Tag Archives: india

so, what are you then?

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“The Argentine singer-songwriter Facundo Cabral famously sang No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá—“I’m neither from here, nor there.” For the immigrant and second-generation traveler, “where are you from?” is a question loaded with complexity in ways the people who ask it don’t always understand.”

With complete acknowledgement of the privilege and navel-gazing contained in this piece, I think it does speak to a certain group of people who do see their identity as something more complicated than just simply naming a broad category of ethnicity, residence, or nationality, particularly those of us who do get questions or pushback on our responses (“no, where are you *really* from? I mean, where are your parents from?” – a question that raises an even bigger identity crisis when one of your parents has already had his own immigrant birth story).

And even more so, those of who never felt comfortable with any one possible answer – what do you say when you are of an ethnic origin but don’t speak the language (and need a visa to get into that country), when your birth cert/passport comes from a country in which you’ve never lived, when you hesitate at the passport line in your country of residence because the “US passports/All other passports” split doesn’t really encapsulate your current situation (foreign passport, resident alien card)?

When you opened your mouth as a young child and your accent bore the imprint of yet another country (thankfully, that accent got dropped quickly, if painfully, though still every so often certain turns of phrase and pronunciations reveal hints)?

When your skin color marks you as other (even as your accent screams Midwesterner) and gives strangers leave to ask personal questions for which you have no answer (and of course, the inevitable situation of someone trying to speak to you in any one of a 1000 languages from S Asia that you do not speak)?

When college/job/scholarship/fellowship applications requested a copy of your passport to fulfill their citizenship/permission to work requirements, and then requested a copy of your naturalization certificate?

When your classmates conflated all the countries that start with the letter “M” into “Mexico (a cute artefact of childishness that somehow managed to become a long-standing “joke” even when we knew better), so now suddenly you’re from… Mexico?

When I lived and traveled in Asia, my ethnicity was of more interest than my nationality. In Taiwan, I wasn’t just American, I was Indian. In Malaysia, I was one of those emigrés – the ones who always obtained their passports from the embassy, who never actually lived there but claimed to be from there, but who suddenly caused much consternation when it came to light that I lacked a national identity card (a process that requires returning to the city of birth to apply). In India, I’m an overseas citizen/person of Indian origin, who nonetheless pays the foreigner rate at museums, national parks, and heritage sites, and who of course doesn’t speak Hindi because we’re so Americanized. In SE Asian, I was Malaysian, and visa fees were waived.

Here in Ireland, I’m American (except that time a Spaniard was convinced I am Spanish). My ethnic origin doesn’t matter so much as my accent, and even when mentioning my Indian heritage, I’m reminded “but you’re from America, right?” I don’t know if it’s because so many Americans claim to be Irish (despite never having been to Ireland, and not being able to claim an Irish ancestor from less than 3 generations ago), and the Irish in Ireland find that a little frustrating; or possibly because to much of Europe, the US is a vortex that sucks in all nationality and ethnicity and spits out a culture that seems far-removed (and yet misguidedly nostalgic) of the countries of origin of most of its immigrants.

Reflecting on identity naturally requires some navel-gazing, and everyone has their own unique issues of identity (though I certainly don’t claim to be special, and instead think that are parts of my own reflection that would resonate with many others). While anyone from America is American here, I daresay most Irish people would still claim that the Irish-born (and accented) children of Polish immigrants are Polish (because “Irish” is of course, not just natural origin but culture and genetics too, though that last opens a whole other can of worms when raised). American culture is native to America, but it is not independent of all of the immigrant pieces that make it up (as well as others – native Americans, descendants of slaves, etc), even if it is more than the sum of its parts. And yet, even while most Americans would acknowledge this, there is still a misguided dominant narrative that classes “American” as someone of European heritage, reminiscent of a culture that is not even extant in Europe today, and ignoring not only immigration from other parts of the world, but maybe more importantly, 400 years of slavery that essentially built America.

This narrative plays out in the media, entertainment, institutions, and even in the day-to-day interactions between people. And while it is easy enough for some to dismiss these crises of identity by suggesting that the response to the question of “where are you from?” should be simply “America”, I think these people fail to recognize that “American” is not so simple a term, and that many of us would love to answer that, if it weren’t for the fact that that answer is indeed questioned. When I was growing up, people who looked like me weren’t the main characters in movies and TV, we didn’t read much literature from outside the US and Western Europe (and the one piece we did read about a person of similar ethnic origin to myself was actually written by a European), we didn’t (as Machado points out her piece) talk about immigrant communities as part of history (in fact, other than some reflection on slavery and Japanese internment, the difficulty of immigrants in integrating was rarely discussed in classes). Over and over, “American” was described in a very specific way, to the point where it is not that we don’t feel like we’re American, but that we are made to feel as though we are not American. In response to the shooting at the gurdwara in WI a couple of years ago, even the President of the US referred to the Sikh community as part of the “broader American family“, a point which in fairness was probably intended to indicate that America is very mixed, but instead just reinforces this sense of “other”.

Even now, living in Ireland, I’m stumped with answering the “where am I from?” question when I travel. My accent marks me as American, my look as Indian (though in parts of Latin America, that is not always the case), but I live in Ireland and that was my airport of departure. This question is usually asked by tour guides and other travelers and not usually locals (unless you are in parts of Asia, where all manner of personal questions are asked without hesitation). bBut sometimes it’s asked (in some form) at immigration and airline counters, despite their having my passport in front of them, suggesting that a passport is really not enough to answer that question at all.

When I flew back from India recently, the person at the airline counter in Delhi perused my passport and asked me if I didn’t need a visa to enter Ireland. I said no, because I had long-term resident status, and also because US passport holders get 90-day entry visa-free. “Huh,” she said, thoughtfully as she flipped through a few more pages. And then she laughed. “So only for India, is it?”

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a lot can happen in a year

I have to get the hang of this posting frequently business.  I thought that I would be lazy on blogging because I had nothing to say.  It turns out, the busier you are and the more you do things, the less often you blog.  I’m not sure if it is because of the time commitment, the attention span, or something else.

A lot has happened since the last post, and since before then too.  In fact, a lot has happened in the past year, which lends credence to the whole “a lot can happen in a year” cliche.  Because, you know, it’s so true.   Let me serve as an example.

This time last year, I was sitting on a beach in Kerala thinking about which book I wanted to read next and whether I’d wake up early enough for morning yoga.  I had a “routine” of sorts: wake up, maybe take yoga, grab a late breakfast (kerala coffee, whole wheat toast with pb, maybe fruit and yogurt, or even an omelette), sit on a terrace, watch the ocean, check some email, window shop, dip my toes in the water, take another yoga class, rinse, repeat.  On March 2nd, I left India for Malaysia, where I spent 3 weeks in Borneo pretty much doing the same thing (minus the yoga, plus more alcohol).

That was my life, basically until late May.  I did return to the US in early April, but, with no job as yet, I headed back to Asia for a couple more weeks – a last hurrah maybe – before finally returning and settling into the 9-5.  And so, right around Memorial Day weekend, I started a job, which, for the second half of 2010, basically consumed my life.

But it wasn’t the only thing – the end of the year was also marked with the entry into a yoga teacher training program, which proceeded to eat up any leftover free time I had (after work sucked most of it).  What a change from counting coconuts in palm trees from the second floor terrace of a beachside hotel.

The beginning of 2011 saw the end of teacher training, which I suppose means I am now a yoga teacher.  It also saw more long work hours, and in a few days, will see the move back into a permanent home of sorts.

And I’m leaving out a couple of trips to Ireland, two other moves, and a gym membership that I definitely do not make the most of…

So, in a year I went from wandering aimlessly for several months around Asia, to taking on an important and intensive work committment, to moving and moving again, to starting and completing yoga teacher training, to the beginning of a nest.

A lot certainly can happen in a year.

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bliss

Two weeks.  Beach.  Lots of yoga. Yummy food.  Nice people.  It doesn’t get better than this.   Here’s to India, and my 5 weeks here.  Yogashala was a fabulous place, and I am so happy to have met Padma and spent time in her glowing presence.  She is a wonderful person and a great teacher.  My practice has deepened so much.

Tomorrow, Kota Kinabalu and the mountains and jungles of Borneo.

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kerala logistical roundup

Now that I’m wrapping up in Kerala, I thought I would do a quick overview of some of the wonderful places I’ve stayed and eaten while here.

Kollam – We called the DTPC and arranged a homestay through them, at either Summer Home or Summer House (can’t remember) run by Shashi.  It’s right on the beach and was a relaxing getaway.  Shashi also owns a seafood restaurant, so dinner is not to be missed!  We also did a canoe toe of Munroe Island in Astamundi Lake.  Also quite nice.

Alleppey – Our first night was in Alleppey, where we stayed at the Palmy Residency.  VERY nice people, very nice place.  Then our second night we went out to Chennamkary to stay at GreenPalm Homes.  An amazing experience.

Kochi – We bucked tradition and stayed in Ernakulam, instead of Ft. Chchin, at a cute little place  called John’s Residency.  Very basic, but clean, and John is a nice guy.  Dinner was at a great place called Hotel Aryas.  We also had lunch at a great place in Fort Cochin called Dal Roti.  Yum.  And to top off a wonderful time, we found a women’s collective spice shop in Fort Cochin…. and a great bookstore in Ernakulam.

Kannur – I went up specifically to see the theyyam.  A must-see, I think.  Stayed at Costa Malabari, right on the beach.  Food was great.

Periyar – I stayed at Chitrasala Homestay.  The family is soooo nice. I really enjoyed the tea factory tour and spice garden.

Kovalam – I was here for 2 weeks, so lots going on.  First of, I’m staying at Pink Flower, which hosts Yoga Shala. Padma is really super nice and a fantastic teacher.  I’ve been having meals all over the beach – everything is great.  Going off the boardwalk and further back from the beach nets some better deals on shopping.  And don’t forget to bargain!

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after the ecstasy…

Jack Kornfield has this amazing book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.  It is about what it sounds like – life after enlightenment, and all the little things you still have to do to lead your life.

In some ways, I’m reminded of that book right now as I sit here in an internet cafe. I’m halfway through my decadent yoga holiday, in which, for two weeks, I do nothing but sit on the beach, do yoga, and eat fish curry.

All of which I am doing (though less fish curry and more banana lassi and thoran, I find).  But that’s not all.  I also diligently sweep my room and clean my bathroom every day, and wash my clothes (by hand) every few days.  I’m also planning next moves (ie, Borneo and Korea), job hunting, getting my eyebrows threaded, figuring out how to pack everything, working out my finances, and basically everything else I do when I’m not on yoga holiday.

Which all leads me to think two somewhat different but in some ways similar things: 1) that “vacation” is an exotic-sounding term we use to describe something that is NOT our regular lives (and therefore, in some ways, an unattainable nirvana), and 2) who needs vacation when we can transform our seemingly mundane daily lives into something more profound?  I mean, if I still have to do laundry and wash my hair and assess my finances in nirvana, why wait til nirvana to feel like I’m on holiday?

The laundry has to get done anyway.  And on vacation, I have to wash by hand – far more work than my washing machine back home.  So instead of making some false distinction that makes more sense in fantasy than in reality, maybe instead I’ll take my normal, every day life and turn it into a permanent vacation.

Which I guess is a long-winded way of saying that instead of waiting for some idealized perfection in some distant future that will never happen anyway, we can just enjoy how things are in the moment, because you know, enlightenment isn’t that great.  You still have to do laundry.

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simple religion

The more time I spend in Kerala, the more different it seems from the north of India.   The people look different, the food is different, even the clothes are different.   And most striking to me, is how religion in the South, particularly in Kerala, is unlike much of the rest of the India.

For starters.  Kerala seems to have managed to find a way for its various religious adherents to co-exist peacefully.  One of the big roundabouts in Trivandrum has a massive cathedral, impressive mosque, and humble temple all within spitting distance of each other.  No one has to sneak in, no guards are visible, and traffic bustles along as if this were some every day scene.

But in India, and much of the world, this isn’t ordinary.   Religious and ethnic groups the world over collect in their little groups, and tend not to mix so overtly.  Not so in Kerala, where “syncretism” seems to the catchword.

The theyyam is a great example – it seems to pre-date established Hinduism, reaching back to some murky roots of animism and shamanism.  But it’s managed to incorporate Hindu deities (many of whom I’ve never heard of before).  Granted, Hinduism is a religion that easily lends itself to consilience – explanations of the divine tend to revolve around so-and-so being an incarnation of Shiva/Vishnu/Parvati.

More interestingly,  theyyam also includes some popular Muslim figures, many of whom who have been deified themselves.  Not something you see everyday.   And then there are the various warriors, wronged women, ghosts, etc, incorporating an astonishing complexity of social justice as well.  Af ter all, unlike the rest of Hindu rituals, the theyyam is dominated by lower-caste families, and not Brahmins.

But there is more.  The Sabrimala temple plays host to a massive pilgrimmage every year to honor Ayappas, a god not mentioned in any Vedic texts, but revered by Malayali Hindus all the same (some stories of course claim him as an incarnation of Vishnu).

Kerala has its history of religious violence, but always perpetrated from the outside.  The Christians trace their history back to St Thomas, who visited India after Jesus’s death (which means Christianity came to India before Europe).  In the 4th Century, they aligned themselves with the Syrian church.  When the Portuguese came centuries later, they brought Roman Catholicism in all its violence with them, converting by the sword, so to speak.  Eventually religious fervor calmed, and today both Catholics and Syrian Christians worship peacefully.

Islam has a strong presence in Kerala as well, with strong ties to the Middle East.  There are madrassas here, and also Dubai’s own religion – capitalism (which melds seamlessly with communism here).  Kerala is the would-be poster child for utopia.

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pictures

Some long awaited pictures of my travels in India here.

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darshan

Kannur was an idyllic 3 days. after which I headed back down to Trivandrum.  There, some family friends picked me up and brought me to their house, where I dozed a bit before hopping a bus to Kanyakumari, at the very southern tip of India.  Kanyakumari is in Tamil Nadu, and it is located at the confluence of 3 seas.  Inevitably, the sunset/sunrise is gorgeous, and I managed a fabulous picture of the former. Kanyakumari is the sight where Gandhi’s ashes were set adrift in the ocean, and where Swami Vivekananda meditated on the social justice aspects of Hinduism.  Both events are commemorated by excellent memorials.

Then I hopped an overnight train to Rameshwaram, which I shared with about 10 other people, all elderly.  It was nice to be in A/C and have the compartment to myself.  At the very early hour of 5:20 am, we arrived, and I departed and wandered my way through the dark to the main temple of Ramanathaswamy.

There are 4 main temples in India that form the Char Dham, sites of pilgrimmage undertaken by all Hindus in their lifetime.  Two of them I’ve seen – Dwarka in the west and Badrinath in the north.   This third one is in the south, and I decided, since I was in the area, that I would go visit.

So, before sunrise I showed up, and made my way to the water to take a quick dip (or rather, dip my toes).  Then I dried off to some extent, and made my way into the temple.

The temple is enormous.  I walked the corridors for quite some time (coming across an elephant in a pen at one point), stopping for darshan at various points.  Then I meandered my way to the center (after considerable wandering and getting a bit lost) for a brief puja, and then made my way out again.  Then I hired a rickshaw driver to take me to the end of the island, where I could just barely make out Sri Lanka in the distance.

At Rameshwaram, it is said that Rama took his steps toward Lanka to free Sita from the demon Ravana.  It is also said that Ravana’s brother surrendered here, and offered penance.   After defeating Ravana, Rama offered penance for his sin of killing a Brahmin.

After leaving the temple, I made my way to the bus stand, to take the bus to Madurai.  Just as a note, always ask about where the bus stops…. in my case, it took almost 5 hours to arrive as we kept stopping everywhere…..

Madurai is the home of the Sri Meenakshi Temple – a blinding display of S Indian architecture.  Also huge.  Tonight, I take the train back to Trivandrum, and find some way to Periyar…..

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divine mysteries

I left Kochi a little sad, as my friend had departed the day before for her yoga teacher training in Goa.  I was on my way to Kannur, a town in the northern part of Kerala, where tourism is growing, but hasn’t yet reached the proportions it has further south.

But Kannur definitely has its reputation, and I certainly saw tourists.  But the beach was empty for the most part, and even the big draw in town was blissfully free of foreigners.

Kannur is known for its annual theyyam festival, which runs for almost half the year.   Theyyam is a Malayalam word that is supposedly derived from daivam, meaning god.  During theyyam, a performer, one who has trained all his life, induces a trance and takes on the persona of a deity.

Not just any deity – the theyyam ritual is specific.  Only certain people within certain families can perform it, and even then, they invoke only specific gods at specific temples at specific times of the year.

The performer dances, often with props such as swords, fire, staves, etc, and in his rthymic motion, induces the trance.  When he glimpses himself in the mirror, he no longer sees himself, but his god or goddess.  The change is measurable – even the casual onlooker can sense the presence of a different persona.

The ritual is not unlike spiritual possession found in so many cultures, and is itself a syncretic mix of Hinduism, animism, and even some Islam.  The gods are not strict to the Hindu pantheon, but can also be warriors, unfairly accused girls, and deities from other religions.  But whoever the god is, he or she is an integral part of the family who performs that theyyam every year.

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slowing down

I’ve been in Kerala over a week and I kind of don’t want to leave.  It’s not only beautiful here, but the people are friendly and welcoming.  Plus the food is good.

We’ve seen and done a lot here, and I’m hard-pressed to name my favorite part.  But one thing in particular stands out – life moves at a hectic pace here, but still slower than our usual day-to-day.  Here, I feel like I can slow down a bit and enjoy what I’ve seeing and doing.  True, we are going quickly, a day here, a night there, but at the same time, I feel like we are taking the time to really appreciate our experience.  There has been more than one day of just wandering around, sitting reading a book, and obviously, checking internet.

Tonight for example, I’m sitting in my hotel room watching star movies and eating tapioca chips.  Tomorrow morning I take an early train to the northern part of Kerala, less visited and maybe more pristine.  There, I will sit on the beach and relax, but also try to see a theyyam ceremony and maybe another backwaters tour.

Regardless, I’m planning on only relaxing and doing nothing, and the small backwater villages are the place to do it.

But even the bigger cities in Kerala afford an opportunity to slow down in a way not really seen in the rest of India.  Here in Kochi, I can just wander around, popping into shops, watching the fishermen on the beach, and sipping coconut water, while the city bustles around me.

It’s really not surprising that this is always a top destination choice when people come to India.

Yesterday, on our random wanderings, we came across a women-run cooperative selling spices.  Seven women, tired of being shafted working for the man, and watching shoppers get fleeced on prices, decided to open their own store.  The owner we met was a wonderful woman, and very helpful.  For less than $10, I picked up some delicious vanilla pods, something I’d estimate would cost over $40 back in the US (and something close at the more touristy shops here).  Plus, I got to support a local women’s initative.  Not a bad time indeed.

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