by Jennifer Kumar, Cross-Cultural Coach
This article is written to answer the following questions -
How did I get from USA to India, to Chennai, to MCC?
How did my family and friends think about and help me to reach this goal?
What did I do in India, exactly?
It was early one morning on the SUNY Buffalo campus (late 1996). I had a test and was very sleep deprived. After getting down from the blue bird bus on the North Campus, I strolled into the newly opened Starbucks to buy a coffee. Although, I came in to sip coffee and study for a test for the class titled Asian Civilizations, and the subject was early civilizations of India (present day Pakistan), my mind was easily side tracked to day dreams of of visiting this then exotic-to-me land. While in thought, a desi friend of mine tapped on my shoulder to share a table with me.
She inquired if I was still interested in going to India. I said yes, and I had several friends who were calling me for the upcoming Christmas break. Vividly, I remember her telling me that she was so happy to be in the US. It was easy for her to come to the US and adjust to this lifestyle here, but how could I, an American, adjust to life in India? There was even a story where another desi friend aided an American-born Indian to teach in a school in Delhi. When she landed there, she came to find out there was no air conditioning in the school. In the hot, dry Delhi summers the temperature outside can easily soar above 110 - so inside, I am sure it is much higher without A/C. It was said that his friend just couldn't adjust to the climate without A/C and came back. I guessed there was more than just extreme heat (in temperature and in food) to adjust to once I was to land in India. To finish her advice, my friend told me she thought it would be best for me to stay right here in the US to get my Master's rather than the trouble I may face in India.
What lured me to India? Honestly, I can't remember! However, many who ask me believe I was introduced to India by an Indian. This is partially true. Back in 1995, I met a Maya. Oops!! I mean her name is Maya, and did her name suit her! As her name Maya is defined as an illusion, that she was a most amazing illusion. She was not only amazing, but fascinating. An Indian born Punjabi who lived in many countries on many continents, with short stays in her native land, she was a person we all wanted to get to know. She was studying her undergraduate (B.A. - termed graduate in India) degree and studying 20 or more credits a semester. Keep in mind a typical student schedule has between 12 - 16 credits. In addition to this, she was on numerous committees and was always doing something interesting, if not studying, of course!
Lest to say she was busy! That is actually an understatement. She moved in and out of my life for about six months at five minute intervals, sometimes longer. Like on Halloween, when she made Mexican nachos with an Indian twist. Never am I to forget the look on my (American friend's) face when she bit into the curry enhanced salsa and took the tip off the green chili! Her face was red, puffy and her eyes watering for a good hour! Due to her time constraints, she was only able to give me tidbits about Indian culture and though she was a Sikh, Hindu and Sikh beliefs. Since she couldn't explain to my heart's content, I would often visit the library to study up on her explanations and learned a lot. Of course, this was before my introduction to the Internet!! During this time, no one really knew my fascination for India, and at the same time, I started dreaming about India at night. I remember one- I had dreamt that I was in India working in a library wearing a sari. Of course, then I had no idea what a sari was!
So, I studied pretty much alone from about 1995-1996, when I began attending SUNY Buffalo, where by 1997, I had acquired several Indian friends from Chennai. I also had begun studying Asian History and Hindi as college courses. Actually, what got me interested in learning about different countries was that I wanted to study abroad. I did have another choice, which was Japan. My interest in Japanese culture had led me to study Japanese for a semester, study a Japanese culture class, Japanese linguistics and be an active member in the Japanese Student Club. However, I realized I would much more like to visit India.
In 1997, I applied for study abroad. In was in a program through the University of Minnesota to go to Pune for a year. I was accepted, however, at the last minute they doubled the tuition from 10K (US dollars) to 20K. I knew this was not practical, especially since I wouldn't get a degree from there and I knew the cost of living in India. I opted out of that program.
In December 1998 was my first trip to India. I went with a friend from Chennai. I also was able to visit Bombay a short time. However, I decided more on trying for a seat in a Chennai college since I knew more people there.
How did I get to Madras Christian College (hereafter, MCC)? Well, interestingly, on my visit (As it was Christmas holidays, MCC was closed, and I did not visit there.), I visited only Madras University (Beach campus) and thought what major I could take for Master's. My only criteria was that I take a subject where I can get maximum exposure to the culture and people. I explored Archeology, Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work. I received the prospectus from Madras University, and later from MCC, Stella Maris and Madras School of Social Work (MSSW). Stella wouldn't accept me due to lack of Tamil knowledge. Though the classes and class work are in English, the field work was in the local language, Tamil. MSSW almost accepted me, but was not able to as I couldn't sit for the entry exam. In order to go there, I needed a visa. To get the visa, I needed formal admission, and couldn't get that unless I attended and passed the entry exam, which I couldn't do from abroad. Hence, as you can see there is no framework for foreigners to enter most universities. Even though MCC was gracious to accept me with limited language background and a waiver of the entry exam (shhh….), there was still limited framework to get the admission, visa and lastly, even entry into India!!!
So, how did my family and friends feel throughout? When I first told my family, in 1997 of my desire to go to India they felt alright with it, as they thought I only wanted to visit. However, even before my December 1998 trip and my application submitted for the study abroad program (that lasted eight continuous months), they had mixed reactions. My mom really did not mind, and encouraged me. My sister did not say one way or other, though she had reservations. She wanted me to do what made me happy. But, it took my dad long time to come around to the idea. As he came from Hungary before WWII, a country which was then very underdeveloped and poor, he thought India would be the same. He advised me to stay in the US as we have better facilities here. His concerns were practical. However, after all my family members met my Indian friends, they warmed more to the idea. Now, things are different after my return. I have changed my culture, diet and how I live in many ways. So, we do have disagreements, but they pretty much accept me and how I choose to be different, even if they consider it 'weird'!
What did I do in India, exactly? I studied my Master's in Social Work. It was a two year program. I was in India for two years, but not continuously. I left during May month college holidays (summer holiday was only from May 15- June 15) and came to US for this time period. As stated previously, classes and on campus activities were conducted in English, which helped out tremendously. However, our twice weekly field work assignments were in Tamil, and this did create problems for me. I had a partner, who became my translator. Though, in the beginning, I tried hard to communicate in Tamil to the locals, they did not understand my accent. Though I know I said it 'right', my accent was wrong, and my classmate ended up translating back to them. I was able to understand a lot that was spoken to me. This knowledge has diminished of late. I feel bad about this, as Tamil is a beautiful, but very difficult language! I say difficult as spoken and written are totally different! Each semester we had four papers (classes) which were on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Field work was on Tuesday and Thursday. Each semester from second semester we had different placements. My first- second semester was in Udavi (Shenoy Nagar), third was in Asha Nivas (Nugambakkam) and fourth was in World Vision (Pallikaranai, near to Velacherry). All assignments were reached from Tambaram by bus or train. This traveling was very difficult. Though I faced lots of problems in bus and train travel, I have to say those are some of my most fond memories! Palikaranai was the shortest, about 45 minutes one way, while Nugambakkam was the farthest, up to 2 hours one way (after walking to train/bus, bus, auto, walking again!). Each student also had to write a thesis. I wrote mine on the street sweepers of Tambaram municipality. During the two years, I lived in the college girls (only) hostel for three semesters, and off campus for the last semester as a paying guest.
As predicted by my friend who advised me to stay in U.S. to study, I faced a lot of problems. Everyone faces problems everywhere no matter where you live. I guess when you live alone in another country with a drastically different culture everything can be taken out of context and it is made a lot worse. Anyhow, I can fill volumes with the problems. I would rather fill volumes with the lessons I learned from those problems. Better yet, I prefer to fill volumes with all my wonderful memories. Memories of those who helped me, cared for me and were my best cheerleaders when I could not be my own cheerleader. Beside earning a master's degree the most important lesson I have learned from my stay in India is we all are like one big family. In Sanskrit this is said as "Vasudevaya Kudumbakam." We need to look after and care for each other. We are interdependant not independant. Without others we can not exist. With others only can we not only survive but strive.
Originally posted in 2002 on my tripod site. Updated and edited in this posting.
Educational Entrepreneurship: The First American To Matriculate at Madras Christian College
My Indian Ammas
Yearning to Return (Why I want to go back to India)
Author of this post and owner of this blog; Jennifer Kumar, CC, MSW, is a cross-cultural coach helping people find comfort in foreign lands through multicultural advising, interfaith coaching, expat mentoring, English as Second Language conversational and life skills coaching and more! Contact her for more information at authenticjourneys at gmail dot com.