Oh, where to start.
It’s still unreal to me that I’m even here. I grew up in a town of 18,000 people, surrounded by fields and fields of sunflowers (like the picture you see here.) This, to me, was a “small town.” My friends and I would grab a sweet tea from the drive-thru at Chicken Express, walk around the Wal Mart for fun, and if we were feeling particularly lucky, would try to beat all of the red lights down Main Street without getting stopped by the train. Chennai, my Indian friends told me, was a “small town.” Chennai has about five million people, about the size of (if not bigger than) Los Angeles.
Needless to say, there has been some adjusting.
I’ll try to address the questions I’ve been getting as best I can in this post, so it may be a little long. If you’re reading this blog, you’re either A) my family and friends from the States, B) my friends here in India, or C) a Fulbright hopeful stalking old ETA blogs trying to figure out what you’ll be getting yourself into, just like I was doing a year ago. (If this is you, feel free to reach out to me at any time if you want any insight!)
If you’re one of the As, you most likely have never been to India before, so I’ll try my best to break it down for you; because, whoever you are, you’ve started with me on my “Passage to India” (according to British writer E. M. Forster), my “Fulbright year” (according to the state department), or “The Year without Dr. Pepper” (according to me.) Whatever you call it, I’m glad to bring you along. Vanakkam, and buckle in.
“Vanakkam” is a greeting in Tamil (or Thamizh if you’re really authentic about it), but, as our Tamil instructor told us, it is not JUST a hello. To say “Vanakkam” to someone is to tell them that from that point forward, you are focusing your attentions and thoughts only on them and their presence. This is not a memorized “Hi-how-are-you” in passing that I got accustomed to at university, but a genuine engagement in the life of whoever you enter into conversation with. It was one of the first words we learned in Tamil class, which has mostly just consisted of our tutor making us sing A. R. Rahman songs (“You know him! He won an American Academy Award! He is from Chennai, just a few neighborhoods away!”) in a weird pseudo-karaoke that is strangely sort of helping.
Tamil is HARD. Hard as in based on a character system that looks like reading music and centered around a lot of sounds that come from the back of your throat that we don’t ever use in English. But we are trying the best we can. Vendors and rickshaw drivers break into giant grins whenever I attempt the words for “thank you, brother” or “Water? How much?” A woman at the mall (by the way, malls are HUGE here. Six or seven stories, with a grocery store and cinemas and all kinds of things inside. Including a dine-in-the-dark restaurant like the one we went to in London.) lit up when I called her “akka,” or “sister,” and she told me I could come back and practice my Tamil on her anytime. The first day our Tamil teacher played a song about a musician who loves a girl who is deaf and mute. Because she cannot speak to him (one, because she doesn’t know Tamil; two, because she doesn’t want anything to do with him; and three, I don’t know, maybe because she’s deaf and mute?!) he calls her “dumb girl” and celebrates when she finally learns the language. This plot makes little to no sense to me, but apparently it is “very romantic” and our instructor’s favorite movie. He likes to play this song (the lyrics of which translate to “Yesterday you were a dumb girl!/ Today you are not a dumb girl!”) multiple times, close his eyes, and hum along. Only today did we discover that there are actually lyrics written in non-Tamil in our textbooks. So now the lyrics borderline make sense. When will I use this in daily conversation? Who knows. But will I be able to sing a song about a deaf-mute girl to random passerby? Yes. Additionally, this tutor thinks I am from England for some odd reason and gets visibly disappointed when I can’t recognize the Tamil-accented Beatles song he’s singing.
We get lots of stares here. Just walking down the street, we’ll be bombarded with stares as the people of Chennai give peace signs from their bikes, shyly say hi as we pass on the sidewalk like we’re celebrities. Samantha, Marie-Ange, and I sat on the steps drinking mango juice the other day, and literally eight or nine motorbikes had stopped in the road below us, craning their necks and pointing. We’ve been told that people think Americans are just like Hollywood actors, and that we will be asked at very touristy places to pose with Indian babies, to join them in their family photos. The day after we landed, I was invited to an Iftar party by the family who owns my school, who thought that as a Christian American I’d likely never been to Iftar before (they were correct. Also, for those not in the know, Iftar is the traditional breaking of fast at sundown during Ramazan.) The videographer kept making sure I got in the shot, asking me to smile and eat a date for the camera. At a Consulate event, someone took mine and Marie-Ange’s picture (and a solo shot of Samantha with a painting, LOL); Shinu whispered as they walked away that they were the photographers for the Times of India. We went to the grocery store the other day, and workers everywhere went to bring us new lotions and soaps, even trying to wipe my nose with “the very best facial tissue.” One girl followed us around the entire store and only in the oatmeal section did we realize that she did not work there. Recruiting an entourage will not be hard here, which will be good for my forthcoming Kollywood career. (Bollywood= Hindi cinema, Kollywood= Tamil cinema.)
The best way to describe India is “insane, in the best possible way.” Malls are insane. Beaches are insane. The streets of Chennai are nothing short of insane– think Frogger on steroids. Cars dodge in and out of lanes, and autos (autorickshaws, or three-wheelers) weave in between the cars, and then motorbikes somehow squeeze in the infinitesimal space between them. If you were to tie a street-long ribbon onto the back of every vehicle, by the end of the road you would have the most intricate friendship bracelet ever. So many aspects of life here are woven like that: work and home, East and West, English and Tamil, “Old World” and “New”. Step outside of our wifi-ed, air-conditioned classroom, and get coconut water and roti (basically an Indian tortilla) for 35 rupees, about 50 cents in the US, from a patio shaded by palm trees. Tell the rickshaw driver “Left-u ponga!” because no one here remembers the Tamil word for “left.” Notify the landlady that your international bank won’t be able to transfer money until tomorrow and she will send you a text full of emojis to say that her son is bringing your microwave right now, and did we get the hand-printed bedding she picked out for us that she left on our beds, also should she bring you some “cooking vessels” and do we want a CCTV camera outside of our apartment for extra security?
Some things about India are extremely easy to adapt to: the abundance of fresh mango juice. The beautiful salwar kameez and kurtis we wear every day that feel like a fashionable upgrade of my leggings-and-sorority-tee college uniform. The man across the street who sings at 6am every morning, and how everything is so cheap here compared to the astronomical American prices. Talking with a lilt so that my Southern American accent cancels out. Some things take getting used to: spraying your butt with water in a weird half-bidet. The Indian version of “clean” versus our Clorox-happy habits. Delhi belly, for which I have hopefully paid my dues after eating a sort-of milkshake (ice cream, my greatest love and biggest downfall). Tamil actors who fill an entire wall with a giant canvas of their own face. These differences can be incredibly frustrating, like when it takes you three hours to call in delivery because you forgot to press “0” before dialing a landline of a restaurant that no longer exists, but the restaurant you DO order from at 10:15pm forgets your order and closes by the time you receive it, so you have Diet Coke and “Magic Masala” Lays for dinner. Or when the rickshaw driver makes you pay 100 rupees for a trip that should cost 35 because you’re American and HE got lost. And for some reason, my name causes tons of confusion because middle names are infrequent and there’s no Tamil equivalent for the letter “B”– cashiers have taken my order for “Pailey” and “Elizabeth” is frequently my last name. Sometimes you just have to throw your hands up, shrug, and say, “Freaking India.”
It took us a little bit to settle into housing. We had a realtor who was basically an Indian frat star who was a tiny bit shady and kept telling us that “he used to be a nerd before he went to Aruba,” so it took a few days, but on the bright side, we got to live out House Hunters International (basically my dream), and we are now in a beautiful flat with a very gracious landlady and a wonderful balcony on which to drink wine. Acquiring wine—especially as a female– and if wine here is actually any good are questions still to be answered, but our balcony awaits if ever we figure that out. We also have an “electrician” (?), a tiny man who lives (?) at the apartment (we think?) who appears out of nowhere to help carry bags, close windows, and apparently (?) fix (??) things? He stands up and nods in a stately manner every time we pass him like we’re the Obamas or something, which we don’t understand. He was “working” (?) on my bathroom light before I moved in, but Day Six and I’m still using my iPhone flashlight to see my shampoo in the dark. He was also apparently “busy” the last few days, despite seeing him every morning on our way to the Consulate, so Day Seven of my grand Hatchet adventure continues. We set up a clothesline too! And found watermelon! Call us Bear Grylls.
We aren’t working yet, which gives us a month or so to settle in. I met my school facilitators, my principal and my “co-teacher” (who will actually just be letting me run my own classroom). Beginning in August, I will be working as an English teacher at an all-girls Muslim minority school, Crescent Matriculation Higher Secondary School, to grades sixth through eighth. This will be another culture shock within culture shock—teaching middle school (ah, teenage angst) to both a historically oppressed minority religion and a culturally oppressed gender, but it is a challenge I am more than willing to face. In my application I talked about Marina Keegan’s concept of the opposite of loneliness (link HERE), and how I wished to embody the opposite of loneliness and plant its seeds anywhere I went, regardless of gender, skin color, race, language, religion. On my Fulbright grant, I’ll be in charge of teaching English activities, primarily plays, poetry, public speaking—anything that gets these girls to shout at the top of their voices when they are used to never being heard. Living up to that aspiration will be difficult, especially in the Indian school system (which I’ll get into in later posts), but in a small town so big, I find it impossible to imagine that I’m alone in that goal.
The concept behind “vanakkam,” on concentrating and really living with those around you, is the best way to really “get” India. It’s one concept I think we sometimes miss in the U.S. Being present. Sitting, completely unplugged, and listening. Laughing at jokes not made at anyone’s expense. Stretching meeting times or deadlines to accommodate the needs of the other rather than giving every second a dollar amount. There are downsides—one restaurant took two hours to make a plate of waffles (but they also turned on “The Conjuring” when we walked in, for some reason, so at least we were entertained). But in the end, I think to center a culture around a vanakkam is one of the most important things you can do; to live for others, to do out of genuine courtesy rather than begrudging expectation. I don’t think I have ever felt the opposite of loneliness anywhere in more abundance than I have here, in the middle of a city and country where the words tumble over your head like a river and the streets don’t always have names. Where the restaurant owner knows your samosa order the second time you visit. Where the cuckoo sings despite the fact you can never see him doing it.
Vanakkam, en nanbar. Welcome, my friend, to Chennai.