"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Virtual School Visit in Dubai, UAE

In August 2006, I went to my first SCBWI conference, in Los Angeles, and met a young woman who lives in Dubai. She had asked a question about multicultural stories at one of the sessions, and I zoomed in on her afterwards. Funny, as this is rather untypical of me. We exchanged email addresses, and later on, found ourselves attending one of Uma Krishnaswami's online workshops. We've always kept in touch, since, and a few weeks back, Maha sent me an email saying that she had just read Amadi's Snowman with her 4th grade class. I was thrilled, of course. Another stop for Amadi's global travels. I asked her if she would like me to do a Skype author visit ? Maya responded with a resounding YES! She set up a Skype connexion at her school, and we both did some research. Elizabeth Dulemba offers great information on her website, and I also visited the Skype An Author Network. Once we had figured out the time difference between Dubai and India (only 1 hour and half), we did a Skype test a couple of days before. We were ready!

Here is an account and some pictures of my first virtual visit -- at the Bradenton Preparatory Academy in Dubai, January 27, 2010.

Hyderabad, India, 10:28 AM : My desk is ready. Computer is on. Skype is on. And I have my big writer's file, the dummy and the book close by.

At 10:29 AM, I call the school's number, and almost immediately, the children at Bradenton Prep appear on my screen. Out of curiosity, I checked the distance between Hyderabad, India, and Dubai, UAE. It is 1588 miles (2555 km), but thanks to Skype, I had the whole class with me, in my office, and they had me, right in their classroom in Dubai.

I worried about technical or connexion glitches, but there were none. The children did have to get up and stand closer to the class computer for me to hear their questions clearly, but other than that, no frozen image, no loss of sound or noises that force us to stop or call again.

And here is what it looked like on the other side:

Thank you to the 20 pupils for their interesting questions and comments. And special thanks to their teachers, Maha Shehadeh (who is also the author of a picture book titled Raya's Globe, published by Jerboa, and about to be translated into Arabic) and Kingsley Griffin for making it happen, and sending me the pictures. It was FUN !

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Amadi around the World

Amadi's Snowman continues his travels around the world and I'm thrilled to take you to Dubai, UAE, today. Here are pictures of M. Griffin reading the book to the 4th and 5th graders at the Bradenton Preparatory Academy. I'll soon post of a report of my first Skype Author Visit with these two classes. I can't wait...

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My Tuesday picture of Haiti : Jacmel's heritage.

Two weeks since the earthquake hit Haiti. The death toll has topped 150 000 in the Port au Prince area alone. I have not seen any numbers regarding smaller places like Leogane or Jacmel. I will continue to write a post about Haiti, or simply publish a picture, each Tuesday - a small gesture that symbolizes my hope that the world does not forget about the tragedy, there, as it often happens, once news starts getting a bit old.

This beautiful house stood just across the street from a similar (in style) that my sister in law rented in Old Jacmel (it is now a pile of rubble). It is a hotel (I wondered about using the past or the present tense, but having seen some pictures of old houses still standing, I'll stick to the present) with quaint rooms, and a decidedly Haitian flair. The perfect boutique hotel ; nothing luxurious, very simple, in fact, yet comfortable. Most of all, every inch of the place oozes charm and character, which is my chosen criteria when looking for a place to stay. I'd rather have character, history, and less comfort, than luxury in a place with no soul.

Everyone is talking about the reconstruction effort in Haïti. As the days turn into weeks, and hope to find more survivors dwindle and die, I have one wish. Please, please, try and rebuild Haiti with structures and houses that can resist earthquakes, of course, but while doing it, remember the country's beautiful architectural heritage and style.

The gorgeous iron-wrought stairs inside the hotel.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Haiti's Picture of the Day : Playing Cards

This picture was taken in the cemetery of Jacmel. I had gotten it into my head that we had to visit it (maybe after reading Edwige Danticat's After the Dance), but we took a longer route starting from the beach, and when we reached it, the sun was already low in the sky. This was during our last visit to Haiti, in July 2008. We went in, anyway...

The place was quiet, beautiful, and mysterious, an abundant vegetation growing over the tombs and climbing the walls of the family vaults.

A group of men was playing cards, maybe "bézigue," which is a card game that my husband has tried to teach me, quite unsuccessfully. They were using a tomb as their table.  See the second man on the left ? He has a wooden cloth peg pinched on the top of his nose, which means he had lost the last game. The next player to loose will inherit the cloth peg.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Our Life in India : A Motorcycle Pooja

A little while ago, we had the privilege of taking part in a pooja, thanks to our friends who recently bought a motorcycle. 

A car or a motorcycle (or any type of machine, in fact) pooja, is a Hindu ritual that involves blessing said machine, and basically asking God for its protection.

So, we went to the colorful temple dedicated to the Goddess, Durga.

First, we had to buy the offerings.
Of course, we attracted our share of attention.

Coconuts, flower garlands, incense sticks, lemons, betel leaves...

On the side, was the barbers' shop.

Some Hindu rituals involve shaving the head - do you see the hair next to the green bucket?
The mobile phone is very useful to pass the time, in between clients (below).

The tools of the trade

This gentleman is checking his beautiful mustache in a mirror
(my husband took this fantastic picture, and I was warned to give due credit to the artist, so there.)

Time to go inside the temple. We took off our shoes, and washed our feet, although I'm not sure how useful that was, as we had to walk barefoot to the entrance of the temple, a good fifty meters away.

As cameras are not allowed inside the temple, we could not document that part of the ritual. We saluted the Goddess, inside, and were given holy water by a priest, out of a small, deep and round silver spoon. I saw other people bring the water to their mouth and forehead, before they sprinkled it on their head. I did the same (careful not to drink it, though) and ended up with water all over my clothes.
Our friend Torsten broke a coconut, and out we went. We'd bought some red cotton string (Kalava in Sanskrit) and tied them up to each other's wrists.

Unfortunately, the red cotton gives color - as I soon realized when red stains appeared all over my kids' clothes. I still have mine, though, and a red ring on my skin, underneath, although it's fading away.

It was then time to prepare the motorcycle.

Finally, all the motorcycles were ready for the priest's blessing.

The priest asked our friend's name and recited some mantras while drawing sacred symbols on the motorcycle with the powder and paste he carried in the containers below : most likely turmeric, and sandalwood paste. If I'm mistaken, please, don't sue - just let me know, and correct me. :)

Then, Torsten had to make three circles, clockwise, with a coconut, and break it on the ground, before sprinkling the tire with its water.

Our neighbors were doing a car puja, and they broke a pumpkin.

Here is the blessed motorcycle.

Torsten could now ride it, and his first guest was our daughter.

Thanks to my husband and Kathrine for letting me use some of their pictures. And thanks to our friends for allowing us to partake in this lovely ceremony.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Spirit of Haiti

Excerpt from a message sent by my sister-in-law, in Jacmel, to her family and friends, via Facebook (as an aside, someone, some day, ought to write a thesis or something on the extraordinary role of Facebook, during this tragedy) :

"Early by 5:00 am every morning, for two hours there are like 500 - 600 people on the streets singing religious songs, dancing and blessing God for being alive. It is like a parade, the local way of healing their pain, it is vey impressive. A real therapy for these victims which have lost everything except their Faith. "

Monday, January 18, 2010

My Haiti Picture for today : Avocados

Avocados and other fruits for sale along the road from Jacmel to Port-au-Prince.
Avocados are a staple of the Haitian diet, and it's no wonder, because they are beautiful over there. After almost six years in India, where avocados tend to rot from the inside out, mysteriously going from being too hard to being just good for the rubbish, we often dream of the "avoca bè", as it is called in Créole - "bè" pronounced with an open "a"  like the beginning of the word "area" - meaning butter. One can just imagine the knife slicing effortlessly through the pale flesh, as it would through butter.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haïti is special.

As a writer, it is little wonder that I first fell in love with Haiti through its literature. Jacques Stephen Alexis and his "Romancero aux Etoiles" just rocked my world. The language was luscious, musical, and magic. I had discovered the "réalisme merveilleux." As an interesting aside, I searched the Internet to link to a wikipedia article in English about "magic realism", and found zero mention of Haitian writers. Latin American authors like Alejo Carpentier, who coined the term "real maravilloso", and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his "Hundred Years of Solitude," as well as Isabel Allende or Jose Luis Borges are all there, as they should be. But not one Haitian author. Why ?

Having recently moved to New York, I didn't quite know how to find other works by Haitian authors, in French, but a friend found several books for me (that friend is Haitian, and has since become my husband) : "Général Compère Soleil" (translated into English as "General Sun, My Brother"), "L'espace d'un cillement..." And then, Jacques Roumain and his "Gouverneurs de la Rosée." (Masters of the Dew.")

These were the years 1994 and 1995 : Aristide had just been restored as President, with the help of the Clinton administration.  I started reading about Haiti's history, equally astounded and ashamed that during all my school years in France I had never heard anything about Haiti. Why ? This little country which shared the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic had once been the richest French colony, "The Pearl of The Antilles," and they had kicked us out of there, too. Is that the reason French children don't see it mentioned in their history books ?

The history of the Haitian Revolution is extraordinary (Madison Smartt Bell has written a beautiful trilogy of historical novels about it : "All Souls Rising," "Master of The Crossroads," and "The Stone that The Builder Refused."

Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America ! It was the second independent nation in the New World after the United States of America ! It was the first nation in the world to gain its independence from colonial rule through a successful slave rebellion, on January 1, 1804 !

Unfortunately, this remarkable victory was followed by a history fraught with struggle, turmoil, coups d'état, and more abuse from countries like France -  in the way of debts supposed to repay for the loss of profits from the slave trade (as if the Haitian people had not already paid enough with their work and their blood during the atrocious colonial rule) - the Dominican Republic - with its 1937 massacre of Haitian emigrants. (read Edwige Danticat's beautiful novel, The Farming of Bones) - but most of all, the US - with its occupation of Haiti from 1915 until 1934, or its shady involvement in coups from people they supported. You can find out more about the role of the U.S. in Haiti's history in Naom Chomsky's paper "The Tragedy of Haiti" or this more recent article published in the San Francisco BayView about "How the U.S. impoverished Haiti." Another bone-chilling perspective on the way the U.S. deals with Haitians can be found in Edwige Danticat's haunting memoir, "Brother, I'm Dying," where she describes the inhuman treatment that, to this day, befalls Haitian people seeking asylum in Florida. For years, Cubans have only had to set foot on US soil to be welcomed as political refugees. But if you're Haitian, you get sent to the Chrome detention center ! Why?

I couldn't stop reading about Haiti. Books about the Duvalier dictatorship. About Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and how this charismatic priest carried so much hope at the time. And more novels from Haitian authors : René Dépestre, Emile Ollivier, Louis Philippe d'Alembert, Marie-Vieux Chauvet... And then, as of 1996, Edwige Danticat...

In October 1997, I went to Haiti for the first time with Dr Belenky, his wife, renowned developmental psychologist and author Mary Belenky, and a group of volunteers. In the span of three weeks, I lived and experienced more things than anyone does in a whole lifetime : I rode tap-taps and spent time with children in an orphanage ; I travelled to Cap Haitien, slept on the concrete floor of an empty house in the little village of Moustique, and visited la Citadelle, le Palais Sans-Souci, and Cap Haitien ; I walked the dusty streets of Port au Prince, and travelled by bus to the beautiful town of Jacmel and its black sand beach (of which I brought some back.) Incidentally, I also finished a translation, and because I walked past dark with my laptop, I was held at gun point, twice in a few days. But even that could not spoil my experience.

Haiti is so much more than the "poorest country in the Western hemisphere," which is what one reads, usually in the first paragraph, whenever there is a piece of news about Haiti.

Haiti is a vibrant country with an extraordinary cultural heritage. Music that makes you want to sing, and dance. Literature that transports you, as mentioned above. And, last but not least, there is Haitian art : painting, sculpture, vodoo flags. (The picture below was taken in a street of Petionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. I always marvel at the talent of Haitians for visual arts. Give some paint, a brush and a canvas to almost any Haitian, and they will create something beautiful.)

Haitian people are joyful, and dignified. They are beautiful, spiritual, strong, resilient and resourceful. The country, in spite of erosion, hardship, and abject poverty, is gorgeous, its potential, enormous. Just ask the Americans who go on Caribbean cruises and stop at Labadie, a beach in the north of the country. More often that not, the tourists spend a day of leisure there, enjoying the white sand, the crystal clear water, and eating lobster, and they have no idea that they are in Haiti. Nor are they told that a few kilometers away stands the amazing Citadelle Laferrière, a world heritage site, the ruins of the Palais Sans-Souci, and the interesting city of Cap-Haïtien.

Recently, Bill Clinton was appointed as the UN Special Envoy for Haiti. Security had improved, and things were looking up. The country was still poor, there was still a staggering amount of work to do, but there was also a renewed feeling of hope - something that had not been experienced in years. And suddenly, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake strikes !!?? It is tempting to look up at the sky and, again, cry : WHY?

But it doesn't resolve anything. In the midst of all the devastation - and because I'm sitting far away, safe, and well fed, and feeling hopelessly useless, I'm very much aware of that - I want to try and search for ways and reasons to think positively.

Clinton wrote an essay in The Time about how to better direct the efforts, and his words do reflect the kind of hope that all people concerned with Haiti and its people can cling to, I think. The earthquake hit Port au Prince and areas around it all the way to the picturesque town of Jacmel, but the rest of the country is as usual. If only the people who move to PAP in hopes to find a job and a better life decide to go back home, now that there is nothing much left in the capital city, and the efforts to develop the north, with its amazing touristic potential, can be focused on and sustained, might all that suffering turn out to not have been totally in vain ? Both my husband and I were thinking aloud, yesterday, and he said : maybe they should build a new capital elsewhere, somewhere there is nothing, like in the center of the country. From scratch. It would decentralize the whole government, help develop areas which are empty and unused, decongest Port au Prince... Well, these are thoughts...

The tremendous outpouring of sympathy and good will is comforting ; as is Obama's strong decisions to send massive help. Both Clintons are very attached to Haiti. Let us hope that all the money and help coming from all over the world doesn't dwindle in a week or two, once the news starts getting old. The efforts need to be sustained in the long term. Maybe, then, a stronger Haiti can raise from it own ashes, and the world would finally get to see what all those who've spent time there already know. Haiti is very, very special. 

To prove it, I'll be posting pictures that we have taken during our times there, over the years. Pictures that will show something different from what most people see when they're shown Haiti on TV. The Haiti that we love. And I'll continue to do that for a while, in the hope that the situation will not be forgotten again in a few weeks or even months...

A little cove just outside of Jacmel, in the South East region of Haiti.

Bassin Bleu, in the hills above Jacmel. You have to hike a little to reach this pretty waterfall, and local guides take you there. The place is pristine, empty, and the water crystal clear (and cold!). It's magic.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Books for Children and Young Adults set in Haiti

As I work on a post about Haiti, its beauty, and what the country and its people mean to me, I'd like to direct you to Mitali Perkins' blog, where she compiled a list of books for children and Young Adults set in Haiti. I particularly like "Tap Tap" and "Painted Dreams," by Karen Lynn Williams. And Edwige Danticat's "Behind The Mountains" is a touching novel.

Tap-Tap by Karen Lynn Williams: Book Cover
Behind the Mountains (First Person Fiction)Painted Dreams by Karen Lynn Williams: Book Cover

As I mentioned in Mitali's comment section, I find it interesting that the last picture book set in Haiti was published five years ago. For almost a year, now, I've been trying to find a publisher for a picture book manuscript set in Haiti. The title (tentative, as always) is "The Pulse of Papa's Land," and it is the story of a child from the Haitian diaspora who travels to Haiti with her father for the first time. I have received very nice rejection mentioning the music of the text and what not, but rejections nevertheless. I know, the economic situation, etc, etc. It is still out there, anyway. I have not given up...

That story had been lurking around in my mind for a few years. It was more like images, really. My mother in law's garden, in Fermathe. The Citadelle. My father in law's boundless energy, and his contagious joy in the small pleasures of life. A pick-up truck bouncing up a dirt mountain road. A drum beating in the night.

When I came back home after our last trip in Haiti in the summer of 2008,  the story just poured out of me. I worked at it for several months, wrote half a dozen drafts, and finally, in May 2009, I felt it was ready. It has since gone through two more revisions, and I'm now pretty confident about it (and believe me when I say that this is not my usual state of mind - I'm more like your average pathologically anxious female Woody Allen - if only I were half as funny.) But the feedback has always been very positive, and most of all, I truly poured my heart out with this story. It touches themes that resonate deeply within me : the longing and confusion that come with wanting to belong and feeling foreign at the same time, the mysterious ways in which one person's culture and heritage can be a part of their soul fabric without them even knowing about it, and the special relationship between a father and his daughter. And it allowed me to write about the beauty of Haiti and its people, as opposed to the dry comments one finds in the press about the "most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere." I so long to see books that celebrate this country's spirit and resilience, its joyful people and its rich and vibrant culture.

Monday, January 11, 2010

It is not enough to find the Galette des Rois !

A while back, I mentioned (here) how interesting, fun, but also challenging it is to include cultural ways and habits that our children pick up in our host country into our family culture. Today, I want to share how living in another culture also means having to let go of some of the rituals we, as parents, grew up with. In this instance, la Galette des Rois.

On January 6, day of the Epiphany, the Magi (Rois Mages, in French - los Reyes Magos, in Spanish) visit Jesus, and the three Kings are traditionally added to the Nativity scene. (for those who have not read my essay "A Wish for 2010," in TigerPapers, you can find it here, and it will explain how the Hindu God, Ganesh, and Buddha, came to watch over baby Jesus, in the picture below.)

Following a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages, the Epiphany is celebrated with a special cake : la galette des rois (the Kings' cake). And for years (ever since I left France) I've been grumbling, usually right after I've eaten the last bit of the bûche de Noël, (if we had one, and if we didn't, right after I spent a couple of weeks grumbling about not being able to eat bûche - see picture above) about missing the galette and the lovely ritual associated with it.

PhotoThe galette des rois is a puff pastry dessert filled with frangipane, which contains a trinket called "la fève", usually a china figurine that can represent anything from a car to a cartoon character. We ask the youngest child in the family to hide under the table, and to say the name of the guest to which each slice will be given.  The person who finds "la fève" becomes the King or the Queen, and is given a golden paper crown.

Of course, I could have learned to bake a galette des rois (per my good friend Valérie, in New York, whose success is such, she actually got her own article in the New York Times Sunday edition if you please)  and thus not only managed to maintain this lovely tradition in our family, but also saved my husband a lot of mumbling about how much I missed it. Thing is, the less time I spend in a kitchen, the better for everyone (OK, that's an exaggeration; truth is, I hate cooking) so we simply managed our lives without the galette.

But this year, I found out that I could get the much-coveted and dreamed about dessert at one of the fancy hotel's pastry shop, in Hyderabad. Oh, immeasurable joy !

I invited two couples of friends and their children to come on Saturday 9th, so they could discover, and partake in this French tradition. But the Epiphany being on January 6, which this year was a Wednesday, I soon devised a plan that would allow me to indulge not once, but twice : we would first introduce our daughters to the ritual as a family, on Wednesday, and then, we would do it again with our friends on Saturday. It was perfect. (By the way, the only time I ate galette in the past ten years was the last time we spent our Christmas holidays in France, when our oldest daughter was 18 months old. She does not remember any of it, but being the youngest child, she was the one supposed to hide under the table. Only, she burst into tears because she could not understand why anyone would want to send her UNDER the table, when the lovely looking dessert was sitting ON it. Retrospectively, I wonder if I shouldn't have taken this as an omen, and not a good one.)

So : First galette is ordered for Wednesday, and on said day, I rush to pick up our youngest one from a play-date, and drive to said fancy hotel, manage to get lost on the way (it opened recently in an area with lots of construction going on, and forget about address), and the kids are tired, overexcited, and being at their monkey worst. Why is it that children always know how to pick up the worst times to misbehave, like when Mom is in a rush, and driving in the Indian chaotic traffic, I'll never know. (And those who live or know India, pick up the pleonasm in the previous sentence, please?) But by the time we reach home, I'm a human bomb about to explode. Definitely not in an Epiphany kind of spirit, if you see what I mean.

To make a long story short, both children managed to make said human bomb explode, and when it did, the result was that they were sent to bed without dessert. Yep, that's how witchy-mean I can get. My husband and I shared the galette - I was so angry, by then, there was no way I was going to wait until the following day to taste the much-fantasied-about dessert. Of course, we could not eat the whole cake, and neither of us got the "fève." We thought it was just as well, as one of the children would get it the following day. Only, when they finally sat to eat it, on Thursday afternoon, the older one tried one bite, did something funny with her mouth, and said : "Mom, I don't like it." And the younger one took one look, poked her finger in the crust, and declared : "I don't want it."

End of story ? Almost there.

As it turns out, the galette did not even have a fève !!! So, the way I see it, it was a good thing that I was so greedy, or I would have waited until Saturday when all our friends were here, and we would have all looked and looked and looked for a lucky charm that was never there in the first place. Our friends did come, but we ended up eating delicious Thai chicken satay and ice-cream. I suppose I can now forget about the tradition of the galette. At least until my children learn to like frangipane.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Ivory Coast comes to Hyderabad

Last night, thanks to the Alliance Française of Hyderabad (its current director, Frederic Dard has really done a remarkable job for the local cultural landscape over the past three years), we had the privilege and immense joy of attending a concert by Ivorian singer Dobet Gnahoré. It happened outside, on the lawns of the Taj Banjara hotel, and it was PACKED !

I didn't know Dobet Gnahoré, which gives a measure of our disconnection, here, as I used to follow the African music scene pretty closely while in New York. No matter, now, I know her, we bought her CD, and I bet she will have a great career. She has a powerful, resonant voice and an incredible presence on the stage (something that her CD does not justice to, actually.) She not only sings, she plays various percussion instruments, and she dances !

There is a popular saying in French : "La musique adoucit les moeurs," which could be translated into "music soothes the soul." I also found this quote from William Congreve : "music hath charms to soothe the savage breast." But music is also a fabulous tool to build bridges across cultures, and this was clearly evident, last night. The crowd counted its share of expats (Francophones, mostly, and quite a few Ivorian students, too - it was quite moving to witness their obvious joy and pride in having their country fellow and sister represent their culture so beautifully) but the majority was Indian, and they danced, and clapped, and sang - even in Wolof ! at some stage - quite happily. One little girl who might have been 5 or 6 actually jumped on the stage and danced and danced and seemed totally transported by the drum.

Dobet's band is composed of a Togolese drummer, and two guitarists and back-up singers who come from Mauritius and France. She sang in several African languages, including Wolof and Bambara, and I found somewhere that she defines her approach as "defiantly diverse, musically and linguistically." Definitely my kind of artist.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Author Katherine Paterson becomes Children's Literature new ambassador in the US.

I just have to share excerpts from Katherine Paterson's speech, found in the last issue of Publisher's Weekly.

Paterson’s ambassadorial platform is "“read for your life.” With books, she said, kids (and adults) use their “powers of intellect imagination” and experience “delight.” Stories also teach children about people from other religions, races, and countries, said Paterson, who spent the first three years of her life living in China with her missionary parents. “Books help us make friends who are different from ourselves.”
It bothered Paterson when she heard a librarian say she didn’t buy any Virginia Hamilton books because no black children attended her school. “That’s the very reason you should be buying Virginia Hamilton’s books,” she said. “Because your kids don’t have an opportunity to have friends who are African-American, they should be making those friends in books. Same thing with religion.” Jimmy Carter said becoming friends with Anwar Sadat was the most important thing that happened to him as president, she added. “Neither was trying to convert the other. I love the fact that we might be able to do that in this country—that we might be able to learn to understand each other.... The more we know about each other, the better.”"

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Being expats does not mean we're entitled to act like jerks !

Something happened, recently, that shook the whole expat community, here - and the Indian, and the NRI communities, too. I first wrote this as a way to reflect (I process my thoughts much better that way), not meaning to publish it, but one of the themes of this blog IS the expatriate life, and why not report the ugly things, as well? Life is not always perfect, after all. So, here goes my own little opinion piece...

In the five and half years that we've lived in Hyderabad, I can say that I have not witnessed any overtly prejudiced or grossly inappropriate behavior from any member of the expat community. Of course, some people do NOT like it, here, and they mumble and grumble the whole time, cannot wait to leave, and usually do as soon as they possibly can, sometimes earlier. It is also true that I do not spend as much time with the expat community as others do. I work, I write, and then the kids come home, which makes it difficult for me to have a busy social life (not to mention that I'm not the most sociable person to begin with.) Still, rumors travel fast, and you always end up knowing a lot of what goes on. So, I was quite astonished when I heard about an incident that happened over New Year's Eve.

Here is what I know : after an evening of fun and much drinking, a few expat men and women decided to go skinny dipping into the swimming pool of their gated community compound. They took off all their clothes and off into the night they went, walking merrily toward the pool. Several Indian members of that gated community saw them, and went after them, some quite angry, and told them to get dressed at once. The expats didn't like it, started arguing, the police was called, and in the end, one of the expats punched an Indian man in the face, money was thrown in the face of the policemen, the few expat men and women involved lost it completely, and insults were hurled back and forth.

Excuse me ???

Such behavior (and I'm talking about the gallivanting in the nude, here, which is what started this distressing chain of incidents) would be unacceptable in pretty much all the countries in the world, but we happen to be in India, where nudity is simply NOT tolerated.

Whether this is hypocrite behavior, and possibly a left-over of the Victorian British colonial rule, does nothing to change the fact that only Indian people can decide whether they want to change their social and cultural rules of conduct - or not - inside their own country. It certainly isn't something that expats (in other words, GUESTS) should take upon themselves to publicly mock, or upset.

As mentioned in a previous post, children in Kindergarten quickly learn that a naked bottom is "shame shame shame." Parents do not appear naked in front of their children. It just isn't done, period. And I know this because my 9-year-old daughter seems to have interesting conversations with her classmates where it transpires that they have never seen their parents naked. Fine. Now, as an expat, what I do inside my home is obviously my business. I do tell my children all the time that there is nothing shameful about a naked body. And they do indeed see me and their father in all states of undress, not because we do it on purpose, but rather because we rarely seem to think of locking or even closing bathroom doors. But we're very aware of the fact that this is not the usual way to behave in India.

Anyone going to a beach, here, will see women dip their feet in the water, maybe even their legs, still wearing their saris or their salwar kameez. When we first arrived, I could not find swimming costumes at Lifestyle, which was the most modern, and at the time basically the only department store in town. The year after, we started seeing a few one piece costumes, usually with attached skirts. And even in Goa, I've seen women wear those suits with cycling shorts.

How anyone in their right mind would conceive to leave their house stark naked, on a night when most people (including children) were up late, celebrating, and walk across a compound to go take a dip in a pool open to all the members of a large gated community is something that defies my understanding. But what comes after is even worse : verbal abuse, insults, physical violence, resistance to the police, etc, etc.

One person who was quite actively involved in the whole thing is going back home (they might have left already, that's how fast it all happened afterwards), and was commenting on their Facebook wall about wanting "to go back to a country where people abide by the rule of law." Thing is, in their country, no one would ever go walking in the street start naked, because the cops would pick them up and lock them in a jail in a matter of minutes. Neither would these people dream of hurling insults to said policemen, of throwing money to their faces, and insulting their neighbors. So what rule of law are they referring to, here ? Why do some expats feel that by coming to another country, they're entitled to special treatment ?

It's interesting to hear the comments, and the shock wave that's been rippling through the whole expat community.

For me, the bottom line remains unchanged. It doesn't really matter where these people are from. One can find insensitive, arrogant, and prejudiced idiots in all the countries of the world. What's sad, in my opinion, is that these people did not understand how they have/had a duty toward, one, the country they represent, and two, the expatriate community as a whole ! As expats, we have a responsibility to behave decently and to show respect for our host country ; just because we are far from home, doesn't mean we can behave in ways that we wouldn't dream of adopting in our own countries ; just because most expats find themselves enjoying perks like maids, drivers, huge houses with marble floors, etc (things they could never have back home), doesn't mean they suddenly become superior citizens with special entitlements. Cultural sensitivity is an absolute must. Whether we agree or not with some of the ways of the country we're living in, it is our duty and responsibility to show an open mind, and most of all, to behave properly and respect the rules and sensitivities or our host country. Because each time an expatriate behaves badly, they not only show themselves under a most unflattering light, they also somehow tarnish the image of all the other members of the community. And that is unacceptable.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Warm Wishes for a Luminous New Year !

2009 is gone, and we're entering a new decade (although purists will say that the decade does not actually start until 2011.) Hard to believe that ten years have passed since the 2000 New Year's Eve world celebrations. At the time, I sat watching television, pregnant with my first daughter, and feeling the beginning of the terrible nausea that was going to keep me in bed for two months. I could only eat smoked salmon, pickles and Japanese dumplings, which was better than the nuts, apples and sparkling water that would soon constitute my diet. End of digression.

We just returned from a marvelous trip to Thaïland. I had spent quite a bit of time there, in 1993, and loved it. I loved it even more, this time.

The country is beautiful, and so are its people.

The food is out-of-this-world delicious, and you can eat pretty much anywhere without worrying about getting sick.

We went snorkeling, sharing the warm, crystal clear water with colorful fish.

We saw many, many Buddhas (and those who know me, know that I can never see too many Buddhas.)

I had dozens of fish nibble at my feet in the cold and gorgeous Erawan waterfalls, in the province of Kanchanaburi, and was told it's excellent for the skin. It took me a few minutes to get used to the feeling, but once I did, I could have spent the whole afternoon, there.

We visited the fabulous Grand Palace, had foot massages in Bangkok, and shopped at the famous Week-End market.


We spent Christmas Eve on the beach, in Koh Samui, and were treated to a traditional Thai dance show.

Later, we launched paper lanterns in the sky, per a tradition we were told is observed by Thais to celebrate the new year. It was a lovely sight, all these silk paper lanterns flying in the sky, their reflection floating above the water below.

All in all, it was over too soon, as holidays are wont to be, but we now have the memories and the pictures.

Happy New Year to all, all over the world !