Visitor etiquette // The crusade for cats.
This should probably be two entries, so I’m gonna put a little line in the middle when the topic changes. Here goes!
The end of my time in Meghalaya is fast approaching. On April 20, I’ll fly from Guwahati to Delhi, and then the 24th I’m off to Tokyo. (In case I haven’t written about it here or haven’t written it recently, after my Indian visa expires, I have five weeks before I really need to be back in the States. So, I’m traveling: Japan, Thailand, Egypt-to-Jordan-to-Israel, Ghana, and then a cruise out of Barcelona with my family.) If I were thinking about it more, I think I’d feel strange to be leaving India for such a long time after living here for about eight months. But, as according to my first blog entry here, I’m not thinking too much about it yet.
The orphanage is still running pretty smoothly. Our construction workers are still working hard, and are near completion on the kitchen (the clay stove needs to be crafted) and the septic tank (hoorah!). They’ve also built a moat (really) around the orphanage so that the monsoon rains don’t soak through the walls. I think that’s great, and believe that for the Children’s Village to be perfect, we need some alligators and a drawbridge. The kids are doing quite well as well. All of them are going to school every day and helping out when they’re at home. The whole of Mawsynjri village doesn’t have water right now (why? I have no idea, but apparently the taps are dry and the headman hasn’t heard the reason yet), so yesterday all the small kids took a good chunk of the morning hauling water from a small pond nearby.
Since the Children’s Village has opened, I’d missed all of our visitors from abroad. (They came while I was traveling with Dan.) But, no longer! On Friday, Suzanne Reitz and her two daughters (Julia and Margot) from Wayland, MA, came to visit. Birialna taught the kids to sing “We Shall Overcome,” and she, Dari, and the mothers cooked up a delicious lunch for us. The Reitzes really enjoyed seeing the children at play and their tour around the house. We also swung by Kong Barr School so that they could meet Pynkhraw and Phlinsimai, who are Wayland’s sponsored children.
Then, we continued onto Wahmawlein, Wayland’s partner church village, with Nangroi. The ladies got to see Wahmawlein’s new soccer field, of which they had helped a bit with construction a couple of years ago. We also had our second lunch there (when you’re visiting places in India, you better have an empty stomach at all times!). The Reitzes only had that one day in Meghalaya, and I’m so glad that they spent a good part of it at the Children’s Village!
One other thing I want to write about in relation to the Reitzes visits is the idea seemingly a decent number of folks have out here that Americans have infinite money. An awkward subject, but it should be broached.
I was really glad that the Reitzes didn’t have anything to give to the kids right then; of course, it was explained that their church sent Pynkhraw and Phlinsimai to school, fed them, gave them new clothes, etc., but that’s all. No extra frills gifts beyond the most important things, which is providing a good home and good education. It seems very easy for the kids to get that bad impression that they can just ask foreigners for anything and then immediately receive it. For example…
People have given me a ton of stuff to give to the orphanage, so I’ve been bringing it over there in stages. Stuffed animals from Fairfax one day, games from Janis and Pittsburgh another, etc… Well, the kids sort of think it’s all from me. They also sort of think I built this house singlehandedly. Because I’m the foreigner they see the most, this is somewhat unavoidable. They also think Nangroi and I are the only ones in charge, as they really don’t see anyone else from the Management Committee on a frequent basis. They’re kids. They’ll have ideas.
The First Unitarian of Pittsburgh’s knitting circle recently sent a bunch of adorable knitted hats to the Children’s Village, but there were only 12. We have 14 kids, and I checked first to see if two kids already had hats. Krom and Batkupar did, so I thought I was safe to give out these gifted 12. But when I did, the mothers decided that Pynkhraw and Blestar wouldn’t want the hats. The boys were not consulted on the matter, so I felt pretty badly for them, especially because all of the other kids love the new hats and wear them all the time. Thus, I went to Shillong and bought them each cool grown-up-boy skullcaps. I am very glad that the boys love those hats and wear them all the time too. Everyone is warm and pleased! Hoorah!
But, then, the next day, I had a conversation with Blestar in my broken Khasi. He’s the best English speaker out of the kids, and I think was nominated to have this conversation. He told me that he and Pynkhraw wanted to ride bikes to school. (Don’t we all, right?) I asked him, “Who will buy you a bike?” He said that I would.
Yikes! Already, an impression that I, the American, have infinite money, and just because I personally bought them 100 Rs ($2) caps!
So, in conclusion, if you are visiting the Children’s Village, be careful about showering the kids with lots of stuff. I’m not saying that folks shouldn’t be generous and donate clothes, board games, sweets, etc., because our budget is pretty tight, and we really don’t have enough to get them toys and such right now. But, you know, not bicycles. Not whatever the kids ask for. This is the even the thinking of the Management Committee, especially because if the kids at the Children’s Village get a bunch of really nice new things, it could cause a division between them and the other local kids. The children already appreciate their new home and that it was “friends abroad” who made it possible. We definitely don’t want them to grow up believing it’s okay to expect their providers (mothers, sponsors, whoever) to give them whatever pops into their mind as a want. I guess that’s really the case with all children everywhere, isn’t it?
To shift topics…
* * *
I’ve done some other great things this past week, notably taking an Art of Living course, attending a Khasi archery competition, and having some last-time meet-ups with Marisa (my American-in-Shillong compatriot) and my friends at the S.O.S. Children’s Village.
But, now, I will write about my crusade for cats.
Some of you know, I am on a crusade for cats. As background, I am not a “cat person,” and am reasonably certain that (like my mother) I am allergic to them. Most cats, I don’t like at all. They’re either forcibly friendly (“no, I don’t want to pet you! stop rubbing your head on me!”) or annoyingly aloof (“why do I feed you if you just sit in a corner and glower at me?”). Dogs make way more sense.
Then, I came here and met little (Richard) Corey. She’s a great cat. If she doesn’t want to be held, she hops away without freaking out. If you don’t want to hold her, you put her down and she doesn’t freak out. She doesn’t whine or purr. She enjoys being carried around on your shoulder as though she were a parrot. She is the perfect cat.
I’m pretty attached to the little girl, so understandably, I hate seeing her eat rice. The dogs mostly subsist on rice, which is probably not the best for them either, but I have a dog at home, and know that dog food contains rice. You know what cat food doesn’t contain? Stuff that’s not meat.
For months, I’ve been trying to explain that the reason why Corey sometimes has “weakness” (and why our other kitten, Sarabi, is so skinny) is because cats are carnivores and cannot digest all of the plant matter they are being fed. It even says so on Wikipedia! So it must be true. But, no one listens.
So, last weekend, I went to the vet under the claim that if we’re going to donate Corey to the orphanage (which is Mei’s plan), we have to figure out why she gets “weakness.” No one wants a sick cat as a gift, after all. First, the vet was free! How is that even possible? Amazing. Second, I learned that when she turns one in the fall, we can take her to the vet and she can be neutered (for free!). Third, I learned from the vet that she should be eating beef and dried fish. It’s good to have a supportive professional opinion on the matter. I can tell the mothers to feed her fish every day, as per the doktor jong ki miaw’s orders. I feel like my crusade for cats is somewhat successful.
But why do I go on this crusade? I’ve talked a bit with other American folks I’ve met out here – Pip, Barbara, Marisa, those Presbyterian ministers (Abby and Alisa) – about this question. After these conversations, I’ve decided it’s because there are a ton of problems I see out here, and I just can’t fix them all. No one alone can. I can help built this orphanage, but that doesn’t help my neighbor’s kids who have parents, but not enough food to go around. They’re all malnourished. I can’t help their older brother who would like to go to school and has good exam scores, but has to stay here in Kharang to harvest crops (or, and I don’t think this is a big exaggeration, his family might starve). I can’t help that the Kharang’s water is polluted because it’s near impossible to build a septic system to encompass a whole village. I can’t get caught up in all the problems I see, or I’ll become paralyzed by how much there is. So, part of my focus while I’m here goes on these cats. I feel like I can help Corey.
And the cats are, I think, a good example of what I see in our kids. So, there are two kittens here, Corey and Sarabi. Corey was born here to Kong Robinson, and Sarabi in Shillong to Blackie. Kong Robinson is malnourished, and lost her other two kittens. Blackie is well-fed, and all three kittens thrived. Sarabi has already surpassed Corey in size, even though she’s two months younger, and in general seems much healthier.
You see this with the kids too. Yesterday, Pynkhraw (our eldest boy, 15) was teasing Badashisha (one of our oldest girls, 13) because she’s really short. Like, really short. As per my usual discipline-by-embarrassment principle, I turned the teasing back on Pynkhraw by showing that I, Huge Caucasian American, am taller than he is (at least for now, sheesh, that kid’s big). But, the point of the matter is, Badashisha will always be tiny because she hasn’t been well-taken care of in years. You all saw that picture of Marshall in my last blog; he’s four years old and looks like he’s maybe two! This is the case with a bunch of our kids: they’re scarily small. Working at MATCH, we learned about the importance of early childhood education in lifelong learning ability. If a kid starts falling behind in preschool, it just builds on itself, and then he graduates from high school with the equivalent of an eighth grade education. (By the way, that’s the average stat on high school grads from urban American schools.) For example, some of our incoming ninth-graders didn’t know what fractions were.
My hope is that with this orphanage, these kids and future kids can get proper care earlier and thus grow into healthier and happier adults. My hope is that it’s a good career for our mothers and Birialna, and that they can be happy with the job and help their families with what they’re earning. My hope is that Corey, one cat, will get better food and soon sterilized. The Children’s Village is a small operation if you zoom out to Meghalaya, India, Asia, the world… But, like MATCH, I think will it be very effective in helping this small group, and for them, it is a very important new home.