Thursday, September 26, 2013

Cultural Styles for Meetings

There is an ancient symbol used in India that means “order out of chaos”.  I saw it on some car hoods in Jaipur and had a great chuckle, because there no order to be found anywhere in the traffic of Jaipur.  The truth is, that’s not the only place that chaos could use some order in this country.  Attending a “function” in India is an entrée to the world of chaos personified.  Functions are done whenever two or more people are gathered for any minor event, as far as I can tell.  We have to have an opening and closing ceremony to any workshop we do, and it is a study in the exercise of rituals and venerations for the purpose of giving a politician a podium to talk from.  I attended one such function 2 days ago in Kochi, and I’d love to share some of the highlights.
There is usually an larger-than-life banner proclaiming the importance of the function (what happens to all those banners after they’ve had their hour of glory?) and then there is function itself.
There is always a government “official” that is the keynote speaker, and that person is always late, pro forma, and the event is always postponed until said important person makes an appearance, along with his entourage of police and their cars. It matters not if we are losing so much time we will have to shift all the sessions of a conference, scrap entire sessions, a function cannot begin without a proper inauguration, which means a government official.
The final arrival is quite a sight.  If there is anything at all to protest, and there is always something to protest in India, there will most likely be a contingency waiting for the press to arrive with the government official, so they can get some coverage.  See the picture below of the latest protest movement, in react to a group of Muslims in Kerala petitioning the India Supreme Court to set aside the national provision that girls cannot marry before the age of 18.  That’s a whole different blog, though.
When the grand poobah makes his way through the protesters and enters the building, everyone stands and is immediately silent.  It’s the only time I ever see a quiet crowd in India.  This veneration of government officials goes a long way in explaining the entitled attitude held by many of the corrupt politicians, but that is also is another blog.
First the people who are to sit on the dais are called up from the audience, game show style, one by one, by an emcee of sorts. Then there is the gifting of flowers to everyone on the dais, and sometimes the gifting of a scarf as well.  Many times there are folders that are exchanged with letters of agreement, and all other manner of photo opps.
Next comes the lengthy program where everyone one the dais speaks, and begins by acknowledging everyone on the dais. There is a lot of scraping and bowing at these events. To me, the most amazing fact is that while one person talks into the microphone, there is never more than half the audience is listening, they are talking to each other or on their phones, and not at a whisper level.  Even the people on the dais openly talk with one another while their colleague talks, and some take phone calls on their cells as well, in front of the entire crowd. Sometimes these events go on so long that one by one, the people on the dais crouch down and pretend we can’t see them walk out.  Sometimes even the government official leaves after he speaks, and then everything stops, everyone stands and hushes, and the important man gets back in his police-escorted car.  The first time I saw one of these impromptu exits, I was the person who was talking, and I had no clue what to do, but I stopped talking because even the 6-7 people who were listening had stopped to watch the important guy walk out.
Now these functions are old hat, and yet it’s still fascinating how many rituals are observed that have no link whatsoever to the reason they are having the function.  India excels at having this type of “inauguration” or whatever else it may be called.  They should actually just call it the politician veneration time, because that about sums it up.

On a smaller scale, the Indian meeting is another phenomena that defies description, but one worthy of an effort.  The magnitude of chaos in said meeting seems less because there are fewer players, but don’t let that fool you.  I don’t believe I’ve ever attended a meeting yet that has come with an agenda, except ones that I facilitate.  Many times people treat the printed copies with a little surprise, and amusement.  I attended a meeting today for about 4.5 hours, not kidding about the time.   It was an epic battle between the administrators/bureacrats/bad guys, and the instructor/good guys on the other.  We asked to speak with the bad guys because they had a very curious idea:  Instead of giving the non-teachers the training on how to be a teacher BEFORE they began their teaching, they said they had decided (without the teachers in the room) that it would be fine to have their start their teaching, and then after a month or so, see how they do, and then call them back for the training.  I was actually dumbfounded, and my face showed it.  They avoided eye contact with me.  When someone foolishly asked me what I thought, I told them that was crazy talk.  I couldn’t think of any other way to describe it.  They laughed.
Then the endless rounds of discussing began.  First the teachers tried to get the administrators to understand their point of view.  They admitted nothing, and sat silently when asked a question, and sometimes replied, but not often.  Next came the administrators telling us why this plan was a fine one, why this plan was a necessary one (a need to give the director some “hard numbers” of teachers who were actually teaching, no matter if they were clueless how to teach).  We then reiterated the “crazy talk” reply and went on our stumps again.  One guy admitted he had to "talk crazy" in order to keep his job.  Gotta love that level of honesty. 
We went round and round, repeating ourselves, until I was exhausted, at which time I called the game because of hunger. I didn’t care what we did any longer, I just wanted out. Just before we left, one of the bureaucrats acquiesced, and told us ok, they would wait to send the teachers out until after they were trained.  Why he didn’t do that at the beginning of the conversation is beyond me, but he just proclaimed it, and everyone walked away happy.  When I asked my native culture informant/colleague later in the car what made him change is mind, she said basically they saw we wouldn’t back down, and they were tired of hearing from us.  In other words, we wore them down.  Classic. The problem is, it wore ME down as well.  There were at least 2 conversations going on at one time, many times 3, and there were only 5 of us in the room.  I didn’t know who to look at, let alone who to listen to. Turn taking is not a necessary element in these exchanges, to put it mildly.  It’s so far away from my meeting comfort level, it baffles me, but Indians have no problems at all with multiple conversations going on at the same time, and with the chaos of not really staying on topic, or actually even having a topic.  It worked for us this time, but took a whole lot longer than I thought it should. Guess I’m not as acclimated as I should be to enjoy this type of encounter.  I’m sure I’ll get more opportunities to hone my meeting skills. Lord give me strength.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Happy ONAM!

King Mahabali

Here in Kerala Onam , a 10-day harvest festival and much more, is in full swing.  It’s their most important holiday of the year, and is celebrated only in the state of Kerala. There are 4 main days of Onam, beginning on Sunday, when I fly to Delhi for 4 days.  RATS!  I’m missing the culmination of the entire festival, a parade with floats and PULIKALI, which means 'tiger dance', where a group of dancers dressed as tigers dance to drums and floats. [SAD FACE]. I’m also missing the famous boat races, called Vallam Kali. However, there have already been many things to see, so I’ll report on that.
This is a multi-faceted holiday: there are those that celebrate it simply as a harvest festival, those who call it a Kerala-specific celebration of the desire for equality, fraternity, and Dharma (not the TV show), those who use it as a marketing ploy, much like Christmas in the States, and others who just like the lights and decorations, the flowers, the food, and the general hoopla.  I fall firmly into the last group.
There are several traditional parts. One is the Pookalam, a carpet of multi-coloured flowers arranged in a decorative pattern at a courtyard or entrance. It looks a bit like a flower mandala.  Each day new patterns emerge, and people use more and more colors, until Day 10’s final beautiful product.  It’s made to welcome King Mahabali, who, as legend has it, was condemned and exiled to live in the Netherworld, but escapes once a year for 10 days to return to Earth and see how his people are doing. 
Second is the PRATYA, a traditional lunch served on a banana leaf that features 4 curries, some chips, pickles, and other yummy Keralan delights.  I went to the Taj today for lunch to give it an inspection first-hand, and it did not disappoint.  See the photos on FLICKR here 

of each flight to enjoy the beauty of the presentation on the banana leaf.  The beet root yogurt was the the winner of most beautiful, but the pickled gooseberries and mangoes were the taste winners.  It was a lesson in eating with fingers because many of these mini-dishes were runny.  I did the best I could, and watched others, who had mastered the technique of gathering the rice gingerly with the first 3 fingers, dipping it into some curry or other, then a gentile toss to the mouth.  I think I licked my fingers too much, but I dined alone, so offended no one.
Another aspect of this festival is new clothing.  I was at a textile and clothing store on Monday (day 1 of Onam) and was taken aback by the very tall stacks of clothing people had at the checkout, the rather barren shelves, and the men in the usually female-only store. I went today to a big department store to see what the foot traffic was like, and we could barely get to the store, it was so busy, there were several traffic cops directing traffic, and there were at least 1,000 people inside. No pictures are allowed inside, and there are reminders posted everywhere, so I can’t give you a visual, but it makes pre-Christmas malls seem like a resort of pastoral silence in abundant space.
I read an interesting article at the dentist’s office yesterday (don’t ask, I’ll probably have to blog about it) about how modern Keralan families are now flocking to …..wait for it…SHOPPING MALLS to celebrate Onam.  Well, taking a page right out of the Christmas season in America, are they? There is a different twist, though, in that they don’t go to the Malls merely to shop.  There are DJs, dancers, and public happenings for the families to enjoy. One person is quoted saying their family would “….give television a skip this year and watch performances live at the malls.” In their defense there are performances of traditional art forms that the younger generation are not privy to, so perhaps this trend is a good thing?  Also, there is the last aspect of Onam, which is Onasammanam, an Onam gift, so where better to get the gifts than a mall?  You can’t buck a world-wide trend, I guess.

The palace next door (not kidding) is open for Onam so I went over there after lunch.  Sadly, it has not been taken care of, and it just an open space with moldly smells and sad spaces.  The edifice is quite beautiful, though.  As I type there are traditional music groups roaming around with drums, a funny English horn sounding instrument, and cymbals, lots of cymbals.  There has been fireworks every night this week, reminiscent of Diwali in Jaipur, so while I’m bummed about missing the boat races and parade and tiger dances, I won’t miss the kegs of gunpowder they set off that sound like the battle has started. Also, since some of you asked, there are some photos in the same FLICKR set of our apartment in Trivandrum.  I didn't photo the spare bedroom, but it's there, so come on over and visit.  Also, 3 bathrooms and a laundry space.  It's nice, and it's good to have a kitchen again after a year with none, although it's still an adjustment as I gather Indian kitchens don't usually have running hot water.  I do have a gas burner with which to boil some quickly, however, so no big deal.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Day Three Log…Luddite’s Revenge

I was tested today. I needed to engage in some very circular problem solving known in today’s education circles as a “21st Century Skill”:  Critical Thinking.  Although I gave it my all, I was no match for the tangled web of technology dependency.  It wasn’t pretty.  

2:20 a.m.: Woke due to Insomnia/Jet Lag/confused body clock syndrome. Designed new face for this year’s blog, and posted first blog. No problem connecting to Internet….yet.
5:45 a.m.:  Helped S out the door to catch a flight, started a load of wash, then back to bed. Growling of mysterious jungle beast subsided as my head hit the pillow.
12:20 p.m.:  Awoke from deep slumber. Ate oatmeal, tried to get online to check email. No go. Doorbell rang:  Man returning clean garbage pails (can’t think about his nasty job right now) pointed to the key we had left in the door the entire evening.  Tried to act like it was not a big deal and that I was not a complete idiot, but he saw through that façade pretty quickly.
12:45: Still waiting for movers to call, as they told me today is the day to deliver Jaipur items, probably around 2 or 3.  I should have asked WHICH 2 or 3, and which day…. Tried to connect to Internet…No go.  Spent about 2 hours trying to configure in various ways, no stone left unturned. No go.  Called Help Desk of our WIFI service, they took me through the exact same steps I’d already done 10 times.  No go. Glad they couldn’t get it work with the same steps I had used, but still wanted Internet. Guy promised a service engineer would call me tomorrow to schedule an appointment to come to home to take a look. I gave them my Jaipur number, which now only has 3 rupees of time left, after extended conversation with Help Desk that couldn’t help. 
3:00 p.m.:  Tried to use my TATA PHOTON mobile router from last year, but we put it into sleep mode over the summer and I need to make a call (on the phone with no minutes) to reactivate. Sim card from Jaipur now down to 1.5 rupees.
4:00 p.m.: Tried to connect new Trivandrum Sim Card purchased yesterday:  Problem:  No time on it yet (woman said 6:00 p.m., tonight, and there is no reason to believe it will be done before then, what was I thinking?)
4:15:  While I was trying to get Trivandrum Sim card to work (about 15 minutes), I had 10 missed calls, 8 from movers asking me where I was. They were at my coworker’s and wanted to dump the stuff there since I didn’t answer.  Co-worker called as well, probably in a panic that she would have a room full of my stuff, and also the Landlord, who probably wants the stash of rupee notes I have hidden in the dining room credenza. Can’t return any of the calls, because….
4:30:  A doorman came to my door talking very fast Malayalam and motioning.  I asked if I should go with him, he vigorously said no. He spoke louder and faster. I tried a wild guess, and motioned my phone wasn’t working, he said ok.  He made a sign of boxes.  I said YES, tell them to bring them, please. He walked away satisfied, I shut the door completely clueless as to how he got into the mix, or if he really WAS in the mix.
5:00 p.m.:  My phone rang!  It was the movers.  Where was I?  HERE.  Where is HERE?  I told him not to hang up, but I would run downstairs (elevator actually) and get doorman to explain location in Malayalam. He hung up just as I reached the bottom floor.  I tried to call him back and it went through, no idea how that happened.  I handed off phone to doorman, and two men had conversation about whereabouts of this jungle apartment. Doorman told me to go back to my apartment.  Gladly, said I.  I noticed on the walk back to the elevator I was wearing my kaftan and tennis shoes...niiiiiice.
6:00:  One hour later, still no movers.  I tried to call again (1.5 rupees left)…. They answered and said they would be there in half an hour or so… I assume they are eating.  No problem, but I told them my phone wasn’t working so just come, no more calling. The sun will set sometime and end this drama, hopefully. 

Current Status Summary: I would like to call Tata Docomo to activate the dongle, but no phone minutes.  I would like to call back my missed calls from coworkers and landlord and tell them I’m alive and not usually this rude, but no phone minutes.  I’d like to call back service center for wireless and tell them the new Trivandrum # I’ll be using after 6:00 p.m. (because experience has taught me India is known for its prompt delivery of services), but no minutes.

Based on the current state of affairs, I sit down to read a great book, and the best part is that it requires no technology whatsoever.  At 6:00 p.m. I will attempt the new sim card again and get frustrated all over, I’m sure, but for now, I’m done.  Movers can come or not come, I’m going to read and drink a pot of tea until 6:00. Until then I am cut off from the world and people are wondering where the hell I am.  Oh yes, one more missed task, I was supposed to call S’s pick-up ride at Delhi Airport and tell them HE had no minutes on his phone either, but no go on that.  Wonder if he got to his place in Delhi….Maybe I could CALL him? 

7:00 p.m.:  I use some crazy glue on a hook in the bathroom that doesn’t want to stick with the regular 3M stick-ons. (I’m not to be denied my rigged-up shower curtain because of a lazy hook.)  As usual, while being extremely careful NOT to get some on my fingers, I get some crazy glue on 4 of my fingertips (new record) and feel like I have no identity now, should I want to commit a crime. This may be my best opportunity for a while, given my mental state.

If you remember the children’s book “Alexander’s Terrible, No-good, Very bad, Horrible Day”, I’m incarnating the living-abroad adult version of that book today. Or, perhaps it is a Luddite Fairy telling me no-so-gently I should toss all my technology over the balcony so it can join my soaked sari blouse, who knows. All I know right now for sure is if I survive today, the rest of this year will be all gravy, or rather, curry.
8:00 p.m.: Movers appear. One mover picks up the trunk filled with the most fragile stuff, and then walks over to me, holding it chest high, and unceremoniously drops it at my feet.  Not cool, several damaged items.  After he sees the look on my face, he says maybe he dropped it accidentally.  Maybe not, but he knew he better say something quick.

Next Morning:  I ask a neighbor to use her phone so I could get a taxi to get minutes on MY phone, etc.  At the end of Day 4, I have a phone with minutes (not completely resolved, however) and Internet, and a promise of steady unspecified future.  I gave myself a break mid-day and did a little retail therapy at the local nursery, and am now the proud owner of a mini-orchid garden with accompanying tropical plants on the terrace right in the view of my desk.  Ahhhh….  I see why people take technology breaks, but I’d like to plan my own, thanks.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Coconuts, Communism, and Curries, Oh My!

Welcome to Trivandrum, also known as Thiruvananthapuram! (IPA: [t̪iruʋənɨn̪t̪əpurəm]
The city of about 1.6 million was officially referred to as Trivandrum until 1991, when the government decided to reinstate the city's original name Thiruvananthapuram. However, I and many others are still working on that pronunciation, so it’s just Trivandrum for now. It’s located on the west coast of India in the extreme south of the mainland, so we’ve moved from the desert Hindu-speaking North, which I’ve heard called the Cow Belt because of the mostly Hindu presence (thanks, L.S. in Jaipur) to the multi-lingual extreme south with a religious breakdown of Trivandrum as follows:  Hindus comprise 65% of the population, Christians are about 18%, and Muslims about 15%. Here the main language is Malayalam, but there is also supposed to be much more English spoken in the South.  Let’s see, that’s why I’m here, I believe, to help improve the quality of that instruction.
We’ve been here about 2 days, and we’re working on putting together our household, so haven’t done any exploring yet. However, here are some quick facts about our new hometown:

  • It’s the capital city of the state of Kerala, which is known as “God’s own Country” because of its lush greenery in its undulating terrain of low coastal hills
  • Kerala is a major tourist destination, and Kovalam Beach is about 40 minutes from our apartment. I’m going to work hard on a beach bum approach to life.
  • The zoo is within spitting distance from our apartment building (no spitting, though), the location where Yann Martel wrote his book Life of PI after studying a disabled lion, Simba for months.  NOTE:  We hear SOMETHING roaring big time after it gets dark.  S thinks it’s a lion, I vote for elephant.  We both are glad we are on the 7th floor and neither of those animals fly.
  •  There is a serious rain presence in this city in the extreme south of the country. The climate borders between a tropical savanna climate and a tropical monsoon climate, so the temperature varies very little all year, and it rains a lot, a whole lot.  Evidence of that so far includes shops for umbrellas and shoe stands, because it’s so muddy and wet outside no one wants that mess inside. We are now the proud owners of a cute mini-black one.
  • The festival season here begins this week with the multi-day celebration of Onam. More on that after I learn about it, because it’s a southern-India-only festival, so I have no clue yet.  This country has great festivals. Well done, India. You and Mexico should have a party smack-down.
  • There are lots of fine arts experiences to be had here, including Karnatic music and Classical dancing.  Let the good times roll!
  • Trivandrum is also known for its Ayurvedic resorts and medical tourism, so whether you want to have some parts replaced or fine-tune your whole machine, come visit us, because they are ready for you in Trivandrum.
  • There is an extremely high literacy rate for the state of Kerala, with statistics varying from the low to high 90’s.  People who study these types of things attribute a few causes, including a heavy Communist presence in the politics of Kerala (towing the party line by educating everyone, women included, for FREE), the Christian missionaries who taught people to read so they could read the Bible, and the state’s financial commitment to education.  What a revolutionary idea…putting over 1/3 of your budget into educating your people…Are you listening, U.S. Congress???
  • There is a huge unemployment problem in Kerala in general, and also in Trivandrum.  The most recent numbers I could find puts Trivandrum at around 36% unemployment. This paradox of high human development and low economic development is visible in the entire state of Kerala, and is often dubbed as the Kerala phenomenon or the Kerala model of development. There is a very prominent path of Keralites emigrating to Gulf States for employment as a result.

There are always new things to learn whenever you land somewhere new, and for me, learning to respect one of the two terraces we have in our apartment has been a lesson.  A bag of S’s favorite coffee exploded in one of our suitcases somewhere along the trip back, so I thought I was quite clever in taking the suitcase out to the terrace to shake each thing out over the edge of the terrace, where the coffee could float down 7 floors and wash away into the grass.  While I was shaking out a pillow case that contained my best Kangipuram silk sari, I held it from the wrong side unwittingly and the blouse floated out of the pillowcase, and down to about floor 3, where it rested on a support beam.  I watched the rain fall on it yesterday, and decided it would eventually get heavy from the rain and fall onto the grass, where I could retrieve it.  However, this morning when I awoke, the blouse was gone, nowhere to be found.  I believe it was the zoo animals getting ready for a night on the town, but who knows?  It’s going to be an interesting year, so join me in the adventure!

DISCLAIMER Required by my Bosses, the U.S. Dept of State, which, if they knew how entertaining my blog was, they certainly would want to try to take credit for:
"This website is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented are the English Language Fellows' own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State."