelve hour wait in the Indira Gandhi Airport for a nine hour bumpy in a van, I arrived in Adampur. I am staying with interns who work for the NGO I'm also working with, EduCARE India. After a day or two adjusting to the immense heat here, I went to the office and began learning more about the organization. I will be helping with the Women's Empowerment programs and the Marginalized/Migrant Communities programs. These programs will help me conduct research on the affects of globalization on education in this part of India. It sounds like I will be moving to another village this coming week, one that is a little more rural. The NGO has several Centers, one in Adampur, Janauri, and another in Dosarka (where I will be moving).
Overall my adjustment to life in India has been fairly smooth although the first couple of days I was wondering what I got myself into! The heat is almost unbearable, it is so dusty, and I hate that I can only drink bottled water. However, because the people are so friendly, the food so delicious and the landscape and culture so intriguing, I stopped focusing on the intensity of the heat and tried to forget my cooler climate back home.
One of my first experiences with the friendliness of the Indian people was at customs in the airport. The men going over our visas offered Martha and I candy and although we initially refused, they insisted. I remembered that it is typically inappropriate in Indian culture to refuse gifts so we finally took some. Then while Martha and I waited in the airport for a van to take us from the airport to Jalandhar, Punjab, we started playing cards. A man who was waiting to pick someone up from their flight sat by us and starting talking with us about our card game and then we talked with him about what we were doing in India and about his own life in Delhi. Before we knew it, ten or so of his friends who were also there to pick up people from the airport, joined us and taught us a card game called Flash. It was basically a gambling game and as two American girls playing cards with ten or more older Indian men, we drew a lot of stares at the airport but it was a lot of fun. One of the men made me talk with a friend of his on the phone - bizarre, but funny.
Yesterday was my first official day working in EduCARES office (the only place I have internet connection) and after a day in the office and a delicious veggie burger for lunch, a group of us went out to the migrant camps. There are two camps in Adampur, one a snake charmer community and the other a “rag picker” community. Having worked with migrant farm-worker communities in the Michigan, I was excited to compare the differences and similarities between migrant camps and workers in Michigan and India. The camps here are relatively small (around 30 people but it seemed like it was less) and their homes very simple tent structures with tarps over the top. There is some weird competition between the two camps of people but I'm looking forward to working further with both, hopefully. So long as the snakes that the snake charmers keep in baskets on the ground don't escape...
Speaking of which, there are rattle snakes in the fields by our house. A little more threatening than the blue racers that I'm used to back in Michigan.
Well, that's it for now. Not too much to report yet! I have limited internet access so I may not be able to consistently post - that and I can't guarantee my posts will be very good quality because it is hard for me to concentrate in this heat. A final side note: I just had the most delicious meal of masalla dosa with a 7 Up. It is like a crepe filled with potato, onion, and some form of spices that you dip in other sauces. Delicious! I am loving the food.
May 19, 2011
The Research Begins
This opportunity to delve into independent research, in only its first few days, has proven to be very educational and rewarding. For one, I’ve quickly learned that you can probably never characterize a research project as ‘independent.’ I received tremendous support from Mr. Karl Krupp and Dr. Purnima Madhivanan while I was still preparing in the States, and as soon as I arrived in Mysore, an excited team of experts welcomed me and began guiding the beginnings of my project.
The process has been seemingly slow, it’s been one week and I do not have an ounce of data that I can use for analysis. Not to worry though, as this was yet another lesson I’ve learned in this pursuit of knowledge. The preparation is absolutely critical and though it can take quite some time, it has made any success from the research possible. A couple of days after I arrived, I flushed out my protocol and interview guide for the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and received approval nearly a month after my initial submission. We followed the approval with two pilot studies and further modified the interview guide, mostly to accommodate the slight language and vocabulary barrier. The working title for the research is “A descriptive study of attitudes regarding reproductive health and hygiene among youth in Mysore, India.” The method of data collection will be in-depth interviews with males between 18-25. I became interested in this research after my initial meetings with Mr. Krupp, one of the co-founders of PHRI. The research and subsequent relevant clinical work has focused exclusively on women’s reproductive health issues, and the amazing work established here earned Dr. Madhivanan, the other co-founder, an international leadership award for PHRI’s ability to address AIDS issues in the area. I thought it would be interesting to look at men’s issues, since issues relating to men, though similar in some ways to those of women, has not been studied extensively in the area, so I hope that my work can be formative and give concrete material that clinicians in Mysore can possibly learn from. Given sexual health issues are very taboo here, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that many issues are left unsaid for both men and women, so I hope even a fraction of the results we find are of use in shedding light on this important issue.
Recruitment is the first stage in this academic process, and I’m glad to see that we’ve made great strides in making contacts with possible participants for the study, especially given the fact that I am a foreign student with no relationships outside the walls of PHRI. Dr. Reshma Shaheen has played the crucial role of advisor and guide for the study and was extremely helpful with this portion of the project. We met with the Principal of one small degree college and even garnered the support of two department chairs at the largest university in the city. Everyone we have met with agreed to have us post flyers for the studies and were kind enough to offer their personal support in spreading the word. On our way out of one meeting, we met with a PhD student who said he would be able to get us 8 or more of his friends to participate, which is excellent given our relatively small desired participant pool. We exchanged numbers and I’m expecting a call from him soon to schedule our first batch of interviews!
May 13, 2011
May 12, 2011
The Journey Begins
I first want to thank the Center for South Asian Studies, the Summer in South Asia Fellowship Committee, Zilka Joseph, and most importantly the generous and forward-thinking donor for providing me this truly once in a lifetime opportunity to conduct research and learn in such an amazing country. It’s sure to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
It didn’t take me very long to make a couple of simple cultural blunders in India. When I landed in Bangalore, the helpful driver Kantharaj (who unfortunately had to wait an hour and a half for me at the airport) took me to the car where I proceeded to try and take the front seat on the right side, a double whammy because that’s actually the driver’s seat and he preferred I sit in the back because I would have more room there. We had a three-hour drive and I was dead tired by the time we finally got to the Public Health Research Institute (PHRI) at around 4 AM. Siddhu, who would soon become a very helpful friend, was awake and waiting to open the gate for us when we arrived. I was somewhat ashamed that these two hosts were already sacrificing so much, in this case a lot of sleep, on the very first day, but they didn’t once show any unwillingness to make me feel right at home.
The accommodations I have here are just about perfect. I am admittedly spoiled in many ways and this is evident in my always wanting ‘suitable’ living arrangements. I don’t think I could handle too many bugs or blistering heat, but at the same time I know a lot of my learning and personal development during this trip will come from stretching my comfort levels and forcing myself to try new things. So PHRI was perfect because I had a clean bathroom, filtered water, and reliable wifi (just got finished watching the Red Wings come back against the Sharks at 7 AM), but I still have the perfect opportunity to gain these experiences through the most important source, the people. It didn’t hurt either that the city layout, honking drivers and building layouts are very similar to that of Syria’s, a country I have been able to visit several times to see extended family. I’m generally very good at isolating myself and not opening up much when I don’t have to, so I’m curious to see how much I stretch myself given my very comfortable accommodations.
I’ve quickly learned one very important mindset held by most of the people here, a committed sense of duty. Yesterday afternoon on the way back from dinner at the nearby cafeteria, Siddhu rang the bell outside of the gate to call a member of his family to let us in. Siddhu is the full-time staff member at PHRI and he actually lives in the complex with his wife and young infant. His niece was inside and as she came to open the gate for us, I uttered my best attempt at a Kannada-English accent with a ‘tank-yoo,’ to which SIddhu told me describing his niece, “No English.” I thought this was curious because my handy phrasebook says that ‘tank-yoo’ is indeed the way to express gratitude in Kannada and it hit me (took long enough!) that such a phrase is obviously not canonized in the vocabulary in the Dravidian family of languages. Every time I say ‘tank-yoo’ (and I’ve had to say it so many times given how gracious my hosts are) I simply receive a nodding head bob and smile, but no ‘your welcome’ or it’s accented equivalent. The locals here by no stretch are lacking in courtesy by abstaining from using this simple vocabulary, but rather there’s simply no need for such phrases because in most cases no one feels they’re doing anyone any favors by being warm and friendly, it’s just the only way for them. Siddhu has literally made it his job to make sure everything has been perfect for me thus far and has left his family for lunch and dinner both days to ease the inevitable awkwardness that would result from walking into the hospital cafeteria by myself (I have yet to see another Caucasian or non-Indian for that matter thus far). And each time I try to tell him how grateful I am for his help, he simply nods and smiles like it’s no big deal. I can see myself going on and on with how it’s ‘no big deal,’ and how I would be ‘more than happy to help’ any foreign guest in the case they were visiting America for the first time and required some assistance. Not so much here in India. Siddhu has already taught me so much and I’m glad I’ve been able to learn the valuable lesson of lending a hand with sincerity and a sense of duty.
I’ve gotten plenty of rest and I’m definitely ready to get right to work. I’m writing as I sit outside with some toast and tea, and I’m finally going to meet Poornima Jay, the administrator here and the person I’ve been in contact with leading up to my trip. We’re going to meet about our initial steps in recruitment, hope everything starts off well!