becoming Madrasi, only.

(Broken into three parts. Sorry, it’s long. Sorry, it’s been a month. Sorry, it might not be as interesting as the last post. Sorry, people asked for more pictures of me in saris on here. Sorry, I didn’t properly cite either of the links I used in this post, because I currently can’t remember MLA.)

I. Becoming Madrasi, Only

Two months in, I thought I had India down. On the checklist of things that made me “acculturated,” I’d gotten pretty much all of them. I could eat with my hands off a slick banana leaf any day of the week. I could barter with the auto driver when the meter says 40 rupees and he tries to charge me 80 (“Romba angilam,” he tells his friend, like I don’t know that he’s raising the price because I’m “very English.”) I could even tie a sari in under five minutes! Shoutout to YouTube for that one. The last three days at school I’d even made my own Indian lunch so that my teachers would stop making fun of my inability to be domestic—butter chicken, fried rice, chicken masala with cumin rice and wheat parathas. If you know me in the States, you’re probably looking at this skeptically because you know my cooking ability is zero to none. But I promise, Mom, I can actually make meals now!

My phrasing has become more and more lilting and affected by Indianisms—“I must have slept off!” “Fourteen rupees, only.” “Let me know when you reach.” I’d given up makeup for the most part and forgotten to check my appearance in the mirror. I greeted my students in Arabic; I answered my teachers in Tanglish. Sakina smiled when I showed up to school with bangles and new jhumkes. “By the time you leave, we will have made you three-quarters Indian, and left one-quarter American, only.” Which makes me excited, makes me think the anthropology classes I took have made me more ~learned~ as a person, and also makes me forget that I am not Tamilian and will get a sari-shaped, second-degree sunburn from standing in the sun on Sports Day for six hours. Because #ginger.





Besides that, though, I’d become pretty confident. Why were people so worried about culture shock here? It was just like America, except with better clothes and music. So what if I sometimes have to squat over a hole to pee? So what if there are no Chipotles on the subcontinent? But most of all, I thought I’d become comfortable with chaos.

America, I’ve found, and especially America’s affinity for rules, is an addiction. Much like alcoholics don’t realize they’re dependent on alcohol, I never realized that I depended on the Western world’s organization until I didn’t have it—and what’s more, that I quit a lot of it pretty much cold turkey. I’ve gotten past the 40 days it takes to break a bad habit, but still I find myself keeping it as a reference point in my head. I clutch my planner like I’m reciting a rosary—in America, in America, in America.

“In American schools, your paper would be taken up and given zero marks if you’d gotten caught cheating,” I tell two of my eighth graders who turn in the same story.

“In America, we raise our hands and wait to be called on if we know the answer!” I call over a chorus of “Ma’am! Ma’am! Miss! I know, miss! Miss, me!” as students crowd me at the board.

“In America, we turn our work in on time or we will not get full credit,” I say to the girl who has brought me her group’s comic strip of the story “Boat Song” four days later. I assigned this two weeks ago, dividing the class so that they would complete eight comic strips. Currently I have four.

In America, students don’t roam around the classroom or come in fifteen minutes late because they were eating samosas at the canteen. In America I don’t wonder if I’m going to get to school on time because apparently there’s an auto strike across Chennai. In America I’m not scheduled for two classes at once, nor do I end up having to suck it up and run back and forth between buildings to make sure the seventh grade and the eighth grade classes (that are apparently BOTH during fourth period) aren’t killing each other over the map activity I gave them.

In America teachers watch the races that we’re judging, and don’t say, “Ah, first place goes to Ruby House.”

“But I saw Diamond cross the finish line first.”

“Oh. Well, the points will still go to Ruby.”

“But that’s wrong.”

The other judge turns and jots down Ruby as the first prize.

“Oh well. There are other races.”

(This episode—repeated with at least six different competitions and rigged so that the points went to whatever house the person judging it belonged to– made me want to scream so badly that I had to walk away and hang with the primary school for a little bit before I could bring myself back to the stage to announce the results.)


Sometimes Hindi Teacher will make you wear a tiara and take a selfie for no real reason, and this is what you get (featured–pasty white sari stomach)


Sports Day (not a cult)

I think a lot of my America cravings have been 1— because my teacher had still not, until Thursday, returned from Canada, leaving me with two hundred children’s academic fates hanging in my hands. (BUT NOW SHE’S BACK!! PRAISE THE LORD!!!)

And 2—because of the bout of respiratory infection that flared up yet again (I had walking pneumonia, a cold, and then a respiratory infection, all in the three weeks before I left for India ((PS, quick shoutout to drugs for helping me get through DC orientation without slowly dying)), so needless to say I was not in the best shape for international travel to one of the more polluted places on Earth). Here it meant I missed two days of school, bathing in my own mosquito-hot fever-sweat in bed, dreaming of sweet tea. Withdrawals, if you will.

The girls don’t notice my constant droning about the American school system, and I’ve bitten my tongue because I feel bad for comparing the two, like I’m saying that in America we do things right, and here we do things wrong. Like I myself am colonialism, the British Raj, back again to tell India that the Western way is the right way.

But in America, a teacher doesn’t play badminton between classes. We don’t sit on the concrete and trade parts of our lunch with our seventh graders. We don’t have the lazy luxury of planning a field trip at 9am, and then at 10am loading up on a bus to head across town, sans the paperwork and bureaucracy that goes into those things in America. In America, I can’t sip ginger tea, ask my principal if I can start a drama club, or take the girls to an international storytelling festival, or paint nine walls of the school (I’d run through the pitch in my head a thousand times enumerating the ways to rebuke the impending “no”—it’ll build their confidence, it’ll boost the girls’ learning environment, it’ll make them think outside the box, it’ll make them feel like they’re a part of something bigger), and every time receive an immediate shrug, “Yes, why not? Do it whenever you feel like it.”

just me and my clique of budding storytellers

just me and half my clique of budding storytellers

In America, kids aren’t so hungry and eager to learn. My 6C class asked if they could perform dramas in class now that they’ve finished their portions. I put them into groups, but before I could give a topic or assignment, the bell rang. “We’ll start dramas next time,” I told them as I left the room. The next day, I came back, and the entire class was in costume, wigs over their hijabs, wands made out of rulers, title cards etched in calligraphy. “We’ve prepared our dramas, ma’am,” called the class leader. Yeah, it annoyed me that they had made their own lesson plan even though I’d carefully crafted prompts that incorporated their vocabulary. Yeah, it drove me crazy that they hadn’t followed directions.

So I cleared the cramped desks, sat on the back row, and told them to take the stage.

II. The Eye

Marie-Ange and I spent a weekend in Kerala with one of our researcher friends and her coworker’s family for Onam, a Kerala holiday, and it was one of the best weekends I’ve had in India. We spent half our time in Cochin eating the most delicious food, napping on couches, talking about everything, visiting the temple elephants, and overall just enjoying great company. It reminded me of the South, of home, rocking chair evenings listening to cricket songs. We sat on a houseboat for three hours, sunbathing, drinking tea, watching the water ripple past us neatly like pleats of silk. And that, I think, cured my American addiction.

IMG_20150829_143225 IMG-20150829-WA0041

As Brandi Carlile says, “You can dance in a hurricane, but only if you’re standing in the eye.” Zen is easy to find in America, because you can schedule it in between spin classes and email answering. And zen is easy to find in Varanasi, in Cochin, in Pondicherry. Here, in the middle of Madras, all of the odds are against you—the noise, the humidity, the constant pulse of “what is happening, what will happen next” in your head. You have to create your own eye in the midst of the storm.

My eye, my peace, comes from two things—sitting like a hermit in the top of the stairwell that no longer connects two of the buildings so that no one can find me before school starts is one of those things. The other sanity-keeper comes from goals, both for my own growth and for the growth of my students.


Warning: this is about to get boring for people who aren’t educators, probably.

  • I want to brighten the school aesthetically. More specifically, I want to leave murals in each of my nine classrooms, which each class has collaborated on, designed, chosen, justified, and created themselves. Additionally, I want to leave a lasting legacy of my time here with some sort of public art that celebrates the international relations of India and America, aside from the giant America paper map wall I have planned on the third floor. But there’s a really inspiring 5-minute TED Talk that has given me a couple of ideas of how I can do that before I leave: watch it here. Seriously though. Really cool project.
  • I want to instill empathy, understanding, and empowerment for all cultures into my lessons. This week groups have created their own nations, alongside the three best things and the three biggest problems their country has, and as a class, each group will decide how their country will use its resources to help another country solve its problems.
  • I want to encourage creativity and storytelling in my lessons to get my girls to talk about themselves and celebrate their talents—dramas, songs, poetry, and fiction seem to be the most effective ways to do this so far, so I want to continue to push my students to do those things that scare them the most. Already we got to take some of them to an international storytelling festival, which really pushed them out of their comfort zones to speak out and think on their feet, and I will strive to model that behavior every day. Even if it means that I have to sing in Tamil in front of the entire school. Or lay on the floor to become a snake. Because I’ve definitely already done both those things.

    me n my backup singer #destinyschild2.0

    me n my backup singers #destinyschild2.0

  • I will keep a log of the vocabulary words I introduce and strive to incorporate them in a repeated way that promotes actual comprehension. I’m such a concrete evidence person that I need a way to measure that I’ve actually taught something besides sass and incorrigible spunk. In my first unit on the fifty States, I’m striving to introduce 10 vocabulary words per state, which is already 500 words. Ambitious, but I’ll keep you posted on how that goes, loyal followers. Also, I’ve been put in charge of the next spelling bee (throwback Thursday for sure), so spelling improvement of problem words and conjugations is also a target.
  • I want to incorporate speaking individual opinion, expressing dissent, and encouraging critical thinking into my lessons—and outside my lessons—as much as possible. Even if the stories are grammatically incorrect, and even if they involve Katy Perry references and off-the-cuff use of swear phrases (my eighth graders say “what the hell” to me on the daily and see no issue with it.) So far I’ve created the Facebook page and Instagram account “Humans of Crescent” to highlight the individual stories of the girls at my school. (PS follow it if you haven’t already.) Getting them to pose without getting camera shy is proving to be another difference between American and Indian students. Will keep working on this.
  • The Home Portfolio—I’ll go into deeper explanation on this in a later post, but hope that it will be awesome. I want to walk away with material that I can work with in a larger writing and anthropological project, so hopefully once I work out more specifics I can better explain the idea in my head.
  • I want to continue to make all of my students believe that my name is “Queen B.” So far I have 6A and 7B on board with it. Will also keep you posted on this one.
  • I want to say “yes” to things I would normally say “no” to, within reason. No meth for me.
  • I want to say “no” to things I would normally sheepishly agree to so that I wouldn’t inconvenience or disappoint someone else. (This is not a within reason thing, because within reason I could reason myself in or out of anything, within reason or without it.) I WILL say “no.”

III. Memory and Erasure

And a thousand other things have happened since then. India comes in spurts and waves. Never have I wanted to come back home; never have I wished I wasn’t here, in the middle of the crazy. Blogging becomes harder and harder to do, because the bloggable moments bleed over into just every day happenings. There are moments like chocolate: I have to take them immediately when they’re given to me, relish the sweetness in a single dose, much more quickly, much less carefully, than I want to. I swallow them in one gulp. Otherwise, if I hold them too dearly, too tightly, they will melt, sticky in my hands, and slide through my fingers, become hazy remnants of something I looked forward to having, before I have a chance to form them into words.

And more often than not, I don’t want to put them into words, because I’m bad at details and keeping a consistent blog voice (it’s hard, okay?). But also because I’m afraid of losing the memories. In one of my college courses, my professor assigned a podcast about memory, and how the verity of memory was researched by Joe LeDoux and Jonah Lehrer. The more you remember something, they say, the less accurate it becomes. The more you reinvent. The more it becomes about you, and less about what actually happened, and when you remember you continually reembroider memories in your brain until the actual memory becomes nothing more than a pencil drawing beneath the colors you’ve woven in.

Let’s suppose that Joan and Bob, they kiss, and they never think about it again. Thirty years later, Bob is at a railroad station and Joan comes out of a train. Their eyes meet; Bob sees Joan, and remembers suddenly that kiss. THAT memory—the single remembrance of it– is more honest than if he’d seen her every day, been thinking about that kiss every day of his life since it happened. Which is heartbreaking, but it’s true, scientists say. The more you use a memory, the more likely you are to change it. ( )

So if my memories are constantly being re-remembered, how can I tell you, truthfully, what it sounds like when you’re caught in a symphony of car horns, with the stained-glass colors of saris whirling past you on motorbikes? What it feels like to stand on a glass balcony above a city and watch the sun set? How can I ever describe the incalculable joy that comes from cooking rice as the sun rises, the summery taste of mango when you scoop it out of its skin with your fingers; how can I possibly lock down in syntax the sticky hot frustration at not being able to communicate with the security guard when every day you want to ask him what happened to the homeless man that used to hang out with him during nightwatch, whistling in the plastic lawn chairs—did someone turn him out again, or, please God, did he finally find a home? How can I tell you about every single second in this incredible place in a way that is interesting, but the truest form of my fallible memory? And I’m selfish, y’all. I want to keep these memories to myself so that I don’t lose them when I actually need to tell you about what I’ve learned.

So, you see, it is easier to tell you things you ask for; it is simpler to answer than to give the whole story away. I want to give you the truth, only.

The only thing I can truthfully tell you, without re-remembrance, without dilution, is this: there is not a single day that passes where I am not deeply in love with every crazy second of my life.


2 thoughts on “becoming Madrasi, only.

  1. Cathy Criner says:

    I have truly enjoyed reading your post! You are definitely being enlightened. I bet they love to hear you sing….as you can! Sounds like India has been a great match for you. So very awesome!
    Mrs. Criner

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Emma Leiken says:

    BAILEY! These posts are incredible. You are such a fabulous writer-and I am having so much fun reading these–really making me look forward to the year ahead!


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