A worldly report


Starting on April 1st, it will be illegal to litter or to urinate on the streets of Chennai. That should be VERY interesting. There are two real problems. The first is that it is totally foreign to the thinking of the people. If you don’t need a piece of paper, why shouldn’t you throw it on the ground? Somebody will pick it up, and maybe even re-use it. And if you have to go to the bathroom, well, you have to go! But with enough fines, I guess those habits can be changed. A bigger problem, though, is that many people have nowhere else to dispose of their trash or to relieve themselves!! Those of you who object to little quality-of-life laws or so-called “nanny” laws like requiring seat belts and motorcycle helmets should come to India to see what an unregulated society produces. It ain’t a pretty sight!!!

And here is another one. My apartment complex is “pioneering a novel initiative” to segregate garbage into recyclable and non-recyclable containers. The program is being driven by repatriated Indians – people who have lived in the United States and Europe. I don’t know how successful the project will be, but the meeting was certainly interesting. It started with an introduction of all the men who will have anything to do with collecting the garbage. This is pretty standard procedure for meetings in India – they really like to acknowledge people, and it often goes on for a half-hour both before and after meetings, presentations, and performances. After the introductions, the meeting immediately disintegrated into everyone yelling at everyone else over things like what colour the trash bags should be!!! The most Westernized Indians just sat in the back where I was and chuckled at the chaos. It is often said the India suffers from an excess of democracy, and this was certainly an example. Sometimes, it is easier to just be told what to do.

Stop signs have been sprouting all over the place around here. You know, those red, octagonal signs with “STOP” written in huge white letters. No one, of course, stops for any of them, or even slows down. It is like they don’t even exist!! I asked around the school to see if maybe they had a different meaning here. Almost no one had even noticed them!!!!! And the ones who had noticed them had NO idea what they were for. One person suggested that they might be bus stops!!!!!!

I get my haircut at one of the big tourist hotels in the city – local barbers haven’t the faintest idea about what to do with hair like mine. The first time I went to this place, I totally freaked when the guy just started chopping away with the scissors without any of the careful measuring and dividing that hair folks do in The States. But they do a REALLY good job, and you even get a little head massage in the bargain! Anyway, there was a meeting going on at the hotel. The ambassador from Belgium was making a pitch to Indian businessmen to make investments in Belgium. Yes, you heard that right – INDIANS to help the BELGIAN economy by investing in Belgian businesses!!!!!! India has staggering levels of poverty, but it also has 1.2 BILLION people!!!! Companies have made a fortune providing low-priced goods and services to those 1.2 billion customers!!!!!! And more and more Indians are showing up on the annual Forbes list of billionaires. Tata enterprises made big news here a few months ago by unveiling a car that sells for under three thousand dollars. They will probably sell about a zillion of them. And they just bought Jaguar Motor Company in England. This global economy thing works both ways!!! Very interesting!!!!!

A few months ago, I did a little talk for the Overseas Women’s Club on Othello. My focus was on Desdemona as a classic case of spousal abuse. All the women nodded knowingly. Afterwards, a little old lady asked about what I taught the kids about the play, particularly noting my inclusion of the Bianca character in my talk (for those not familiar with the play, she is a prostitute). India is a VERY conservative country, so I was a little worried as I answered her question. Well, she went into a total rant about how these things are covered up in Indian schools, and that kids should be made aware of the problems in the real world.

There have been some other interesting results from this talk. For instance, I was asked to speak next month to the Women’s Chamber of Commerce. I guess it doesn’t take much around here to be considered some kind of expert. But MUCH more interesting was a request to teach some Shakespeare to some kids in a local orphanage. In the Indian schools, The Merchant of Venice is “taught” for three years prior to the examination at the end of the tenth grade. At the end of the three years, these kids didn’t even realize that it was a play!!!!!! They are told the story and they are given the questions that will be on the test. The questions aren’t bad: “Give a characterization of Shylock” or “Describe the friendship between Antonio and Bassanio”. But they are also given the answers, which they must memorize word-for-word!!! No critical thinking is allowed!!!!!! The authorities provide the correct answer, and the students memorize that correct answer. Hey, maybe we can suggest that approach to the No Child Left Behind folks!!!!!

Another suggestion might be the discipline methods used in the school. Hitting students for getting incorrect answers is common – as it is, by the way, in Korean and Chinese schools. And the correct answer is always the one that the teacher provides – kids are not allowed to think. For behaviour problems, the hitting is more serious. One of our teachers told me about having to kneel out in the sun without water for an hour because she talked back to a teacher; the other teachers nodded in agreement that this was a pretty common practice. We, in The States, always admire the “respect for authority” displayed by Indian and East Asian immigrant kids; but this isn’t respect, it is just ingrained fear. The school system primes kids for a lifetime of subservience to authority, and helps to explain the authoritative-subservient nature of the class system here.

The orphanage, itself, was also an interesting experience. Orphans in India are defined as those children without a living father. The economic situation for a widow is so dire that she is rarely able to care for her children, so they might as well be orphans. This orphanage was for Anglo-Indian children. Back in the days of the British Raj, a woman who had a child by a British man (even, or maybe especially, if she was married to him) was ostracized by her community – literally, out-caste! If the father died or moved back to England without her, she had no community to support her and her children. Now, sixty years later, the great-grandchildren of these women STILL have no community to which they belong! The kids were great – VERY excited to be reading the Shakespeare. But their situation is very sad.

On a lighter note, the pre-schoolers at my school are reading The Little Red Hen. The teacher thought that it would be a great experience to have the kids actually make the bread, just like the Little Red Hen did. She had borrowed a bread machine for the project, but I suggested that it might be more fun to have the little tykes make

the bread themselves, and I offered my eighth graders as a source of muscle power for the kneading. So I showed up on the appointed day, only to realize that none of the Indian women in the room had the faintest idea how to make a yeasted bread!! They had not bought the right proportions of ingredients, the recipe was in American rather than metric measurements, and there was a roomful of expectant four-year-olds to entertain. Their original plan, being Indian teachers, was for me to make the bread while the kids watched – this was the “hands-on” experience. Maybe I should have gone with that plan; but, of course, I didn’t. We pulled out bowls, threw some flour and water in with some yeast, and kneaded away!!! There were no bread pans, so we made sort-of rolls. The women were all amazed when our little project came out of the oven, and it actually tasted pretty good!! Now half the women in the school want me to teach them to make bread!!! Like I said, it doesn’t take much to be an expert around here!!!!!


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