Written by Dr. Avinash Thombre (Faculty Leader) with exerts from Jennifer Lewis, Michael Perkins Jr., and other student participants who explored India in January of 2011.
The notion of studying and learning is the hallmark of any academic campus and UALR is no different. However, in the winter break of 2010 four students from the Speech Communication Department had a unique experience in a different kind of learning when they left the confines of a traditional classroom and embarked on a weeklong study abroad experience to New Delhi, India. One main focus of the class was to understand intercultural communication from an experiential standpoint and other aim was particularly to make sense of a hard to understand complex social and individual transformation concept. And what better way to teach or understand intercultural communication and transformation than by immersing into another culture different from ours - the Indian culture. As a teacher who happens to be from India, this teaching and mentoring experience was personally a fulfilling high moment in my teaching career. In the following paragraphs, along with my students I provide a glimpse of the multiple experiences of this study abroad journey.
Our first day in Delhi - picture with a Tibetan Monk we met on the airplane
Travelling to experience an unknown culture demands a lot of courage in terms of learning and even importantly unlearning of what we already know and let go some of the control that we would like to have our own situations. From the moment the class was announced in conjunction with the Office of Study Abroad Programs in the beginning of fall, students experienced first hand the notion of letting go. Originally the trip was planned to leave on 9 Dec 2010; however visas for India for three students did not arrive in time, resulting in a lot of anxiety and frustration. Not only this meant cancelling all the scheduled activities but also it put a big question mark on the trip itself. One of the students, Michael Perkins Jr, experienced a total loss of control. Being from an individualistic culture, he was very open minded and wanted to go on the trip without any preconceived notions. Michael said, “I was very excited and looking forward to it but when I heard that visas did not arrive in time, oh I just could not comprehend that these things could happen when we travel and lost control.’’ After a lot of frustration the students learned that it is best to ‘let go’ our control of the situation and so to speak ‘go with the flow’. Eventually, the visas did come and the trip with the help of Aimee Jones was quickly rearranged for the new dates. “Even before we left on the trip, the first learning goal was achieved. I learned to be flexible. This in itself was transformative for me personally,’’ exclaimed Michael. There were many such moments of letting go through out the trip.
The group in front of Qutb Minar, New Delhi
Soon we were on the 21 hour-long flight to New Delhi. The informal conversations with students as we waited to get on the plane, the observations during flight and sharing of things as we landed and boarded different flights is something that as a teacher I had never experienced teaching a traditional class. In each of these instances, the close interpersonal relationships we built that allowed us to share many our passions and life philosophies is what I cherish a lot. For instance, I could understand Jennifer Lewis was passionate about the cause of Tibetan people and wants to dedicate all her efforts to undertake ethnography of the people who live without a nation.
Students riding the cycle rickshaw in New Delhi
We landed in New Delhi on January 6 and the students were thrown into a fast paced city with an entirely different way of doing things culturally. The first thing they learned as we settled down in our cozy bread and breakfast (BnB) was that guests are considered as gods in the Indian culture. The staff at the BnB treated us like gods serving morning hot breakfast and freshly made orange juice. We took the Delhi metro (sub-way) and visited the Qutb Minar, the Indian Parliament, and historic ruins and learned that during the long course of history with many invasions New Delhi was destroyed and rebuilt seven times over. “No wonder there are forts and ruins every were,’’ remarked Rhonda Troillet. Of course there was a lot of shopping and meeting with local people that was facilitated with the help of our local hosts Bipin and Krishma Kalappa. “They were so gracious with their time and hospitality that we truly experienced the taste of local culture and felt at home,” said Jennifer Wyse.
Our friendly BnB staff
Even though it was usually cold, we visited the Mahatma Gandhi museum that allowed us to understand transformation in its true sense. “The life and work of Gandhi is remarkable and I had an idea about it; however, when we visited the museum we could really understand how Gandhi was individually transformed himself by a series of events and then managed to transform the entire nation. His message is universal and personally I got a lot out of that visit,’’ remarked Michael Perkins Jr. On a beautiful Sunday morning we travelled five hours to another city to get to see the Taj Mahal, a symbol of love for your beloved. It’s moving story and exquisite artistry moved the students and some of them got interested in history like never before. We also visited the Agra Fort and Akbar the great’s tomb. Towards the end we paid a visit to a local educational institution Center for Media Studies and interacted with the students and faculty to exchange views on their notions of American culture and shared our views about Indian culture.
Group picture at the famous Taj Mahal
During the trip, the students experienced health issues from upset stomach, diarrhea (we called it Delhi belly), a panic attack and also déjà vu. Personally for me, I was very happy to share my culture and provide insights with students; however, in those communicative moments of interaction I learned something new – the students taught me something that I was not aware before. For instance, they were surprised to find Swastika everywhere in New Delhi, on the front door of houses, in the shops and even on the construction site on the bricks. I always knew the different meanings ascribed culturally to Swastika in the West and in the East; however, in the long discussions into the night about the importance of Swastika as a symbol of peace in India, I could see my own culture that I was born into from a completely different viewpoint. I could see anew some of the remarkable things about my culture that I took for granted and other differences that I could have never imagined as differences till I travelled with individuals from a different culture than mine. In short, when we were back on January 13, personally the study abroad was very transformative for the students and for the teacher.
Michael Perkins, Undergraduate Student
I believe that this trip transformed me in several ways. Not only has my worldview been altered but I also have developed a new understanding on how individuals within my own culture communicate.
My experience in India has forced me reevaluate how I view material possessions. While there I came face to face with stark differences in my “idea” of poverty and how fortunate I am. The poverty we faced was everywhere and almost inescapable. In the morning we would stand on our balcony and watch as women dug through our trash. At night men would huddle around metal kitchen bowls which they had filled with trash and lit on fire to stay warm. During the day we drove by countless tent cities bustling with people. There were several times that while stopped at a red light; beggars swarmed our car. It was difficult to enjoy the shopping knowing that the money we used to by trinkets could change someone’s life.
I had a mind-blowing experience with the simplest of things. On the way to the Qutub Minar we walked through a park full of ruins. Everywhere I looked there was what used to be an ancient Hindu temple. I got caught up taking pictures and noticed that the group was leaving me behind. The tour was moving right along and as I ran down the path to catch up I saw it.
Michael Perkins with the swastika imprinted on the brick
What I saw was a brick. A simple clay brick with chipped edges, and it was piled up on top of other bricks that looked just like it. I had seen a lot of bricks before but this one was different and it turned into the focal point of our conversations for the rest of the trip. I walked right up to the pile and yelled at the rest of the group to come over. At first they weren’t impressed because they didn’t see it. I had to point out what made this brick so special. Though its outsides were weathered the center of the brick was clearly and deeply imprinted with a swastika.
All I saw was hate. The swastika means Nazi and when I see it and think of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist party that destroyed Europe. My first thought was that during WWII the Nazi’s must have built something in India…?
The Americans in our group were stunned. Our tour guide laughed and said that the swastika was everywhere in India. He told us that it was an ancient Hindu religious symbol that was stolen by Hitler. Now, we had just gotten to New Delhi and this was our first day out in the city. As the group moved down the path to another ruin, we all at one point made a remark about the Nazi Brick.
The week went on and I learned that the tour guide was right. Everywhere we went we saw swastikas. Other students on the trip and I began to make a game of pointing them out. We saw swastikas them on top of churches and painted randomly on walls, buildings and signs. I noticed that Indians paint the swastika over their doorway, so all who enter will be blessed. I learned that the swastikas real meaning is good or God. They imprint bricks with that symbol because they want their buildings to be strong. In their culture they wanted and building built with God.
Even though we spent a great deal of time touring monuments and cites as well as markets and bazaars, all I could think about was that Nazi Brick. It was so different of a world than what I was used to. Back home if that symbol were present anywhere near your home, you would be labeled a racist, anti-Semitic or a neo-Nazi. But yet I was in a world where you could come face to face to a swastika and it was a welcome sign. I somehow felt that I had unlocked the key to the universe because that symbol no longer meant anything and words or symbols no longer had value.
I think it was after being almost run over by a Tata truck with a swastika painted on it that I knew I was going to find a Nazi Brick and take it back home. I wanted to show off that chunk of rock on my coffee table and explain to friends and family a world that was so different from mine they made this. I knew that everyone has a story about being in another country and how horrible the bathrooms were, or scary traffic can be. I needed something a little more concrete than that. What I got was a brick.
I found my Nazi Brick (and that is the name the group gave the brick) in a pile of rubble outside Haus Khas village. It was redder clay than the original Nazi Brick but imprinted deep inside the center was the same spider-like symbol that a few days earlier had made me stop and stare. I didn’t stare this time because I knew what it meant. This time I dusted it off threw it in my backpack and ran to tell the co study abroad friends that I got the greatest souvenir of all Indian Time.
Jennifer Lewis, Graduate Student
I think, very oddly, the only “transformation” I had was how close our group became in such a short time. We are five very different people - different age-groups, different backgrounds, experiences, college majors, intentions of what we want to be when we grow up - world-views, marital statuses and situations, looks (as in actually how we look), geographical areas we are from, political leanings, ideals, EVERYTHING! Yet, we became quite close and I have been really looking forward to seeing them again! This may not seem very significant; we all know groups bond when places in the same situation, but it had been many years since I had felt such strong attachments to people I barely knew. I have come to realize that prior to this trip, I had let myself get stuck in a rut of only using my off time to associate with certain peer groups. I thought going to India would broaden my worldly horizons, and it did, but it also broadened my local ones, too!
I’m seriously thinking about teaching. Yeah, me. That is another way this experience transformed me. They (the rest of the group) all kept referring to me as their leader. Each morning, Michael and I would be on the veranda and he would fill me in on what the rest of the group was talking about/thinking about/griping about/planning and I would sit and patiently listen and nod my head and then consider everything!! It is too comical upon reflection - but at the time it was so serious! I would make my pronouncements after hearing from my people!! Ha!! Anyway, it reminded me how much I love learning and helping others learn.