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Friday, March 16, 2007

Rotary Foreign Exchange Program - Part 2

Spending that year abroad created a feeling of condensed time. Ten months felt like ten years' worth of experiences. The bonds I made with fellow exchange students in a few short months seemed stronger than those that developed over my four years of highschool. There was Matt from upstate New York who played drums and brought a hackeysack. We once had a conversation for 24 straight hours, and he borrowed my copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And Julie from Michigan with her infectious sense of humor. She lived with a Muslim family that served food so hot that none of us could eat it. She got fat subsisting instead on the pastries and cakes that her host-family made for their bakery. Daphne came from Virginia with her reading glasses and classical musician training, but lived for skipping classes and riding in cabs. And there was Nayda from Canada with her apple-cheeked optimism; Karena from Mexico who struggled with the language barrier; Anne from Anne Arbor who smuggled in half a pharmacy; and Teddy the good-natured redneck. I have occasionally regretted spending so much time with my fellow North Americans, but the temptation to talk to people who could relate was overwhelming.

Perhaps the first time I felt like I'd "gone native" was on the day India beat Pakistan during the cricket season. Pakistan won the world cup that year, but India dealt them a rare defeat behind the crafty bowling and aggressive batting of aging superstar Kapil Dev. This was not my game. Not my country. Not my archnemesis. And yet I surged with happiness and solidarity with the passing of every over.

Even still, separateness was maintained. For example, one of my host-brothers explained their history with Pakistan. The state was created to deal with the “Muslim problem”. Mahatma Gandhi brokered a separate-but-equal deal that many Indians still resent. Gandhi gave the Islamic citizens half the national treasury and enough land to create their own border state. This man shocked me when he told me that Gandhi was assassinated by a “patriotic Indian”. I was also amazed when I found out that one of my host-grandfathers had fought in World War II, by enlisting with the Japanese forces. He explained that no true Indian would have served with the Allies… not after England’s history of colonial exploitation. Despite the rationales, I could not fathom what kind of person could harbor these beliefs.

A major source of “otherness” came from the inherent difference of being pale in a brown country. Recognizing the facets of privilege can lead one down strange alleyways. I was aware that having dark skin could result in harassment and racism in America, but I hadn’t yet realized that having a white face meant privilege. At Saint Xavier's college, I was encouraged into the starting lineup (and even asked to lead warm-ups) for the school basketball team, despite never having played organized sports. I actually had to convince the coach to bench me sometimes because he couldn't bring himself to do it. I once found myself bribing a police officer whose job was to check tickets on the train. I was riding illegally in the first class section (seeking a tiny moment of relief from the throngs.) Pretending that I didn't understand the system, and throwing all the money I had at him (about fifty cents worth of Indian rupees,) I left him no choice but to accept my "bribe" and let me go. As an American, I felt surprisingly confident that he wouldn't argue with me if I bluffed ignorance and greased the deal with a bit of coin. Unexpected rights of adulthood were foisted upon me too, including the right to walk into any bar and order whatever I wanted. And rooms full of successful business men listened respectfully when I was asked to address Rotary assemblies about cultural or philosophical differences between the East and West. I never expected any of these things.


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At the midpoint of my stay, we spent seven days in paradise. Jetu Lalvani, the main figure behind Bombay’s Rotary Exchange program, packed all the exchange students down to the former Portuguese colony of Goa. In Goa, we spent days strolling the beaches, living on fresh fruit and Port wine. I spent a whole week shirtless. At night, the lazy hospitality of the waterfront, with its endless parties, embraced us. I remember talking to a coin seller at a flea market who wanted to become an artist. Being an art student myself, I bought some old and interesting coins to support him. Then he explained to me that his plan was to copy all the traditional Indian masterworks and sell them to tourists. He already had my money at that point. I wondered what the actual word "art" meant to a population living at bare sustenance levels.

Too quickly, we left the land of vacationing European playboys, aging hippy goddesses, and all-night tranced-out dance parties. Back in the city, my businessmen hosts smoked tobacco rolled with hash resin and drank imported liquor. In the morning, I read stories in the Times of India that alarming numbers of the peasantry were dying while purposely enticing poisonous snakes to bite them; it was the only kind of "high" they could afford. Letting a cobra bite you, inducing a near-death hallucinatory experience, was a recreational drug for the have-nots.

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2 Comments:

At 3/22/2007 08:26:00 AM, Blogger molly said...

It WAS you with the malaria. I was trying to figure out if I was making things up or not after you commented on my blog about your health... and then I was thinking it must have been someone else. It's almost comforting to know I haven't forgotten everything.

By the way, congrats to you and your lovely beloved on your new home!

M x

 
At 11/02/2007 11:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Crazy to read about your experiences in India. I was a rotary xchange student in 88-89. I was doing a search for jetu lalvani to see what he's been up to and came across your blog. I am also from seattle area. I am in India right now (arrived 2 days ago) and my pores are still struggling to open wide enough to deal with the heat and humidity. Things have changed here so much since the 90's but alot is the same. I think after the exchange India will always feel like home to me with its vibrations so deeply embedded in my subconscious. I am married to an Indian whom I went to St. Xaviers with in Bombay and we come here often for our business. It would be fun to chat about things sometime back in the states.

-travis (travis@indikaimports.com)

 

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