Friday, November 21, 2008

Host Family

Many of you may know that one of the aspects of the Guatemala site that really drew me to it was that the volunteers live with host families. There’s just something about living in the midst of other people’s lives that offers you a deeper glimpse into who they are. I thought that if there were one thing I would change about the India site, I would have lived with a host family.

What I’ve recently realized is that I do have a host family in PG Hostel. There are only seven of us, me, two first year Chemistry students, and four second year Chemistry students. I do everything with them that I would with a traditional host family: share meals, run errands, see each other off at the railway station, complain, rejoice, say “goodnight,” read (they study), and play.

What’s really special about these six men is that they don’t see me as their token American friend. At least not to the same extent as I feel many other CMS students do. With the hostel guys, my Indian family, I feel like as much of a Malayali as I’m ever going to. I can be honest with them: ask them not to call me saip, tell them when I’m not having a great day, and share that I miss my American family and friends deeply. In return, they listen to me and show genuine concern as if they were my brothers.

I recently found out the four second years are leaving at the end of March and will only return occasionally for their last exams. That only leaves the two first years and me until August. Except I found out this morning that one of the first years is leaving CMS. He has decided that a Masters in Chemistry has absolutely nothing to do with what he wants to do professionally, become a civil servant. I can’t say that I blame him, but this is a rough time for everyone.

Back in September, he was by far the most exhausting person I had met at CMS. He threw a ceaseless volley of questions at me concerning United States and Indian politics and social issues. To illustrate the struggle, I told the other volunteers that he must be the person God is “calling me to love.” I was soon able to appreciate that at least he asked the questions others were afraid to and spending time with him has become a joy, not a struggle.

But now he is leaving us. And to further complicate matters, that would leave only one student in PG Hostel proper (I live in an adjoining room), which leads them to think they may close the hostel after March. I pray this doesn’t happen. Not because I don’t want to move (frankly I don’t have enough things to even make it a hassle), but because I don’t want to lose my host family. I hope that they are able to find more students or some other solution. As long as I don’t lose the family I’ve found, I’ll be content.

I Do

I was sitting in my room Tuesday night when I saw two figures approach my door. It was two men, one of which I knew better (and took care of the speaking) and the other I had seen around CMS. The former informed me that the latter was getting married on Thursday at the CSI Cathedral in Kottayam and wanted me to be at the wedding. “Of course,” I immediately replied. It didn’t hurt that they also mentioned that biriyani (a kind of glorified fried rice) would be served at the reception.

I was so excited to have finally been invited to and Indian wedding that I called another volunteer as soon as they left. While I was on the phone with her, two other men approached my door. I quickly got off the phone, walked over, and saw that one of them was a PG hostel guy and the other I didn’t know. My friend proceeds to inform me that the latter is getting married during the weekend that I’ll be on retreat with the other YAVs; I explained and declined feeling quite disappointed.

I know, I know. I had just been invited to another wedding, but the second was going to be quite the affair. Not only was it a Hindu wedding, meaning another level of opportunity for cultural and religious observation, but it was going to involve traveling with the guys and to another part of Kerala. But I love weddings, so I was still excited to go to the Christian one on Thursday. And of course, Becca had been invited too (her Malayalam tutor is the groom’s grandfather); the Christian community in Kerala is quite the network.

So after teaching a class on Thursday morning, I made the fifteen minute walk (yes, uphill) to the CSI Cathedral, where I’d attended a worship service previously, to wait for Becca. She was being brought from Mandirim by a Malayali, so they were naturally late, culturally on time. I took a seat by myself and soon found that I didn’t have the best view. Frankly I’m not sure what went on for the next forty-five minutes because of my vantage point and the language barrier. But of course, I do have a few observations:

One of the most astounding moments was when the wedding march began (same “Here Comes the Bride” that we have) and the bride was proceeded by twenty Achens (Pastors). No exaggeration, I counted. The aforementioned grandfather to the groom explained that the family was basically well connected. Normally, he said, only three Achens are necessary. And don’t you worry, the Bishop was also present.

A general cultural observation is the clothing worn by the guests. Although the groom wore a suit and the bride a white wedding sari, guests wore what they would to go out for tea in. Kerala just doesn’t have the same concept of levels of dress that we have. It was incredibly nice to know that I could wear the same thing to teach and then to the wedding. I didn’t have to worry about being over or under-dressed for either.

We go as far as to tell our guests what to wear on the invitation. Why!? Where does our concept of dressing “up” come from? It doesn’t change who the person is. Why try to alter the perception? And because Malayalis don’t dress up for events doesn’t mean they take them any less seriously. They just have other, less material ways of making events special. After being here, it just seems strange to me how much importance we place on a person’s clothing.

The reception was fairly similar to American weddings. The couple sat up front and the guests at tables to eat the delicious biriyani (I consumed more in one sitting than I have since coming). However, it was only an hour long and didn’t involve dancing. What it did involve was a soundtrack of American 90’s boybands; spectacular!

One last similarity and difference. Similarity: the wedding photographers (film and still) were all over the place just like ours. And I’ve found that Malayali wedding albums are quite the sight and are shown enthusiastically to guests in homes. Difference: the time and day of the wedding (11:30 AM on a Thursday) was quite different from your typical Saturday evening American wedding. I’m not sure when most Indian wedding are, but this one was a little different than what I’m used to.


Slowly but surely, I’m uncovering my path here in India. While it is sometimes frustrating to not have the amount of guidance and pressure that I’m used to, it’s also a blessing to have the kind of flexibility my site offers me concerning the utilization of my time. I thought it would be nice to provide some of you at home with an idea of how I make use of my time in the form of a schedule of sorts:

Tuesday/Up-for-Grabs-day – Nothing formally scheduled here; it is becoming a pseudo-Sabbath of sorts (unless I am asked to teach three classes like this week). I do usually tutor an MSW student from a neighboring town in spoken English any day of the week I’m available. So, a lot of catching up on emails, reading, relaxing, praying (ok, maybe not a lot on this one), and grabbing any opportunities that arise. Of course, everyday that I’m here (not including Sunday), I go to Jacob’s (a coffee shop) with the PG hostel guys, where a woman about 40 years serves us coffee and gives us free snacks sometimes. What can I say; she loves us and we love her. Other than that, I do whatever pops up on Tuesday. For example, while I was at a wedding yesterday, an Achen (Pastor) introduced himself and proceeded to tell me he would pick me up next Tuesday to visit a seminary that he’s speaking at. My response: Sounds good! Indian flexibility, my friends.

Wednesday/Mandirim-day – After talking with Becca, who is often overwhelmed by the number of ammachis and appachens (elderly women and men) she needs to visit each week at her site, Mandirim Society, and realizing that I have an excess of time, it has been decided that I will visit Mandirim each Wednesday to spend time with the residents there. This week was my first visit and Becca had to kind of escort me around, but soon I’ll be visiting on my own. It’s also great to spend time with another volunteer to process, rejoice, complain, and generally have some good laughs. Of course, I go to Jacobs when I get back to Kottayam (it’s about a 20 minute bus ride) and tutor the MSW student, who is not from CMS by the way. I actually met a friend of his at Jacobs and was then surprised with a visit from the two of them at my room that night. Slightly random, but mostly an exciting opportunity (I much prefer “tutoring” one person to “teaching” a class).

Thursday/Teaching-day – At ten o’clock I teach a class on Critical Essay Writing to the Communicative English students for an hour. The students generally have better English skills than other departments and there are some real characters in this class. They’re a lot of fun and when we have time, we even play games. From 1:15-1:45 I engage a class over at the Baker L.P. school (about a 10 minute walk to the elementary school). This is a bit of a struggle. Mostly because I don’t really know what to do with the kids; their English is pretty limited so I will read them a short story and ask a couple comprehension questions. We also play games like Simon Says, which build vocabulary. I’m learning what works and doesn’t. And there’s always Jacob’s and tutoring (have you caught on yet?).

Friday-Monday/Kanam Time! – Anywhere between Friday and Monday (leave on Friday or Saturday and return on Sunday or Monday) I take a one hour bus ride to Kanam to stay at the CSI Boys Hostel there. The children are either orphans, deserted, or come from families too poor to support them. There are almost 50 boys that range from fifth standard to college (including two at CMS who I ride the bus with). I’ve really begun to look forward to my time there. I feel a real sense of purpose when I’m in Kanam that I don’t always feel at CMS. We sit around and talk, play cricket, badminton, or volleyball (that’s right, I’m playing sports), eat, sleep, read, teach/learn English grammar, and attend Friday night prayer and Sunday morning worship. And whichever days I’m not there, of course include Jacobs and tutoring.


Chapel – Chapel services at CMS are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9:30-10:00. I attend each of these that I’m here for and sometimes lead the English service, which is on Monday.

Breakfast – Sometime between 7:30 and 8:3, the guys and I take about a 10 minute walk to a hole-in-the-wall hotel (restaurant) for delicious breakfast. It’s so good, I always get the same thing: iddyappam and mota curry.

Lunch – Anywhere between 12:00 and 2:00, I usually go to the college canteen for rice unless I’m invited by students somewhere else.

Supper – Between 7:00 and 8:30, the guys and I take another 10 minute walk in the opposite direction to have canye (rice soup) from Deepika Canteen (a place for newspaper employees, but others are welcome).

This in no way covers all the random events I find myself at or illustrates my time spent at the hostel with the guys, but should give you a pretty good idea of how I use a good portion of my time.


Back in February, when I began applying for the YAV program, I was emailed a Word document named “Important YAV Concepts.” The first section, “Being and Doing,” explains the challenge and “healthy tension” between these two ways of living; “In our culture, much value is placed upon what we do and achieve. If we cannot show that we are ‘usefully’ occupied or point to the evidence of our work, we can feel a sense of failure or lack of purpose because our culture values doing… Allow God to use you whether you are being or doing. Often times one leads richly to the other.” This tension is probably the biggest struggle I’m having in India.

Because CMS simply does not ask much of me, I can rarely show that I am “usefully occupied” which has at times led to feeling a “lack of purpose”. Much of what I’m asked to do simply involves showing up at events to simply be present and not directly participate. In the beginning, when my focus was on simply adjusting, it was nice to not have too much asked of me. But eventually it was not nice at all, primarily frustrating. Being present at event after event is simply not quantifiable, and quantifying work and time is what American culture does best.

Yet slowly I am coming to realize that the most beautiful, fulfilling moments really do come from my least structured activities (e.g. going to coffee each day with the guys, walking around and striking up conversations with students, visiting people’s homes, even reading with students). It is in these moments that I am able to offer myself, not what I can accomplish. In a recent email, a close pastor and mentor reminded me, “The work you are doing - the ministry of presence - is truly one of the things that is the hardest to learn.”

[Excerpt from my October Newsletter to friends, family, and supports.]