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Monday, August 13, 2012

On the Exotic

Note, I started working on this ages ago and never got around to posting it, so here it is finally. And by started working on it I mean I wrote the first paragraph and then stopped.

Oh my, it has been far too long since I updated. But I am back. I have been thinking about this idea of the "exotic" for a while now. Not intensely, per se, but it has frequently been brought to my mind as I have been doing my course reading and interacting with people. The idea first struck me when I sat down with the book Kim by Rudyard Kipling. My copy is a cheap, Bantam Classics paperback. The back descriptive text describes the adventure and the history and all that, but the thing that caught my eye was a line near the top that read "a farewell look brimming with all the color and sound, squalor and splendor of that exotic land."

Okay, now in the present, soon to be the past, it has been far too long since I last worked on this post. So I have been thinking about this idea of the exotic especially how it relates to India. There are countries who match it, but when you think of exotic as an American, India I think readily comes to the mind. I never really thought about it before, but that phrase "as an American" is incredibly critical. Forgive me a Mormon talk moment, but according to the dictionary, exotic means things like "origination in or characteristic of a distant foreign country" and "attractive or striking because colorful or out of the ordinary."

This may not be eye opening to you, but I had never thought about it in these terms. It is probably a human thing, but I can attest that I personally pick up most my word definitions by context and repetition. So to me, the word exotic has always meant that, it also had the implied meaning of not Western, as if people from Africa or China never thought of something as foreign or exotic. It was not until I was looking at the back of my copy of Kim that I really started thinking about this concept of exotic.

Another event that really made me think was one morning when I was reading the back of my cereal box. There aren't really that many awesome flavors of cereal here. They are all Kellogg's and most of them are good, but for some reason I get tired of them much quicker than in the U.S. Anyhow, so I had played out all the cereal options until the only thing left was Muesli. I left it for last because I don't really like fruit (long story short, it is a problem with texture, not flavor), so I generally avoid Muesli whenever possible. I find that if I just close my eyes and tell myself it's just fruit leather I can get by okay. Why is eating fruit leather palatable to me while eating raisins and dried dates disgusting to me? I have no idea. So anyhow, while I was trying to distract myself from the frickmassive (it's totally a legit scientific measurement, science just hasn't discovered it yet) dates in my cereal, I was reading the back of my Kellogg's brand Nuts Delight Muesli (I have yet to discover why Indian English pluralizes stuff like that, e.g. we would say potato soup, here they would say potatoes soup (that is if they had potato soup)). So as I was reading the description of how luxurious and amazing the cereal I was eating I first encountered the obligatory reference to California almonds. This is par for the course. Almost all almonds I have seen here advertise themselves as from California, maybe to justify how expensive the dang things are.

The next part was the shocker to me. After describing the decadent and nutritious almonds, the box then claimed that it contained "succulent Canadian dates." It was there that I stopped. Canadian dates. Like that is a good thing. When I think of dates, I think of Bedouins riding camels with baskets of fruit through the deserts of Saudi Arabia to hawk at a bazaar. If pressed I can imagine Israel or maybe some of the Balkan states if I have to. But Canada? Why would you be excited to eat dates from Canada? That's like being excited to eat a made-to-long-ago and let-sit-too-long-in-a-wrapper-under-a-heating-lamp Chicago dog from the local grocery store deli.

This is what really got me thinking about what it means to be exotic. I realized that Canadian dates, in this context were incredibly exotic. What is more out of the ordinary and strange to someone sleeping in the crazy honeycomb of stores and apartments strewn with cables that is the neighborhoods in Old Delhi? The snickers bars I sometimes eat after eating a plate of rice and rajma and stir-fried vegetables is the exotic part of the meal. It isn't the random mystery vegetable balls that my pg sometimes serves (you would think that something like mystery meat would only exist in the U.S., but there are actually times when I am served some sort of ball or patty of who knows what vegetables in who knows what condition and you just take it and eat it without questions. It is probably better that way).

I am still working through this. So if you were expecting some profound, concise truth about the exotic or something, I am going to disappoint you. I don't know quite how to apply it or what it means yet. But I am realizing that this idea of foreign and native, near and far, exotic and banal, it is all much more complex than I had assumed it to be growing up. In my cultural exploration on this trip I have been really trying to see beneath the surface not at the differences, but how things are similar. There are so many things that seem "exotic", but really I am convinced more an more that everyone is basically the same, even across the East/West divide. All the different expressions of culture are serving the same basic needs. I can't think of a really cool, intelligent sounding, philosophical way to end this so I am just going to stop abruptly now.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Last real week

I'm not quite down to my last seven days yet, but today begins the last full week of my Field Study. I have this week, then Monday and Tuesday, and then it's home again, home again, jiggity-jig. I've got a pretty coherent plan for my last week, but gosh it is difficult to decide what would e the best possible thing to do with just one week. I mean, at this point it kind of does not matter. I have the bulk of my material. More would always be awesome because I really do not have as much confirmation of my sources as I would like. I think the most challenging thing about my research right now is the realization that the information I really need is scattered pretty well over the population. How do I saw what I mean. I mean, it is simple. I've said this before, but India is a lot like America in many ways. Most people I talk to here do not really read. It is as simple as that. They either do not like it or do not have time for it. But there are people who do read and now those are the people I really need to talk to. But they could be anyone. There is probably some good way to figure out who they are, but until I figure that out (which also requires more time) finding these people is slow extraction largely based on chance.

The other night I went to some sort of academic conference. I found out about it through one of my clubs. They were presenting a few books on the brain that had recently been written. Basically it was a bunch of really old Indians and some advocates for special education. One of the books was about working with the brain to help children succeed and overcome things like ADD and ADHD without medication. This started a huge argument about how to approach special education in India. Basically twenty minutes in the agenda of presenting the books in academic conference fashion was abandoned and it turned into an argument/discussion about special education. There wasn't much book discussion, but it was interesting to say the least. At least I learned that a lot of serious sciency-books seem to be mostly read by older Indian doctors and that ilk.

They had a Canadian woman speak over skype. Except I don't think anyone in the room could understand a word she was saying. The connection was kind of bad. It really was kind of a surreal experience and so very Indian in its way. There were so many brilliant, super-qualified, official people in the room. And yet people got up and sat down as they pleased. "Questions" were usually more statements than questions, although perhaps with high level science this is the case. I have never been to a comparable paper conference in the U.S. I've mostly just been to English or religious research conferences and, well, especially in the English ones, people do not tend to really have questions or opinions. Also, at the end the woman running the panel who had been fielding and answering questions at the end said that she was just a housewife and didn't have a job. I was kind of like "whaaa?" She spoke well and seemed very intelligent, so I assume she has some advanced degrees. It was just kind of random to have listened to someone talk about some science subject and then have them describe themselves to you as "just a housewife." Perhaps it is just part of the evolving definition of womanhood and gender equality. Housewives conversant on the cutting edge of brain science and psychology. It sounds good to me.

Anyhow, today I am going to try to see if I can get in touch with the owner of Fact & Fiction. It is this awesome book store with pound for pound the best selection of books I have seen in India. The store is about the size of a small bedroom, but my goodness there are so many quality books in there. I haven't purchased a book there and I kind of would like to grease the wheels with a purchase, but I am running out of money (it is the last week) and I am pretty sure that I have more books than I have suitcase space, so I will have to look for something small. I bought the Penguin Hindi-English dictionary because it is spectacular and it is so much cheaper here. Except it is huge. But really, it is the best Hindi dictionary I have ever seen. Okay, uh, I also bought the entire Harry Potter series in Hindi. But it was cheap! It was less than forty dollars for the entire series! Don't judge me. These two things are my problem. Because seven books are not small. I had extra weight coming over, so here's to hoping I can slim things down enough. I've set aside money for baggage fees, if it comes to that. Hopefully it won't so that money can go towards September rent instead, but it will be fine either way.

You know, I haven't really posted anything about what I have been reading. Why haven't I been doing that? I have no idea. Maybe I will write some posts about that this week and after I get back. Oh, I have to start thinking about what will become of this blog after this is all over. I kind of feel bad about just tossing it aside once this is over. That seems kind of disingenuous. Maybe I will expand/continue to work on what I have been with this project until I connect it in with something else.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Today makes rem feel : \. Yesterday was more productive and exciting than today. I actually didn't get out again today. I feel a lot better. I have not relapsed into fever (at least not yet) and the headaches have gone. I think the diarrhea is starting to go too. Except I had some spicy Indian for lunch. It was probably too early to start on Indian again. Whoops. Oh well. Anyhow, this whatever I have is the most frustrating thing ever. It just keeps changing. I don't know if I just happen to get three different things in succession or what, but today I have been dealing with nausea more than the last few days. But more frustrating than that is the exhaustion. I just have no energy. I guess I just need to spend a few days taking it easy even though I feel better. I went out this morning to get milk and by the time I got back I was huffing and puffing at the top of the stairs. So I did not go out today and it is frustrating.

Instead I tried to contact some people. I wasn't terribly successful, but we will see if I hear back from some people. Dealing with people is like that. For reals.

Last night was both exciting and dur at the same time (does anyone remember when people used to say the exclamation "doi," pronounced something like doy? it was often accompanied by a stupid face). I went to one of my club/meet up things and I was chatting with this lady and then suddenly she was like "hey, I did my degree in English." And I'm like ":o" And then she is like "yeah, and I got my masters in English." And I'm like ":O" And the she says "then I taught English in a university here." And I can't think of an emoticon to express even greater surprise. And then she reveals "until I had children, then I was too busy so I started teaching English in high school." And then she says she has been looking for someone to discuss books with. I tend not to show facial expressions, so my face wasn't changing, but go look up omg cat on youtube for the basic idea of how I was feeling inside this whole time.

Why does she pop up now like a week before I have to leave? Where have people like this been the whole time? She gave me her phone number and offered to give me whatever help I needed. She also expressed an interest in joining in on my research. I mean, she is not a current university professor, but you know, if I actually had time this would have been wonderful. I am still super excited to make the connection though. I definitely plan on trying to stay in contact. I may be doing something similar to this again in the future. And even if I don't, having someone who loves discussing books is always an awesome thing to have around.

So tomorrow...I don't know. It depends on how I am feeling. I still have a bunch of writing to do, so I guess I could work on that.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The hardest part about studying reading in India

is that I cannot say what I really think about Chetan Bhagat because so many people I talk to love his books. So let me rant here. He is a miserable author. His writing is remedial. His plots suck. He is racist. His opinions of the West are not empowering to India, they are engendering nationalist sentiment that are only going to hold normal Indians back while allowing the rich Indian elite, (e.g. investment bankers like Chetan Bhag) to continue sell out India to the West (zing!). His books are big cartloads of do as I say not as I do kind of stuff. They are written as movies and Bhagat spends all his time now trying to get his books made into movies and delivering speeches to support his affluent Mumbai lifestyle. Let's be honest, he writes crappy movie scripts. Like high school level stuff. It's high school level scripts except instead of emo drama, they are full of platitudes about how you can be whoever you want to be. Note that there have a been a string of murders related to labor riots in Haryana over the last month or so, with some speculating that the violence started after some castist remarks. Okay, I am stopping now. I just wish Bhagat would too.

Okay that is not the hardest part, but every time I see someone reading Bhagat or someone gushes about how much they like Bhagat...I have to almost literally bite my tongue.

I think the most surprising thing to me, which in retrospect should not have been, that I have concluded from my research is that Indians, with regards to reading, are really not that much different than Americans. I have never studied American reading, but from remembering what I have observed from talking to friends and acquaintances in the U.S., reading reports about books and e-books, and from inspecting people's bookshelves or lack of them in their homes (disclaimer: if you let me in your house I have thoroughly inspected any book collections I could find. This isn't probably, I have. I am a shameless book snoop) it is basically the same thing.

There are some differences. Americans do read more overall, but the quality of the literature is the same. Chetan Bhagat is on par with Stephanie Meyers and any cheap romance or mystery writer. Dan Brown, Michael Chrichton, Stephen King, and Sue Grafton are perhaps of slightly better quality than the big writers of cheap fiction that Indians read in English at least, they are formulaic, over-hyped, and while perhaps important parts of English literature to study and remember, their books individually are fairly forgettable. Why am I talking about this. Oh, Americans may read more due to the wider availability of books, literacy, and the cheapness of books, but the reading and the purpose of the reading is essentially the same.

The thing that surprises me is the lack of correlation between why people read and what they choose to read. Even in the field of English books, there is a general preference for Indian authors. In fact, outside of those who legitimately read (not that everyone else does not really read; what I mean by that is people who actually do enjoy reading for a hobby and devote at least some time to for sheer pleasure), I do not think anyone mentioned a preference for Western authors. It makes sense in my mind that if you are going to favor your own nation's authors that you would then also choose books with strong messages or try to read the "classics" (whatever that might mean). I guess this is really not that surprising. I don't imagine that the "'merica" kind of people would really be capable of digesting or understanding much more than twilight or fifty shades (oh I so went there). Except the difference is the Indians do not take pride in stupidity or ignorance like the American set do. They hold traditional ideas and opinions sometimes, but they do not knowingly seek after ignorance like some Americans do.

I guess I expected that if there were a preference for Indian authors, the reading would also be to some degree political as well. But mostly I haven't really noticed it to be.

Another interesting trend is that the other popular genre for reading, motivational/business lit, it is all about the ideas. It doesn't matter if you are Rajan Tata or Bill Gates. If you have good ideas and people feel that they work, the book is popular. The most popular, or at least the most frequently mentioned seem to be Indians, or else Indians living abroad, however no one seems to discriminate against books written by Westerners in the slightest. The seven habits are frequently mentioned as good books. It seems like with literature, Indians are conscious of preserving a native tradition, but when it comes to business and success, it is a free-for-all.

I am still developing these ideas. Over the next two weeks I am setting things up to get some hopefully really good more one on one kind of stuff. Since I have generally lacked (and still lack) a target population that I could focus on getting access too, I have just been working with what comes up in conversation, what I observe, and what I overhear. Finally college is back in session, so I am going to take advantage of that. Also I have gotten much more comfortable with the people in my PG and also I have made headway in some of the clubs I have been attending. It is to the point where it isn't exactly the societal penetration I was imagining, but it will work for my project.

Ah! And I still have a draft of that entry I never finished. I need more time! I need more time for reflection and observation. I cannot draw conclusions of any kind after one short and crazy summer. Field Studies are not near long enough. I need at least a year to confidently say anything. This is crazy!..."I just met you. And this is crazy. But I've only been here three months and I'm analyzing your culture and drawing sweeping, misinformed, possibly racist and insulting conclusions, maybe." Aiyo. And I bet that (I was thinking SWEARS!) Dr. Nuckolls will just love how things turned out. Next time. You have not heard the last of me, Dr. Nuckolls, you hear that? *shakes fist* This isn't the end!