Archive for June, 2014

Words We Shouldn’t Have

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

English is a rich language. It has a very large vocabulary. There are words in English for most things (though there are also a lot of things for which English doesn’t have a word: sometimes we borrow words from other languages, sometimes we just sort of estimate and approximate and point in the right direction).

But there is at least one word that we have in English that we shouldn’t have. In fact, I don’t believe any language should have a word for this. The word is ‘self-immolation’.

The mother of a student at one of the primary schools we work in died on Wednesday. It seems her husband was a drunkard who routinely beaten her and the children (unfortunately, this is a very common story here). He came home drunk on Tuesday night asking for food. She said there wasn’t any. He wasn’t bringing any money into the home (he was drinking his wages) so what could she use to buy food?! He got angry. On Wednesday morning she woke up and prepared food for her children. The husband saw that she was preparing food for them and got angry. She poured fuel over herself and set fire to herself. She was holding a knife to keep anyone away who tried to stop her. The husband, it seems, did try to stop her. Not successfully. The children now have no mother and a drunkard for a father. I hope the famous family culture in India steps in to look after them.

No language should have a word for setting fire to oneself. Domestic violence should not be allowed to escalate to the point that women see suicide as their only option. The pressures relating to dowry should not be allowed to escalate to the point that women see suicide as their only option. Countries should not be allowed to persecute a minority to such an extent that Buddhist monks in Tibet see suicide as their only option. In each case these things should not happen at all, however when it is common and unremarkable for people to set themselves on fire something is very, very, very wrong with our society.

Self-Immolation should not be a word. It should not be a concept. It should not be common practice. Not for any reason. Not in any culture. Not in any religion. Not in any country. Not in any language.

Inner Peace

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

Many people come to India to find themselves. I read a great quote on the back of a toilet door in a dodgy hostel in Chiang Mai in Thailand: “I don’t travel to find myself, I travel to create myself”. I have no idea who the author was, but I think it’s a great quote. And coming to India is a fantastic way to create yourself.

Many people come to India to find inner peace. And I think that one of the secrets of India is that in India the only peace you find is the peace you bring with you. And that’s what makes the search so fruitful here.

If you go to the side of mountain in Switzerland looking for peace, you’ll find it. But it’s the peace of a still mountain lake. It’s the peace of a barely moving glacier. It’s the peace of a cold, fresh alpine wind. It’s a peace that wraps your inner turmoil and holds it steady.

In India, there is no peace. There is noise and chaos everywhere. At 5am the local church starts broadcasting the mass. The Muslim call to prayer rings out five times per day. During festivals and weddings and funerals there are loudspeakers that blast pop music 16 hours a day at levels that should breach the Geneva Convention on Human Rights. During elections everyone clamours to be the most influential (read noisiest). Even the normal, domestic noises are noisy. The ever present beat of the ceiling fan. Crows arguing over scraps of fish. The midnight thud of coconuts falling. The steam whistles of pressure cookers making lunch. The crashing of the waves on the shore. The shouts and cycle bells of the hawkers selling fish. The screaming of the neighbours’ domestic dispute. The shouting of children running to and from school. Dogs chasing each other between the houses. The ceaseless traffic noise (engines, brakes, horns (horns in India seem to need checking every 3 minutes just in case they’ve stopped working)).

If you come to India looking for peace then the only peace you find is the peace you bring with you. And being surrounded by so much clamour and noise and chaos and turmoil means that when you find that peace, you can be certain it is your own peace.

So come to India to find yourself. Come to India in search of inner peace. It is a great place to come for both of these quests. Just don’t be surprised when the self you find is the one you have created and don’t be surprised when the peace you find is the peace you had with you all along.

By Heart

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

‘By heart’ is a phrase we use in English. “I learnt the poem by heart.” It means to memorise something. It is used as a verb, here in India: “most lesson time is spent by-hearting the textbook”. And this is another beautiful use of language. If you don’t make ‘by-hearting’ a verb here then you are left with very few verbs that can be used to describe what happens in an Indian classroom. Verbs are doing words. And Indian classrooms don’t involve that much doing!

Most teaching here (I use the term ‘teaching’ as loosely as possible) involves the teacher writing on the board and the students copying. Or the students working from the textbook. Sometimes the teacher is in the room shouting or caning people occasionally. Sometimes the teacher isn’t there at all.

But even when teaching does happen in Indian classrooms it is all about the teacher transferring information to the student. The teacher tells the students what the answer to the question is. They by-heart it. She then asks the question. They tell her the correct answer or get shouted at.

Students are actively discouraged from thinking for themselves, from questioning, from developing an understanding of the material.

So asking students to summarise a text is difficult. Not just because I’m asking them to do it in English, but because the very nature of summarising involves thinking for oneself. You need to read the information in the source text, understand it, process it, extract the key features, express those key features. Not within the normal skillset of the average Indian school student.

I do a warm up activity called “What’s the Question?”. I give students an answer (e.g. water) and they have to ask questions that have that as the answer (e.g. what do we drink?). I have done this activity with primary, lower secondary, senior secondary and post-secondary students. And the quickness of the response, the creativity, the variety of responses all decline markedly with the age of the students. Some of the primary kids I’ve had have come up with some amazingly interesting questions! I put this down to the fact that they have had several fewer years of the Indian education system trying to beat creativity and autonomy out of them.

And there is a place in education for learning by rote. I was recently able to answer the burning question “Which element of the periodic table is Phosphorus?” because I memorised the first 20 elements for Year 11 Chemistry (way back in a dim and distant past decade). There is also a place in education for telling students that they don’t need to understand exactly why, they just need to be able to use it (one month before the GCSE exam, they don’t need to know how to derive the quadratic equation by completing the square, but they do need to be able to use the quadratic equation). However, both of these features of education should be limited. There is much more mileage in teaching students how to think, how to question, how to learn. Because then, they can expand their learning to fit their needs and their potential for growth and development is so much larger!

I hope the Indian education system wakes up soon. And I hope that ‘by-hearting’ will become, for Indians, as ridiculous a verb as it currently seems to us from the UK.

Professional/Personal Relationships

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

When I work with VESS and VESL I often work with volunteers. And I work with them in-country. It can be really quite intense. It’s not just a normal 9-5 job. I often spend entire weekends with a volunteer, or group of volunteers. I sometimes live with a volunteer (usually sharing a room, sometimes sharing a bed). I take them out shopping. I take them out for food. I take them travelling during their time off. I introduce them to their school. I watch them teach. I help them teach. I meet their host family. I help them solve their problems. I hear about a lot of their personal struggles and difficulties and how they are working (or have worked) to overcome them. I build their confidence. And I do all this as a professional who has a professional relationship with the volunteer.

However, I also develop a personal relationship with each volunteer I come in contact with. I can’t help it. I’m a human being. Each one of them is a human being. They are, by and large, incredibly interesting human beings. I think it would be wrong for me not to develop a personal relationship with them.

I think the personal relationship and the professional relationship complement each other. I don’t let the fact that I like (or dislike) a volunteer personally get in the way of providing professional support for them. I don’t engage in professional favouritism.

Sometimes it’s tricky because it can be hard for me and for the volunteers to see the line between me providing them with support and me holding their hand and doing everything for them. I can certainly help you by working out which bus you need to be on, but you really need to decide for yourself whether to wear suncream or to bring a skirt or what time you should go to the toilet. 🙂

And, because my life is full of parallels, I found a parallel. In Istanbul there were 6 students from London who went to dance. There were two teachers. Each teacher had two students of their own and then another two who they shared. And the studio manager came along as well. On the non-dancing days we did bits of sightseeing. In the evenings there were dinners. And the instructors were very, very good at looking after us and making sure we had everything we needed. They fetched drinks for us. They carried cases. They danced with us. They counted us on and off the bus. They checked that we had enough food. Etc.

And they did this because it was their job. It was their professional responsibility. However, that wasn’t the whole story. They also did this because they have personal relationships with us too. Nothing inappropriate, of course. But, in spending their time talking to us, of course they shared some of their experiences and listened to our experiences. And it was all very relaxed and very good fun. They couldn’t be working all the time they were interacting with us. They needed some time off too!

I imagine that for them, it must have been a bit like my role as volunteer coordinator. I love working with and supporting every one of my volunteers because that’s my job. I love spending time with some of my volunteers more than others because they are people I connect with more than others. I sometimes find that volunteers try to take advantage. I sometimes find it hard to draw the line in the sand. I will help you to shop for a sari (because you need that for teaching), if you want to buy a ring then you can wander around the market all on your own, I’ll meet you at the other end for coffee. But every single one of my volunteers deserves the best professional service I can give them. If I fail to deliver that, then there is a problem. But until that time, I see no problem whatsoever with having professional and personal relationships with the same person. In fact, I think it helps!

You Know It’s Hot When …

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

The monsoon has now hit Kerala. And that means it is not as hot as it was the week before last. Not that highs of 29 are exactly cold! But two weeks ago was summer.

The weather here in Kerala in summer is hot. And humid. Lows of about 27 degrees and highs of about 34 degrees. Humidity is about 70%, except of course when it’s actually raining. One day at about 1pm my phone was telling me that it was 32 degrees. It also told me that the RealFeel temperature was 41 degrees. I don’t know what that means, but it makes the number bigger, so I’m going to run with it. 🙂

I know that many of you reading this have been in places where it has been hot. Some much hotter than the weather here. I also know that many of you won’t. So here’s a handy guide to help you figure out if it is hot.

  • You’ve just had a cold shower and as soon as you finish drying yourself you realise you’re already covered in a light sheen of sweat.
  • It is 8 in the morning. You have just walked very slowly to class (about a 5 min walk). You are standing still in the shade. Rivulets of sweat are running down your back, down your cleavage, down the inside of your knees, down your temples, down the backs of your ears. The ends of your hair are wet.
  • You wake up at 3am feeling slightly chilly (the fan has been on all night and there has been a thunderstorm with lots of rain) so you turn off the fan and cover yourself with the bedsheet. 30 mins later, you wake up again because it’s too hot to sleep, the clothes you’re wearing in bed are now sticking to you. You put the fan back on.
  • The veins on your feet are sticking out as they desperately try to release heat from the bloodstream.
  • You stand under a cold shower and the water running off your head is several degrees warmer than the water coming straight from the tap.
  • You have talcum powder and you use it. In fact, just thinking about it brings an immediate sigh of relief (chafing: need I say more?).
  • You realise that the reason why Darwin invented eyebrows was to funnel sweat off your forehead and towards your temples. You also realise that even the bushiest, most natural eyebrows have their limits and when they are breached the sweat runs straight into your eyes. Needless to say, this isn’t pleasant.