Archive for the 'thoughts' Category

Ways of Visiting

A few months ago someone asked me what my hobbies are. I said writing. Since he already knew I write as a job, he asked what else I liked to do, naming a few possible interests–like his own collection of exotic pets. My answer was still writing.

It occurred to me afterwards that I could have said traveling is one of my hobbies, but even though I’ve been dozens of far-off places, it’s not really true. I don’t “love to travel” in the sense of visiting as many places as possible and seeing all the sights.

If I go somewhere, I usually do it because I have a friend there or a job. I am more interested in people and cultures than in places or destinations. I’d rather visit the school a friend teaches at or interview the neighbors than go to tourist attractions (though I inevitably do some of the latter while traveling).

I’m also a strange mixture of home-body and globetrotter; when I studied in Cairo many of my friends trekked to as many nearby countries as possible, but I never left Egypt. I am willing to go just about anywhere, but once I’m there I want to settle in and have regular life habits.

Basically, I’m an anthropologist, not a traveler. Of course the distinctions aren’t neat and simple: oth are visitors, and whereas “travelers” often don’t see what’s really going on in a place, anthropologists can be criticized for seeing through the colonial gaze.

This month I’m in Phoenix staying with my beloved friend Mary and doing some photography and writing. Since it’s only a short stay, the way I take in the city will be limited, but so far my head is a mosaic of comparisons and contrasts to other places I’ve been. The comparison that surprises me most is to Harrisburg, where I currently live. I’ll be writing more about that in the coming weeks.

Arizona sun at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. January 2012

Do Charlie Brown Christmas Trees Really Exist?

My family’s always had an artificial tree at Christmas time, so I’ve never experienced the search for the perfect pine. Driving around Central PA these days I pass lots of roadside Christmas tree stands. From the driver’s seat, the trees look uniform in size, shape, and color–much like the produce in supermarkets. It seems that puny trees of the sort that Charlie Brown adorned probably don’t make it off the farm and to the sales lot, which disappoints me.

Am I wrong about this observation? What’s your experience with Christmas tree shopping?

Christmas Lights

Different Meanings of Occupation

I’ve always had an interest in language and the adaptability of words, but I never felt the physical and emotional charges we attach to words until I lived in a conflict zone. Take the word “collaboration,” for instance. In the West Bank, collaborating refers to Palestinian working with the Israeli Army informing them of their neighbors’ activities or other actions with equally dangerous repercussions in the community. Being accused of being a collaborator carries heavy social consequences for any Palestinian and their relations.

Hence, when I left Palestine to teach digital storytelling in India, “collaborate” was not a word that rolled off my tongue often. When I started hearing it used in the classroom regarding groupwork or when discussing partnerships between educational organizations, I had to mentally process the difference. I still do. It’s not something I usually verbalize, but I’m not sure it will ever go away.

And then there’s the word “occupation.” Despite opposing the U.S. occupation of Iraq, I had little awareness of this word being anything other than a synonym for “job” before learning about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Even now I wonder if people in the U.S. get what I’m talking about when I refer to the occupation. It doesn’t have the same weight as the word “war”—that is unless you’ve experienced it, in which case the word will probably make you want to curl up in a corner if you think about its meaning while sitting in a hip café writing a blog post.

So I’ve been having a lot of mental processing as the word “occupation” has become a popular lingo referring to protests in Wall Street and elsewhere, in which participants literally take over a space that they do not legally control. It’s the same basic action as a military occupation, though of course the actors, type of force employed, purpose, etc. differ.

The striking language difference here is that by and large the people I talk to about these occupations are promoting and praising them. I’m accustomed to occupation as something to resist, not a form of resistance itself. So it’s in the valuation of the word in phrases like “Occupy Everywhere” that my embodied understanding of the term is destabilized. Today I saw a photo that speaks to this linguistic trip wire.

Solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners, 10/11/11. By Oren Ziv

What You Learn in School

It’s not hard to find criticism of standardized testing in public education. Another important criticism that I’ve heard less often is about the homogenizing effects of standardized curricula. I first heard it from a friend teaching middle school English in Oahu. Venting about the rigid, stale curriculum imposed by educational planners from the mainland, my friend pointed out that the required readings were culturally inaccessible to her students and also not appropriate to their abilities/learning needs. But then, the curriculum was not designed for her students, she noted.

I next contemplated the idea of culturally relevant curriculum in public education while living in Palestine. I learned that during the time that Jordan controlled the West Bank (i.e. after 1948 and before the 1967 Israeli occupation), Palestinian students there followed the Jordanian curriculum while Palestinian students in Gaza were educated under the Egyptian curriculum since Egypt controlled the strip at that time. I wondered how much or how little Palestinians saw themselves and their history represented in those curricula. (It’s an easy question to call to mind in a place where the occupying Israeli powers actively destroy or deny Palestinian culture and history.) Around that time I also read a brief article criticizing Israeli influence in the more recently created Palestinian curriculum, but was frustrated by that article’s lack of references to specific facts or sources for that information.

Most recently, a “Speak Your Piece” article over at the Daily Yonder news site got me thinking about this topic. Ohio University sophomore Zach Wilson argues against a one-size-fits-all education policy on rural areas of the U.S. Specifically, he cites the narrowness and shortsightedness of focusing solely on college readiness and the negative impacts of school consolidation on rural communities.

“Communities are the keystones of society. This is where people interact, where they are rooted by a sense of shared place. In this sense, communities are rarely found outside of rural areas. But the emphasis on humans as economic and competitive creatures has long seen rural places not as essential to society in their wholeness, but useful in their pieces — places good only for the extraction of food, timber, ore, and human labor.”

Clearly this viewpoint affects how we as a society seek to educate our members. And right now it seems we’re educating young people to be “productive participants” in an economy that’s failing and doesn’t have a place for them (or us, as I, too am a young person). It’s a big thing to wrap your head around. Scaling down the focus slightly, I am trying to learn more about rural education in the U.S. as I’m contemplating ideas to teach digital storytelling to youth somewhere in rural Pennsylvania. I’m particularly interested in the concept of place-based education which Zach advocates in his DY post, so if anyone reading this has suggestions for how/where to learn more about that, please leave them in the comments.

Come Together, Right Now

Butterfly apples

West Virginia. September 2011

Last week while those around me complained about PA’s weather shift from tank-top heat to a jacket chill, I did a jig of delight at the nearness of fall. Since I last experienced a mid-Atlantic autumn in 2008, I’ve been telling friends about my excitement for the seasons changing for months. As I repeated the story last week, no one seemed to understand. But pumpkins and apple cider! Leaves changing colors! Dry corn fields and haunted houses! I shouted all of these delights in my head as everyone else grumbled at the new low temperatures. Fair enough—if you’ve seen all of those things every fall of your life, then the tropical climates of Guatemala or India might be pretty appealing as the equinox approaches. The pumpkin’s always oranger on the other side, or something like that.

But on Sunday I attended a Unitarian Universalist service and remembered another reason to appreciate fall. While the warm weather of summer drives people outdoors and into adventure, the cooling days of autumn bring us inside, and in the best circumstances, bring us together. The feeling of coming in from the brisk air to a sanctuary warmed by other human hearts raises a lifetime of memories from theater practices to college classes to potluck dinners. The taste of apple dumplings, the smell of pumpkin spice, the sound of the high school marching band in the distance—these are only auxiliary sensory experiences of the season; the more important one is the feeling of community.

Reminders of India

For most of the winter and spring in PA I didn’t think much about India. I had plenty of other things to occupy my mind and I wasn’t ready to process that experience yet. In July, however, I found myself having flashbacks to India in the unlikely setting of Wilkes-Barre. “Where is the big bazaar?” I texted my friend Tim one Friday in anticipation of our evening plans. Church bazaars are highly popular event in the area, but the phrase “big bazaar” amused me, because it’s also the name of an India chain store similar to K-Mart. Every Big Bazaar had a Food Bazaar on the bottom level, and that was where I did much of my grocery shopping in Hyderabad.

One of many shopping malls

Big Bazaar is inside this shopping mall. Hyderabad, 2010

Pirate Ship in the Shopping Mall

To get to it you must go past the pirate ship. Hyderabad, 2010

Road Sign

Directions to nearby neighborhoods. Hyderabad, 2010

But back to Pennsylvania. St. Nicholas Bazaar is apparently the biggest one in Wilkes-Barre. After trying some Polish food and checking out the grounds outside, Tim, Mitch, and I entered the church’s flea market with the sun setting. Inside  the basement we entertained ourselves buying a dictionary, a goofy ornament, and a fruit basket that I forgot to take with me. When we emerged, night had fallen, and attendance at the bazaar had surged significantly.

St. Nicholas Parish Bazaar

Wilkes-Barre, July 2011

Night falls on the bazaar

Wilkes-Barre, July 2011

As we entered the (almost) throngs to play some games, I found myself jostled and not sure what to take photos of because there were so many stimulants in my immediate surroundings. For the first time since my return I had the feeling of being back in the crowds of Hyderabad. After all, I was at the big bazaar.

Sithani After-school Program

Children of Communities Rising after-school program. Tamil Nadu, 2011

Friday 5: Metal Mouth

I’m almost 24, and I’m about to get braces. This will be a definite blow to my vanity—though not as bad as the time in 2006 when my hairdresser cut my bangs to a length less than a centimeter. After getting spacers put in between my back teeth, the orthodontist’s assistant gave me a list of banned food items. Since it’s mostly candy, the list didn’t faze me at first. Then I noticed some significant ones that made me question this two-year commitment.

  1. Nuts. Good thing I indulged in pistachios last week!
  2. CORN ON THE COB. All caps because this is serious. I’m currently home in Lancaster, and since it’s August I’d probably be eating corn on the cob every day anyway, but as the day for braces nears, I’m doing this like it’s a holy ritual.
  3. Pretzels. Again, I’m from Lancaster County. Do you know how many pretzel factories we have here?
  4. Biting nails. True, this is not a food, but I’m a chronic nail biter, especially when I write. Perhaps braces will help me finally kick the habit!
  5. Chewing gum. How will I stop biting my nails if I can’t chew gum?

Playing with Your Food

In recent weeks I’ve been surprised to catch myself saying I’m 24, which isn’t true till August. Never before have I thought of myself as older than I am before my birthday. And at no time do I feel more aware of my age than in the few hours per week I work at an Italian ice shop, surrounded by high school-age summer employees.

My co-workers like to tease each other or tell stories about people who came into the store. I can remember feeling annoyed by customers in service jobs when I was younger, but these days my mind is kind of like a desert at work—most things that happen pass through like a tumbleweed.

On Thursday one of my teenage co-workers made fun of the other for eating custard with a spoon upside down. (Such topics of conversation can have a surprisingly long lifespan, continuing for 15 minutes or more). At breakfast this morning I realized that my way of eating bananas is kind of odd. Thinking of my co-workers’ exchange, I remembered other unusual ways I used to eat different foods as a child. I also remembered being told to stop and eat them “properly.” Why do grown-ups think there’s a right way to eat something?

One of my favorite aspects of food in India was eating rice with my hands. I didn’t always love it—not until someone instructed me how to do it so I could have more than a few grains make it into my mouth. (My students at APRS tried to help by explaining how to pick up the rice, but failed to note the crucial thumb-flick delivery.) Eating rice has been a much more fun experience ever since, and when I cooked Indian food for some friends a week ago, I was delighted that they enjoyed eating rice that way too!

In short, I’m a strong advocate of playing with your food at any age.


My cousin must be a fellow advocate, since she didn't mind when her 3-year-old licked her snack right off the plate, creating a hummus goatee. Miami; 5/2011

Anda en bici

I got my driver’s license at age 22. The main reason I even bothered was that it’s valuable for working with kids. This week I drove 130 miles to Wilkes-Barre, PA—by far the farthest distance I’ve done so far. I also drove a car every day of the week. Something else I’ve never done before.

I hope it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.


Cars are a plague. Go by bike!

Happy International Women’s Day!

The first (and only, as of now) greeting for International Women’s Day I’ve heard today came from a Muslim man whose wife works in the same mental health clinic in Palestine as he does. He sent a kind note and a Maya Angelou poem to me and some other women.

Today I encourage readers to question their assumptions about the oppression of women in “Other” cultures and critically examine our/women’s lives in the supposedly-free “West.”

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