An Asian Studies teacher has a lot to deal with. Asia is not a single unit, has hardly any internal coherence, and demands a discipline that is quite different from teaching World (read: European) History. It is misleading to think that we have less content, because from philosophy to the rise of modernity, Asia is all about soul.
When I was starting out, I saw the three content areas this way.
Chinese history appeals to my heart. I am simply in love with the culture, its food, and its movies. My studies there stem from this playful love for the subject matter.
Islamic history appeals to my head. My first encounter with it was during my college days learning Political Science. 9/11 just happened, and hence interest in Islam increased; I was part of that statistic.
But India always appealed to my soul. There is just something so entrancing about the story of the Buddha, so eerie about the Taj Mahal, and for some reason their imperial experience under Britain feels all too familiar. To confront India was always to confront my deepest self, and I could attest to that now that I have actually been there.
The Community Development and Leadership Summit 2009 was really for our students. The teacher chaperone has to do pretty much that – chaperone. “Get them there, and get them out” was pretty much my job description. And yet between the margins I found the time to encounter India in its entirety, though I think it is really impossible to do just that and arrogant to think that that is even possible.
But we sure tried. There were times when some fellow teacher delegates and I excused ourselves from some sessions to steal some time outside the school walls. We affirmed that the Indians do love their tea more than their coffee, that no two saris looks the same (though it can be impossible to tell the Indians themselves apart), and that the colonial experience reaches its way to their comfort rooms – when you enter you can take your pick: toilet or ‘Western’ toilet.
Having taught India from a textbook for the past five years, I was more curious to see whether my readings bore out in reality. Indeed, there were hardly any Buddhists around anymore and so it is no surprise that some have this misconception of Buddhism coming from Thailand or China. I was also sensitive to the caste system, which I had no idea how to bring up. But I had a firsthand experience with a dalit or untouchable.
Though banned in theory, the caste retains deep socio-economic divisions. I had my shoe ‘shined’ inadvertedly; while walking through an underpass in Delhi, a dark skinned man walked up to me and offered a shoe shine. I declined; he insisted. Then he crouched to my shoe to give me no choice; I politely ran away and said I’m being left behind by my companions (which was true). As I exited the underpass, I noticed a light green goo on top of my right shoe. It was monkey poo. I just had an encounter with a con man. I just had an encounter with a man who was trying to make a living.
Back at the school, I asked a sociology teacher how much he could’ve asked a foreigner like me.
“100 rupees?” I guessed. One rupee being almost equal to one peso.
“100? Too much.” The teacher replied. “20 would have been a lot already.”
Twenty rupees for a con job. That’s twenty pesos here. Unbelievable yes, but this was happening every day and in different spots throughout New Delhi.
People speak so easily about change and progress in India. The politicians and economists all talk about a coming Golden Age, and they do have many reasons to be optimistic. What is important is that in their quest for progress, they do not forget the shoe shine guy and many others like him. But thankfully, I am optimistic.
I just have to remember a boy named Mukul.
Throughout the summit, the foreign student delegates were assigned a Modern School student to accompany them and help them through everything they need. We teachers weren’t. But there was Mukul. His small unassuming bespectacled stature betrays his low, deep voice that echoed nothing else but warm, sympathy and concern. He who followed, trailed, and struck a conversation with me whenever he could. At first though, I was a little annoyed since there were moments when I preferred to be alone. And then one night, I received news from Manila that my uncle passed away.
A forum just ended and everyone was heading back to the dormitories. I decided to hang around the auditorium area, use their WiFi, and see how everyone back home was doing. But I couldn’t get a signal and just sat there, frustrated that I couldn’t get in touch. My mother was very concerned about uncle during his last few months, and I was very concerned for my mother whose heart doesn’t easily break but breaks hard when it does. But I only planned to get in touch through the Internet and did not get a local sim for my phone. Now I was regretting it.
Then Mukul arrived. He called on me and asked me to join everyone for dinner back in the dorm. I politely declined and said that I wanted to try the WiFi one last time, so he insisted to stay with me. He then asked if something was wrong; I looked upset, he said.
Not one to just let emotions spill, I assured him that it was nothing I couldn’t deal with. “But enough about me,” I said. “Tell me something about you.” Then we walked back to the dormitories.
During the walk he told me about how he wasn’t accepted as one of the Modern School volunteers for the summit, but will insist that he becomes one just so he can hang around. He found me interesting and funny, like a mentor he could learn a lot from. So as a mentor, I asked him what his dreams were. He said he wanted to be an accountant and he dreamed about earning the big bucks to live a good life. I asked if that was all. “Well, that’s what I can do to help my family.”
As we neared the dorm his phone rang. It was his mother. “I am being summoned home now, sir. It’s my mother.”
“Well, Mukul, if I were you, I’d be a good boy and go home now.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be on my way then. See you tomorrow, and I hope all will be well.”
* * *
It has been more than two months since I got back from India. Since then my head has been swirling with ideas for my classes and new dreams for myself. I can now speak of India more confidently and more convincingly. I have enough anecdotes to write my own book with.
I readily admit that I haven’t seen everything I would’ve wanted to see in India. I’d like to see Varanasi for myself and witness a burial ritual along the Ganges as other people bathe. But this only gives me reason to return. Maybe then the shoe shine guy won’t be around anymore. And perhaps I’ll drop by Modern School and look for Mukul, just so I can say that all has been well. That evening conversation wasn’t the last I saw of him, but it was then that I realized something I’ve long since known.
India is all about soul.