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July 14, 2008 / calebdresser


I am moving on. I’ll be back, of course, but for now it is time to go. I have a ticket booked on the night train to Jaipur this evening.

My experiments are chugging along fine, albeit with hiccups and setbacks and mindless delays unimaginable before I arrived in India. I have to be back in Modipuram in early August to conduct another round of root analysis and work on a couple of bio-assays and some soil sampling, but for now there is little for me to do. The fields, lab and site office exist in a unique time-zone all their own, sometimes pleasant, sometimes frustrating, but always unpredictable and wholly immutable. Fun as the work is, it will be nice to have a bit of a vacation.

More than the sometime frustrations of research, however, it will be nice to be my own master. Don’t get me wrong – nobody here is giving me orders. However, my freedom of action is fairly limited if I wish to remain within proper social boundaries. This may seem a trivial concern to readers in America, land of do-as-you-please, but here it is a major issue. Things are apparently different in the big metro cities, but I am in a medium-sized village in rural Uttar Pradesh. People here are very conservative, and if you take the time to listen to their attitudes, there’s a lot thats relatively off-limits and a lot more that is looked on with skepticism.

I could, of course, ignore what I know. However, as a traveler whose existence rests on the goodwill and hospitality of people at the university and here in Palavpuram where I live, it makes good sense not to offend local sensibilities. Beyond that, I feel tremendously lucky to understand as much as I do, and it would be a waste to ignore it and play the stereotypical insensitive American.

Beyond considerations of respect and propriety, I don’t think people have a good context to put me in, even after they get to know me. I wear too many different hats to fit neatly into a box, and I think that leaves a lot of people a bit confused. They want to put me in boxes because that is how people are understood here. The caste system is gone, yes, but as I have mentioned before, people have very specific roles they are expected to play. A scientist does science, an undergraduate student studies, a laborer labors, a tourist tours… and these roles are not supposed to mix. Ever. When the computer-using student-cum-science nut in the collared shirt starts digging with a kurpa in a rice paddy, people are unsure what to make of it.

Even outside the workplace, people can have a hard time understanding that I am many different things at once. People try to place me in one of a few roles, and seem genuinely surprised when I do something not within their limits. They don’t seem to see that I can be a comparatively self-sufficient traveler while at the same time an unmarried college student. In a place where family is everything and parents rule the lives of their children until marriage, my decision-making autonomy at twenty-one is an aberration. People are also rather confused that the rice research person is turning tourist for a little while – another blending of roles that doesn’t fit. Some people expect me to need luxury and comfort at all times, and others seem truly surprised that I might want to go on a walk by myself and explore my surroundings. Usually, people seem to find it easiest to just pick a lens to see me through and leave it in place even when it doesn’t mesh with reality. Thus one person sees me as a visiting student, while another may see me as an American researcher and another as a tourist, all vastly different things in a country fascinated by education and money. Some of the difficulty is definitely due to language barriers – the better someone’s English, the more they see me as a three dimensional person – but there are also some cultural expectations involved as well.

Being so many different things to so many different people can get a bit exhausting. I’ve tried explaining my other sides to people when I seem to be cast in a role, and it usually meets with blank looks, so in most cases I have stopped trying. Instead, I simply fill the role they expect when I am with them, hardly a difficult act. The tiring part is switching roles all the time and remembering who I’m seen as by which people – and putting various aspects of my personality on hold, some for an hour’s conversation, some for months on end.

All in all I’m ready for a bit of travel where I can be a bit more free from the considerations I’ve just described. I also wouldn’t mind meeting an American – aside from a thirty-second conversation with a haggard looking Scotsman in Karol Bagh, I haven’t talked with a native speaker of English since 10th June – and we all know that Scotch is better in the mouth than the ear! Unkind slander on the speech patterns of my ancestors (and great respect for their whiskey!) aside, I should also point out that the cultural generalizations outlined above are just that – generalizations – and they’re based on one person’s experience in one place through a sometimes substantial linguistic filter. For all I know they think the same of me.



Leave a Comment
  1. Julia Moore / Jul 16 2008 7:56 pm

    Hi Caleb:
    Speaking of monkeys, your new cousin Molly was toasted at Buttercupthorpe last Friday night. She didn’t chase us, but she did entertain us with her liveliness and just plain cuteness.
    We are about to head to Maine and of course think of you not being there this summer. But it seems like you’re getting plenty of sun and seeing many new worlds.
    Keep at it and keep up these great pics/reflections!

  2. nancy mccandless / Jul 26 2008 1:45 pm

    Thanks to thy mother who included thy website in a recent note about BI matters, I am just catching up with thy doings which read as heroic to me!

    Summer in Austin is the usual, so I am off to swim at Barton’s.

    Much love, DEAR Caleb, safe journeys. Grandmother Nancy

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