Sunday, November 13, 2011

India: Part Belated

At long last, I have returned to see that my duty has been properly fulfilled. It's almost been 6 months since I was there, so hopefully my tale does not dull you for lack of vibrant detail.

The next day in our trip was Saturday, June 18th. We woke up early, around 5 am, so that we could be driven over to Jaipur, which is a pretty historical place in early India. The drive there was a microcosm of India itself. One of the first observations I made when I got to India was that the roads are symbolic of India's attitude towards democracy. In the US, we have two directions you can drive. Forward or backward. Left or Right, if viewed from another perspective. Two strictly defined lanes, and all people are strictly in one lane or the other. In India, there are no lanes. Forwards, fifteen point two seven degrees to the left, meandering through both loosely defined suggested directions at will, other cars, people, and cattle be damned. You do what you want, and no one can do a thing about it. Functional anarchy, a true plurality of paradigms, worldviews, ways of life. None of this restrictive, narrow-minded "two party" business. More is better, right? More representative of the varied interests of a very large number of people.

The amount of traffic we dealt with, as a result of the politically sophisticated "rules of the road," was something no person from LA would want to live through. There weren't areas where you could drive fast cause there were no people. People were everywhere, just as in the old days when people would live by the river. But this was far filthier than the Nile that the Egyptians settled along. A road built maybe 50 years ago, before the British left India. Cars around the same age. Massively tan and tattooed trucks, with ink encouraging you to use your horn. There was no real infrastructure here. Literally people living in what seemed to be garages with no houses attached, on the side of the road. Mud, feces, smog, and poverty were their companions.

It was frightening to be exposed to such squalor. Frightening because the compassion you expected would well out of your heart like steam escaping a tea kettle's snout instead chose to huddle in the corner, avert its eyes, mumbling something (perhaps in a British accent) about how deplorable this all was. It (the compassion) was not brave, emphatically embracing these fellow human beings, their dignity and essential humanity respected in your emotion. It was afraid. And numb. Numb because you literally feel nothing. You're not sure if this is turtling your mind against the rush of tragedy, or just pure psychopathy. It feels horrible. To feel nothing. And then, the devilish lawyer in your mind twists it, and you mistake your guilt over feeling nothing as the compassion of the true response you had hoped for all along.

This was pretty much how I felt the whole trip. This made it extremely difficult to parse what my true response was to all that surrounded me. I could never be sure if my response was directly towards what I saw, or directly indirectly from my original lack of response. Later, when we saw more of my family, I felt the same way. It was amazing to be welcomed as family, as if I had been there all along and understood their world as well as they did. But when faced with issues that I had never really had to deal with in my childhood, like the impact that poor lifestyle, age, and the resulting poor health can have on the psyche, my compassion took the fetal position. But they loved me.

Jaipur was worse than Delhi. I was (and am) really uncomfortable with being served, or (even truly) cared for. No matter how much money I end up making, I could never see myself hiring people to cook my food (restaurants excluded), take care of my domestic things, and drive me around. If I can do it, I should, I think, to maintain a close connection with the humming hive of the real world. Something about being driven around, or generally having other people do things for you that most people do themselves just reeks of privilege. And in sight of the gross inequalities at my constant attention, I couldn't stand it. Being reminded that for no reason other than pure, unfair, omnipresent luck, I was luckier than they. And there was no reason for that. They deserved as much as I've had, and after what they've been through, more. Something about being a tourist in this context really bothers me.

In spite of the realization that tourism is the desperate gasp of oxygen reaching life starved veins, I couldn't help but feel like they would have been better off moving far away from the city, and learn to be farmers. Rely on the bounty of the land, rather than the generosity of apathetic strangers and local elites. I thought this would be a more reliable method of sustenance. This is of course an ignorant thought given the arduous life that many Indian farmers lead (read: Monsanto), but either way I didn't feel that my presence contributed towards their sustainable well-being. Their immediate and short-term well-being was abducted by my tourism. Wholly subservient to it. I wasn't sure what would or wouldn't exist there had I never visited.

We visited the castle of Jaipur, which had a classic mix of Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist architecture. This is where, again, it becomes clear that the recent notion of a strict division between these faiths is a gross oversimplification of the complex cultural exchange between them that has gone on for millenia. The castle was basically at the base of an Indian equivalent of the great wall of China. The worksmanship was incredible, a reminder of what humans can accomplish provided sufficient motivation, in spite of technological limitations.

From there we went back into our bone-chillingly air-conditioned car to grab some lunch. Throughout the trip, we avoided eating food cooked on the street, taking instead to the sorts of the places only tourists go. And it really was that way, we saw the same people eating at this place that we had seen eating at another place on the way here, 200 miles away.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Education reform

like hipsters, the purpose of education is easier to define in the negative (what it shouldnt accomplish), but ill try anyway. most generally, to produce citizens of democracy and of "the world"... that is, people who are able to make informed decisions on their own, think critically, creatively, and independently. education should explore not only the vast depth of what previous people have thought and done, but should also make you explore your own thoughts and actions by encouraging you to develop reasoning for why you have those thoughts, or provide paths for you to change your opinions/views on the world if they were previously based on ignorance. education should expand peoples mind to not only what is, but what isnt and what could be. a true education fosters a love for learning, an ability to learn for oneself, to judge the quality of one's own work, to be open-minded, and to have an understanding and appreciation of different perspectives, cultural or otherwise.

there is of course a million other things that could be said, but at this point we can stop and ask the natural question: how would you accomplish this? and furthermore, how would you determine that this goal was accomplished? these are difficult questions, ones that i certainly dont know the answer to, but i have my own ideas about... but to finish off i might as well throw out there the idea that i dont think there is any way to measure the success of such an education as was described above. in my opinion, the act of measuring the success of education, which puts an end goal on it, would distort the process away from pure discovery and exploration, and instead focus on the end goal.

is this a contradiction? to say that education has a goal, but then deny it by not focusing on it? i think its a necessary one. zen, if you will. one can have goals, but seek to achieve them "by accident," that is say, naturally. to design a system to achieve and insure the outcome of those goals is the surest way to prevent them from happening.

to be more concrete: the trap we've fallen into is the belief that we need to have some sort of oversight on the quality of education. once we decide that we need some objective metric, then testing naturally comes into the picture. but the problem is this: someone who really understands something can do well on the test, but someone who does well on the test does not necessarily understand the subject at all. so focusing on doing well on a test does not necessarily correlate to understanding the material. a test is a limited subset of the subject, the tip of the iceberg. but theres so much more beneath the surface that is lost. instead, it would be better to just learn for its own sake, without any pressure. then, if by chance you were to test those students, i think they would do better, but it wouldnt even matter.

an implicit assumption most people have is that the end goal of education is our economic prosperity. this too, i think, is misguided. focus on just pure learning for its own sake, and the talented and inspired people produced will prosper, as will everyone around them.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

India: Part 1

I've avoided writing a reflection of my trip for a while now. For over a month, I've stalled and stalled, due to equal parts laziness and... not really knowing how to express what happened. In any case, now I have the advantage of perspective (letting the trip marinate), but I lose out on the finer details that bring the trip to life. I think I've reached the point where I need to use this medium as a tool for me to understand how I feel.

First impressions
We left for India on Monday June 13th, around noon. After a short layover in China, we landed in New Delhi at the ripe hour of 1 am, Wednesday morning. I think one of my first thoughts was... this isn't that hot. This isn't that chaotic. I can handle this... I got this!

We shopped around for a taxi that could take us to the guesthouse we were going to stay at for the next few days. Luckily for us, the driver had no idea where this place was, but we headed out anyway, my dad babbling in Hindi to the driver, ordering him to stay on the right side of the road. Whether the driver couldn't understand him or simply chose to ignore him, we will never know.

Another thought that quickly entered my head was how remarkably similar this felt to Syria... people out and about at 3 in the morning... old, loud, and smelly cars, dilapidated buildings built mostly of concrete. An odd mix of things imported and built in the fifties with modern technology, like new moss on a rotting log. A sense of desperation, that people would do whatever it takes to put bread on the table, even if it was just for one day. Picture a man riding a rusted bike, talking on a cell phone, hauling twenty or thirty propane tanks balanced precariously on top of each other, while weaving through traffic, which is composed of people, bikes, cars, trucks, cows, all going in different directions.

But also, a mixture of ancient architecture with harsh new buildings, like dirty shells surrounding the pearl of the oyster, hiding it from view. An incredible beauty...thousands of thousands of years of history. More ways of living and thinking than there are people in Los Angeles. No concept of a "fake" person because that is a luxury only afforded to Hollywood. But all this is of course not readily apparent when you are driving through the streets of Delhi at 3 am.

Week 1: Delhi and Jaipur
First day we met up with my dad's old friend, from back in high school and through college. We then went to IIT Delhi, where my dad and his (for lack of a better phrase) bros worked post-college for a couple years. It was cool meeting friends that my dad had never once mentioned, but maybe that had something to do with the fact that he hadn't seen these people in 35 years. In spite of that, they got on like it had been a couple months or something, which was comforting.

After lunch, my dad and I left the campus to explore the city a little. We found one of the millions of "auto rickshaws" (basically green and yellow motorized tricycles with a cover, ideal for darting in between cars, cows, or what have you). Our driver, Raja (yes, haha) turned out to be quite the enterprising fellow, as he immediately started trying to monopolize our transportation, in addition to suggesting a few stores we should drop by. We did go to a camera shop he suggested, as the camera we brought used 4 AA batteries every 5 minutes, making it worse than worthless.

Anyway, we first went to a place called Qutab Minar, which is basically a site built by a Muslim king. There's an iron shaft that hasn't rusted in a couple hundred years, which people are still trying to figure out. This place definitely reminded me of Syria, with its architecture/art style, which is largely Islamic (ie geometric patterns instead of representing people). But there was one crucial difference...the addition of Hindu and Buddhist art styles as well.

This was a running theme throughout the trip, the unity of these "separate" cultures, which is really just a British interpretation of Indian history, which was taken up by Indians themselves, creating the current conflict. Point is, the "Hindu v Muslim" conflict is completely artificial, the unfortunate consequence of a misinterpretation of history appropriated by people looking to define what is Indian and what is not.

After we saw that we continued on to see the Lotus Temple, a Baha'i temple shaped, not surprisingly, like a lotus. Then we returned after a solid day of touring the city to our guesthouse, and reunited with my dad's friend to have dinner.

The next day was pretty different, and was one of the hardest days of the trip. With his friend gone, dad decided we should check out places in the heart of the city. We headed out to one place, called Redfort (literally a red fort, with a bunch of Indian political buildings set against British-era stuff). The area surrounding it was crazy.... people everywhere. I really don't know how to put in words the teeming mass of life surrounding this place. People begging everywhere... which I had a lot of trouble with because I just don't know how to handle that... going into the trip I wasn't sure how I would react to the poverty that I encountered... I'm still not sure how I felt. Less emotional than I anticipated, but in a guarded way, steeling myself and holding back to avoid having to deal with an incredible guilt, an involuntary sense of revulsion, coupled with attempting to mask these emotions.

After Redfort we started planning the next few days of our trip. Our plan was to go to Jaipur in two days (Saturday) and go to Kalkata immediately afterward. I don't know why but I didn't like planning these things... I think it has something to do with the fact that I hate spending money. Seeing my dad drop thousands of rupees on our trip to Jaipur, and to the Taj Mahal (in the last week of the trip), in the backdrop of people starving on the street, was just too much for me. I hated feeling like a spoiled little tourist, wasting money when so many people needed it so desperately more than I did. I tried to express this to my dad, who kind of brushed off how uncomfortable I was with this.

We then tried to get to the outskirts of the city to see my aunt and cousins, for the first time. My dad hadn't seen them in 35 years. I was really excited to meet them... a sense of anticipation...what would they be like, and what would I learn about myself in the process? Getting there was pretty ridiculous. Public transportation didn't extend beyond the city, so we tried to take an auto rickshaw. However, they lived in a different district, so the union that the driver was in would not allow him to cross the border. This meant at the border, we had to change drivers, which for whatever reason turned out to be really complicated.

Anyway, we got there pretty late and ended up staying for an hour. When I met my aunt she immediately embraced me, although we could not speak to each other. She was much older than my dad, and at first I wasn't even sure if she was my aunt because she and my dad did not exactly act like I imagined brother and sister would act. My cousin and her husband were incredibly kind. My cousin told us that my aunt was afflicted with depression, and dementia due to the roots of her teeth affecting her brain... we also learned that my other cousin was hospitalized due to a negative reaction to chemotherapy.

It was strange to hear this news... I really didn't know how to feel. I don't even know if I felt anything. Which I then would feel guilty about, building a shit castle of emotion on top of a base of guilt. On the drive back, I tried to convince my dad to either return to Delhi one day earlier, or to cancel our trip to the Taj Mahal so that we could see my hospitalized cousin. This got into the relationship my dad has with his family... I wanted to understand why my dad didn't see his family for so long. I still don't really understand but at this point he felt that it would be "fake" to suddenly care and try and show up... who were we to show up so randomly?

After that day, either from genuine guilt or from guilt at not feeling anything, I started to view everything as a luxury. Showers? I limited my water so that I wasn't running it continuously, like we do back in the states. I felt horrible eating out because that meant we were living like kings.

It was only Thursday, and it felt like we were going to be here forever... I started keeping track of how much longer the trip was going to last.

Friday was a much easier day, as we again spent it with my dad's professor-type friends. We met one of his friends who I found pretty interesting. He started out as a professor of electrical engineering, but ended up making his own school. One of his students did a science fair style project on the tensile strength of bamboo, which piqued his curiosity on the subject and now he is pretty much the professor of bamboo research. In India, there are essentially no forests, so everything is built purely of concrete. This is horribly expensive, bad for the environment, and not particularly resilient. Bamboo, on the other hand, has the potential to be cheap, sustainable, and hardy. It was cool to see someone trying to improve the living situation, and to hear how he, through a series of small steps, transformed his occupation to what it is now.

Monday, March 21, 2011

spring quarter

It's that time ladies and gents... the end of college is nigh. What the fuck happened? All I can say at this point is, it's been an awesome ride. I started college very critical of the stereotypical college image/student, and yet somehow, in a way, I ended up conforming to that image.

More reflections later, but for now, here are some things I want to see happen:

1. Hang OUT! Seriously, I am down for anything and want to make the most of spring with good friends old and new. This one is really the most important because the rest I can accomplish on my own, anywhere.

2. Exercise. I'm writing this because I know if I don't post it publicly I won't hold myself to it... but I really want to get in the habit of going to the gym at least 3 times a week, not just for health reasons (heart problems on both sides of my family woo) but to feel good about myself.

3. Cooking. I ate out a lot last quarter. The thing is, eating out is very social... like if you want to catch up with someone, you go out and get some dinner or something. But it doesn't have to be that way. Why not cook in someone's apartment instead? I ran into a few websites on accident recently that got me really excited about actually following recipes, which is something I never do. Soo I want to cook new things more often!

4. Music. I've really been slacking on this front... I literally cannot finish writing anything. I'll be really diggin this idea, and then I think about it later and decide it's really lame. I feel like I just need to be in the right place and be willing to ride that emotion all the way to its full expression. Like what will happen is I'm feeling something and I'll play it on the guitar. Then I'll be like... this is actually not too bad, I might be able to develop it more. BUT I dont. Sigh.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

black swan

Black Swan was a really interesting movie to me. I watched it about a month ago, and have been meaning to blog about it since... but I have so many ideas on what to write about that I've been overwhelmed... I wish I could devote more to this post but I'm just going to let it out as is:

I really related to it, actually. So really the whole point of the movie is to examine Natalie Portman's character as she seeks perfection. It was kind of a hard movie to watch because you are literally in Nina's (Natalie Portman's) universe pretty much the whole time- there's no escape. Even traveling shots were right over her shoulder or right in front of her, so you never really get an objective version of the story (if that would even make sense). As she goes insane, it's painful- she tears stuff out of her body, shit happens but then we realize it didn't actually happen, and we as the audience feel the growing tension in Nina as the big show approaches. On an emotional level the movie grabbed me.

I think if anything, my parents gave me a passion for perfection. This actually makes it really hard for me or other people to distinguish what I'm truly passionate about, as I tend to put my all in pretty much everything I do. I think this has its roots in an identity crisis- I have a tendency to define myself by what I devote myself to. For example, my first two years in college, I devoted myself completely to studying, and then the two years following my focus was on mentorship. I think it is in part because of my identity issues or whatever that I tend to do this.

This year has been a challenge as I've been trying to distance myself from that tendency... finding myself in absence of being enveloped by some greater cause. That is not to say that I am not committed to some cause, just that I don't let it solely define me. It's all about finding that balance between seeking complete perfection for its own sake and pure, spontaneous passion. I really think for Nina it's the same thing- for her the goal is perfection, the relationship her art has to emotion is merely by association with how other people approach dance. It's not like for her there's necessarily an emotional release with every performance.

But more than that the movie makes a statement about artists and the relationship the artist has with him/herself. Like even the sex scene, and the whole "playing with herself" stuff was really about finding passion and reconnecting with yourself in order to heighten your art. And the way that Nina had in Lily (Mila Kunis) the black swan version of the point where I humored the idea that Lily was made up by Nina/was Nina, in a Fight Club sort of way. True art is a balance between technique (mind) and pure inspiration/creation (heart), and the true artist must fight between these two extremes.

Another thing the movie made me think about is how crazy you have to be as an artist, or just as someone completely devoted to something. Have you ever lost yourself to something, completely? To the point where that one thing is the only thing you live and breathe, the very reason you wake up each and every morning. Where you know every minute detail, and at night you dream about it, resolving conflicts through sleep. Where any other activity is expendable, and should it be necessary you would return to the subject of your devotion immediately. It's to the point where you're not even enjoying it or doing it for the reason you started... it's come to define who you are to such a large extent that that is all you have. That's a particular kind of crazy. I don't know if I can describe it better than that but I think it's important to experience at least once.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

distributed responsibility

Last night I was walking back from class, and I noticed that a sprinkler was broken on Strathmore. Water was spurting out of it, forming a leaning column of water around 8 feet high. I was walking on the opposite sidewalk, but there was no avoiding the fact that there was a shit load of water being dumped out every second, watering the concrete. I took another step as I thought to myself... surely someone else noticed this and reported it already. After all, how could someone else NOT report it, right? Such an egregious waste of water would have been quickly taken care of, if the manager of the apartment right in front of the sprinkler wasn't already taking care of it.

One more step forward. I started thinking about how many times I had walked by some problem or issue that I had assumed someone else was taking care of already. A car pulled over on the freeway; a stranger looking upset and alone; a lost dog with no owner, wandering on campus. Step. Each time, I thought to myself... I don't have time to deal with this right now. Someone else will. Step.

Doesn't everyone feel that way? Step. Turn. Cross.

The manager's number was on a sign. I called it. No response. I snaked around the gushing water to walk into the apartment complex and found the manager's apartment. Knock knock. No response.

By this time the sprinklers had turned off, so I left.

The next day, today, I get a call from the manager. I told him what I saw and he was shocked. He had no idea that this was going on. I was surprised, but fascinated, that no one else had reported this. Not even tenants, who surely had to walk around the water just as I had.

Monday, January 3, 2011

collective impact

"In short, the nonprofit sector most frequently operates using an approach that we call isolated impact. It is an approach oriented toward finding and funding a solution embodied within a single organization, combined with the hope that the most effective organizations will grow or replicate to extend their impact more widely. Funders search for more effective interventions as if there were a cure for failing schools that only needs to be discovered, in the way that medical cures are discovered in laboratories. As a result of this process, nearly 1.4 million nonprofits try to invent independent solutions to major social problems, often working at odds with each other and exponentially increasing the perceived resources required to make meaningful progress. Recent trends have only reinforced this perspective. The growing interest in venture philanthropy and social entrepreneurship, for example, has greatly benefited the social sector by identifying and accelerating the growth of many high-performing nonprofits, yet it has also accentuated an emphasis on scaling up a few select organizations as the key to social progress."

Collective Impact