Tom’s Tales: Year-end Reflections

It’s hard to believe, but we are finishing up our first year here in India. I’m not going to lie. This has been the hardest thing I have ever done, which I guess says a little bit about how easy my life has been to this point, and a little bit about how I just have not been as good at moving to a new world as I wanted to be. Melissa pointed out that this blog has turned into vacation documentation at the expense of all the other things we wanted to document along the way, maybe because so much of the stuff we wanted to document just became part of every day life. I wanted to take the opportunity presented by this one-year milestone to process what I have learned about myself and our life in India.

There is a way that how I try to live my life has saved me, and a way my priorities just simply don’t work here. First, one of my most important mantras comes courtesy of one of the most important people in my life, Jay Watson. He likes to say, “Make new mistakes every day.” I love that, I try to live by that, and I teach it to all my students every year. Jay likes to point out the many things at play here. He isn’t saying “Don’t make mistakes”; if you never make mistakes, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. Embrace the mistakes you make, but learn from them, move on, and make new mistakes tomorrow. Early on, it felt like I was repeating the mantra to myself hourly. I was making so many mistakes every day, many of them only once, but way too many I would repeat over and over again, from mistakes at work, to being too timid in public situations, to I don’t know how many things. My primary correction also comes back to something Jay likes to say often: “If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen.” I’m getting better at that; not just documenting what we’re experiencing, but trying to learn from my mistakes. Now, when someone is telling me something that I need to know, especially around a mistake that I’ve made, I write it down and repeat to them what I understand about the issue. That gives them a chance to correct my understanding, which again I write down and repeat to them just to make sure I’m getting it.

Another one of the cornerstones of the way I try to live my life is that I know that I don’t know anything for sure (My answer to Aunt Mary’s greeting, “Whatdoyouknowforsure?”: “Not much, Aunt Mary. Not much”). Wow. That has never been more true than this past year. Every time I think I’m starting to understand something fairly thoroughly, something pops up that proves I didn’t understand that thing at all, from paying bills to how Hinduism effects modern Indian culture. Some days it has felt like I don’t know anything at all, much less “for sure”. I hope my attitude has allowed me to learn about all these things I don’t know about, but I’m afraid too often it gets in my way of taking some risks, too. Next year will be better.

While those two philosophies have saved me, there are things that are similarly important to me that just simply don’t work. I like to be deferential to people. I don’t always have to be first, get the best thing, pretend I know the most. Here, it feels like that is seen as weakness, either physically while people are pushing ahead (more on that later) or intellectually when people assume I am not as competent as I hope I am. I’m kind of hoping that I am learning to be more assertive in general, since being deferential often does look weak, and I do miss out on some cool things. Similarly, I think it’s important to leave room for people to make their own decisions, and when a decision is to be made that affects others, that decision should be made as a group. Leaving that kind of space means someone else is going to decide for me. I am learning again to be more assertive and declare what I need to do.

The thing that is hardest for me related to my life priorities is the importance of asking “Why?” If we can’t answer the why of a process, of an activity, of a purchase, of anything, we shouldn’t be doing it. If the answer to the why of a rule is unsatisfying, we should be advocating for a change. My favorite example of this being anathema here is around my old walk home. There was a fence between our first apartment and the lake that was the highlight of the walk. For a long period of time, there was a hole in the fence that made it a super reasonable walk and gave a little village near the lake access. For an equally long period of time, the hole was sealed, and guards were posted to make sure no one got through. I asked three different guards why. “Why can’t I pass through?” “The fence is closed.” “But why? It makes the villagers’ lives so much easier” “Because the fence is closed.” “But why?” “The fence is closed.” This is the response one gets everywhere. Why this paperwork? Because it’s required. Why is it required? Because we have to follow the rules. Why are these the rules? Because it’s required. Why are we doing this thing? Because it’s the way we do things. Why do we do it this way? Because we always have. But why do we still? Because it’s the way we do it. The worst answer ever for why. It’s the opposite of making new mistakes every day. We’re going to continue to make this mistake because it’s the way we’ve always done it. This one, the only thing I’m learning is to pick and choose whom I ask “why?”, but it’s going to continue to be important to me.

To make some of the harder elements of life less hard, I am constantly reminding myself of the economic situation that surrounds us. By some accounts, India is no longer a Third World Nation, but just barely. Even if that is true, want is everywhere. As a larger culture, it will take a good long time to climb Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. So many people are still, and so many more people are only one or two generations removed from, simply trying to feed themselves and their families,  comforts of more well established wealthy countries are simply unreasonable. I’m talking basics – regular garbage service, clean air and water, expectations of indoor toilets. There are movements underway to try to build the infrastructure and attitudes to address these problems – movements to reduce disposable consumption, clean up the rivers, reduce air pollution, encourage people to use toilets – but it’s going to take a while to see the effects of those programs. In the meantime, we hold our noses as we go by the worst of the spontaneous road side garbage dumps and cross over streams. It’s just the way it is, but people are trying to make it better. Remember, it took us in the West a long time to clean up our acts. (Side political note – hopefully we didn’t do so good of a job that we’re willing to let our current administration and EPA chief undo that work.)

Also related to the economic situation here, people are constantly trying to get money from us, to the point of feeling like everyone is trying to scam us. I continually ask myself, “How much does this person get paid?” The answer is often very very little. The wealth gap, the income gap, all of those gaps we progressives in the US want to address are unbelievably worse here. As a result, we live a life of luxury I can’t imagine living anywhere else. A driver’s trying to get more money out of me? Fine. He probably makes a dollar an hour. I can share a little bit of what I am lucky enough to have. I try to think of it less that people are trying to scam us as they are trying to survive.

There are some things we are trying very hard to not learn for ourselves. We keep being told that any interaction with the police will end up with us handing over shockingly large sums of money. We got into an accident in one of our last weekends in town before leaving for summer, and (thanks to our friend and getting-through-life-in-Bangalore guru Prem) we were able to solve the issue without the police getting involved. The apartment building seems to want a police background check beyond what the immigration folks have already done for us; we keep talking our way out of that. Speaking of immigration, we have been told very clearly that our immigration paperwork, the Golden FRRO, is very important and must be kept in pristine condition despite being required in all kinds of places. We like living here. We don’t want to get kicked out. We keep our FRRO very well protected.

There are things about life in Bangalore that drive me crazy. The bureaucracy. Everyone has to have a say about our choices, and they all have paperwork that needs a passport photo. The pushing. We call it the “It’s always my turn” syndrome. In line at restaurants and grocery stores, in traffic, in any kind of crowd larger than ten. People will push past, through, and over you to do what they need to do right now. The bureaucracy. Every layer has an added cost to it, whether that was made clear at any point in the process or not. Garbage. It is everywhere. Yes, I know, it’s part of what I try to remind myself is part of the developing infrastructure and economy, but it still just makes me sad. The bureaucracy. Just when you think you’ve conquered all possible layers, someone needs to revisit his paperwork because it changed or just because that’s the way we do it. The refusal to say no, even when it means lying to us. I didn’t think it was a Western idea, but maybe it is; I’d rather hear the hard truth than be lied to, since at some point I’m going to learn that I haven’t done something right, and it would have been easier to fix it to begin with. And the bureaucracy. Because it is everywhere.

The extent of white privilege here has been a surprise. Maybe being a foreigner plays into it, too. Probably those two things really get wrapped up in to the same thing. My assumption was the opposite. White people did terrible things to this country. It was one of the richest regions of the world before Europeans discovered that fact. Seventy-one years after independence, India is still trying to get to its old status. I thought people would be pissed at people who look like me. Instead, people treat us like we’re special before we have done anything to deserve such a thing, and even when we do something to deserve quite the opposite, people give us a wide berth to make mistakes. The down side is that people definitely try to profit off us whenever possible. As I mentioned before, though, it’s not a completely unreasonable thing. We do have means many don’t. It does get frustrating, though.

Not all surprises of the past year have been difficult. There are a lot of things that I love about this place. There is a generosity that is the foundation of every relationship that is simply heartwarming. Everyone seems to talk to strangers on the street as if they’re old friends, creating an atmosphere of community we don’t have in the States. South Indian breakfast is AMAZING. Seriously. Why have Americans not discovered the joy of masala dosas? Vada? Idly and sambar? Uttapam? We talk a good game in the US about cultural diversity. The beauty of the cultural tapestry of Bangalore is incredible. South Indian cultures have their subtle differences, then you go North and expectations are totally different. Northeast is its own little world. The Himalayas feel like they have more in common with Nepal than with Kerala. One of the best things about Bangalore is that one of the reasons it has grown so unreasonably in the last ten years is that people from all those regions have congregated here, so all of those cultures are present in this one city. This one huge, crazy, unreasonable, amazing city. And mangos!

Lastly, and this does not fall in to the category of something I learned this year, but something that was confirmed over and over and over again. Melissa Parkerton is amazing. I have had a rough year; my lows have been very very low, and my highs have been fleeting. The number of times I have broken down at her expense is quite frankly embarrassing. Her patience, her eagerness, her joy, her unending compassion have kept me as sane as possible. Then there’s the work she does. She is in Bihar, the poorest, least literate state in India trying to help hospitals reduce infant and new mother mortality despite challenges we in the West simply have never considered. She is at Shanti Bhavan, creating a mentorship program for graduates. She learned that one of the challenges they were facing was figuring out what the world of opportunities meant to them; she didn’t shake her head and say, “Ooo, that’s so sad.” She’s doing something about it. She makes my life better, but mostly she makes the world around her better.

I don’t make New Years resolutions, but it was important to me this year to make one – I resolved to do what needed to be done to look forward to returning to Bangalore in August. Without Melissa, I don’t know that I would have made it. I won’t know until August rolls around, but thanks to her support and the changes we have made in our life in the past few months and the things I have learned about this place and about myself, I think I made it.

2 thoughts on “Tom’s Tales: Year-end Reflections”

  1. This is a wonderful wrap up of Year 1, Tom, and it is expressed with such heartfelt feeling. Although Melissa has introduced us several times, and I have been reading your blog all along, this is the piece that let me know who you are. I like the idea of making new mistakes- I think I will embrace that as a goal, as I am So Very Bored and Frustrated with my current repertoire of mistakes. I hope you are able to sail in Hood Canal when you return to the States. Melissa has said you love that best of all. You sound like a man who could use some R & R!

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  2. Oh Tom that was beautiful. Thank you for sharing. There is so very much here… I appreciate your opening your heart and your mistakes to all of us. It’s hard for us on the other side of the ocean to truly understand what you are going through… thank you for the glimpse. It means the world. The canal house is waiting for you dear brother… where you can soak in the clean air and the love that surrounds you!! Love you and I can’t wait to see you.

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