It’s been a while that I’ve been meaning to write this post. After five months in India, I’ve finally taken the time to do it, in hopes that my English-speaking friends will pardon me for this delay! Thank you once again to Adam for his editing!
So, five months have already gone since my arrival in India. Five months full of surprises, meetings, discoveries and … mosquito bites. Until now, I have been really enjoying my time and I am trying to take advantage the most I can of the last three months. I decided to give you a small update according to different themes and I hope it will cover all the questions you may wondering about!
Life in India
Life in India is surprising, challenging and sometimes overwhelming because of the noise, the heat, the crowd or the smell…but being here also gives me the welcome opportunity to have to, in a sense, start from scratch again: Here I have to re/learn so many things: to communicate, to take the bus, to bargain, to eat differently, to walk in the street without being hit by a car…Each new thing becomes an achievement: I can tell you that I was really proud of myself the first time I managed to go from one place to an another with the bus without getting lost in this big city! After 5 months, I think that I have adapted well, and I still try to have new experiences in the town and take up new challenges (next one: use a bicycle…I might not be alive to tell you how it went).
I have a big frustration though: as an expat, I have the impression that I don’t really have the time to discover the country because I am working most days in Chennai or around Tamil Nadu. Of course I try to travel during weekends but India being such a huge country, it is impossible to visit certain places in two days. The result is that sometimes I get the impression that tourists have seen more in one month than I have seen in five! Of course, I also know that my life and my work gives me the opportunity to see and experience things which are really interesting (observe an area, be invited in Indian houses, get to know the locals around you…) and that I am learning, maybe in a different way, things about India.
As expected, Chennai is a big, noisy and exhausting city. After five months, I’ve only gotten to know a tiny part of it but I think this is already good. Taking the bus regularly has definitely helped me to get to know the main roads and the biggest areas but I must admit though that I have no clue of the names of the area which are not on my daily route!
Chennai is not a place where you can easily browse, which is usually my favorite way to discover a city. Walking in the streets can be a pain so usually I rather take a rickshaw, a bus or a train, all of which are nice but don’t give you the chance to stop when you want. For this reason, I feel that I have missed a lot of nice spots. Except a few places, I haven’t actually discovered for myself that many places, and I have instead relied mainly on the (great) advice of friends who have been there or on my travel guide. This is a bit frustrating but I think that a city like Chennai requires months (years?) to be tamed and that it is already good to have some favorite places.
The place of women
As a European woman, I think it is always a bit hard to live in India for obvious reasons, the most important being that women here are not treated equally. Even if in everyday life, I can’t complain about the behavior of “males”, I still have experienced really bad situations in the last 5 months.
Two things have been really hard to handle for me: the first is the fact that you can’t behave as freely as you have been used to before. Talking, smiling or sitting next to a nice guy can be seen by the crowd as a faux pas even if it is done completely innocently. So many things are taboo that I never really know how to behave with men and that I end up in some cases being unfriendly for fear of being seen as acting inappropriately.
The second thing that disturbs me deeply is the opinion of women about themselves. Two days ago I happened to attend a training aimed to teachers (all female). A man comes and starts to talk about all the things which explain, according to him, why children nowadays have problems at school. First reason on the list? The mothers! In his mind, the mothers are weak and therefore allow their children to do what they want and accept that they don’t focus on study. So this man was saying: “who is the cause of the failure of our children”, the teachers to answer “The mothers!”, “And why?” asked the man “Because they are weak!!!!” Needless to say, I was as bewildered by the man’s speech as by the agreement of the ladies. “What about the fathers, aren’t they also responsible of the education of their children?” I thought in my head. But saying that out loud would have probably provoked a bunch of dirty looks.
This example is one among many that remind one that here women are educated to accept the fact that they are not equal to men and that it is normal to blame them for all sorts of things. The situation is much worse for women coming from poorer classes but I must say that even young educated women seem to believe and use sexist stereotypes. Luckily, some modern women tend to challenge this vision but I have the impression that they are a minority.
Sometimes, it is really hard for me to experience those differences especially when I am myself the target of the machismo. It happens sometimes in my work when I am talking with older male partners who seem to believe that I have neither the knowledge nor the right to give them advice. In those cases, I try to be patient and I usually don’t say anything even if I know this is a mistake.
I also enjoy my work with the NGO because it gives me the opportunity to do many nice things. The first two weeks, I visited with my manager the different projects supported by the NGO. I particularly liked the experience to be “on the field” because you can finally meet the people you are trying to help, you can try to communicate with them and you see their situation, their needs and the problems that they are facing. Since those first two weeks, I have been travelling around to visit the different projects and to organize activities with the teachers and the kids.
It has been rewarding to work on this projects but I have been sad to work so much by myself: being the only one “on the field”, I work alone and I really miss the social interactions that you can have at the office. Of course, this problem disappears when I visit the schools and meet the kids and the teachers, but I wish it could be more balanced. I know that this experience has taught me among other things that working in a team makes a big difference for yourself but also for the projects.
This was a short overview and I will do my best to write in the next months other posts about the life here. Meanwhile, I hope you'll appreciate the french posts (translated by google :)).