Being in India was difficult from the very beginning: The fear of flying and leaving my children behind for five weeks. The arduous flight, the lack of sleep, the hot and humid weather! Even simple things that make up a morning routine were turned upside down: Do not throw toilet paper into the toilet. In place of a shower you will find two buckets with a scoop. When brushing your teeth use your water bottle, not the tap. And breakfast! Idli, dosai, sambhar, etc. Nothing bland like wheat toast.
Then there were all the disagreeable things about big American cities to greet me at our first stop, Chennai: Crowds of people. Exhaust you could feel, as well as smell, from millions of motorcycles, trucks, busses and autorickhaws. Advertisements everywhere blocking the view of the horizon and the buildings.
As South India and our timetable pulled me into its lyrics, I became overloaded with sights, sounds, smells, stories, faces, movement… And I began to wonder about all I was taking in. How do people live in a culture more than 5,000 years old? How do people live having to bring their water home? How do people live with electricity that goes on and off at whim? How do people function in this heat? How do people handle the huge amount of traffic each morning and late afternoon? How do you live with the slow progress of knocking down a building with a sledgehammer or carrying bricks from the street to the building site stacked upon your head? What are these people really like?
And some of the answers are pretty straightforward. People do what they know. If you have to go to the spigot every morning at 7:30 for five jugs of water, then you do it. When the electricity goes off in the middle of your presentation, you just move forward. If the fans don’t turn at night, you sleep without them. If the traffic moves slowly, you wait patiently and quietly (no road rage in India!). If it takes a year to knock down a building, then you work for a year.
These few idiosyncrasies of South India I share with the smile of memory. I miss what I experienced, but when you go in search of something, you usually find something else.
As Fulbright Scholars, we were there to soak up culture so we could infuse lessons in America with real experiences of South India. And we did! Some of the other profiles highlight these things. But what I found were people and experiences that will never be repeated again. (How do I share that with you in a tangible way?)
The people of South India are generous beyond telling. Their smiles are warm and infectious. They care deeply about their loved ones and extend their love to neighbors, visitors and those in need.
How has this affected me this year? On a personal level, I wonder if I would be as generous, kind and full of smiles. I think about their lives being difficult in unique and different ways and yet their warmth, interest and willingness to share was unmistakable.
I work with Hispanic families and see the struggles of a people trying to hold on to their culture as it becomes Americanized, and I realize how elusive culture is (at the same time, how all encompassing it is). As teachers, we cannot teach about India, Mexico, Peru or Japan by doing a few lesson plans here or there. As much as we can, we need to strive to immerse students in a culture with everything at our disposal. But perhaps the best way is to open our homes, classrooms and workplaces with dialogue. Who can you invite in? Who can you videoconference with? How can we encourage sharing among families and culturally different people in our communities?
These things we call culture are based on time and place, resources and environment. They are important, interesting and real. But each and every time we connect to people in South India, we become one with their stories, their hopes, their dreams. Their people are our people. Their loved ones are our loved ones. Their concerns are our concerns.
So I try to remember that here in my home, in my family, in my school and in my classroom.
Marjie teaches kindergarten for the Appleton School District in Wisconsin.
Go to Marjie’s lesson plans (Elementary +):