Thursday, December 19, 2013

Translation: Hawa from the film Damadol

Every December, or perhaps October, a song comes along that just captivates me. This year I was lucky to have encountered such songs in both October and December; this is the December one. (October was St. Lucia's "Elevate" which needs no English translation!)

Any corrections to lyrics or comments on how I can improve the translation would be welcomed. I am really just a beginner at this.

Thanks to Supriyo S. Daisy P. Sangeeta D. Rajlakshmi R. Anabil P., Anirban M., Rakesh S., and all other wonderful people who have given their input and entertained my obsessive discussions :)

হাওয়া - ডামাডোল
Hawa - Damadol
Wind (from the film Damadol - "Chaos")

chup chap kichu kotha
ure beray
emni kichu kotha
ghure beray
silently some thoughts fly away
and like that, other thoughts wander about

bolte gelei bhul ekrash uro chul
pathore photena holud buno phool
misunderstood words fly around 
like your hair in the wind
yellow wildflowers don't bloom on stone

sudhu hawa... eshe songe niye jay
kichu kotha hariye jay
only the wind comes to take them away;
these details get lost

purono chithi, notun ekta kham
paltaina kichui tobu rakhi daknam
an old letter in a new envelope
nothing has changed, but still i give it a new name

thonter kone hashi, bhetore jokhon
aajkal shob kichui khub onnorokom
i'm laughing on the outside,
but inside i feel very different these days

tai hawa... eshe songe niye jay
kichu kotha hariye jay
so the wind comes to take them away,
these details get lost

teen char te mon kharap
ekta bhanga din
baloonwalar beshe dukhi aladin
restless at three or four in the morning; a ruined day
sad Aladin in balloon-seller guise*
*(balloon-seller is someone who gives happiness to others)

bondhur pocket-e ochena ticket
mitthe ashwashe kobita likhi
in my friend's pocket hides an unknown ticket...
but it is in false hope that i write this song

aaj hawa... eshe songe niye jay
kichu kotha hariye jay
today the wind comes to take me away
these details get lost

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Lost in the shadows of the city lights

Portrait of Saurish Lahiri by Anirban Saha

Post originally written in April 2012 as a reaction to the above photo for Anirban Saha's photography project. His fantastic website is

There's a comfort in anonymity; in being one in a million. One in five million, to be more precise.

She lets go of my hand. Even though the night is warm and muggy, the sudden coolness in my palm spreads throughout my body. We step off the train. This is no time or place for sentimentality. We go our separate ways. No one has to know.

My mind remembers; my hand remembers as I make my way home through narrow streets unsuitable for the number of people who travel them daily. I skip over a pothole, dodge a passing car. The driver honks his horn at me. It is the only interaction we will ever have. 

I keep walking. Passers-by complain about the weather. Hot; humid; smog; pollution. But they understand nothing. The fools don't realize that they cannot breathe because the night air is full of urgency. 

Everything is important right now. The weather, the cars, the girl. Especially the girl. Some kid, slouching along in his low-slung jeans and too-tight t-shirt, is playing music out loud on his phone. I've heard two songs now and they were both about her. Every song is about her. DJ, get out of my head.

I catch a whiff of what seems like her perfume; I become hypervigilant, searching for her face in the crowd. But she is not there; perhaps it was someone else, perhaps only an olfactory memory, but it nearly brings me to my knees. I lean against the side of the nearest building and catch my breath. That damned kid is still somewhere around. Maybe I should give him my headphones. But then a familiar guitar intro slams into me, soon to be followed by lyrics that will tear into my soul. A river of red taillights adds to my sensory overload. 

Isn't this what I wanted? This feeling that everything matters? This crowd, the fading summer heat, these taillights, these songs, this perfume? The moment where everything is centered in Her; this feeling of endless possibility that will only last until I dial her number one last time, only to find it disconnected? 

This very moment is the pinnacle of my life, in all of its pain. After this moment, it's all downhill from here.

 I close my eyes. A tear slips through the lashes. 

No one has to know.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The one about the bindi

I have been asked a few times to write about bindis - can white women wear them? Should we? Or should we err on the side of caution and never wear anything from other cultures? Do the rules change if we are Hindu? Or if we're married to an Indian?

So many questions. The problem is that I'm not really qualified to answer them. I can only tell you that I sometimes wear them in certain situations, why I do, and why I don't in others.

I don't wear them on the regular just because I can and it's a free country.

I do wear a bindi when I go to the temple and when I go to certain Indian festivals and cultural events - Durga Puja? Yes! International Day street fair? No! University's India Night? Sometimes. It depends on the context.

I also wear them in India because in the area my husband is from, it is ubiquitous. The day after my wedding, my mother-in-law gave me a small packet of bindi cards; I did not wear them right away as our wedding was in the US but I made sure to wear the ones she gave me daily when we went to his home. It is one small thing that can help to put his family at ease, a marker that I accept and embrace his culture (he makes no secret of the fact he accepts and embraces mine). 

So why don't I generally wear them in the US? Aren't they fashionable? Aren't I connected to the Indian community here? Aren't I married to an Indian? To tell the truth, it is exactly for these reasons that I don't.

Apparently the bindi has been "on trend" for about a year now. I am not terribly on the up-and-up regarding such things; my utilitarian approach to fashion is limited to finding things that look good on me, aren't dated, but will last me twenty years; and to check and see if skinny jeans are over yet. But generally I have seen that when something becomes "trendy," a lot of license is taken with it. Fashion is both art and business; a couple years ago when biker chic was all the rage, you could find rivets on everything from handbags to shoes, none of which need rivets in the first place. It started as something artsy and novel, and then suddenly it was everywhere because it sold. The same has happened with bindis. The predominantly white fashion industry took a very visible marker of Indian tradition and culture and removed it entirely from its cultural contexts. Perhaps because it isn't as jarring to the average white person as, say, a leather mini and pasties accessorized by a white tulle Catholic wedding veil, bindis became accessories to cutoffs and see-through shirts, not just on the ramp but on the streets of Brooklyn and Seattle. And somewhere, gestalt in the world of fashion design died a slow and painful death.

As someone with a self-described utilitarian sense of fashion, I could not get behind the bindi trend for the simple reason that it makes absolutely no sense. But then there is a question of the morality of the trend. I find it odd that someone who would likely never wear fur because it hurts animals would wear a bindi in such a way that it hurts an Indian woman. (It can and does; I can link you to narrative after narrative after narrative.) Is this the cost of my self-expression? I think this is one trend that I can't afford to partake in.

Just one example of this: Have you seen some of the pictures in the bindi tag on Tumblr? Vacant-eyed, nubile girls wearing little more than a bindi with #exotic and #indian tagged...the orientalist stereotype of the oversexed, dark, exotic other is pretty played out in 2013 but these girls are jumping right on the "exotic=sexually available" bandwagon without even realizing it. I certainly do not want to reinforce a stereotype of a "bindi-wearer" as an object of lust, especially when I know and love many women who wear bindis as an expression of their culture or their faith. I am not interested in making their lives any more difficult.

So yes - the (white-dominated) fashion industry has taken the bindi, stripped it of context, and reduced it to a sign of exotic Otherness. And the ambassadors of this trend? Gwen Stefani, who has silent Japanese girls follow her wherever she goes? Selena Gomez, who doesn't even know the bindi is Indian in origin? Not exactly my role models. 

I said earlier that there's another reason I don't wear a bindi in daily life, and that is because I'm married to an Indian and have many Indian friends. This isn't counterintuitive. My Indian friends, with the exception of a religious few who wear kumkum, not sticker bindis, generally do not wear bindis themselves, except to temple or cultural events. What reason do I have to do any different? There's another reason too; I do not wish to invite unfavorable comparisons between me and my friends - "Andrea is more Indian than you! You have become so westernized." "It is nice to see a foreigner embracing our culture that others choose to reject." I have heard these things said in my presence. Awkward. Not every Indian woman wants to wear a sari, bindi, sindoor, glass bangles, toe rings. Many have fought their families, school principals, and surrounding culture to leave these things aside. Am I, by my choosing to embrace certain aspects of Indian culture, making it more difficult for the Indian women I know to make their own choices? I will be happy to remove my bindi in solidarity with them.

This is not to say that I think that white people should stay away from other cultures entirely. I do wear bindis in certain situations. I also choose to wear a wedding ring, loha, and sindoor, and choose not to eat beef, in the interest of carrying on family traditions and making my family members more comfortable. There are those who will not be okay with this; I deeply regret this but consider my commitment to my family to be paramount. I believe that there is a place for cultural sharing and syncretism, and that place is within community. Intercultural families, religious communities, close circles of trusted friends. And this sharing happens naturally, just as you would share information on what wine to serve with chicken or the best cloth diapers for your baby. It's other-centered, relationship-centered; not self-centered. The more involved I got with my local Indian community, the more I learned about various aspects of Indian culture from Indians and not from Wikipedia, the less inclined I was to just participate in the sparkly, pretty parts of the culture just to do it. Those parts come in context - for me, it is as the White American wife of a not very religious Indian Bengali, living in a small college town and all the good things and problems therein. 

A final criticism some will have is that this is a tempest in a teapot; this is an election year in India, the US government is shut down, and people have a lot more to worry about than what carefree white girls are wearing on their faces. I disagree; I think that first of all, white people have done a lot of taking and appropriation and we need to recognize that fact. We are products of our history and as such, even this issue of something as small as a dot requires a need for understanding on the part of us white girls, doing things that may not come naturally -- listening to the narratives of those whose culture we have embraced in part, learning about the context of that culture through a living community and true relationships, and accepting that even as we are individuals who make our own choices in life, those choices do affect others and we need to be aware of the consequences and our impact. In this light, we may not always get to wear whatever we want. And we may not always be able to please everybody. But pleasing people was never the goal; it's not about us. It's about how our actions show respect to others who generously share their culture with us, and how we can do our part to bring about more justice in this world. 

(Note: much of this was inspired by, and indeed written first in, a series of comments I made on Reddit in October 2013.)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The fate of the Delhi rapists, and an exercise in situation ethics

The past two days have been filled with thinking, and talking, and chatting, and Facebook commenting, about the death sentence given to the rapists of Jyoti Singh Pandey.

One has already died in custody. Amidst suspicious circumstances. The other, a juvenile at the time of the crime, will spend three years in prison and his slate will be wiped clean.

People have celebrated the verdict of death by passing out sweets. Activists against the death penalty, and indeed, the rapists' parents, have accused the court of bending to public opinion. And the question everyone asks -- and some feel fit to answer -- is, Was justice done?

The girl's parents wanted the death penalty. If we want to speak of justice, really only their opinion matters. My opinion, then, is just that - my feelings on the matter. And I am unsettled.

My first, most visceral response, was that death was too good for them. Their days are numbered and if they show any remorse at all, a swift death is certainly merciful. There are those who would inflict unmentionable punishment on the men, commensurate to what they did to the girl, but I think an eye for an eye only keeps the cycle of violence going and teaches that in some circumstances, violent acts are okay. And we have seen the lengths people will go to in order to justify rape and murder, these most heinous of crimes for which death is the recommended punishment: She was out at night. She has brought dishonor to the family. He committed a crime and was in jail. He was campaigning against morality and decency. She was asking for it. Who decides what crimes warrant cruel and unusual punishment? You'd better hope you never end up on the wrong side of that decision maker's politics, and political connections change so quickly.

Ideally, I would have liked to see them condemned not to death, but to a lifetime doing hard labor in a maximum security prison where they can no longer be menaces to society. Human rights? Certainly, give them the rights that they so callously took away -- we are not barbarians -- but the privileges of life in this free world they would never see again. Food, water, clothing, shelter, medical care are requirements, but biryani and badminton are privileges. Without leisure, without contact with their loved ones, they would have all the time in the world to think about what they had done until finally God himself granted them mercy and took them from this world. In playing God ourselves, we are being merciful to those who we say do not deserve mercy.

But the mother of the victim said, in an interview I heard earlier but can't find a link to, that the victims showed no remorse, that in court they seemed befikr - unworried. How is it punishment if there was no remorse to begin with? Zero times infinity is still zero. The main problem with my ideal punishment is that it is an ideal and shatters in the face of reality.

The two main arguments that I have heard against life in prison have been that rehabilitation does not work, so why bother, and that the cost borne by the taxpayers would be too great. To the first argument, I agree; although in the US the recidivism rate of sex offenders has been shown to be just 14 percent, this number is low because of controls in the system, including monitoring and registration. In India, where it is difficult to even get a rape case registered at the police station, these controls do not exist and the data does not apply. I do not argue then for rehabilitation at all, but for life sentences with public safety in mind: removing violent criminals from society.

Then people will ask, why should we pay taxes to keep these people alive? That is a difficult question to answer, and the answer will depend on how an individual, and how a culture, values life itself. There are some who believe in the absolute sanctity of life -- that we may not interfere in the natural processes of giving or taking life. Others believe that all humans are allotted a set of inviolable rights without which society will collapse. Yet others believe that human rights should only be extended to those who respect human rights, and that your right to live ends when you take someone else's life. And then there are those who take a utilitarian view: if someone is an unwanted burden on society, they should be done away with sans emotion. My view is closest to the second of these, but I do understand that others hold different opinions and, as such, come to different conclusions.

Which is why, in conclusion, I believe that there was no right thing to do in this case. No action the court took can bring Jyoti Singh Pandey back, can fill the hole in her family's life, can enroll her in classes for this term and get her back on her way to becoming a medical professional. Perhaps the verdict that was delivered was the least wrong thing. But I will leave that for her family to make the final call on.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Words worth sharing today

"Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal."

- Swami Vivekananda, Welcome address to the World Parliament of Religions, Chicago, September 11, 1893. 

120 years later, we are still fervently hoping. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Yes, Virginia, you do have a culture

A lot of bloggers have been blogging today about the perception some  people have that America doesn't have a culture of its own. Instead of echoing all the wonderful things that have already been said, I'd like to explore this idea a bit and think about why it is that people think this way.

The first thing to be clear on is the definition of culture that you're working with. Some people mean things like going to opera, eating fine food, or reading intellectual books when they speak of "culture." Others use the term keeping things like dressing styles, jewelry, music, and other art forms in mind. Even with either of these mindsets, it is fairly clear that Americans do, indeed, have a culture (or a few cultures!) and that any statement to the contrary is metaphorical and intended to judge the quality of American culture, which is of course a subjective measurement. In this case, it is good to look at who's doing the talking. Is it an American who actively rejects components of American culture? Is it someone of another culture who views their culture as superior? It is more likely than not that you cannot have an intellectual discussion on culture with either of these people, as their minds are already made up; to them I say To each their own and go on about my merry way.

A very broad definition of culture used by anthropologists is "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." This is the definition that I will be using throughout this entry, with the caveats that culture is not monolithic - there is always local and individual variance - and that cultures are continually changing.

For those people who are not using the term "culture" as a subjective measure of how refined, advanced, colorful, or traditional a culture is, many may still not think that the United States has a culture -- or that they, particularly, do not have a culture -- because they are constantly surrounded by their culture and just see it as normal. Derek Sivers once wrote an essay on this, using the metaphor "A fish doesn't know what water is." We land-dwellers know that water is an important part of a fish's environment, but the fish doesn't know anything else until he's caught! This is particularly true for White American culture, which is so pervasive in media and the world around us that it doesn't seem there is anything "cultural" about it. In fact, it is often seen as the 'norm' and anything that deviates from that 'norm' is considered 'cultural' or 'ethnic.' Let's look at food as an example. Hamburgers, French fries, spaghetti, meat loaf, chicken and dumplings, turkey and dressing, pizza are all seen as 'regular' or 'normal' food. You will find them in most any diner or cafe, and on nearly every children's menu, regardless of cuisine in the United States. Do we ever really think about the fact that hamburgers are named after Hamburg, that spaghetti is Italian? I had to Google to find the origin of meatloaf (likely also German). These are not "ethnic" foods to Americans even though they have origins outside of the country. They have blended into our cultural landscape in ways that things like empanadas, pho, samosas, kimchi, and even oxtail soup and collard greens have not.

This inability to see the culture that surrounds us, that has 'simmered down' into Americana after twelve to fifteen generations in this country, becomes even greater in conjunction with the "us vs. them" narrative that pervades American culture from our children's games of Cowboys and Indians to our history lessons on Manifest Destiny and even orientalist portrayals of "faraway lands" in movies such as Aladdin and the Indiana Jones films. Movies such as Avatar, The Last Samurai, and Dances With Wolves take a relatable white character and plop him down in the midst of the Other and the story arc is always the same: struggle with the other culture's Exotic Ways, become tolerant enough to learn some of their ways, and in the end save the people who due to their Exotic Ways, were unable to save themselves. Eat Pray Love does a similar thing; I really do not like books and movies of this genre because they further the narrative that the only way you can "find yourself" is by going to some far-off destination where people are simpler or more spiritual than yourself and your rotten culture. A spiritual life is found where you look for it; you don't have to jet halfway around the world to find a god or supreme power that is supposed to be everywhere at once.

The truth is that there is nothing truly exotic. Everything is normal if you are used to it. There is nothing magical or special about a siesta if everyone's taking one and that's just what you do. A sari is everyday wear for many women in India and does not imbue anyone with spirituality in the mere act of wearing it. And the shorts and tank top you are wearing right now may seem exotic in the eyes of someone who has never worn such a thing! Shorts and tank tops are very much part of American culture, as are saying please and thank you, taking food to bereaved families, and flipping the bird as a sign of disrespect. If you get a pop culture reference, if you say "Bless you" without thinking when someone sneezes, if you understand why your niece's Sweet Sixteen is a Big Deal and you shouldn't just skip it to play Xbox, if you have ever had a moment of nostalgia about a certain song, toy, movie, or game from your childhood, you can thank American culture for that.

And finally, if you're still not sure that there is culture in America, just Google "buzzfeed" and your city or state's name. Likely you will come up with a handy list of some of the greatest parts of your local culture, such as this one for the Rio Grande Valley, or the Bay Area, or New England, or even this one for Catholic school. You're already trained to see culture in faraway places; it's only when you can see it in the place you are from as well that you can really communicate interculturally without ideas of what is 'normal' and 'exotic' or value judgments getting in the way.

This blog post is part of a carnival on "not having a culture." You can read others' posts on the same topic at:
Americans Don't Have a Culture at Authentic Journeys
Really? Yoopers Have No Culture - The West Has Culture at AttachedMoms
Swiss Have No Culture at Cyn's Adventure in India
Southern Americans Have No Culture at American Punjaban PI

(And if you are wondering how I have finished this whole post and said nothing about Virginia, read the cultural reference behind the title at the Newseum site.)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Why it doesn't matter that I might have a Native American ancestor (and why it does)

Many white families have a family legend of sorts that a far-off female ancestor was a "Cherokee princess." Mine does too, although to our credit, the word "princess" has never been mentioned. The Cherokee did not have princesses.

This relative is, by varying accounts, either my great-great-grandmother Hannah, born 1851, or my great-great-great-grandmother Susan, born 1829. Great-Great-Grandma Hannah has been described by living relatives as "full blood Indian," but other written histories of the family have noted that her mother, Susan, was Cherokee Indian. Beyond her, there are no records.

Because of the early dates, my relatives are not in the Dawes Rolls or any other archival records of Native Americans that I have found. There are other records though -- records showing that regardless of whatever my family members say, Great-Great-Grandma Hannah was listed as white in the census. So even if my family was Native American, they've been passing for white since the early 20th century and receiving all the privileges thereof. And in case you need to brush up on your history, that was not a very good time to be a "colored person" or an "Indian."

A lot of people, myself included, have gone on genealogical searches to find that long-lost Indian relative. We think it will explain our high cheekbones (got those) or our olive skin (not that though). And there is also the goal of Triumphant Documentation - the proof that will turn our family legends real. The name in the Dawes Rolls that shows, among all the families who say they have Native ancestry, that we make a legitimate claim. Perhaps there is also the idea that it will lend us a certain "minority cred" or an absolution of self-imposed white guilt - "I'm part {insert non-European ethnicity here} so I can't be racist, I can't have white privilege," et cetera.

But if we are even 1/8 Cherokee, or Peruvian, or Mongolian, aren't we still 7/8 European in descent? Does this one ancestor in our past (who may or may not have been matched willingly; love marriage is a relatively new phenomenon) negate our whiteness? That's the one-drop thinking of the racists of the past and I don't subscribe to it. I have grown up in White American culture. I guess you could even call me a WASP even though polo shirts don't look good on me and I've never summered at Nantucket, or however you're supposed to say that.

But this search has not been in vain. I have learned incredibly interesting things about my family history, including:

  • My family goes back at least ten generations in the US on both sides
  • Both my maternal and paternal lines (mom's mom's mom, etc. and dad's dad's dad, etc.) come from Ireland Way Back In The Day
  • My family history is almost all English and Irish, with some French via Quebec in more recent days, which may or may not explain my love affair with Canada
  • I had ancestors who were mercenaries in the Civil War; they decided to fight for the Confederacy because it paid more
  • I had another ancestor who led a rebellion against the Confederacy and got hanged for it
  • It is true that cousins married each other in the 1800s
  • Tales of mystery and intrigue that will remain in the family and not on this blog
I have gotten in touch with family members I never even knew I had. (When your grandfather is one of nineteen children, this is really not very surprising.)

And just as importantly, if not moreso, I have learned about issues facing the the Native Americans of today, and keep myself informed. I visited Tahlequah, Oklahoma twice - in 1998 and 2000 - and saw what life was like in the Cherokee Nation. I learned more about the Cherokee and about the issues they faced, from people who didn't have to do genealogy work to know their heritage. In more recent years, I have learned about the Idle No More movement in Canada and the US and have read about current events and issues that affect the Native American community closer to where I currently live.

I have been hesitant to involve myself too much, as I don't think I know very much at this point and want to educate myself more on the issues before becoming involved, as the goal is not "look at me, I'm one of you" (because really, I'm not) but rather "how can I be of support, quietly, in the background?"

I, like most people, began this search in search of what I could get. I wasn't looking for college scholarships or tribal lands, but maybe a sense of connection, of belonging, of being able to say that my claim to Native heritage was correct. But if indeed I ever did have a Native American ancestor, I suppose the best tribute to her memory is what I can learn, and bolstered by that knowledge, what I can teach.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Money doesn't buy happiness, but happiness doesn't bring money

Apparently I am now at an age where I am expected to give Good Advice to Young Adults. I didn't expect that so soon, but after over a decade in the working world, I guess I should have.

During the last month or so, I have read numerous posts on Facebook (perhaps relating to graduation?) that sound a little like this:

"I refuse to sacrifice my happiness for some soul-sucking job!"

"We have a choice: We can make money or we can find meaning in life."

Rarely do I hear the other side spoken out loud, perhaps because blind pragmatism isn't as popular a trait among the newly-graduated as idealism, but I know plenty of people who have, indeed, done the opposite: gone into medicine, or law, or business, because they knew it would pay well, not because they had much interest or aptitude for it. Whether those people actually ended up becoming doctors, lawyers, or businesspeople is a mixed bag.

There is no direct relationship between financial stability and meaning in life. Nor is there an inverse one. They are two separate things and must both be considered when making a plan for the future. Money vs. Happiness is not a zero-sum game -- or at least, it doesn't have to be.

I was one of those idealistic college students myself. I changed my major midstream from religious studies to business due to outside pressures -- and I hated every second of it. I cried in the meeting with my advisor where I told him I was changing. I attended just enough of my business classes to make the grades I was accustomed to. And I did succeed; in fact, I even won a cash award for Outstanding MIS Student. And I was a complete jerk in my acceptance speech, making sure to mention that I didn't even want to be a business student. I look back on that now and cringe.

I followed the typical path of a BBA overachiever, and that was to the Big Five accounting/consulting firms, which is now the Big Four. (Guess which company I joined.) My four months there were awful. I was a fish out of water. I carried the wrong purse, drove the wrong car, didn't keep up with sports, and found it abhorrent that people were upset over a memo that they could no longer take their clients to strip clubs. I guess I can thank Enron for getting me out of that environment and launching me back into what I enjoyed - educational technology, corporate training. I now have the best of both worlds - a job that I am good at that I truly enjoy that also pays my bills. I would have been a terrible consultant. I'm where I need to be.

So looking back at my own mistakes, here's my advice to graduates and soon-to-be graduates:
  • Do what you love. Know what you love, and do it. But make a plan. Know what the career options are in your area of interest. If you want to be a WWE wrestler, be the best WWE wrestler there is. The more "unconventional" your field, the better you have to be at it. 
  • If you want to go into academics, keep in mind that academics has as much politics - perhaps even more - than the corporate world, and that the main goal of universities is to make money for itself, not necessarily to educate students.
  • Get a job, even if it is just to fund your social life or keep you hanging in there while you "find yourself." The routine will also keep you sane. No, it won't stifle you.
  • It's better to be a first-rate botanist or writer or teacher than it is to be a third-rate lawyer or brain surgeon.
  • And if someone wants to give you awards and money for hard work or what looks like it, be a nice person and smile and say thank you.
There is money, and there is happiness. Why not both?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"Accidental Racist" is accidentally racist

And honestly, I'm not that surprised.

I get the point that Brad Paisley is trying to make. The Confederate battle flag is a part of Southern culture. For better or worse, it just is. But does wearing it make him a racist? He's offended that people might think that. He's just a good ol' boy, tryin' to do no harm. And so he wrote a song about it.

I am not a scholar in critical race theory, but I have found the following things present in the song that do not help his argument that really, wearing the Confederate flag isn't racist:
  • Defensiveness ("And it ain't like you and me can rewrite history," "walkin' on eggshells")
  • White guilt ("Caught between southern pride and southern blame")
  • I have a black friend, and he approves, so it's okay ("If you don't judge my gold chains, I'll forget the iron chains")
  • Reductionism and lack of context ("They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears" -- Reconstruction was about way more than fixing buildings and drying tears, and there's nary a mention of Jim Crow, which set race relations in the South back even further than before the Civil War, besides that slavery thing)
And when I see the above things, I realize it's the same tired old argument, the same tired old white guilt that people feel proud of, defensive about, frustrated by, or all three at the same time.

I also know the importance narratives play when trying to decide if something is racist (not if someone is racist; the two are different things.) And while I understand that the Confederate battle flag is a part of Southern heritage, I also understand that there are people who are offended by or who feel nervous when they see it. It's even mentioned in the song ("I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn't here"). Both narratives are important. But even while trying to do research for this post, I found a lot more hits for the "the Confederate flag is part of our Southern culture" narrative than for the "this makes me uncomfortable" narrative. I have a hard time believing that this symbol doesn't have deep negative meaning, at least for some. But why don't I hear their opinions? Why is that narrative reduced to one line in the song?

I hear a lot of white voices --including mine-- surrounding this issue; those who support the flag and those who do not. But where are the voices of people of color? Why can't I find them with simple Google searches? It seems Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's question of whether the subaltern have a voice is still extremely relevant today. I cannot make an informed decision until I hear the narratives of those who are supposedly affected by the negativity inherent in the symbol.

But until then, Brad Paisley is not telling me anything I don't already know about the fact that white guilt exists and that it does absolutely nothing to confront the issue of racism. It just states his position and despite the inclusion of his "black friend" LL Cool J, does not seem to invite dialogue on the issue, but instead exhorts people to leave the past in the past and try to see this symbol so often construed as negative with the positive connotation he puts on it as a white Southerner instead.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Top 5 tips for staying safe in online relationships

The internet has made this a very small world, indeed. Thanks to social media, we can make friends, business connections, and even find love with someone on the opposite side of the world.

But even as the benefits are amplified, so are the risks. It is easy to find someone you are compatible with, but at the same time, easy for someone with ill intent to find you.

The online dating game is complicated enough as it is without these shady characters, who more often than not fall into one of the following two categories:

Catfish - Those who create fake online profiles to lure unsuspecting people into a fake relationship for no apparent personal gain. Sometimes they are cyberbullies, people known to the victim playing a cruel trick, and at other times they're just trolls, people with nothing better to do than string along an innocent person for what they believe to be the fun of it. Sometimes they do it just to be able to tell their friends about their "internet girlfriend/boyfriend" or for sexual gratification. The name comes from the 2010 film Catfish, which was a documentary of one such fake online relationship.

Scammers  - These people will enter into online relationships, under real or fake profiles, with personal gain at the basis instead of love. They will often prey on certain subgroups or subcultures who may be more vulnerable to their advances. The gains they hope to get could be anything from gifts to money to plane tickets to visas, with some scammers going so far as to marry their victims for residency in a foreign country then leaving them once that residency is secure, or to end up getting them involved in drug trafficking schemes.

Much has been said about safe online dating, and I encourage you to read the linked posts at the bottom of this entry for more information on the topic, but here are my top five tips for avoiding catfish and scammers:

1. Know Thyself. Step away from the computer for a moment and go look in the mirror. Think about where you are in your life right now. Have you just exited a relationship? Had a string of relationships go bad? How's your self-esteem? Those horrible messages society tells you about what a woman/man "should be" - are you letting them affect you? Is that go get 'em attitude really from the heart, or is it bravado? Be honest with yourself; no one is listening but you. 

This is not to say that if you are in a delicate position, that you should not be looking for love; just that if you are not in a good place emotionally, you may be much more vulnerable to scammers and catfish, and you need to be sure to protect yourself even more than usual during this time. Be choosy; you deserve something good in your life. Don't just fall for the first guy who tells you you're beautiful or the first woman who shows an interest because they like you

Sometimes it does mean to step away from the dating scene for a while and get back in touch with yourself and your own wants and needs. If this is the case, don't resist it. If you need therapy to work through some tough times in your past, go get the help you need. But if you are ready to move on and put yourself out there, tread lightly and carefully at first. 

2. Heart Must Listen To Head. One of the most important things you can do to protect yourself is to make sure that what you are hearing from your online love interest is consistent. Sometimes it's easy to make excuses for people when their stories don't add up. Sometimes they are quick to make those excuses themselves. But if something doesn't make sense, find out why. Don't just ignore it. If he uses multiple names, or if she tells you she lives in one city but all her Instagram pictures are geotagged to another location, that could be a red flag. If he's asked you to go on the webcam but says he doesn't have one, or if she won't send a picture of herself when she's asked for yours, that's an asymmetrical relationship and there is definitely something wrong there. 

If you get a gut feeling that something doesn't add up, it's quite likely that it doesn't. Also be aware of inconsistencies between what someone says and what they do. He's very religious, but he tells you that you don't have to convert to his faith when you marry even as he posts videos of people who converted from your faith to his on his Facebook wall? She says she doesn't care if you don't have a six-pack but retweets photos of scantily clad gym rats? He says you look sexy in that halter top but agrees with posts where his friends say "women should dress decently"? Inconsistency between someone's words and their actions is a major red flag.

3. Culture Is Not An Excuse. Yes, cultural differences exist. No, they are not an excuse for you to be disrespected. If you are in a real relationship, you will discuss the things that make you feel slighted and if the other person cares, they will do what they can to make sure that those things do not happen. If you feel disrespected when someone does not come online at a predetermined time, and she doesn't even try to come online at that time, that's not fair to you. (It goes both ways; if you make disparaging remarks about their family due to their hesitation to accept your relationship and that hurts his feelings, stop doing it.)

This applies to gender relations too. Do not allow anyone to treat you as a second-class citizen or subject you to behaviors that are physically or emotionally abusive because of preconceived notions about "the way it is done in his culture." All over the globe, women are fighting battles within their own cultural contexts for rights and respect. Do not rationalize away behavior that at first glance seems not okay to you as something you have to "compromise on" because "that is just the way it is over there." Chauvinism and abuse are traits and behaviors of the individual; you cannot paint an entire culture with a broad brush in this matter. 

That said, if you are in an intercultural online relationship, you need to learn more about the culture of the person you're in a relationship with, and they should learn about your culture as well. There are issues that intercultural couples will face, but you need to work through those together, with mutual love and respect. If they want you to know everything about their culture - or you go down that path willingly - but they show no desire or put forth no effort to learn about yours, again, you're in an asymmetrical relationship, which may be the sign of a catfish or a scammer. Learning some of their language is also a good idea. I have witnessed a situation where an ostensibly peace-loving person was matched up with someone who subscribed to hate groups publicly online - but she didn't know that, because she couldn't understand what the groups' names meant. (And if you are in an online relationship and you have not stalked their Facebook profile, ask yourself why you haven't done that, and then go do it right away.)

4. You Can't Hurry Love. Relationships take time to build. You cannot fall in love at first text. Be cautious at first and open up much later, after trust has been built. Anyone who truly loves you should respect your boundaries (and if you love yourself, you'll have boundaries; if you have questions, please refer to #1 in this list). Similarly, anyone who says to you "I saw your profile picture and I fell in love" is not using correct terminology. They may have fallen in lust, or they may have gotten interested and wanted to get to know you better, but love's not there yet. 

Don't rush into something because you're afraid this could be your very last chance (likely, it's not) or because no one's ever shown you that kind of attention (attention and love are not the same thing) or because no one that beautiful will ever write to you again (if it seems too good to be true, it often is.) And if they are telling you any of those things, block them and run for the hills. 

There are people out there who believe in "soul mates" or "twin flames" and will drop anything and everything the moment that they think they have found that other, missing half. This doesn't make sense. If it is really true that this person is your soul mate, then why not wait? If they really are your soul mate, they'll understand that you want to take things slowly. If you're talking about someone you're linked to for eternity, six months or a year of getting to know each other isn't even a drop of water in that great ocean of time. You don't have to rush anything. 

Others do not believe in soul mates, but instead believe that there are people we are compatible with, but none of us is a half person waiting for our other half. They believe that relationships are two whole people who, together, are greater than the sum of their parts. In this case as well, growing trust over time is important and necessary. You don't want to make any major decisions based on a superficial understanding of your compatibility and only after knowing them realize that you just didn't know them well enough.

5. Would You Tolerate This In Person? They always say they'll come online but they never do. They promise to meet up when you visit their city, but when you go, they give excuses. The only thing they can talk about is how sexy you are. They don't ever want to talk about politics or basketball or social justice or the Kardashians or whatever it is that floats your boat. They don't like it when you ask them personal questions. They ask you for money just after you meet them. They ask you to do things on webcam you're not okay with. Your relationship seems never to progress beyond a superficial level.

Are these things you would tolerate in an in-person, bricks-and-mortar, meatspace relationship? 

Online relationships are often more difficult than in-person ones because you lose so much communicative ability. Pictures can be Photoshopped. You can't respond to someone's facial expression or body language using Facebook chat. Even on the phone, where at least you have tone of voice, you can't divine the environment, and even video chat only gives you one angle - and some say they may have been involved in fraudulent video chats as well! There is so much you cannot be sure of, so anything you could not tolerate in an in-person relationship must not be given a pass in an online one. 

Of course, this is just scratching the surface. Staying safe online takes common sense, a healthy dose of self-respect and respect for others, and being aware of the ways in which you are vulnerable and you can get taken advantage of, so that you don't. Here are some other useful links on the subject:

{Thanks to Maria S. and American Punjaban PI for their valuable advice in the creation of this entry.}

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Speech is near the heart

I know this blog is not even about my personal life and I try hard to sound academic when I write. I am not intending to do that today. It's not appropriate to my topic.

Where do I start? Fourth grade, where Richard told me on the playground that despite being born and raised in these United States, I "talked like an Englishman" and so I got angry at him and told him he farted too much?

Or when I moved later that year and Niki and the other mean girls would tease me by telling me to say "New York" and surrounded me with cruel laughter since I couldn't pronounce the letter R when it followed a vowel?

Or the one day I went to the school speech therapist, then folded the practice paper up as tiny as I could and hid it so my parents wouldn't find it and realized I'd had to go to special ed? I had taught myself to read when I was two. People considered me smart. Mom and Dad would get angry at me for not being smart anymore, or so my eleven-year-old mind thought. I was ashamed of myself, of my nonexistent R.

On that paper was the trick I'd searched dictionaries to learn but never found. You touch the tip of your tongue to your hard palate. Once I realized it, the problem disappeared. It's easy to fix this stuff when you're motivated. And eleven.

It's a lot harder later on, even if you're motivated.

My job in India was creating training materials for accent neutralization. I went back to the source, to these simple mechanical tricks that I had myself used to sound "more American" as a child. Tongue goes here. Lips do this. Smile a bit more. No, not that much. When testing these new techniques, I could see the same frustration in the eyes of my trainees that was in my own back in the day. Some nailed it. Others struggled. I realized that now we needed a lot more than mechanics. My training had to be coupled with massive amounts of encouragement and positive reinforcement, as it's hard to be told "you need to speak like this to be understood better." It's hard to hear. Because the way we speak is who we are.

I grew up in an environment where certain patterns of speech were considered "uneducated" and it was not okay to talk like that, and despite Texas, grew up sounding more like NPR than country music. I had a Canadian neighbor I idolized as a child and hearing my voice today, I know some Vancouver crept its way into my voice. Upon returning from India, I was asked on multiple occasions "where I came from" because of my "beautiful accent." I have even been accused of "code-switching" into an Indian accent around second-generation Indians even when I was using what was my regular everyday I'm-not-thinking-about-how-I'm-talking voice. Who knows -- maybe because I am so isolated here and the main person I talk to is my husband, I'm beginning to pick up his speech patterns? I think I pick things up fairly quickly and unconsciously --unless I am told not to-- but my accent has never been Canadian, or Indian, or even pure GenAm. I don't know what it is, but I've made peace with it in the years between self-conscious preteen and now.

Well, at least I think I have, but I am certain that it is one of the things that is holding me back from expressing myself fluently in Bengali. I remember the giggles of my classmates, my own horror at hearing older girls in my French classes in college speak French with American accents, and of course the hesitation and terror of a former "gifted kid" - I can't mess this up. I can't get this wrong or else it proves I'm really not that smart. So my mind stops; I freeze, and I say nothing.

I know a lot about Bengali. I can read and write with little problem. I'm still expanding my vocabulary and trying to solidify grammar, but I'd say I'm at an advanced beginner or beginning-intermediate level. I can wax poetic about the order of the alphabet and how it all makes sense and conjugate verbs and put together simple, grammatically correct sentences if I have the time to write them out. But when it comes to practical usage, I slip back down into the novice level. I tell people I talk like a toddler but I know toddlers who speak better than me.

It feels like math class; I know the equations. I can plug numbers in and get the right answers. But I'm not entirely sure of how those equations are derived, if that matters at all, and you certainly don't want to get in a rocket that I built using those equations.

So I am trying to break through this impasse. I am doing this by trying to speak daily, then recording myself and actually listening to what I recorded. I'm not up to extemporaneous speaking yet, but at least reading from a book and getting the sounds in my ears and mouth seems to be helping. And since I either have no more shame or just a lot of bravado (not sure which), I will share a couple of recordings with you.

This is the last recording from the first book of Sahaj Path, Lesson 1, after a week of recording and listening back.

This is the first recording from Lesson 2. 

You can tell the difference a week of practice makes. (I got frustrated and deleted the first recording of Lesson 1, which is why I didn't post it.) In Lesson 2, I read the story ahead of time so I could understand its meaning, but I didn't with the poem. This recording is the first time I have encountered the poem, and I'm reading the Bengali script.

This is my life, my study, my fears. You should do one thing every day that scares you, they say. So I speak. Maybe one day that won't be scary and I'll have to do something else.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Teach our children well

I think we all have seen this image floating around on Facebook:

I agree with this. It is excellent advice for today's world. I also think we can switch the gender nouns and pronouns on many of them and apply it to our sons. Not all, since we do not live in a world where the genders are completely equal in terms of power. I might, however, put it like this:

We need to teach our sons to distinguish between:
A woman who flatters him and a woman who compliments him,
A woman who expects him to spend money and a woman who expects him to spend time,
A woman who wishes to be property and a woman who wishes to be equal,
A woman who lusts after him and a woman who loves him,
A woman who believes she's a gift to men and a woman who believes he's a gift to her,
And to teach our daughters to be that kind of woman.

Only the second and third reflect our unequal power structures that remain in society today - commonly known as the patriarchy. And patriarchy is not the small-minded idea of a World of Evil Men; it is simply a society that values men over women, and both men and women take part in reinforcing it. (Note that patriarchy hurts men as well as women, commodifying them and confining them to narrow definitions and forcing them into 'traditionally masculine' roles instead of allowing them choices.)

Avicenna recently blogged about this next image that has been making the rounds (click to enlarge):

As you can see, it is a response to the first image that comes out of hurt and mistrust - common themes of the Men's Rights Activist (MRA) movement. They operate on the assumption that there is a war between the sexes and it is a zero-sum game, and that feminists are their enemies, not their allies. 

Here is my response to this response (edited slightly from what I wrote in Avicenna's comment section):
I am really actually quite okay with all the “and a woman who…” statements except for the first one, which could be worded in a less snarky manner.
Teaching our daughters to be good communicators? Teaching them responsibility? Empathy? Loving someone for their character? I’m down for that. We should teach our sons the same things.
I have a huge problem with the first part of every single one of those statements though, because each one is a consequence of patriarchy, the same system that MRAs say does not exist outside of Women's Studies 101 classrooms.
Why do some women expect men will pay for them? Because in the past, it was their responsibility to, since women were financially dependent on men. Feminism has made it possible for women to earn their own money and go dutch on dates. Yet MRAs hate feminism.
Why do women hint, to the point of deception sometimes? Because in the past, they would be disregarded if they stated their wants, needs and opinions at best, and beaten at worst. Feminism has made it acceptable for women to have opinions without fear of retribution. Yet MRAs hate feminism.
Why do women regret sex? Because a woman who enjoys sex or a one-night stand is seen badly in the eyes of society. Why do some of them “claim date rape”? Because either 1) they were date raped, or 2) it is better in society’s eyes for them to be a victim than a slut. Feminism is WORKING on this one; we are trying to convince society that women are more valuable than their hymens. Yet MRAs hate feminism.
Why would a woman expect a man to “man up” ? Because she, too, has internalized the gender roles that show a ‘man’ to be very certain and specific things in today’s society. (I am unsure how this has to do with agreeing with her all the time, unless of course, this is an unspoken fear that women will do to men what men have done to women for centuries.) Feminism is dead set on questioning these gender roles that say men must do or be certain things to fit a standard of masculinity, and women must do or be certain things to fit a standard of femininity. Yet MRAs hate feminism.
Why would a woman love a man for what he can give her? Because she has internalized the patriarchal myth that she is nothing without a man, and that her value is based on the things he provides for her. Feminism encourages women to find worth in their own selves and provide for themselves, that they may meet men as equals and not as dispensers of financial security. Yet MRAs hate feminism.

Feminists and men's rights activists should be each other's best friends, working in solidarity for a better world where people see each other as humans, and where all people can make choices that best suit them and be free from fear and abuse. Unfortunately, the few times I have made this suggestion to MRAs, I just hear the same old talk about how feminism is the problem, and I have stopped trying. 

Men are not the problem.  The system is the problem.

This is not a zero-sum game. 

If a woman gains a right, it does not mean that a man is having one taken away.

Let us teach our children how to live in a respectful, just, and equal society.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Translation: Eka by Lakkhichhara

I have written about this song before (in yet-to-be-published-if-ever vignettes), but now I am translating it to share with you. The guitar tells you everything you need to know though; the translation is simply a bonus.

Thanks to Rakesh S. Tova E., and Supriyo S. for insights :)

Lyrics and Translation:
একা - লক্ষীছাড়া
Eka - Lakkhichhara

Eka eka hoyto gopone
Chupishare boroi anmone
Shunyo haate bhari ondhokar
Alone; perhaps in secret
Noiselessly; indeed unconsciously
With empty hands full of darkness

Charidhare jhapsa mukh koto
Chena kichu ochena hoyto
Eki kotha bole barongbar
So many blurred faces surrounding
Some recognizable, perhaps some unknown
Repeating only one thing, over and over

Bujhina je tar maane
Raat jaane, 'raat jaane'
Kothay, kobe, konkhane? 
I don't know what it means
The night knows
Where, at what time, in what place?

Keno mishe jachche bortoman 
Neme ase somoyer shopan
Shob kichu lagche bemanan
Why is Now becoming dark
As it descends the steps of time
Nothing seems as if it fits

Deke othe raat-jaaga pakhi
Kome ase jiboner goti
E du'haate mukh dheke rakhi.....
The nocturnal bird calls out
As life's pace winds down
I cover my face with these two hands

Amar e dike cheye
E akashe utheche chand
Bonnay aalor bhengechhe baand
In this sky the rising moon shines upon me
And the flood of light breaks through

Chole jae majh raati re
Shanto nodir tire
Hajaro bochor aager 
Sriti ase phire
Midnight retreats to the bank of the peaceful river
Memories of the distant past return

Saturday, January 12, 2013

It's as crazy as it's ever been, love's a stranger all around

I haven't posted in a long while, and that's because there has been so much to write about.

So much I don't feel qualified to write about.

Twenty-six people died at Sandy Hook Elementary School, twenty of them children, on December 14 of last year, bringing the total to 88 fewer people in this world because of some madman with a gun. The typical knee-jerk reactions of 'ban guns' and 'lock up the crazies' reverberated around the internets for some time, but then the NFL playoffs started and celebrities did stupid things and no one cared anymore. Simplistic and myopic solutions aren't anything you can rally around. I sit here wondering how I can advocate for better preventive mental health care in my community, but no one wants to talk about that.

A girl was brutally raped in New Delhi, and died days later in a Singapore hospital from her injuries. This news hit home pretty hard for me, as I frequented the same theater she had gone to, had difficulty getting rides back to the general area of town she lived in, and the place she and her friend were deposited after their torturous experience was on the road I traveled daily to go back and forth from work. My mind's eye cannot stop picturing that scene - two naked, bleeding bodies lying in the cold foggy night, perhaps in front of  the dentist's office, or the tire shop, shutters down. People all around saw and minded their own business. Civic sense did not exist. But it was still the straw that broke the camel's back; now people have started talking about rape in terms of power, in terms of drawing shame upon the rapist and not the victim; calls for changing the system from the ground up are being made -- but are they heeded? Outside the Internet, has anything really changed? Rapes are still happening. I suppose it is the trend we should be looking at. In five years, will women stop telling each other not to go out on the streets? Will the term 'pervert' have replaced 'eve-teaser' ? All we can do is just make tiny steps in the direction of justice.

It takes much more than talk, more than pontificating on the Internet, to change things. But talking - and listening - are still so very important. The words we use are important. Loner, loser, reject, crazy; slut, whore, dented and painted women - why do we say these things about others? Why do we say things and act in ways that push people to the margins? Are we simply trying to make ourselves look good in comparison, glad we are not 'one of those people' -- deep down, we know that there but for the grace of God we go. Marginalizing others leads to the disconnect, the lack of community that breeds a madman. Demonizing women for being women, upholding the virgin/whore dichotomy which relegates women to the status of baby factories and sex toys, leads to a culture where rape is normalized as a way for men to discredit other men and remind women of their place. Neither one is just.

The battle has raged for years in epistemological circles - does language influence culture, or is it simply the other way around? I do think that the influence does go both ways, and that as we change our language, we can start to move toward less inflammatory and more logical ways of dealing with others and moving toward a better joint future. This is not saying we should be ultra politically-correct all the time; just that the words and labels we use for others should give them respect instead of take it away.

It's not much in the face of these huge problems facing our societies today, but it is one place to start.