Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Whole Lot of Catch-up

August 14th, 2011

Hello everyone!  I’m very sorry I have not written in a while.  Things have been really crazy.  We left Mussoorie; we moved into our new houses; we started school; a whole host of phone and internet problems got resolved, unresolved, and resolved again multiple times; I got infected with the virus from Hell, which put me out of commission for a week…  Things continue to be crazy, but I will provide a few quick updates.


On July 29th, we bid a sad farewell to Mussoorie.  It was really starting to feel like home, and though we knew we wouldn’t miss shivering in the cold rains, the idea of heading back to hot, humid, polluted Delhi was not that appealing.  Leaving Manoj, Auntie-ji, Ravi, Sunil, and the rest of the gang at Ivy Bank (our guesthouse) was also sad.  Fortunately, there is facebook.

After a stomach churning drive, we reached Dehradun.  With 5 hours to go before our train departed, we were not sure what to do.  So we restaurant hopped, and ate about five dinners.  Oh, and we also went bowling.  It was a lot of fun.


We arrived in Delhi at 5:30 am, on July 30th.  We were immediately whisked off to the Taj Mahal hotel, where we spent a few days in the lap of luxury.  Though the complimentary breakfast was nice, I must admit that I was very happy to get out of that place, and very excited to start life as a Delhi-ite.  Which brings me to…


I am now a proud resident of Malviya Nagar, a neighborhood in South Delhi.  There is a small park with a playground directly in front of our house, where there are always children playing, and adults power walking.  Also, there is free yoga every morning!  I have yet to take part, mostly because I have not had a good night’s sleep since returning to Delhi, but I hope to join in soon.  Our apartment is very nicely located, close to the bustling Malviya Nagar main market, the super swanky Select City Walk Mall, and the Hauz Khas metro station.  Our landlords are wonderful, helpful, and welcoming, and have promised me Indian cooking lessons.  More on those to come!


Lest we forget, I am here in India on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship.  My assignment is to teach middle school English at the Navyug School, Laxmi Bai Nagar.  The Navyug School system, founded in the 1980s, is a system of government-funded English medium schools for academically talented children from the “economically weaker section of society.”  The schools operate under the belief that bad economic circumstances should not stop talented children from achieving all that they can.  I believe whole-heartedly in the school’s mission, and am excited to be affiliated with it.  I am not blind to its problems however.  As is so often the case all over the world, particularly with regards to education, things are not always quite as clear-cut and perfect as they seem.  For example, though the school is technically English medium (all subjects, including science, math, etc. are supposed to be taught in English) this is not really the case, as many of the students do not have the English skills to understand such advanced concepts in the language.  (I should also mention that some students speak very good English—the huge range of proficiency is another problem.)  For this reason, teachers often revert back to Hindi when explaining things, creating a vicious cycle.  Naturally, this has implications for me too.  The literature on the government mandated syllabus is often far too advanced for many of my students: try explaining the concept of irony (in English) to kids who struggle to put two sentences together in the language.  Not easy.

So far, school has been chaotic, frustrating, exhilarating, refreshing, heartwarming, exhausting…basically, overwhelming.  My students are very sweet, but very loud.  Some of the kids are loud because they are being deliberately disruptive (having fist fights, drumming on the tables, throwing pens, etc.).  Others are honestly trying to learn, but in their enthusiasm are yelling “ma’am!! Ma’am!!!  I will read Ma’am!!!”  When everyone is yelling this at once, it is impossible to hear the child who is actually reading.  Additionally, there seems to be no stigma attached to being a “tattle-tale” here.  This is frustrating, as it is very difficult to conduct a class when children are constantly coming up to me and accusing their classmates of some crime or other.  On the plus side though, some of my favorite quotes have come from tattle-tale situations:

“Ma’am!  Ma’am!!  This boy is abusing language ma’am!”
“Ma’am!  This is bad boy ma’am, you must slap him!” 
“Ma’am, this is naughty boy ma’am!”
From one of the class monitors, a bright girl with very good English, who tries to help me keep order: “Ma’am!  This boy is saying that I am your secretary ma’am!”
My personal favorite so far: “Ma’am, this boy is playing tabla on table ma’am!”

Outside of class however, my student are very sweet, often giving me flowers, friendship bands, or candy.  Sometimes I am serenaded with such American (and Canadian) masterpieces as Ke$ha’s “Tick tock,” Akon’s “Smack that,” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”  I hope to continue to get to know these kids outside of class, so I can be more than just the crazy teacher who tries in vain to yell over their din, yet refuses to hit them. 

The teachers at my school continue to be wonderful.  Most of them have children my age, so they call me “beta” (child), and are very motherly towards me.  When it comes to such things as holidays and school policies, I am very ignorant, but they are all patient with me.  As I settle in, I hope to need less and less help from them, but for now, having this supportive network has been very nice.  That’s not to say that it’s all sunshine and daisies.  Teachers here are overworked and underpaid (sound familiar?) and have to deal with a lot of pointless bureaucracy, which often means that their energies are taken away from the important task of teaching.  Also, the school is short staffed, which means that most of the classes have at least one substitute teacher period a day.  This is often exhausting for teachers, and unproductive for students. 

As they say, every rose bush has its share of thorns, and it looks like teaching at the Navyug School will be rosy and thorny all at once.  During our orientation, one of the speakers told us that many of our students and teachers would move us to tears with their commitment, hospitality, and kindness.  He also mentioned that there would be those who moved us to tears for other, less happy reasons.  I think every day about how wise this man is.  One day, I was upset because I could not get my sixth graders to do any of their work during class, due to an unending chain of fist-fights.  As I walked out of school that day, fighting back tears and questioning my right to such a prestigious grant and amazing opportunity, one of the girls in the class came up to me and said “Ma’am—you are good teacher ma’am.  My class…always like this ma’am.”  And once again, I was fighting back tears.

I can tell that this year will be a roller coaster ride, full of euphoric highs followed by scream-inducing drops, stomach churning loops, and terrifying yet exhilarating upside-down sections.  Fortunately, I love roller coasters, and I am looking forward to continuing on this ride…even if I do puke a couple of times along the way.


India’s Independence Day is August 15th, which falls on a Monday this year.  For this reason, we celebrated at the school on Friday, August 12th.  At first, there was doubt as to whether there would actually be a celebration at all, as the monsoons were pelting down full force—the school has no auditorium, and all assemblies are conducted outside.  Eventually, in the afternoon, the whole school filed into the courtyard.  First there was a short skit by the primary school students about the environment.  Then, there was “fancy-dress show,” during which little first, second, and third graders paraded around dressed as various Indian trees and animals, as well as the sun and the moon.  There was even a mini Gandhi and a mini Nehru.  Needless to say, it was suitably adorable.  Then followed some singing performances, some speeches, and one somewhat unusual, but very impressive presentation: one seventh grade boy got up in front of the microphone and made a number of animal sounds (all Indian animals).  There were several bird calls, a tiger’s roar, and a very convincing water buffalo bellow.  Very entertaining.  The assembly finished with a whole school rendition of the National Anthem. 

The event was very interesting to me for many reasons.  Though I’ve grown up watching fireworks on the fourth of July, and occasionally even eating a burger or hotdog, I’ve never really been encouraged to be particularly patriotic or nationalistic.  When I was enrolled in the Waldorf School during the Bush years, patriotism was almost frowned upon.  One of my friends and fellow ETAs, Stephanie, made the point that India is still a young country, and nationalism has to be taught, to remind the people of the country’s unity.  Additionally, there are still people in India who remember the days before independence, who know first hand how far the country has come, and how horrible such things as Partition really were.  I don’t know that I’ll ever feel particularly nationalistic about America, but I might do well to appreciate the freedom I enjoy as a US citizen.


This year, the Indian festival of Rakhshabandan, the festival that celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters, fell on August 13th.  I had been experiencing the leadup to the holiday ever since Mussoorie, when beautiful beaded bracelets started appearing in stores and roadside stands.  Slowly, I cam to learn about the holiday.  On rakhi, sisters will tie bracelets onto their brothers’ wrists, while expressing her love, and asking him for protection.  In return, the brothers give gifts and sweets.  A few days before the festival, Aruna, one of the teachers at my school, invited me to her parents’ house for their Rakhshabandan celebration.  Honored to be invited, and excited to see what it was all about, I accepted.

Upon reaching the house, I met Aruna’s parents, her three sisters, and her one brother.  Also present was Aruna’s son (who had recently completed a fellowship with a company in DC!) and a large group of cousins and in-laws.  Though it was a relatively small family function by Indian standards, there was definitely a festive, family reunion type of energy going around.  I watched as all the sisters tied rakhis onto their brothers’ wrists while chanting a prayer.  Once the tying was finished, the sister painted a dot onto her brother’s third eye, and popped a sweet into his mouth.  Because cousins and in-laws are considered just as good as brothers and sisters here, there was a large number of exchanges.  I even got to tie a rakhi onto one of the brothers in law, which was very nice.

After the pooja, lunch was served.  It was delicious.  Needless to say, I ate a lot.  But it was my first Rakhshabandan, so that’s allowed, right?  Food and joking aside, though, it was really a lovely afternoon.  It was especially nice to be able to celebrate the holiday with a family, seeing as I am so far away from my own.  A surprising number of Indians I have met here have bad-mouthed themselves, saying that Americans are much more friendly and honest.  I don’t know if I buy this though.  Certainly, the kindness I have experienced so far goes above and beyond even the most exemplary stories of the famous Indian hospitality.


I have started lessons in kathak (North Indian classical dance)!  I took one semester of kathak while in Hyderabad, but I am extremely rusty, and excited to start up again. 

I first entered the dance school intending only to ask about what kinds of classes were offered, prices, etc.  When I walked in, however, I discovered that the woman at the desk spoke only Hindi.  We were somehow able to communicate though, and she asked if I would like to meet the kathak teacher.  I was nervous, but said yes.  She led me back to the practice rooms, where the kathak teacher was sitting on the floor playing the harmonium, while a man next to him played the tabla.  They stopped their playing when I walked in.  The woman who I had been talking to explained who I was to the kathak teacher.  He didn’t really speak English either (I REALLY have to get better at Hindi!!) but the man playing the tabla did, so he communicated to me that the teacher wanted me to show some of the kathak that I knew.  Feeling like a fool, I bumbled through some of what I had learned in Hyderabad.  After some head shaking, and muttered words to our translator, the teacher showed me a few steps.  He and the tabla player then accompanied me as I went through them.  As I left, the tabla player told me that it was “a beautiful thing” that I was doing, (picking up kathak once again), and that he wished me luck.  So that’s my signing up story: more on actual classes soon!