Challenging my assumptions

I distinctively remember one of my first meals in India, in 2007 when I first visited this country. After me and my then boyfriend, now husband, were finished with the meal, the waiter brought to the table two things along with the bill – a tray of three small bowls containing something that looked like decorative crystals and sand to me, and a bigger bowl of what seemed to be water, with a couple of slices of lime in it.

My husband had excused himself from the table, and I was left staring at these items that had been placed in front of me. I had absolutely NO idea what I was supposed to do with them. I tried to glance around the restaurant to see if anyone else had reached this same point in their meals, but no luck. I turned back to stare at the bowls, and cursed my inability to perform a quick google search on “weird bowls of things in an Indian restaurant” to find out exactly what kind of a ritual I am supposed to perform with these things,  but then my husband came back. He immediately dipped his hands in the water to wash them, and then proceeded to pour a bit of white “decorative sand” on the palm of his hand and tossed it in his mouth.

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Posted in Culture shock, Expat Life, Foreignness, India, New York, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Perceived Neutrality of the Internet

I met my now husband almost six years ago. I think I might be a bit too young to use the phrase “back then” without sounding like a total idiot, but given the lack of a better phrase, back then, in 2007, I didn’t yet have a Facebook account. I had this thing called Myspace though, but I think that is now totally passé – unless you’re a band, which I am not.

Back then, I definitely used the internet on daily basis, but I also watched news on TV and had a subscription to a few major newspapers in my native country, Finland, where I lived at that time. I would watch the national public TV channel in the mornings to get the gist of what was going on, and the 10pm news in the evening to see what had changed since 8am. I would definitely read about news and world events online too, from various different sources, but it really wasn’t my primary source of news information at that time – and this was only six years ago. I liked my morning coffee with my paper, which was impossible to read in any sensible manner because of the layout and huge size of the thing, but it was still a lovely way to start the morning.

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What the F*** is Wrong With Us?

There are days when I feel very optimistic about this world we live in. I know there are endless numbers of individuals, collectives, civil society groups, organizations, companies, agencies and movements out there, working as hard as they can to improve the lives of others around them, help those who are less fortunate, strive for a better world for all of us.

Then there are days like this, when I click on an article on Mashable, and want to barf up the falafel burger I was eating. This particular article was about a topic I wrote about previously – bullying – but unlike in the case of Jillian Jensen, who inspired the previous post, this time things didn’t end happily. Jillian got the best of her bullies and basically gave them the finger by performing amazingly in front of millions of people on X-Factor, but fifteen-year old Amanda Todd couldn’t fight her persecutors anymore. As a result of meticulous, systematic, cruel and utterly horrifying bullying, that apparently lasted for several years, Amanda took her own life at the age of 15.

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Posted in Gender equality, Human Rights, inequality, Politics, Relationships | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Familiarity of Foreignness

I was sitting on my couch this evening, wasting time on the internet, when I received a text message from a new friend of mine who I have had the absolute joy and pleasure to meet through my new job here in Bangalore. Her message was only one quote, and it said:

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: The foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”

A quick google search revealed that it is a quote from “Invisible Cities”, a novel written by Italian author Italo Calvino that depicts a journey through numerous cities, depicted by the explorer Marco Polo.

I loved the quote. More than I loved the quote though, I loved the fact that after knowing me for mere few weeks, this friend of mine knew I would love it. I have always been a social person, and meeting people has been something that comes naturally to me – but there is a difference between meeting people and knowing people. Meeting people happens in passing moments, instances, brief encounters that linger for a few days, maybe weeks, and then disappear somewhere in the back of our minds and memories. Meeting people is fickle. Knowing people changes us. It anchors us.

I can relate to this quote, because to me it is true – there is a foreignness in me that arises when I move to new places, brought on by probably both the things I left behind, and the things I find in front of me when I arrive. It is almost like getting to know yourself again and again – looking in the mirror, as if asking: “Who are you? I don’t think I have met you before.” While it can be intimidating and scary, getting to know the new me is also always exciting. There are qualities, both good and bad, that will surface in a new place that I never knew existed before – and yet, there they have been, somewhere in me all along – just waiting for the right environment, the right time, the right place to reveal themselves. The change never stops, and it’s a good thing it doesn’t. I don’t think static state is a good place to be.

However – what I have grown to understand as I have moved from one country to another is not only about foreignness and change, but also about stability and familiarity. While the world is vast, the corners of it countless and   the number of strangers endless, in the end there’s a home in every place I have been to. The important things in life, the anchors we need to be able to find some level of stability, have always existed everywhere. Certain characters find their way into my life no matter where I am – the jokers who make me laugh, the intellects and geeks who stimulate me, the activists and change-makers who keep me believing in alternate and better realities, the poets who make me cry, the culturels who can open the doors to music, dance, theater and performance to me – and then there are those people who just know me, really know me, without a long shared past, years of friendship, life stories exchanged over glasses of wine. These are people who know my thoughts, my sense of humor, my past, my hopes for the future, and my fears of those hopes never coming true – even though we’ve barely exchanged names. Somehow, they have been in every place I have been to, and I believe we all have these people in our lives – our counterparts that somehow, in the midst of the chaos and craziness that is this world and universe of ours, balance the insecurity and unfamiliarity that we all deal with day in and day out. They are the anchors in foreign harbors that, in the end, make any place into a home.

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had.”

I believe the world might be smaller than we think, and what first seems as foreign can unexpectedly turn into something familiar, something we know, something we need. The strangers might not be strangers after all, and foreign lands can become homes and safe harbors, filled with familiar faces. Suddenly, what seemed unknown and unfamiliar becomes the most comforting and familiar thing in the world, like falling asleep with your head on the same pillow you slept with throughout your childhood, squeezing the teddy bear you had for as long as you can remember. And in those moments it is suddenly clear how similar we are, how close to each other we are, and how much we all need each other to build homes, to find harbors, to lower anchors – to find familiarity in foreignness.

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I cannot vote in the United States Presidential Election – but if you can, you should. Here’s Why.

I am passionate about human rights and civil liberties. I think all citizens of each and every country should have the ability to choose their government, choose their leaders, and choose their president. I think every voice and vote should count. I think every nation should be accountable to its citizens, and I think it should be every single person’s right to have a say in who runs their country, and how.

This is not the case in many countries around the world. This wasn’t the case in America, or my native country Finland, as little as 100 years ago. Minorities couldn’t vote. Women couldn’t vote. African-American’s couldn’t vote. Poor people couldn’t vote.

Much has happened in our countries since then. In America, and in Finland, all citizens above a certain age can vote, despite their gender, race or socio-economic class. We can all influence our country’s direction. We can take part in choosing who run our country. We can voice our opinions, and not worry about being pressured to vote a certain way, or worry about the election being rigged.

Still, many people choose to not vote. To be quite honest, this pisses me off. I believe that with rights and liberties also come responsibilities, and I believe it is our responsibility to honor the rights we have – rights our great grandparents and their grandparents fought for – by executing those rights. Women who lived in America pre-19th Amendment, which in 1920 gave women the right to vote in the US, would whoop today’s women’s asses for voluntarily giving up our right to vote (and also for voting for Romney-Ryan, a duo that seems to be out to kick the female population of America back to the dark ages when it comes to rights and liberties).

I know many people say “I’m not voting because I don’t like either candidate” – well, tough luck. We all have our check lists of the perfect spouse, the perfect friend, the perfect boss, the perfect child – and yes, the perfect president – but that image rarely exists in real life. Someone is going to win this year’s election and become the President of the United States, and that someone will be either Romney or Obama. Saying “I don’t like either candidate and therefore won’t vote”, in my opinion, is a cop-out. America will have a president – and not voting because there’s no perfect candidate won’t change that.

Now, in the past few days, I have read quite a few articles about Obama that truly bothered me. I’ve read about the drone war in Pakistan, about claims of secret executions of both foreigners and Americans in the interest of national security, about civilians living in utter fear and chaos because of decisions made in the US, under the Obama administration. I made this video days ago, but took a while to decide whether to upload it or not, because I wasn’t sure if I could stand behind it – but now I know I can. I know I can, because despite the undeniable fact that this administration has made many decisions and taken actions that I fully disagree with, I do still believe Obama was the absolute right choice in 2008 – and I believe he is the only right choice in 2012 as well.

I remember the emotion, energy and drive of 2008, even though I didn’t live in the US yet at that time. I remember the speeches and the promises, the hope and the sincere belief in something better waiting – and I know, and agree, that the past four years probably have not lived up to the expectations – but let’s be honest: the expectations were out of this world. No one could have lived up to those kind of expectations. Obama has, however, lived up to more of them than any other president would have, and I believe he will continue on that same track for the next four years, if given a chance.

I honestly believe this is a better world than the one we lived in four years ago. I believe this is a better America. I also believe it is my responsibility to take action towards what I sincerely believe to be the best option for the future of America, and Americans – And I do believe that is a second term for Obama. As a former student, as a tax payer, as a woman, as a future mother, as someone who is fully against using any method of torture as an interrogation technique, and as someone who believes in absolute equality, I could never vote for Romney. I am also worried that votes for the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, or the Green Party candidate Jill Stein, will end up working in the favor of Mr. Romney – we saw this happen in 2000, and I really hope we won’t see it happen again. I think many agree that the world would be a very different place today, had Al Gore won that election.

If I could vote, I know who my vote would go to. However, I cannot – because I am not an American citizen. Even if I didn’t know who I would vote for, I would figure it out, and I would go and vote – and though I know many people in America will choose to vote for a candidate and a party that scare the bejeesus out of me, I still want them to go and vote. Why? Because civil rights are only powerful when they are fully utilized, and having a voice and not using it is as good as being mute.

That is why I made this video – To plead to you Americans to go and vote on 6th of November 2012. Even if you vote for Romney. Even if you vote for that third candidate whose name I cannot remember and who stands absolutely no chance of winning – but please, just go and vote. It is not enough that you have the Right to do so – you have to also use that right. I really really hope you do.

Posted in Human Rights, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Opening and closing doors.

On March 18, 2011 I wrote my first post on this blog, titled “About Longing and Belonging”. The post was about the definition of “home”, the sense of belonging or, the lack there of, and about how lucky I am to have friends and family sprinkled all over the world.

Yes, I am lucky – very lucky. And the reality is, that had I not travelled and lived abroad as much as I have, I wouldn’t now have all these wonderful people in my life. I wouldn’t have met my husband. Still, there are days when I just feel like curling up in the corner of the couch, burying my face in a pillow, and screaming out off the top of my lungs: “WHY CAN”T I JUST STAY STILL!!”

As I have established before, I do love travelling – and, I love my husband. I would travel – and have travelled – around the world for him, and more importantly, with him. But there are days when I think life could just be so much simpler if I had controlled my urge to travel and live abroad when I was younger, and just settled into a stable life in Finland. If I had met someone there, gotten a good, steady job, married, bought a home, had some kids. If life was a bit less unpredictable, less unstable, less.. mobile. There are days when I am just sick of always missing people  – missing my family, my mum and dad and sisters, missing friends, missing weddings and funerals and births. Not being there for life altering events in the lives of people I love, not having friends to hold my hand and comfort me when I sob pathetically in the bathroom, hissing at my poor husband how he just “doesn’t understand”. Of course he understands – he was a military brat. He knows exactly what it’s like to feel rootless, feel detached – and yet, he chose to marry a foreigner, committing his life to even more travel and moving and instability. I really should appreciate that more, I think.

There are days when I talk to my family back home, and I hear how they miss me. I miss them too, all the time, every day. On those days, I feel guilty – for not being closer, for not being able to visit home for Sunday dinner, not being there to help my younger sister build her first house, not being able to see the youngest sister off as she is getting ready to take a leap of faith and move her life to Scotland with her Scottish boyfriend. I won’t be home for Christmas this year, which just breaks my heart, because for me, there’s no Christmas anywhere else.. and, let’s be honest, because no one cooks Christmas food like my mum does, even though she goes ballistic in the days and hours leading up to the big feast every year.

I miss stability. I miss knowing what will happen next year, where we will be, what we will be doing. With all the mystery and excitement that comes with a mobile lifestyle, it can also be very straining at times. We want to start a family one day, but we don’t know where – both of our home countries have their pros and cons. No matter where we’ll be, our kids will be half way across the world from at least one half of their extended family, and one set of grandparents will be half way across the world from their (probably) first grandchild. We want to own a home one day – but where? How will we be able to make the decision to buy property in one country over the other, and will that country then essentially become “home” for our family? We talk about these decisions a lot – or, fight about them – not necessarily because we disagree, but because they are emotional and scary decisions. We know there’s no one right answer, there’s no magical formula we can use to figure this out, and we know we’ll just have to take life as it comes and go with it. I know I have a tendency to try and over plan everything, and I know I cannot plan every event of my life and foresee every big thing that waits around the corner, but sometimes – sometimes, I miss the stability. I miss knowing what is coming, or at least having the illusion of knowing. I wish I could have just stayed still…

…but. On the other hand, I know that I have many friends who look at my pictures, read my blog, listen to my stories, and sigh silently while thinking to themselves: “Why can’t I have that”. I know I have many friends who sometimes get jealous of my life, of how I lived in New York, travel all over, work internationally, get to see the world. These might be friends who now own homes, have children and beautiful families, and have stable lives – lives I envy from this side of the looking glass – and just like they can’t always see the downsides of my life style, I can’t see the down sides of theirs. I don’t see the sleepless nights, the mortgage payments, the challenges of family life, just like they can’t always see the stress that comes with constant culture shock, the look in my eyes when I see pictures of a best friends wedding or baby’s birth I have missed again, the pain in my chest that comes with such a paralyzing force every time I can’t be home to be with my family when something big happens. I have realized that lately, I have been so focused on thinking about all the things I don’t have, or things I can’t have, that I’ve entirely lost sight of all the wonderful things in my life, and all the positive sides of the expat lifestyle. After all, there are plenty – even though stability is most certainly not one of them.

I think, at times, we all get too busy staring from behind the glass, looking to the other side, focusing on what is going on there and how it is something we don’t have. There will always be things others have and I don’t, because I have made decisions that have inevitably closed some doors for me – but on the other hand, so many new ones have been opened as a result. I firmly believe we all should strive to challenge ourselves, to push the envelope, to take chances and risks and leaps of faith – but I don’t think there’s any one way of doing that. We challenge ourselves in different ways. For some, it might mean going back to school after years of being a stay-at-home mum, for others it might mean leaving a stable but boring and uninspiring job and going for something totally new, and for me – well, for me, one day, it might be making a decision of staying still. Whatever it is, I hope I have the courage to take that leap, and I hope I will remember then, as I try to remember now, that life is not about absolutes – and even those doors that were once closed, can almost always be opened again – If I want to.

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It’s about more than Money, Mr. Romney.

Boy, I would not want to be in Romney’s shoes right now. It seems every time he opens his mouth, what comes out is better campaign material for Obama than anything his own people could ever come up with (no offense to the fine people working for Obama 2012, but seriously – you can’t make this stuff up). The Obama campaign should consider hiring Romney, since he seems to be doing a mighty fine job with making sure the sitting president will hold the White House for one more term. Here’s to hoping.

In all seriousness though, Romney’s latest.. indiscretion, should we say – is yet another testament to the very sad and troubling state of affairs in the United States when it comes to people living in poverty, which, according to recent statistics, is around 15% of the country’s population, totaling over 46 million people. 46 million children, women, men, mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, grandmothers, grandfathers, living with less than what has been deemed the absolute necessary minimum for a decent – note, not good – standard of living. According to this recently released US Census Bureau Report, while unemployment has slightly declined, the income gap between rich and poor in America is still increasing. The GINI index measures income inequality in countries, with the value of zero meaning total equality, and 1 meaning total inequality. According to the Census Bureau, the GINI of the US has increased to 0.477 in 2011 – and, as this article and visual map nicely demonstrate, this is similar to the GINI indexes of countries such as  Cameroon, Rwanda, Uganda and Sri Lanka. In the United States, those who have been doing well for quite some time are doing even better, and those who have been less fortunate are worse off than ever before. It pays to be rich in the US, in more ways than one.

Mitt Romney has previously said that the GOP is not a “party of the rich”, but a party “for those who want to become rich”. What Romney, and many Republicans, just cannot seem to understand is that 1) not everyone can be rich, and 2) not everyone necessarily wants to be rich. Making as many people as possible “rich” should not be, and cannot be, the end goal of any political party, politician, and certainly not the goal of the President of the United States. Why? Because it is just simply not possible, sustainable, realistic, or.. sane. Also, unlike Mitt seems to believe, human well-being, happiness, healthiness and general human satisfaction cannot be measured solely on the basis of income. Being rich does not equal being happy or doing well – and, as Romney so vividly demonstrates, being rich most certainly does not equal being smart. Just like being poor, or needing some help, does not equal being lazy or stupid.

“The Poor” are not lazy. “The Poor” do not evade taxes, or rely on government charities to be able to live a wonderful life of leisure. “The Poor” are not stupid, useless, uneducated, nor are they victims or people who believe they are entitled to all these luxurious things (such as food and basic health care to.. well, stay alive) that should be provided to them for free by the government. “The Poor” are all of us. Today’s poor people are educated people, workers, academics, teachers and laborers, business people, lawyers, geeks, in addition to the people who have been poor for generations, because breaking that inter-generational cycle of deprivation is almost impossible in a country like the United States, where the starting point for those who have a lot and those who have nothing is anything but equal. Anyone of us could be poor in today’s America. Anyone of us could suddenly not be able to afford health care, decent education for our children, rent, proper food. If I lost my job in America today, and needed help to get by until I could pull myself up again, would that suddenly make me a victim, a helpless person dependent on the government? Would that make me lazy, incapable, stupid? I would be just as highly educated as I am today, I would be just as resourceful, as smart, as capable, as independent – but just unemployed. This could happen to me, or to you, or to your mother or father, sister or brother. “The Poor” are us – there’s no one who is too big, or too rich, to fall, and to need help to get back up again.

I have a message for Mr. Mitt Romney. You are right, health care, decent work, education, the ability to purchase food for your family, having some social security around you, having access to decent, affordable housing – these are not entitlements. These are Rights. Very basic, minimal Rights that All human beings, independent of their race, their gender, their age, or their socio-economic class, should be able to access. These are rights that guarantee all human beings the ability to live a somewhat decent life, without having to go hungry, die of treatable diseases, or face a life without a home or a shelter. These are rights that protect children’s education, that enable parents to send their kids to school so that they can, you know, learn stuff, eventually find a job and provide for their families and themselves. These are rights that give people a goddamn fighting chance in this dog-eat-dog world where those who stand tall are lifted even higher by discriminatory policies and laws, and those who fall are kicked even deeper into the ground. You know, Mr. Romney, what we call those countries that allow people to die of preventable diseases, that do not provide housing for their people, that don’t make education accessible and affordable to all, that allow people to go hungry? We call them developing countries, and last I checked, the United States of America, the Land of the Free, was not on that list of countries. I personally would rather not see it go there either.

Mr. Romney – if, god forbid, you were to become the President of the United States, taking care of “those people” would absolutely be your job. The job of the president is to take care of ALL people – not just those who can pad your campaign funds with six figure donations. That is what presidents do – they run a country of equal citizens, of human beings who have rights and who stand on equal ground in terms of basic, necessary services, such as health care, education, shelter. You do not pick and choose who you care for, Mr. Romney – as a human being, you should care for everybody. Obviously, this is not something you would plan to do, should you win the election – and for all of Americans, I deeply, deeply hope you don’t. Because as a woman, as a student, as a Master’s graduate, as a worker, as an immigrant wife of an American, I believe in the inherent value of all human beings – and I would expect my president to believe in it as well.

Money can buy a lot of thins, but You, Mr. Romney, are a great example of some things money cannot buy – such respect towards other people, compassion, and a heart.

You could buy a muzzle though.

Posted in Human Rights, inequality, New York, Politics, poverty | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The day X-Factor made me cry – and why it should make you cry too.

I am a few days behind the masses in acknowledging a spine-chilling, gut-wrenching performance of a 19-year old Jillian Jensen on X-Factor, which aired in the US on Wednesday night, and here in India on Friday. Jillian came on stage in front of the judges, thousands of people in the live audience and the millions watching from home, emotional from the start. She went on to explain that she was a big fan of one of the judges, Demi Lovato, partly because of similar experiences they have both shared in high school – being bullied.

While talking about her experiences, Jillian, both behind the stage and on it, was not able to keep the emotions and tears away. There she is, a 19-year old, beautiful and, as soon was evident, extremely talented young girl, broken and beaten to the ground because of horrible experiences she has had to live through for years. As she was talking about the things she had gone through, I started to get emotional sitting on my couch – and then I shook it off. I mean, that is just silly – to be crying when watching the X-Factor. Come on, who does that?

Well. I think everyone who watched should have been crying. If not when Jillian was talking, then definitely when she started singing. I haven’t been bullied, so I don’t have the personal experience of what that is like – and yet, I felt like I could relate to, understand and feel all the pain, all the agony, all the tears and the fear and the sorrow that young girl has had to go through in her very short life. I cried, because I wished someone could have done something before. I cried, because I know there are so many like her around the world – young girls and boys, who have to endure mental and physical violence, name calling, pushing and shoving, harassing, on daily basis. Girls and boys whose spirit gets broken every day, over and over again – who start thinking they are not good enough, that there is something wrong with them, that they deserve what they are getting. None of them ever ever do – but still it happens, under our eyes, under the eyes of parents and teachers, of other children and youth, who turn the other way when they should be fighting against it. No child or a young person should ever have to go through the kind of pain Jillian, and others like her, have to go through – and to be able to get through it, to rise up every day, to endure the abuse, to come out on the other side – well, that takes the kind of strength and perseverance I probably am not even able to imagine. Jillian is not only an extremely talented singer, but an extremely strong, exceptional young girl – and I hope her bullies saw her sing. And I hope they cried, too. They should have.

So yes – X-Factor made me cry. And I am not ashamed, at all. I hope it made others cry too – because more people should be able to relate to the pain Jillian, and other bullied children and youth, go through. More of us need to be enraged by what happens bullied kids, more of us need to feel the pain, and more of us need to care as much as we would if it was happening to us, or to our children.

I think Jillian has proved that she is stronger, and better, than her bullies – and that she has the ability to rise above her negative experiences, and turn her pain into something empowering. Not all kids are that strong, though, and while it is okay not to be okay, it is never, ever, okay to just turn the other way, and not do anything. I hope Jillian makes you cry too.

Posted in Human Rights | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

We Need to Remember More.

Image9/11 was, and is, a collective grief. Thousands of people lost loved ones on that day, and tens and hundreds of millions felt that loss, grief, pain, anger and fear in their bones and cells around the world. It was as if a huge electric pulse had been sent out from New York to every corner of the world, shaking people from their lives, pulling people from their thoughts, waking people from their dreams. In a matter of minutes, for most people in the world, and definitely for all those in New York, and in America, the world would never be quite the same. A new history of violence had been created in one small moment, and that history, sadly, still goes on.

Today, all over America and probably all over the world, thousands of people bow their heads in the memory of those who were lost. We remember names, faces, smiles – moments of families together, husbands and wives in embraces, children blowing candles, friends laughing over drinks, grand parents telling stories. We remember the good in those who were lost, and we hold on to those memories – because while remembering is hard, forgetting would hurt even more. But others remember loved ones too. over 100,000 civilians have lost their lives in Iraq since 2001, and they were sons, daughters, mothers and fathers too. And the 15,000 or so civilians lost in Afghanistan – someone remembers them too. According to some estimates, around 30,000 or so civilians have died as a result of shadow wars taking place in Pakistan – but no one really knows for sure if any of these numbers are right. Then, of course, there are the thousands upon thousands of lost soldiers from all over the world, who have given their lives in the search for “justice”.

I didn’t lose someone I loved on that day, and I haven’t lost someone I loved in the aftermath. I was thousands of miles away, I was young, and I didn’t really understand all that happened, and all that surrounded the events of that day. I couldn’t grasp what it meant for those people who were directly affected, and I had no idea how many others would be indirectly affected as well – though the aftermath, the wars, the violence that would ensue, in the quest for justice. The need for revenge is a natural human feeling – but it can be very blinding as well. And as a result, hundreds of thousands of innocent lives have been lost after 9/11 – both American, and foreign. Do we remember those lives as well?

9/11 is not only a collective grief – it is a collective memory as well. And while, rightly, we bow our heads for those who died on that day as a result of a terrible crime against humanity and civility, we must not forget others who have died since, as a result of that day. The ripple effect of 9/11 did not end 11 years ago, and hasn’t ended yet – and the same hatred, fear, narrow-mindedness and inability to accept those who are different and live different types of lives still exists and grows in the world we live in. We need to remember more than those who were lost on that day – we need to remember the fear we felt, we need to remember the anger, the pain, the lust for payback, the need for revenge – and we need to remember the atrocities and violence that ensued, and the tens and hundreds of thousands of lives lost and affected as a result.

It is natural to want justice – but confusing justice with vengeance and retribution with violence only breeds more atrocities, more killing, and more lost lives to remember. Our collective memory will soon run out of space for all those lost as a result of bigotry, hate and fear, and the best thing we can do to honor those we’ve lost for violence is to build a legacy of something else. A legacy of tolerance and forgiveness, of understanding and acceptance. We should honor those who were lost by teaching children and young people to understand that being different does not equal being wrong, and that violence cannot be remedied with more violence. We should keep reminding ourselves and those around us that though the wounds may never heal entirely, we do have the power to break the circle of violence, to remember more than just the pain, and to create a history of tolerance and acceptance instead of violence and vengeance.

Posted in Human Rights, New York, Politics | 2 Comments

Why I sometimes hate India – and Why it is Okay.

“I love to travel. I love to see new countries, and get to know new cultures, and taste new foods, and hear new music, and meet local people, and just expand my world views. I just love, love, love to travel.”

I have said those words, several times. So have most of my friends, and probably you, and most of your friends. Honestly, who doesn’t love to travel? I know there are people who really really don’t – but I bet even most of them will still say they do love, or at least like, to travel, because to be a person who dislikes traveling.. well, that would just be weird, and there would have to be something wrong with a person like that. Traveling is just bliss.

I do honestly love traveling, and I love getting to know new countries, and meeting new people, and making new friends and new memories in beautiful surroundings, with colors, sounds, smells and emotions I’ve never experienced before. But then there are the days when I just absolutely, utterly, totally hate it all, and all I want to  do is be home again – even though I’m not even sure where “home” would even be right now. Days when I just hate everything in the country I am in, and wish I could be anywhere but here. And I bet every traveler has these days – we just don’t admit to them as easily as we do to all the positive and exciting things we see and experience.

There are days when I wake up, and go to the bathroom – and then, as almost every morning, curse the stupid Indian toilets that never flush properly. I walk to the kitchen, and realize I can’t make myself coffee because electricity is out – and, therefore, I also can’t turn on the water heater to take a shower. I open my computer to read the news, and the internet isn’t working (yes, I know – such a first world problem. But bear with me, you’ve all been there).
After not being able to make my coffee, or take a shower (unless I absolutely had to, and ended up taking a cold shower), or read the news, I finally get ready to walk out and head to work. On some mornings, I can make it to the big road safely – on others, I find myself dodging the barking angry street dogs and hoping they wont’ decide to come after me, given that I never got that rabies shot. Once I find an auto rickshaw, the negotiating begins, and on most mornings I end up paying more that just the meter fare. The trip to the office is filled with honking horns, barking dogs, horrible pollution, pot holes, cursing, crazy driving, a few near-death experiences with trucks and buses, and by the time we make it close to my work, I can feel an inch-thick layer of dirt and crap covering my face. The driver doesn’t know how to get to my office, so I ask him to drop me off a few streets down and walk the rest of the way. I step out of the auto, only to step into a puddle of grey water. Given that it hasn’t been raining in the past 24 hours, it is most likely sewer water. We all know what that consist of. I pass an enormous pile of garbage, and twitch at the piercing smell of all of that trash rotting away in the sun and heat.

I get through the work day, then go through the process of arguing with an auto rickshaw driver about the fare again, and finally agree on some sort of a compromise. I need to run some errands on the way home.   I go to a store, and have to check in my backpack at the door – they are not allowed in big stores.  The minute I walk in every single person working there has their eyes on me, and they all want to help, or force me to buy things I don’t need – I know they just mean well and/or are doing their jobs, but sometimes I just want them to leave me alone, not follow me around, not ask me if I need help, not carry my basket, not offer me products I really don’t want or need, not ask me to fill out a customer satisfaction survey. I finally make it to the register, and stand in line – only to see at least five people cut in front of me. As anyone who has ever been to India will know, Indians are not the best at queuing. Again, I know they don’t mean it in a bad way, it’s just how things are done here, but on days like this I have to use every ounce of self control in me not to explode on the face of this tiny little old Indian lady, who swoops in from somewhere and rams herself between me and the cashier, just when I thought it was finally my turn.

I walk out of the store, and at the exit, a security guy stops me to see my receipt. They do this in all stores – but I still don’t really know why. The security guy doesn’t check the content of my bag against the receipt – they just look at the receipt, and then make a hole in it. I have no idea where I put it between the register and the door, so I take my time to find it from the bottom of my bags, and finally hand it over.  I walk down to the ground floor – and, at the last exit, another security guy wants to see my receipt again. I am ready to scream. I find it, again, and he makes a hole in it – again. I go to the counter to retrieve my backpack, and again wait in line, just to see everyone cut in front of me. After about 10 minutes of waiting, I finally manage to elbow my way to the front, and get my backpack.

I’m not far from home, so I think I’ll walk. After the first couple hundred meters, I realize it wasn’t the best idea. I’m not 100% sure what the route is, the traffic is getting really bad, and, as always when I step out the door, everyone around me is staring at me. I wish I could claim it was because of my stunning looks – but given that at this point, I am sweaty, dirty, my hair looks like Monica’s on the Barbados-episode of Friends, and I probably smell like pee after my encounter with the puddle earlier, I doubt that is the reason. Foreigners get stared at everywhere in India, and on most days I don’t mind nor even notice it really – but, on a day like this, I feel each and every eye on me, looking at me, shamelessly staring at me, sizing me up. They don’t mean anything by it – at least most of the time – but at the same time, when I am walking home by myself and the sun is starting to set, I feel like I constantly have to try to read the signs and stay vigilant and alert, in case someone stares a bit too long, or maybe starts following me, which also has happened before. I pick up the speed – and trip into a ginormous pot hole in the middle of the side walk. I curse out loud in every language I can think of, and feel the people around me staring at me even more. I pull myself up, gather my things from the street, and start crossing the road. My heart skips a beat as a motorcycle rushes past me, missing my toes by an inch or so – and I can swear the rickshaws and buses and cars and trucks coming at me start speeding up, as they honk their horns basically to just let me know they are not gonna slow down or go around me. So I run – stumbling across the street, reaching the other side more or less unharmed, panting and trying to calm down my breathing.

I know I am only a few blocks away from home, but in the dark every little street and alley look alike to me, and I’m still getting used to the area and don’t know my way around that well. I know what street I am looking for, and I know the cross streets – but, as is normal in India, none of the streets have street signs. The ones that do, have signs only in Hindi – or maybe they are in the local language or Karnataka, which is Kannada. Honestly, it might as well be in Klingon -I cannot read even one symbol of the script, so the signs are useless. I try to ask some people for direction, but no one knows English, and even the ones who seem to maybe understand a word or two of what I am asking give me the Indian head-bob-and-hand-shake direction, which can mean anything from “go straight” to “take the first left, third right, forth left, turn at my godmother’s house, follow the brown cow, take another left at the big tree, and you’re there!”.

After about 30 minutes of aimless walking, going around in circles, stumbling on pot holes and garbage piles, escaping from rabid dogs, I finally find the street I am looking for. I sigh from relief, and turn the corner rushing – only to nearly walk into a man who is standing next to the wall, pissing. To make things even better, he is pissing underneath a big writing on the wall that reads: “DO NOT URINATE HERE”. I cringe at the smell (and the sight), veer around him while I am very much aware he is staring at me the entire time, and I speed up to finally get home. I stumble up the stairs with my bags and my backpack, get in the door, throw everything on the floor, and scream on the top pf my lungs:

“I HATE EVERYTHING IN INDIA! STUPID ELECTRICITY CUTS AND SMELLY TOILETS AND PILES OF GARBAGE AND PUDDLES OF PISS AND SHIT AND CRAZY TRAFFIC AND PEOPLE CUTTING IN LINES AND STRAY DOGS AND NAMELESS STREETS AND RICKSHAW DRIVERS AND PEOPLE WHO STARE AND MEN WHO FOLLOW ME AND INSTRUCTIONS THAT LOOK LIKE AN EPILEPSY SEIZURE AND MEN PISSING ALL OVER THE PLACE! I HATE INDIA I HATE IT I HATE IT I HATE IT!!!”

— And then, I take a deep breath. My husband probably laughs at me a bit, asks me to tell him what happened, nods sympathetically as I complain to him about all the horrors of the day, and then either tells me I am being silly (which will result in me screaming at him for not being supportive), or  that tomorrow will be better (which will result in me screaming at him for forcing me to come to India in the first place).

..And then, tomorrow comes. And tomorrow might be one of those days when I love everything in India. When in stead of piss, I smell spices, and the auto rickshaw driver turns on the meter without any arguments. When there’s no traffic on my way home and the nice lady selling fruits on the corner gives me an extra apple. Tomorrow could be a day when there’s a beautiful, colorful parade on the street, and I can just stand there and watch it, and enjoy the colors and the sounds and the people. A day when the beautiful sounds of the evening prayers from the Mosque close by reach me when I walk home, the sky is gorgeous before the rain, and the bright, shiny bangles on the wrist of a little girl
make a lovely sound as she runs by me, laughing and playing in front of our house. And on those days, I just love India and living here, and I think to myself: “Why isn’t life this rich and colorful in America or Finland”.

Every traveler has those days when everything goes wrong. When everything feels hard, difficult, strange, weird, and making sense of it all is just too damn hard. Days when we miss home, and hate everything foreign. And having those days is okay – because tomorrow always comes, and in the end, it’s the tough days that force us to grow more, to learn more, to experience more and to eventually understand more of the big, weird world we live in. Easy life is a lousy teacher – it’s the pee-smelling days that truly force us to push the limits of our comfort zone. You know what they say: Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. And there’s nothing like stepping on a pile of cow crap every now and then to learn where those limits are – And to push them further.

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