8/2 – I am on the last hour of my flight to Dubai and dreading spending another day on planes, but excited that Nate and Ryan have agreed to meet me during my layover. Looking forward to friends and family has made leaving Kolkata more manageable, but I am still sad to be leaving behind friends and places that became dear to me.
In India, Kolkata is called the City of Joy, and that name is fitting despite the impression the rest of the world has about it. I think that most people think of it as a destitute and backwards place, and it is that, but it is that layered with all types of progress and wealth too. I think that every city is complex and full of contradictions. The complexities and contradictions in Kolkata are just more overwhelming because the population is larger, the religious diversity is broader, the combination of technology and the old world is constant, and the people are more expressive about their highs and lows. I have never spent time in a place where life is lived so fully by every person. Because there are few (if any - except the Oberoi) quiet and private places to retreat to, people live in front of each other and embrace the wide range of human emotions that they are likely to see at any moment. Everyone is so accepting of human nature because they must confront it and display it in the open. There is not one day that I didn’t have a moment of experiencing something that I had never experienced before. Not all of those experiences were pleasant, but I am leaving with a better understanding of the ultimate goodness of humanity. Some of what I saw was ugly and heartbreaking, but mostly what I saw was a city of hundreds of millions loving one another and doing their best to make their communities and the globe better. It was heartwarming to experience and witness the selfless generosity of people who have so comparatively little.
On our way to the airport, Janet, Drew and I discussed India’s lack of social programming and how ordinary citizens compensate for that by helping each other. This is behavior that is both instinctive and learned. The school where I taught has classes take turns bringing in food and clothes to distribute in the slums and there were always fundraisers to help the citizens in the north who had suffered some serious flooding. Yet, there were also just spontaneous acts of charity where people handed over the leftover food they were carrying out of a restaurant or gave money to beggar. I know these things happen the world over, but remember that Kolkata is packed, so these things were happening constantly and beautifully.
Later - I am now less than 2 hours from landing at Dulles and I have never wanted to be home so badly. I think that I have decided that flying is dumb and painful. My entire body is achy and I am starting to dislike children. No good. I am trying instead to use my last hours to reflect on what I want to take home with me.
I know that I want to take home memories of my students and how hard-working and hopeful they were. I was consistently in awe of how much time and effort they were willing to put into any assignment. I know that most of my students in the States are the same way, but for my Indian students there was a desperation to learn that is unmirrored in U.S. education. Students in India know how much their families are sacrificing to put them through schools (especially the more expensive English medium schools). They know that they are the hope of their families to escape poverty by raising a doctor, engineer, astronaut, etc. My students in India often were not learning for themselves only, they were learning for the welfare of their families and the lengths that they were willing to go to were incredible. I think the idea that there is no safety net of social services also spurred them on. In India, I never heard anyone blame a teacher or lack of support as a reason for failure; there is this internal belief that they are responsible for their own destinies that drives their studies. That is why they go home and try to make sense of content heavy instruction that is delivered in a very lecturey way. I don’t know that I want my American students to have to feel the same kind of desperation or responsibility for the fate of their family, but I do want to remember how beautiful that spirit of determination is.
I also want to take home the hospitality and selflessness that I witnessed. I am not sure that I have done as many kind deeds for others in my whole lifetime as were done for me in the course of a month. I hope to remain inspired to share what I have less selfishly. This will be hard for me. I am especially selfish with my time and always setting boundaries on how much time I am willing to spend doing something; in India, nobody ever made me feel like they were enduring me until they got to what they really wanted to be doing. They never made me feel like I was asking too much of them or taking more of their resources than I should. The generosity in Kolkata is a special sort.
I also want to remember how many times I felt thankful that, as much as I loved Kolkata, for me it was temporary and escapable. For so many people all over the world, they don’t have the same options of mobility and upward progress that are available to me. They are likely never going to experience huge change in their situation, but they don’t resent the lives they were given. While they might long for better; they keep living what they have.
I still have much reflection to carry out, and I don’t doubt that India will continue to change me from afar. I am a lucky girl to be carrying back so much love and friendship and insight into another place. I am lucky even if I am in an uncomfortable seat with some baser aspects of humanity showing through in the tired and cranky passengers around me.