On Blenders and Social Justice

I am back in America now and it has been an exciting time to be in the USA. There was a nationwide ruling that all love is created equal (a step in the right direction, but we aren’t done), the 239th birthday of our independent nation (apparently some people were saying America is 2015 years old? Check yourself), and a team of breathtakingly talented women making history (for both women’s AND men’s soccer).

It has been a little over a week and I have been the biggest bum imaginable. But I’m getting out of bed for longer stints of time each day. Everything reminds me of India, even though I’m back to wearing little summer dresses and my mehandi is almost completely faded. To travel across the world in 20 hours and jump back into regular routines, it almost feels like it didn’t happen. If we still needed ships to cross oceans, maybe we would really appreciate the distance we have traveled.

DSC_1448I’m not in my childhood home any longer. My parents moved from Texas to Miami while I was away, so I came back to a new apartment and a lot of boxes. Everything is different, but a few things are familiar. Everyone speaks Spanish, which is fun and different, but it is still hot as hell. Even the mouthfuls of summer watermelon make me think of firing off slippery seeds between our fingers in the dining hall and eating peppery bites on the side of the road next to the fruit stands. Although life is different, I feel India resonating inside of me as I eat pastelitos de guayaba y queso instead of rice for breakfast and wake up to the sounds of the city and the water instead of the birds.

Then again, everything is always changing. I have been in a different place, with different people, for the past five Fourth of July’s. Last year I was waving an American flag at a barn dance in rural Virginia, the year before I was snuggling under blankets on a hill overlooking LA, the year before that watching fireworks over the National Mall from a DC high rise, and the year before that surrounded by cornfields in Minnesota. It took five years of searching through memories before I found a Fourth of July in Texas, the place I considered home. It feels like my year is missing. Everything has changed, but somehow suddenly I find myself at Bed Bath and Beyond looking at blenders – the exact same thing I was doing at this time two years ago when I moved to D.C. Funny.

DSC_1457It is good to be home in this beast of a land that I love. It has been a difficult year to be away, difficult to watch as certain injustices run rampant. Difficult to talk to the kids about my home. Their jaws dropped when I told them the American government had to shut down last year because parties wouldn’t work together. They don’t understand why any member of ‘the greatest democracy in the world’—democrat or republican—would disregard their position of privilege by trying to destroy a system and undermine a President so many in the world envy.

Their jaws dropped when I told them that twice in one week, an American grand jury decided not to indict a police officer for killing an unarmed black man. They don’t understand how a video of a non-violent man being taken down in a choke-hold is not enough for a court of law to produce a guilty verdict or why police officers look like SWAT teams.

DSC_1415Their jaws dropped when I told them that in the past two years there have been over 90 school shootings. They don’t understand why a government wouldn’t do everything in its power to curb gun use after the death of even one child. In response to a trail of discussions that started with the NRA and, after going through lobbying and the GOP and Congressional approval ratings, ended with gerrymandering, one of the 11th grade boys said, “Well, that doesn’t seem like a very good system.” Again, funny.

Their jaws dropped when they learned that America – much like India – can be an unsafe place for women to walk alone at night. Or in the middle of the day. Or on their college campuses.

Their jaws dropped when we discussed President Obama’s Executive Order on immigration and the reality that children could have previously been left parent-less when immigration police picked up and deported their parents – who have lived peacefully in America for over 15 years – after dropping their kids off at school.

DSC_1493Living on the other side of the world has made me realize how much I love America, how much I believe in America. But this realization only made it more painful to watch from behind my computer screen as things unfolded. I have the privilege of saying that I love my country, but am angry with my government and its institutional arms. I can be frustrated, heart broken, and enraged. But I am not scared and I will never understand what it is like to fear the institutions that are sworn to protect and represent me.

I hope that as a teacher I can help shape the opinions of future leaders and citizens. The mission of Shanti Bhavan is to break each student out of the cycle of poverty in the hopes that they will return to their communities and carry others with them. This past year I have been confronted with the realities of countless people who cannot breathe under the giant turning wheel of poverty and discrimination. They are swept up in its mechanisms and unable to break free, crushed beneath harsh economic realities and a system of self-actualizing social expectations.

DSC_1420I find comfort in the thought that the kids who inspired me daily might be future leaders of India and that children in America are growing up to be more socially tolerant and aware than their parents. I find comfort knowing that there are honorable men and women in blue that have dedicated their lives to the safety of everyone on American streets. They deserve our encouragement and our faith along with scrutiny, not the same blind stereotypical hatred that is the root of all of these evils. I find comfort in the message that men and women are standing together for gender equality and the human dignity of all people who are American citizens or have been living in the United States long enough to be considered as such.

But there are structural systems in place—systems that view military grade weapons as acceptable accessories for local police forces and any citizen who can pass a 1-hour background check; systems that see dark skin as an indicator of delinquency; systems that would tear apart families because the random lottery of birth dictates that some parents without papers live in a different country than their children; systems that that tell women that their rights end at the hem of their skirts and that tell little boys that they must ‘man up’ to live up to the expectations society has of them.

DSC_1451Everywhere I turn there are waves—waves of protest against the perpetrators of these systems and waves to counter the protestors. No one is protesting in the right way, some protests are counterproductive to their causes, some are breaking barriers and creating allies and some are mocked because the protestors did not walk the line of intersectional oppression carefully enough. But it is a start. It is confusing and overwhelming and uncomfortable, but that is the point. If you are not ready to say something, then listen. If you are ready to speak, then speak carefully. If all you can do right now is write on a blog that only your parents read and explain to children half way around the world that they have the power and the obligation to change the future, then do it.

After all, children are the future and I am so excited to start working for one of the most successful and innovative charter schools in the country. In a few short weeks I am moving to Boston to work as a 5th grade English tutor with Match Education and I cannot wait! No more time in bed. Time to buy another blender and get to work.

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On Parenting

There is a game my sister and I used to play with our dad called ‘can’t get up’. We would lie down in his lap as he tickled us and then – when we couldn’t breathe from laughing – he would pretend to release us. As soon as we were about to jump off his lap he would pull us back down and say, ‘Oh no I’m just kidding you can’t get up!’ We would play for hours, never knowing whether it would only be a few seconds before he pulled us back down or if he would let us crawl all the way off his lap and try to run away before dragging us back to be tickled. Each time we knew we were never actually free, but it delighted and surprised us every single time. The kids have been back for a few weeks now, but some of the students stayed behind for the summer holidays for various reasons. So I spent most of my time during the day with Kiruba, a previoulsy-shy-but-now-won’t-stop-talking-first-grader. She hopped up onto my lap at the end of lunch one day and I decided to see if ‘can’t get up’ is a universally loved game. Turns out it is. At first she had no idea why I kept telling her she could get off my lap and then immediately pull her back, but she caught on quickly and soon would jump back into my lap and say ‘Again can’t get up!’.

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I don’t always know how to describe my job to people. The easiest thing to say is that I teach at a school in India, but this is inadequate because a) I mostly do administrative things and actually really miss teaching and b) you are more than a teacher when you work at a boarding school. You are around the kids 24/7 and, especially if you have been there for a long time, they come to you for more than help with schoolwork. You become their role models, their mentors, and – essentially – their fill-in parents. You teach them math and conduct spelling bees, but you also bandage their wounds, dry their tears, and remind them to say please when they ask to borrow something. Today – on father’s day – I think about my parents and the things I’ve learned from my year with 300 children.

Things I’ve Observed About Parenting

DSC_0642     You never get to pick music anymore. I remember dictating the radio stations and CDs we always listened to while driving in pre-license times and never thought much of it. But I know now – as soon as you put on a song YOU like (especially if it is from a previous decade), someone will ask to change it to something else within 20 seconds. And usually that something else is One Direction. Also, hunger doesn’t disappear – you just think that someone else’s hunger is more important. “No, I don’t want the last Oreo” is what you say but really all you want is another Oreo. And when you go out for the day you immediately start asking yourself important logistical questions. Do I have band-aids? When will we stop for bathroom breaks? What snacks do I have in case anyone gets hungry?DSC_0666   You must drop everything and come when called. And usually you get called as soon as you sit down. Or lie down to take a nap. Or in the early hours of the morning on Sunday when no one besides you thinks that you should be sleeping. Moodiness is a thing, but often it has nothing to do with you. Kids (and especially teenagers) have a lot of hormones and you can’t take grumpiness personally. That said, they will sometimes get mad at you and there is nothing you can do about it. They will also make fun of you and say that you are strange and old, but you will never be more unconditionally loved or admired. Every move you make is watched and modeled and your opinion means the world. One time after a reasonably lengthy ‘I’m disappointed in you’ speech, the kids came up to me a few hours later with crestfallen faces. They wanted to know if I thought they were bad kids and what they could do to make it up to me (side note: keeping a strict face is almost impossible when this happens). Also, you will get angry and it is ok. Shouting is almost never the answer, but it happens too sometimes so don’t beat yourself up.DSC_0686    Handwritten notes mean more than any other gift. But you also learn to gasp in surprise when given a leaf. An old pen. A rock. A drawing that is supposed to be you but mostly looks like DNA. You take too many pictures of them and suddenly don’t care if you are in the pictures or not. We had a game day with flour, balloons, and more towards the end of spring semester and after an hour + of taking pictures of their fun, I realized I neither cared that I was not participating in the fun nor that I was not in any of the pictures. The only thing that mattered was capturing their happiness. It wasn’t until the kids insisted that I be in a few did I hand over my camera. Most of the pictures from childhood vacations are of my mom, my sister, and me. Dad always took the pictures and now I understand why. DSC_0701   You also write down all of the funny things that they say – most recently, this color commentary on West Side Story by the 10th graders.

“Is this music?” – During the musical interlude at the beginning. She meant, “Is the whole thing just music?” but that’s not as funny.

“Where is this?” “Massachusetts.” – As New York City fades onto the screen.

“Oh they’re snapping.”

“I want to be the one in the stripes.”

“Now they’re skipping.”

“They’re snapping again.”

“Tony is so much taller than Maria.”

And when Tony and Maria kiss at the dance – “Wait, what about her boyfriend, Nicho?” “Its Chino, you idiot.”

Side note: you also scold them when they speak unkindly to one another.

DSC_0716   As much as you need time alone, you miss them after just one day of not being with them. You want to protect them from everything – whether it is heartbreak, bad test scores, or the campus security dogs that decide to ambush you as you walk across campus (there was a lot of screaming, bruise-inducing grips, and being used a human shield). And when you can’t solve their problems or fix their sadness – your presence, your hand, your kind words and even your body become a source of comfort (and suddenly all those squishy parts you once wanted to turn into muscle don’t matter anymore because you realize your body is soft and warm and perfect for hugging and absorbing tears). Your fingers also seem to stretch as a result of being held by five little hands at once all the time. DSC_0746You learn to celebrate different levels of accomplishment with equal levels of enthusiasm. You learned the difference between a square and a rectangle!? Cheers! You graduated from high school and got into college!? Hooray! Speaking of which, suddenly seeing the twelfth graders dance their final waltz on stage and then drive away to college….I knew it would be emotional but I didn’t expect it to hit so hard because I never thought I could love 300 kids so much. Not only do you love them more than you thought possible – you LIKE them and love discovering what cool people they are. Their quirks, talents, acts of kindness. You beam when you see what awesome people they are becoming and hope that maybe, maybe you had a little bit to do with it. I have only been in their lives for one year so I can’t take credit, but they have certainly changed me forever.

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As it is father’s day (and mother’s day was not too long ago), I want to say thank you to my parents. You have raised two level-headed, independent, and joyful women. And a special thanks to my dad for taking the time to play ‘can’t get up’ over and over and over again. I never knew how much patience and love went into such a simple game. We won’t really appreciate all that you have done for us until we have kids of our own, but I think I understand a little bit better now. DSC_0772img_4784

The Human Experience

“Is there a disease, Ms. D” one of the middle school girls asked me, “where sometimes you are sad for no reason?” I laughed and said, “Yes. It’s called ‘ being human’”. Sometimes I see this girl – a girl who practices her sarcasm with me because she wants to be wittier and knows I will never fault her for being a beat too slow – and I say, “You know, today I have the human disease.” We comfort one another and we laugh. I’ve thought about that a lot in my almost-year here: being human. I think about the things that I have in common with the people around me and the things that I will never understand about their lives. I think about identity and belonging and ‘home’. I think about what it means to be happy. Whether I am happy. Whether that matters. Whether instead – I feel whole.

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Towards the end of school I showed the kids my favorite documentary – The Human Experience. It is about two brothers, Jeff and Cliff Azize, who travel the world and live with people who are suffering: homeless people in New York, orphan children in Peru who have been abandoned by their families due to severe illnesses or physical handicaps, and people living with AIDS and leprosy in Ghana. They want to know why people who live with profound suffering bother getting up every day. What makes them keep going? What is the purpose of life? In a world full of violence, when did we forget what it means to be human? Along the way they find more questions and some answers about what connects us all. It has been my favorite documentary for years and I knew I had to show it to Shanti Bhavan kids.

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Initially they were skeptical – why should we spend our movie night watching this sad, philosophical documentary instead of an action movie? But soon they were hooked – drawn in by the vulnerability and honesty of those portrayed and blown away by the conditions in which other people around the world live – even though some of the situations are not very different from their own home lives. Many came up to me for weeks afterwards to say how much they had been thinking about the film. How it made them sad to see aspects of their own country reflected in the suffering depicted. But it also made them feel connected to those people – the ones who were suffering like they were – and feel crippling compassion for the ones whose suffering was greater than theirs. Just like it does for me every time I watch it, the film put many things into perspective for them. It reminded me of when, just a few months before, some of the SB kids got to take part in a documentary where they shared their own stories.

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In January some filmmakers from the BBC came to Shanti Bhavan because they were making an educational film about India and in order to better reach their target audience – middle and high school students – they wanted to shoot the film from the point of view of three British kids discovering India through the eyes of Indian ones. And they chose Shanti Bhavan kids to be the ambassadors. So we watched – excited and amused – as a group of thirteen year olds attempted to bridge cultural boundaries in a way that screamed ‘diplomatic summit meets middle school dance’. That was day one. Day two was quite different.

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DSC_0504The filmmaker, Dom, told me he wanted to break the illusion the children had so far of ‘happy poor’. Meaning, in every village they had visited, the people had nothing but they were happy. The children were laughing, dancing, and playing and the parents smiled, contented. The kids, Dom said, were convinced that this reality – the reality of ‘happy poor’ – was how all poor people lived in India. Materially, they may have nothing, but they are still happy. “It is a lovely image,” he said, “but it isn’t real.” And he wanted the kids to know that.

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Five minutes into the first conversation between a UK student and SB kid, the idea of ‘happy poor’ was shattered with alcoholism, suicide, sickness, murder, and despair. The first Shanti Bhavan girl to be interviewed came up to me immediately afterwards – the cameraman’s tears told me to stay away if I wanted to keep my eyes dry – and gave me a guilty look. “Ms. D,” she said, “I made her cry.” She shed a few tears herself after reliving her past, but did so with a sense of distance. She has lived with her suffering for so long that it has simply become a part of her that she copes with because she has to. I went to console the next one but found her clear eyed. “Ms. D, I feel so bad for that girl (referring to the British girl). She told me her story and so much has happened to her and her family. God, I feel so bad for her.” That one hit me harder than tears. These kids, ones who have lost so much, have more empathy than anyone that I’ve met. Maybe it is because they’ve lost so much – or learned to live with never having very much to begin with – that they can be so compassionate.

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They have taught me to piece together the little moments. A week before the end of school in the middle of a storm (the kids call them ‘mango rains’ – pre-monsoon rains that help ripen up the mangos) I was stuck in my office doing work when the power went out. A 12th grade girl came into my office shortly after and asked to sit with me. We decided, stuck in the dark, to color. As soon as I suggested it she squealed with delight, cleared off my papers, took all of the colored pencils and markers and poured them all over my desk. “Ok Ms. D, we each get one piece of paper and the rule is that we are not allowed to look for a particular color. You just have to grab one and keep going. Its not about being beautiful, its about being crazy.” We talked about college and about nothing. We listened to music and sat in silence. But without warning, every so often, she burst out in uncontrollable laughter. “Ms. D! Life is just so great and exciting. This is my favorite moment, right now. Coloring in the dark, listening to the rain, listening to music….you know what? I think the key to all of the best moments in life are friends, music, and food.” Without a word, I pulled a bag of biscuits out of my drawer and smiled. We now had the missing piece. Slowly her lips twitched and her knowing smile spread across her face and throughout her entire body until she shouted, “I just love being human!”

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DSC_0344I’m no stranger to the uncontrollable swell of emotion. Sometimes it is just enthusiasm, but sometimes it is something more. A moment when you feel completely at peace and your happiness is too great to be contained. One night we were told to go out to the lawn after dinner. I wasn’t sure why, but I didn’t question it. We gathered in groups and someone started passing out floating lanterns, courtesy of our visiting Italian dentists. A chorus of screams and giggles erupted and I was probably the loudest of all of them. I felt like a child – jumping, laughing, hugging everyone I could find, swinging the little kids around in my arms, ignoring the ache in my neck from looking up at the sky in wonder…watching as the lanterns climbed to the stars.

It is about these little things. Sitting in a sweaty one-room print shop for three hours while the color printer slowly inches out the pen pal letters a teacher in North Carolina sent you. And laughing over deep fried honey treats when one of the letters addressed to a student named Jayanthi says, “Are you a boy or a girl?” And then, after saying goodbye to the print shop keeper – a woman I make bashful every time I wave to her on the bus – you stop to eat watermelon coated in pepper at the request of a woman who owns the fruit stand across the street. Choking through slippery peppery smiles, we can’t help but laugh because when will this ever happen again?

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It is when I find myself zorbing for the first time in India, strapped into a giant plastic ball with one of the school aunties, a young woman named Jaya who speaks enough English to tell me she had a very nice day. I already knew that though because you don’t need to translate laughter. It is when the kids see me lying awkwardly on my arm every Sunday for movie night and then one of the girls shows up one weekend with a pillow in her lap, ready for me to rest my head. It is about how I started writing this in a closet sized room after traveling for three and a half hours to buy a new laptop charger and tried to finish it weeks later on a train, looking back and forth between the words on my computer and the images outside: women in every color of sari washing clothes, goat-herders wrangling their flock, and vast expanses of empty land that ironically reminded me of Texas. But then I couldn’t finish writing it because I became best buddies with the two little girls sitting next to me so all I heard for 35 hours was “Auntie, look!” as I gasped in amazement at whatever trick they were doing. And then how I meant to finish it when I arrived in Dharamsala, but then got sick my second day and thought it was food poisoning but then it turns out that I had a parasite AND a stomach infection (double whammy, India) so most of my time in that beautiful city was spent in bed or hunched over squat toilets.

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So now I am in Malaysia. My stomach is healing and the internet is finally fast enough to upload the pictures I refused to publish this without. This one month vacation has had its series of ups and downs (namely – going from throwing up on the porch of a monastery to drinking coconuts on the beach), but it is all part of the experience. You laugh, you cry, you grow, you appreciate. To console me in my lowest points of sickness, friends from afar emailed me with their most gruesome travel stories and my friends close by sat with me to pat my back, hold my hair, and make me smile. My family – worlds away on opposite sides of the globe – never once let me feel alone and Meg, my Malaysian host and sister, pampered me with FRIENDS marathons and ice cream. And tomorrow I go back to India where in two weeks I will see the beautiful, exquisitely and tragically human young men and women I have been blessed to know for the past year graduate from high school. Soon they will walk across a stage and, though campus will be dimmer without them there, they will give their light to the world. I was told that graduation is a week where everyone is together all day to dance and eat mangoes which sounds perfect. After all, a wise soul once told me that the ingredients for life’s best moments are friends, music, and food. It is truly all I want – to joyfully celebrate life, the one thing we all have in common.  It is all we need and all we have and all we can do to always marvel at what The Human Experience calls:

the breathtaking reality of a new, unrepeatable, unprecedented adventure of a human life.

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On Saris, Dance, and Cultural Appropriation

One thing that surprised the children about me when first I arrived in India was that I knew some Hindi songs. Granted–I didn’t know the words–but the fact that I–an American–was aware of a few of the songs they loved and loved them too, was mind-blowing. A few days ago one of the second grade girls asked me if I could nod my head the way Indians do–from side to side for yes, instead of up and down. The movement seemed so strange to me when I first arrived, but now I do it without thinking. The girls dressed me up for Diwali, adorning me with bangles and henna while wrapping my sari and telling me every single detail about their festivals (all while poking my stomach and saying ‘so white these American bellies!’). And a few days ago we celebrated Holi, a festival I knew nothing about other than that it involved lots of colors. So many colors – on my clothes, in my hair, and up my nose – that I sneezed the next morning and it was purple. DSC_0867     The kids simultaneously make fun of me and love it when I adapt to anything from their culture: the Indian way of nodding, certain phrases, clothing, dance. But what does it mean for me–a ‘westerner’–to adopt these customs? Shanti Bhavan does not use the word ‘foreigner’, believing that we are all global citizens and everyone here is family. But I am foreign. I will leave this place eventually and, when I do, can I bring my kurtas with me? Some here may find it respectful (or, at the very least, humorous) when I dress and behave a certain way, but would it be considered offensive or inappropriate if I brought those things home? Do I have any special claim to these customs because I will have lived here for a year before going back to the states? What if my skin were a different color? What if I had Indian ancestors? Colors I thought about writing a post like this a very long time ago, when I first started listening to Hindi songs. About a year ago,  an extremely talented girl who worked on the floor below me at Carnegie asked if I would be interested in learning Bollywood dance. I immediately said yes, imagining myself and my co-workers spontaneously breaking into the dance routine at the end of Slumdog Millionare (because that was the closest Bollywood reference I had). I went and, lo and behold, it took me all of five minutes to fall in love with the energy, the instant camaraderie among our small group, and the joy of learning something new. The actual name of the type of dance we were doing is “garba” and it originates from the state Gujarat, traditionally performed during the Hindu festival Navratri. Dancers dress in traditional costume and concentrically circumambulate a lamp or a murti (physical representation) of the Goddess Durga. The entire process is symbolic of life—the lamp or Durga representing gestation/birth/the giving of life and the circles signifying the cyclical passage of time. JMR_1987 This class was one of the highlights of my week (and by “class” I mean a group of 4-8 girls–and occasionally a dude–who gathered together to bounce around in an empty conference room after work). Now, while I love dancing, I never said I was good at it. Sure I have a basic sense of rhythm and have been told that my hips move in a very “Cuban” way, but coordinating rapid, sharp movements and doing it in a way such that it appears effortless, is not natural to me. But a handful of times in the past 7 months, I have found myself on stage in front of 300 students, dancing away. The kids said I did all right, but they are incredibly polite. The most accurate way I can think to describe the way I must have looked  is something like a cross between a robot and velociraptor with a really big smile. DSC_0873 Does the meaning behind these dance forms erode once adopted by those who are unaware of its significance? I experienced something similar when I went to a place called Corepower Yoga near my house in D.C. Now, I am by no means a ‘yoga purist’. I do it every once in awhile when I am in the mood for it, but yoga has never been something I have been able to get that into. The first time I went we listened to Disney music the whole class (which was awesome–honestly the first time I’ve come the closest to feeling any kind of union between my body and mind in a yoga class was when we listened to Circle of Life) and the next time I went to a high level class that involved weights and dub-step. Purist or not….it is hard to think that you could ever call something yoga if you do it to dubstep. DSC_0952 What about things like zumba? Or my beloved Tex-Mex? What does it mean for something to be culturally appropriated (…she types as she stares at the picture of the volunteers covered in colors, posing like Charlie’s Angels per the childrens’ request)? Religious customs, art forms, languages, dress, music, food…all are things we consider part of our “culture”, yet most things that we may consider unique, original, or inherent to “us” came from somewhere else, whether they journeyed across vast steppes on the back of a horse, across oceans in the hull of a ship, or through the tubes of the internet. These things (I can’t think of a better word to describe such broad, elusive concepts) have intermarried, adopted, adapted, and transformed….turning into something new while leaving trace elements behind. DSC_0914 It is not controversial to say that while participating in customs that are not your own, you should do what you can to fit in, to understand. While taking a class called ‘Religions of South Asia’ in college, we visited a few temples and gurdwaras. I covered my hair and removed my shoes when told. I sat, stood, spoke, and moved when told. I took food with my right hand and circled clockwise around sacred shrines. But what about events that are less obvious in their cultural association like color runs? Can I run around while being doused with colored water and powder without second thought just because I was invited to participate by Indians? Does that make my belonging any more authentic? It certainly didn’t stop me from feeling sheepish when the man I bought the packets of color from gave me a quizzical look and said, “So what are you going to do with those? Play with them?” DSC_0945 One of the volunteers was born in Ohio, but has family in Pune and has been visiting India in small spurts for most of his life. Still, at this point, I have spent as much time – if not more- in India than he has. Does that mean I have equal claim to this culture? My mother was born in Cuba, but I have never been. My father’s ancestry and my surname (Smogard – once spelled Smaagaard) are Norwegian, but I have never been. I eat plantains and lefse, but can’t cook them any better than I can make masala dosa. Last night I started reading a book by a Pakistani man who has spent the majority of his life in London and New York, but even though he felt a distinct belonging to each place, Pakistan was home. Can only those with roots to a certain place- however many generations removed those roots may be- carry cultural traditions with them? I have never felt more American than I have this past year – oh the nostalgia and perspective distance brings – and yet I also feel quite borderless. The other day we were discussing Indian weddings and although I picture myself in a white dress at my own, I also see my hands painted with mahindi. Appropriation? Maybe. I don’t know. Perhaps, with attention to and understanding of cultural sensitivities, I can carry these things with me as I go and proudly display the collage of colors that have shaped me. DSC_0941


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