Hello from Taiwan!
I had told myself that I would be diligent in keeping up my blog. I guess I sort of lost track of these last two weeks, not even writing in my own journal very much. But I would love to share some highlights from the last two weeks, mainly for my own sake.
First and foremost, Natasha finally arrived at Shanti Bhavan. I’ve been waiting for her to show up since day one, and I knew the kids could not wait to see her either. Although I had made many new friends at SB, it definitely was a breath of fresh air to see a familiar face.
Throughout that week, I had picked up more classes: 10th grade creative writing, persuasive writing, grammar, and 11th grade Commerce (which I know next to nothing about). For my tenth graders, I asked them to write fractured fairytales for creative writing, and they seemed to be pretty excited about the assignment. In persuasive writing, I asked them to choose between two prompts: a) How/why would you change a law in the Constitution of India and b) Discuss a moment that relates to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” and why it is important/significant to take the road less travelled. I was particularly excited to read their persuasive essays to gain some more insight into their thoughts and lives.
For the Commerce class, I eagerly agreed to teach even with limited knowledge of the subject because I wanted to work with the older students. I spent a lot of time reading through the textbook, doing more in-depth research when questions arose, and trying to “fake it ‘til you make it.” With volunteers (all with different strengths and experience) coming in and out, this seems to be the norm: just stay at least one step ahead of the children. Not exactly ideal, but you do what you have to do.
That week was Becky’s last week as a volunteer. Dr. George invited Becky and me for a special lunch in his office. With paneer, chapathi, fish, and biryani, I’m not sure if I can ever eat Indian food in the states anymore. It just won’t be as good. Over lunch, we discussed various topics ranging from our future plans to what we thought SB needed the most improvement on.
On the night before Becky left, a couple of us volunteers climbed the rocks by the basketball courts. Just as we made our way up, the clouds parted right on cue to reveal the sky lit with an infinite amount of stars. What an amazing sight. All of a sudden, I felt small, insignificant. A feeling of serenity and simplicity washed over me as we shared laughs, memories, and silence.
The next day Becky and I spent all afternoon preparing our special snack. Armed with twenty jars of Nutella and countless loaves of bread, we made chocolaty sandwiches for all to enjoy. I guess I’m not surprised with how ecstatic the students were; I, of all people, should know that food=happiness. A reminder of home really hit the spot for many of the volunteers as well.
That night, a group of us set off for Bangalore, said goodbye to Becky, and Natasha and I went to her aunt’s house. After a quick meal of Indian Pizza Hut, we went straight to bed. The next day, Natasha and I went on a (very successful, I might add) shopping spree. I got to experience sari and Indian dress shopping for the first time. Watching Natasha choose outfits was such a sensory overload that I couldn’t even tell what I thought looked good or bad anymore. During lunch, I got a banana milkshake. Note to self: when in India, get a banana milk shake. Afterwards, Natasha took me to go kurta shopping. However, we began to realize that male kurtas are rather expensive and much harder to find. While women wear kurtas as daily outfits, men tend to wear kurtas only for special occasions. Apply the law of supply and demand, and the price of male kurtas rises. After about 2 hours of searching, we found two kurtas, relatively within my price range. I’m rather happy with the end result, but I want to get one more when I come back to India…
After our shopping spree, we met up with other volunteers for another round of Sree Sagar and Masala Dosas. This time around, though, Natasha took care of the ordering so it was much easier and less confusing. After a full meal of dosas, puri, and tea, we went off to Asha Sweets for some Almond Milk and Indian desserts. Seven of us volunteers got a variety box to share. Although Sohan Papdi is still my favorite, I discovered a close second: dharwad pedha, a round little dough ball that tastes milky and covered with cinnamon. Content with our sweets, we walked around the area for a bit and headed home. For some reason no auto driver was willing to take Natasha and me back to her aunt’s place, so we slowly navigated our way back by asking kind looking strangers and policemen.
For lunch the next day, I got to experience a true Indian family get together. I put on my dark green kurta and went to a fancy hotel for the luncheon. I got to meet some of Natasha’s extended family and feast on a whole lot of chaat and other Indian dishes. Stuffed, we got picked up along with the other volunteers and headed back to SB. When we arrived, all the students loved to see Natasha’s bright red dress. I got a few courtesy “Nice kurta, Mr. Jason” or “Looking good, Mr. Jason!”
With only five days, it still had not hit me quite yet that I was leaving on Friday. With lessons plans to prepare for and papers to grade, the end seemed far away still. My nights at SB got later and later as I frantically tried to finish signing autograph books (similar to signing yearbooks). Sticker after sticker, page after page, I tried my best to make each signature a personal one. I slowly began to realize that with such a short time at SB I still had yet to get to know some of the students… oh well, all the more reason to come back soon. In contrast, I began to notice the extremely close relationships I had built over such a short period of time. Playing basketball, having philosophical discussions, piano lessons, or just simply hanging out and joking around, these kids have made such a deep impression on me. Throughout the last five days, I dreamt of postponing my final year at Northwestern so that I could stay here for a longer time. But my flight on Friday wasn’t going to change and I had to cherish my last few moments at SB.
On Tuesday, Dr. George invited me to another lunch, this one just as delicious as the last. More noteworthy, Dr. George decided to share some of Shilpa’s (a graduate of SB the same age as me) book with Meg and me. As I listened to him share Shilpa’s heart wrenching, yet inspiring, story, I couldn’t help but think that this is what SB is all about. Shilpa overcame so much adversity, family problems, philosophical questions she needed to answer herself, dealing with loss. And to think, she’s my age. When this book comes out, everyone needs to buy it immediately and read it from cover to cover. You will cry, laugh, think, pray. I truly believe that her story will bring about social change in India.
On Wednesday, I got to proudly watch all of my piano students put on a piano recital in front of the whole school. With only five weeks, I chose slightly easier music, and challenged them to actually read music instead of simply playing by year and memorizing. I couldn’t have been happier with how they performed. I hope that my short time with these students has inspired them to continue to find passion in music and the arts. At the end of the performance, I put on a short little demonstration of beatboxing because so many of the students keep asking me. And for the finale, a bunch of us volunteers learned a Bhangra routine to perform for the students (hopefully video to come soon). This will surely be a night I will never forget.
On Thursday night, we all went out to the rocks again, but this time our luck ran out and the clouds covered all the stars… but the company was more important. I finally conquered my fear and jumped from the “easy” rock to the “intermediate” rock. And as the prayer music blasted from the village nearby, we shared stories, laughs, and good times we’ve all had at SB. I headed back to the dorm to finish signing the autograph books. As the volunteers began to file out of the school, I stayed back, trying to hold back my emotions as I wrote to the students that I’ve grown so fond of. At 3:30 am, I headed back to my room for a “nap” before getting up for the next day.
In the morning, I put on my royal purple kurta (Go ‘cats!) and headed out for breakfast. As if SB knew, they served my favorite breakfast: dosas and chutney! I gorged myself (although to the students, 5 dosas was child’s play apparently). I slowly began to pack things up and organize my materials for my departure.
During the assembly, I knew what was coming… a rush of emotions began to take over. The staff recited the school prayer, the students recited the virtues, and finally sang the school song. Maybe it’s because I have such a strong connection with music, but as the children started to sing, I couldn’t handle it anymore. As I watched the children sing the song, my eyes began to water. Typically, I never cry at sentimental goodbyes, but these children got me. I tried to hide my tears as I bet a volunteer a drink that I wouldn’t cry. After hearing the news and announcements, the second graders gave a rallying performance of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” with motions and all. I had taught them the song because they had been reading a story about baseball in their textbooks. Watching them sing will certainly melt anyone’s heart, especially since they tried so hard to “surprise” me. Afterwards, I received 22 handwritten cards from the young ones, which are filled with silly pictures and hilarious quotes that I will be saving to share with them when they are older. The students also presented a big card with a picture of Russell from Up drawn on the front. I guess even in India, I am associated with a chubby wilderness scout showing some resemblance of Asian-ness. I shared my final words, and the students all went back to class.
In the afternoon, both Preetha and Thanuja decorated my hands with beautiful henna designs. I began to realize that this decision was such a double-edged sword. On one hand (pun intended), the henna designs are amazing, and I loved seeing some of my favorite students demonstrate their incredible artistic ability. On the other hand, every time I looked down at my hands, I couldn’t help but think of SB and the emotions all rush back.
After dinner, I read bedtime stories to the second graders one last time, and reluctantly let them go to bed. I received a round of hugs from the munchkins. If you haven’t been hugged by a second grader, go find one you know well and get one because it will melt your heart. I made my rounds to each classroom telling them a quick goodbye for they still had night prep. I tried to prolong my last few minutes for as long as I could, but at last my time was up. I hopped on the car and made my way to the airport, saying my goodbye (or more like “see you soon”) to Shanti Bhavan.
The last two weeks had been a rush to the finish, an emotional rollercoaster. Even as I gorge on all this food in a country (Taiwan) that I always yearn to come to, all I can think about is my new family back at Shanti Bhavan. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I feel this way: the staff, volunteers, and, most significantly, the students welcome you with such open arms and send you off with such tearful goodbyes, and all the in-between is filled with love, kindness, and compassion. To steal from Meg’s (our on-site administrator) analogy, Shanti Bhavan is truly a lotus flower. Even in the swamp of poverty, violence, and corruption that seems to still pollute parts of India, a beautiful white flower of hope defiantly blossoms and firmly shouts to the world, “I am here. And I will make a difference.” Thank you Dr. George, staff, and students of Shanti Bhavan. Until we meet again…