Category Archives: India

Soul Food

Every now and then the eighty hours a week of coding and living at work used to wear little cracks in my happy world view. When the sun was starting to feel a bit too bright and my brain was starting to rattle I went to my favorite Korean restaurant, sat far in the back in a walled booth, and ordered a hot bowl of dol sat bi bim bap. After a couple of spoonfuls of rice I could feel myself relaxing and adjusting, coming back to earth and regaining perspective. Everything was right in the universe again. I don’t know why, but somehow that dish had become my soul food.

Really, it doesn’t make much sense. For a comfort food to have that powerful an effect it seems like it would have to be something with deep rooted emotional ties. I didn’t grow up eating Korean food, and didn’t even try it until I was hanging out in Champaign. Of course, every time I had it there I was with my best friend Zeevus, and maybe that’s where I built the association.

Bowl of Bi Bim Bap
Zeevus was dating a very cool Korean girl from Chicago at the time. Her parents had recently had a serious talk with her about who she could date. They had decided that they had been a bit closed minded about the whole thing, now that she was growing up in the U.S., and it might be OK for her to date someone Chinese, as well as Korean, although certainly not anyone Vietnamese. To this day I assume they never even heard about Zeevus.

The work days in India were exhausting physically and, often, emotionally. By the time we returned to the house where we were staying, it was cold and dark. We stumbled in and sat shivering around a small table topped with a variety of white covered bowls. I loved the anticipation of that moment. There was a magic to the unveiling, lifting the lids one by one to peek inside. I would pick up the first to uncover a stack of hot, fresh rotis. I could feel myself getting warmer just smelling them. The next would be dahl, spicy and dark. Mixed with rice, the lentils were just firm enough to be really satisfying. Next I’d pull open the carrot subzi. This was a mixture of dark, orange carrots particular to India and a variety of other vegetables. Sometimes there would be reita, a yogurt mixed with garlic. Dessert would be sweet noodles or, the best, carrot halva.

Every day we had essentially the same food. While the Americans who were with us grew anxious about this around day two, I left six weeks later dreadfully sad to leave it behind. Those meals where my only time to pause and reflect on what was happening to us every day. I became very close to Zeet and Zameet and often the three of us would spend the later part of those meals talking and connecting over what had happened that day. Sometimes we would just sit and eat and that was wonderful too. The warm food pushed back the chill and the company cleared my head and made me feel close to them and to this place.

Now whenever I’m feeling pressured or behind the curve I crave it. I want one of those warm rotis in my left hand and a spoonful of dahl in my right to balance me out. I’ve been to every Indian restaurant I can find and none of them is quite right. I have a new soul food and it’s thousands of miles away. I’ve started trying to cook my own with little success, and so I can only lie awake at night and dream of it.

Click on images to find the credited photographers on Flickr.

Hidden Switches That Make Travel Possible

One of the greatest gifts my parents have given me is my ability to deal with a wide range of living conditions. Summer vacations were tours of the U.S. in an old Chevy van. My favorite spot was the “way back”, giving up the relative comfort of the bench seats where my sisters slept for the joy of flopping amongst piles of camping gear and supplies. On the extremely rare nights that we got a hotel room instead of camping, I was the one sleeping on the floor in my sleeping bag, developing even further my flexible lifestyle and affection for cold, hard sleeping surfaces. I naturally evolved into the guy who slept under the drum kit, rolled up in my leather jacket, even when the party was at my own house.

One of the many unique components of our house was a full sized pipe organ my parents scavenged from an old church. (Actually, I believe the first organ they got had already been scavenged and they picked it up off of a guy who was building a house himself.) The console sat on the floor below me, but the pipes were right next to my room. My mother would practice as I lay in bed, the soothing sound of air blasting through massive metal whistles coaxing me to sleep.

All told these adventures crafted some handy life skills. I can sleep through any kind of chaos and noise. My favorite way to crash is in the middle of a raging party or listening to someone learning to play the piano for the first time. When I was on a documentary crew and had to sleep on the floor of a trailer so tragic dogs refused to stay with us, we all rolled up in sound blankets like human burritos and I was happily dozing in no time.

Then I arrived in China. Weishi and I were picked up at the airport by a massive exuberant family who tossed us into cars and got us back to the apartment. We were surrounded by laughter and fed incredibly delicious dumplings that they had been cooking all day and then, suddenly, everyone was gone. The apartment fell instantly silent and there we were. Despite all of the love, I felt strangely uneasy and I couldn’t quite figure out why. I stepped out onto the balcony and looked around. Something about the place, as quiet and peaceful as it was despite being in the center of Beijing, made me very nervous. Then I discovered the switches.

The buildings around me were simple blocks of grey cement. Birthed during the communist era, they were not unlike low income housing projects. It suddenly occurred to me that if I was in a similar environment in Chicago when I grew up, I would have to worry about being shot. Here in China, however, this was just how everyone lived. Somewhere in my chest the first contextual interpretation switch popped and I relaxed immediately. Moments later the second switch, this one for “camping mode”, made the general level of cleanliness and lack of sophisticated tools fall right into place. The boiled water bucket bath was a luxury compared to cold river water. A pile of blankets is all I really needed. The tension lifted, clearing my eyes to see all of the magic that was China for the remainder of my visit.

By the time I reached India these switches had become so loose and fluid that I didn’t even hear them snap. I brought a sleeping bag and my own lights and supplies and was perfectly content hand washing my clothes or sleeping without heat. Oddly, I’ve even come to relish the challenges of living in different ways. It was only once the second camera crew arrived, however, that I realized how far I had come and how privileged I was. They were completely unprepared for the environment and were so caught up in their struggle to deal with the lack of Taco Bell, Starbucks coffee on demand and hot showers that they spent the majority of their trip blinded to the wonders around them.

So I have to give another couple of bonus points for my whacky upbringing. I hope my sister subjects her kids to more of the same. I’ll certainly do my part to make sure that whenever they come to visit me, I’ll be sure to clear off the floor and set up a drum kit in the corner.

India: Arranged Marriage

Our driver met his wife one night when driving a client home. He had several suitors at the time, as he was an attractive guy with a car and a job that paid well. When he pulled up to the house he saw this girl and said, “that’s her.” “I didn’t care about caste, money, or anything,” he said. “I knew instantly that she was the one.” He went on to explain that he knew, too, that he wanted to marry a simple village girl. He didn’t think the educated city girls would ever put up with his schedule as a driver. “They would complain and get upset about my coming home at 2:00 in the morning. My wife, she doesn’t mind at all.”

Despite the limited set of requirements he’d used to select his bride, they were actually quite a cute couple. He went home early whenever he could and couldn’t wait to see her. We all went out to dinner a number of times and they were forever telling in-jokes and pausing to giggle with each other. I started thinking again about arranged marriage.

Zeet and Zameet, our fearless director and producer, were also a couple. They were married quite young during a mad sequence of events wherein he started teaching a youth group just to get a chance to talk to her, she was almost killed in a car wreck, and in a groggy haze of pain meds at the hospital she said, “Why are you here? You hardly know me! If you’re so in love with me, fine, marry me.” He of course replied, “yes” immediately and, dumbstruck, she responded with, “Wait, what just happened?” He spent the next year helping her learn to walk again, a feat the doctors didn’t believe was possible. Of course, they didn’t think she would live either. She now runs for exercise and they’ve been happily married all of their adult lives.

Of course, that’s a great story. But the fairy tale version isn’t the most interesting, it’s what happened next. They began fighting, having various issues that are naturally born of close proximity to in-laws and the limited relationship toolset of youth. Things got so bad that she moved out. Despite this, they each knew that they had to stick by their vows. They weren’t going to quit the marriage they had agreed to. They struggled though, learned from the process, and today are like chocolate and peanut butter.

These two examples confirmed something for me that I’ve been wondering for a long time. How much does it really matter who we choose to marry? I’m beginning to believe that, given a resolve to work things out, people are capable of crafting relationships that evolve and merge because they have to. Perhaps our ability to pick and choose, along with the relative ease of divorce, is actually hampering us and making life more difficult. (This, of course, discounts abuse, addiction, and other such factors.)

Barry Schwartz and Dan Gilbert both have excellent TED talk videos (and, I believe, books) that discuss the counterintuitive reality of choice. Humans are actually happier given fewer options, or when they are stuck with a choice they’ve made.

I’ve almost married several times, once going so far as to be engaged to a wonderful woman. I think my exes are much better off without me but that doesn’t mean I don’t still love them dearly. One of the big factors in the eventual breakups was my unwillingness to be ready to have children. While the idea of having to focus on children horrifies me now, I know deep down that if I were forced to have them I would find my own happiness in that world. I know myself well enough to know that I can find ways to be happy in almost any environment. Would I be as happy driving rush hour traffic to bring a toddler to school as I am running through fields in India? Right now I don’t think so, but of course I’ve made myself happy in my current life already, and the hormones that kick in during child rearing aren’t in effect. Maybe I would be.

India: The Farmer in Me

“You’d better get used to that smell”, Manmeet said as he opened the door to our little truck. I stepped outside into the Punjab countryside for the first time and took a deep breath of the country air and its signature flavor: cow shit. I grinned and turned to him. “That’s the best smell in the world,” I said.

The last time I remember having that experience was climbing out of a minivan as my parents dropped me off for my first year of college. Despite being the birthplace of the HAL 9000, the University of Illinois is buried in miles and miles of corn fields. That day the wind was blowing up from the south and my dad and I shared a moment of mutual understanding. It felt like home already.

While I myself grew up in the sterile confines of the Chicago suburbs, my dad spent all of his early years on a dairy farm in Mantua, Ohio. My sisters and I spent many summers back on that same farm, climbing over mountains of hay bales and feeling the giant sandpaper cow tongues lick feed from our hands. The first vehicle I ever drove was a tractor. The second was a motorcycle that I used to tear up bean fields for every hour of sunlight I was given. The farm had its own gasoline tank and so I could roll up, fill the tank, grab a sandwich and head back out. Somehow those bits of farm life, mysterious and magical adventures, put a little bit of silage in my blood forever.

My family moved into a new house in a new town when I was in fourth grade. I remember having the bizarre experience of recognizing every kid from my old school in the body of someone at the new. As one big guy held my arms back and two others took turns punching me, I was thinking, “wait, I know you!” The guy holding my arms was identical to a friend of mine back home, and only a month before I had been sitting on the twin of the guy who was now punching me. They dressed and talked a little differently, but I quickly became convinced that the world was, in fact, a stage play put on for me by a limited assortment of actors who changed faces whenever I changed sets.

My experience in the Punjab countryside was the same. The women wore silken scarves and the men had turbans the brilliant yellow of mustard flowers or the deep green of the wheat fields. They had darker skin and spoke in a language I was only beginning to understand, but despite all of that I knew them for who they were: the same actors I’d met years ago around the farm in Mantua, Ohio. I could see it in the way everyone waved at me from their ox-drawn carts. Replacing the tractors with carts wasn’t enough to disguise their familiar smiles. They were just as quick to offer me a ride, take a moment to pause from hard physical labor to laugh at me, or teach me how to eat sugar cane.

As a kid I watched my dad explain his physics research to a room full of curious older farmers. They reclined and relaxed around the room, but listened intently to everything he said. Now I was welcomed into people’s homes to tell them about America and my equipment and experiences in exactly the same way. Even the houses felt familiar to me somehow. They were built of brick and cement instead of wood, and there were often cows living in courtyards, but the general relaxed bustle of the place and the extended family that filled them made me feel right at home.

Our few commonalities are so often more powerful than the many things that make us different. I dated a Chinese woman for more than four years who, like me, was the child of nerds. Despite her having grown up in Beijing, this fact made us far more culturally compatible that I was with most American women. I never felt any experience of culture shock in those Indian fields of papaya and farmers until Americans joined us, one of whom was from LA. The shock of experiencing such a radically different view on people, cultural sensitivity and life itself was incredibly intense and proved, once again, that home is not a place– it’s a way of being.