Monday, February 20, 2012

cultural sighs

Walking to my room after eating in the local small-small town, pulling out my key, and then the power generator goes off and I can’t see the lock.

Going to the bathroom at 4am, mild stomach upset, and remembering that they don’t have toilet paper.

People saying I should prepare a presentation. Powerpoint. With another group. Then, no, it won’t be with another group, it will be alone. Then, no, it won’t be a presentation. Then, no, it won’t be powerpoint. Then, no, it will be a preseantion and you should make posters. Then, you will present with these people whom you have not yet met. Then, well, everyone else was preparing the posters a week ago, why aren’t yours ready?

Choose what food you want. Eggplant. Eggplant is a side dish. OK, chicken. Chicken is a side dish. Choose a main. What’s a main? Rice, rotti, chippatti, igli. I actually just want eggplant and chicken. Why don’t you do a mini meal? Because it is too large; I’ll take a North Indian meal. (silence.) Maybe this was not a good restaurant, you don’t understand how to order. Actually, I don’t care. I’m starving. Maybe you should just order for me. How about a mini-meal? Fine. I stare at the rice. If I eat that much rice, I won’t be able to move. Someone else passes by with what looks like a steaming dish of eggplant curry.

On the beach with a new (male) friend, it is dark, we are leaving. A strange man approaches us. He wants my friend to introduce him to me. They speak in a language I don’t understand. The stranger’s eyes are big, eager, he is looking at my pale skin in the moonlight and I do not want to know where his mind is going. I act on pure, unbridled instinct, positioning my body behind my friend. He reacts, also instinctual, shielding me from the stranger. The stranger leaves. I suspect the stranger was harmless. I am slightly shaken – not by the stranger so much as my response – I am tall, strong and big-boned, but in that moment, I was a woman, and my primary experience was vulnerability. I felt my gender shaping every glance and every interaction. We keep walking, talk turning to other things. I am grateful for that process by which strangers become friends, and friends can, at times, become protectors. I need to take some more Judo.

The scarves are so beautiful. The women here wear them draped around their chest and then thrown over their shouldres. To my eyes it looks like a graceful necklace turning into flowing coat-tails. I try. It falls off. Again. And again. Maybe they have better posture than I do. Eventually, standing in a line, I look closely at the woman in front of me. Safety pins. Ah! Now I know! I watch the school girls – the scarves are perfectly pressed and stay in place, very factual. I ask my companion – do the scarves have meaning? Yes, they are to cover the chest. I pause. A woman tells me a story of how work-etiquette requires that women pin the scarves carefully as to cover the entire breasts. (Over an already conservative dress-like outfit). Suddenly the beautiful ‘necklaces’ become symbols of a conservative society. I have seen no women wear jeans or pants. Looking around the women suddenly seem trapped. The scarves loose their beauty. I ask my companion about his thoughts about men wearing jeans and women not. He points out that the traditional saris women used to wear are rarely worn any more (apparently a different style than what I’m surrounded by); that the modern outfits for women are much more free and comfortable. Maybe the scarves are not so bad. I will try wearing one over my chest on Monday to the office. With pins. And a pair of jeans.

Meaning, meaning, meaning. It’s all about meaning.

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