Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Holidays, Services, and Untouchability

This Monday was a holiday and all but one of the men in the hostel went home to take advantage of the three-day weekend. Overall, the weekend was fairly uneventful; the two of us both enjoy reading, which consumed most of our time. In fact, we spent about an hour on Sunday afternoon reading The Hindu, the national English newspaper, and I would explain the definitions of words here and there. Also on Sunday, I was able to visit my fifth church in Kerala. I must say the differences between services that I am able to pick up on are few and far between thanks to my friend The Language Barrier.

However, my first Sunday at CMS I went with a friend (now gone to Goa, another state, to work after completing his graduate work this September) to a Catholic service. Some clear differences were definitely present. Of special note was the amazingness that was the priest’s robe and cape combo; he would have fit right in on a stage in Vegas. I found myself daydreaming of becoming Catholic so that upon ordination I could take advantage of such exhilarating attire (it would even make up for that whole celibacy thing… maybe). But I digress…

After spending the entire weekend at a professor’s house the weekend before, I learned this Sunday that I much prefer one-day visits where I am able to return to my room to process the day. This trip consisted of being picked up at the hostel by my Malayalam tutor, a CMS student and quite the character, taking a rather empty bus to his village, having coffee with his family (including his adorable 29-day-old nephew who made me miss my own nephew terribly), having breakfast at a CMS staff members home, attending the customary two hour church service, being escorted back to the bus stop, braving an impressively crowded bus back to Kottayam on my own, and finally crashing on my bed for a nap until lunch. One of my “favorite” things is being asked by everyone, “How was the service?” Of course, my answer is always positive while I think to myself, “I have no idea what was going on!” This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the visit, because I most certainly did.

Aside from The Language Barrier, my constant companion, there are a few other aspects of Kerala worship services that I have found challenging to reconcile with my theology. One of the main characteristics is that women sit on one side of the church and men on the other. This isn’t particular to churches though; the same is true for busses, classrooms, eating, etc. Communion, which I’m thinking may be served every Sunday, further reinforces some gender separation. Not only do men go to one side of the altar(?) and women to the other, but the women obediently cover their heads with their saris to receive communion. And lastly, the services are extraordinarily liturgical. Every week the same order of worship is followed with the same prayers (except for slight variations where allowed by the Book). And they call Presbyterians “the frozen chosen.” Oh, and did I mention the services are usually around two hours long?

Disclaimer: I mean for none of this to serve as a critique; I just thought I’d share a few examples of what has made me appreciate my own Presbyterianism and give my readers a little less of my regular white-washed view of India

After tea on Sunday, my friend and I watched a documentary that his friend, who is working on a Masters in Film and Editing, lent him. The documentary, India Untouched, was directed by Stalin K, who is, I believe, a Malayali (a more often used term for Keralite) to highlight the issue of Untouchability in India. Now I’m not going to go into an explanation of the caste system because (1) I don’t know enough about it and (2) it’s two exhaustive of a subject to attempt to explain in a blog, but the film brought a lot to my attention; mostly along the lines of how incredibly diverse India is and as a result, how little I really comprehend of this nation’s complexity.

Kerala, which, by the way, uses Untouchability (practiced like it sounds) against the Dalits (lowest caste) only in more subtle ways, is renowned for its level of development, literacy rates, and beauty. Therefore, I’m really looking forward to April when the volunteers will embark on our All-India Tour (specific states yet to be determined by us) and Christmas break which will be spent at an orphanage in Andhra Pradesh. I’m excited to be able to have something to compare Kerala too because I’m finding my current lens is pretty limited.

The Foreigner

There is a word that follows each volunteer of Team India, as we jovially refer to ourselves, like a persistent mosquito. Yes, that really is an accurate analogy. For David and me, the word is saip. And for Lindsey, Sudie, Ariel, and Becca, it is madama. Each of the volunteers has a different relationship with their word/mosquito. Some swat it immediately, others wear Off! to prevent it’s attacks, and some may smile lovingly at this integral part of God’s creation. I fall into Category 1: The Swatters. I anticipate swatting the word when no one is even speaking. I dream about its death. If this word, saip, were actually a tangible being I would guillotine it.

The word saip, I am told, is the Malayalam counterpart to sahib, which simply means sir in Hindi. And now, Dear Reader, you are thinking, “Oh, how polite and innocent of a word.” Not so fast! During India’s visit from her "friend" (intended to read sarcasticaly) Colonization, sahib/saip began to be used out of (undeserved) respect for Englishmen (and madama for women in case you hadn’t put that together yet). And now the term is synonymous with “foreigner.” Having people recognize me as a foreigner isn’t offensive in and of itself; indeed, I am a foreigner and have no shame in being one. But there’s something about me that allows people to make that judgment: my skin.

I am struggling because for the first time in my life I feel defined by the color of my skin. As a white man who grew up in the U.S., I have always been the majority. And while there were times when I’m sure I was the minority in a room, they were rare and passing. No, unlike others, my skin has never made me feel abnormal. The society I come from repeatedly affirms that I am the normal one whose Band-aids have always matched my skin. But the truth is there’s nothing any more “normal” about the color of my skin, yours, an Indian’s, or Barack Obama’s. The challenge is that I have now received a label that I did not ask for and would prefer to reject. And because I don’t speak Malayalam, I will never even understand the complexity of the connotations associated with the word saip, my label, like its users do.

What I do have control over, and will use more carefully from here on out, is the labels that I place on others. For example, until now, I have never really understood why U.S. citizens whose ancestors were Mexican do not want to be referred to as Mexican themselves. I always thought, “Well, my grandmother doesn’t mind being called German.” I think I get it now. There are plenty of connotations and various understandings associated with the word “Mexican” and if you prefer “Hispanic” or “Latina/o,” I am happy to oblige. It is not denying someone’s identity; it is recognizing the common humanity and honoring people enough to empower them to choose how that identity is expressed through a medium as powerful as language.

So, one of my struggles in India is to not become frustrated or offended as I hear saip littered throughout Malayalam conversations right in from of me or when a child sights me on the street and immediately starts pointing to their parent while saying that dreaded word. Instead, I will try to appreciate that this situation offers me an opportunity to feel the uncomfortableness of being the minority (and believe me, it’s a unique, powerful, and irreplaceable experience) and allows me, in a small way, to be in solidarity with other minorities in the world, especially in my own country, who struggle to escape undesired, painful, divisive labels.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Temple Shenanigans

There’s something about walking around Kottayam at night that I really like. Last night was even better because it marked the beginning of the Hindu holy days this week, which have to do with the goddess of arts and education. So, I went with a few of my friends to the nearby temple for them to drop off their books to be blessed because no one studies over the next two days. Think of it like an extended Sabbath specifically for academia.

Of course, I’m not allowed to go into the temple, so Geevarghese and I waited outside while I amused myself with taking pictures and video (mostly to record the awesome singing that was coming from the temple) of the goings-on. And because I woke up very early this morning and have already finished reading more of the Bible than I honestly enjoy in one sitting, I gladly present the fruits of my effort: a short video. Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Off to the Mountains

I bet you thought our trip to Cherai Beach was fun, huh? Well guess what, it only got better from there! Achen and Kochamma took us for an overnight trip to Munnar, a small tea plantation town in the mountains along the eastern border of Kerala. Munnar was breathtakingly beautiful and also cold! I don’t remember the last time, I was actually woken up at night from being too cold. We had a great time at the hotel relaxing, visiting a wildlife reserve for tahr (a threatened species of goat), and a tour through a tea factory.

The retreat (considered phase two of our in-country orientation) was really helpful to all of us. Achen has a knack for putting things into perspective. And simply knowing that all the volunteers are struggling with something at their sites, some more than others, is comforting. My challenge is trying to figure out how exactly I can be of the most use here. While the retreat was refreshing, I was really excited to get back to CMS to catch up with the guys and wear my mundu again to breakfast.

Tea plantains from a moving car.
More tea...
Homes in the valley of Munnar.
A tahr.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Fun in the Sun

After four of us traveled by train to Aluva from Kottayam (largely uneventful, yet successful), the six of us volunteers, Achen, Kochamma, and their niece drove to Cherai Beach , where we hung out for a few hours. Words just don't do the experience justice, so enjoy these pictures instead. And as always, there are loads more pictures to be found on my web album.

Becca and Sudie upon arrival.

Me, pretty excited to be out and about!

Lindsey and Ariel showing off their talents.

Sudie, Becca, and Ariel frolicking!

Goodbye, Mr. Sun.

The whole Team: Lindsey, Me, Sudie, David, Becca, and Ariel.

Woman who can wield a machete like you wouldn't believe.

Me "enjoying" some coconut water/milk.