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Foreigner of the Day

My friend Karen recently introduced me to this genius game. The idea is fairly self-explanatory. You look out for the most outrageous (in behavior or dress or both) foreigner you see, and they are your “Foreigner of the Day”. It’s been fantastically funny to observe people in a different culture, the rage that comes out over the high prices or street vendors hassling you or crowded streets. The way people dress because they are in another country is one of my favorite qualifiers for “Foreigner of the Day”. It’s usually a beautifully awkward mix of Indian style with western influence like baggy Indian pants matched with short western t-shirts. My unnamed male friend who wore zebra “Ali Baba” pants with a tank top and matching zebra head band will be in my memory forever.

The game is only fun here because there are so few foreigners that anyone you see stands out. The other day I visited the Botanical Gardens by myself and enjoyed a leisurely walk through the peace and quiet. I took a bus home, and when I climbed on I was greeted with the sight of probably 10 foreigners, dressed as all foreigners here are, like hippies. Before I could check my socially awkward side and regain my composure, I said out loud, “Oh, my soul. So many foreigners!” They just looked at me, and I decided to sit in the front.

But, the road goes both ways, and today, I know, I made the Foreigner of the Day list for hundreds of people. My roommates and I went to a coffee shop up on Park Street to read and write letters. We took a bus up and got down an easy walking distance from our destination, but we decided to take a new mode of transportation there. I will give the credit where it’s due, my roommate Liz saw a bicycle drawn cart and said, “Can we take that?!” I couldn’t see any reason why not except for the fact that they aren’t meant for passengers, so we climbed on. It wasn’t until our bus drove past us and the men on it leaned out the door to laugh at our driver that I realized this might be a little odd.

The five minute walk became a 10 minute ride of basking in the glory of a leisurely ride through the back streets of Kolkata amidst ridicule from those around us. Auto rickshaws that barely stop long enough for you to step out pulled to the side of the road and waited to see us pass again, full of passengers pointing and laughing at us. I know you may think I’m exaggerating for emphasis, but I truly am not. People pointed and laughed. Men leaned out to stare and call out to see if we needed a ride. I don’t know what I can compare these carts to, but I think the best example would be a tractor pulled wagon. Usually intended only for cargo and transport, but sometimes employed in driving people around a hay field where no one can see.

That was us. A wagon ride in the city. Foreigners of the Day.

If I were a man…

I think most people probably ask themselves random questions throughout the day that if posed by an outside person would seem quite strange or if heard by another person would seem quite strange. I have some of both. Some of my recent questions:

1. Is it okay to take moldy vitamins? (Yes)

2. Should I walk around or go through the fence? (Fence)

3. Should I wash my hair or go one more day? (One more day)

4. What would it be like here if I were a man instead of a woman? (Awesome)

When I asked myself the last question, I was walking past one of the thousand barber stands in this city, watching a man get a perfectly manicured mustache, and I thought…”If I were a man, I would grow the most beautiful, luxurious mustache this city has ever seen.” The glory. Mustaches here apparently have different meaning to those in the States. Back home they say, “I’m a bit of a creeper” or “I needed something to catch the food falling off my fork” or “I make fun of my dad’s in our old pictures, but secretly I think it looks awesome, so I grew one”. Here, they proclaim to the world of your unquestionable status as a man and not one to be messed with. It is harder to find a mustache-less man than a street dog with an owner here. I walked past an older gentleman with a perfectly combed, parted, and waxed white mustache the other night and burned with envy.

The glory of a mustache isn’t the only benefit I see to being a man here. Step two, if I were a man, I would grow the second most conspicuous feature to any self-respecting man, a large and protruding stomach. The affection men have here for their stomachs is astonishing. I can’t go a day without seeing a man casually roll up or unbutton his shirt to unveil his glorious gut. They stroke, pat, and scratch their stomachs like an adored pet, and I’m just not sure I could get away with the same behavior. I mean, we all wish we could, but it’s the unique privilege of men here, as far as I can tell, and one they relish.

Thirdly, if I were a man, I would bathe on the streets. I am not saying that anyone would want to see that anymore than I want to see it fifty times a day, but when you have a belly and mustache, the envy of all around you, you must not keep it to yourself. I say, fashion some bathing shorts out of a towel and lather up.

Shout out to Mars.

Stress is such an interesting phenomenon. The steady way it creeps up on you until you think, does my heart always feel this fluttery? The different strategies available for coping with stress are as unique as the people who (try to) use them. To be perfectly honest, I’m a bit stressed much of the time here. From work, to the horns and pollution, to people asking for money, to financial issues, it’s easy for me to let that fluttery feeling become overwhelming and all encompassing. To maintain my sanity, I usually (rarely) try to channel the stress into good coping mechanisms like exercise or journaling, but sometimes, like today, I just eat Twix instead.

So, this is my shout out to the geniuses over at Mars Snackfood US, LLC in Hackettstown, New Jersey.  The Twix with Peanut Butter just changed my life. It resolved my ever constant struggle to understand why in the world Oreo didn’t just make a REAL peanut butter Oreo (not peanut butter icing, please), and cover it with chocolate. You guys nailed it. Bravo.

Changes

I’ve found that living in another country changes you slowly, in subtle ways. I’ve shared too much already about the degrees and varieties and severity of my very real sweat issue. Becoming not only accustomed, but comfortable, with those things is just one way in which I’ve adapted to life here.

Fashion. I’ve never been…I don’t have the word right now, is it current? I feel like my mom would use that word, but it’s true. Never quite current. I’m comfortable with how I dress, even here, but lately it’s taken a few turns for the worse. Before I went home for Christmas, a co-worker said to me, “Oh wow, today you look like Kari-girl, normally you look like Kari-mom.” I had two thoughts. 1. Fair enough, I basically am a mom for 19 girls, so I might as well look the part. 2. What?

This issue has been exaggerated by a recent purchase, which can only be described as orthopedic-sneakers/sandals-the-design-of-which-must-have-been-stolen-off-the-feet-of-a-wheel-chair-ridden-grandmother-in-the-1970’s. Platform shoes rounded but not thinned, not in any way thinned. They add at least 3 inches to my height, which is already several inches above all of my co-workers. I literally roll around the house and, yes, the streets of Kolkata on these marvels of modern shoe design. The man who sold them to me assured me that no one notices your shoes. Doubtful. However, they’ve been a huge hit with my Indian co-workers and the girls. I have two other very clear benefits from this purchase: 1. My lower back pain is almost completely gone and 2. I now consider my Birkenstocks to be my ‘cool’ shoes for special occasions, not a common sentiment for most people in their mid-twenties without dread-locks or a legal amount of marijuana in their possession.

Final change: I was getting ready the other day when I noticed the same blond hair sticking out in front of my eyes that had been there for the last few days. I pulled it to the side, and there it was. It was not a blond hair at all. My first white hair, right in the middle of my forehead. I left it. It’s a mark of wisdom.

I’ve also learned that I shouldn’t be left alone in the bathroom for very long. Multiple reasons, but primarily because my appearance is almost inevitably altered as a result. When I was about eight years old, I knocked my two front teeth out with a hammer over a period of about two hours while my mom was gone and my dad was apparently very distracted. Lately, I just cut my hair. In college, I would assure my roommates it was ‘just a trim’ and come back with 3-4 inches missing.

I’ve started back in the habit in response to some comments from my more ornery co-workers. For about 6 months I would join in their exclamations of “Joi Jesu” (praise Jesus). I foolishly assumed I understood the joke. If I know anything with certainty it’s that I rarely, if ever, understand the jokes here. So, they would come into our office and say, “Joi Jesu!” and look at me, waiting for my response. I always joined in with gusto, which only made them laugh more, but I thought we were praising Jesus because one of them was getting married in the next few months and I wanted to show my enthusiasm. If it were only that simple. As it turns out, I apparently closely resemble many portraits of our risen Lord, especially my hair. Another friend heralded my recent appearance as Aslan in Voyage of the Dawn Treader as a remarkable debut into the world of film. I decided it was time for a change, but what did I get? I got the curly bowl cut all over again, this time self-induced. Some people shouldn’t run with scissors, I shouldn’t shower with them.

I don’t really know how else to say it, and I think you’ve probably begun to guess this already. Auto rickshaws rock my world. If I had another life, I would want to be a rickshaw driver. It’s Mario Kart (definitely N64 edition) in real life and then some. It’s like right after the lightning bolt strikes, and the auto drivers are all the little guys speeding around, taking reckless turns and jumps, just to try to catch up. You don’t drop bananas behind you, but you tie baby shoes on the back of your bumper and spit red tobacco juice out the side of the car.

And these characters can talk. They don’t just shout, “Oh, no!” or growl or laugh in a slightly creepy way, though, certainly, they do all of those things. Rickshaw drivers make people cry. I swear, trash talk was invented on the streets of Kolkata. I don’t understand everything, but what I do follow always makes me smile and wish I had someone to whisper, “Oh, no he didn’t” to. They taunt one another as they steal passengers and cut each other off and shred other drivers for simple driving mistakes, which, to be honest, can barely be noticed here.

My general understanding of the break up of an auto rickshaw driver’s world is like this (simplistic sketch):

Friends: The other rickshaw drivers that are part of your route and union. (there are a few rogue drivers that aren’t so popular)

Enemies: Bus and truck drivers.

Innocent by-standers: The passengers.

Means of engagement: Cut off drivers and do what you can to completely frustrate their every effort to get ahead of you.

If a bus or truck driver makes a mistake, the chastisements are all in the non-verbals. I mean, what can a little rickshaw driver say to a bus driver that they’ll even be able to hear in all the noise? But that’s the beauty, there’s no need for words. The other night a bus driver held up traffic by trying to do a u-turn and stalling or something like that, and my driver pulled up diagonally to the front of the bus, stopped, and stared at the bus driver for a full 30 seconds with complete and unabashed disdain. His face said, “If I could do anything in my life, it would be to go back to the day your parents met and prevent them from ever giving birth to an incompetent fool like you, and if I didn’t succeed, I would cut off your legs so you could never drive and commit such an unforgivable transgression.” Sweet vengeance. That’s the life.

Where am I?

I left snow and freezing temperatures and came back to freezing temperatures minus the snow. Is India allowed to be cold? I realized once I got here that India is kind of a big country and actually has diverse landscapes as well as people, cultures, and languages, but for some reason, as much as it pains me to admit, I still picture “Man in a turban on a camel in a desert”. Scarves and toe socks and wool blankets don’t often enter in, but here I am. It’s 2:00 in the morning and all my toes on my right foot are numb. (this happens frequently throughout the day too since I haven’t yet invested in toe socks)

You might be wondering, as I am, why I am writing this post (and perhaps the ones before it as well). I had hoped to go to bed at 2, but my upstairs neighbor,who is apparently quite the aspiring disk(que?) jockey, decided now would be a good time to play some of his new mixes. Techno is very big here. Very big. Every popular English song has a techno remake that plays in all of the coffee shops, clubs, restaurants, and quiet residential areas at 2:00 am. It’s nice.

Ah-MER-i-ca*

I’ve never been one for overly strong feelings about my country, so I was as suprised as anyone at the giddy child sitting in my seat on the plane when we landed. I kept saying. “Ah-MER-i-ca. Caleb, we’re in Ah-MER-i-ca!” Walking off the plane into the Chicago aiport, quite possibly the most magical place on earth, I couldn’t stop smiling or gushing over and over, “Ah-MER-i-ca! We’re really here.” First stop? Starbucks. I used to think I was all about going local, but my “Grande, soy, no water chai” rolled off my tongue too easily for me to believe that about myself anymore. I am an American. Or Ah-MER-i-can. I missed it.

* To be pronounced as someone of the trucking profession from somewhere near Dayton, Ohio with a mouthful of chewing tobacco might attempt