My commitment issues

January 17th, 2008

I recently watched a Sex and the City Episode where Carrie and the girls talk about how each one of them have a dating pattern- a kind of guy they are attracted to or a sabotage pattern they follow as each relationship falls apart. And I realize I’m kind of the same way.

Luckily not with relationships- I was lucky enough to fall in love and get engaged all in the span of 6 weeks and never looked back - a fast decision made from my gut with full certainty, not the least bit of doubt.

But with my career I am much more fickle. I think I’m the opposite of many people- who settle into one steady job but have a hard time finding the right person to commit to forever and ever. I’m the person who had no trouble finding the right partner but can’t seem to commit to a career or a job or even a field.

Since I intend to crack this pattern right now, I will describe my behavior up to this point as past-tense. Essentially I have been attracted to fast-paced, high stress, creative and independent jobs. I always look for some form of intensity- with Americorps it was the challenge of living in poverty (who chooses that?), with CNYD it was the excitement of traveling all over and doing something brand new, with KSA it was the physical challenge of the crazy hours and the low-income families and the ground-breaking approach to education, with moving to India it was the personal challenge that I was going to successfully integrate into a new family and a new culture and language and make it all work out. In each case I put myself in a sink-or-swim situation- a set of circumstances so physically draining and constraining I could barely keep my head above water. And during every single moment I never shut off my mind, putting myself through a rigorous learning and self-reflection process when I probably could have better used the energy to just hold still and breathe.

A few years ago my brother and I went white-water rafting in Costa Rica and just when I was feeling comfortable a huge wave knocked me out of the raft (There was an 8 year old in the raft who managed to stay in just fine but that’s another story). I was knocked under the water and smashed into rocks over and over again. Every time I felt like I was about to get control of myself and hold my head above the water long enough to take a deep breath another wave came crashing over my head knocking me off balance and swallowing water. If you’ve ever been in this situation you would know that the best thing to do is to lean back, hold onto the straps of your safety vest and float. Once I stopped panicking and thrashing around I remembered this handy piece of advice from our safety video, and relaxed onto my back. The second I stopped resisting the water I felt myself floating - sure amidst huge rapids and bouncing off of rocks, but a calm fell over me as I watched the sky, took deep breaths and waited for the guy in the safety kayak to come get me. (He did come, just as a large wave took me under and ended up paddling right over my head, smacking me with his paddle, then back-tracking to pull me into the kayak, but that, again, is another story.)

I have thought about that incident a lot while I have been here in India these 6 months, and I feel like it applies to my whole approach to life. I think that I am drawn to stress and tension, and that I actually thrive on that energy- where I feel like it is up to my sharp wits to figure out survival. (This may sound extreme, but you try battling simultaneous vomiting, diarhea and sneezing fits- a literal full body evacuation of some sort of parasite - while trying to squat and maintain balance over the little hole in the ground that you are trying to aim all of this into while also trying not to gag from the sheer disgustingness of the odors you are emitting because your face is so uncomfortably close to all of whatever is coming out of your body, and we’ll see if you don’t think that takes survival instinct). And so in these many situations where I’m battling anxiety and stress and discomfort my tendency is to move faster- to think of 5 possible solutions, to analyze where the problem is coming from, to start talking really fast and moving around or frantically running 5 google searches on my laptop, or freaking out that Akbar isn’t moving as fast as me… and of course what I really need to do is lay back, look at the sky and breathe.

I guess my fear is that no safety kayak will come for me. But certainly my anxious reaction to a non-ideal situation is not helping either.

So for the first time ever I am turning down a really cool and interesting job purely because I think it’s going to demand too much of my time to maintain the logistics of it. I feel I am worth more money. I feel my time is worth a lot and I can’t spend hours and hours in a commute. I am confident that I can attract another job that will push me to learn but in a balanced way, that doesn’t place huge demands on my personal life and family. And I am freakin proud of myself. I don’t know what the future holds, and while I am not crazy about this kind of indecision, I think it’s going to be okay.

Maybe I’m my own safety kayak, and I’ve been waiting for me to show up all this time. So I ran over myself a few times- big deal. I’ll be able to get myself to a nice dry place soon.

India is a Hair Salon

January 17th, 2008

Yesterday as I was choosing how to get my hairs cut- there are only two styles here- feather cut and step cut- I came to the realization that all of Indian conversation functions like conversations in a stereotypical beauty parlor in the US.

I’m talking about a parlor in a neighborhood, not one of those ritzy spas (that I long for…) where everyone wears black and talks in a falsely soothing voice. You know the scene- people come in and out of the beauty parlor, some are regulars, some are walk-ins, and some are friends of friends. They all know the same people cause they’re from the same neighborhood. So they talk about eachother, it’s loud and busy and gossippy and full of that energy where work combines with chit chat and bits of information about other peoples’ lives are traded like valuable jewels. Whoever has the most juicy information is suddenly the most popular and the same stories get told over and over again.

This is a lot like the conversations that happen in households here. People from the neighborhood may just drop in at any time and trade secrets and stories, updates about who just had a love marriage, who failed out of college, who is trying to go abroad and who burned their chapatis. The best story-tellers are loud, talk with their hands and eyes, and make the subject of the story as dramatic as possible. There is no penalty for exaggeration or harsh treatment of someone else’s delicate tale. Bring it on sister is the motto.

Ever since I got here I’ve been fascinated by the way people talk here- not physically how they talk but what they’re talking about. It all seems so inconsequential- who often the people next door eat meat? - but that’s how they talk. And the same stories get repeated over and over and over again.

So for those of you who can’t experience this first hand, hang out at a neighborhood parlor and see if you can get a feel for that, then add in bright clothing and the smells of a curry simmering away in the background, and what you’ve got is pretty darn close to the real thing.

10 Reasons It’s Time to Come Home From India

January 16th, 2008
  1. The heels of your feet are so dry and cracked that you are afraid that no amount of pedicures will ever heal them
  2. Your thighs are like muscular beams from squatting over the Indian toilet with bout after bout of explosive diarrhea
  3. You have learned to successfully haggle down prices from street venders in Hindi
  4. When people say something is spicy you wonder which item they are talking about, because everything tastes pretty bland to you
  5. After 5 months of taking a bucket bath with a plastic stool you realize there is a working shower in the bathroom that Akbar has known about all along
  6. You dream of crackers, cheese and your blue sweat pants
  7. You have shopped so much that you feel you already have something very similar to every piece of jewelry you come across
  8. You are fed up with your job and boss
  9. You have struggled to adjust to the heat, and then realize that summer is just starting, and what you have experienced so far cannot compare to what will happen over the next 5 months
  10. You have a ticket to return in 14 days!!!

January Hyderabad Update

January 16th, 2008

So another month has gone by bringing me to my sixth month in this culture swap living in Hyderabad, India. I wish I could say time has flown, but I think the combination of my need for constant reflection and evaluation of my time here has made me painfully aware of every single day.

December in the US is usually an exciting time for me- I love (I am realizing now) the holiday “cheer”, music, decorations, the crazed shopping, and the chocolates everywhere you look. December in India has no feel at all. We did have a holiday – bakrid – where we brought home two goats, slaughtered them in the driveway, cooked Biryani until 4, stuffed our faces and then slept the sleep of deep food coma… but that’s just not the same as Christmas and New Years at home, ya know?

The highlight of December was definitely the visit of Sarah and Lisa, two teachers from the school I worked at last year and have spent the greater part of this year recovering from. They were a breath of fresh American air. I forgot how American I am, and how much I really do fit in best with Americans. I never would have thought so, but in a recent conversation my friend Lynn commented that America has a way of making people feel less welcome and less like they fit in than they actually do. I think that is definitely the case for me.

So with these gals Akbar and I went on another holiday. We’ve been averaging one cool trip per month, and this month’s was a doozy. We showed them around Hyderabad, where all these raunchy guys asked to have their picture taken with them. Even though we said no we could see them taking cell phone snaps as we walked away. The girls got a lot of attention like that- because Indians LOVE white skin. It’s odd the way they worship it. The drugstores here are filled with aisles and aisles of products like Fair & Lovely and Lightening Tonic- creams, soaps and bleaches to lighten skin.

We were worried about how Akbar’s family would react to the Americans, but they were curious and delighted and excited to have them. His mother cooked up a feast – unable to speak English it’s how she communicates – with fresh shrimp and deep fried vegetables. We had to fight both food coma and jet lag to leave the house again to continue our adventures. We went on from Hyderabad to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. I would go into detail about those places here, but Akbar has been working for hours writing detailed blog posts about each day of our trip, so I’m going to let you guys read the details there: But I will say that for me the highlight of the whole journey was seeing Gandhi’s memorial in Delhi. A solitary black tomb stone marks the spot where he was assassinated by a Hindu fundamentalist, and an eternal flame commemorates the light Gandhi’s life and teachings continue to shine on this country today. Gandhi will always be one of the few people I respect and revere – so I felt it fitting to steel a great big rock to bring home with me.

There are many hilarious stories that came up on our trip, but I think the hero of this 10 day tour was definitely Akbar. A quiet guy who prefers browsing on his laptop to interaction with people, Akbar spent 10 solid days with 3 girls who never ran out of things to say. I’m not quite sure how he handled it. Around day 8 he looked at me in the morning and said- I think I’m going to get my period soon. Because India is still working on gender equality, it is a country that naturally separates men and women on many fronts. This means that when we got into an auto (a cab that’s actually an economical lawn mower with a bright yellow roof, no doors, and a greasy man driving in the front, equipped with seats to fit 3 people but typically seen with about 25 people jammed in) Akbar had to snuggle with the driver in the front. And because they’re not so weird about men touching here as in the US, the auto drivers had no problem snuggling back. In this way Akbar was molested and felt up by many men on our world tour – ask him about it, he loves to re-live it.

Perhaps the best story that came out of our segregation was our day-long Vipassana meditation in Rajasthan. Sarah really wanted to do some meditation or yoga in India. I understand the draw- when I was planning my trip here I too imagined doing those things, and then quickly abandoned them when I saw the third-world-style in which these classes are conducted. I had my doubts, but it was free and in a beautiful ashram on the hills, so we decided to go. When I called in the morning to confirm the directions and the time, the non-English speaking gentleman who answered shouted “Call back. 1 years.” I think he meant 1 hour. We were welcomed in typical Indian fashion – no information, no overview, no one to explain to us the expectations of the day… we were directed to sit in the meditation hall, so that’s where we went. After about an hour of sitting in a cold, dark room, a man came in to get things started. And by get things started, I mean he switched on a recording of a very old man who would be leading us via cassette for the next 8 hours of this day. Uh-oh. He (the tape-man) switched between an undecipherable Hindi and an even more unrecognizable English. After an hour I got fed up and went to sit outside in the sun- where peacocks, parrots and humming birds were having a field day. The rest of the group emerged hours later for the lunch break. I don’t know how much meditation everyone was doing. I know I napped and watched peacocks. We talked for a moment about leaving, but because the girls and guys are not allowed to interact (and we’re technically not supposed to talk either) we were strictly told to split up and shut up. So the comedy begins after lunch, and must be prefaced with the fact that Sarah was obsessed with taking pictures during our trip. So the scene is that I am napping by the peacocks by this time joined by Lisa. Sarah and Akbar are at it hard core in the cold dark room with the tape-man, and Sarah comes out in a few minutes with the message that she is ready to leave. She says she’ll try to get Akbar, but I tell them that Akbar is really hard core about meditation- I bet he’s in the sixth level of samadhi by now. She goes in, can’t get his attention and comes back out.

Later we hear from Akbar that somewhere around lunch he too was fed up and frustrated with the tape-man, and decided he wanted to leave. He noticed Sarah outside with her camera, and mouthed my name to her- so she could come get me. Sarah obliviously took his picture, waved, and went on to her next shot. Immediately after she disappears, a stern-looking Indian man, clearly a Vipassana expert, snaps his fingers and summons Akbar. Then he basically cusses him out for trying to hit on a white chick, and yells at him for talking. Akbar tells him that he wants to leave, and the man tells him he cannot, because this is a full day meditation session. Akbar tells him that he is with a group and he needs to talk with them, and again the man refuses to help him out. So poor Akbar, scolded and insulted returns to the cold dark tape-man room. Poor guy. We cheered hip up with Pizza Hut at the end of the day- how else would you end a day of meditation in Rajasthan?


January 16th, 2008

About 5 months ago when I was struggling to find some sanity here in India I came across an amazing article in a book about the Reticular Activating System, or RAS.

Our RAS is the part of our brain that acts as a filtering system for what attracts our attention- the example that sticks out for me is that when we are walking down a crowded street we are bombarded by thousands of stimuli- from the traffic passing, people walking past us, store windows, bill boards and signs… but if someone calls our name (or even says a word that sounds like our name) we are more likely than not to turn our heads. Our RAS acts as a filter that lets some stimuli in so that we can respond to it, and filters other stimuli out, deeming it unimportant.

But what’s interesting is how does the RAS know what stimuli is important and what isn’t? Well, it’s kind of working on what we feed it. We can consciously feed it messages through meditation or visualization, and if we aren’t engaging in this type of activity the RAS will work with whatever dominant thoughts are bouncing around our heads.

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience where once you start thinking about one thing you seem to notice it everywhere. Like if we are planning a wedding we may see bridal magazines and invitations and wedding dresses wherever we look. And if we are worried about gaining weight we will notice fat people and skinny people on the streets, books about diets or weight loss plans wherever we look.

The RAS is controlling this- our brain will attract whatever we program our RAS to notice. The book that I was reading talked about how we can consciously program our RAS through detailed visualizations. The clearer the images we feed in, the harder the RAS works to find those exact stimuli in the real world.

I’ve had 2 amazing experiences with this exercise. When I first came here I was coming off of my fourth major career change in about 4 years. I’ve definitely been flip flopping all over the place for a while, which I don’t mind- I think it’s been a healthy part of my life-exploration and curiosity to see what’s out there. But I was without any clue of what direction to head in now. And so through a series of visualizations I imagined my dream job- what it would look like, what I would wear to work, who I would work with, how I would get there… I imagined how it would feel during different parts of my day, how I would look, conversations I might have. .. I imagined it all in an Indian context, willing myself to see this ideal work environment here in India. I imagined all the time- in the morning when I first woke up, while we drove to the coffee shop, while I had my coffee, before I went to bed- anytime my mind was unengaged.

And it totally came true. Out of the blue I got a call from the one person I had spoken to about a job when I first got here, who had an opening in his own company. I pretty much walked into the exact job description I was imagining. (Of course the company wasn’t quite as amazing as I imagined in my dreams, but most elements were pretty spot on.)

Boosted by the success of this incident I went to work on my comfort levels staying in my in-laws’ house. I was determined that we could make this situation work and keep everyone happy. I imagined every possible detail I could think of, in bright techni-color clarity, and finally it was done. Suddenly I woke up one morning and found I had acquired enough of a grasp on Urdu to communicate with my mother in law in small sentences. I stopped feeling like a fumbling foreign idiot and moved with confidence. And the people around me changed too. Everything went according to the script I had written and reviewed in my head.

So now I’m moving to the next project. I’m imagining another dream job, correcting for the flaws in this one and incorporating my living environment. I can’t decide if I want to live in India or the US for the next year, so I’m imagining two scenarios (but I think I’m working harder on the India one), and they are both manifesting right in front of my face. It is so unbelievable it is shocking. I’m actually feeling a little scared by it. If we have so much power within us to control the reality around us, imagine what we can do if we really believe in ourselves.

After the first job offer I got a little nervous about this process and stopped using. Then I felt foolish and started it up again, and once again felt nervous about the speed of results. If this next job manifests I think I will be a true convert- three time’s a charm!