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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gaddeswarup said...

I did not see the travel blog earlier and will check more. I think that you are feeling some pressure of not writing often enough in the Curious Stall. I feel that these posts should come by themselves; there is no point trying to hurry them up.
For me, transition between east and west has not been too hard. Partly, I have been working mostly in an abstract discipline. Partly I experienced change right from the beginning since my father was a teacher who used to be transferred to different villages and later going from college to home involved train travel, bus travel and then either a bullock cart or walk. Moreover I always wanted to be a global citizen. Only in the last few years, I started feeling the pull of sounds and sights from childhood and social concerns supplanting abstract interests. As one of the Upanishads said ( I read in a Maugham novel)"the path to salvation is hard; it is like walking on a razor's edge". Good Luck.

Steve Zavestoski said...

Swarup, thanks for the encouraging comment. I wonder if the regular transitioning from east to west and back blurs the distinctions so that the crossing is less disruptive; or that regular movement across cultures gives one the ability to constuct a reality that logically integrates what seems so disparate. In any case, I hope to have more opportunities to experience the transition as I "walk the razor's edge."

gaddeswarup said...

I do not know whether it has to do with regular crossing; it may have more to do with one's mood at the given moment. I often used to think about mathematics even when I went to see movies. But may be age or some change has taken place. Two enduring images from the last ten years:
In early 90's I was in Lille and was trying to catch a local train in the evening when people were coming backfrom work. I suddenly saw a woman in her 40's; years of poverty, hard work resignation seem to be etched on her face.

Two years ago, I stayedwith friend in Jubilee Hills in Hyderabad, very posh locality in which many seem to be from my community. One day I went out around 5-6 in the morning to get cigarettes. It was drizzling and the only place I could find was a road side cart and a woman in her 30's selling cigarettes, snacks and tea. She had a plastic sheet to cover the cart but not herself. I bought a packet of cigarettes instead of a loose cigaretteor two she was used to selling. That was big business for her in the morning and her first sale. She touched her face with the money in the traditional Indian fashion and I went back choking.
I do not see why in this age of technology and affluence, there should be people like this.
But one goes on taking care of one's family, making a living, trying to understand and contribute a bit.
One assumes that greater minds have thought about these problems and that there are no solutions and perhaps there is some overall improvement. May be constant engagement between people of different backgrounds will help.

Dhaval said...

Hi Steve,
I'm Dhaval and I live in Bombay (Mumbai). This is the only post that I have read on your blog. I'm really very happy to read someone from across seven seas feel this way about India. I have never been to USA, but I'm aware of the consumerism and temptation in your country. It's an amazing experience that you must have been through I believe with a lot to learn I'm sure. :-)

I want to e-mail you regarding this article and want to correspond with you for a project which I'm working on. It is very similar to the purpose of your new blog - The Curious Stall. Surely e-mail me or help me with your e-mail address. Mine is

"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."

Desi Italiana said...

Hello Steve,

I just came across this post, and I think it is beautifully written.

One of the things that I can relate to is:

"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."

I lived abroad for four years, and I didn't set foot in America for that whole time. When I came back, I landed in Chicago. It took me a full month to get back into the swing of things.

And the thing that I had the hardest time dealing with was precisely the same thing as you: the consumer culture, and the ingenious way the marketing industry has led us to believe that our wants are actually needs- ie "I NEED that $60 bottle of Clinque facial lotion, because without it my face falls apart" type of mentality.

And this culture consumption in America is interesting, because even those who cannot afford pricey items will find one way or another to get them- because they function as status symbols. Think of poor people living in the inner cities who will be sporting $200 Nike sneakers. We are all sucked into it in one way or another.

In contrast, the consumer culture in other countries is fairly confined in the middle class circles. For example, in India, you won't get as nauseatingly consumerist as the Chandhigar/Delhi yuppie types. The consumer culture is- correctly- associated with being "Western and Modern." Kind of how in China, going to McDonalds is an indication of socio-economic status.

The other thing that I can relate to- and which I am so glad that you bring it up- is how no one really cares about what the trip was REALLY like. I don't know if this apathy is general of Americans, but I think that because we are so insular and inclusive, and that the US is the world and the world is the US, other countries seem no more than a (scary at times) playground or just one big baazar with plenty of monkey-doing-tricks shows where you can buy cheap goods. A lot of this has to do with reducing entire peoples and societies into exotic images. Unless you relay a story that fits the expectations- maybe you got robbed, perhaps something outrageous yet characterstically "Indian" happened- then others couldn't care less.

I think India is complicated. As you point out, there are many contradictory images- the poverty, the richness, the beauty and the ugliness. It can be difficult to explain to someone. But, the US is the same way, too. Like you mentioned, we have so many shocking disparities here. I've recently moved back to the Bay Area, and I go to San Francisco downtown for my internship everyday. Unlike others who have basically become immune to these images, I can't get over how in the Financial District, there are so many desperate, homeless people begging for change in front of glass window high rises to the passerbys who are well heeled, and clearly have money. When it rains, they sleep in the BART station. And again, bankers, financiers, and so one will pass them by on their way to work.

Anyway, I just wanted to say that I enjoyed this post :)

Sreekumar said...

Hi Steve, Got your blog through technorati and thanks for the link to my post.
I am a recent immigrant to US from India and the phrase 'consumer culture' here in US did give a name to the idea that I had. But of course this is not restricted to US. Even the middle class milieu that I grew up in has the same mindset. And many people do come over and associate the good life with these things. Ofcourse there are many who do not share this mindset too.
As examples of the west and China shows, the consumer culture does boost the economy but India with its over billion people cannot sustain that culture. That is why economic and social development have to take place together.

MasalaChai20 said...

This post is obnoxious and full of all the things I expected: exoticization, assumed knowledge and intimacy with a culture that you really have only experienced in a superficial manner.

6 months does not an expert make, but I'm sure that won't stop you from writing a book full of generalization and assumptions about India and its people. Don't you realize that this post is a living breathing example of something all Indians deride: the flaky westerner who comes to India to "Find themself" and gets hooked on the "spirituality". Please.