Unique manifestations of the human spirit


My week-and-a-half in Sonoma County TOTALLY flew by!  I did get to see a LOT of people (if only briefly) and do a LOT of things.  I also MISSED too many people and didn’t get a chance to do some of the things I had wanted to do.  If I missed seeing you this time around, I’ll be back in June.

I did get to have Christmas.  I love Christmas!  I love the lights and the songs and the cold and cooking Christmas dinner and even the shopping! I love the simple message of peace and goodwill heralded by the spirit of a child — even if we are reminded for only a day of our obligation to our fellow human beings, that is one day more than none!  I love the special time spent with family and friends, and I got to spend a fair amount of time with Bodhi and Malaya.  Between various travels and “significant others”, some family traditions have evolved into different forms; but I guess that is part of the general evolution of our lives.  I’m glad I came back for Christmas.

And I got to experience the full range of Sonoma County’s winter:  crisp, clear days followed by cold, star-filled nights and frosty mornings; piles of bright red leaves on the sidewalks at Creekside; fog and drizzle and raging downpours.  The seasons in tropical India are hot-and-humid, hotter-and-humid, even-hotter-and-more-humid, and hot-and-raining.  I was really looking forward to winter weather.  And the stars; between the water in the air and the city lights, I do not see the stars in Chennai, which I really miss!  It stormed heavily the day I left Sonoma County; but it stopped on the way to San Francisco, and the air was crystal clear under glowering clouds.  The hills of Sonoma and Marin, and the skyline of San Francisco, stood stark and stunning for my last glimpse until June.  It was a beautiful send-off.

I went to the Dickens Fair, The Nutcracker in San Francisco, and the Borat movie.  We are so blessed by the range of cultural offerings in the Bay Area!!!  I ate at Fresh Choice (finally, my SALAD!!), an Italian restaurant, Max’s in San Francisco, a Mexican tacqueria, Chinese carry-out, and even Indian food!!  What diversity!!!!  India is a very diverse country, but it is diversity within one culture.  The Bay Area, and the United States as a whole, is blessed by the cultural (and culinary!) contributions of the entire world!  There are those who fear that “cultural diversity” will somehow dilute Americanism; but that diversity IS Americanism.  The engine that has driven America’s growth into the world’s dominant power is the ability to incorporate the best that the world has to offer!!  Walking around San Francisco, and even Sonoma County, was a smorgasbord of ethnicity!!!  This, of course, has always been the case, but it was a little startling seeing it fresh as a sort-of outsider.

No, there was no “culture shock” — this is my native culture!  But there are so many LITTLE things that we take for granted!!  Infrastructure!!  Roads and freeways and bridges; phone lines and internet and reliable electricity; tap water you can actually drink!  And storm sewers!!!  There are NO storm sewers on most roads and streets in India, and the ones on major roads are so filled with trash that they are useless.  Two inches of rain during the monsoons produces a foot of water in the streets that lasts for days in some spots.  Showers!  Bathrooms in India are all tile or stone, so they don’t bother with enclosures (doors or curtains).  You get used to it pretty quickly, but I was amazed at how cozy our enclosed showers are — no wonder we stand in them so long!  The streets and roads of America are not only free of trash, rubble, and debris, are not only safer and saner with courteous drivers who follow simple safety rules, but are also EMPTY!!  There are no cows or crowds of people with whom motorized vehicles share space (with the exception of VERY occasional bicyclists).  In fact, outside of concentrated shopping areas, and then only at Christmas-time, there are no crowds of people ANYWHERE!!  One friend reported that when she returned from India, the streets seemed deserted, like there had been an evacuation.  We actually lead very isolated lives!!  Healthy-looking dogs and cats!  The dogs of India are a bedraggled lot, indeed!!  My dog in Forestville has a SHELF full of vitamins and flea-repellent and heartworm medicine and doggie treats and SPECIAL doggie teeth-cleaning doggie treats from the vet and . . .  Most of us spend more just on dog food in a year than most people in India even EARN!!!

There are also bigger things that stood out.  Like poverty.  India has more poor people than the United States even has PEOPLE!!  Our poverty problem is much smaller by comparison.  But our poverty comes with a level of violence that is appalling!  In fact, gun use and violence in the United States as a WHOLE is appalling!!  People are routinely shot in the course of even minor robberies, but also at parties and shopping malls and workplaces and schools and the streets.  More Americans are shot each year in the United States than were killed in the World Trade Center or who have been killed in the Iraq War!!!!  I walk through the poorest neighborhoods in Chennai and am not in NEARLY as much danger as I am in Santa Rosa!!!  (Apparently, however, other cities in India are not as safe).  And the poverty in the United States is perpetuated by a glorification of failure that is beyond the comprehension of Indians.  In America, middle-class teenagers try valiantly to imitate the loser cultures of rappers, skateboarders, and rock stars.  Part of this, of course, is just adolescent rebellion; but all-too-often the image becomes the reality.  For children who are already disadvantaged, the image becomes a death grip.  Indians might be resigned to poverty, but they certainly don’t glorify it!!!!!

On the other hand, the avenues of escape from poverty are much more readily available in the United States.  Hispanic barrio kids from Hayward are certainly “at risk” from their surroundings, and more needs to be done for them; but they also enjoy the benefits of child labour laws and compulsory education.  Their parents push them to succeed in school, and there is a post-high-school system which they can use to pull themselves up the economic ladder.  VERY few poor kids in India even GET to high school!!!  There is a major construction project going on at my school.  Usually they are screened off from us for safety reasons, but recently I went over there to see my new room.  Beside the usual line of women carrying bricks and mortar on their heads for two dollars a day, there was a boy of around thirteen working on the site.  The parents of the thirteen-year-olds in my class, on the other side of the netting, are paying seventeen thousand dollars a year to send their kids to my school.  No comment should be necessary.

One of the most frequently asked questions when I was home was: What is the hardest thing about living in India?  That answer is easy: Even though I do not directly experience the poverty, being surrounded by it is sometimes hard.  The other frequently asked question was : What is the best thing about living in India?  That one is harder to explain.  Part of it is the sheer differentness, which is always interesting and exciting.  But another part of that excitement is the raw vibrant energy of the people and the culture.  It is hard to explain to someone who has not been there, but I will go back to my adolescent analogy: it is like being surrounded by a world of teen-agers — crazy, but also enlivening and invigorating.  A young Indian woman now living in Santa Rosa put it this way:  America is very organized and tidy, but India is more spontaneous.  The organized and tidy approach has brought incredible wealth and a lifestyle of ease, convenience, variety, and cleanliness.  The culture of the United States is certainly a pleasant and aesthetically pleasing one, and one to which I will certainly return.  India is a whole different world: disorganized and untidy, but also spontaneous, stimulating, and vibrant.

Which is “better”?  In the long run, I’ll take America; but for now, I love living in India.  And I’ll leave you with this little quote that I saw in a Santa Rosa store:  “The world in which we were born is just one model of reality.  Other cultures are not failed attempts at being us.  They are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”


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