The Rickshaw Wallah

To get a head start on filming our interviews, my partner and I left Sai Palace (our hotel) three hours early to catch a rickshaw. Being that it was much earlier than normal, countless drivers refused to pic us up. After maybe 13 attempts, a older modeled vehicle creeped to our rescue. The driver was middle aged and his two front teeth had withered away but he was pleasant. The first thing we noticed was a sign that read ‘hello’ in what must have been 50 different languages.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 12.15.24 AMAs we waited to reach our destination, my partner and I discussed our objectives for the shoot. Out of nowhere, in broken, yet confident, english, we heard the phrase “Good Morning”. This was a pleasant surprise, most of the rickshaw drivers we encountered in the past did not speak a word of our language.  Personally, his greating gave me insight into how mumbai’s citizens must feel when I attempt to speak hindi. We replied hello. He continued, where are you from. My partner replied “we’re from the United States”. The driver then pointed in my direction, where are you from? I reiterated that I was from America.  With a smirk he pointed to my blonde haired classmate and said “Nahi, she america. and you?” At this point I realized – he was either totally oblivious to the fact that there was such thing as an african american or, genuinely, being an asshole. With a flick of his wrist, I got my answer. Pointing to my hand, “black” he shook his head back and forth. “White, America” nodding up and down with an even bigger smirk.

My partner was flabbergasted – but the drivers behaviour didn’t shock me at all. Throughout  my entire stay in India, I was constantly reminded just how much the Anglo Saxon physical features are valued and worshiped. From the constant request of locals to take photos with my white travel mates to the heavy presents and availability of hair dyes and skin bleaching creams. I could have acted in a plethora of ways during that situation, but, I simply reassured him that we were both american. I then raised my own finger and pointed in his direction saying, “you can be american too”.

At that moment, I was totally prepared to lecture the driver with a more in-depth lesson but that wasn’t my job. And furthermore it would be a waste of my time, brain cells and breath. I came to india to make documentaries and learn filmmaking techniques. Trying to unteach centuries of white supremacist sentiments in the 3 minutes I had left in the rickshaw would more than likely prove ineffective. Had it been another day at at a different hour, I may have taken the time to exorcise our rickshaw wallah’s ignorance. But Instead, I paid my fee, crossed the courtyard and continued to film a documentary about the inquisitive, cultured and malleable children that will build Mumbai’s stronger tomorrow.

Of the Places You’ll Go, and the Faces You’ll Never Forget

Yet again India has been my teacher.

We have finally finished our documentaries (well at least the rough cut), and the experience was something I will never forget. I met so many wonderful people who touched my heart with their generosity, kindness, curiosity, and happiness. When I look back on my time here in India I will always remember the expression that each child seemed to share. It is the kind of expression that exudes innocence, and radiates hope eminating a gentle soul, which hides behind sleepy eyes and an incandescent smile. These are the characteristics I will remember when I think back to the children of Abhyudaya. Yet each child, though familiar with their heartwarming expressions, had his or her own story to tell. One child whom I will never forget played a leading role in our documentary. Her name is Swati and she is 15. She has big brown eyes, and an even bigger attitude. She reminds me of my younger sister because although she is young she commands attention. Every minute I spent with her I was so intrigued, and even a little intimidated. She has so much passion for life, and she doesn’t let anyone tell her what to do. I know that she is going to grow up, and do something amazing because she is so strong and independent. I wish I could be as brave as she is. It is often very hard to stand up for yourself or say what you really mean, but Swati does it fearlessly. As much as she might have learned from me, I know that I have learned twice as much from her. The next time I come back to India (because I am definitely coming back) I will look Swati up and I am sure I will find her running her own interior design company, telling her husband what to do, and throwing an elaborate wedding for her sister just like she had told me she dreams of doing. Swati’s courage and strength are traits I hope to learn, and plan to work on emulating starting right now.

The expressions that I see in India, which are so beautiful they can only belong to the magnificent people of this colorful country, are not the only thing that every Indian has in common. There are so many unique and wonderful things about the people here, that I unfortunately was not blessed with. My dirty blonde hair, small blue eyes, and ghost like complexion make blending in a far away dream in some alternate universe. However, even though I do get stares now and again, I do not feel like an outsider. I almost feel like I fit in better with everyone in India than I do in America. People here are so simple. They just live their lives, day to day, and go along with whatever a particular day has in store for them. This easy going attitude also fosters an unimaginable curiosity, and I am lucky enough to intrigue that curiosity. I have been so welcomed here that it is going to be extremely difficult to say goodbye. I know that when I get back to America I will not be welcomed the way that I have been here. I will miss all the little moments of joy each day brought me when I go home in three days because even though I am a foreigner – I feel as if I have known India, and it’s people, my entire life.

I love you India, and I will never forget the beautiful faces who made my three weeks here so extraordinarily magnificent.

 

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Developing and preserving the city

Being foreigner 

Last Sunday, we went to Gateway of India that is built during the colonial period in Colaba, and something interesting happened. A crowd of people in Gate of India surrounds us and takes photo of us. Similarly, when we went to a school of Abyudaya for shooting, children in the school asked us to write down our names and email addresses on a piece of paper. This probably is because these people didn’t have chance to go to overseas, and they barely saw foreigners in their towns. Therefore, I’ve realized that I’m living in a country where has already gone through a globalization. I usually live half a year in the United States and in Korea for the rest of the year. While foreigners are often considered as norms in the U.S. since diverse ethnicities reside in the country, Koreans don’t show much attention to foreigners as much as Indians do. Therefore, being a foreigner in India gives me an impression of being a star in India because local people try to leave the evidence of seeing us by having photos or signatures.

Cultural gap

Along with contrasting reactions of different countries to foreigners, I’ve noticed that there are some cultural differences between Korea and India. Indeed, even though India and Korea are both Asian countries, there is a much more cultural gap between Korea and India than the United States. There are numerous American brands like Cheesecake Factory and Jamba Juice in Korea, and Koreans never wear traditional clothes except holidays. This shows that Korea is much more westernized than India. Korea has economically become affluent through westernization, so the standard of Korean economy may be higher than that of Indian. However, I believe Indian cultural value is more appreciable than Korean because India is developing the country while preserving its tradition. For example, many Indians still wear traditional customs like Saree or Lungi for casual clothing, and there are always vegetarian and non-vegetarian options in American restaurants like Pizza Hut or McDonald. In contrast to what I think, Indians can think their country has already been westernized. In my point of view as a foreigner, I believe India is not underdeveloped but less westernized than the countries I come from, and I admire the way India maintains its identity.

Mumbai, the city of economy

Indeed, India economy is drastically increasing, and Mumbai is an economic capital city. Colaba is one of the rich areas in Mumbai, and two grandiose buildings we saw last Sunday literally represent the wealth of Colaba: Taj Palace Hotel and Ambani’s Mumbai residence. The two biggest companies in India are TaTa Group and Reliance Industries that built those buildings. First, TaTa Group has seven business sectors ranging from engineering to energy. Jamsetji Tata, the founder of TaTa Group, ordered to build Taj Palace Hotel responding to racial discrimination. Tata was once refused to enter a hotel during the colonial period because he was not European. Some people claim that he first banned Europeans to stay in Taj Palace Hotel in order to revenge them. Moreover, Reliance Industries operates five major segments including retail and telecommunications. The chairman of Reliance Industries is Mukesh Ambani, and his house named Antilia is reputed for being the most expensive house in the world. The magnificence of Antilia can be predicted by the fact that his family is living in a private 27-storey building. Reliance Company has relationship with Bollywood because Anil Ambani, younger brother of Mukesh Ambani and the chairman of Reliance Group, is one of the largest producers in Bollywood film industry. Furthermore, there is an Indian biographical film Guru based on the founder of Reliance Group, Dhirubhai Ambani. Hence, I recommend this movie to people who would like to find out how Mumbai has become an economical capital city.

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The poster of Guru

Reflections

Only a few days left in Mumbai! This trip has been a great start to my summer and I’m both really excited to get back home and so happy to have had the opportunity to be here.

 

What I Love About India

People
Everyone that I’ve interacted with at both the Whistling Woods International School and the SP Jain/Bhavan School mentoring program (Abhudaya), as well as the people at the Sai Palace Hotel, have all been so kind, welcoming and accommodating to our needs. They’ve also helped us to learn about Indian culture from varying perspectives and to speak a little bit of Hindi.

While working on the documentary film, my team and I visited the homes of some of the children in Abhudaya mentoring program. Even though their homes were small and their families didn’t have much, they let in three American girls with a camera and microphone to speak with them, not letting us go without offering some kind of drink or food. It has been overwhelming to see such genuine hospitality! I’ve met beautiful people while here in Mumbai.

Spirituality
I am not a religious person but I’ve been reflecting on my spirituality for the past year. I love how connected most people here seem to be to what’s important in life. Since I’ve been in high school, I’ve spent so much time focusing on the future instead of the present and now it’s all about getting an internship, a job, money, security and prestige as opposed to peace and internal happiness. I have so much more of the world to see and to understand, but thank you India for this introduction. It has been fascinating to see what different people value across the world.

Also, yoga has nothing to do spirituality. Me during out mandatory (ugh) yoga class = sleeping on the mat

What I Miss About Home
Cold water
Wearing shorts when its hot
Beef
Non-paneer cheese!
Clean feet
Clean air
Washers and dryers
Air conditioning
Autonomy

 

What I’ll Take Back Home
As I’ve been in India I’ve seen and have learned a bit about humanity. I had initially thought that the poorest of the poor live in slums in India but the truly poor live on the streets, on the highway, and wherever they can settle. Something I’ve always thought about how we have no say in how we come into this world. We don’t choose anything about the type of life we’re born into but we all have to make do. I’m going to strive to just make the best of any situation I’m put into, because there’s no room and no time for missed opportunities or wasted moments.

Shuffle, Cheese, Click, Resume, Repeat (x74)

Staged pictures have always seemed like an odd concept to me.  The whole act of staging yourself and your companions to look happy and smiley in front of some landmark with some significance in order to look back on that specific moment years later and say, “Hey! Look how happy and smiley we were when we visited that place that one time!…What was it called again?” just seems like a construction of artificial emotion.  As a budding filmmaker though, the fact that this crosses my mind and slightly bothers me is also an odd concept since everything I plan to ever create will most likely be an artificial construction and be staged in some sense.  However, in real life, I just find it odd to shuffle into position, “cheese!”, *click*, resume, and repeat. 

We visited the Gateway of India this past Sunday where I was confronted with more of these staged photos than I could have ever expected.  As soon as I walked through the security gates, photographers approached me with laminated photos of unknown faces smiling and posing in front of the arch and offered to take my picture for a “good price.”  I responded with something that has almost become habit, with a nahi (no) and a shake of the head and continued walking towards the group, who were now forming to take a group photo. As I was making my way towards familiar faces, a family approached me and who I assume to be the mom said, “photo, photo!”, held up a finger and pointed towards a man with a camera.  At first, I thought that they wanted me to take a picture of them and was all “of course, yeah!” and started towards the man with the camera, but he made a face that made me realize that they actually wanted to take a picture with me.  Which I really don’t understand why other than for the reason that I am a Whiter Shade of Pale and happen to be blonde.  And, assuming they didn’t recognize me from any of my highly distributed and acclaimed video class projects, I don’t think there was any other reason than this. So, I took a picture with the family, said my thank yous and you’re welcomes and continued towards the SU group, but more people approached me asking for pictures “quickly” and “just one” and I soon found myself becoming “that girl who looked different who we saw that one time in front of that one place that time.”

It became sort of overwhelming when I would finish a picture with somebody and a new person would come up and go through the whole procedure again.  Some people said hello and would shake my hand, but some people just stood next to me and expected a smile and pose.  I learned some names and had a couple of conversations lasting a stunted twenty seconds each, but I doubt I would be able to recognize a majority of the people who I took pictures with that day if I saw them in a different context.

I’ve never been in a situation where people who I had no prior acquaintance with wanted to save a moment with me for posterity. And it was mad weird.  Just like my maple syrup, I try to stay as real and organic as possible, but these pictures taken with people I didn’t get the chance to know and will probably never see just seem digital, pixelated, and artificial.  But who knows, maybe one day our paths will cross again and I will meet my soulmate.  Or maybe we already met.  Woah. 

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photos by Iarn aka Iara Rogers Benchoam

Ginger Does Mumbai (and a special Lungi Dance preview!)

When coming to India, I knew there wouldn’t be that many white people, but I did not know that we are this rare here. We are so sparse that whenever people see us they stare and/or take pictures of us. It has actually gotten to the point that I just stare whenever I see a white person, and almost ask for their picture. Over the past couple of weeks we have been picked out of the group, pointed and stared at, asked to have pictures taken with us, and even for an autograph. Like I said, I was expecting some attention, but not THIS much. However, I’m sure me being a ginger with very white skin and lighter hair doesn’t help me blend in.

This was most apparent this past weekend when we went down to Colaba and saw the Gateway of India. While there I took a couple pictures of my own of the gate, but posed for several more with guys, girls, families, and other locals who wanted to get proof that they saw a real Gora (white person)! I just hope when the pictures were taken, they get my good side. Or that I even show up with the blaring sun reflecting off my translucent skin, which is now a slight pink but surprisingly have not gotten that sunburned. Thanks, Coppertone Sport High Performance SPF 80! 😀 (Freeze for product shot).

The more time we spend in India the more I notice it, but the less it affects me; now I just make jokes and shrug it off. However, it is quite obvious that beggers have a tendency to haggle us more than others and they literally follow us around. Sometimes the locals step in and tell them to leave us alone since we don’t know the language to do so ourselves, and they wouldn’t listen anyways.

All in all, sure it’s different being white out on the streets of India, but the time I felt the most white all trip was when we did the Lungi Dance, especially the rapping parts! Those Indian Dancers sure know how to shake their Lungis and we…tried…? Anywho… enjoy this video I am currently leaking as the first preview of the SU Bollywood Lungi Dance! (It’s a deleted scene…our timing may have been a little off…)