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What does it all mean……………….

August 17, 2010

Yesterday, I wrote about a man taking my shopping cart in the parking lot for me. You can read about it here.

I have been thinking about why that had such an impact on me and this is what I came up with. I think I will ramble a little – so please stick with this one – I promise there is a point at the end.

Living in India was an absolutely amazing experience that took me way out of my comfort zone. It jumbled up my routines and took me away from my favorite people. Living there gave me opportunities I would never, ever have here and it made me question a lot of what I thought I knew to be true.

I mostly think of myself as a kind and even generous person. It’s true that I can be cranky and selfish just like anyone else but I truly do enjoy giving other people a reason to smile and (mostly) don’t mind helping out.

But here comes India full force – where people really need – and not just a hug or a dinner brought over or a carpool for their over-scheduled kid or someone to take their shopping cart in the parking lot – they need food and water and a way out of horrible, horrible situations. And please know that I understand people in America need too – I know that – and I understand that the needs in America can be very real and can be overwhelming too. People are sick and people are hungry and people are hurting. I get that. But not in the same magnitude as in India – not so many people all at once and not so desperately and not without options. Right now, I live in a bubble – a green, lush, over-fed bubble with people who do not hesitate to help each other out. We are getting by just fine. Sure we endure struggles – but it is really not the  same.

I will show you what I mean – this man is taking a bath outside in a busy market area. The water is not clean and he is in public and I am taking his picture.

The streets are dirty and there is human and animal waste all over the place. That means that you have very good chances of getting pretty sick at some point. Especially if you do not have a nutritious diet and clean drinking water. And this is the road outside the entrance to the neighborhood we lived in – an upscale area. This is not a slum.

It is not only not uncommon – it is actually quite common – to see children unattended on the streets.

We have been having some pretty significant storms in our area and many people have been without electricity for several days. News reporters were interviewing several people affected by the outages and one councilman said, “people here feel like they are living in a third world country.” Dear heavens. Really? I understand he was going for the dramatic effect – but please.

Again, I appreciate that the people who lost power probably lost the food in their fridge and were hot as heck in their houses and were certainly inconvenienced. It probably is a hardship for some of them to replace their food. And of course, the elderly and young children and anyone who is sick could be in real danger. But it is temporary. And it will be fixed. Welcome to America baby where there are churches and libraries and friends houses to go to. There are options. The temporary pain of a power outage is certainly not like living in a third world country. I promise you, it is not.

I miss that about India – that the people of India don’t let bumps in the road slow them down. And I think I learned to calm down a little bit myself. I learned that if it will end up as a funny story one day, you can get through it. That the Indian people as a whole don’t take so much for granted. I would like to believe that clean water is a right and not a privilege but that is just not a reality – and electricity – well, that is icing on the cake. It really, really is.

Anyway, back to why I appreciated the man taking my cart.

Like I said, I used to think I was fairly generous and kind. India really made me question if that is true. I volunteered, sure – but I never fully committed to any one group. I gave myself a pass because I was still pretty involved in my kids classrooms which took up some time – and moving to India was a huge adjustment for me so I gave myself time to settle in before raising my hand too much – but you know what that sounds like – the excuses that they are. I know I contributed in many ways to help out people, but frankly it wasn’t enough. I truly could have done more. And why did I let myself get too overwhelmed to dive fully in. Because I knew I would eventually get to escape and move home to the land of temporary problems.

The hardest thing to accept about my time in India is how many times I turned my head away from a young child knocking at my window. If I remembered to bring crackers or cookies I would share those every time. But honestly putting food in the car wasn’t top on the list in my routine of getting out the door. I tried to remember – but I could have done better about it – and I should have. I regret that I simply did not do better.

Begging in India is a tricky thing. And helping beggars is even trickier.

Most people will tell you absolutely not to give to anyone begging for several reasons. Any money you give them usually goes to some sort of ring leader (read gang leader), if you give to one person you could end up with a flock of people around you and the mob mentality in India is not safe, giving to beggars encourages begging, it’s illegal, if you teach a man to fish, blah blah blah.

And it did happen to me more than once that I gave to one person and more people surrounded me. It was certainly uncomfortable. I even saw a woman have her change purse stolen. It was snatched right out of her hands. She was trying to give every child in front of her some change and one child said, “uh-uh lady – that is going to be all mine.” And we said, “see why you don’t do that?” And she said, “what difference does it make if he has all my change, I really don’t need it. It’s just my change.” And that was the right attitude. But it’s hard to get there.

When you see a small child knocking on your window, you let all these reminders run through your head. Why it is not a good idea to encourage begging – there is real danger in it – but how do you end it. You know that you cannot – it is much bigger than one person. And when the car, thankfully and finally, pulls away, you are still left with a pit the size of Texas in your stomach.

And then, when you have to explain all of this to your own children -augh.

The one thing my children never asked me was why they got to ride in an air conditioned car with a driver while so many children barely had enough to eat. They understood so much about our experience there and I am very proud of the way they took so much of the whole experience in and made it a part of who they are. But this is the one question that never escaped me. Why them and not me? I counted a lot of blessings in India – but that didn’t do the kid knocking at my door a whole lot of good.

And then you get back to your little oasis called home and you close the door and you want to shut it all out. In India it is particularly important to have a “home”. With familiar things and pictures of family that you miss and just some good old macaroni and cheese. But you cannot get away from the need that others experience.

At first, I would even say I was even proud of how we treated our staff who worked in our house. Pride goeth before a fall, no doubt. We paid more than most people, we gave lots of time off, we gave frequent bonuses, we gave them the things we did not “need”, we didn’t ask them to do things we would not do ourselves, we shook our heads at those who haggled too tightly over what was a reasonable salary to hold on to a few more pennies, blah blah blah.

But it was never enough. Our cleaner wanted help with tuition for his son and housing. Our cook and his wife just took what they wanted – no matter how much we gave, they always took more, and our driver started off his first day by telling me he had made a bad investment and lost all of his savings and tuition was due for his kids school. How do you balance that? When is enough enough? What is enough? What is not enough.

I know we made their lives easier – or at least we tried to. I feel good that we were reasonable enough to work for. But the problem for staff that works with expat families is that eventually those families leave and nothing is permanent. We have been paying our housekeeper for the past few months and we haven’t been living there. We have told him it is time to get another job and I did a lot to put him in touch with the right people. But he doesn’t seem to believe it. Eventually we are going to stop paying him but, but , but…………

So, when the guy in the parking smiled because I had done something nice – even though it was really insignificant – it made me smile. I said in my original post that being so happy about the whole event was over-reacting. And that is true. The world is not going to change because someone put away someone’s shopping cart – but maybe if we all are a little nicer to each other we will at least make it through the days a little easier. Especially in a country where most people don’t need much – maybe we all need kindness. Maybe that is the best start of all.

Unfortunately, today, I am right back where I was before. I want to be really helpful to people who really need it. Hopefully I will figure out a way to do that.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Lee permalink
    August 20, 2010 8:23 pm


  2. avs permalink
    August 19, 2010 2:24 am

    Very nice article and it brings out an very important issue that each & every person should help the poor & needy people, be it money, time or kindness. For the people who wants to help but does not have time, they can contribute to NGO.

  3. August 18, 2010 2:07 pm

    Absolutely! And Amen!

  4. girlsmom permalink
    August 18, 2010 10:50 am

    Think globally act locally. If you want to check out someone who has done this look no further than Montessori of Chantilly–a melting pot of children from different cultures. The school was started by and Indian woman engineer who embraced the montessori philosophy when her children went to preschool. Multicultural awareness and acceptance is embraced. The first months curriculum each year is grace and courtesy. Having my daughter attend this school was one of the highlights of our time in Virginia, but it was expensive. I often wished there were a scholarship program for children who would never be able to afford this opportunity.

    This school has teachers who are Mexican, Egyptian, Indian, Pakistani, Asian, South American. There is a sense of calm and peacefulness as you enter the building (did I mention this is a pre-school?). Kindness is everywhere. I am amazed at this woman taking her personal philosphy and turning it into a reality that helps model kindness and caring to impressionable children who will carry these lessons with them their whole lives. (And it works on the parents too.)

    • August 18, 2010 4:08 pm

      That sounds lovely and I am glad your had that experience and you are right – it is too bad it is too expensive for many kids!

  5. August 18, 2010 7:48 am

    (did you take a breath while writing that? shweew!!)

    I get it though. 100%

    There was a great article recently in the NY Times about having the heart to help millions of people in need. The take-away from that article was that you have to start with ONE.

    The contrast in the two countries is vast … but there are still hurting people in need … and there is at LEAST one whose life you can touch for the better.

    Looking forward to an update when you find the “thing” that grabs your attention!

    • August 18, 2010 4:09 pm

      I am going to look for that article and then I am going to take breathing lessons!

  6. poupee97 permalink
    August 17, 2010 11:08 pm

    Nice post… It felt very honest and right from the heart. One person or an army of people can’t change these things about India – poverty, begging and all the other things that go along… but it really touched you and it’s nice to feel that. As an Indian in India, it’s nice to read one Westerner’s very honest perspective on the least pleasant aspects of our country.

    • August 17, 2010 11:25 pm

      thank you – it is hard to digest it all and hard to decide how to have an impact

  7. Christy permalink
    August 17, 2010 7:55 pm

    This story is why I subscribe to your blog! Well done!

  8. Jeanne K permalink
    August 17, 2010 11:58 am

    I know all experiences affect and change us (and you were pretty darn amazing to begin with my friend) but you sound like you’re even more aware, thoughtful and appreciative–thanks for the reminder with the photos to tell the story.
    The poverty in India is something that my cousin George (who passed away in March) and his family cared deeply about. In fact, their friends run a ministry to help the poorest of the poor in India and are building a dream house to take care of children who would otherwise be abandoned :-(. If anyone wants to learn more check out George Baschuk has a memorial link. This has touched my heart so I thought I’d share too. Hope that’s okay.

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