Yes, madame, we *can* fly to Guwahati!

•March 18, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The past two weeks have been super great! I am really behind on my e-mails and I haven’t gotten back to Kharang yet (and thusly don’t really have news about the orphanage), so this will be a brief post.

My friend Dan arrived in Guwahati on March 2nd, and we spent three days in Meghalaya split between Kharang and Shillong. That Thursday, we went back to Guwahati and flew to Calcutta as part of our journey to Bodhgaya (where the Buddha achieved enlightenment). We had just one afternoon and evening in Calcutta, but we made the most of it, visiting its large market and park, the Kalighat temple, and the Victoria Memorial for its spectacularly cheesy sound-and-light show. In Bodhgaya, we did what all tourists do, which is go see the bodhi tree and the 80 foot tall Buddha statue. Enlightenment points: check! We then took an early morning train to Varanasi (arguably the holiest city for Hindus), where we spent two days wandering around the ghats of Ganga-ji, visiting Sarnath (where the Buddha preached his first sermon), and avoiding small children who had started playing Holi a week early. (Holi is the color fight festival, so this means that small children were just chucking balloons full of dyed water at random passers-by. Totally not fair, when the holiday is only supposed to be one day! Thus began Dan and I wearing the same clothes for three days straight.) Then we took a night train to Agra, where we did again what all tourists do, which is see the Taj Mahal and a couple of other places. As a note, I’ve seen the Taj before, and had forgotten how totally huge and awesome it is. Everyone should go there, even if they do charge foreigners way much (Indian price: 20 Rs; foreigner price: 750 Rs). My favorite part of that day was sitting on the sandbank across the Yamuna River from the Taj and drinking bottled Pepsi with Dan and a friend we made there, Alexander from Sweden.

By the time we arrived in Delhi, we were pretty exhausted and glad to have a couple of relaxing days with my friends in Maruti Kunj in Gurgaon. The first day, we played dress-up — Dan in his Holi kurta pajama and me in one of my “Indian mother’s” saris — and visited the pre-color-fight Holi bonfire and the Alen de Lastic Children’s Village. Overall, a needed relaxing day… Especially because the 11th was Holi itself! Dan and I dressed in our white-for-Holi clothes, and we went with my friends to their ashram, where about 50 people had gathered to play Holi, dance, and worship (often at the same time). This was great fun, and we had a wonderful time. With Dan’s last two days in India, we did some sight-seeing around New Delhi and took a cooking class through our hotel. I now know the secret of how paranthas have so many folds.

Traveling back “home” to Meghalaya has been exciting as well. Because of sand storms over the northeast, all flights to Guwahati on Monday were canceled. In a stroke of logic, Kingfisher still flew our plane… to West Bengal, near Darjeeling. And then we flew back to Delhi. Sheesh. It did mean that I got to spend an evening with my friend Mannu and his family, and that I met a couple of Princeton Theological divinity graduates on my flight to Guwahati yesterday! It’s a small world.

Things are looking up for my post-India life. I bought “round the world” tickets through STA Travel, and will be traveling for five weeks between India and the States. I’ll visit Japan, Thailand, Egypt, (Jordan?), Israel, and Ghana, ending with a cruise with my family in the western Mediterranean. If you have any recommendations about things to do and see in these places, please let me know 🙂 As well, UUCF’s Partner Church Committee has agreed to sponsor me to go to General Assembly in Salt Lake!! This is really exciting, and now I’m working on an application for the GA Planning Committee to see if I can be awarded a matching scholarship and free registration. Lastly, I was admitted into two more graduate schools this weekend: Union Theological and Harvard Divinity. Exciting!! I have to make a decision within the next week, which is pretty crazy, but I’m up for it.

That was not as brief as I expected… Anyway, lastly, Dan’s uploaded all my photos up until the AMBCV inauguration onto my Flickr account. If you want to see pictures of the kids, my Flickr’s the place to look!

Children! And a whole bunch more people!

•February 28, 2009 • 1 Comment

Today was our inauguration ceremony. Everyone showed up late, but then everything went smoothly anyway 🙂 The highlights for me were that our Children’s Village children and a group of girls from the Mawsynjri Unitarian Church sang beautiful songs, many guests came and gave their blessings for our home, and we had a big feast thanks to the efforts of our construction workers and many other volunteers. We also had a fun “after party,” during which our workers played games and football with the kids and the Mynsong family brought their cassette tapes so we could have a dance party in the Lennox Room (the main hall). I can think of few better ways to end a day than with a dance party.

Because I’m super behind on my Flickr photos (I know, as usual), I’m going to load a couple of photos directly here to WordPress:

Family Portrait

This one is the “family portrait.” You can see all of the children, their two mothers (Evandahun and Rilum), and Birialda (our helper and my friend) at the back.

Construction Workers

The workers asked if Nangroi, Dari, and I would take a photo with them. I love these guys. They’ve done such wonderful work for us for the past six months.

Anyway, it’s been a great day! I’m most happy to say that more and more so, the kids are seeing this place as their home.

Storm of philosophy (part 2): On “Slumdog” (& some more).

•February 27, 2009 • 1 Comment

While I was home for the holidays, the movie that everyone kept telling me to see was Slumdog Millionaire. I even had two friends offer to see it a second time with me as so I would go and watch it. My friend Jared and I ended up seeing Doubt, but when Jon(-from-Pittsburgh) visited, we went to Slumdog with a large group (my parents and three others of my friends).

I loved it. Despite the fact that you’re really sad for most of the film, at the end you feel so good that everything worked out for this one “slumdog,” you forget the miserable first 90% of the movie. I’m a sucker for all things based on destiny – though not incongruous free will to choose destiny, as previously discussed – and especially so when the destiny is a save-your-life romance (aww). The movie was also really nice for me and Jon to see because it was so India to us, and made us both nostalgic.

Fast forward to my Valentine’s weekend getaway to Bombay with my MATCH roommate, Smita. I had a fabulous time. Smita’s aunt Mita Mavshi also ordered me Domino’s pizza with extra cheese as soon as I arrived, cementing my love for the family from the start. I got a nice driving tour of the city and had plenty of time to shop and gather ideas for the next salwar suit I plan to have stitched. I stayed up late to await the arrival of various Smita family members, and thus had plenty of time for chatting with her and her relatives.

Driving from the airport to their home, we went right through Dharavi, the slums featured in Slumdog. Estimates range from a quarter million to a million people living per square mile in Dharavi, making it the second largest/densest/etc. slum in the world after those in Nairobi. Mita Mavshi said the dilapidated concrete apartments and tin-roof shacks went back far from what we could see from the roadside. Because it was topical, I asked her about how she felt about Slumdog.

I should mention that the few things I’m about to list are not problems just what Mita Mavshi said. There are tons of articles in Indian newspapers about the film, most of which include at least one of the following:

    1. “Slumdog” is not an okay word. When I first heard one of my friends in Delhi say, “It’s not right for them to be called ‘dogs,’” I thought maybe there had been a simple cultural misunderstanding. “They call them ‘dogs’ because it’s supposed to make you upset!” I thought. But, the more I read in the papers, I realized that perhaps seeing “slumdog” in the title of a film is like someone from the States seeing “Negro” in a film title. (Don’t ask me about the number of times I’ve heard the casual use of the word “Negro” out here. I try to forget.) Folks out here really, really aren’t okay with it.

    2. Paying slum children a salary is complicated. The reason the smallest children featured in Slumdog Millionaire look just like kids from the slums is because they are kids from the slums. So, what do you pay a child from the slums? Slumdog producers chose 1,700 pounds for the boy and 500 pounds for the girl for a month’s work. Basically nothing for a blockbuster. But, that is three times the average yearly salary of an adult in Dharavi. And, the children’s current primary school education is being paid for (they weren’t in school previously). And, supposedly a trust fund has been set up for the kids to go to higher education. But then, they’re still living under tarps! Their parents have mounting medical bills! But what can you do? Do you pay them what is good but not extravagant for their circumstances? Do you make them the real slumdog millionaires? In short, it’s complicated with Slumdog salaries.

    3. Slumdog makes India look really, really bad. This is the most important thing and something I definitely did not think of when I saw the film. I’ve been living in India for a decent amount of time now, and I’d seen or heard of everything I saw in Slumdog before. Don’t give street kids money because it just goes to their possibly-abusive “guardian” (give them food instead). Don’t trust random people to guide you properly. Be really, really careful about your water. Etc. But, I’ve also seen all the nice elements of India: the Hindu tenet of “your guest is god,” a diverse and rich cultural history, Amritsar, etc. Watching Slumdog, I didn’t think about what people who had never been to India – or, worse, who don’t know anything about India – would think. People in India are worried about that. What if people think that all Indian adults prey on and corrupt vulnerable youth? What if people think that most Indians are solely money-minded? What if people think that all of India is a dirty, corrupt, backwater country? I can understand this fear. I cringed every time I went down to Pa’s room and saw Trei watching pro-wrestling on TV. A lot of people in India only see America through the lens of B-list television and movies. I get a lot of awkward questions about life in the States because of it. Slumdog is one of but a very few movies about India to be a hit in the West, so I can understand Indians’ concern about their country’s image.

So, this is a strange thing. Slumdog is hugely popular in the West: it just swept the Academy Awards, and my friend Jon (from MATCH) has written to me that going to India is “cool” again. But, people in India have many hesitations. I hope that all of you reading can watch Slumdog without seeing it as all that India is. India is a beautiful country well worth visiting. It has its many problems, but so does every other country.

I should also mention that all fourteen children have moved in (the missing six kids from Padu, Wahmawlein, and Mawlat all came on Tuesday) and we’re having our big inauguration ceremony tomorrow morning. The workers and AMBCV staff spent most of the afternoon today making the house clean, with the kids occasionally helping and occasionally running through the house in muddy shoes. A couple of the girls are having trouble adjusting to the move here, though I think one of them may just be terrified of me in particular. (This happens sometimes to us non-Indians, what with our strange skin, hair, and eye colors.) It’s also a little adventure to have three children from Padu, because out in that side of Meghalaya, they speak a dialect that is near incomprehensible to most folks out in this part of Meghalaya. But, overall, the kids are happy, enjoying their time together, and quickly learning to trust Rilum, Evandahun, and Birialda to take care of them. Also, my friend Dan arrives in India in but two days, and we have quite an epic adventure ahead of us. I feel good about all these things.

Children!

•February 24, 2009 • 3 Comments

They’re here! (Well, most of them. A bit of miscommunication with the three kids from Mawlat and the three kids from Padu, so they didn’t come yesterday. They’ll be here shortly.) And they sleep in the orphanage! In new beds with new blankets and pillows! With their own little stuffed animal donated from the States! I’m going to teach them how to play pick-up-sticks today when they get home from school!

They’re so cute! I’m super excited!

Storm of philosophy (part 1): On evangelism

•February 22, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I’ve known a few people to spend significant amounts of time in Thailand, and approximately half of them have done so to spread the word of their God. I’ll talk about two of these friends specifically for a moment. My longest-dated-boyfriend (Grant) is Mormon and he spent his two-year mission in a rural area of Thailand near Laos. A friend of mine from college (Charis) is there right now teaching English, though that’s a side project for her Christian mission work. Thailand’s population, after nearly 200 years of mission work, has about the same Christian population as India has, which is to say that it’s very, very small.

That’s some background.

Two weekends ago, Ms MD took me out to Jowai, one of the other large cities in Meghalaya. Our original purpose was to meet with her friend who makes wedding apparel – I’m currently on a quest to find a nice, less-expensive-than-in-America veil for my friend Leigh – but then I found out that Darihun (the UUNEI treasurer) not only knows how to make veils, but made her own, and would help me in making Leigh’s. Thus, I didn’t buy a veil from Ms MD’s friend. But, we did have lunch at her house, took a brief tour of Jowai, and spent time with two Khasi-American Seventh Day Adventists who are currently on an extended visit to Meghalaya.

The son of this pair lives with his family in Maryland, and the father is a SDA minister who is currently living in Grenada. Primarily, the son is here to check on education sponsorships he helps to organize, and the father is here to lead an SDA crusade. They were super nice. The son even gave me a ton of candy to pass on to the orphans. They invited me to come to the portion of the crusade that was in Shillong, and by some providence I was actually here on a Tuesday and could go.

I’m not going to go much into the content of the preacher’s sermon, because I can’t think of a way to write about it without coming off as (being?) a jerk. But, for the purpose of this essay, I must write a little.

In a fire-and-brimstone way, this preacher spoke about how God has intended a particular destiny for us. We’re all supposed to go to heaven… Except when we choose not to by not choosing Jesus. (I don’t believe in “choosing your destiny.” While I can understand choosing your own adventure, I have been confident for many years that destiny and choice are mutually exclusive concepts.) I appreciated the verse the preacher used to show that hell is not supposed to be a person’s destination:

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41, emphasis added)

“That’s the good news about hell,” the preacher said. “It’s not meant for you and me. It was prepared for the devil.”

I’m familiar with the preceding parable to this verse because it’s the basis for the CAKE song “Sheep Go To Heaven.” It’s a great song. And I think that hell not being meant for people can be used as part of the universalist philosophy. But, this preacher uses it as an example of dualism. It’s heaven or hell, Jesus or Satan, good or evil. Either/or.

Here’s a story.

Amma is Hemant and Gaurav’s mother, and she takes care of me whenever I’m in Delhi. I am extremely lucky to have met her and her sons when I was working at the Alen-de-Lastic Children’s Village in Haryana. When I came back to India in January, the sons told me that Amma had been sick while I had been on vacation in the States. She told me how she was cured: while she was in the hospital, Jesus visited her and healed her.

Now let’s get back to Thailand.

I can understand why a fire-and-brimstone believer would want to be a missionary. What must it be like to believe that people you know, some of whom are very nice, are going to hell? I imagine it’s similar to the way I feel about people who refuse to take medicine when they are sick: What are you doing?! You’re just going to get sicker and make other people sick too! You’ll have a longer, healthier, happier life if you just accept this treatment to your illness! I imagine this branch of Christians must worry a lot about the people they know outside the devout in their church community.

Both Grant and Charis have told me that they struggle(d) to convert Thai people. I can think of a number of good reasons why people they would be disinterested in Christianity, and these reasons can apply to others around the world.

Does Amma appreciate and love Jesus for curing her? Of course she does. Is Amma going to abandon Hinduism because Jesus cured her? Of course not. As a Hindu, she doesn’t believe it necessary to throw away her lifelong faith to love Jesus. She has no problem simply adding him to her group of divine protectors.

Further, if the Christianity preached is all or nothing, if a person has to stop being Buddhist to become Christian, what is the social and familial upside of conversion? This was a big problem that my family (and later I) had with Grant and the Church of Latter-Day Saints. If, perchance, Grant and I had kept dating after high school and decided to get married, I’d first have had to become a Mormon to be married proper in the temple, and my entire family would have had to convert if they wanted to witness said proper marriage. I’ll tell you what, that would not have gone over well with the grandmothers.

I’ve been given a couple of meaningful signs that Mother Mary is a guide for me. Both involve the Alen-de-Lastic Children’s Village.

When I went to India in 2006, I was plagued with malaria-pill-induced dreams. Some of them were bad nightmares. One morning, I told Auntie about my affliction. She went to her room and came back to me with a Mother-Mary-shaped bottle of holy water. “Sprinkle this on your pillow every night,” she told me. “You won’t have nightmares anymore.” And I didn’t. (Thanks, Mary.)

Just before I graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2007, I went with some of my good friends to the Phipps Botanical Garden next door to school. They had a beautiful glass art exhibit placed amongst the flora, and we had a lovely afternoon there. However, my trip was nearly ruined when I lost the rosary ring aforementioned Auntie gave to me when I left from my summer at the orphanage in Delhi. This ring is really important to me. I used it to lead the children in prayers every evening, and it is a gift from a good friend. When my friends and I left the garden, I realized it was no longer on my finger. It wasn’t on the ground. It wasn’t in my purse. It was nowhere to be found.

Practically in tears, I went to the information desk and reported my ring was missing. “What does it look like?” the ladies asked. “It’s a silver toned metal, with ten bumps and a cross…”

“Oh!” one of the exclaimed, “A rosary ring! I have about ten of those! You should ask Mary to help you find it.”

“Mary?” I thought. “Who’s Mary?” I checked the ladies’ nametags before the duh moment hit me.

So I did. “Mary,” I prayed. “Please find my ring. I know I shouldn’t be asking you for something so small when there are so many big problems to pray over. But, I really want this ring back. Please.”

And the next day, Phipps called to tell me that they’d found my ring. (Thanks again, Mary.)

I would think that after such experiences, I would dive into Christianity. I have personal experience that the Christian faith carries blessings. I believe this strongly enough that I carry a portrait of Mary at Lourdes and a copy of the New Testament around with me everywhere. I believe that they will help protect me from harm.

What I’m taking a while to say is, I don’t believe in missionary work. And, it’s missionaries who have pushed me away from Christianity for the past 10 years. When a MATCH student I was friendly with was expelled, I told him as he left to be good. I believe that people should be good. Not “right,” exactly, just good. Beyond that, I decline to commit. I’m not God, and He’s never sat down with me to talk, and I know I can’t know what He knows. So, why convert? Why convert others? Why judge? What do I know, anyway? And if I were to leave Unitarianism, I would want it to be for a religion I could really get behind. I don’t want any doubts in my relationship with God. Because of what I see missionaries do, I have too many doubts about the practice of evangelical Christianity to open myself to Christian theology more generally. (Perhaps this can be corrected by attending a progressive divinity school potentially chock full of liberal Christians? I can only hope.) I don’t mean that I think people should not be conservative Christian (or any of the other faiths that are exclusive in their nature, for that matter). I’m just saying it’s not for me. I’ll keep Mary and my New Testament close by, but I won’t abandon the Buddha and Hanuman icons that I carry with me as well.

What I’m also taking a while to say is, I want to be an evangelical Unitarian minister. This Seventh Day Adventist preacher roused me, a “non-believer” (to borrow the label), so much so that I wrote a three-page essay about his sermon. I want to be an evangelical minister without the typical evangelical content. I want to inspire people to do something about the failing American education system, the discrimination inherent in Proposition 8, the fact that there are children who die every day of starvation. I want to inspire people to be good to themselves, to others, and to God, however they see Him. I don’t believe it’s anyone’s business to tell people how to see God. I do believe it’s everyone’s business to increase the world’s goodness.

The calm before the uncalled for philosophical storm.

•February 19, 2009 • 3 Comments

Construction is moving very quickly nowadays, because we’ve attracted some skilled laborers who were previously working on the addition to the Kong Barr Secondary School building. The entire inside will be plastered by tomorrow, and they started to put in the windowpanes today. Tomorrow, Birialda (our helper) and I will start painting the bedrooms and the workers will continue on the external plastering. We also have a couple more floors we have to finish, and then the main two doors to install. We should have the building in shape for all of our kids to arrive on Monday!

Exciting times: Yesterday, I road with a truck piled way too high with our bunk beds. I cannot adequately describe how ridiculous it was. I prayed a few decades on my rosary ring, took a deep breath, and we did make it back to Kharang with all the beds intact. However, upon arrival, our lead construction worker (Request) pointed out to us that the door to the smallest bedroom is 26 inches wide, and the bunk beds are 28 inches wide. Oy. After some time of being despondent about our predicament, Nangroi and I decided that we’d just have to take out the door frame (by smashing all of the concrete holding it in the wall), which has since been kind of fun for both of us.

Our first three orphans have come! Pynkhrawlang, Phlinsimai, and Shongbor are all from Wahmawlein, so they’re having an easy time adjusting with Rilum and Evandahun (who are also from that village). They’re all attending Kong Barr School (two in fifth grade and one in seventh), and currently staying in the small hostel space where Jon stayed while he was here. They’re all very sweet and have a usual measure of shyness. As well, Kromdihok (Rilum’s foster son) has been here for as long as she has been. It’s so wonderful to see the kids coming in! As I mentioned, our other ten children will arrive next Monday and start school at Mawsynjri Lower Primary. All the kids and our two mothers will move into the building that evening.

Over the next couple of days (in between running errands in Shillong), I’m going to write two mini-essays inspired by events and conversations of the past two weeks. The first mini-essay came from Ms. MD taking me to Jowai, where I met two Khasi-American Seventh Day Adventists, and then taking me to a SDA revival meeting in Shillong. The essay will focus on evangelism, which I feel like I have encountered a surprising amount of as a young Unitarian. I did go to Mumbai last weekend – and it was great – and I’ll write about that in mini-essay number 2, which will focus on the film Slumdog Millionaire. Until then, khublei 🙂

Verdict on life, the universe, and everything:

•February 12, 2009 • 2 Comments

A couple of days ago, I woke up on a seemingly average day at Nangroi and Bari’s house in Shillong. (You know, chilly morning, didn’t really want to get out of bed because I knew it’d be colder than in-bed, etc.) Then, I discovered in my e-mail that I had been admitted to Vanderbilt Divinity on a substantial scholarship! Oh my goodness! Huzzah! The director of admissions even called me (she also had sent me a Christmas card, which shows how lovely people at VDS are) on my Indian cell phone! More huzzah! I just hope she wasn’t expecting me to be articulate, because I could only speak as my usual self (that is to say, a spaz)! Aww 😦 But seriously, this is the best thing that could have happened for me in regards to next fall, so I am feeling honored, excited, and relieved. Again, huzzah! 😀

Also, we’ve gotten word from the British Unitarian General Assembly that they’ve wired us their donation! It is way more than enough for us to blacktop our approach road and finish the septic tank. Really, it’s enough to finish all things construction and have a substantial reserve. All funding concerns are completely moot at this point. Thank you, British General Assembly!

Also also, I’m spending my Valentine’s Day with Smita in Mumbai! That is most excellent.

Basically, I’m feeling pretty good about life, the universe, and everything. Verdict: they’re awesome.