Nov. 27th, 2009

flora: Photo of a baby penguin chick (Default)
It was great to meet the other Indian Fulbrighters and their families at the Fulbright conference.

The Indian Fulbright conference takes place every Thanksgiving weekend. The US-India Educational Foundation (USIEF) sponsors it for people who are in India for the fall semester. Many Fulbright India grants are for the spring, and there's another, larger South Asian conference then. These conferences are a mix of bright, creative students, scholars, and schoolteachers. And a few dependents, like me.

The people came from very diverse backgrounds and life stages. For example, a panel on "Being a Cultural Ambassador" included the following: A dynamic mid-fifties widow, traveling to schools around India, lecturing on strategies for teaching blind and visually-impaired students. An Indian-American art scholar with a six-month-old child, documenting the Chennai art museum's formation of Indian cultural identity. A fortysomething Haitian immigrant and science teacher; her late-teenage son has brown skin that often lets him pass for Indian. A bright, recent college graduate of East Asian descent, teaching English in a Delhi government school. And the lone (first-ever) Fulbright scholar to Bhutan, an Oklahoman professor studying tobacco policy and also happening to be the highest official American presence in that country.

I only attended one presentation session. There were a couple different tracks, and it was well-organized so the technical topics were grouped together. Michael led off with his presentation, telling how he's inserted critical design thinking into the Indian examination-based system that rewards rote memorization. Another participant described the growing Indian biotech industry, and how it's being limited by a severe lack of venture capital; he's now working with the government to try to create something like an Indian NIH. Another scholar, one of the other two computer science professors, gave a very interesting talk on how he had adapted a chemistry-based peer learning approach. He is also teaching students to contribute to Free and Open-Source Software. I asked him how they felt working in the FOSS community, since sometimes open-source can be rather insular and male-American-dominant. He replied that like India, there is a huge diversity in open-source software projects; you just have to find the right community. I agreed, and mentioned DreamWidth (the very blog I'm writing this on), as one such safe place.

The best part of the conference was talking one-on-one with the other people. They're very bright people doing fascinating work. Nora, the teacher for blind students, described the astonished reactions when she tells of Jacob Bolotin, the blind, American heart/lung doctor--in 1912. And Kim, a biology teacher on a teacher-exchange, described how she challenges her students to find their intelligence among the eight different types of intelligence. She also spoke of some of the economic struggles in her rural Oregon hometown, which echo the tribulations of my childhood town in rural Michigan. We also chatted at length with the Bhutan scholar, who is as nice as he is interesting; we had a great speculative discussion ranging from Bhuddist causality in economic systems to science fiction to modern Middle East politics.

We also traded stories of gender experiences in India. One woman, a feminist scholar in Delhi, was passionately fired up about the "Eve-teasing" problems there. Another, a young mother, had colleagues who felt she was neglecting her child (who was with his father during the day). I shared my surprise at the numerous stay-at-home faculty moms in north Gujarat, who have the same engineering degrees as their husbands but never use them. Yet another mentioned how she had invited the professors from her institution over to drink a toast to her late father-in-law when he passed away. None of them showed up, and they apologized the next day that men do not drink alcohol in front of women. Overall, it sounds like there's somewhat more gender equality in South India and the cities. It's still a far cry from America.

I talked with some of the other dependents, too. There were several families with elementary-age children or younger. A handful of us spouses/partners are working. One is working for the Clinton Foundation; she's helping clinics reduce mother-to-child AIDS transmission from 50% to 1% with the right drugs. Another is a computer engineer, working at IBM in Bangalore. A few other spouses, who are also faculty on their sabbaticals, are working on grant proposals. One or two moms volunteer at their children's schools or just deal with running the household.

Michael and I knew that living in our small town was better than we'd expected. Now, talking with others, we really appreciate Visnagar and the college. USIEF likes sending people to small towns, because they'll be appreciated there and well cared-for. Many of the researchers who went to big cities had to struggle with day-to-day problems; they were put in moldy living quarters, or their host institutions didn't give them an office for two months. Some of the students just go home at night and hole up in their dorm rooms; they're totally missing the broader experience of living here. The more mature people are better able to deal with the idiosyncracies of Indian life. That group includes Michael and me, though we're barely in our 30s. I think it helps to have the right attitude, of going out and embracing another culture.

In between meals, I teleworked from the hotel room. Most of it was offline; the Internet access cost 100 rupees an hour, and it was down for a couple days. I was especially productive Thanksgiving day, when almost everyone else went off to visit a temple. It's not very exciting to write formatting requirements for reports, but it beats spending four hours on a bus; I'm about done with long over-land travel. Michael went, and he said it was nice but not worth the long bus ride.

We enjoyed Pondicherry in the evenings. That'll be a separate blog entry when I can link to pictures.

Thanksgiving day ended with a banquet and dance. We went to a different hotel, with a rocky beach by the ocean, with an outdoor dance floor. Michael and I wore traditional Indian dress. I heard several compliments on how handsome Michael looked. Several of us women dresed in saris, though most wore nice salwar kameezes or dresses with knee-length or longer skirts. Most of the men wore Western suit jackets but very few ties. The gay couple were especially handsome in their wedding-fancy kurta pajamas. Everyone mostly stood around and mingled, sipping cocktails and wine, until the food was finally served. Yes, there was turkey, but in a curry sauce. The fish was great though. The dance followed. Nobody danced to the American dance tunes, but almost everyone joined in once they started playing Indian music. I tried some traditional Indian dance moves and apparently kept enough rhythm that Michael didn't recognize me at first, across the dance floor. It was a fun way to wrap up the conference.

By coincidence, this was an auspicious time to have a Fulbright event. Just this week, the Indian overnment signed an agreement with the U.S., to double the number of Fulbright grants to India. The local Deccan newspaper even reported it, and they didn't know we were in town. If you're a teacher or researcher and interested, this is a great year to apply. They haven't increased the publicity much, so your chances of getting in might be better this year (they're currently about one-in-ten for student researchers, and slightly higher for faculty and teachers). They're especially interested in science and technology; nothing in the legislation says so, but it's how the diplomats discussed it. They'll still have plenty of openings for their traditional strengths of English teachers and social/cultural researchers. It's a wonderful experience.
flora: Stylized Indian national flag (india)
Lovebirds and elephants are romantic. But it's great to discover a city with new friends.

We explored the sights, smells, touches, and tastes of Pondicherry--with other Americans! The Fulbright conference wisely gave us some free time in the evenings.  We spent some of the time with another Computer Science lecturer, Clif, and Clif's family--his wife Lane, and their two children. It was delightful to get to know them.  We had an early dinner together with them at a delicious, Italian-style wood fired pizzeria (justly recommended by their guidebook).  We tasted real cheese pizza with tangy tomato sauce and Italian spices. Lane and I commiserated with each other. Lane isn't working; she's been busy being a mom and studying a bit of programming. Their family had originally thought of applying for South Korea, but they're managing okay in Kerala. They're also in an urban area, so it's a bit more exciting there than in rural Gujarat.

Pondicherry was French colonial, unlike most of the rest of India which was British.  The street signs are still bilingual, in French and Tamil. There are little touches of France here and there, like the painted ceramic tiles giving address numbers. The people are definitely Indian though.
An antique store with a sand painting on its doorstep
We admired an elegant sand painting on a doorstep, and followed over the threshold into a lovely little antique store. Michael bought an inexpensive bell that had once hung in a temple.
We also wandered the major city park. The kids played in the playgrounds. Michael and I explored the tropical flowers in the elaborately planted flowerbeds. I picked up a fragrant white temple-flower blossom that had fallen on the sidewalk and put it in my hair temporarily until I could find some jasmine.

We strolled along the promenade, by the rocky beach on the Indian ocean. On the beach, I made out with a parrot.
Lane holding the parrot
The green "fortune-telling" lovebirds, and their handlers, cater to tourists. They normally pick out a little rolled-up scroll with the customer's future, like an interactive fortune cookie. This time, the bird's trainer invited me to let it perch on my finger. From there, the parrot clambered all over me, chirruping and squawking. It climbed all around my shoulders and head and hair, lightly nibbling and tasting me with its tongue the whole time. It probably enjoyed the dried salt from my sweaty walk on the beach. It tickled me as it nibbled its way up my neck and over my face to my mouth. And there it just stayed, chirping and lightly chewing at my lips and teeth. This lovebird was kissing me!  French kissing!  The bird was evidently enjoying it too. I couldn't stop laughing, and it wouldn't stop kissing me. So I kissed back, with my husband looking on and grinning as he snapped pictures [he hasn't uploaded his pictures of me, so here's one of Lane instead; I'll replace it when I can]. We quickly attracted a crowd. After maybe five minutes of parrot mouth-to-mouth, I coaxed it back on my fingers and handed it back to the trainer. Still laughing, we thanked him and gave him a 100-rupee note.  That was totally worth it.

Michael and I also embraced an elephant. The major Hindu temple there has its own elephant. People buy the elephant grass or a length of sugar-cane and feed it, and the elephant blesses them in return by tapping them on the head with its trunk. Lane and Clif had been the night before, and they watched our bags while we fed the elephant. It grabbed the food straight out of our hands; I don't think it actually patted our heads, but we definitely patted it. The prehensile trunk is surprisingly strong and muscular. It snatched the food before we could get many pictures. It was friendly, though, so I hugged its legs: sort of like a big, dry, rubbery tree trunk.
Women at the Puducherry fish market

On Wednesday, we toured the large fish-market and flower-market.  The fish market smells of fresh fish. Unlike Visnagar's open-air markets, the Pondicherry bazaar is indoors and open well past sunset. We ducked in between a couple shops, and found ourselves in a warren of little market-stalls underneath the buildings. The area is well-illuminated with big fluorescent lights. Our new friend, Lane, had been there the night before. She navigated us through the maze of sellers with ease, steering her children (and us) in the right direction. There were women hacking heads off fresh fish, merchants and carts with vegetable-wallahs, and smaller shops selling kids clothing or saris. There were more vendors in a single room in that market than the whole street full of vegetable-sellers in Visnagar. And that wasn't the half of it.\
Flower market
Our ultimate destination was the huge flower-market, on the other side of the bazaar.  We smelled the giant garlands of marigolds and roses before we saw them. They're used for weddings, and for decorating temples and shrines. I wanted some jasmine, the fragrant white flowers that South Indian women wear in their hair. There were numerous vendors; I bought a long strand of fresh jasmine from a woman who strung them while I watched. I clipped them to my barrette. Our friends needed to get back and put their kids to bed, so all six of us crammed into a single auto-rickshaw and held on all the way back to the hotel. I stashed my jasmine flowers in the mini-bar fridge, where they kept nice and fresh for the Thanksgiving banquet the next night. Jasmine is a wonderful smell.

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