Hello India!!!

Hello India!!!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Conclusion: I’m either making the biggest mistake of my life or the most life-changing decision of my life….

WOW. It’s finally done. The day I’ve never expected is waiting at my door. I don’t know what to do, what to say, what to think. I’m speechless. I can’t even identify all the emotions I’m feeling inside me. There’s a tornado inside me; the hot and cold air twisting in bittersweet rotation; the pretty-ugly sight destroying and creating itself in front of me. The oxymorons are endless. The contradictions have become familiar, though.

I remember jumping on an airplane with my small luggage, curly hair, purple jacket and black dress. The plane took off. My dragonfly-heart pumped. I was excited but scared. And I remember thinking to myself: I’m either making the biggest mistake of my life or the most life-changing decision of my life.”

After everything has been said and done, it’s quite obvious now that this short 4 ½ month journey in India has been the most rewarding, eye-opening, mind-blowing and life-changing experience I’ve ever had in my 20 years of living. I do not regret anything I did in India. I’d do it all over again if I could. I’d do it a million times over.

But life is life. Life is complicated. Life is hard. Life is fun. Life is an adventure. Being in India I’ve really learned the true meaning of KAL HO NAA HO. Each day is something new; always a new adventure, new challenges, new fight, new rickshaw driver, new dog on the street, new experience, JUST NEW EVERYTHING. With all of this newness every single day I’ve come to appreciate the familiar things; the things that are old and redundant. I’ve come to enjoy seeing the same-old, same-old photographs, the people in my past and present that are in the United States, the home in St. Paul, etc.

Sometimes it’s not the new things that allow us to “live our lives to the fullest”. Sometimes it’s the new things that push us to realize the old things that we have in our lives; and it is then that we truly learn what makes our lives come to its fullest. And for me that is my Mom. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Top 10 Things You Should Know Before Coming To India (Last Impression)

Last Impression

Let’s get deeper. Let’s dive farther into what India is really all about – beyond the tip of the iceberg, beyond first impression, beyond stereotypes and beyond rumors.

1)      People will stare – and it’s OK
After many years of colonization in India, people here will look at foreigners as a threat (especially white people). They will stare at you and try to guess your race, the country you might be from and what you wearing. Plus, it’s also culturally acceptable to stare at people. It’s just like how it’s culturally acceptable for Americans to smile at strangers. So it’s okay if you feel alienated with glares. Just strut it.

2)      Cows are overrated
I don’t know why Americans are so fascinated with the fact that Hindus don’t eat beef. It’s crazy how much the “cow” thing is exaggerated. It’s really not that big of a deal here in India. Cows are cows. They are considered holy. They eat the trash (and sometimes grass if available). They don’t bother anyone.

3)      Know A LITTLE of the language before coming - it will help you A LOT
Nomaskar. Kemon achen? Phalo Achi. Thik Ache. This very simple and elementary words will open doors you will never know exist. When you go to foreign country and speak their language it shows that you at least care enough about them to learn their language. As silly as sounds, when you say these tiny phrases it lights up smiles on people's faces. If Bengalis start talking back to you in Bangla and you don't understand, just say "Ami Bangal jaani na." 

4)      Americans are too cautious
Seatbelts are not used in India. Baby boosters do not exist. People tailgate until the two bumpers of the cars kiss. Red lights do not mean STOP all the time. All these things sound dangerous to Americans but it’s really not that dangerous. Americans are just too cautious about everything they do. It’s crazy how many bottles of hand sanitizers we’ve gone through this semester; for Indians this sense of hand-washing-madness is ridiculous. The germs level here is much higher than in the U.S. but it also gives Indians a higher immune system to fight these germs.

5)      You will share space with strangers – Just accept this truth
Don’t be surprised when you find yourself inside an auto rickshaw with four other strangers that you’ve never met in your life, and will probably never meet again in your life. You will find yourself inside a city bus sari-to-sari, shirt-to-shirt, and kurta-to-kurta with women you’ve never met. You will sometimes have an adolescent child sitting on your lap in the auto rickshaw. You will stand breast-to-breast to other metro riders. Just accept the fact that no one really cares about ‘personal space’. After you’ve accepted this you will automatically allow yourself to relax.

6)      Collectivism vs. Individualism
My roommate and I get into the city bus. The ticket guy sees that we’re together. It costs Rs. 4 to ride the city bus. My roommate hands him a Rs. 10 bill to pay for herself. He gives her Rs. 2 change. She’s confused. I’m confused. Then we realize he thought my roommate was paying for the both of us: total Rs. 8, which was why he’d given her the wrong change. Here in the Eastern Hemisphere everything is all about the community; it’s a collectivist culture.  The idea of individualism is rare. It’s not just in the city bus – it’s in the auto rickshaws, the metro, the taxi, the water you drink, the food you eat, the cigarettes you smoke, etc. They share everything here since resources are so scarce.

7)      Sometimes being “too rich” is annoying
$1.00 ~ Rs. 45; $100 = Rs. 4500; $1000 = Rs. 45,000. I’m rich here, basically. And it sucks. Sometimes being rich has its disadvantages. It sucks when you only have a Rs. 500 bill and no one will sell you anything because they don’t have the change for you. One day I was really thirsty and had forgotten my water bottle at home. I tried purchasing a Rs. 14 bottle of mineral water. Three different stores rejected my thirst because they didn’t have the proper change for me. People are pretty stingy about their Rs. 10 bills here. Having 10s seems more important than having 1000 bills. So collect as much change as you can.

8)      1 hour travel time in India vs. 1 hour travel time in the U.S.
I slept over at my friend Sanghmitra’s house one night. We had great cultural exchange conversations about India and the U.S.
Then she asked me: Why do you live on campus if it’s more expensive?
Me: Well because it’s too far for me to live at home and go to college.
Sangha: How far is it?
Me: It’s an hour drive.
Sangha: That’s it? It takes me one hour to get to St. Xavier’s college, too. I still live at home.

It never occurred to me that this was true. It did take me roughly an hour to get from my house in Tollygunj to St. Xavier’s College, just as it would take me roughly an hour to get from my house in St. Paul to the College of St. Benedict. But the distance traveled in miles/kilometers was different; it was like comparing apples to rocket ships; there was no comparison. I couldn’t make Sangha understand that though the time traveled is the same, the distance traveled is beyond comparison.

9)      What’s rude to Americans is not rude to Indians
I’m just going to be blunt about this: People in India budge in line, they never run on time, they judge you on your skin color and your religious affiliation must be identified. This sounds rude, huh? Well, it’s actually not. The sense of having a queue has never been a part of the Indian culture (or any Asian culture). The sense of time is completely western, Indians (and other Asian cultures) follow the time of the Sun and Moon. People will ask you, “Are you Chinese?” instead of, “What do you identify as your ethnicity?” People will ask you, “What religion do you practice?” instead of, “Do you practice any religion.” This is all a part of the Indian culture. It may seem rude to Americans, but it’s not meant to be demeaning.

10)  Know who Rabindranath Tagore is
If you’re especially coming to the Bengal region of India, PLEASE do some research about Rabindranath Tagore before coming or else it will be insulting to Bengalis that you know nothing about him. Many people compare Tagore with Gandhi. And trust me, according to Bengalis Gandhi isn’t all that great. Tagore’s better. Do your research on both leaders and make up your own mind about it. Seriously though, know who Tagore is before coming to Kolkata. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

It’s more than just me being Hmong

At first it was extremely difficult to deal with my identity as Hmong person. I'm not "American" in their eyes and I'm not "Chinese" in my eyes. I was considered "Mixed Vegetable" meaning I am Asian not brought up in Asia. At first it was really shallow and all about the physical looks. 

But as my journey is coming to an end at this point, I can honestly say that (some) Indians have been very supportive and open about my ethnicity and cultural background. Trust me, Indians know WAY more about DIVERSITY and the US will ever know about diversity. It's tremendously diverse here.

In the US when we talk about diversity it's usually nothing more than the physical characteristics of a person's identity - sometimes we went to the cultural level of diversity - but still, it's nothing compared to India's. 

I understand why they get confused when I say I'm from the US. First of all I'm not WHITE. Let me elaborate. It's not entirely India's fault for this misunderstanding. It's also the US's fault for only letting white people represent the US. The Whites dominate the international cinema, the news, the politics, the gossip, the music, and especially the tourism. When this is all Indians see about the US, of course they will get confused if a Chinese-looking girls claims she's American.

So it takes people like me (and other non-White Americans as well as open-minded White Americans) to come to India to represent ourselves and to say that America is more than just white, rich, snobby Americans who complain about every goddamn thing that is unfamiliar to them. It takes people like us to speak out about the versatility of the US, the good the bad and the ugly. Because here in India they don't hide anything. They show their true faces, be it happy or mad. They show their poverty. They show their wealth. They show off this knowledge. They show off their anger. They show off their flaws. Nothing is hidden. Americans hide a lot of things - especially their flaws. 

Plus, what is Hmong to this world anyway? How will people ever know of Hmong people if all of us concentrate in the Twin Cities area? At the end of the day I'm HUMAN, you're human, Indians are human, whites are human, blacks and human, etc. We fight so hard to say THIS IS WHO/ WHAT I AM! when in reality we are all very similar. I don't know why I fought so hard to prove that I was/am Hmong here. (Ok, I do know why, but still...) 

When I came to terms that I AM HUMAN it definitely changed the way I saw my surroundings. I saw the beggars on the streets and me as equals. I saw the white students on this trip with me as equals. I saw Indians was equals. Everything becomes less hierarchal when you break down all the social norms we've created for our human race.

*Inspired by my conversation with Mysee Chang. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Running low on words

3 weeks left in India before heading home - I mean U.S.A. Home. I'm running low on words.
So I'll share this interesting finding I've found about auto rickshaws:

Love Lessons from Auto Rickshaws

Waiting for an auto rickshaw to come by is like a dessert waiting for rain. You just have to hope and pray that an auto rickshaw is not 4-persons-full by the time it reaches your sight. Sometime it gets quite tricky; they deceive you. You may think that you could fit into the auto rickshaw that is coming directly your direction, but once it reaches you it is already full. And this same repetition happens over and over again. I stand there feeling like a fool sometimes just waiting for an open rickshaw. The great thing is that if you wait LONG enough there is bound to be an auto rickshaw is empty enough to fit you. This is a promise.

Same thing happens with romantic relationships, too, you know? We were all single once (and some of us are still single) so we can all relate to this. People cross your path everyday; sometimes we wait and wait for just someone, anyone, to let us in and enjoy the ride with them. But it’s tricky; love is deceiving. You may think you’ve found the right person that could suit you, but once you’re with them it’s not what you think it is. And this same repetition happens over and over again leaving us looking like fools. But the great thing is that if you wait LONG enough there is bound to be someone who is perfect for you. I guarantee it. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Kuv Hnub Yug

April 7th, 2011

(Here’s my attempt at relearning how to read/write in Hmoob. )

20 xyoo dhau los, vam tib 7 lub 4 hli ntuj xyoo 1991, kuv niam yug kuv nyob rau lub teb chaws Thai. Hnub no kuv sawv ze ze ntawn tav chaws uas kuv niam yug kuv. Nyob sab ntuj tim no tsis zoo li sab ntuj tim U.S.A.

Kuv niam ib txwm hais rau kuv hais tias peb cov nus muag hmoo zoo heev uas peb tau loj hlob rau lub teb chaws Mekas, lub teb chaws ua vam meej tshaj, muaj kev ywg pheej thiab thaj yeeb.

Peb hmoo zoo tshaj uas nom tswv Mekas tseem cia peb kawm ntawv dawb, pab peb kom peb txawj nste li lawn, qhia peb lus English thiab kam peb nyob lawn lus teb chaws.

Kuv niam ua hnub ua hmo pus peb tua rau lub teb chaws Mekas 15 xyoo dhau los. Tabsis tus Niam uas yog kuv niam hnub no tsis yog tus niam thaum i lawn. Kuv pom thiab puab tau hais tias kuv niam yeev hloov lawn ho ntau.

Yog vim li cas kuv yuav sau ntau uas luas txoj kuv niam? Vim rau qhov hais tias yog tsis muaj kuv niam ces twb tsis muaj kuv thiab. Vim muaj kuv niam ua hnub ua hmo, tiv tsha tiv nag coj peb cov me nyuam tuas rau lub teb chaws zoo tshaj hauv lub ntiag teb no.

Hnub no kuv muaj txoj sia nyob vim rau qhov kuv niam txoj kev muaj peem xwm, muaj zog, muaj hu chim thiab muaj kev tsheej. Kuv niam cog kuv rau hauv lub ntiag teb no rau hnub no; hnub no yog hnub uas kuv txoj sia xws li cov nplej pib tawm hauv av tuaj. Tabsino kuv nyuam qhauv pib tuaj kaus xwb. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jain Nuns: A World I Cannot Fathom

I don’t know much about Jainism besides the fact that they are extremely devoted to non-violence, like the “extreme-to-the extreme” sort of extremity. This past Sunday March 27, 2011 we attended an event where two 20 year old girls were converting to become Jain Nuns. These two girls are my age. At this age I still feel like a little child trying to understand the world – how in the world can these two girls decide that they will be nuns for the rest of their lives?

The place was decorated as if there was a wedding ceremony going on. There were over 300 guests at the event, I’m sure. The two high cheek-boned girls sat on stage while the MC is yapping her head off in Bangla; I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Then a video slide show popped up after the MC walked off the stage. The lights dimmed and the music shook the room. I was shocked when the photos came up. Were these girls in the slideshow the same girls on stage? In the slideshow were normal-looking girls who wore jeans and t-shirts, saris, sunglasses, etc. There were some photographs that looked like it was taken off of their Facebook profile. You know, the pictures were young girls hold the camera 30 cm away from their faces and shot their own picture. There were pictures of their college friends, their travels throughout Europe, their family members and their youth. They were just as normal as you and I.

I thought: Why do they want to give up all of these things, all their loves ones, their friends, their education, their wealth, their happiness to become nuns? Why are they betraying their parents after so many years of raising them up? Is this how they are repaying their parents? I couldn’t understand why they wanted to leave everything they’ve ever known to hibernate forever as nuns at the age of 20.

Jainism is one of the most ancient religions of the world, similar to Buddhism in many respect, and emerging from the same heterodox classical Indian world of the Ganges basin in the earthly centuries BC. Like Buddhism it was partly a reaction to Brahminical caste consciousness and the readiness of the Brahmins to slaughter huge quantities of animals for temple sacrifices – but the faith of the Jains is slightly more ancient and much more demanding. Jains pluck their hair out by the roots; Buddhists shave their heads. Jains have to have their food given to them without asking; Buddhist monks beg for food.

Before becoming Jain Nuns they must go through a formal transition known as diksha. After going through diksha –a process where they plucked out every strand of their hair, left their family and belongings and learned how to fast and meditate, etc. – they change their names and cannot turn back to being who they were. New expectations are set for them:
-          never again use a vehicle, must walk everywhere barefoot
-          take food only once a day
-          do not use Western medicine
-          abstain from emotions
-          never to hurt any living creature
-          must not react to attacks
-          must not beg, cry, complain, demand, feel superiority

Jains have5 vows that they must take:
1)      Non-violence: extreme commitment to being harmless.
If a Jain nun is plucking her hair out of her head and sees a louse they are not allowed to harm the louse, and they are not to continue plucking the hair because that means they are destroying the lice’s home.
2)      No untruth: extreme commitment to being honest.
When people tell time they are unaware of different clocks and different time zones. If a Jain is asked what time is it they will not tell you an exact time, instead they would say, “Right now in this place the time is around ______.” They do this because they don’t want to lie to people.
3)      No stealing: extreme commitment to never take anything that doesn’t belong to them.
If a Jain comes to someone’s house they will not sit down until they are told to do so. If they sit down before they are offered the seat, that would mean they are stealing the seat since the seat does not belong to them.
4)      No sex: extreme commitment to abstinence.
They can’t think, fantasize or have sex. Any of those would violate their commitment to abstinence.
5)      No attachments: extreme commitment to not being too close to anything.
They believe that all attachments bring suffering that is why they give up everything; their belongings, their reputations, their money, their careers, their goals and dreams, their wealth, and most importantly their family. This is one of the main principles of Jainism called aparigrapha.

Sallekhana is the ritual fast to death. Jains regard it as the culmination of their life as ascetics. It is what they all aim for and work towards as the best route to Nirvana. And no, sallekhana and suicide are not the same things. Suicide is a great sin, the result of despair. But sallekhana is a triumph over death, an expression of hope. Jains believe that death is not the end; that life and death are complementary. So they embrace sallekhana you are embracing life on room at another. With suicide death is full of pain and suffering. But sallekhana is a beautiful thing. There is no distress or cruelty. As nuns their lives are peaceful and giving up the body should also be peaceful.

After death the soul renews through reincarnation. It’s like this: when your clothes get old and torn you get new one. So it is with the body. After the age of thirty, every year it gets weaker. When the body withers completely they should take a new one, like a hermit crab finding a new shell. For the soul will to wither and in rebirth you simply exchange your torn and damaged old clothes for a new one.

There’s still a lot more to Jainism that I do not understand. After reflecting on my experience with the two 20 year girls converting to become Jain Nuns this was what I concluded. I’m not satisfied with this conclusion but it’s the only one that makes my heart feel at peace: There must be something I am missing that these two girls are gaining. There must be something about life that they know about, something I do not and cannot wrap my mind around. I’ve been conditioned to think that having attachments is a good thing and being loved is a beautiful thing. All my life I’ve been told, and have come to believe, that being attached to my surroundings, to my family, friends, peers, education, wealth, etc. is a necessity.

For them it seems like their understanding of the world is different from mine. To them life and things in it are only temporary, they do not remain with us forever. Neither belief is right or wrong.

*Most of this information and writing is from William Dalrymple’s book Nine Lives.

Monday, March 28, 2011

No Make Up 2011

This year I decide to put away my high heels, Cover Girl cosmetics, high-fashion wardrobe and familiar faces behind and enter a whole new world. I was hoping to gain new relationships with strangers; get a new wardrobe of kurtis and kurtas, patialas, ali baba pants and shawls; gain new insights about this side of the world; new knowledge and understanding of where I stand in the world. And yes I’ve gained all these things but above and beyond these things is one thing I truly gained: I gained a deeper understanding of why I put those things away.
In putting away all these things I’ve gained new insights to them. Makeup for example: I don’t have to worry about spending money on them or how I look without makeup. This world is a beauty contest for women and makeup is the best strategy to win. But giving up makeup says loud and clear that I choose not to participate in the world’s biggest beauty pageant. In this dog-eat-dog world where women are pitted against each other in the media, of course women feel the need to cover up. Eventually that makeup (mask) becomes a part of their identity. And if she decides to go without makeup for one day people will be shock and start shooting “wow” firework in the air. And you know what else? If there’s a prize for beautiful, I guess I’ve already won that.