Every week I begin writing my blog post by typing ‘When I came to India, I was not expecting ________.’ I immediately erase it, though, because it is misleading and sounds canned. I live outside of one city in one state in a country with 22 official languages, so my experience does not necessarily represent all of India. But in a country with culture, religion, politics, and economics so profoundly different from that of the U.S., I struggle to find a more fitting introduction. Each week a few more of my dwindling set of assumptions are proven wrong. Despite these differences, I have found similarities in surprising places. A basic understanding of Tamil continues to elude me, so I often draw parallels by observing actions and sounds rather than by communicating with language. People reveal their personalities when they laugh and sing, or when they push three more dosas onto my plate, even when I ask for one. People are people, no matter where they live.Nowhere have I found the ‘everything is different but everything is the same’ notion to be truer than in childcare. Last week I was about 50 kilometers outside of Trichy taking a bus to visit a loan beneficiary who had started a basket weaving business with four of her neighbors. At one stop a mother got on her holding her baby in one arm and a canvas bag in the other. She headed for an open aisle seat in a row of three seats, but before sitting down, promptly handed her baby to the lady in the middle seat. At first I thought that I had witnessed a premeditated handoff, that these women must be friends who had, somehow, coordinated bus routes and seating arrangements to facilitate the flawless exchange. It was not until the end of the bus ride, when the baby had been held by two more passengers and affectionately spanked by many, that I realized that nobody knew each other. I had seen bags and rupees passed between passengers, but babies? Those in neighboring seats had pitched in to help out so naturally that I thought that they must know each other, when in fact they did not. This varied drastically from the U.S., where parents regularly preach the mantra of 'stay away from strangers' to their children.
The sari swingThis weekend I had the pleasure of spending time with a staff member’s daughter’s 8-month old son. When he started to cry, his mother tied a sari to a rope hanging from the ceiling, placed him inside, then wedged a piece of wood between each side of the sari (see picture). She swung him back and forth until he fell asleep. The closest thing that I had seen to the contraption was a Johnny Jump Up.When the baby woke up, fellow staff members held him and played with him. They started to make those noises that people make to entertain babies (which I will not attempt to transcribe). They were the same sounds that I had always hear people make around babies. "Of course they were," you are probably thinking, "Why would they be any different?" I don't know why, but I think that after listening to Tamil for almost two months, hearing any sound that I recognize shocks me.I can say that 50 kilometers outside of Trichy, Tamil Nadu is a very, very different place than the U.S. Yet, people are still people, and every time that I think that nothing is the same, something proves me wrong.