A Country X update

Today, we have another religious festival. We don’t get a day off for it though. This year, it fell on a Sunday, but in other years when it fell on a weekday, the school still didn’t give one. I don’t really know why this is. Maybe you can only declare so many holidays, and our principal is a bit severe and maybe not the holiday-declaring type. So this holiday does not mean any extra time for thinking about anything or trying to do anything about parts.

But there are various bits I should update you on.

First, I had a visitor to lunch today. This is the first adult I’ve invited home—although a few students came last weekend for tuitions and the neighbor kids came over some time ago, curious about my house and my stuff. My colleague got a migraine and I burned the curry, so I wouldn’t say it was a great success, but perhaps it’s progress towards a social life. It’s easy not to have one here—somehow easier than back in the States. And that probably isn’t such a good thing.

Then I blocked up the kitchen sink and broke the tubing that leads to the drain in the course of trying to unblock it. I think it is more or less fixed now. It is definitely unblocked. So I have a functional kitchen sink again.

I have a mouse or at least I used to. Last Sunday, it ran around the kitchen and then into the livingroom, where it disappeared. I have not seen it since, but maybe it’s just become more sly.

I also had a cat visitor last week. At 5:30 in the morning, an orange kitten came yowling at the door. Curious, I opened the door and it ran in, looked around, and went to sleep on my bed until I kicked it out before leaving for school. I have not seen the cat since either. Maybe it is somewhere running after the MIA mouse. But it was nice to have a cat around again for a little while. I should probably tell you the cats look different here. They are not usually either striped or splotchy (although there are some splotchy cats), but an almost solid color somewhat like a puma. They are mostly tan or gray. My visitor was orange.

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The broach: being a person

WIN_20140202_184813I bought a broach today at what they call the weekend market because it’s only on from Friday to Sunday.

Most of the Capital City stays open late–9 pm is a typical closing time. So when I started thinking about broaches this morning, I wasn’t concerned. I went, looked around, left again, thinking I’d come back in the evening.

Except the weekend market closes at five. It was five minutes to when Peter looked at his watch and said, “It’s too late.” Only he kept looking out the window. “There are people still there. Let’s go.” So we went.

The old woman had packed up her broaches, but then took them out again for us after she understood what we wanted. Which was surprisingly not very easy, although I kept pointing to where I would wear it and saying the word for the part of national dress you put it on. A young man–perhaps a grandson–had to translate. Here, the children speak English. Hardly anyone else outside the elite and privileged do.

Although you can’t really see it in the photo, the broach is red and green. It doesn’t exactly match an of my clothes, but I had to have it.

This is not a post about broaches. It is about being a person, and how we signify that. When I put my national dress on for the first time, I felt like a person. With a broach on, I felt even more so. There was a sense of having put on my clothes–as if I had been going out in my underwear until then–because although not all Country X-ers wear broaches, all middle class women of my age do.

It’s the same with national dress. Women in Country X do not wear Western clothes. Maybe they wear them to clean the house in–I have no idea–but they don’t wear them out in the street. And so wearing what they wear made me feel better. Clothes are a part of how most of us signify that we are human. Animals don’t wear them. And maybe that’s why being forced to expose yourself is so humiliating–what is lost is the signifier.

Our displays of gender are also signifiers. Animals have a sex–and being animals so do we. But humans have a gender: we have an identity and social role organized around our sex. In fact, gender is such an important part of being human that it trumps biological sex.

I have mixed feelings about my gender–so mixed that the parts have different genders. There are even a few parts that feel without gender.

And I think my mixed feelings about gender come down to mixed feelings about being human. My experience with other human beings is so horrific I am not always sure I want to be human. Humans are cruel. They torture one another. They kill other living creatures. They are terrible.

There are times when I feel I want no part of any of that. So the broach is not just a broach. It’s about being a woman and it’s also about being human–because women are humans. It’s a way of saying, “Maybe this is okay.”

Day 3: Country X thoughts

In the bus with the rest of the teachers—laughing and joking with them–I began to feel I was real. It seemed like a new feeling, or maybe it just hit me more intensely.

That sense made me realize something about being in parts. I’ve always been able to be social in that way—to talk and laugh easily and without anxiety in groups of people. But if I also believe I don’t exist—if I have the sense of myself that Ghost has—then when I do that, it also seems to me that that isn’t possible. I must be someone else. So that’s the source of this part of the dissociation: these self-views are so incompatible that they can’t all be the same person. And so the most reasonable explanation possible is that I am actually several people.

Except the idea of being several people is crazy-talk. That’s one part of the amnesia: it’s the result of a deliberate denial in order to maintain some sense of sanity.

Another part of the amnesia has to do with a phenomenon similar to the hot-cold empathy gap, whereby it’s just difficult to remember what it’s like to feel or think differently than we do in the present moment. If I feel calm, it’s difficult to remember exactly what it’s like to feel angry. If I’m angry, I may not be able to imagine what I will think when I’m calm again. We learn how to function in spite of this gap by remembering what to do in those situations rather than by remembering how it felt.

However, it’s not so easy to do that with parts. Without the feelings or the self-views of one part, it’s difficult to understand the actions of that part. Again, it’s crazy-talk. If I feel I do not exist, how can I understand fitting seamlessly into an unfamiliar group? That’s very difficult. So perhaps I just didn’t.

That was my idea today anyway. Maybe I’m wrong.

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.

picture025
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.

All the ways you can die

crowded bus
I you can’t figure this out, you will never get on a bus.

Last night, the Country X people held a health webinar. It was entitled staying healthy, but it seemed to me a more apt title would have been “All the ways you can die.” So I went to bed rather anxious, visions of altitude sickness and hemorrhagic fevers dancing in my head.

The problem is that, as a sojourner in a developing country, there are so many elements you cannot control. First of all, you usually have fewer choices. Second, you are often not in a position of authority and therefore aren’t the one making decisions about what you do.

So, while road accidents are a significant danger for travelers, you can’t control the other cars. You usually are not the one driving—and it’s unclear whether that would be an advantage if you were. At the same time, while we in the West are usually blessed with a multitude of bus/train/plane options and schedules and routes—at least if you live in a major metropolis—in countries like X, there is frequently only one. That day. Or even that week.

If you get in a car and there is no seatbelt—and there usually isn’t—it’s not like you can just get into another car. If the bus pulls up and the driver looks intoxicated you may not be able to wait until next week to see if he decides to sober up. There may also not be much choice.

That’s just an example. But a lot of things are like that, because one of the primary differences between a developed nation and a developing nation is about how many choices you have.

You will also have to walk across this. When the signal is out. (Which is usually.)
You will also have to walk across this. When the signal is out. (Which is usually.)

A second important difference is that, in a developing nation, a lot of things break, and they often don’t get fixed—either because the money isn’t there, or no one knows how, or it’s been broken for so long that everyone just gets kind of used to it being that way and fixing it stops seeming important. Many things were never made right in the first place.

There is, I think, a misconception that native residents of countries like these just develop immunity to many of the endemic diseases, but this isn’t true. Delhi-ites also get Delhi Belly. They get malaria. And they get dengue. What they have lacked in the past was widespread cultural knowledge about how these diseases are transmitted or how to prevent their spread, as well as a certain degree of capacity to take any action. If you’re well off, you can afford a water filter in your home. If you are somewhat less well off, but not merely scraping by, you can boil your water. But if you are in really dire straits, you will have to drink tap water and hope for the best. And this is what people have done.

I’m not convinced that foreigners get these diseases more so much as they expect them less. And while it’s important to stay healthy and to be safe, part of adjusting is being able to cope with inevitably higher levels of physical risk without just getting stupid about things—because that happens too.

I’m having a hard time with this. Not here. In India, you can find a doctor as easily as a cup of tea. There are few things that can happen to me that can’t be fixed again. But Country X scares me.

And lying awake last night, contemplating all of the terrible things that could happen to me, I began to get a sense of why.

I don’t deserve to live.

Which leaves me wide open.