A Passage to India
I hope you’ve had a great spring and summer! I’m much more conscious of the seasons now; every two weeks is a different time of year in ancient Japanese culture. It’s still in the 90s back in Kumamoto, but I’m not there. I came back to America at the end of July, showed four members of my host family around for a week, and spent two weeks visiting my grandmother’s family in the Dominican Republic. I’ll spend a few days at Duke and a few days celebrating my friend’s wedding next week, and I’ll arrive in Taipei September 7th! I’ll be there at least until the end of next August.
I don’t like the phrase “I never have time to do X.” If something is important enough for you, you’ll make time for it. But I never stopped thinking about writing. The clock just ran out as I checked things off the To-Do list every day. I’m free today, but I’m so on edge that I can’t stop doing the dishes and cleaning the floor. Now that I’m changing countries, I can change my lifestyle. I think I’ll stop reading the news so much. We’re doomed anyway. So once more into the breach, dear friends! I’ll talk about three things today. I started on a fourth, but it grew and grew inside the email like an Alien, so I’ll have to send it tomorrow! For now, I before E.
I went to the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, and sites in between), Varanasi, and Mumbai the first week of May. I did the first three cities in a 1-man tour with a taxi driver named Raj, and I was all alone for the last two. Each day I visited world-class sights and inhaled history and politics and Bollywood and cricket. I’m embarrassed that I considered myself educated without knowing anything about one of the oldest and greatest cultures of the world and the home of one fifth of its people. It was like having a crayon box without yellow. On the way I learned a lot about the countries on the road to China, like Thailand, Nepal, Bangladesh, and (AHEM) Tibet.
That knowledge will be handy, but everything around it affected me even more. Most viscerally, the food. I got a case of Delhi Belly, and though it didn’t knock me out it did shake 10 pounds off my frame. I knew going in that I’d get sick, and I was careful besides the time when I swam in the Ganges, but no shield is big enough to repel the bacteria of the subcontinent! You really should go to India at least once in your life; just hang on to your bowels. I assure you, the meals were still delicious while I could eat.
Most memorable were the people. “There’s too many people in China” is a phrase so ubiquitous that it’ll be the title of a bestseller one of these days, but I never heard a similar phrase in India. Sure, there were more people than trees, but this is a country where cows and monkeys roam the streets of the capital; who would suggest it’s overcrowded? In traffic, the drivers use every inch of space on the road, but road rage would be a waste of energy. There was far less pollution than China, too, since India has been fortunate enough to grow through service work and technology rather than manufacturing.
There were so many energetic, competitive people around me that I felt like I’d lived in torpor before now. If all the hard workers in that country get the chance to compete on an even plane with Americans, we’ll rightfully lose our wealth and privilege. No one even showed ill effects from wearing pants and dresses every day in 110-degree weather. I SPF50’d myself every day but got sunburned on both sides of my nose, where my glasses touched my face. A Bollywood actor from Mumbai said, “Mumbai is hot, but at least it’s wet. Delhi is just dry, like an oven. Now I know what bread feels like.”
People were social, religious, and family-oriented. When they heard I was 24 and single, they wondered why I wasn’t married with children already. Their marriages were arranged at age 18, and several years on they still couldn’t be happier. Obviously there are broken families, too, but perhaps people are more willing to make a marriage work when failure is not an option. Though people were often overqualified for their jobs, they were satisfied because they could provide for their children that way. I felt fortunate, even guilty, that I could be picky about what to do with my future. We worry so much about reaching the top level of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that we’re not happy with what we have already: “Life is what happens while we’re busy making other plans,” John Lennon said.
As for religion, there are many faiths in India, and many that only exist in India. At the Catholic Church, the men and women sat on opposite sides, and everyone wore bright colors. Hinduism is not one faith in the same way others are, even fractured faiths like Christianity and Islam. Parts of the Bhaghavad Gita are inspiring, but some ancient traditions, like burning wives alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres, were abhorrent. With prayer, love, and time, and with thanks to some British police, the best should endure: the funeral ghats on the Ganges River, the families making offerings at the temple together, and the elderly singing prayers through the night. There has been violence between Hindus and Muslims, but compared to other countries, the two faiths coexist inside India. My Muslim driver talked about faith with me and harbored no ill will toward others.
I understand why so many people go to India on missions rather than pleasure trips. I’ve never toured somewhere that made me feel so badly about being a tourist. Going it alone, and coming from Japan, left me exposed. Children and the elderly begged for my money, but refused my food, at every street corner. I was a magnet for peddlers; even the guys who just wanted to talk asked for money 20 minutes down the road. When someone said hello, I said “Yikes!” Every day brought more compliments and pleading and threats and shops owned by relatives and marked-up prices and “complimentary” drinks. The best was the guy who asked me to buy a naked wooden statue of a Hindu god and told me it was a gift my loved one “Would. NEVER. Forget.” No, indeed. Some people who didn’t want something from me just thought it was funny that I was taking time off work to traipse around ancient buildings. I wanted to prove to people I was harder-working than they thought, but it wasn’t like I could get out a sledgehammer and pound rocks everywhere I went. I was negotiating Like a Boss at the end. I’m glad I went through the gantlet. I’m grateful I grew up in safety, but that left me poorly prepared for life in the third world. Now I’m harder, more dispassionate, and more assertive.
I Heart Elementary School
Teaching junior high school had the same effect, but I have so much to say about that that I’ll keep it in another email. My days in elementary school were a train of happiness, like Thomas the Tank Engine. I spent one and a half days there a week, sharing time between four schools. The other teachers were excellent, and so were many of the parents I met. The kids were energetic and happy to see me, and in my second year, I knew better than ever how to spark them. Rather than having a set lesson plan, I’d go in with sets of activities in mind, and I changed gears whenever their engines stalled. I think I assumed, my first year, that they were like me. But I was an unusual kid. I was too concerned with myself to understand everyone else.
Children haven’t been in their bodies for very long, and so they want to put them to good use by running around and playing. Music gives them energy, and rhythm makes things easier to remember. Everything in the world is new to them, so they want to try a little of everything without getting bogged down. But they’re competitive, so they can take on difficult things if they have to do so to win a game. So at elementary school, I played to their strengths and performed six hours a day. And though I spent a day and a half a month at each elementary school, I tried to use the kids’ names as much as I could. That made them feel like I loved and respected them. It’s a little unfair when there’s 700 of them and 1 of you, but this is why we get the big bucks, right?
I tried to level with each student. Age is just a number; you have to treat everyone the same even when they’re spraying milk out of their nose every school lunch. When I was 10, I was an awkward turtle, but I still felt like I was as an adult. “You’re too young to understand” is one of the worst things you can say to someone, and “Do X because I said so” engenders almost as much contempt. That said, whenever a student did something that is morally wrong, I stamped it out, secure in the knowledge that I was stronger and tougher than even the most wayward teenager. If I, as a teacher, didn’t defend the weak, what would that teach the students about life?
Every single one of my 700 students, ages 6 to 15, wrote me a thank-you note; many drew pictures as well; some even made origami for me. My favorite thing about kids’ writing is that they’re so honest. They won’t just say they learned a lot of English or liked your games, they’ll tell you which word they learned, and which game they liked. They’re not accustomed to safe ways of expressing themselves, so they just say what they think. Things like:
“When you first came to our class, I was really surprised by how loud you were. I’d never had a teacher who was that loud!”
“Before your class, I didn’t realize I could get so excited about something. I’m sad that you’re leaving because I’m not sure I’ll ever get this excited again.”
“I’ll never forget the fun things we did in class. I’ll never forget the time you got mad at us, either. I’m sorry about that.”
“Baby baby. You look like Brad Pitt. I love you. I want you. I need you.”
July was my last month. I had goodbye parties in my honor 18 of my last 21 days. I said thank you and goodbye in person to thousands of people. I gave speeches at all my schools and gave my acoustic guitar to the junior high after singing them a song: “Take Me Home, Country Road,” which is popular here. I cleaned up the house, left notes for my successor, and drove my car to its new home.
It was hard for people to say goodbye. I was ready to go, but I’ll be so many places, with so many things to do, that I won’t miss everyone as much as I should. I live in a country town. The adults who live here have embraced their family’s heritage, want to continue it, and will never leave. The youngest children were too young to understand. We’d say, “James isn’t coming back so say goodbye now,” and they’d just say “OK! See you next week!” It won’t sink in until they see someone else standing in my place, and day after day passes without me. The other kids handled it well. I’d love to see what my students are like, and I’d love to know how I made their lives better, but that’s the sort of video I can only watch in paradise.
People were so gracious to me. Gifts were given, and tears were shed. I’m sure I did good work here, because so many went out of their way to tell me so. I tried my best to tell people of all ages what I loved about them. At ceremonies and parties, I stayed upbeat and thankful. Junior High School James would have wanted everyone to cry and feel really sorry that he was gone, but I just want everyone to remember the good times we had together, and I want my successor to be even better than me.
So, please pray for Joseph, and please pray for my people! That’s all for today. I’ll have more to say on the morrow.
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