The wisdom of indignation

auntyWhen I’m angry or in a bad mood or just frustrated, I smile more. It cheers me up. I crack jokes. I crib in a way that makes people laugh. I think about something else. I count my blessings. I explain to myself what has happened. I see things from the other person’s point of view. I go for a walk. I buy my favourite chips. I make a fresh pot of tea.

In my emotional backpocket, I have a million and one tricks to cheer myself up. But today I don’t feel like using them. I just want to be angry.

Other people are angry who have fewer things to resent than I do. Why shouldn’t I be?

They're very cute when they'te not peeing on things. And then all of a sudden they start looking like Satan to me.
They’re very cute when they’te not peeing on things. And then all of a sudden they start looking like Satan to me.

Like Angry Aunty, the Neighbor across the Lane is angry about something every day—usually the same thing. The other white dog I mentioned, that’s her obsession. The other white dog relieves herself in front of her house. The other white dog barks. No one is taking care of the other white dog properly. Someone took her in and then dumped her. (Which is true, and which is wrong. However, cribbing about it all on a daily basis doesn’t seem to be helping.)

But I’ve also realized the Neighbor across the Lane sounds angry even when she isn’t. It’s just that she’s angry so much of the time that ranting has become her normal speaking voice.

I want to be angry too, although perhaps not so much. Perhaps not so much that anger becomes a habit. Still, there is a sense of deprivation for me, like the rest of the world has gotten candy or some other nice thing and I didn’t get any.

Anger isn’t so nice really. But my backpocket tricks are work. They take effort. They are difficult. What the rest of the world is getting that I’m not getting is a break from exercising so much self control.

I should probably go back and explain a bit. It was a fine morning. Nothing wrong with it. I slept soundly. Woke up on time. It rained last night, but stopped by morning, so what we were left with was this gloomy, gloomy fall feeling that’s not really natural for this part of the world. All nice.

Then the dog came into my room for a minute. I’m trying to teach it not to do that, but when someone’s talking to me, I’m too distracted to make it mind. And people do that. They come to my room because they want something or other. They’re talking to me about that thing they want—whatever it is–so I’m listening to them and the dog comes rushing in. Actually, both of them, because Priya has been letting the other white dog come inside. I tried to explain to her that wasn’t a good idea, because the dog is not housebroken. She’s been an outside dog her whole life, and she doesn’t understand about not peeing inside. But Priya doesn’t think about the future.

ChintuAnyway, so Priya was talking to me, the dogs rushed in, and her dog immediately went to the window and peed on the drapes. She gave me newspaper to put over it and told me the maid would clean it when she came in a few hours.

So, I was angry. First at the dog, just because. But mostly at her. Because the dog is hers and she has neither taught it any manners nor does she clean up after it. I really should not have to clean up dog urine in my room when I don’t have a dog. Nor should I have to wait a few hours for someone else to clean it.

Indignant might, in fact, be the better word.

There is a wisdom in indignation. Indignation says I know I have rights, I know what they are or at least think I know what they are, and so I also recognize when they have been violated. That wisdom is the reason behind my two tight slaps. And indignation also says, “I can correct that. I can defend my rights against violation.”

Now, some of us get confused about what our rights are. We get it wrong sometimes. The world does not, in fact, owe us convenience, fulfillment, or pleasure. And you probably cannot come to a country over-run by stray dogs, rent a house, and expect to never have to come across dog doo. That’s probably unrealistic. But I may be wrong about that.

Also, indignation is not helpful if you never move forward from it, and by forward I don’t mean “putting it all behind you.” I mean devising a plan.

For example, my indignation was not effective. Although I resented doing it, I cleaned the dog urine up in my room myself. I said nothing when I might have said something. A better plan might have been to tell Priya she could clean up after her own dog for God’s sake, and that I shouldn’t have to wait a few hours for the maid to do it for her. Maybe.

However, this whole indignation business is a bit new to me. I wasn’t sure whether I would like the way I might choose to respond to it. So I did nothing. I just felt it. One thing at a time.


Where I’ve been: order, dogs, and family myths

Here, in fact, I’ve been right here.

The room.
The room.

But I have a new room. For now. As usual, things did not go as planned. So, I’ll be returning to old small room any day now. It’s a long story and not a very interesting one, so I’ll spare you the whole thing, but suffice it to say I spent yesterday cleaning in preparation for taking up residence here.

I haven’t been thinking much either, except about the relative merits of Lizol over Rin. (Rin foams so much more satisfyingly, but does it actually clean better? The jury is out on that one.)

Oh, and I’ve been training the dogs. Slightly. It’s just that Bozo, the resident dog, is completely untrained and it’s a hassle. Also, Chintu will grow up to be a much nicer dog if she stops jumping up on people and biting their clothes. And I have this idea that minding begins with sitting. So I give the five minutes of my time a day per dog and they learn how to sit and lie down and stay. That’s not really so much, is it? It doesn’t seem like it to me. If I could teach advanced mathematics in five minutes a day, all of our lives would be much easier. Unfortunately, maths must be harder to teach that sitting and lying down. It’s a shame that. I’m sure my students agree.

The new room. For now.

I feel a little like an ad for Cesar Milan. You don’t need to train dogs so much as you need to train their owners. So it isn’t just Bozo that needs training, it’s Priya and Uncle #2 who need it. The fact that he isn’t trained is a reflection of the whole rest of their chaotic lives. And it’s the chaos as much as anything that makes Bozo so anxious and hard to manage. He doesn’t know who’s in charge and so, like a child, he has taken charge. But this makes for a lot of jumping around and barking. And torn clothes. Since dog school has opened, he’s calmer.

Priya has also been gone, and it was interesting to see what happened when she returned. He wasn’t jumping up on her. He was behaving himself, so she picked up his paws and lifted them and put them up on her shoulders. But later she’ll complain when he tears her clothes. I don’t really understand it, although I know some people are like that.. The future does not exist for them. “I want attention from my dog at this moment. Never mind that I won’t like this kind of attention later,” Priya thinks and so she picks up his paws and puts them on her.

I’m the opposite. I don’t know much about dogs—I’ve had cats my whole life. But I’ve noticed how it often starts with them: it starts in the same way it starts with children. It starts as testing behavior. He puts a paw on your leg a few times, and a few seconds later he’s jumping up on your chest. Dogs are a lot like us. They need rules to follow. They need to know what to expect.

I now have a porch instead of a view.
I now have a view instead of a porch.

And it makes me think about myself. Because, since I’ve come, most things have become a bit more organized. The kitchen is cleaner. There aren’t cockroaches racing for cover every time you pick something up. It’s only partly because of me. Order is also contagious, and everyone else seems to do a bit more because of what I do.

But what it says about me is that I prefer order. That’s not a terrible surprise—I was a librarian for almost a decade, I teach maths, my books at home were always arranged by subject, my spices by cuisine, and my shirts by colour.

My preference for order comes out of both an aesthetic sense (if you don’t have much, it at least looks better if it’s tidy) and a concern for the future (it’s so much faster to find what you want).

Yet, I am still surprised. Surprised because I experience a degree of denial about this. I tend to see this desire for order as both a character flaw and as something someone else does and not me.

The dogs.
The dogs.

I think this has something to do with how my family saw me when I was growing up and with a kind of myth they created out of me. I was the absent-minded genius, the cluttered, creative artist. Perhaps that was their way of making sense of me, or maybe it was the suitable box for reflecting well on the family—because I am bright, I am creative, I do have the occasional unconventional or novel idea. Some of it does fit.

Like everywhere else in my life, I must have felt I needed to be the person they imagined I was. And it went on for so long I became confused about what was real and what wasn’t.

The other white dog

picture014I stayed home for probably five days—achy, bad stomach, weak. Didn’t feel like going out, not even for lunch. So I haven’t seen the white dog. Even now that all has returned to normal, I still haven’t seen her. Perhaps this is just chance, or maybe she’s shifted her routine. The weather is cooler and even the dogs don’t feel like getting out of bed these days. I don’t either, and sleep until seven. (Although some of that has because of the watchman. He’d gone to his village for two weeks, and the man who took his place didn’t make froggy noises brushing his teeth.)

But there’s another white dog in my life, although this one isn’t all white. She has spots. Her name is Chintu, which means small, and she is small. She’s only about two or three months old.

In the last few days, Chintu has figured out how to get into the yard of the guesthouse where I’m staying. She found one way, and they blocked it off. She found a different way and they blocked that off too. Then she realized she could squeeze through the bars on the gate. And now, until something can be done about that, she comes in whenever she pleases.

So Chintu has chosen to live here. There’s a mat in the garden she sleeps on all day, and in the afternoon she plays with the other dog. But the major appeal (or perhaps one of several) seems to be me. For as long as I’ve been outside—and I spent most of the day under the bougainvillea—she hasn’t strayed more than two meters away.

She slept in the garden on her mat, and she played with the other dog around my feet, and she chewed a stick under my chair. And now that I’ve gone inside to escape the vicious mouths of mosquitoes, she’s come to sleep outside my window.

All this is to say that I think a dog likes me. And I find this a little strange. Not just because I’m really a cat person, but because this means I’ve passed a test: if children like you, and dogs like you, then you’re a person who can be trusted.

I don’t feel like someone who can be trusted. I feel like a dangerous person, a frightening person. But I don’t know where I got that idea about myself. I could speculate it came from the many times I’ve needed to take strong measures to protect myself, or maybe only my mother and her pernicious sense of being threatened are to blame, or it could even be the extreme reactions I used to have to certain triggers (having to separate myself from important others being one of them). Perhaps all three.

But I also know that view of myself is either a distortion or no longer relevant. And all of this just makes me sad.


There will be no CCD trip this week. I want too many other things.
There will be no CCD trip this week. I want too many other things.

A cross-cultural experiences inevitably raise questions about competence.

I have myself on a strict budget these days—the cash I have with me needs to last for the next 14 months. And I feel guilty and anxious if I go out for a cup of coffee or buy a bag of potato chips. A budget is a way of reassuring myself that the money is there and I am free to spend it.

At the moment, what I really want are cleaning supplies, and I’m also finding that all of my toiletries are running out: shampoo, soap. The weather has become dry and I’m suddenly terribly itchy all over. I want lotion now as well.

So a budget also creates other kinds of anxieties, because I don’t know what many ordinary household items cost. I didn’t know what a kharata would be (79 rupees) or floor cleaner (65) or tampons (110 for ten). When I think about whether I can afford various purchases on my 120 rupee a day allotment, I often don’t really know until the shopkeeper has already taken it out for me.

It’s nerve-wracking. But the larger question, relates to competence. I can manage my household budget at home because, for the most part, I know what everything costs. I know what I’m likely to spend on groceries. I know what a toilet brush costs give or take a few dollars. I have, over the years, developed a financial competence, based on years of experience of shopping and budgeting. And, although costs have steadily risen, they remain knowable and predictable.

lizolHere that competence is gone, partly because costs have risen, but I haven’t been here. So while I know I used to be able to spend 400 rupees on a new readymade selwar kameez, I also know that was a decade ago, and I don’t have the faintest idea what one would cost now except that it’s probably more. Other items I’ve never bought before, because I never really had to manage my own household even in the limited way I am now: I’ve never needed to have my own toilet brush before.

A loss of a sense of competence is generally part of any extended cross-cultural experience, and it can be a source of significant stress. Success in a new culture depends immensely on your ability to manage the stress resulting from this loss.

While I am experiencing stress because of one specific kind of a lack of competence—financial—there are usually many arenas in which the newcomer is at a decided disadvantage: social, interpersonal, navigational (where is everything, anyway?), operating ordinary household equipment and tools (the water filter, the kharata, the toilet), health, and ordinary life problems (what the heck do you do about worms in the bathroom?).

It’s something I’m considering more carefully than I might because of Country X. Here, I I know that most things are already familiar. I can even stumble through simple transactions in Hindi, although English still gives me problems. (That thing I take a bath with in the mornings is called a “mug” by the way. Also, brush is pronounced “broosh.” Just passing the word.)

My stress over not knowing what anything costs or what to do about the worms in the bathroom are only a small part of what I could be feeling stressed over. In Country X, I may not know how to manage my interpersonal relationships or how to make friends. I may have to learn all over again where the light switches are or which way means “off.” I may not know what people say when they really mean “no.” So, being able to cope with a sense of lacking basic adult skills will be important.

And the first problem is that it seems to me that lacking competence is simply not allowed. It was never okay for me to be a child who didn’t yet know how to do things. It wasn’t okay to lack physical strength or moral courage either. I remember the time I stepped on nails sticking out of a fallen fence paling. I was about four or five years old.

I went in the bathroom, got down the band aids and the disinfectant from the medicine cabinet and set to work cleaning out my wounds. It didn’t occur to me to ask for help. And although my mother did haul me off to the doctor for a tetanus shot and butterfly bandage, DIY was even then my first instinct.

As a newcomer to a country, you have two choices: DIY and possibly end up doing whatever you need to badly or ask for help. Both of them are stressful. Both reveal a lack of real ability to navigate one’s own world by oneself.

I ask for help a lot, but I wonder how comfortable I really am with that. And I also wonder if it will ever really get through my thick head that no one does anything on their own here. In a collectivist culture, asking for help is a part of being an adult and maybe it is everywhere.

Go away: the maid, the bathroom, and identity-bound behaviours

For me, the point of entering a new culture is to be changed by it. I was changed in coming to India, I was changed by teaching in a Latino-dominated school, I expect to be changed by Country X.

Change of that type isn’t about a rejection of the past or of my home culture. It’s about developing a mental flexibility and expanding one’s notions of what can and should be.

Behaviour communicates—both to others and to oneself. We aren’t usually aware of this. The communication proceeds smoothly without involving our conscious awareness. But we become aware of this when it changes, and when the meanings of behaviour changes, or when we need to communicate the same sentiment through different behaviour.

For example, it isn’t common to show appreciation through words. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone say “please” in India, although plenty of people speak English, and “thank you” has definitely made inroads. Some of this has to do with a certain degree of taking for granted: People will tell you, when talking about service, that there is no need for thanks because what they are doing is just their jobs.  Within relationships, certain gestures are simply expected. Sharing is required rather than optional. I have been told by Indians that I expect too little, I don’t demand enough. “Any of my other friends would have complained that I was keeping it all to myself,” someone has told me.

That space in the middle is bigger here.
That space in the middle is bigger here.

So boundaries within relationships are different. “Mine” does not mean exactly the same thing as it does back home in the States. A psychologist who lacked any intercultural training would believe the entire country to lack boundaries and to engage exclusively in enmeshed and codependent relationships. And yet many people are happy that way—or at least as happy as anyone else.

But the difference in boundaries means that closeness is expressed differently. I don’t have a handle on that, because I don’t have a handle on relationships back home. But I can tell you that too many “pleases” and “thank yous” in personal relationships expresses formality and a desire to maintain a distance, rather than appreciation or respect. Your waiter will just think you’re another one of those weird foreigners–and you well might be. But it’s a poor way to make friends.

Instead, appreciation is expressed through reciprocation. If someone sends a plate of sweets to your house, you send the dish back with something nice in it for them. If your friend shares her jacket with you when you’re feeling cold, then the next time around, you share yours. It’s not a bad system and it’s probably not terribly different from how we do relationships in the West. But, like I said, I don’t have a handle on that, so I can’t say.

In addition to behaviour communicating sentiments, it can also express who we think we are: some behaviors are what we call “identity-bound behaviors.” If you study and do your homework, that’s probably an identity-bound behaviour: you see yourself as a good student, and other people do too. If I can clean my own bathroom, I see myself as at least marginally competent and independent. With the purchase of the kharata, my self-esteem has gradually improved—along with the condition of my bathroom.

But I also know that being a middle-class Indian woman involves supervising the servants of the house. (I have exactly one. She comes for about an hour a day—so don’t get too many visions of my living in palatial splendour and being waited on hand and foot.)

picture013I can’t seem to do that. I cribbed once that the corners in the bathroom were dirty—what the maid is really doing is just throwing some water around. No change. Instead I clean more.

Clearly, I failed. Enter lowered self-esteem. I am aware of both sets of identity-bound behaviour, and I am only succeeding according to one.

My failure makes me reflect on the meaning of independence to me and the meaning of competence, and what it means to live in complex web of relationships. I don’t have answers, but the reflection is the point. Because if I had stayed at home, I never would have raised the questions.

If you find yourself bored in your life, or you think you have it all a little too worked out, go away. Go away for a long while, and don’t return until you begin to feel uncomfortable–preferably a bit anxious and depressed (more anxious and depressed than usual). Don’t return until you begin to feel uncomfortable enough to engage the questions: What meaning does this have to me? What meaning does it have to others? Are those meanings shared? What would happen if I considered other possible meanings?

Those questions are a good habit to keep in any case.

Independence: the kharata

The top and bottom items are kharatas. The pink one is plastic and usually used in the bathroom. The other one is made out of cane and usually used outside for things like raking leaves. My kharata is green.
The top and bottom items are kharatas. The pink one is plastic and usually used in the bathroom. The other one is made out of cane and usually used outside for things like raking leaves. My kharata is green.

The bathroom cleaning broom thingy is called a kharata. After three days of trying to remember this, I do. And I also have my own. There was already a kharata in the house, but it was upstairs in Priya’s bathroom and although the maid should be using it to clean my bathroom, I know that she doesn’t.

I was out when the maid came to clean, and although the kharata was in the bathroom, I know she still hasn’t used it, because it was still lying in precisely the same place when I returned–although nothing else she uses was.

However, this post is not about the cleanliness of my bathroom. Don’t get confused. Although it is not clean. The bathroom, like much of the rest of the house, has a sort of genteel air of having been forgotten about. So, while the floor is more or less cleaned, the green walls have shifted towards a tan sort of colour.

It is instead about my role, and perhaps also what it means to be female here.

The kharata is important to me because now I can clean my own bathroom if I feel like it–and I often do. And so there is no longer that suffocating sense of dependency and ineffectiveness.

It’s moments like these that remind me of my own cultural biases and assumptions. More than anything, Americans value independence and self-sufficiency, and although I have no particular loyalty to my own culture–it’s no better or worse than anyone else’s–that value stubbornly remains. I want to be able to clean my own bathroom. And I feel uncomfortable if I can’t. Because I’m American.

What would probably be more immediately useful to me is if I learned how to manage my servant. But that isn’t the direction my mind goes. My mind returns to its old habits. I suppose that’s what minds do.

On time

Our rat was considerably more dead.
Our rat was considerably more dead.

We must begin, first of all, with the matter of the dead rat.

Two days ago, I was sitting with Priya in what they call a “hall” around here, which is not to be confused with a hallway. A “hall” is also not a large public meeting place such as you might rent out from the Veterans of Foreign Wars. No, a “hall” is a livingroom.

So I was sitting in the livingroom-cum-hall. Priya was going into the kitchen for something, probably to mix a fresh drink, as she’s a practicing alcoholic—despite her inexplicable dry days.

But she stopped in the doorway, and something about her posture suggested fear. “What is it?” I said, “What happened?”

Well, she told me, they had had two rats living nicely in the kitchen—these aren’t very tidy people, and their untidiness is most evident in the kitchen. They’d killed one of them before I’d come, and this was the second one. They had poisoned him, and he was now in his death throes in the middle of the floor.

And she went to fetch her father to deal with him, but by the time he came, the rat had disappeared again.

Yesterday, my room began to smell, and I began to surmise that he had found his way into my room and finished his business of dying there. Then I realized the smell was even worse in the kitchen. He must have stayed there and died.

I relayed this to Uncle #2. “Uncle,” I said, “That rat has died in the kitchen.”

“The maid will come in the afternoon. She’ll take care of it.”

This being India, I had my doubts. However, you should also imagine that I told him this at seven in the morning. The maid comes at three.

And I was right. The maid came and went. The kitchen still smelled. The rat was obviously still there. So, again, I told Uncle #2. “The rat is still there.”

“The maid said it wasn’t.”

“It is.” I began to look for it.

This turned out to be very easy. There’s a cupboard door that has come off in their kitchen, and it lies sideways across the lower half of the open cupboard. I lifted this in order to begin searching through the cabinet where the smell was most clearly coming from. The rat was there.

“She’s crazy,” Uncle  #2 said, meaning the maid.

“No,” I said, “Lazy,” because it’s actually never entirely clear that she’s cleaned much of anything.

I think this whole incident says something about various attitudes about time—including mine—and also suggests some misconceptions.

In my Western, everything needs to be done now mind, a dead rat in the kitchen is an emergency. The cockroaches are too, if you want to bring that up, but it’s not my kitchen and for now I can live with them. I just avoid too much contact with the dirty counters and the filthy gas range.

But in Uncle #2s mind, this could wait. Time was not of the essence. Time is rarely of the essence, in fact, anywhere in India. It is what has been referred to as a non-linear culture, meaning people don’t queue in most places and most things take place about 20 minutes behind schedule. I once waited an hour for a friend to pick me up for lunch. He came. I’m not kidding about this.

aurangabad stationI’ll tell you another story. This happened twenty years ago. I was just a kid, and this was my first trip to India, but it was at the tail end of the sojourn. I was heading back to the States in a matter of days.

I had gone to see some caves near Aurangabad. They are quite something really. You should see them. At any rate, my flight was out of Delhi, but Aurangabad is in Maharashtra and there’s not really a direct route between them. So, I was passing through Bombay—which in those days might really have been Bombay rather than Mumbai. The change in name was at least recent.

And although I had come on the bus to Aurangabad, I had booked a train back. The problem was that I had lost my ticket, and in my panic to find it, I also reached the station late. Not after the train was scheduled to depart, but without enough time to settle any problems. Like lost tickets.

On top of that, if I remember right, this was a train that did not come frequently. Perhaps it came once a week, or only every other day. I’m not sure about that part. But I do recall that if I had missed that train, I would also have missed the train back to Delhi from Mumbai/Bombay and consequently my flight.

Needless to say, I was a bit in a state when I went to speak to the stationmaster about the matter of my lost ticket. He wasn’t in. He was having his dinner or his tea or hadn’t left his house. This part is again rather vague. But there was an office full of employees of various kinds—white collar, sweepers, peons (as they call them). They all took an interest in my lost ticket. And in various polite ways told me to calm down—including sharing out a half cup of tea with me. There was plenty of time, they told me.

Which there was. The train was about four hours late. It might have been six.

And I think for some of us who aren’t familiar with all of this, we might take this for a generally relaxed attitude. But it isn’t. It is a relaxed attitude about time. Just as the rat was not an emergency, neither was my train ticket. The rat wasn’t going to come back to life and walk itself out of the kitchen. It would remain there nicely until someone finally found it. And the train was late in any case.

But my experience with Indians is that they are no less stressed than anyone else, that most Indians are worried about something most of the time. There is often some kind of inter-personal conflict that has to be addressed.

Now, I haven’t met all of India. So it’s entirely possible that I’ve managed to land myself repeatedly in the midst of worriers and nail-biters. But I have heard about inadequately treated rheumatoid arthritis from a young woman with a young child–a fresh acquaintances–on the train, and about a middle-aged man’s wife dying of cancer at a café, and a friend’s almost-tragic love story. (An arranged marriage, she fell in love with the wrong arranged suitor.) And last week I saw two men very nearly come to blows (there was shoving, but no hitting) over a motorcycle fender-bender.

Life is stressful. It’s stressful everywhere. That seems to be the nature of life.

What I saw was only a fender bender. This would have led to a brawl.
What I saw was only a fender bender. This would have led to a brawl.

But it is perhaps doubly stressful when healthcare standards are not quite up to par, when you live in a slum or are dependent on someone’s labor who lives in a slum (because slums are periodically destroyed and their tenants evicted), and a lot of things just don’t work or they work for a while and then break. Oh, and then there’s the matter of weather and the fact that most of the year, in most places, it is either raining like mad or hotter than hell.

So my India is not a chilled out place. It’s a place where everyone everywhere is hustling, because getting by requires that. It requires hustle. And where a lot of things must be fought over in order to get anything done. This may be the case only in cities, but a lot of India lives there.

In fact, I would venture to speculate that the reason India has brought us meditation and yoga is not that it is such a relaxed, chilled-out, easy place to live. They have brought the world ways to relax simply because they needed some way to cope.