Edition, February 2006
5th Edition, February 2006
February is just
three months away from June. While I
didn’t have to come to
Birthdays and chocolate
Naqi arrived late for his own surprise party on 1st February. We had decorated the tv room after work, and by 6pm were waiting for him to arrive. He had gone for a shower, unaware of why we were anxious for him to come. About 6:30, he came down the stairs. Indeed, he was surprised by the balloons and applause. By this time, I’d noticed that the cake set out a few minutes earlier said “Happy Birthday Naqi and Emma”. I, too, was surprised, thinking I would miss celebrating my birthday (2nd Feb) at the hostel because I was leaving later that night on a train to Chennai. Naqi and I soon found ourselves being treated as the guests of honor. At HMI, that position almost always comes with a flower garland. And so two were bestowed upon us.
Shobha asked us each to say something. I hesitated. She encouraged me, “Tell us your birthday wish. In my place,” she said, “it is tradition to share a wish on your birthday.” Oh no, culture clash. I responded, “But in my home it is considered bad luck to announce your birthday wish.” We resolved the cultural incompatibility; I shared my second-to-top birthday wish. Naqi’s speech was more revealing. Visibly moved by the gathering in his name, he said, “This is the first time I’ve celebrated my birthday. Thank you so much.” His response is not unusual. Many Indians do not grow up with birthday celebrations. And if there is a celebration, it’s less likely to be a big party and more likely to include prayers, a special trip to the temple or church, and maybe some sweets or special food at dinner.
witnessed people using their own birthdays as a chance to celebrate their
community. For instance, one friend
spent her birthday delivering soaps and sweets to a nearby orphanage. Another friend organized a picnic (Indian for
“outing”) on his birthday and took 18 of us to another city to visit historic
Islamic sites. Often, the birthday
celebrant will distribute sweets at the office.
If it is the birthday of someone living in the hostel, we do usually
throw a party. It is simple one: cake, decorations, maybe
some chips, music and dancing, cool drinks.
(“Cool drinks” is vernacular for soda or pop. I assume this phrase originates from the
times when refrigerators were even more scarce in
chocolates, in February I finally confronted several Indian friends on a
particular point of linguistic contention.
“Why do you say ‘chocolate’ when you mean hard candy? If you want me to bring you fruit candies,
why do you ask for chocolates?” The language of sweet foods in
Before leaving the topic of birthdays, I should mention another tradition about the birthday cake. The first piece is not eaten by the birthday celebrant. Rather, she is to feed the first piece to the person of her choosing. Because Naqi and I shared a party, we were each other’s chosen one. The photos from our party more closely resemble an American wedding reception. It’s a nice tradition . . . to have your cake and feed it too.
The Chennai SuperFast Express
I had to leave
the party early to catch an 8pm train to Chennai (
This was my first
train ride in
Weddings . . . too much to say
Last week I noticed a friend reading a book called Marrying and Burying. The book explores how cultures structure their lives around a few basic rituals, of which marriage and burial are two. February brought my Indian introduction to both.
After a delay of
4 hours, we finally got off the train in Chennai, spent the afternoon with Florina’s mother and nephews and then traveled by car to a
town about 4 hours away, to attend the wedding of Bala,
Ashok’s friend from their days studying social
work. Bala now
oversees the family’s large farm in a village near to the town. Because of the family’s prominence in the
village, this was a big wedding. (I’m
not sure if there is any other kind in
Muslim, or Christian, weddings in
My reaction to these weddings provoked me to consider how culture shapes our most personal ambitions. I cannot imagine daydreaming as a child about being a bride in the ceremonies I witnessed here. Ashamedly, I even felt sorry for the marrying couple, thinking, “Oh, it’s too bad you can’t have a nice wedding ceremony.” I’m so attached to my expectations for a wedding that I actually felt sympathy for these couples because I did not find meaning in their rituals. It is not as though any wedding ritual – whether Indian Hindu or American Christian - holds the secret for a lasting, happy marriage. Nor do I think all weddings should be exactly alike. In my ashamed feelings of sympathy, I realized how much I am a product of a culture dominated by “western Christian” rituals. Confronting this reality is part of dealing with the challenge I mentioned in the first newsletter – the challenge of accepting that people “can be happy in the midst of this”.
(For a glimpse of
how prominently marriage features into Indian society, take a look at the
advertisements and links on Yahoo!’s
February also brought opportunity to witness another passage of life - burial. Francis is the co-manager of the hostel. His mother, Lizzie, expired on February 12. (In Indian English, “expired” is often used in place of “died”.) Though she became sick several months ago, doctors could not diagnose her condition and her death this month was unexpected. It was a difficult loss for HMI, primarily to see Francis suffer, but also because Lizzie had worked for years as the cook at the Director’s residence. As the only son in a family now without both parents, Francis is responsible for the family (sisters, nieces, nephews) and all that had to happen after his mother’s death.
If I were at
home, I would have immediately become involved in the planning – traveling to
Kansas, arranging details with the funeral home, etc.. But when I was present for those details at
another family funeral, even then I wondered, “How do I respond?” Surely, anyone suffering loss feels this uncertainty. But I observe in
As an American, I’m less likely to take comfort in the abundance of rituals, but when I sat in that internet café in Colombo, wondering “how to respond” to Grandma’s passing, I thought of Lizzie’s death and how rituals, even if not comforting, do provide answers.
During the trip with Florina and Spring, we also visited HMI’s tsunami project in the Nagipatnam District of Tamilnadu state. HMI began the project in January 2005 with funding from Mennonite Central Committee and in collaboration with BEST, a local Nagipatnam NGO. HMI calls itself an International Centre for Research, Interfaith Relations, and Reconciliation. The tsunami project was initiated as an expression of the latter, to help victims reconcile with their life on the water. The project puts strong emphasis on reclaiming land, returning fisherfolk to the sea, and counseling. We spent a long day driving along the beaches.
At one point, we were visiting three farmers at a house several kilometers away from the beach. I could not see the ocean from this distance. Someone commented about the tsunami, “The wave came this far.” Eye-witness accounts vary about what happened on that fateful day in 2004. Some residents claim the water stayed in their homes for a few seconds, others say their homes were flooded for 30 minutes. Florina, who has worked extensively with trauma victims, said that such varying accounts are typical after a trauma like the tsunami. Levels of water damage in the buildings suggest that water from the tsunami returned to the sea after only a few minutes. I stood in the farmer’s yard that evening and looked out over farmland in every direction. What left me awe-struck was the thought that a wave had come this far. Not a downpour from the sky that sits in the house until it dries or drains. No, this was a wave, a moving force of water, dynamic enough to come several kilometers inland and return to sea within a few minutes. Perhaps I came a little closer that day to standing in fear of God’s creation.
Life continues in these communities. BEST’s farmland supervisor showed us the fruits of much labor - acres and acres of soil reclaimed after a giant wave left the land full of salt. We picked grains from the first rice harvest since the tsunami.
The contributions of international charities were obvious throughout the district. Thinking back, I might compare that first relief camp to a home decorator’s showcase , except that instead of interior designers advertising their decorating skills in a living room or kitchen, roadside signs in Nagipatnam acknowledged a Dutch organization that built the shelters, or a German church that set up the water system, or an American group that contributed funds for the new homes.
That first relief camp of fisherfolk families was, of course, anything but an interior decorator’s showcase. Rather, the living conditions met all the criteria of cramped and smelly. These fisherfolk never lived in fancy houses, but before the tsunami they lived within feet of the sea, rich with space. Florina explained that many fisherfolk actually lived lives of relative leisure and abundance, sometimes bringing in 100,000 rupees for a single day’s catch. They would often spend it the same day on village parties and gatherings. Some days brought a much smaller catch, maybe only 1,000 rupees to be shared by several families. Their lives were simple. They did not emphasize saving, but the money that was saved was kept at home, and was swept to sea in the tsunami.
Thus, one dynamic
of relief efforts in this district was the challenge of delivering charity to
persons accustomed to being wealthy and living with abundance. Florina described one particular conflict from
the initial days after the tsunami. News
of the devestation quickly spread throughout
The dynamic in fisherfolk communities also highlights another dilemma. If not for the tsunami, international charities probably would not have bothered with fisherfolk communities in Tamilnadu. The fisherfolk were self-sufficient people who enjoyed their lives and were proud of their lifestyle, even if these lives were simple and un-educated. But now that charities are there, they face the dilemma of whether to restore the quality of life that fisherfolk cherished, or to give them what the charities consider essential for quality of life – education and better connections to the outside world. The latter may improve their status on the development index, but will they enjoy life more?
Florina also shared
stories of post-tsunami “volunteers” from
All this said, the challenges I mentioned – rejected help, disrespectful volunteers – are the exceptions in a relief effort of global proportions that continues to transform lives for the better. The exceptions point out the delicacy and complexity of an effort which, even it is mildly successfully, is a historic accomplishment.
We spent several hours accompanying the counselors to meetings with village women. Our visit began at a relief camp where we gathered with women and girls at a session facilitated periodically to provide them a place to share their stories and concerns.
A memorable moment in our visit came towards the end of the day, when I heard the story of a woman who had been with us since morning. She came to that first women’s meeting with her 1 yr-old daughter. She was introduced as a local and a volunteer with the relief effort. We saw them throughout the day as we followed the counselors to other appointments. After an afternoon meeting, I stood with this woman and several others, one of whom asked about her family. The translator explained that this mother with whom I’d been smiling all day, making conversation without words, adoring her little girl, was the mother of a young boy who died in the tsunami.
There was a point during that first women’s meeting when I realized that every person in the room – except for the visitors - had lost a family member or close friend in the tsunami. This was a community bound by mutual loss. At the time, I felt like I was experiencing a rare opportunity to be in a community bound by common loss, a concept foreign to me. But, thinking back on that room full of women, and thinking of the refugee communities I met in Atlanta, the slums of Juarez, Mexico, and the war updates on nightly news, I wonder instead if the rarity is to be in a community in which loss and hardship are private affairs.
Morning on the water; lunch on the shore
The lighter side
of our visit to the tsunami project was a morning boatride
After the boat
ride, we attended a community meeting and then went for lunch. We arrived at the house used as living
quarters for the men on BEST’s staff. Stepping inside brought immediate relief from
the sun and heat, and we sat on the unrolled floor mats. Nagalakshmi and
another counselor insisted on serving us before eating, so they brought out the
banana leaves. Leaves from the banana
tree are the typical plates in homes and
casual restaurants in southern
What followed was a lunch to put Red Lobster to shame (except for the absence of cheese biscuits). Fish curry, fried fish, crab with a curry gravy, and prawns to beat all prawns. With second-helpings a must, it was, to say the least, a feast. I thought of how much this meal would cost at home. And I wondered . . . would Americans be a more patient people if we had to de-bone our fish?
Another stop on
the trip to Chennai was a morning visit to
Came all the way to
me more opportunities than before to spend time with Americans. Jaclyn arrived from
After one night out with Spring and Jaclyn, I returned to the hostel thinking of how much I enjoyed the evening; how inspired I was by our conversations – their ideas, plans for future, passions in life; and how easy it was to be with them. At this point, neither of us had known each other for more than a month.
For the last five
months, I had lived with Indians, Europeans, and Africans. We had shared a hundred meals, stayed up late
in conversation, shopped together, ridden all over the city in buses and autos,
and lived each day in the same small community of HMI. Yet, I never in those five months felt the
same ease as I did that night with two Americans whom I’d known for a few
weeks. Likewise, before meeting the other
American volunteers in
These and other
instances are teaching me how much I rely on common experience to communicate. I suppose it’s similar to what happens when a
group of college friends reunites years after graduation – all they talk about
is the college days; or when colleagues gather for the company picnic – they
still talk about work. Obviously,
culture and country of origin determine much of whether our experience is
common. But it was not until coming to
That said, I am
able to tell more stories and better understand my own stories because I’ve
left country and culture and encountered the fundamental experiences of people
Indeed, there is no substitute for an evening with Americans. And there is no substitute for six months without.
The day I arrived
in Sri Lanka was the day after the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger
leaders reached an agreement to continue the cease-fire in this island nation
“on the verge” of civil war. I was
curious to see how much the nation’s political tensions would show up on the
(The presence of
armed soldiers in
Florina and her
husband Ashok are both writing doctoral dissertations
based on their work with the Sri Lankan refugee community in
Staff Retreat and Translation: Say again?
HMI held its
staff retreat in February. This was a 5-day
workshop consisting primarily of large-group and small-group discussions. It was the first time I experienced all staff
coming together for more than a one-hour staff meeting. And because this retreat was about dealing
with staff concerns, staff development and planning for the future, it was
essential to have everyone’s participation.
Doing so required extensive translation of everything that was
said. All but 2 people spoke Hindi
(myself among the exceptions), but a significant number of these Hindi speakers
are more comfortable in English or Telugu.
Every exchange, every activity, every discussion took twice as
long. (But if I say it was “twice as
long”, that reflects my narrow definition of “efficiency” because I’m measuring
it against how discussion occurs when everyone speaks the same language, a
circumstance that isn’t so readily available in
retreat was a lesson in how multi-lingualism affects
a working environment. For instance, in
our small group discussions, the several attempts to randomly assign partners posed
the difficulty of making sure that the woman who spoke only Telugu was in a
group with someone who could translate. If
it feels like I already wrote about the dynamics of language, ‘tis true, and
you can expect more in future newsletters.
If I repeat myself enough, maybe I will eventually learn what
Protests, Processions, and Response:
I sent the
January newsletter just a few days after riots erupted in
I did not feel
endangered by the events. HMI is located
south of the city, about 8 km from the
a significant shift in my community here.
The PGCR (Post-Graduate Diploma in Conflict Resolution) students, who
arrived with me in September, completed their course work in February and left
HMI to return home: Lemwang
to Nagaland; Naqi to
They are all
returning to their homes. They showed me
what it means to care for “their people”, to be committed to “their
place”. One thing I’ve learned about
myself in the last 6 months is that I’m still more interested in what happens
These Indian friends who returned home in February have far fewer options than I to live and work away from “their people”. Regardless, they will serve their people well. Their commitment to their people has helped me to consider that home is part of God’s intention for the world. Perhaps, attachment to home, at its purest, does not divert us from vocation but rather directs us to the place where we can be most useful. Perhaps “saving the world” is really about allowing everyone to be in the place they can call home and to be content with that position. With the world not as God intended it (at least I hope not), restoring people to home may require some to step away from their people and live in a far off place. Perhaps some of us are even equipped with the patience and motivation to do so. I don’t know that I am among this group. But I thank my PGCR friends for reminding me that I, too, have “my people” and it is okay if I am most useful in “my place”.