Monday, March 14, 2016

Where Are Your Curiosities?

I met an interesting lady in the locker room at the gym, on campus.

Amidst women changing into workout gear and fleets of us just in transit with a towel around our bodies, I met this down-to-earth soul who wrapped herself around with a special kind of joy. I haven't really had much of a conversation here with anyone in the locker room because everyone is predominantly in some sort of a hurry. There are some smiles now and then, quick questions about the weather, workout and fitness, and occasional stories between friends there that comes to float over your head; but there is hardly any time to sit down and talk to someone you don't know. I cherish these kind of dialogues and I recollect having them with random strangers ever since I was young and had started traveling alone for my gymnastics meets across the country. It's a refreshing encounter, every single time!

In a locker room majorly occupied by young college students, she stood out to me: not because of her age but because of her demeanour that consisted of a special kind of radiating smile. She smiled at me and I did so too, I've missed that in a while. She is easily 60 years older than I am. She had come in to swim because it was 'liberating'. For a person like me who is mortally afraid of deep waters (even after swimming lessons), she was an immediate conversation starter. 'Do what you're afraid of', was what she told me and immediately added she didn't mean to preach. I feel culturally attuned to being open to other people's life experiences and it was strange for me to hear someone as old as her to say that she did not mean to 'preach'. It's an interesting crossover for me, a person from a different culture. I wouldn't mind it anyway. Some of the best conversations I've had are with people with a lifetime of experiences and even though I have come to disagree with some of their notions in the past, I have learnt to listen to them and respond, sometimes to gently disagree. Learning to convey disagreement of ideas in a placid and respectable manner are some of the curves I've come to correspond with at twenty four,I guess!

I have always had this affection for people with a zest for life and an innocent disposition bordering curiosity in their quest for life, especially if they're much older than I am. Here is this amazing women for whom walking is difficult but swimming is gently easy and embracing. We were joking about how there needs to be water channels instead of pathways on campus. I was extremely curious to know what education she was pursuing and she generated an entire list! She graduated in 1949, if I remember the year correctly. History (WWI, WWII and The Vietnam War), Literature, Music and French are among the studies she pursued and she is now with the music department again. 'I've been coming here for thirty years. I've been doing this for as long as you are alive and I love it.' For a person who sees students pursuing their undergraduate career with a little of a sulk and my own monster of graduate studies and its expectations, she shone with so much optimism for life and learning something new.

Imagine the zealous curiosity and openness a person must possess to go from one education to the next, sprawling across different fields! She's even learning some Chinese and teaches little children to play the piano. 'I don't have a formal degree for it but I finally feel like I know enough to teach little children.' Listening to her made me question my own life choices, the long way I have ahead and the relative understanding that time and age is, to do anything. Mother of six children, some grandchildren and great-grand-children, this woman is jumping one hurdle after another like it is no big deal. She was so excited when I showed her my sketchbook and the kind of art I make, as it came up in our conversation of about 40 minutes; and I remember her remarking how it is absolutely amazing to come across the talents and skills people have. 'Imagine! Every single person has some sort of skill and creative talent in them, isn't that amazing?' she said. Well, isn't it? In this rat race of a life, that was a gentle reminder to acknowledge the strengths and talents of another person and to stop for a little while instead of trying to power through to simply make it to the 'end'.

In this fast pacing world, we assume we don't have the time for a lot of things, for our little sources of happiness, curiosities and circles of people. Perhaps, we don't make time for it? I used to write letters to my best friend between fifth grade and almost up until my first year of college. We have both grown up and though we still pick up from where we left things, we haven't been writing to each other because of each other's busy schedules. It was beautiful to me when I heard this lady recount that she spoke to her pen-pal over the phone a couple of days back because she is very sick. A pen-pal in France who was just 29 miles apart from the army during the war, a pen-pal whom she wrote to after a gap of 45 years after high school when she started French lessons again. Her pen-pal wrote to her in three weeks saying she was the one who opened the letter and here are these beautiful ladies keeping in touch with each other. When was the last time we sent a postcard or a handwritten letter to someone we love? I don't mean to romanticise the whole idea but I do wonder time and again, if our correspondences and its associated experiences are losing its tangibility and significance in this digital era.

She reminded me of my own grandmother back in India. My maternal grandmother is one of the most beautiful, kind and gentle people I know of. Her education consists only up until the eighth grade as far as I know but she's still one of the most malleable and open-minded people. I sometimes wonder if she grew into it or if being that kind and lovely is just in her. What is most beautiful in her is her curiosity. I love her curiosity and eagerness to learn. She doesn't know too much English but she plays the SpellTower game on the iPad and keeps generating new words. Sometimes, she forms words in the process of playing the game and asks one of us for the meaning of the new word she just landed on, learning one step at a time... with no hesitance or feelings of awkwardness.

Why is it that we don't have time and the countenance for our curiosities anymore? Why can't we be like children and much older folks to whom not knowing or learning something new is exciting? When in the process of 'growing up' did we cease to pay attention to our curiosities and why are a whole lot of us afraid to express them? I'm just wondering out loud here.

I found so much more openness to conversation, ideas and sharing the excitement of doing something new or simply having a chat with someone they don't know of, in her; the interesting lady from the locker room. We have exchanged phone numbers and I shall keep in touch with her, attend her concerts and perhaps, send a postcard even! :)

Life is full of curiosities. Strike up a conversation with them all!


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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

What is in a Name?

Some nights, days or a sunny noon, living in a foreign country bewilders and astonishes you. I believe I have been fairly exposed to most of the ideas surrounding America owing to an unorthodox, liberal upbringing, migration of ideas from the West in my country and being the generation that is a part of the cultural shift that India is in the midst of an upheaval of. Sure, we have our own boundaries but by and large, I was able to amend and adapt to the cultural setting of The States. I didn't have rude culture shocks nor did I go lamenting about how things are (better) in my country. As far as I am concerned, they're two different countries and have their own socio-cultural setting. While I make observations, my judgments are far reserved for thinking and for the sake of understanding these differences. I arrived here with an open mind and was prepared for pretty much everything I could ever fathom.

I realised I wasn't prepared for one thing when I did come here though: telling people my name. By that, I knew my name in its entirety (Hemalatha Venkataraman) wasn't going to be easy on people who don't have as many as eight different consonants for the alphabet 't' in their language. I expected that and so, I knew exactly what I was going to say when that question comes by (I say my full name very quickly sometimes just to catch some of them smile in confusion and go 'Whaaaat?'). I was going to tell them and teach them the way to say my name. That was a fairly simple plan of action.

However, what I was not prepared for was this question: 'What would you like to be addressed as?'

It is by far the weirdest cultural shift for me and I still can't help but smile at the gentle reminder that I am in another country but my own when this question crosses my radar. You see, it's not a question we frequently deal with in India. People ask you what your name is and you answer them. I've never been asked what I want to be called as in my life until I moved here and frankly, it's not a question that ever struck me. I never thought twice before I uttered my name in response. I have students who prefer being called something else from what their record states. A recent acquaintance said he wished to be called by a different name (that he thought suited him more as he saw it fit on someone else he admired) when he was younger and his family obliged. I have friends who like their name being pronounced only in a certain way and ask to be addressed so and I believe I like the sense of identity that one establishes through that choice.

We don't really have that concept back home. No one has asked me how I'd like to be addressed and it was very interesting to me the first few times people asked me so. I have been silently contemplating how I would like to be addressed. 'Hemu' is a nickname that only my family uses (and so, I was/am a little uncomfortable projecting it publicly for everyone's use) and 'Hema' seemed too generic for my own conscious disposition. Also, my name offers varied meanings depending on what I may identify myself as. Hemu means 'gold', Hema alternatively means 'golden' or 'earth' and Hemalatha means 'vine of gold'. Another close meaning as a means of the variance with which one may say my name would mean 'Goddess made out of snow'. So, which one do I pick? Now that I am posed with a conscious choice, it's a little weird because I am very consciously disregarding/disrespecting the name given to me by my parents, from my cultural and societal lens.

On all of that roller-coaster for a cultural ride, I think it's a great question as a means of self-identification and introspection. If I am asked to associate myself with a calling of my choice as opposed to being socially and from a familial front, being assigned a name; I have already been made to think about what I would like to be known as, and that is a means of manifesting characteristics of who I see myself as and what I aspire to be. Gender, personal and social identities are being made clear of and people get to be more respectful of the other person's identities by asking them what THEY want to be known as. It's a concept I've come to appreciate for its forwardness of thought and scope for showing one's respect.

On a much personal note, I was out dancing one night when I had to explain my name for a full ten minutes to a complete stranger. Amidst all the dancing, here was someone who I didn't know, trying to say my name right. It's strange for me to identify myself as Hemalatha as it always seems to put a distance between me and the person addressing me, formal and full as it is. I eventually give people here options but I must confess all the times I loved them trying to say my common Indian name. It's exciting for me to have someone inquire after my name, something (beautiful in its own way) I've taken for granted this long. I have never been so excited, proud and identified by my ethnic name as much as I enjoy it now, and for that... thank you, America.

P.S: One of the chief reasons I go by the shortened version of my name that I do currently employ is because it's far easier to explain it to my American counterparts and because it is my pen(cil)-name. What's that you ask?

It's Hey-Moo! (Like saying hi to a cow!)


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