Friday, January 05, 2007

The Zavelogue's Final Entry

I had a lot of mixed emotions upon returning to the U.S. In this final entry from the India Zavelogue I explain some of the feelings and the origins of The Curious Stall:

It's been more than a month since my last entry. Although we've been busy, the real excuse for failing to bring the Zavelogue to the type of dignified closing that I think it deserves has to do with all of the very mixed emotions I have been having.

We were in Seattle last week for my cousin's wedding. My mother rented a house for the week, and we stayed there with her and my sister's family. It was the first time in a long while, probably ever, that we all got to spend so much time together. I had a good time, but I guess outwardly I seemed troubled. My sister thought I seemed very depressed and suggested I try medication. Her dismay with my behavior caused me to think about what I was feeling.

I think I can narrow down my emotions to two related factors: (1) our re-assimilation happened too quickly and left me without an opportunity to transition between what we experienced in India and what we were returning to in the U.S.; (2) in the six weeks since we've been back, few people with whom we've interacted have expressed any real genuine interest in what our experience was like.

First, here are some pictures to illustrate the three types of environments through which we transitioned:

India: Lots of cows and blazing hot

Switzerland: Lake Geneva and the Alps

San Francisco: Fog and the Golden Gate Bridge


I can't say what would have been the most appropriate way to make the transition back to life in the U.S. I'm pretty sure, though, that hopping from India to a week in Switzerland was not the best way. India ranks near the bottom in most measures of GDP, health, and literacy. Switzerland ranks near the top. Perhaps the best approach would have been to return directly to our home. We certainly enjoyed getting to see our respective families in Maryland and Seattle, but those weeks were tough knowing that the journey was over on one hand, but also that we were not yet really home.

Then there was the--for lack of a better word I'll risk sounding cliche--culture shock upon returning to the U.S. This was a little different than the shock of jumping from India to Switzerland. Switzerland is a wealthy, and therefore expensive, place. Switzerland is all about quality of life. But the wealth of the U.S. manifests itself differently. In the U.S., we know we are a wealthy society because of the amount of stuff we consume, not because we have a high quality of life. In fact, despite our levels of consumption, we do not have a high quality of life. For example, despite our wealth, Americans tend to be less healthy, on average, than our counterparts in other parts of the developed world.

My point is that American consumerism made the transition tough. For the six months we were in India, I felt virtually no compulsion to consume. That's not to say that I didn't consume. It goes without saying that to exist one must consume. In fact, we consumed more than the basics. And while in India we certainly consumed far more than the average Indian, even if you exclude all the gifts and items we bought to bring back with us.

What I mean when I say I felt no compulsion to consume is that I was not exposed to the types of goods, nor advertisements for such goods, that gave me a "I'd really like to have that" feeling. As much as I'm a critic of American consumerism, I am implicated just the same. That's precisely my point. Living in the U.S. without being sucked into the practice of justifying extravagant purchases as somehow "essential needs" and not whimsical "wants" requires a herculean effort.

For six months I never visited a shopping website. And though we spent a fair amount of time in shopping malls, where the only decent children's play areas could be found, I never bought anything for myself except a book or two. Yet within two days of returning, even without having watched a minute of television, I found myself wanting. Do I need a new computer? Absolutely not. But Apple has some really nice new iMacs and laptops. My consumer mind begins trying to convince my rational mind that I do need a new computer. After all, my PowerBook got pretty banged up while in India and the nearly full hard drive seems to slow down basic tasks.

I don't recall having gone through that sort of internal dialogue while in India. Yet it's precisely such a dialogue, and one in which the consumer mind wins the debate, that is crucial to a thriving consumer society.

Interacting with others
Returning has also been difficult because in some unidentifiable way I feel like the experience in India has changed me, and yet I don't know how to communicate this change to others, nor do others ask me anything other than superficial questions about the experience. I write some of this off to the fact that I explained in fairly great detail what the experience was like right here in the Zavelogue. I can imagine that regular readers don't have a lot of questions about what the experience was like. That's probably why, in some cases, people we've seen for the first time in six months greet us as if we've just returned from a weekend trip to Santa Barbara. Part of what I am trying to explain here is the strangeness of feeling like we just slipped right back into our lives without missing a beat. One source of my anomie comes from not wanting to feel that way.

As for interacting with strangers, it's as if I want there to be a big sign over my head saying "Hey! I've been in India the last six months!" It's not that I want any special attention. I would like for people to know that the experience changed me, but this information may be irrelevant to a stranger. It's more that I feel like I have some insights that are interesting, if not also helpful for understanding some of the global changes happening as a result of globalization.

This is why I have to get going on my book. But I also want to get ideas out there right away, which is why I am closing down the Zavelogue and launching a new blog called The Curious Stall. Postings will be much less frequent, less personal, and a tad bit more intellectual. Read the first entry to find out why it is called The Curious Stall.

The Curious Stall will be a way, in the short run, for me to continue working out some of the feelings I discussed above. But I also want it to be a place where a much wider audience engages ideas about the changes through which India as a nation is going, and what these changes mean for its people, other people around the world, and our understanding of ourselves.

With that, I promise not to recycle any more content from the Zavelogue. I've got a pile of topics I want to write about in The Curious Stall. From here on out, expect more original content, and hopefully, more frequent content.

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Reverse Culture Shock

I thought some of the Indian readers of The Curious Stall might enjoy reading about our observations when we returned to the U.S. after six months in India. The following is taken almost word-for-word from my entry in the India Zavelogue on May 29, 2006 (follow the link in the title of this entry to see the original).

We landed back on U.S. soil on Saturday at about 12:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight time. Even though there were mostly Americans on the flight, it was strange walking through the terminal and being in the presence of so many Americans again. Americans, on average, tend to be somewhat larger than Europeans, and orders of magnitude larger than Indians.

I've heard some debates recently about whether there really is an "obesity epidemic" in the U.S. Just spend some time away from the U.S. and then, upon returning, plop yourself right down in middle America. I think this would resolve any disagreements.

I'm sorry the first observation back in the U.S. has to be such a negative one. But it was hard not to notice.

On a more positive note, our return went smoothly and despite our initial observations we are quite pleased to be back. In a matter of 24 hours, we managed to acquaint ourselves with two quintessentially American activities...driving a minivan and shopping at Wal-Mart [Note: for readers in India who might not know about Wal-Mart stores, just wait and soon enough you'll have them in India]. We had to rent a minivan at the airport to accommodate all of our luggage.

Then, once in Easton, on Maryland's rural Eastern Shore where my in-laws/Marion's parents live, we needed some basic supplies. Easton is probably like many towns in the U.S. It has a Wal-Mart and very few other options for basic shopping (this is just one of the many reasons more and more Americans are learning to dislike Wal-Mart). So we went to Wal-Mart for diapers, deodorant, razor blades, and a new sippy cup for Luc who has been off the bottle for about ten days now. Unlike typical Americans, we actually made it out of Wal-Mart with little more than we actually needed.

After that we went to a supermarket to get some basic provisions. I think Claire (my 3-year old daughter) was a little overwhelmed at all of the options. She kept grabbing things off of shelves and throwing minor fits when we told her she could not have them.

All in all, Claire and Luc (2-year old son) seem quite happy to be back. A big box with gifts from my mother was waiting for them. Then there were more gifts from Marion's mother. But mostly I think they just enjoy, for the first time in six months, having a lot of space to explore without us having to worry about their safety. We've been in hotel rooms for over a month, and there's just no room to get space from one another. In the huge house we're in they can escape not only from us, but also from each other. Last night, after baths, when I tried to sit down with Luc next to Claire and her Grandear (what she calls Marion's mom), Claire said, "No, don't sit down, I just want some peaceful time with Grandear."

Other signs of cultural adjustment ... Luc is calling the horses at Uncle John's "cows." Maybe he saw too many cows in India and now thinks all large, four-legged, hoofed animals are cows. He also had an odd reaction to Splash, the black lab of the house. He kind of screamed, not really in a scared way, but in a startled way. We saw plenty of dogs in India, but mostly insisted that the children stay clear of them. Then this morning when Splash went on a walk with us, Luc seemed to be fine, and even excited to have Splash along.

Neither Marion nor I have felt very reflective, so at this point we don't have any great revelations to share about how our experience has changed us, or what we think about India (or the U.S., for that matter), now that we're back. Mostly we just feel a sense of relief and exhaustion. Marion also feels like she has a drill pressed to her head. She's had another migraine more or less since we left Geneva.

Just the other day, a little more than six months after writing the above, I completed the final report that I owed the Fulbright Program, which had sponsored my research in India. Given the additional time that elapsed, I was able to reflect a little more meaningfully on the experience. In it, I wrote "It's actually quite difficult to explain to people here in the U.S. what India is like. Most descriptions make it sound like a place you wouldn't want to travel to, much less live in. What I have tried to communicate is the beauty of the people and the spirit and energy of the place, both of which are all the more palpable precisely because India can be such a loud, dirty, and in-your-face kind of place."

Next I'll post one more entry from the India Zavelogue. It will be the last entry that appeared. Shortly thereafter I began The Curious Stall. Stay tuned...

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Globus, Part II

In my previous post I discussed Globus and its India-inspired shopping theme. Here's another post from a few days later after I'd reflected on Globus's "Mumbai/Bombay" marketing campaign a bit more:

The whole idea of selling "India" bothered me, and I've had a little more time to figure out what it is that is so bothersome.

We happened to discover another Globus in Lausanne, so I picked up a copy of the Globus catalog. Actually, the catalog is more like a lifestyle magazine cum catalog. Amidst the product images and descriptions, one finds articles about Mumbai, for example, and recipes for Indian dishes. Following a recipe for Butter Chicken, there might be a picture of bowls for sale. Only these are not your typical department store bowls. Keeping with the Globus Mumbai/Bombay theme, the bowls for sale are made of banana leaves pressed into the shape of a bowl and then dried. Restaurants in India often provide these bowls to take away customers, and some street vendors serve up their fare in such bowls. Of course, Globus offers the chic urbanite from Europe the ability to purchase these bowls and then in the comfort of their own home eat from them the food prepared following the recipe Globus provides for "authentic" Indian dishes.

I bring this up again, and in more detail, because since returning to the U.S. we've noticed several other instances of "brand India" for sale. At least two of the catalogs Marion has come across here at my in-laws have whole lines of India-inspired clothing for sale. All of a sudden it seems that it's hip to be Indian. It's possible that it's been hip to be Indian for some time, and that we never noticed. Or perhaps we've become hyperaware of all things Indian outside of India now that we're back from India ourselves.

Either way, the fact that it's hip to be Indian irks me. Appreciating "brand India" is very different than having any sincere appreciation for the country, its cultures, or its problems. So when western consumers turn India into a lifestyle, I find it troubling on a number of levels. First of all, its not terribly hip for Indians to be Indian, at least not in the U.S. While in India, we talked to at least one Indian who left the U.S. after 17 years because he had found it inhospitable in the post-September 11 culture of fear.

Why would it have become inhospitable for him? Because the color of his skin leads Americans to the presumption that he is either (a) Muslim, or (b) from the Middle East, and therefore a threat. For an Indian in the U.S., in other words, there is nothing hip about having dark skin. Even within India it's not hip to have dark skin. Advertisements for sunscreen urge people to use sunscreen not to protect their skin from the sun's harmful UV rays, but rather to keep their skin light in color. India is still very much influenced by the caste system, and the upper castes tend to have lighter skin.

So I am bothered by the fact that "being Indian" is really only hip if you're not Indian. But more bothersome is the fact that, most likely, none of the more than half a billion Indians living in poverty are benefiting from the commodification of their lifestyles. I guess it's too bad that they never patented their traditional fashions, their stainless steel bowls, and their terra cotta chai cups, all of which are now for sale at Globus for sums 10-100 times what the same items fetch in India. Take the hip hop industry in the United States, at least here you have a model for returning a bit of wealth to a traditionally exploited and oppressed segment of the population through the commodification of its culture.

Now here's the kicker...Globus was founded in 1907 and is one of Switzerland's oldest retail stores. When I discovered this, I thought a little more deeply about the way in which Globus is exploiting India. The west, after all, has been doing this long before anyone ever heard of Globus. World's Fairs at the end of the 19th century were a way to expose people to the exotic ways and wares of other cultures (as well as to promote the glory of the host country). The British made the practice a science in the form of the British Museum, where everything from Egyptian mummies to African pygmies were put on display for the curious Brits to see.

I guess Globus prompted in me the question of where the line should be drawn between spreading cultural awareness and capitalizing on a culture's transient popularity in wealthy fashion markets.

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India Redux in Geneva

I've been so delinquent lately in maintaining The Curious Stall that I am resorting to re-posting some of the entries that appeared in the India Zavelogue, the travelogue where I blogged during the six months my family and I lived and traveled in India. I think the entries that I'm plagiarizing from myself are very much in the spirit of the types of things I've been writing about here at The Curious Stall. So read on, and if you're interested in more of the personal account of the experience we had in India, follow the links to the India Zavelogue where there are well over 100 entries.

The first entry I'm borrowing from the Zavelogue comes from an experience we had in Geneva, Switzerland, the first place we stopped after leaving India. Enjoy...

There's a department store in Geneva called Globus (warning: French and German only). As far as we can tell, the store's gimmick is that its displays and decorations reflect a different city or region of the world every month or so. We walked into Globus and for a second thought we were back in India. "Mumbai/Bombay" was the theme for May and June, 2006.

Globus in Lausanne, Switzerland (photo from Globus website)
OK, that's not true at all. We didn't mistake Globus for India for a second. In fact, what was surprising to us was the way that "India" had been branded. The idea of India--its cultural uniqueness--was what was being sold at Globus. But it was, of course, a completely sanitized version of India. One section of the store had an autorickshaw on display. It looked like an authentic rickshaw, probably shipped from India (or more likely, from the Piaggio factory in Italy where, except for Bajaj rickshaws, India's rickshaws are made). The rickshaw had some actual dirt on it, but was for the most part stripped of the filth typically covering an Indian rickshaw (except for Mohammed, our driver in Ahmedabad, who kept his rickshaw very clean).

In other parts of the store tiffins, the little circular "lunch boxes" that Indians use, were used in displays. Water jugs, turbans, ceramic cups and other little touches were also used to give an "Indian" feel. But make no mistake, there was nothing Indian feeling about Globus. Elements of Indian culture and society had been co-opted by the Globus design team to sell consumers high-end products, many of which one would have great difficulty finding in India. For example, by purchasing a simple-looking pair of leather sandals, for around 100 euros, one can imbibe the spirit of India without actually being there.

It was hard to imagine what the average (i.e., poor) Indian would think entering Globus in all its branded India glory. My guess is that a dweller of Dharavi, India's and Asia's largest slum, would have walked into the very same Globus we visited and said, "Hmm, my life is for sale here. Why would people want to buy my life?" Yes, indeed, why would a wealthy European want to buy the trappings of Indian culture?

I'll write more about Globus, and more specifically the commodification of Indianness, in the next entry.

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