Chirag: Efforts to be respectful

Living in a community that is so vastly unfamiliar to me has challenged me to think about social cues and norms upon each action.  Walking along the big road, I greet every woman without fail. Palms brought together in front of the heart.  “Namashkar” (hello). Acknowledging another’s presence seemed natural to me. However, I felt incredibly uncertain about myself each time I passed a man. In the few times that I have greeted a man, I got a confused look in return rather than any sign of warmth. Instead, I am meant to avert my gaze to the ground just in front of my flip-flops and continue straight ahead. A huge barrier that exists between men and women, and as an outsider, it has been difficult to gauge when to push these limits and when to just accept them and follow them. Often times, it has been more appropriate to just take the norms as is.

Another social interaction that I have been tip-toeing my way around is being a guest. Pooja has been going door-to-door with me and conducting my surveys in Hindi or Kumaoni, the local language. At each home, we are immediately told, “berthiao berthiao” (sit down, please sit down). The host always pulls out a chair, usually a lawn chair, as this is the only type of chair in most homes. But only two are brought out, one for me and one for Pooja. The host then sits down on the floor or on a step. One time I tried to decline the offer in an effort to be polite, and I sat down on the floor instead. However, this was probably considered rude and also left an uncomfortable space with all of us sitting on the floor next to vacant chairs. After the interview, almost every home has offered us Chai. I never know what the polite answer is. Sometimes I admit, I really would have enjoyed that cup of Chai, but I know that would have meant making the woman of the house prepare the cup and then serve us. However, Chai seems natural for these visits from what I observed while shadowing Chirag staff members. For the first few interviews, Pooja always turned to me on deciding whether to stay for Chai, but I expressed to her that she should decide based on regional manners. So then, we only stayed if we sensed that the woman was not too busy or if she insisted a few times. In addition to Chai, we are also constantly offered a peach, plum, pear, or apple. I always say yes to fruit because of how abundant it is this time of year. Fruit, unlike Chai, doesn’t require additional preparation nor is it costly to the farmer. But even so, I felt it proper to limit myself to only one. When one woman offered me a second peach today, I politely declined, expressing I was full. She responded by asking whether the peach was not sweet enough to my liking. Oops. Looks like it would have been more appropriate to take the second fruit. Each interaction with a person in their home is abound with questions of how to act appropriately, particularly when I cannot fully express myself in Hindi and cannot speak using their most respectful conjugations.

As Chirag has been working in this area for 25 years, the organization has brought in many interns. Children growing up here are quite accustomed to the handful of foreigners who walk up and down the main road or visit them at school, but as of yet, I am unclear as how they perceive me or how these interactions have changed the society. During one interview, a four-year-old girl was quite shy at first and continuously stared at me. After making many quirky faces at her, she began to take interest and we played around for a bit. However, a few minutes in, she tried to open my bag and reach inside while saying “chocolate” in Hindi. I had been told by other interns that sweets are a great thing to give to kids. Considering this girl was not the only child this week to grab at my bag, perhaps this practice of giving away sweets is bringing negative social consequences that are beyond the damage to the kids’ teeth.

And often times, the smallest action reminds me of how differently the belief system is of these communities than that at home. I absentmindedly killed a mosquito mid-bite on my finger as I made a purchase at the shop. The shopkeeper immediately looked up from counting the change as he heard the slap sound. Upon realizing that I had killed a creature, he made a concerned face and then resumed what he was doing. I don’t know what his exact thoughts were, but my best guess is that he disapproved of my careless action. As an outsider, I must have seemed completely ignorant to the concept of reincarnation. Despite tremendous care to try to fit in as a local, it appears many bumps must be made along the way before I can ascertain just how to act in the most respectful and acceptable way. Dhi-re dhi-re (slowly slowly), I do feel as though I have picked up quite a bit of these social cues and even to-re to-re (a little bit of) Hindi to connect with people when they stop me to ask about my background.

Photo: A fellow Chirag intern Katha and I about to pray at the Bageshwar Temple. Shobi the doctor from the UK, Hunchie the woman who housekeeps for the Dewaldar area office, and I at the small temple near Hunchie's home in Dewaldar. One of numerous duplicates of a photo that Roopa, Hunchie's daughter, took of me at a temple to which that we trekked as it poured. The effect of the monsoons on the stairs. 

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About Lucia Xiong

Current medical student at University of New Mexico. Former science teacher at Tse Yi Gai High School on Navajo Nation. Studied International Relations with a concentration in Global Health and Penn Class of 2013 graduate. CASI Chirag Intern summer of 2012.