Sunday, November 9, 2003

Letter from India - Nov. 9, 2003

November 9, 2003

Dear Family and Friends,

India's 15 rupee postage stamp, which will send a letter all over this world, appears to be the same stamp issued when India gained its independence from Britain in 1947. Like a cheap t-shirt, it has only two colors: brown and orange. In the upper left hand corner is the word, "India", written in both Hindi and Roman script. Also in both scripts is "Butterfly", identifying the text book-like image on the stamp. The stamp designer must have gone out of his way to choose the most boring of India’s butterflies. And here it is, that singular uninteresting insect flying to every corner of this world, representing India.

This morning from the window of the hostel mess, over my breakfast of chickpeas, chapati and warm milk, I watched a peacock attempt to seduce a peahen. This is India! He stood, all pomp and arrogance, revealing his every feather spread in a daunting array before her. She stared - timidly, if you ask me - until some decision was made. She distinctly and delicately turned, ducked her head, as if to prepare him for what was to come, and flew, rather awkwardly, off the ledge. His feathers drooped.

Why aren't they on India's postage?

The moths that flit towards the light my hostel room gives off have trouble, like the peahen, with mid-air flights. Coming through the window their tiny bodies seem to stop in disorientation while their wings keep moving giving them balance in the air. Then they drop, to the wall or floor, bouncing along the surface as if to verify its absolute, solid, immobility. Once confident, they bounce along in short low flights towards the florescent light above my bed.

The moths gathered around my light are considerably more attractive than the butterfly on India's 15 rupee stamp. The detailed lace-like stone carvings of the Taj Mahal must have been inspired by the wings of these moths. Some are dark, dark brown with a white trail drawn ornately across a wing and mirrored exactly on the other. Many are green and leave glittering dust where they touch down too suddenly. Still others have wings with circles that, when folded, appear to be accusing eyes glaring back at the outer world.

Can you tell that I've been confined to the hostel for some time? I was sick with a pesky viral infection for nearly two weeks. Nothing serious. In fact, there was only one day of fever; the rest of the time I felt as if I were making a slow recovery. It was pretty frustrating actually. For the first few days I slept. Soon my mind had recovered, but my body still needed time. My room is cement walls, cement floor and a cement closet - all totaling a space a little bigger than a king size bed. I found myself wanting to move about, go to class and see more of India. Instead I had to lie on my bed watching the insects collecting around my florescent light.

As I grew impatient with my recovery, I could hear the voice saying... "A Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar and what is she doing the last weeks of October? Watching moths!"

The scholarship is through the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International which holds a vision of world understanding and peace through education and cultural exchange. Simply put, the more we know about each other, the more likely we are to get along. As an Ambassadorial Scholar, my responsibility is to listen, make friends and be an ambassador of goodwill from the people of the USA to those from other countries. It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it.

But seriously, we need this. When we consider that the radio (later verified by internet news) is saying that a European Commission's survey finds Europeans judge the United States as a leading country contributing to global instability (beating Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea - only Israel outdid us), we realize something is wrong with our global image. Across nationalities I find a pretty strong distaste for the United States. Be it the Canadian's determination not to be confused with us. Or the Columbian who just responds "well duh" when asked if people in the USA have a global awareness. Or the Korean who has protested in front of the US Military Base in Seoul against the US State in Korea. Then there's the huge poster that hangs outside JNU's School of Social Science building depicting a school of small fish fleeing the open mouth of a large fish painted red, white and blue. Below is a second scene, similar, only the small fish have united making a huge mouth from which the red, white and blue fish flees. The signs reads "Our World, Our Future" We, Americans, aren't coming off as generous, freedom loving people.

Issues of US global image and foreign policy seem to be swimming in my sub-consciousness, like when deciding whether to sit on the floor rather than take the last seat for a lecture. However, it is not what most humbles and challenges me. Soon after my arrival in India, I was perceived as "very formal" in my interactions with people I wanted to consider new friends. The reason I was perceived as formal was that I was thanking people for the help they were giving me. In my perception, I was letting them know I was aware that they were going out of their way to help me. My intention was to show that I was not taking them for granted. Instead, my words were communicating a distance between myself and others. It was explained to me that of course they would help me. This is just what friends do. By thanking them I make it sound like some exceptional action.

Since that time, I've learned a particular Indian head gesture in which my chin is the axis of a movement that begins with my neck but actually only moves the top of my head. I move my entire head from side to side while my chin holds still. I tend to do this movement slowly, hoping to express sincerity. But like any language in which a tiniest detail can have a completely different meaning, I may or may not be communicating the sincere but casual thanks I intend.

So it is as an ambassador. Lets hope I do a better job than India's 15 rupee stamp.

I still have a long way to go to understand this world. I'd be disappointed if I were close. My faith holds to the knowledge that we are indeed one world; one Body.

In Delhi, when a child is a beggar, she must learn the proper touch. It starts out with the fingertips of her cupped hand brushing ones forearm. It's just a slight gentle graze when she reaches into the auto-rickshaw in which you ride or follows as you shop in the market. Her fingernails are bitten as far back as they can be. Looking her straight in the eye and shaking ones head doesn't help. She flattens her palm against your arm, locking her eyes with yours so you have to make the choice to look away. Her hand begins to pulsate against your upper arm, slightly kneading into your sub-consciousness, consciousness and conscience.

Why isn't she on India's postage?

She should be in school. She should learn something besides the perfect touch to get the most sympathy. Whose problem is she, as she stands with marigolds strung around an empty tin can to hold the coins she hopes to receive? By not giving her a rupee, am I saying I don't care? That she's one child and there are thousands? One child who is not my own is too much to ask? Is that what I'm saying by brushing her hand away before the rickshaw moves on? But what am I saying if I give her a rupee... just a rupee... just over 2 US cents? Is my conscience taken care of then? Two cents to a child so poor that her pierced nose holds no ring? Now my wealth is shared with her, and I can go on with my day of leisure education and any food the city offers. Is that what I say, that poverty is so big and I am so small, that I do my part by giving her two cents?

Lord, when did I see you hungry?

And so I'm living in Delhi. The challenge is everyday, uninsulated possibilities. I wouldn't trade it. It's Our World, Our Future.

peace and love,