It’s week three of teaching, folks, and I haven’t imploded yet! I think we can call that a success. We’ve been in India for almost two months now, and it’s crazy how time is flying. I don’t know how I would’ve survived without Mina. She gets 2,341,677 shoutouts for preventing me from going crazy.
I spent my first few weeks at Vimukti Girls School without a permanent schedule. I showed up each day prepared to teach any class from 6 to 11. Now that I have a set schedule, I’m finding it much easier to plan lessons and get to know my students. Each class has its own personality and challenges, from my 30+ giggly 6th graders to my four 11th graders. Many of the girls are complete beginners when it comes to conversational English, so we’re starting out with simple sentences and phrases.
In working with the girls at Vimukti, I’ve encountered some difficulties designing lessons that are useful and accessible. Many online ESL activities include topics such as traveling/vacations. How do you approach this subject with girls who may have almost no experience traveling outside of their neighborhood in Jaipur? My students are fascinated by the fact that I came to India on an airplane. More than once, a wide-eyed student has asked me, “Mam, did you come here on an airplane? A real airplane? How long did it take? What is it like?” For many of my students, travel by air is almost an abstract idea, like something out of a story. Language is best learned in context. For me, it will be essential to get to know my students on a personal level so that I can contextualize our language lessons in ways that are applicable to their lives. I am already starting to get glimpses—when they show me their dancing and singing, when they talk about evening trips to the Gurudwara, when they point out their mothers standing in doorways as the school bus pulls away from Jawahar Nagar. Some love to draw, others stitch their own clothing, and still others delight in showing me the mehendi they’ve styled on their sisters’ hands. They want to be dancers, army officers, doctors, engineers, singers, police officers, teachers. My students lead rich, full lives that are still mostly a mystery to me. I can’t wait to learn more about them, and in turn to introduce new knowledge and ideas about life in America.
There are many challenges in learning English…until I started teaching, I didn’t fully appreciate how quirky English can be. “So” has become the bane of my existence. We use “so” for so many things…variably it can mean “for this reason,” “for the purpose of,” “more than,” or it’s simply used as a filler word. There’s no equivalent in Hindi, which has made explaining it all the more difficult. “Or” is a close second on the list of English-words-that-drive-me-crazy. In Hindi, the word for “and” is pronounced the same way we pronounce “or.” So when I ask my students to make a choice (candy or ice cream?), they simply respond, “Yes, Mam,” because they think I’m saying “candy and ice cream.” I love how teaching has made me more aware of my own language and cadence of speech.
On August 15th, we celebrated India’s 70th year of independence. I wore a sari to Vimukti’s celebration, to the delight of my students, and I got to watch them dance, sing, and perform skits in honor of India’s liberation from British rule. The program began with a skit about women’s rights, with an emphasis on ending child marriage and sati (a traditional practice in which a widowed woman throws herself upon her husband’s burning funeral pyre, sacrificing her life to be with him…in theory, this is an act of self-sacrifice, but the reality is more often death at the hands of relatives forcing sati).
Several girls came out dressed as prominent women in Indian society—politicians, astronauts, sports players, and beauty pageant contestants. When Principal-mam addressed the assembly, she said, “All girls must become what we have seen today.” On a day meant to celebrate freedom, I loved my school’s focus on women’s freedom and girls’ access to opportunities. My students face more barriers than most, but Vimukti aims to provide them with the educational foundation necessary to reach these goals and more.
That evening, Mina and I went out with our new friend Alex to see the lights at the Birla Mandir (a local Hindu temple) and the Albert Hall Museum. True to India, the electricity went out in the museum while we were in the basement Egyptian tomb/mummy exhibit, thus fulfilling my worst childhood nightmare. August 15th also happened to be Krishna Janmashtami, the birth day of the god Krishna. As with many Hindu holidays, this day is observed according to the Hindu lunar calendar, so it doesn’t usually fall on the same day as Independence Day. Needless to say, seeing the Birla Mandir lit up in honor of the holiday was a sight to behold.
Mina and I were also lucky to have several other Fulbright ETAs visit us in Jaipur this past weekend—Payal and Tamar from Kolkata, Maddie from Santiniketan, and Kofi from Delhi. We had a great time visiting Chokhi Dhani, an artisan village near Jaipur where we stuffed ourselves with traditional Rajasthani thalis, watched fire dancers, and saw a Rajasthani puppet show. The next morning, we took an incredible hike up into the hills beyond Jaipur, where the Temple of Galtaji nestles in a lush green valley. A pre-historic site for Hindu pilgrims, Galtaji is colloquially known as the monkey temple due to the abundance of monkeys that gather in its courtyards and pools.
We rounded out the weekend with what are apparently the best cold coffee and chocolate milkshakes in all of Jaipur, courtesy of our friend Simran.
Despite starting our teaching jobs, Mina and I continue to take Hindi classes twice a week at AIIS. Last night we attended the CLS cultural program for the summer students at AIIS, who will be returning to America this week. As a former CLS participant, I found myself feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the teachers at AIIS and all they’ve done for me over the past four years. I just adore every one of them.
The first month of adjusting to life in India was difficult, to say the least. Between illness, the stress of integrating into a new culture and work environment, and the language barrier, I often felt overwhelmed by the task set in front of me. In many ways, India is an assault on the senses—we are constantly bombarded with new smells, tastes, and sounds. We eat heavy, oily, delicious Indian food seasoned with unfamiliar spices; when visiting people’s houses, they stuff us with enough food to feed four people. During my first few weeks teaching, I felt like all the other teachers and students were operating based on telepathic signals with one another, and I was out of the loop. They seemed to know where to go and when to go without being told. I struggled with how to become part of a new school as an outsider, especially as the first foreigner to work at Vimukti.
I’m still mostly out of the loop—sometimes a class period will inexplicably end 10 minutes late, and when I ask about it, the other teachers will give me an explanation along the lines of, “Of course we ended late. That’s just the way it is today,” leaving me totally baffled. But rather than overwhelming me, I now find these occurrences humorous. This is my life in India—a little chaotic, a little stressful, a lot challenging, and always rich with new experiences. As I’ve come to accept that India is very different from the U.S., I’m able to refocus my energy on appreciating all the unique and fascinating opportunities this country has to offer. Already I’m growing to love my students. In eight months, it’s going to be hard to leave.
I’ve got my work cut out for me, and I’m here for the long haul. Here’s to successful English sentences, cold iced tea on hot days, and not getting run over while crossing the street.