Thursday, July 28, 2011

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

I still can't quite bring myself to believe the time has come for us to leave India. In just a few days we will finish packing our bags, check all the cabinets for anything we might have overlooked, and load Prithvi in the crate for her first trip to America. Prithvi will leave her "native place" and we will leave a city that has been our home for the past two years. I totter back and forth between melancholy about all of the people and quintessentially Indian things I will miss and boundless excitement about moving back to Washington. Luckily, even with this confusing set of feelings I think I am finally ready to go. I am ready to go home. I am ready to be anonymous again. I am ready to know what to expect out of a given situation. I am ready for four seasons! I am ready to be close enough to family to visit for just a weekend.

Now that I am ready it is time to say goodbye:

Goodbye friends with whom I have shared countless laughs and sweaty outdoor parties. Goodbye colleagues who patiently taught me about their country. Goodbye Mani, canine King of RA Puram. Goodbye Prakash our cautious and gloriously anti-honking driver. Goodbye Sangeetha with your sambar and dosas and tea. Goodbye little neighbor boys who bark at our door and ask if their friend Prithvi can come out to play. Goodbye fireworks that go off any time of day. Goodbye Moonrakers with your delicious catch of the day. Goodbye Kalpa Druma whose selection of crafts and clothes have made such a dent in so many paychecks. Goodbye mosquitoes; you need to find someone new to plague. Goodbye Tamil and your beautiful curly script. Goodbye cost of living - I will really miss you while we're in Washington!

Goodbye Prithvi Avenue and goodbye Flat 1D. Goodbye Chennai and goodbye India. It's been a blast. Thank you!

Mission Chennai is nearly complete.


Friday, June 10, 2011

My Turn

In slow, smiling English I explain to the guard that I don't need a locker key. I'm an American you see and when I read that I was only allowed to bring my passport and pencils, well...that's all I brought. He gives me a sympathetic look not understanding a word I said and motioned that I needed to write my name in the book anyway.

It is 8am on the hottest Friday in June and it is time for me to take the GRE. I follow the signs farther into the building and find a group of young people who look like they are waiting for an unpleasant medical procedure. I take my seat next to a girl who couldn't have been any older than eighteen. Looking around I realize that my fellow test-takers seemed rather young; all of them except that tubby middle-aged man. Are these teenagers really applying to graduate school or do they just have over-eager parents?

The others talk to each other in low tones in a mixture of Tamil and English; all the while staring at me. I imagine them laboring to deduce why the white lady with only her passport and pencils was taking the GRE in Chennai. I must admit that it is a bit odd but I have grown used to seeming a bit odd to Indians. I walk my own dog for crying out loud!

At 8:45 the proctor begins taking "candidates" one by one into the test room. At 8:50 the power goes out which caused the test servers to reboot. Twenty minutes later our test mistress reemerges to take the next victim to register. After another twenty minutes and only two more people out of twenty have registered. I start to worry. The exam website said to allot four hours to take the test. It was already past nine and I needed to be at work by one! While I know I am a fast tester, I don't think I will make up too much time on this one. My innate American self emerges once again. I take my passport and pencils and dash across the room to the chair closest to the test room door. I am not going to let politeness overshadow my desire to be punctual. Cutting in line is one skill I have picked up over the past two years that I am determined to utilize in this situation. In this moment, it is oddly important for me to report to work on time.

Luckily this punctuality conundrum distracts me from all of my pre-test jitters. For weeks I pored over prep materials with special attention paid to the math section. While I write and read every day and felt very prepared for the verbal section, it has been six years since I attempted any math other than basic algebra.

When I resign myself to being late for work a thought occurs to me. Everyone in the room has a lot riding on their performance on this exam. For me it is a step to get me closer to admission into a Master's program that would teach me how to teach. For some in the room it is a necessary evil to secure a spot in a competitive engineering school. For others it could be a ticket to the United States. For all of us it means a chance at a new beginning. I realize that my possible new beginning might be far less life-changing than that of the people sitting around me. I am happily married to a man whose career is stable enough that I can take time to go to graduate school. Sure, some of my fellow test-takers likely come from wealthy families but there are also probably a few whose parents will risk everything they own to give their children a shot at a more comfortable life. With that humbling thought in mind it's my turn.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey

This is the story I will tell my grandkids.

In November 2008, Abbie and I went on a ghost tour in Georgetown hosted by a professional buffoon and serious-person-impersonator named Andrew. At the end of the tour, he offered to read tarot cards for his guests (right before asking us to comment on his myspace page). Fun, but I thought it was a little bit of hooey. The first tour-group(ie?) he called took her card in hand and showed it to him. He cringed. The card, an upside-down man clad in black hanging from the gallows, contained a message he wouldn't dare tell us. Andrew pocketed the card and quickly, but with an ominous gestured cultivated from years of bit-part horror roles, moved on to the next guest--Abbie.

We had been dating for about a month at this point and had been seeing a lot of each other. For us, a typical day consisted of meeting up after work, then traveling to either Alexandria or Dupont for dinner and other nerdy things (hence the ghost tour). It had been a routine we'd grown used to. At this point, we had only briefly grazed over the topic of my assignment to Chennai and my shrinking Tamil training. Things were looking good, but I was very aware of the ticking clock in the background.

Abbie pulled out her card--she was about three people ahead of me in the group, having been called to the front--and shyly showed it around. The card depicted a man draped in a cloak, facing away from the card-holder, and staring off at three distant sails and more-distant pyramids. The man stood on one shore of a yellow river, grasping one of three wands, as though he was about to step into the river after a brief rest. "This is the card of The Traveler." Over-dramatic pause. "Do you plan on taking any long journeys?", Andrew asked with a cocked eyebrow. I could feel myself stiffen as the idea I had been worrying about for a month now was put out in front of 30 bemused strangers. Abbie told me later that she fudged her answer, "I might get to go to San Diego for work...?" "No, that's not it," muttered Andrew, "but take the card anyway". Abbie plunged the card into her coat and walked back to me before we broke off from the group a few minutes later. The card now hangs in a wood frame next to our bed in Chennai.

This is the story I probably won't tell my grandkids:

Some of you--particularly my family and college friends--probably gritted your teeth when I met, dated, married, and whisked away a young lady you'd never met and I'd only known for six months. Don't get me wrong, I understand how weird that must have looked! At this point, though, we've been married for over two years. It's hard to explain, but it feels like these last two years have been the quickest, longest, and best years of my life. Coming to Chennai could have been a huge trial--a difficult city, taxing jobs, isolation from friends and family--but it turned out to be a blessing.

We've bonded together through our many air-/water-/sausage-/airline food-induced illnesses. We've laughed and fumed at the obnoxiously persistent (and usually drunk) auto-rickshaw drivers who'd pursue us on our walks to the store thinking they'd found a patsy. We've found ways of reaching each other emotionally that we wouldn't have thought of before. These weren't traveler-card, Java House-moments, but rather I'd-love-to-watch-Back-to-the-Future-with-you-again or doing-the-dishes-just-because times. I'm not going to bore or sicken readers of this blog more than I have to (though I can really turn it on if you want!), but the last two years have been a never-ending rediscovery of both expected and unexpected closeness.

As this chapter of my career closes and Chennai's finish line nears, I'll think about how its unique (and really weird) challenges have drawn us closer together. I doubt we'll ever have to make a decision to stay home because the people in our street might accidentally explode what amounts to a small stick of dynamite every other minute during Diwali. Or how we sometimes have to walk through scorching heat to three different grocery stores and still won't find any chicken.

Now that we're heading back to DC, we're starting to realize that the ground will have shifted. Many of our friends will be there, but they will have gone through their last-two-years while we've been far away. Our trainers at FSI always say, "Your scariest foreign tour might just be your tour in DC". While the glories of friends, functional public transportation, seasons, clean streets, and sandwiches (really) await us--and don't we know it!--it's the unknown tectonic changes that excite us. We're getting ready to exchange rapacious rickshaw drivers for twenty-five minute waits for the Red Line in 10F cold at Silver Spring. Instead of Prithvi walking with Mani, she'll do battle with ice and snow (it's going to be hilarious).

I'll miss Chennai--not ready to give the full eugoogly on our tour just yet, but we're getting there. As much as we're not ready to leave, we're ready to come back.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Walking with Mani

Cesar Milan is a genius. Sure, Matt and I knew our dog needed more exercise but we used lack of sidewalks, open sewers, and congested traffic as an excuse to skip Prithvi's evening walk. About two months ago our little street dog's territorial instincts became a bit too much to handle. She claimed the couch the seat of her imperial control, growling if ever I deigned to glance in her direction. We knew we needed to make a change.

I turned to the "dog whisperer" for ideas to help us reclaim our couch. After searching through many reviews of his books, I chose Cesar's Way: The Natural, Everyday Guide to Understanding and Correcting Common Dog Problems. I learned that we were treating Prithvi like a human when she really needed to be treated like a dog. And our dog needed more walks with her "pack", aka Matt and me. Little did we know that our pack was missing one of its most important members.

Mani is small for a Chennai street dog but boy is he scrappy! He has sturdy legs, an athletic body, and an alert but kind face. Yes, he is smelly, greasy, and probably home to a colony of fleas but he is a sweetie. We met him when we first moved in a year and a half ago when he started following us any time we came home from the grocery with our bags full of tasty treats. We thought this was pretty funny and dubbed him "Bags". Six months later we learned he had a real name and was something of a celebrity in our neighborhood. Apparently the old guy has been supervising construction sites for the past five years, stamping his approval with paw prints in wet cement.

Mani did not take to Prithvi immediately; it was far from love at first sight. At most he would lift his head as she sauntered past and would silently bare his teeth if her curiosity brought her too close. However, once he got used to sharing his territory with her he had a change of heart. One day Mani began to escort Prithvi on her w-a-l-k's.

With a pat on the head from us, Mani allowed our little Indian dog to sniff his rear to seal the pact. From that point on we have gone walking with Mani. We are quite a sight, our pack of two chatty Americans and two Chennai street dogs. We get more stares than we used to now that we walk with Mani. I can't blame them; it is not every day one sees a clearly kept dog playing with a street veteran like Mani. I also acknowledge that Matt and I are part of the spectacle. I imagine the witnesses of our pack outings thinking "there go those crazy Americans with their dogs. I bet they keep that one in the house! Gross!".

At first people tried to scare him away from us; they thought we didn't want him so close. Eventually our neighbors realized that we liked our stray escort. To tell the truth, Prithvi's behavior changed dramatically with her increased exercise and I suspect due in part to her friendship with Mani. While we treated her like a human, he treats her like a dog. Thank you, Mani!

The dogs patiently wait for each other when they stop to reinforce their territorial rights or say hello to their friends along the way. When we get back to our building Prithvi trots inside while Mani stays at the gate. He knows his home is on the street and that his fans of the neighborhood will continue to feed him and give him scratches behind the ear.

While she might be Princess of Sharanalaya Apartments, Prithvi has accepted her rightful place below Mani, King of RA Puram.

Friday, July 9, 2010

"Can I have a moment with you in private, sir?"

Not exactly the words you want to hear from a visa applicant when you're on outreach; beyond the protection of bullet-proof glass, blast doors, and Section 214(b).

So when after a pre-departure talk with Indian students a sheepish straggler asks me this, I get ready for the worst. Almost all of the students at this talk have already gotten their visas and are now mapping their way to H-1B glory, maybe even to a green card or citizenship. But personal visa stories are often tough to hear and hard to forget.

"Can I have a moment with you in private, sir?" The other six or seven curious students pealed away in deference--they'd gotten their fill about Social Security Numbers, taxes, and how early they can enter before classes (30 days, if you're wondering).

"You did my visa interview a few days ago." Shoot. Here it comes.
"And you granted me the visa."OK--not what I expected.
"My mother passed away recently and it was her dying wish that I study in the United States. I wanted to say thank you."

I nodded a little stiffly, not sure whether to say I was glad, thank you to him, or good luck. Silence might have been best for a bit. He walked away.

Many times we hear about "hopes and dreams" and we dismiss them as ways to sneak in the country's backdoor. And many times they are. In the interview he might have been *Student to pursue MS Comp Sci at UT-Dallas. First class from Anna University, 82%, 1250 GRE, credible student...* But sometimes it's good to see life continuing beyond qualified/qualified, credible/uncredible, convinced/unconvinced.

I heard back from 1 out of 20,o00 today, but that'll keep me going for a while.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Stigmatized Symbolism

It still surprises me how a simple, equilateral cross can shock me so much. This design that is regarded by Hindus as auspicious first appeared in India during the neolithic period. The symbol spread throughout the world, showing up with ancient Greeks, with Vikings, and even with Navajo tribes. While it's name even once meant a "lucky object", the image carries now with it a very different connotation among westerners. I am talking about the swastika.

Growing up in the West, I was inculcated with horrific stories about Nazis terrorizing innocent people: all under a red flag with a black swastika. Of course here in Chennai memory of the symbol reaches much further back than the twentieth century. When an Indian walks down the street with shop signs proudly displaying the swastika he thinks nothing of it. When I walk down the very same street I am startled by images my mind automatically ties to the same design. That is one unabashedly American response that I am not likely to change no matter how long I live here.


Friday, March 12, 2010

"This Russian model stole the show!"

"It is International Women's Day, and we are women, and we are beautiful women!"

These words of wisdom were our only comfort before we took the stage before an audience full of photographers and fashionistas. How did five non-models end up back stage at a fashion show? Well, I am still not entirely sure!

Early last week, a friend of mine from the consulate asked if I would be willing to participate in his friend's "hair show". I told him that I would love to! It wasn't until a few days later that I heard from the show organizer. His sassy personality hooked me right away.

Me: "My friend is in town, can she participate too?"
Sunil: "Is she pretty?"
Me: "Of course!"
Sunil: "You're a blond, right?"
Me: "No, I am a brunette."
Sunil: "Humf. Could we give you highlights?"
Me: "No, I don't think so..."
Sunil: "Ok, well, we'll see."

I had visions of bright white streaks running through my decidedly natural hair. And only two and a half months before Matt and I celebrate our wedding with everyone we know! Needless to say, I was a bit worried. The only information I had was that I needed to call the clothing designer and that I needed to be at the Russian Cultural Center three days later. Not much to go on.

I didn't get a hold of the designer, Raji, until the day before the show. This meant that we had no time for alterations. My work schedule also posed a problem. All of the other girls were going to be there at 10:30am for a 4pm show. I had to be at the consulate until 1 and Sunil wanted us at the venue at 1:30. In that short window, my friend Jamie and I crossed town to try on dresses at the designer's apartment.

We didn't have many choices when it came to outfits. Neither of us fit in the long black skirt with an embroidered bottom. Jamie wasn't so sure about the dress she rightly thought made her look like a mermaid. Finally I settled on a simple, high-necked black dress and Jamie chose a tube dress emblazoned with a bedazzled peacock. We were a bit apprehensive about our choices.

Clothes in hand, we rushed to the Russian Cultural Center where we had no idea what to expect. I told Jamie that I had no idea where they were going to do our hair because as far as I knew, the building had a library, an auditorium, and some classrooms. I was mistaken.

We were whisked upstairs to a section of the building I had never seen. Behind a non-descript, humidity-warped door was a fully-functioning hair salon! The room was filled with tall, beautiful Indian women patiently enduring hair pulling and eyelash curling. Jamie and I sat down and waited our turn for our makeovers. We quickly noticed my friend Natalie and her sister Melanie. Thank goodness! We were not alone in our confusion. No one knew what was going on. Did we have choreography? When were we going to do a run-through? How many people would be there? How long would the show run? Who were all of these other girls?

We quickly decided that we were the only ones who were not professional models. Uh-oh.

Six different people worked on my hair: one straightened, one teased, one consulted, one curled, one pinned, and one watched. I am luck that I do not have a tender head! The make-up crew was much smaller but no quicker in their work. Eventually I was ready with at least fifty pins in my hair and three layers of color on my face.


Waiting backstage, the four Americans and one Estonian giggled about being so utterly unaware of what we were supposed to do once we got out on stage. Sunil then gave us brief instructions and moved on to the professionals. We were on our own.

The emcee announced Raji's collection and warned the audience that, unlike the previous group, we were a group of amateurs representing the international community. Their expectations were low. I went out first and my inner ham quickly emerged. I remembered practicing my model walk in Shafor Park circa 1998.

I told myself not to smile but to put all of that effort in my eyes. My friend Anandaroopa yelled "You go girl" from behind the flashing lights of the media. I was having a blast! At each corner I threw my hands to my hips and posed for the audience. When I noticed that Jamie's shoe had broken and that she was barefoot I tried my hardest to stifle a laugh. It was a classic moment.

While I had been uneasy about not knowing what was going on, I let go of my American (and as Jamie pointed out, Scorpio) urge to have a plan and had a great time! While I hope India can teach me to do that more often, I still have a way to go.


Two days later I received a phone call from the Consul General's wife:

"Abbie, I think you are in the paper! Well, at least I think it's you!"

The source of her uncertainty? The caption next to my picture read "This Russian model stole the show!"