Sunday, September 23, 2012

Indian Trains; Pursuit of happiness

15:42, 23/9/2012

Howdy, folks!  I’m reporting from my homestay family’s new house in Jaipur, after having spent a week in the state of Uttarakhand learning about NGOs, speaking with rural villagers and jungle nomads, and relaxing for a day in Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world.  Additionally, I experienced not one, but two nights on the famous Indian sleeper trains.  The trains were old and a bit shabby, and had very little privacy.  The bunks are in pods of eight (two stacks of three on one side, and a stack of two across the center aisle.)  The odds of having a good night’s sleep are fairly slim: it is hard to hold fast to your dreams as passengers noisily come and go all through the night, until all remaining hope is at last lost at 5:30 in the morning when young men begin the breakfast parade down the aisles, yelling “Chai, coffee, chai!” is nasal voices.  Needless to say, it’s a blast.  Just like camping, the discomfort is part of the adventure!
In my last post, I promised to write about “academic” musings--  caste and class divides, economics and well-being, and my Independent Study Project.  So, here goes...
For some time now, I’ve wanted to help alleviate extreme hunger and poverty.  My thought is this: in our modern world, with all our capabilities in agriculture, health, medicine, et cetera, there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t have the things they need to survive-- for simplicity, we’ll say food, clean water, shelter, clothes, and basic medicines.  Furthermore, we ought to be able to provide these things without destroying the world’s precious ecosystems.  So it angers me that rich countries like the United States have built systems that allow them to exploit the natural resources of poor countries, ultimately leaving them with damaged environments and no way to improve their position in the global economy (i.e. If they had their own factories to manufacture their raw materials, they could provide jobs for the poor and reduce poverty in the long term; but since the raw materials are taken and processed in other countries, they’re sitting ducks.)  What’s worse, it’s all for the sake of manufacturing an endless supply of material goods that I believe don’t ultimately make us happy.  (This is admittedly a very simplistic explanation, but bear with me.)
I’ve made a habit of blaming the “neo-liberal global economy” for this mess.  But I’ve come to think that there are lots of ways we can change the existing system of producing and trading goods around the world that would cut out many “negative externalities,” to use economic terms.  There are many good things that have resulted from our “globalized” system of trade.  And besides, I don’t think there’s any chance of turning back to a world without international trade (if there ever was such a place.)  So, all we have to do is be clear about what we want from the system and tweak it accordingly with good policies, so that we can maximize human livelihood and well-being.
But there’s a catch: everyone has a different idea of what makes for a “good human livelihood and well-being.”  The conditions that make me happiest differ from the next guy; and when we make policies that value one group’s standards of well-being, we automatically devalue the values of another group.  If, for example, most people value a consistent supply of electricity, and we build more dams and mine more coal and oil to provide it, then we harm the well-being of indigenous peoples who live by the rivers and mountains and in the forests who are displaced in the process.  Unfortunately,one size does not fit all when it comes to happiness. (Some countries, like Norway, have come closer to a “one-size-fits-all” system for societal values.  But Norway, which was one fairly homogenous, has seen an enormous influx of immigrants from eastern Europe, Pakistan, and other places, and it has pressured the Welfare State to make exceptions for people who have different values of what makes happiness.)
If we can’t do perfect, we can certainly do better.  Lots of statistical indicators are used to evaluate different aspects of people’s well-being-- indicators like GDP, infant mortality rate, life expectancy, Body Mass Index, standard of living, you name it.  Some countries, like Bhutan, use a “Happiness Index,” which averages several indicators to evaluate people’s overall happiness in the country.  But ultimately, all of these reach the conundrum which is inherent to social sciences: you can’t quantify human behavior.  
For my independent study project, I’m interested in a certain facet of this problem: food!  Modern farming technologies have enabled India to create enough food to provide for its 1.2 billion people (although distribution is a problem.)  However, these modern systems of food production have tremendous impacts on the natural environment.  I’d like to evaluate how to reduce said impacts.  But I may need to narrow my focus-- agriculture is a huge sector, after all.  I may end up changing directions altogether.  But I’ll keep you posted!  
Here’s a thought to leave you with: what makes you happy?  I’m not just talking stuff, although they are a part of it-- what conditions, what circumstances?  And secondly, what impacts do those things have on nature, and on other people?  Don’t feel guilty of these impacts-- everything has an impact of some sort-- just be aware of what it is.

Monday, September 17, 2012

17/9/2012: Lots o' thoughts!

16:44, 17/9/2012

Wow, I’ve been off the radar for so long.  I need to jot down my memories while they’re still fresh!  Here’s a scatter-brained attempt to document what I’ve been up to and what’s been on my mind since I last wrote...

First, details about what’s going on now, and what’s coming up.  I just traveled through the night on an Indian sleeper train to the north Indian state of Uttarakhand, where my group and I will be learning about rural development NGOs in the state’s capital city of Dehradun.  After four days, we will have a few days of relaxation at the city of Rishikesh, an allegedly spiritual place near the Ganges river, and a Hindu pilgrimage hotspot.  (It’s also where the Beatles lived when they wrote sitar-infused songs like “Within You Without You,” one of my personal favorites.)  In other news, my host family is moving to a new house in Jaipur as I’m gone this week.  I got the news just a few days ago, but the short notice is absolutely no problem for me; on the contrary, I think it’s cool and sort of hilarious that I get to live in two different places during my semester in Jaipur!  Just to clarify, I’ll still be living with same family, just in a new house.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been getting into the swing of the regular academic schedule of my program.  There are eighteen students in my program-- sixteen girls and two guys.  They are passionate, smart people.  It’s pretty cool to be with a group who have so many interests in common (one benefit of a small study-abroad program with a specific academic focus!)  The faculty and staff are really great, too.  They are very interested in getting to know us, and they are also attentive to our well-being.  Yesterday, for example, my left eye had been hurting for the second day in a row, so I called the homestay coordinator.  Ten minutes later, one of the program staff was at my door, and told me he had arranged an eye appointment.  I was so grateful for how fast they came to the rescue!  (It turns out I do have an eye infection, some I’m using some eyedrops for the next week, and I should be good to go!)  

I wouldn’t be honestly recounting my experiences if I didn’t admit some frustrations.  One is the Indian “teaching style” I’ve encountered. Of our daily guest lecturers from Indian universities, several of them have lectured over the exact same things which they had assigned us to read the night before, rather than elaborating/expanding upon the assigned readings.  The standards of teacher-student interaction are much more formal than in the States, and as a result many of the teachers aren’t accustomed to allowing time for discussion, and often go over the two-hour time limit.  One teacher in particular, a peculiar old yoga teacher, had teaching habits that were difficult to tolerate: he spent two-and-a-half hours going over the written principles and doctrines of yoga in excruciating detail and repetition, made frequent and intense eye contact with the students, and reprimanded students when they seemed to be slightly inattentive.  He also took the license to tell people when they were, in fact, not relaxed enough to do a pose; and to criticize people’s bodies (once we finally got to the actual physical postures after reviewing the painfully long review of yogic scriptures.)  We cancelled the yoga sessions with him after the first two.

I’ve also gotten pretty sick of being singled out because I have white skin.  I cannot walk down a street without being approached by begging mothers and children, or by dozens of street vendors and shopkeepers who want to sell me worthless crap.  I’ve encountered people like this before-- this summer, when I was in Oslo, I encountered Romani beggars every day.  But in Norway, I was never singled out for my white skin, by which the beggars and vendors automatically label me a wealthy foreigner (which is true, at least relatively speaking.)  I really want to treat these people with dignity-- at least to look them in the eye or speak to them, but even a glance or a simple “no” makes them even more persistent.  In one sense, they are denying me of my dignity, by treating me like a cash machine. But I can’t blame them for treating me that way, can I?

In spite of a few frustrations (and a little homesickness for family, friends, and autumn in Decorah), I am having an awesome experience.  Actually, this isn’t really “in spite” of my frustrations: I think that each of them has been a source of “positive stress,” a cultural difference that has made me stronger and more open-minded.  I’ve really enjoyed the food-- lots of interesting vegetables stewed in butter, and eaten with rice and roti (which are like tortillas).  I had a blast at the Amber Fort, the City Palace, and around Jaipur with my friends (see pictures on Facebook!)  As I’ve said, my fellow students and the faculty and staff are awesome, and I have been learning a lot in my classes and readings.  And for my daily amusement, it’s been fun taking an auto-rickshaw to school along the bumpy roads and nearly getting into head-on collisions each day.   

Next time I have a chance, I’ll write about caste and class divides, economics and well-being and all the philosophical awesomeness I’ve been pondering regularly, and also about my Independent Study Project that I’m designing to do in November.  Until then, namaste!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

My host family; and thoughts on Western invasion

22:30, 5/9/2012

Greetings from Raja Park, a southeastern neighborhood of Jaipur, the 3-million-person capital city of the north Indian state of Rajasthan!  I have been living in the neighborhood since Saturday afternoon, when I moved in with the Mathur family-- my host-mom Manisha, a strong and spirited woman and a professor of public administration at a local girls’ college; my host-dad Shailendra, a mild-mannered businessman; their son Manu, a first-year student of computer engineering at a local university; and his brother Anu, a junior in high school, who plans to study mechanical engineering.  We live on a busy market street: the front door is easily missed in the messy collage of signs and storefronts and the display mannequins that leak out towards the cars, taxis, auto-rickshaws, and motorbikes which chaotically bustle along the road.
The house is small-- a family room, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a tiny kitchen, and a storeroom-- but it is comfortable, and well-suited for a very close family.  Even though they are all quite busy, each family member spends much of the day sitting together in the family room, where they talk, eat, and watch TV (Dad never misses his soap-opera, on weekdays at 8:00pm.)  The boys also sleep there-- they gave me the second bedroom to myself!  The family offers me privacy, but they don’t seem to need any from me or each other.  The parents’ bedroom is public space (we sometimes sit and eat on their bed) and they seem to tell everything with each other.  (Perhaps this is unfounded, though-- I can’t hear the content of their conversation in Hindi just yet!)  There are kind, hardworking, and hospitable people.  
In some ways, they fit the classic stereotypes of Indian culture: they are devout Hindus and vegetarians, and the parents had an arranged marriage.  And in many ways, the family embodies “the New India”-- that is, the trends of a growing educated middle class that has emerged in recent decades (which is by no means the experiences of all Indians, or even most.)  They live in a city.  They prefer to speak Hindi, but they are fluent in English.  They are highly educated, especially the woman of the house.  The boys are pursuing careers in engineering, a major sector in the emerging Indian economy (which has become increasingly capitalist since it liberalized in the 1990s.)  
But more striking to me (and to my partial dismay), they are in several ways highly influenced by “the West.”  The boys in particular are infatuated with iPhones, mTV, American films and music, and “western-style clothing.”  The older brother Manu dreams of moving to the States to work for Apple, and to bring his family with him.  He doesn’t listen to Hindi music, nor does he own a single piece of traditional Indian clothing.  His bedroom walls are covered with pictures of New York City architecture and the landscapes of northern Minnesota, and not just as a welcome to me.  Most startlingly, Anu showed me that he and his Hindu classmates recite the Lord’s Prayer every morning at school. The school is not Christian, nor are any of its students.
A weekend shopping trip confirmed that they are no anomaly.  I had envisioned buying Indian kurtas from a market vendor when I asked to go shopping for clothes, so I was slightly shocked when my family took me to a four-story shopping complex, and a large store full of familiar dress shirts, trousers, ties, shoes, plaid shirts, blue jeans, and all other “western” fashions.  I was attacked by cunning sales attendants offering discounted dress slacks as I marched toward the tiny “Ethnic Clothing” section in the far corner of the store. 
I can’t help but feel like many Indians are so infatuated with the “comforts of the West” that they have neglected the value of their own culture.  Much of what I’ve been reading for my courses so far has been about two separate-but-related topics of colonialism and “Orientalism” (essentially, the prevailing western perception of “The East” as a mystical, uncivilized, and societally-inferior land of snake-charmers and mystics.) I can’t help but believe that since the arrival of British colonizers centuries ago, Indians have been trained to believe that western clothes are more professional, that capitalism is the most wonderful method of trade, that English is the most valuable language, that American culture is the best.  Some would say that it is happened naturally, just like any other cultural blending throughout history (i.e. the arrivals of the Aryans, the Mughals, and other groups to India over the centuries.)  But I say it’s cultural hegemony, and that it’s a shame.  India, after all, has incredibly sophisticated traditional culture, including elegant languages and texts, mathematics, four major world religions, intricate music, incredible artwork and architecture... the list goes on.  I, for one, appreciate the simplicity of the “Eastern toilet”: it is more sanitary, and uses less water.  (I used one for the first time this week. though I’ll spare you the details, I am pleased to report it went well!)
I decided to study abroad in a developing country in the eastern hemisphere because I wanted to experience the diversity of the human experience-- to see how completely different some people’s lifestyles are from mine.  I can honestly say that less than two weeks in India has already done that.  Now my hope is that such cultural diversity is preserved-- that is does not fall victim to the influence of the West.