Sunday, January 24, 2016

Family and Gynecological Misadventures

One way to get to know people is to let them scroll through your camera roll when they commandeer your computer… Then really hope there’s nothing weird there, you keep saying, “nononono let me explain,” “well yes I do have a tattoo,” or “nono I do have friends… I just like my cat and dog.” You lie awake that night wondering WHY you have so many pictures of your cat but not so many of your family. I didn’t even have pictures of my extended family to show them, and in the past three weeks I have meet more aunts, uncles and cousins than I can remember.

Family is so important here. For New Year’s (my 3rd day in India mind you), we drove across the city and partied with someone’s brother in law and four or five other families. We ate food so spicy I cried, played Rummy until 3am, and stuffed cake into everyone’s mouths at midnight. I slept in their daughter’s room along with a grandma and three or four aunties on the floor and sharing a bed. The way family welcomes each other is fascinating to experience here. The house has been a revolving door of extended family members since the first week after. When I arrived, I wondered why the house had so many rooms for just a couple with two recently married children, but it makes sense now. 

My host dad's sister and her daughter Kavya came to stay with us about two weeks ago. Kavya is eight months pregnant and having some complications, so she and her mother made the six hour journey here to access better medical care. She is one of the sassiest humans I have ever met and brutally honest. She’s teaching me how to survive in India while minimally offending people, a little bit of Telugu, and how to laugh at myself. I knew we could become friends when one evening, she turned to me and whispered with a sly smile “Mike, today I did not bathe.” “Me either, Kavya.” 

The other night, Kavya came home from the hospital with some ultrasound reports, passing them around the living room for everyone to see. There’s no hushed private conversation about a diagnosis or hiding of papers from the doctors here. When I met a neighbor the first thing I learned about him was his persistent toe infection. Looking at Kavya’s ultrasound, I mentioned my sister was a midwife. “A what??” “A midwife.. like an alternative gynecologist/OB” *some talking in Telugu* "Oh so your sister is a gynecologist?" “Not quite” “She is training to be one!” “Yeah….” In the moment, I decided it was a technicality lost in translation. However, Kavya then asked if she could send her reports to Brenna for a second opinion. Ooops. Since Brenna is a gynecologist in training, I said we could try but she might not be able to help. However, Brenna offered an expert opinion and put Kavya at ease! For the next week, Brenna received doctors’ reports and gave gynecological advice to a stranger in India, a “friend of Mike”. As one Indian student told me, “Ah yes of course! This is India, anything can happen.”

Funny mishaps like this are what I have come to love about being here. Things get lost in translation, but people have been so genuine and willing to develop relationships. The little things like joking around at the breakfast table: “ Auntie likes weird things, the burnt poha [a breakfast dish we were eating], fish heads, chicken heads, my head” (WHAT), evening lectures from my host dad: “Enjoy India. You will get fat. And then nothing will happen,” Kavya scrolling though my camera roll and saying “wow Mike, you are a crazy American” (not sure how endless cat and hiking photos gave that impression) make this trip amazing.

Sunday, January 10, 2016


"Interpretation" has been a concept that has stood out to me since arriving here, in many senses of the word. We have spent the past two weeks in an orientation to India, specifically Hyderabad, a very interesting city. One professor explained Hyderabad as “a mini India, the northernmost part of South India and the southernmost part of North India.” India is an amazingly diverse, interesting, confusing and beautiful place. Like anywhere in the world, but I think it is all heightened here. Deciding how to describe what I am discovering about India will be a constant challenge, one I did not anticipate. For some reason I thought I came in with an open mind, but there will always be stereotypes in our minds. Virali, one of the girls I am studying with, wrote a very insightful post that captures the struggles of writing about this place better than I can. You can read here:

I am having an amazing time in India, but it is not amazing in a reductive, stereotypical way. It is diverse, confusing, beautiful, exciting, and stressful, which makes it impossible to describe with one word. Instead of confirming stereotypes and running into “the danger of a single story” I hope to present India in a way that enriches and deepens your view of it. I know I cannot do this perfectly. Hopefully in telling stories of my trip, India will not be reduced to a foreign land of dirty crowded streets where women have no rights and cool people go to meditate in temples. India has those things, but it is not just THAT. It’s a  “more than the sum of all its parts” kind of situation, and the stereotypes we have are not all of the parts.

Hyderabad and the surrounding region has historically undergone different Muslim rule and migrations, creating an interesting interplay and cooperation between Muslims and Hindus. I am very excited to learn more about this during my stay. For example, we visited Charminar, the oldest mosque in the city. We also visited a beautiful Hindu temple built into the hillside made entirely of white marble. I felt unsure about entering such sacred sites, but Kavitha assured us we were welcome if we are respectful. We take our shoes off to enter most religious and historical sites. It is very humbling and makes me feel more reverent but also more welcome in a place. 

Charminar, in the center of the Old City of Hyderabad
The day we visited Charminar, I had a very mind- opening conversation with Kavitha, the CIEE director for Hyderabad. We talked about how beautiful the mosque was, how different religious groups worship thereand she gave a brief explanation of Hindu- Muslim relations in the area, and she spoke to where misunderstandings come from. She said “Everything is in the interpretation, no religion teaches violence or hate or to repress their women. People interpret religion and make it ugly.” This is something I have given a lot of thought to lately (not that I’m an expert to give thought to anything, especially religion). Being a religious studies and biology major, I find myself asking why we need religion when so much pain comes from it, and why the human race can’t just have science. Then I see my host mom preform pooja every morning without fail, visit beautiful places like Bilar Mindar (the temple we visited) where hundreds of people worship every day, or I read about how religions shape entire histories, and I wonder how we could be without religion. Kavitha offered her explanation “Religion itself is good. Religion teaches love, sharing, respect, gives people a community and a sense of purpose. Interpretation, interpretation, interpretation, is what we have to think about.”

Outside Bilar Midar, we could not take pictures inside as it is a sacred site

Along with learning about the history and culture of Hyderabad, we have visited various NGOs in the community. One center we visited was called Shaheen. Here some courageous and amazing women told us their stories and explained the goals of the center. Many of the women had experienced child marriage, sexual abuse, rape, abuse, and difficulty in attaining an education, or even leaving the house. Shaheen seeks to empower these women by providing legal help, educational opportunities and vocational training. What was inspiring about Shaheen was not only the resilience of these women, but that it was created by women of that community to help bring each other up. India is confusing to me, and I am not sharing the stories of these women not to confirm the belief that India is backwards and women have no rights here. This is not a problem of India; it is a human rights problem all over the world. It is a problem anytime someone uses religion to justify abuse and violence. It is a problem that stories like this have to be told. They should only be scary stories, but for too many women it is a reality.

Shaheen is a type of bird in India 

Here is an example of how interpretation changes everything: The same day we visited Shaheen, I had a conversation with my host dad about arranged marriage over dinner. He explained the reasoning behind it and the process. Coming into this conversation, I was full of anger and feeling very anti-arranged marriage, but was again reminded about the importance of interpretation. In a traditional arranged marriage, each party’s family is researched seven generations back to ensure they are fiscally responsible, there are not trends of divorce, and they treat their children and community members well. In a collectivist society where you do not separate yourself from your family and community, this makes sense. Even in an individualistic society, you cannot separate yourself from the people that raised you, and the people that raised them. So, if you want to increase your chances of a healthy marriage raising a family successfully, you have to look back to where you came from. If someone passes this background check and meets the other requirements and both sides agree, they proceed. My host parents have a lovely relationship from what I have seen so far, and according to my host dad’s highly scientific statistics, 90% of marriages here are arranged. As Kavya, their niece, explained to me “Its not about feelings or romance dear. It’s about creating a relationship that will be healthy, that will work. Of course I am very happy with my arranged marriage!” She is pregnant with her first child and very excited. The system makes sense when it is interpreted as a way to live happily in community with others.

Talking about ideas like arranged marriage needs to be done in relationships, or we make snap judgments and create stereotypes. If I did not ask my host family what they thought about arranged marriage, I would only have seen it as a tool for evil. So much in India is confusing and contradictory, and it is teaching me the world is not black and white.  I am learning how to interpret this place and meeting wonderful people here that are helping me do that. How will you interpret my stories of India?  

A street in the shopping center near Charminar 
One of the Qubt Shahi tombs, built around 1550- 1650 AD when the region was under Muslim rule

Grocery shopping in Hyderabad

Golconda Fort, used during the Qubt Shahi Dynasty 

Modes of transportation: On Campus 
Off Campus 

Finished textiles at the Safrani School of Weaving, where a local woman teaches widows her craft of weaving