Everyone loves Arnold.
"Yeah but what is different between America and India?"
Below, telephone pole, America:
Below, the electricity/telephone pole/street lamp outside my room in India:
Seeing skinny 17 year-old boys sigh dramatically and roll their eyes in this way never fails to amuse me.
"Well, not everything. It's like comparing rice and dosa. In their essence they're exactly the same - rice. But in every other way they're different. They look different, they taste different, and you eat them with different foods. America and India are basically the same. It's just people and families trying to survive and love one another. But in every other recognizable way they're different." I look out at my once adoring class and one thing is very very clear. Metaphors are lame, particularly my metaphors.
I try a different tactic.
"Okay, okay. Let's see. America is cold. At this time of year it's freezing and there's snow. And even when it's not the climate, it can be really cold there. It's the people. And it's very ..." I scrawl their new vocabulary word on the board: INDIVIDUALISTIC. "It means that everybody wants to be independent, wants to do everything on their own. Here in India, it's all about community and family, in America it's about individuals and their personal successes." They practice saying individualistic several times unsuccessfully. I can see them throwing this into casual conversation "What is your name? Are you individualistic?" Perhaps this wasn't the best approach. Still, they ask for more.
"Well, in India you share things. Everything. In America, people are incredibly wasteful. Wasteful means they do not use everything they have. It is connected to being individualistic in a way." They are clearly confused. "Okay," I continue, "here's an example: On a train or a bus, an American will throw out the rest of their biscuits or fruit or whatever they're eating rather than share it with the person next to them."
They look at one another as if for clarification on the joke.
"I'm not kidding guys. People throw things out that are perfectly good rather than talk to a stranger. Everyone in America has boundaries that are completely different from Indian boundaries. Even within a family each person will drink from a different cup. They will wash a cup. With soap before using it again."
"You think I'm joking, but it's true." (For reader's perspective, at the Madurai airport there is a large drinking water tank upon which sits 4 tin cups to be shared by all who pass through the airport's restaurant and need a drink. The idea of individual utensils, even in this most public of contexts, does not exist in this part of India).
Seemingly satisfied with this explanation of why America is not like India, why America is in fact a very strange alternate universe, probably inhabited by space creatures who carry hand sanitizer and wear sunglasses and listen to mp3 players on public transportation so they don't have to interact with society, they venture on.
"Are you married?" they ask.
"No." I brace myself, I wait for it ... but it doesn't come. There is no communal gasp. No pitying looks and the appearance of minds racing to their next opportunity to rush to temple/church/mosque to pray to whatever God is best suited to save my soul and bring me a husband. I smile. I knew I liked these boys for a reason.
"How old are you?"
"How old do you think I am?"
They discuss animatedly amongst themselves before agreeing on a number: "18."
I smile. That explains the apparent acceptance of my marital status. I shake my head no. "19? 17?" they guess.
"I just turned 25" I say, to which communal gasp, concerned chatter, and calculations of time available after class before the temple closes to pray for my mortal soul immediately follows.
Here are some pictures of the many folks across the world who continue to pray for me, not including my entire refugee client base in the US who are undoubtedly making deals with cousins and uncles and arranging bride prices as we speak:
"The average age for marriage for a woman in America is 29," I lie. I have no idea what the real number is, probably lower but this seems to suit me. "First child at 31" I continue without any clue what I'm talking about.
"It's 21 here. First child at 21 is very good for Indian woman" They reply.
"I know," I say, "it just takes longer for us I guess. We don't have arranged marriage like you. No one to find our husbands for us. In America, only love marriages." I say this without the superiority I once thought the statement inherently carried. Things seem to work out pretty well here on the arranged marriage front. There are problems of course but for the most part I see a lot of examples of strong, committed, happy families.
"You all have love marriage?" they ask in disbelief.
"Yes, all Americans (unless they're Indian-American perhaps) have love marriages." They smile at this idea. "They're not quite like yours though. Indian love marriages are different. In America, they're all love marriage, but they're not all happy. In fact, in America you can stop anytime you want. End the marriage. End the loving." It is impossible to explain this concept to them. In the area I'm living in here, a love marriage is a sacrifice, a rebellion, the culmination of years of secret conversations and exchanges of knowing smiles. It is hidden photographs and dreams of the future. It is not dating as we know it. And it most certainly is not sex. And it absolutely doesn't end in divorce. Sure, it has its problems (any arranged marriage enthusiast, and there are many, will tell you this) but in comparison to many of the examples we have in the states, it's hard not to be a little awed by marriages here -- both arranged and "love".
After all this discussion, they look dejected at this new picture of the Promised Land. I don't want to depress these kids. I pick up my tone. "But..." I say, "We have a lot of really good things too. Like cheese, and i-pods, and baseball, the wonders of which I cannot put into words but I can assure you, they are absolutely amazing. And also it is because I am from a place like America that I am here at all. I came to India alone, and when I leave I will keep going, to other countries, for a year, without any men to put me on each train and scoop me up each time I land."
They are a bit impressed by this (as impressed as 17 year old boys will admit to being).
"Do you have credentials and a profession too?"
"Yes!" and I explain what I do, or what I did because, come to think of it, I'm quite unemployed at the moment. "Most women, especially if they are young like me have jobs. And we can have good jobs too. And move about freely inside our country without any help. We are free to do as we please..." I want to say more about this, to believe what I'm saying is true. But as the words come out I'm already doubting their veracity. Yes we can move about, yes we are free to wear jeans and t-shirts and attain higher education. But we're still doing a huge portion of the domestic work; we're still only earning 75% of the salary of men in our positions. We can't even elect a female president for crying out loud! At least India can do that much. I throw in my cards. No more high horse to ride on the gender issue. I return my focus to the students and my unwavering ability to disappoint them over all matters related to cricket and my unbelievable lack of knowledge on the subject...
"No, I don't know him either. Why don't you just pick a favorite for me and I'll go with that... What else, we have time for one more question."
"Have you ever met Arnold?" they ask with anticipation.
They make big (tiny) muscles. "The Govinator!"
I smile. My mood is sufficiently brightened.
"No" I say, mocking a deep seated regret at this unfortunate fact "but I read in the Hindu Times last week that he broke his leg..."
They all break in to join this conversation topic on which they are all experts. Tamilnadu has washed up actors as governors too. So naturally, the entire state adores him. We discuss our favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger films until class is over. Listening to them imitate lines from The Terminator in heavy Tamil accents has made my week.