FIRE HOSE

I have just returned from the State Department’s Fulbright training in Washington DC. I feel like I have been hit with a fire hose stream of information, new faces, contacts, advice. I don’t even know how to process this into any type of useable form. In front of me is a multipage roster of about 400 southeast and central Asia scholars (120 who will be going to India).  I have highlighted a few names and scribbled notes in the margins.  They are important links to my Indian experience, which will begin in mid-November.  It has been years since I have felt this alive and ready for the future.

All of the attendees at the 3-day session share (at various degrees) both excitement and trepidation. Certain topics trigger deep-seated fears and elicit questions from the audience. Each of us has a different trigger point: for some it is medical emergencies and the fear of mortgaging the house in the event of a medi-evacuation, and for some it is putting ones fate in the hands of others.  Some are worried about their children, or safety, and others about experiencing life as a woman in a male-dominated culture.  Interestingly, no one (other than the couple who lived through it) is afraid of a revolution during their stay overseas.

My trigger point is very personal and, while certainly not unique, I was the only one that admitted it.  It is the rocky reality of cultural adaptation that my husband and I will experience, that period of time after we arrive when the honeymoon stage of newness ends: the time when disillusionment sets in, when everyone is an idiot, everything is idiocy, and all we want to do is leave the “hell hole” to go home. I know it will happen, as I have experienced it before when I have lived overseas.  If my husband and I can survive that, then surely we will reap the rewards and joys of experiencing India together  . . . as it is, not as we expect it to be.

After spending the past several years as a hermit consultant, I find that my sudden immersion into crowds and the DC humidity is both uncomfortable and exhilarating.  Most of the participants are not bothered by sitting cheek-to-cheek on small chairs in an airless room. Me, I squirm a bit, sweat a lot, and think about the open spaces surrounding my home in Spokane, where silence is pierced only by the sounds of lovesick birds calling for mates.  So I am internalizing this training experience as preparation for the controlled chaos I will find in India: the veneer of civilization that lies over the anarchy of daily life.  While crowds, noise, and pollution are necessary evils of my profession, if given the choice I would definitely prefer serenity, quiet, and purity.  Wouldn’t that be the ultimate, to find those qualities in India?

I have met so many amazing people already. There is nothing more satisfying than an intelligent, thoughtful discourse about events happening on a global scale.  I wish I could spend more time with this collection of diverse individuals who are committed to making positive change happen.  Whether serendipitous or deliberate, there is another woman doing a project similar to mine in Bangalore. We are a good match and can share resources, contacts, expertise, etc.  I am glad that I can introduce her to environmental professionals who can help her with her project.  I have also met two other women who I hope I can visit during our stay there. Perhaps this is the start of several lifelong friendships. We are bonded by the choices we make, facing our individual fears in order to embark on our respective journeys through life.

The most wonderful contact of all is the photographer (of some fame) who gave a presentation about his Fulbright experience in Bangladesh.  I introduced myself afterwards.  Of course I was almost ready to swoon (as I am prone to do in front of almost any professional photographer).  What luck that he lives in Portland and wants to meet and discuss some sort of collaboration in Bangalore.  Perhaps we can work something out that will benefit both of us.  This is so exciting!

Receiving the Fulbright award has resulted in a personal revelation of titanic proportions.  This is a lifelong dream come true.  Suddenly I am the sum total of my training, interests, and experiences.  What I have strived for makes sense and it is all coming together in a shining moment.  The purpose I have in life peaks out like the sun from behind the clouds. But like the sun, if I look at it directly, it will blind me to what I must continue to accomplish day-to-day.  So now I must bow down and settle back into the discipline of daily life, at least until November.

As we introduced ourselves, the icebreaking question was always, “And where are YOU going?”  By constantly repeating the word “Bangalore” I am marching my theoretical future into the present. If I say it enough times, I may believe that it will really happen.  Soon.  Very soon.  Too soon.

The Fulbright appointment asks each of us to be a citizen ambassador of the United States.  That is not the same as being an American in India nor is it the same as going to India to become Indian.  I am going on this journey as an American in order to live the “who” that I am, to become comfortable in my skin and in how I relate with others. I want to realize the true intent of this journey, whatever that may be. Most importantly, in spite of the august company I find myself in (and exactly why was I chosen?), I want to grow as a person in order to fulfill my duty (with humility) as a world citizen on this tiny, fragile planet. If something good should be the result of it, so much the better.

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