Thursday, October 30, 2008

if they don't have bread, let them eat cake

These past few days have been revealing in terms of what part of the sum total of my life experiences are because I am Indian. And while that has been interesting, it hasn't been strange in that I already expected that US is a different culture from a land half way across the globe. What's been strange is that, amidst these revelations, I occasionally realize that experiences that I thought were true of all Indians, is true only of me. And suddenly the joke's on me.

Let me explain.

So I have my new pair of adidas shoes that I bought with much love and excitement. I use them pretty much all the time. And you walk everywhere in them, through dirt, through mud, through dried up hay and through sudden rain, and they get dirty. What do you do when stuff gets dirty ? When stuff you could swear is white is actually on the blacker side of gray ? Don't you clean them ? No don't answer that! Not yet at least.

I clean them.

I dump it in a bucket of water, with detergent and some liquid bleach, let it soak for a day or two and then clean it and brush it with an old toothbrush and let it dry in the sun. And lo and behold! Clean shoes!

And then I came here.

Here, I am faced with the problem of no washing stone, no backyard to dry stuff in, no proper place to pour away buckets of muddy, soapy water and I have a pair of shoes that I can't bear to look at. I was pretty sure that this country that loves its sports goods must have found a way to clean 'em. And I figured I'd do the brave thing. I'd ask one of them, as stupid as the question might sound.

Enter labmate1

Labmate one doesn't clean his shoes. He buys new ones when its time to throw the old ones away. In fact the last time he realized he had to get new ones was because he was walking on the snow and first his felt cold, then his feet felt wet and both of those feelings were horrible. And it was then that he realized that the sole had a hole and he threw them. Wipe them, he says. I can't wipe 'em. What about the dirt inside those beautifully tailored "meshy" stuff. That won't help.
Throw them in the washer and dryer he says. Won't they shrink, I ask ? There's no answer.

So labmate1 asks labmate2 and labmate3.
It turns out labmate2 buys new ones, never throws away the old ones, and has at least ten pairs of old shoes. Labmate3 has very spiffy shoes that are now black that he vaguely remembers as being white once. Welcome to the capital of capitalism says labmate 1. I nod in despair, not willing to let go of my shoe cleaning, hitherto cumbersome, suddenly very sensible values. Labmate1 is now reassured that he isn't the only with bad shoe cleaning habits but also feels bad about my dilemma. He is sure that there must be someone who cleans shoes he says. I tell him they're probably indians who've tried to adapt to america. The way we heat tortillas and call them rotis. The way we eat yoghurt and call it curd. The way we eat salsa and sometimes think of pickle. And the way pickle can never ever be brined cucumbers!

My only source of comfort at this point is labmate4's report that she too used to clean her shoes back in Korea. We recounted how our parents would make us wash our shoes as a way of inculcating discipline, how school captains would inspect ur shoes and make you run around the field if you presented yourself with dirty shoes. This we did while getting very scared looks from the other labmates. Labmate2 concluded that shoes were a big deal in that part of the world. Labmate1 wonders if we would expect our kids to clean shoes. We insisted we would, except if they were going to be raised in this country, it was likely that those expectation would never be met. In any case, labmate1 decides to raise the question at tea time. During tea, of course everyone insists that they throw their shoes away. A couple of people say they sometimes hose it down or use the same detergent that they use to wash the car. They wonder how I washed them back in India and get very excited about the washing stone.

Is this a special stone? Asks labmate3. No. Its just huge, I say. We have huge stones here, he says, apparently offended. Someone brings up the existence of mount rushmore. I describe to them with much enthusiasm, the sloped stone, the soaking, the scrubbing, the bashing and the wringing of the clothes and the sun's role in drying them. It seems like much effort to wash those clothes they say. Why don't we just get a washing machine. It is then that I realize how pitifully little they know about a world where not every house has a washing machine. Where even the houses that do have a washing machine, use them sparingly because of power failure and water shortage. Back home, there was a huge bridge to cross:- from having clothes to being able to afford a washing machine to clean 'em in, from buying shoes to not having to worry about throwing them away. LAte Mary Antoinette must've felt the same way. If they don't have bread, let them eat cake. Mary Antoinette probably went to the pantry in the middle of the night with a hungry stomach. On opening the larder, when she failed to find the bread, she munched on cake. One cannot blame her. In a country where the alternate to dirty shoes were new shoes, I found myself rather dumbfolded.

Labmate n ( I have lost count by now, how many people were telling me that they all bought new ones) suggested I buy a shoe dryer. I'd rather throw my shoes away, I say and in that one sentence we all became kindred *soles*.

They also say in unison that my shoes weren't even that dirty. I wondered if they were walking around with such dirty shoes, why bother about clean socks. Its coz our shoes are dirty that we need clean socks they say. I admit I hadn't thought about it that way.

There was a member of the staff that cleaned her shoes though. She did it pretty much the same way I did. At least, where and when shoe cleaning happened, the method seemed to be the same :)

I came back to my computer thinking that this would be a good story to tell all my indian friends.
Here came the real surprise. Several of them were saying that never cleaned their shoes either. I exclaimed that there was shoe shampoo and bleach and everything. We had affordable tools for clean shoes. They didn't clean them, they said. I was baffled. I did not want to be this person that does strange things anymore. I found myself grappling with a sense of loss, a sense of indian identity. There must be someone who found it funny that ppl didn;t clean their shoes. I briefly wondered if I should move to Korea even. And I went on an "asking marathon". I asked anyone who came online if they cleaned their shoes. And when enough of them had said yes ( count = 5 and counting), I felt that perhaps I wasn't the only one.

Mary Antoinette's legacy on the other hand, clearly survives.
The queen is dead.
Long live the queen!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

its that simple!

I have very simple advice to all the ministers and prime ministers and presidents battling it out, trying to do good for their nation (and for the world) and having to battle with those situations where doing good for a nation necessitates something bad for some other nation.

When in doubt, go ask a sweet minded child. Admittedly, there are kids who have genetic predisposition to be devious. Ministers of the world, please do not go to one of these kids. Go to a park. Look out for a bunch of kids playing "ring-a-ring-a-roses". Identify a kid that helps another kid stand up when "they all fall down". Or look for a child who shares cotton candy. That is the sweet minded child I am referring to. Go ask him/her what you should do. And then blindly follow it. Blindly. Don't ask questions. Submit to the pure innocence of the child and do what you're told to do. For heaven's sake, let's not argue.

I had a very interesting conversation with an undergrad the other day.
x : You're not voting ?
I (coz it rhymes with y): no
x : why not ?
I : I ain't a US a citizen.
x : so, get a greencard
I: a) getting a greencard is different from citizenship, and I haven't been here long enough to become a citizen anyway.
x: but ur here for the next 6 years right ?
I: I guess
x: So the president's decision will affect ur life during the next 6 years right ?
I: I suppose so
x: Then you should vote. Go vote.

Its interesting that he looked at it that way. If ur staying here, and we've let u stay here, then u should have a say in what is happening.

Of course, they're not going to let me vote. Presumably because I may decide to go back home in less than 4 years. Presumably because the president makes decisions more long term than 4 years. Presumably, because I havent been in this country long enough to know what is good for the country and what is not. And if I haven't said it yet, I do not want to vote. This isn't a blog pleading for voting privileges or any such thing.

Its just to show that sometimes there are simple minded solutions that we refuse to think about precisely coz they seem too simple a solution to the problem. But who wants complex statistics when innocent thoughts can get the job done.

Who wants to spend a billlion dollars on a huge nuclear weapon which is our only hope to making sure that another country wont detonate its nuclear baby.

Why all this, when we can live happily by passing around cotton candy and helping others stand up. Ministers, while you're on ur way to making sure cotton candy gets passed, can you initiate a motion to put all chocolate making factories on that list that makes it illegal for countries to bomb it. Like those world heritage sites that one cannot drop a bomb on. I've always found that list very funny. Who even thinks of making a list that says "oh should you go to war with my country, u can drop bombs there but not here". What is that ? A piece meal approach to making sure no place gets bombed ?

All of you, who are reading this and are thinking in your mind "not everything in the world is thar simple", shut up already!

Its that simple.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

these are a few of my ominous things....

  • When someone begins a sentence with "there is a choice you can make here".
It means "someone" knows you've already made a decision.
They don't approve of it.
They also know that their approval is somewhat important to you, at least as a vote of confidence, and by offering you a choice, they're trying to change your decision.
However disheartening it is going to be to change your decision, its going to be much worse when you cannot hold "someone" responsible.
Because... it was a choice that YOU made. They didn't make it for you. And oh yeah, they would've been happy for you either way.

  • You get up deciding to have a snack at favourite restaurant x on your way back from classes on the way to work.
This is the one day they'll let class off earlier than usual. You were so sure of having that snack that you didn't carry the boring granola bars with you. You have a "choice to make here". You can either hang around in the streets till restaurant x opens, eat somewhere else, go to the library, hang around there geekily and then head back to restaurant x (even more geekily), or head to lab. Funny thing... by the time you walk to the lab, it'll be time for restaurant x to open. But why would you head back to restaurant x when you're in the lab and you can start work earlier and hence get out of work earlier ? You can time it so you walk exactly half the distance b/w lab and restaurant x, so when you get to mid point, you can walk back to restaurant x and reach there exactly in time for it to open. But when you reach mid point, you;ll think (oh ****, i can come go to lab and finish work sooner than usual). The argument continues.
In effect you neither get ur snack or savour the pleasures of being let off class earlier than usual.
At this point, I usually go to a store and get myself a granola bar, nibble at the granola bar and ruminate on the humour of it all.

  • You slept early so you can get up in time.
This is a crazy thing. Sleeping early has nothing to do with getting up in time. Getting up in time is the most independent variable I've ever seen. It has nothing to do with anything but itself. It probably talks to itself all night and chooses to do exactly what it pleases. And getting up in time according to it, is getting up at exactly the time it wants to wake you up, not what you wanted it to do.

And you think maybe if

  • You slept late, you can get up in time.
Sort of catch "mr get up in time" at his own game. But ya, like that'll ever happen. Coz you're so tired, you can't get up in time anyway. And in any case its back to mr get up in time doing what he does best. Make sure you don't get up in time.

  • You spot a guy who looks ok, can talk well but not so much that your head is filled with white noise, who listens, who seems to know why he is the way he is, lets others around him be whoever they want to be, and generally seems to have a higher level of maturity and you think maybe...
Ha Ha Ha... He's either married or is in a steady relationship (guess who has been a big influence on his maturity and his sense of direction and his "letting others be". Oh and his listening!

Well, if the above are the only sucky things happening now, I must say that life can get so much worse (and this list can get much, much longer).

And so...

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I'm feeling bad

I simply remember these ominous things
And then I do feel pretty glad!