“So, how are you finding India so far?” the nice Indian lady melodically asked me as we waited in line for the restroom at the McDonald’s in Dehradun. I was surprised by the question as I had not yet noticed she had joined me in line and I paused as my four months in India flashed before my eyes. Had she asked me only one week ago my answer would have been some sort of shrug followed by something along the lines of “It takes some getting used to,” but for a moment I couldn’t figure out what to say.
For the past week I have been in Delhi teaching English to 8th and 9th graders at a slum school and trying to keep six 12th grade girls out of trouble. The latter proved to be the easiest job imaginable and Amy, the other chaperone, and I often commented that the girls really could have managed this whole trip on their own. They were consistent with their “thank you”s to the hostess and her housekeepers, responsible in their money management and in planning out our daily schedule, and ingeniously dedicated to their lesson plans for their own English teaching each day. However, the former was more difficult.
At the beginning of the week, I knew absolutely no Hindi (except for how to bobble my head for “yes”) and these kids, though they could read English like a champ, had no idea what the words meant and could not speak it conversationally. But with a lot of acting things out and jumping around and probably forever becoming known as “the crazy white lady” my four classes progressed rapidly in the four short days we were together. It was so refreshing to be working in an environment where I was so noticeably needed, teaching kids who were literally jumping out of their seats (or really off the ground as they had no seats) to learn. With each conversation taught and each example given the students would beg to be the next ones called on to display their English skills. “Do you have onions?” “Yes, I have onions.” “How much for 1 kg of onions?” and on and on… The school has an English teacher who speaks quite well, actually, but it is pretty obvious that English is her second language and the school is in dire need of a native speaker on staff. Had we not come to help out, the teacher would have still been teaching them “You WIND the string around today and you WINDED the string around yesterday.” With those words being pronounced like “WIND” of “The Wind in the Willows”. Though this mishap would not have been the end of the world, it did show that something was lacking and it was really good that we had come. I also had the chance to do some music with my students and provide the other Woodstockers with many song choices for their classes as well. I don’t now why it seemed so weird to be singing “The Hokey Pokey” and “She’ll be comin’ round the mountain” with a large group of smiling, Indian teenagers but it did and it really reminded me that no matter where you are, no matter what language you speak, kids are kids. Even with the language barrier you could easily tell who the party girls were, who the class clown was, who the serious students were.
So maybe it was the fact that I realized, in a very Kodak-commercial way, that people are people and maybe I wasn’t such an outsider after all. Maybe it’s that I learned 5 sentences and about 15 words in Hindi and can pretend that I’m not a dumb American. Maybe it was that I finally learned that a “line” in India is really just an idea and if you want to get a McChicken sandwich you have to learn to throw some ‘bows! Or maybe it was the fact that I finally conquered the squat position necessary to go to the bathroom in the hole in the ground provided while holding my belongings and not getting anything on myself. But as the memories of my prior week finished reeling through my mind, I knew I was starting to get the hang of this India stuff and I knew I could confidently answer this woman with, “It’s nice. I like it.”
(all photos taken on my iPhone since Abe has my camera)