Tag it:
Delicious
Furl it!
Spurl
NewsVine
Reddit
Digg

Daddy, can I give just one more banana, please please please? Jasper asks, tugging on my shirt. Lakshmi, the elephant standing right behind him, has the same question on her mind. Were outside a bustling Hindu temple in south India, where Lakshmi blesses people with a touch on the forehead in return for offerings of coins or food. Jasper and his big sister, nine-year-old Lila, have already been blessed numerous times, but Jasper cant get enough. He loiters in front of Lakshmi, beaming like a groupie, until she gets a tad impatient and starts poking around my bag and pockets with her trunk. No father can say no to his four-year-old son and an elephant at the same time, so I hand Jasper the last of the poovan bananasso small and sweet they make the varieties in American supermarkets seem like chunks of drywall. With a jingle of her huge silver ankle bracelets, Lakshmi takes the banana from Jaspers palm and curls her trunk to bless him, for probably the tenth time this afternoon, with a gentle pat on the head.

Three months ago we left the snows of upstate New York for the hot breezes of Chennai, which sprawls along the Bay of Bengal down near the southern tip of India. My wife, Cecilia Van Hollen 87, an anthropology professor at Syracuse University, is doing research here on women and HIV/AIDS. So while she treks around the city visiting hospitals, support groups, and the homes of HIV-positive women, the kids and I get a taste of family life on the other side of the world. Im tethered to my writing and editing career via DSL and FedEx, sending magazine articles, NPR reports, and book manuscripts to distant editors who are fast asleep during my working hours. Lila and Jasper, meanwhile, are in school and gamely adjusting to their fourth home base in as many years. Cecilia and I feel more than a twinge of parental guilt at all this uprooting, which weve undertaken, ironically enough, to situate ourselves eventually in a place where our family can finally settle down.

My own visits to India extend back to 1987, when I met up with Cecilia, my girlfriend from Brown, at the tail end of her year studying in the festive temple city of Madurai. We returned in 1995 with six-month-old Lila, trading our tourist backpacks for a stroller and diaper bag and setting up house in Chennai (or Madras, as it was called then) while Cecilia did her dissertation research. So India is familiar ground, but living here with school-age kids is an entirely new experience. Our daily routine follows the familiar patterns of the life of working parents back homecoordinating school drop-offs and play dates, consulting with pediatricians, juggling work appointments with teacher conferencesbut the details are all changed. We pack lunch boxes with murukku snacks and chapatis as well as juice boxes. The kids do classroom craft projects for Pongal, a south Indian harvest festival, as well as Earth Day. When we go for a quick dinner out, we eat crispy dosas and sip fresh satukudi lime juice. In the little garden outside our apartment, we swing the plastic cricket bat and watch the geckos scurry away from our footsteps.

In the hectic months before leaving the U.S., Cecilia and I did our best to give the kids some notion of where we were going and what wed find there. We pointed to our home in Amer?ica on the illuminated plastic globe, spun it halfway around, and found the black dot marking Chennai. We counted the airplanes, taxis, and days it would take to travel eight thousand miles. We talked about how Chennai basks in tropical warmth while were shoveling snow, about how its dinnertime there when were having breakfast, about how people in Chennai eat with their hands (cool!), sometimes off banana leaves (even cooler!). As the departure date approached, we drove one drizzly morning to our nondescript post office to apply for passports. In the parking lot, Jasper peered out the car window like a turtle emerging from his shell to see if the coast was clear. In a near whisper he asked, Is this India?

If only getting to India were as quick and straightforward as a drive across town. From past trips we were used to dealing with visas and vaccinations and marathon flights, but our life as a family of four added layer upon layer of complexity: renting out our house, managing the mountains of mail and bills, stockpiling medicines for asthma and malaria and dysentery, finding an apartment in Chennai, investigating school options. Ultimately, the school decision was more or less made for us, because we found only one school in Chennai, the American International School, that had openings and would take kids on a short-term basis.

Overlaid on all these practical matters were the anxieties of traversing a volatile world increasingly antagonistic toward Americans. Right before every trip weve taken to India, the newspapers have demonstrated why were either cavalier or crazy to take kids to such a perilous place. When we were preparing to bring six-month-old Lila to India, there was an outbreak of the plague; in 2002, a heat wave killed more than a thousand people in southern India, and finally wed had to postpone our trip at the last minute because India and Pakistan appeared to be on the brink of war. During the lead-up to our current stay in Chennai, the India headlines in the U.S. media concerned the less sensationalistic subject of outsourcing, but State Department terrorism warnings provided ample reasons to stay home.

Cecilia and I spent many late nights talking about all the logistical and emotional challenges of this passage to India, and our perspectives couldnt have been more different. As the child of a foreign service officer, shed lived in Turkey and Sri Lanka, so heading overseas is, to her, a natural family venture and an opportunity for cultural immersion. By contrast, my parents still live in the house where I grew up, so making a temporary home in another country is, literally, a foreign idea. Perhaps because Lila had lived in India before, she adopted her moms enthusiastic outlook on this trip. Jasper, on the other hand, is, like his dad, much more of a homebody. But where Im saddled with grown-up contemplation of the past and future, Jasper has that enviable little-kid focus on whatever is right in front of him in the moment. In our pre-trip discussions, Cecilia and I shared the hope that a comfortable day-to-day routine and the companionship of Sammy, Jaspers exceptionally well-loved and well-traveled stuffed-animal puppy, would make Jasper feel at home in Chennai, despite the exotic surroundings.

But when we finally arrived in Chennai, both kids were shell-shocked from the teeming exoticism of every street. Autorickshaws, cars, scooters, and buses squawked their horns and vied for every spare inch of roadway. Dogs, cows, and water buffalo sauntered past coconut and sugar-cane stands. Bullocks with green-and-yellow-painted horns pulled cartloads of straw. Mothers cradled babies on the back of motorbikes, their luminous gold-threaded saris flapping in the wind. Bony beggars tapped on car windows. Men in plaid lungis slept on the curb. Mud-and-thatch huts crowded onto the banks of a stagnant canal, next to gargantuan billboards for cell phones and gold jewelry. Chennais riot of color and activity left our normally voluble kids almost completely speechless. Only in the hotel, where they could play their new StarFlyers computer game while Mom and Dad made endless calls about apartments for rent, did Lila and Jasper resume their normal stream of commentary, arguments, and questions.

Somehow, after three or four exhausted days, Lila and Jasper began to assimilate their new surroundings and relax. A tougher challenge was getting used to the attention and affection lavished on them everywhere we went. Jasper, as the younger of the two, was constantly quizzed about his name and country, kissed on the forehead, pinched on the cheek, asked to pose for photos, and presented with sweets and gifts. (Hes now got quite a collection of miniature Superman comics in Tamil.) As a toddler in India, Lila got the same sort of celebrity treatment, and she loved iteveryone in India, it seemed, wanted to play with her. But as a fourth grader with emerging self-consciousness, she soon grew tired of the stares and greetings, however friendly and well-meaning.

On Lilas first trip to India, she was, culturally speaking, an open book; she spoke her first words in Tamil and English and would have grown up effortlessly bilingual if we hadnt returned to the States when she was a year and a half old. This time around, both Lila and Jasper arrived as fully Americanized kids, accustomed to Chuck E. Cheeses birthday parties and PB&J with the crusts removed. So Cecilia and I make an extra effort to ease their culture shockand our ownwith tastes of home, which, in this era of globalization, are pricey but readily available in Indian cities. We buy countless cartons of apple juice, which is one of Jaspers main requirements for happiness. We stop for an after-school treat at Baskin-Robbins and take a break from the mountains of white rice by ordering Pizza Hut or Dominos (local flavors include Peppy Paneer and Supreme Tandoori). And from time to time we make a day trip to a tranquil beach resort where Western tourists and expatriates saut themselves in the blazing sun.

From the kids perspective, perhaps the most popular import awaits us whenever we check into a hotel: Cartoon Network. Lila and Jasper have the misfortune of growing up with parents who dont see cable TV as a necessity on par with food, water, and shelter; so India, oddly enough, has turned out to be where they are getting to know Powerpuff Girls and Pokmonin Hindi. (Those shows, by the way, are much better when dubbed into a language you dont understand.) The kids have picked up some of the TV jingles too, like the bouncy little number that plugs Nestl Choco Sticks: Khol, pichak, khaa, aha! Lila and Jaspers rendition comes out something like Cool pacifica, uh huh! which is a lot catchier than the English translation: Open, squeeze, eat, enjoy!

The availability of all these foreign luxuries means that expat families, whose numbers have grown dramatically with the boom in international business, are now able to block out, to a remarkable degree, the country in which they live. That kind of separation isnt possible, even if it were desirable, for Cecilia, whose research carries her each day into neighborhood health clinics, dingy public hospitals, bare-bones offices of nonprofits, sleek research centers, thatched huts, and mazelike concrete housing projects. Unlike some of the expats weve met, we want to take advantage of being here as much as possible, and do thingslike getting blessed by an elephantthat we could only do in India. But were careful to keep our ambitions on a childs scale. So we alternately explore the city and retreat from its relentless intensity. One day we shop for sandalwood powder and palm-leaf baskets outside the 500-year-old Kapaleeshwarar Temple, and Jasper rides a tiny hand-turned Ferris wheel. Another day we go to the swimming pool, dial up Pizza Hut, and watch Space Jam on TV.



Suda suda vadai, suda suda vadai, kase kondu va Ms. Padma, with her silver hair and crimson sari, serenades Jaspers preschool class with a Tamil version of Frre Jacques, accompanied by my guitar. (The words here are not about sleeping but, like so much small talk in India, about foodspecifically hot-hot vadai.) Ever since Lila was a preschooler Ive made occasional visits to my kids classes to sing songs, and in this case the teachers have asked me to make it a weekly gig. We do Frre Jacques every time as part of a medley of the pre-K top ten, and the languages keep accumulating: today we sing verses in Tamil, English, French, Hindi, and Italian. If we added Japanese, Danish, Thai, Korean, Russian, German, Urdu, and Spanish, I believe wed cover all the languages spoken in these kids homes.

Its a thrill to see Lilas and Jaspers perspective on culture and language blowing wide open in the United Nations environment of this school. The curriculum and some of the teachers are Americanthe school was founded by people from the U.S. Consulatebut the kids mostly come from everywhere else, and half of them are learning English as a second (or third) language. Lilas classmates come from Malaysia, Brazil, Bulgaria; she takes Spanish classes during the week and Tamil with me on the weekends, and in the school corridors she hears nearly as much Korean as English. Her exposure to Tamil as a baby must help explain her skill at parroting Indian phrases and accents as well as essential gestures like the south Indian head wag meaning OK, fine, got ita back-and-forth swing a lot like one of those bobbleheads in motion in a car window.

Jasper, too, has taken in stride the change from Hi to Vannakum and incorporated Indian-English expressions like I will do one thing into his vocabulary. At a time when hes ramping up for kindergarten and just beginning to sound out short words on his own, he seems unfazed by the knowledge that the city around him is encoded with not just the usual ABCs but with another, totally different, alphabet. He relishes the games of linguistic I Spy we play in the car. I see R! he calls out, pointing to a billboard for silk wedding saris. And I see E! For elephant! He scans around and spies the curls, dots, and Stonehenge shapes of Tamil script, hand-painted on a wall. I see India writing!

Cecilia never fails to amaze us with her magical ability to read and translate those fanciful shapes, as well as to comprehend and counter the sonic blasts of spoken Tamil. For the rest of the family, life in Chennai is greatly simplified by the excellent English that so many locals speak (along with, typically, two or three Indian languages)a key reason you may be talking to someone in south India when you call an American corporation for tech support or customer service. But the language gulf between America and India is wider than it first appears, because communicating in English here means understanding that a banian is not a tree but an undershirt; that when you want to buy sunglasses you should ask for coolers; that your last name is your good name; that a lakh is 100,000 and a crore is 10 million; that armed robberies are carried out by dacoits; that you erase pencil marks with a rubber; and that you need to show up earlier for an event that has been preponed. In an English-medium school, you learn about maths (not math) and do the oogy-boogy rather than the hokeypokey.

Living in India we quickly learn that we dont speak English, we speak American. We learn to strip out casual hey-hows-it-going? kinds of expressions. The odds of making ourselves understood are substantially raised when we imagine ourselves cast in a Merchant Ivory film (and keep our heads wagging too). The growing influence of MTV and Hollywood, far from promoting cross-cultural understanding, can actually inhibit it: once when Cecilia, Lila, and I were riding on an overnight train from Kerala, a fellow passenger paused in our conversation and said with a serious expression, You dont talk like Bruce Willis.

Down at school, every day brings a lesson on how national identity isnt always what it seems. With her Midwestern accent, her bouncy walk, and her tousled blonde hair, Lilas best friend is unambiguously American; yet she has never lived in the United States. Another classmate is, by appearance, Indianhis parents grew up in northern Indiayet he was born and raised in New Jersey, and Chennai is as foreign to him as it is to us. One of Jaspers pals also has Indian parents, but she has always considered herself Taiwanese, because thats where she lived before coming to India. Whats more, so many kids here are products of cross-cultural marriages: Mexican-Indian, Thai-American, French-Russian, Indian-Australian, British-Filipino. Jasper is too young to grasp the meaning of the colored shapes on the world map, but Lila now understands that accents are a far more reliable indicator of peoples nationalities than the color of their skin and hair. Where do you come from? is a common conversation starter on the playground at this school, but often theres no simple answer. Is it a question about where you were born, where your parents were born, where youve lived the longest, or simply which country (or countries) you choose to call your own? This kind of dialogue is excellent preparation, I think, for the world of hyphenated identities in which we increasingly live. In New York as well as India, Jaspers best preschool buddies have been Korean boys just learning English.

A few weeks back, when the fourth grade was learning about Bangladesh, the subject turned to rice farming. For a class presentation, Lilas teacher asked parents to bring a rice dish from their home countriesa no-brainer for the families from India, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Brazil, and other countries that pile on the rice. But what about us? We eat plenty of rice, but all the dishes are borrowed from somewhere else: Chinese stir-fries, Mexican beans and rice, Indian curries and idlis. The only uniquely American rice dish we cook is wild rice, but fat chance finding that in Chennai. We consulted the classs two other American families, both of whom had decided to bring dishes from other countries in which theyd lived (Thai sticky rice, idlis). After much dinner-table discussion and expensive trips to several markets, we managed to assemble something resembling tacos, with shells from Texas, Indian rice and cheddar cheese, and salsa from Denmark. A quintessentially American dish after all.



Paaaypa! Paaaypa! The nasal call of the paper recycling man pierces through the bay window of our apartment, and Lila responds with a pitch-perfect imitation. Were sitting on the stone floor, stuffed from a dosa dinner, and finishing our third round of memory match; in Chennai, separated from our closets full of stuff, we have rediscovered the amazingly versatile, eminently portable deck of cards. Cecilia has changed out of her customary salwar kameez, the light and comfortable north Indian suits that many younger women wear these days instead of saris, and into denim shorts and a T-shirt. After all these months in India, its an arresting change of identity, and a reminder of our impending transition back into American life.

Over on the desk, the image of a shady Vermont swimming hole grabs our attention; the laptop computer, left idle, has started a random slide show of our digital photos. We circle around the screen to play what has become another favorite family game: name the location of each photo before it vanishes.

Amber Fort! says Lila, as the screen flashes a family portrait atop an elephant in Rajasthan. Jain temple! counters Jasper, at the sight of elaborately carved stone pillars. Next comes Jasper in his Scooby-Doo Halloween costume back in New York then the beautiful kolam design our friend Kalpaana painted on our doorstep last Christmas then Lilas eighth birthday party in Indiana late afternoon shadows on the London Bridge, a flower seller in Chennai tying strings of jasmine in Lilas hair, and an image that makes us all laugh in this stiflingly hot place: Lila and Jasper buried up to their necks in the Syracuse snow. This photo made a big impression when Lila showed it the other day to her classmates, most of whom have always lived in warm climes; one of her Korean friends confessed that at first she thought all the white stuff was bubble bath.

The slide show game is fun but a little dizzying, just as our lives have been in these past few years. Were ready to stow away our suitcases and passports and settle down in the New York home that we barely got to know before heading off to India. Im wrapping up the last few articles Ive promised before we get home, while Cecilia is sifting through a huge pile of interview transcripts, translations, HIV/AIDS program reports, and public-service ads featuring a witty talking condom. The kids are out of school next week, and soon they will begin the poignantly familiar ritual of saying good-bye to new friends they may never see again. Excitement about being home again, though, seems to be drowning out any sadness they may feel about leaving India. Theyve both been plotting out precisely what theyll do the moment they step through our front door in America. Lila says her first act will be to call her friend Emily, while Jasper plans to make a beeline for the trunk full of stuffed animals whove missed him terribly.

I know from past experience how the orderliness and efficiency of America, which we so often crave while in India, will seem a little eerie once were actually back. The stores will look cavernous (every grocery store in Chennai would probably fit inside a single Wal-Mart), with a self-service credit-card swipe completing a transaction that in India involves three or four helpers. The streets will look resolutely brown and gray and white, with hardly anyone passing by or ringing the doorbell or even noticing us at all. But that feeling will pass, and all the American things well be so happy to have backbagels with cream cheese, extended family, clean air, trails through the woodswe will soon take for granted all over again.



A couple of weeks before leaving India, we escape Chennais sticky summer weather and visit Kodaikanal, a hill town with a distinctive American legacy dating back to the missionaries who settled here in the nineteenth century. Kodai, as everyone calls it, has a long personal history too: Cecilia briefly went to school in Kodai back when her family lived in Sri Lanka, and she and I visited here as backpackers just out of Brown and again as new parents. She takes the kids and me on a nostalgic tour of the school campus and manages to locate her old dorm, provoking thoughts on how Lila and Jasper will recall their own childhood days in India.

Scanning the menu in a restaurant one night, we are surprised to be greeted by a young Indian waiter with a goatee, baggy pants, basketball shoes, Nike T-shirt, and skullcapa look that would blend right in on any American college campus but that seems so out of place in India. Hi, he says with a jarringly familiar accent. What can I get you? As he walks off with our order, Jasper looks puzzled. Hey, he says finally, whos that American guy?

Sometimes, it seems, you can see your own home so much more clearly from the other side of the world.

Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers (www.jeffreypepperrodgers.com) is a contributor to National Public Radios All Things Considered. He is the author, most recently, of The Complete Singer-Songwriter.





Be the first to comment on this article

Name and Class Year:
Email:
Comment:

Code:* Code