I am a morning-person. I wake up bright and cheery, much to the chagrin of my evening-person partner. I am also an old-school newspaper reader, as is she, so my first task of the day-even before the tea and coffee get turned on- is to grab the morning New York Times off our porch and divvy up the sections.
We read and react to various stories that catch our attention, and by the time we rise from the table for work, I notice my morning-person delight has taken a nasty detour toward the dark shadows of despair.
2018 seemed particularly grim. World temperatures rising faster than predicted and rapidly rising numbers of refugees fleeing war-torn and oppressive governments, stoking fear, resentment, and oppressive public policy. The list of wars, lying/spying governments, and school shootings are too numerous to list.
And then, just after New Year's Day, I read "2018 was the best year in history" by Nicolas Kristof. What Kool-aid was he drinking?!
He reports that for every day of 2018, 305,000 people were able to access clean drinking water for the first time. 295,000 gained access to electricity for the first time. Every day, for the past 25 years, another 100,000 a day moved out of extreme poverty. We don't read this because journalism mostly covers wars, massacres and famines, not human progress. It is a true slice of life, but one cut to show us our worst selves.
It reminds me of what police life must be like, an unbalanced look at human nature, in which your nose is consistently rubbed into the ugliest stuff we do, leading to an overall sense of bitterness and a pessimism about the human condition.
Today we are celebrating Martin Luther King Jr's birth, who would have been 90 years old today. He told us that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I am keeping this article pinned to my desk bulletin board to read every day of 2019, and to remind me that he may just be right.
"Suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were."
Traveling to countries and cultures quite unlike your own changes you, but not always in the ways you expect.
I knew living in India would broaden my understanding of how other people live, love, and die. Walking along the concrete steps on the banks of the Ganges River, bodies burning for burial nearby, regularly exposed me to people who cook and chat enjoyably with their outdoor neighbors and foreigners like me all day long, and then fold out blankets to sleep on those same steps, under the moon and stars at night.
I also knew my perspective on how the US is seen by others would be rewired. Whenever Obama spoke of India (rare) it was covered in the Hindustan TImes and whenever Trump made some absurd pronouncement (daily), it was covered too.
Mostly the reports on Trump were written like a “Ripley’s believe it or not” laughable absurdity, except when it came to Muslims.
India has no love affair with Muslims, for sure. And since India gained its Independence from the British in 1947 and Muslims and Hindus split up the country into Pakistan and India, relations could at best be described as “rocky.” But even here the India government would never propose the draconian measures that Trump has proposed and on that, there is hot anger and disbelief about how such a candidate could be credible in America.
I knew working and traveling throughout India I would gain valuable insights into how to improve the international teaching strategies we were implementing and training university faculty on.
I saw firsthand in the three international collaboration courses I advised (with students engaging from University of Washington-Bothell, University of North Carolina-Asheville and the Central University of Tibetan Studies-Sarnath), how the India students got great value interacting in English, and how “leadership skills” and “confidence in talking with non-Indians” is what they sought.
What I didn’t anticipate, was how I would be changed through my own suffering.
I ran into an unexpected health crisis while here, alone, with all friends and family thousands of miles away. Over the years I have been exceptionally fortunate; in my personal life, my career and most certainly my health. So to have a major health crisis here, lasting weeks, without family and friends nearby, put me in new, uncharted territory.
As a result I have discovered some profound insights that were entirely unanticipated when I left for India some five months ago.
I have gained a much deeper appreciation for Hank Williams’ sentiments when he sang, “no matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive.”
While I was able to get help with this health issue, and I am going to be fine, I came face to face with my own mortality. I hope it is 50 years off, but realize, it could be next week. And moving that idea from an intellectual exercise to a heartfelt realization shakes my world like I used to shake my etch-a-sketch toy.
Throughout the ordeal, I encountered so many strangers who were extraordinarily kind and generous. People who dropped everything to get me transported to where I immediately needed to go. Doctors and nurses who made house calls and healthcare specialists who gave me their personal mobile phone numbers to call anytime. People who cut through all the usual paperwork and waived any financial costs because it was the care not the cost that was critical right then.
Friends and family who called, Skyped and wrote regularly to offer words of encouragement and became my crack research team. I want to be more like all of them.
I have learned that a crisis in which you do not control what is happening to you is a superb opportunity to practice serenity in the face of disaster.
And we need this practice, a lot, because as we get older, a lot more tough stuff is going to happen to us and to our world of friends, family and colleagues. And you either learn how to respond well, or your life just keeps getting worse.
“We can’t often control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond”. I get that a little mantra better now, and I am deeply appreciating this opportunity to practice how I respond.
Growing up in the outskirts of Spokane, my brother and I would spend countless hours in our backyard pitching golf-ball sized, plastic whiffle-balls to each other so we could better hit the curve ball in baseball games. We missed far more balls than we hit but it was great practice for the games.
Living under the harsh conditions in India and experiencing suffering alone has been a great backyard in which to practice for the big leagues in Life.
I got a lot of practice swings in this time, and I am sure there will be more opportunities to practice tomorrow.
“But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.”
-Behind the Beautiful Forever’s; life, death and hope in Mumbai.
I have a very low tolerance for my fellow travelers who choose to register a host of complaints about the perceived weaknesses of the host country. And extol the virtues of their own. It feels like the underlying message is; “if only this country could be more like the US.”
And yet, on some days here in India, after a long and intensely lived four months, I find myself behaving much like the fellow traveler I detest.
One of the consistent complaints Indians return to, as we discuss the special challenges of this country, is corruption. Regardless of whether we are discussing pollution in the Ganga, crazy traffic jams at all hours, visa delays or filth in the street, the Universal Source of All that is Wrong seems to be “corruption.”
The systemic problems of inadequate infrastructure, illiteracy, and shorter life expectancies are understandable in countries with weak economies. But by all measures, this democratic nation is one of the fastest growing economic engines in the world, with a decent tax base...
I find myself being mad at India. You can do so much better, I say to myself.
I struggle to find parallels in the development of my own country, the US. I know we have had our share of corrupt small town and big city governments. And certainly there are famous police departments over the last century that have been a petri dish of corruption from top to bottom: New York, Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, to name a few. Yet in most cases, the corruption has ultimately been uncovered, and a fairly clean house made. In some cases, it has taken a strong grassroots effort of protest to get the levers of government to move, but it has usually been accomplished.
Yet the example of widespread local to national government corruption, from petty bribes to massive public taking of dollars by those at the top, is not found, at least in my reading of US history. Our greatest corruption is as devastating, but has the patina of legality; and that is the way we allow the rich to finance elections, in effect, turning our elected officials into puppets for the rich and wealthy class. (no small thing, I must admit).
So how can the corruption be rooted out here in India? A “Clean Government” political party that sweeps the nation and fixes things?
After reading “Behind the beautiful forevers”, a well-researched book based on a true story from a reporter spending four years in the dumps surrounding the airport in Mumbai, I start to get a tiny glimpse of corruption as a legitimate way to make a living. And how it serves as a legitimate business model for those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. I see how a scrap collector can get a toehold on life by slipping a guard some money so he can access an inside garbage can after hours, resulting in an income that will allow his four children to eat another day.
My friend Anne, whose husband is Indian and who visits India regularly advises me “to not try to change a thing.” Of course, being an American, I have LOTS of ideas…grassroots protest movements, a social media campaign, a whistle-blower hotline.
In my better moments I resign myself to being the sage traveller I aspire to be. I rejoice in seeing the wild elephants in the Kerala forests. I marvel at the nightly displays of dance and ritual on the banks of the Holy Ganga River, where thousands come nightly to pay their respects to their culture and religious traditions that bind them together as a community. I listen in awe as Buddhists explain the fifty- two parts of consciousness they have discovered after centuries of study and meditation, and I see how it makes them kinder, gentler souls.
I have already been integrated into the system of corruption, with petty payoffs to grease the skids of getting around and getting stuff done. Wise souls like my Buddhist supervisor acknowledge that it is a question of not the ends justifying the means, but what means justify what ends. A question of balance, rather than yea or nay.
On some matters, we must rely on the experts. In this case, I am putting my money on these learned Buddhists who have studied how the mind works, and letting mine take a back seat, for now.
*Photo by Kimi Tuke
Daily, I walk the streets of Varanasi, India passed Brahma bulls, goats, and water buffalo mixing it up with bicycle driven rickshaws, motorized rickshaws, and buffed out taxis on my way to our apartment here in Varanasi, India. I am stunned at how in just 85 days, it all feels so normal.
While walking the backroads in Pushkar, India yesterday, I was surrounded on all sides by a troop of monkeys, some not more than an arm’s length away.
We can’t really replicate these experiences virtually. The toxic taste of fear mixed with excitement I swallow while walking through a troop of hungry langur monkeys is not experienced in the same way by watching it on a live webcam or recorded video.
While leading a workshop for university faculty on global collaborative learning in Delhi this week, one participant said, “This stuff sounds good, but do students really learn better and more deeply than how we do it now, lecturing, or is this just the latest new thing?”
It’s a critical question to ask. There is strong, empirical evidence that clearly shows we learn better by listening AND doing, not just listening. And the evidence is really clear that some things demand that we practice them to learn them. It is the rare person that learns a musical instrument by reading about it, watching, and then being able to play. I found this out early in my adult career when I picked up the banjo. My family had to suffer through me practicing, of course, but they knew I would never get better unless I did.
Learning to communicate across cultures so we better understand each other and can work together in global teams to solve real-world problems is like that.
There is a good deal of enthusiasm here in India for these global, virtual, project-based learning strategies. I spoke at two Indian universities last week on these topics and head out next week to present at a conference of 300 faculty in Chennai, India. Yet, despite the enthusiasm, they face real obstacles here….perceived student resistance to changing up teaching practices, examination pressures of teaching to the test, tradition, and a lack of confidence in the technology. One faculty member said it puts the teacher in the position of not knowing something and looking bad.
Despite all this, after each workshop, there are several faculty in every group who come forward and want to take the next concrete steps forward to pilot something.
We will never, in my lifetime, get the majority of university students in countries across the world to go live and learn with each other in a foreign land, and experience being surrounded by a troop of hungry monkeys (or people quite unlike oneself).
But we might get most of us living and learning with each other, side by side using virtual means.
,I am clearly out of my element here in Varanasi. In Seattle, you do not walk on streets while dodging golf carts (Tuk-Tuks), motorcycles and cars. You do not carry sticks to fight off hungry monkeys in your ‘hood. You don’t worry about getting kicked, bit or head-butted walking next to bulls, rabid dogs, mules and goats as you head daily on foot to town.
You also don’t eat full course dinners for 3 bucks, and drink 16 ounce beers called “The Godfather," (which they call “water” when you read the restaurant tab). You don’t hear free concerts and group chants every night on the pier, get a swanky five star hotel with a pool and breakfast for $40, or meet people every day who just want to chat and learn about who you are and where you are from.
I am adjusting though. Wine and popcorn, my two go-to crutches, are in short supply here in Hindu dominated India, but I have hunted them down like a Nazi-hunter, where few Englishmen tread. Neither product is of a quality worthy of an even a back-alley 7-11 store, and are offered to me at a price point that would make most Indians blush, but I suck it up and buy anyway. I am not living, as dad used to say “high on the hog”, so we can afford it.
My consumption of literature too, has changed, drastically. For the first time in my life I am studying, really studying, Buddhism, emptiness, and the social philosophy of the Dalai Lama, along with a little quantum physics by Stephen Hawking thrown in. The two actually go together, and you see this clearly when you read “Universe in a Single Atom” by the Dalai Lama himself, a guy who has loved science since a boy, and is quite a tinkerer when it comes to studying the mind as well.
After a few books on these topics, here in a nutshell, is what the scientists amongst us, say we now know.
There was probably a Big Bang that started things off in the beginning, although what created the Thing in the beginning to create the possibility of a Big Bang is hard to say. While there is likely a Beginning, there is likely no end, although we are not there yet, so it’s hard to be sure about this.
The theory of relativity is consistent with the time/space warp, but it isn’t consistent with the more recently uncovered theory of quantum physics. So to make up the difference we say there are Black Holes out there. Stuff we can’t see, taste, feel or measure, where light goes in but can’t crawl out, yet surprisingly the lion’s share of the scientific community is pretty darn convinced it’s there. It’s not a big deal though. Black Holes only makes up about 85% of everything they think exists, so not to worry.
There is also a pretty hefty body of knowledge that indicates there may be something to this reincarnation and past lives thing, at least there is going to be a lot of explaining to do if anyone gets a chance to ask God the question and comes back to report on it. And some of that fits with the whole “energy fields” thing, and how everything gets recycled in our lives and in the universe and how we are all connected to everything else. On this, Stephen and the Dalai Lama are like two peas in a pod.
Lots is happening in my mind, as you might be thinking now, but a lot is happening on the ground too. Before we got to Varanasi, people who had been here usually greeted us with a response that carried two overarching themes; first, “you are going there for NINE MONTHS?!!!!” And second, they described Varanasi as “intense.”
After a few weeks here, my Sweet yet Adventurous Wife and I can solemnly confirm that they were not wrong. We are now living here in Varanasi, 24/7, just five minutes from the banks of the sacred Ganga River. A typical day starts with us hunkering down in our 3 room flat for most of the morning, writing and reading, then venturing out in the afternoon.
As we walk down five flights of stairs from our flat we keep a wary eye out for the monkey troop, said to be part of a 150 strong troop that leaves at dawn from the Monkey Temple, about a half mile away. So as we exit the elevator onto the ground floor, our monkey stick is held tightly in hand. We drop our stick at the gate with the guards, and empty out into the streets with full tanks of enthusiasm.
As we do, we are hit by a fire hose of sights and sounds and smells. My Sweet yet Adventurous Wife seems to gain strength and energy with each passing minute. I on the other hand, feel like I am Apollo 13, with Tom Hanks at my control box, slowly shutting down my inner spaceship to a bare minimum of power in hopes of having enough fuel to safely return to earth. As we Tuk-Tuk down the street, the wife keeps calling out, “did you see THAT? Did you hear THAT?!!” and I honestly can say at each juncture, “no, I did not.”
Conserving fuel, I am focusing on One Thing at a Time (The Tuk Tuk coming fast and straight at us with reckless abandon, now the boy with the snake in a basket who wants money, now the man with a steel bowl, nearly naked who sits on the steps looking nowhere) and I am envisioning a time when she might tire and we can return home, safely past the gang of monkeys holding court in our yard, up the elevator, shower, and nearly naked myself, rest comfortably in my bedroom, lights off, curtains drawn, eyes closed, with a bowl of popcorn by my side.
After an hour or two of such inner peace, I know I will recover quickly (as did Tom Hanks after he splashed down, FYI), and begin reading the local paper and internet.
There is so much of interest here; political fights over eating beef, burning Varanasi cop cars so the Fundamentalists can earn the right to place lead-base painted idols in the Ganga River, fighting female oppression yet banning films that document violence against women in India, even grand visions for making Varanasi, one of the oldest cities on earth, a “smart city”, run by technology that would surpass Hong Kong. With each of these news items, religious practices and conflicts are the underlying theme. It’s a secular democracy here, and Nepal just voted to strengthen their fledgling secular democracy as well. As Egypt and Turkey and other neighbors struggle to not let that Secular Light go out, one sees clearly how things might play out if it does.
The Big Insight of the Week was this. The capacity of the human brain is enormous. 2000 years ago, a good number of people understood how some aspects of the mind work (like concentration and intuition and emptiness) and could explain it and alter it in ways we barely comprehend today. (Don’t believe me, you can look it up. If you read Sanskrit). Much of this was gained through the practice of meditation, when the mind was not to be distracted by twitter feeds and headphones. We have lost much of that capacity. The same is true for some elements of science and medicine. When we speak of “lost arts”, I grasped that idea years ago when I first saw the Acropolis in Greece and among the Roman ruins. But on this trip, it is the lost art of exploring regions of the mind that I now see we must rediscover.
While I have not made a definitive decision on this yet, the philosophy of Buddhism, as expressed by the Dalai Lama, with its emphasis on non-violence, compassion toward all sentient beings, and the results of a mindful practice (what I, as a layman call “getting my head screwed on right”), makes a lot of sense to me. I can even get down with the idea of reincarnation. It doesn’t hurt anyone, makes some scientific sense-at least a tiny bit-and is a nice way to think about things. And, I love that Buddhism makes room for all religions and doesn’t get all preaching about “The WAY”.
And it all fits nicely with the work I’m trying to do here with new social media tools, amongst Tibetan and Indian and US students abroad…. Maybe all this-the Buddhist study, the Mindfulness, the repurposing of Twitter, can be the seeds of my own, logically consistent Theory of Everything?
Which even Stephen Hawking hasn’t come up with yet, due largely to the sticky problem of Black Holes.
What is the exception will soon be the rule when it comes to students working globally in classrooms to address pressing social issues. This article showcases the work being done together on environmental issues by students in Peru and the US by students. Within five years, this work will be so commonplace in our universities, it will not merit attention. And that's a good thing!
Faculty I talk with in the States as well as here in India are generally very receptive of the idea of having students collaborate with other students around the world. But one huge stumbling block is Time Zone Madness. When the country they want to work with is eight, ten, even fifteen hours different.
Exchanges of student produced videos is a great way to get around this. Not long, involved videos that take days to produce, but more spontaneous brief videos that can be produced easily in the class, or at home in a few thoughtful minutes. I think of it as an engaging way to enhance and complement ordinary Facebook text posts.
In our current two courses between students at the Central University of Tibetan Studies in Sarnath India, and the U of Washington Bothell, and the U of North Carolina Asheville, students are twelve and a half hours, and nine and a half hours apart, respectively. So they started off with posting brief questions to each other on a closed Facebook page, inviting Facebook written responses, and producing short videos to share introductory background info, like "one thing you may not know about Tibetan culture is...."
Instructors can also use videos to do self- introductions to both sets of students, and help launch the course. You will see examples of all three below. I find it is a great way to immediately personalize the experience, even if you are half a day into the future, or the past!
Another first: presenting to an international audience at 3am in the morning...try that without coffee sometime! But, as part of the presentation panel (I was being Skyped in from India to the U of Washington Bothell's Second Annual International conference) I learned of a very cool new "app" called Readfold. It was very timely because I wanted to send a very lengthy story of my adventures here in India to my family, with photos and video clips, and email seemed like such a clumsy way to do it. As the presenter noted, this is a great tool for students to share more in-depth multi-media stories they produce for courses. So, here is my blogpost, but embedded in Readfold, called, "Stretching Time in India". See if it gives you ideas on how you can use it in your global collaboration course and let me know how it works for you!
Stretching Time in India
Greg Tuke teaches and travels internationally, working with university faculty in India, Indonesia and the MIddle East, sharing strategies for implementing international collaborations within course work. This blog chronicles key experiences and insights about those experiences. All opinions expressed are mine, and represent no other institutional affiliation.