On Toilets, Traditions, and Tamil

Making friends with the locals

Making friends with the locals

6 planes later I’m in Madurai. It’s hot, and I’m going to be permanently attached to my 1 L water bottle. A few initial surprising finds about Madurai: it has western-style malls complete with food courts, it has have American fried chicken and Oreos, and it has a modern gym (Talwakars gym). Globalization at work.

As a member of the class of 2014, I have to talk about toilets. Yes, toilets. Our incoming freshman assignment was to read “The Big Necessity” by Rose George, a book which discusses the sanitation practices and problems of various countries around the world. While the book discusses the problem of open defecation in rural India where latrines are not available, I have come into contact with the Indian squat toilet and with the “wet culture” aspects of Indian bathroom behavior. What I mean to say is: there’s a hose next to my toilet. In public bathrooms, there seems to be the option of the traditional Indian squat toilet (further explanation: http://www.fullstopindia.com/the-indian-toilet) and the western toilet seat option. America has a dry culture – we use dry toilet paper to clean up our bottoms. India is a wet culture – they use water. I can’t say I’ve been brave enough to try the Indian option, yet.

One of the challenges I mentioned in my CASI application was being a female in a culture that doesn’t have the same understanding of feminism as in the United States. My first related experience happened at the airport. After having my boarding pass checked I was directed towards a security line to place my backpack through the scanner and walk through the security gate. The guard had motioned vaguely to his left, so I got in line to the third to last line which was shortest. After placing my bag on the belt, another guard spoke to me. “No, other line. Women go there.” I turned to my left. All the women were in one line. Oops. After waiting in the correct line and walking through the body scanner, I entered a curtained off area, where a female guard patted me down safely away from the eyes of anyone else. How do I feel? Is this separate but equal? Does this protect the dignity of the woman because others don’t see her being poked and prodded? Does this enforce the control that men have over a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her body? American women believe they are empowered because they can walk around in bikinis. Traditional cultures believe that this showing of skin reveals that American women are slaves to the desires of men. I can’t say I have an answer, even for myself. http://thebaochi.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/cartoon.jpg

About Aravind, I will go into further detail about the organization in a different blog, but I would like to introduce the project that Gaby, Doreen, and I will be working on for the summer. Our work begins with the observation (from Aravind itself) that there is a low surgery acceptance rate in The Retina & Vitreous Clinic compared with other clinics in the hospital. Our primary objective is to determine the barriers to surgery (why are patients choosing not to have the surgery). Each day, Gaby and I uncover more complexities to conducting a qualitative clinical study. Most daunting seems how to interview patients for their reasons for not accepting surgery without biasing them in any direction. Its not as simple as giving the patient options to choose from. Is the reason X, Y, or Z? In that case you as a researcher have already limited the outcome of the study. It has been fascinating seeing the patient counseling process and trying to better understand the psychology as well as the needs of the patients. Aravind excels at discovering and satisfying the needs of the community. The three of us hope we can contribute some information which will allow the Retina Clinic to serve more patients.

One of the biggest challenges at work and in everyday life is the language barrier. Tamil is the official language of the state of Tamil Nadu, and the people are fiercely proud of it. It is a Dravidian language, categorizing it in a language family separate from that of other Indian languages (Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi) which belong to the Indo-European family. After a week of using auto-rickshaws and of interacting with nurses and patients in the clinic, I am determined to learn more than a few words of Tamil. Luckily, many store names and street signs are in English, so I haven’t felt totally lost. In fact, it would be quite possible to survive 10 weeks in Madurai without learning a single word. Everyone has been exceptionally polite and does their best to understand my English. However, I think I have an obligation to learn more about the culture of the people around me – starting with the language.

Food for thought:
“‘I’ve matured into the idea that when you’re in a comfort zone, you start to deteriorate,’ Dr. Usha says. ‘You need to have some kind of pressure or you don’t evolve. Dr. V was right – it isn’t about staying where you are and feeling cozy.’” (Infinite Vision, 91).

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About dblidarescu

A 2014 Penn grad, I am exploring the next step in my professional development. I had the opportunity to do the CASI Aravind 2013 program.