A Visit Across the Border

29 Jul

After what I can only describe as an intense academic year, I took off for 5 weeks to Pakistan and India this summer for fieldwork.

Pakistan was a complete revelation. I spent about 10 days in Karachi and a week in Lahore, admittedly a very short period of time. However, in that time period, I was fortunate to meet and work with some amazing people and get a flavor for the sights and sounds of urban life in the country.

Karachi was a study in contrasts; warm and welcoming, yet bubbling with tension under the surface. It reminded me of Bombay in so many ways; a true melting pot of people from all over the country (and all over the region). Similar to other cities in India, remnants of the bygone British era stood side by side with edifices of modern commerce.  I got to see a bustling market area, Saddar, filled with the beautifully decorated and painted lorries and buses that are ubiquitous in Pakistan. My friends took me to the seaside where we picnicked and took a ride on a camel. I tried some absolutely delicious food, from biryani to Peshawari ice cream to barbeque. And I shopped for lawn, the light, patterned fabric turned into gorgeous salwar suits.

More than anything, people in Karachi are incredibly friendly and kind. On learning I was from India, people were nothing but affectionate. It was great fun gossiping about Bollywood and cricket, and also when exchanging notes on the similarities and differences. It was also interesting chatting with people about the state of Pakistan today; I felt a great sense of urgency around reforming the politics of the place, with people from all walks of life eagerly waiting the day when things would go back to some level of normalcy.

Lahore was different in so many ways; green and lush, very safe and economically quite prosperous.  Culturally and historically, the city is an absolute gem, with stunning monuments, well-preserved buildings and an excellent museum. Similar to Delhi, the city is divided into an old fortified city with 13 ‘gates’ providing entrances into the area. Some of the gates are named after the direction which they face, and so till date, there is a Delhi Gate and a Kashmir Gate. The old city has some breathtaking monuments such as Badshahi Masjid, Lahore Fort and Wazir Khan Mosque. Not too far from the city is Jehangir’s tomb and the famed Shalimar Gardens (the latter of which I did not have a chance to visit).

Lahore is also tantalizingly close to India and some good friends and I visited Wagah Border; the experience of seeing the border from the ‘other side’ was surreal, to put it mildly. The changing of the guard ceremony was fantastic fun, complete with patriotic songs and cheers, tons of bravado and ultimately, a sense that despite all the political nonsense, people on either side do not harbor much resentment; its curiosity more than anything else.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the chance to go back again, but I was delighted to have experienced Pakistan once in my lifetime.

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What is it about stress?

16 Mar

I’ve been thinking lately a lot about stress. Probably because I’ve been more stressed these past few months than I have in a very long time. Apparently, I’m not the only one – a recent study found that my generation, the Millennials, are way more stressed out than previous generations (thank you recession!).

What I’ve really been trying to understand is why we get stressed, rather than the reasons for why we are. There are a million things that happen to us each day that can rattle our nerves. Traffic, exams, deadlines, family drama, you name it. Yet, some individuals simply do not let it affect them, and some are quite easily affected. It’s almost as though the only prevention is changing your own expectations, rather than specific circumstances around you (unless you just happen to be in the most frustrating job or relationship of your life, and then yes, the external piece matters).

A friend recently said to me, “I am just going to make a decision to not be stressed”. If you think about it, simple words, but extremely powerful. So I’ve tried to put into practice lately. I haven’t always been successful, but the times that I have been, it works almost like magic.

I am a chronic over-thinker. I can over-think, over-analyze, over-discuss just about anything under the sun. I have, however, started to think a few times before making a decision about how worried I am going to be about something. I just make a decision in my head saying, this is not going to bother me. And believe it or not, it actually helps instantly. It most certainly does not make the problem go away. But it does make it more manageable.

The only downside to this is laziness. Why of all things laziness? Well, stress can actually be a fantastic motivator. It propels action like no other mechanism I know, save deep, unrelenting passion for something. However, say it isn’t something that is absolutely enthralling to you. There is a chance that you can “de-stress” a problem away, so much so that when time comes to deliver, your calm demeanor has led to zero results. But to me, this has more to do with time management than a stress-free life.

What are some other things that are helping? Yoga has actually been a welcome change in my routine. I’m certainly not great at it, but I find that the breathing helps decompress and center in a way like nothing else. Hot yoga? That’s a different story (short version: no thanks). Reading each night before bed rather than checking my phone (although I’m guilty of that a lot). And Stickies – I am rediscovering my love for the sticky to-do list. Overall, there are some ways to minimize some of the self-inflicted damage we do to ourselves, and keep what little elasticity we have for stress to those events completely out of our control.

Everything Old is New Again

7 Jan

I first stepped foot in Evanston more than ten years ago (yikes!) and graduated six and a half years ago. It’s hard to wrap my head around just how much as changed in these ten years.

Yet, as I walk around Evanston in 2013, I feel as though very little actually has. My husband is doing his MBA at Kellogg, and I’m spending the month here on a much needed break from school. As I walk around downtown Evanston, I find myself taking the exact same walks I have taken a thousand times. Coffee at Starbucks, ambling through Barnes and Noble, sampling expeditions to Whole Foods, movies at Century. Sounds like something you can do in any gentrified chain store-heavy town anywhere in America (and yes, it is). Yet doing these exact same things several years later gets my mind racing about all the things I’ve done right and most importantly wrong during college, after college and way way after college 🙂

Right after I graduated, my visits to Evanston felt a little odd. I felt as though I had left some of these memories far behind and whether good or bad, did not care to be reminded. In 2011, I moved here after I got married, and experienced six-months as a townie – an Evanstonian with no immediate connection to Northwestern. It was a total revelation to experience Evanston from a different perspective – new friends, different restaurants (That Little Mexican Cafe replaced Chipotle), new bars (Bar Louie replaced Nevin’s), etc. I was probably too spaced out to really enjoy it, and soon enough, we found ourselves moving to Columbus, OH. My Evanston reunion was short-lived.

Fastforward a year, and I was back in Evanston, this time visiting my husband at business school. So much had changed in the preceding two years (four moves, two jobs, and now school) that school felt like  a distant memory. And my hubby being in school made everything feel fresh – I loved seeing everything through his eyes again. My constant thinking did not stop though – I kept evaluating how my life had changed in the ten years since I first got here – particularly, how I wish I had valued school when I was in undergrad the way I value it now as a PhD student. My academic choices seemed particularly silly in retrospect.

Yet despite my ruminations, I do feel a sense of peace this time around in Evanston. I’m in a happier place in life than I have been in the past. And while I certainly do not expect for us to live here in the years to come, I finally feel as though I can put all those negative thoughts to bed and focus on what I did gain – good friends and key life lessons that will stay with me forever.

Chicago has played and will continue to play a vital role in my life. I was born here, went to college here, was married here, and most important, have many of my closest family living here.  And so, as I cruise Lakeshore Drive, hit up Devon Street, ride on the Green Line to my parents’ home and explore Andersonville, I am always reminded how fresh and alive this city can feel, even a decade later. Sweet Home Chicago!

Twin Tragedies

27 Dec

Two horrifying events took place this month – independent, yet born from the same dark place that society has descended to.

One, the brutal murders of 27 people, 20 of them first-graders, in Newtown, CT. The photographs of the children are heartbreaking – kids with so much joy and happiness, taken from loved ones in mere seconds. I’ve lived in the States for around 10 years now, and this is probably the most anger that I’ve seen from the public following a shooting. People are outraged and this time, hopefully, the collective anger can finally translate into a wave of support for President Obama’s plans to push through gun control reform next year.

Two, the gang rape that occurred in New Delhi a couple of weeks ago – the horror and brutality of which has stunned India. Yes, sexual violence occurs on a daily basis in India at an unimaginable scale and yet, very little has come close to angering the public the way this rape has. The cowardice with which the government has reacted has probably outraged people even more, showing just how out of touch our leaders are. Protests are taking place all over the country, especially in Delhi, and one can only hope that this is the wake-up call politicians needed to get serious about women’s rights in India.

I’ve been amazed at the parallels between the response in the U.S. and India, especially around the role of culture in propagating violence. Media outlets and politicians have been quick to target violent video games in the U.S., the same way the Indian media has been to single out the ‘sexualization’ of Bollywood. Another has been around how the media has responded to the stories, with equal levels of poor journalism and self-introspection not long after the incidents had taken place.

More than anything, the biggest parallel that between the incidents themselves is why they happen in the first place. What is it in humans that devolves into killing, violating or hurting innocent people (a more complicated topic is violence against people one knows – far more common, and difficult to unpack). My own view is that the blame falls squarely on the environment around us. Whether it is a society that ferociously defends its right to bear arms or one that has little regard for the safety and protection of women, our environment is the invisible force that nurtures us while young and contributes to our thinking as we get older, through our parents or others around us. It is also the one thing that we are most resistant to change. After all, why would a group of people choose to admit that their way of thinking after all these years is utterly wrong.

But there has never been a greater need to do so. Children should not be gunned down in the middle of their classrooms. Women and girls should not be gang raped and disemboweled while returning home from a movie. People should not lose their lives to the fury of another’s mind. Let us hope that 2013 makes the people, and our leaders, finally abide by the words- never again.

A Grim Picture of the War on Drugs

5 Dec

Drugs. Bad, evil, society-destroying drugs. Of the many reactions we have on hearing about drug lords and drug czars, overdoses and crime waves, sympathy and empathy are often not part of them. The War on Drugs is an abstract concept, informed by movies like Traffic and Maria Full of Grace, more than the news or any observable impact on friends and family.

The House I Live In, a hard-hitting new documentary by Eugene Jarecki (the director of my favorite documentary till date, Why We Fight) will shatter everything you thought you knew about the War on Drugs. The stories of families across the country, including a poignant one about Jarecki’s nanny, reframe the issue as a public health crisis, rather than a criminal justice issue. The experts present stunning statistics about the havoc that the war on drugs has wrecked on society, particularly from the 1980s. And it will make you cry bloody murder at the fate of a generation of young individuals (mainly poor individuals, predominantly black) who have been subject to a jail-hungry government, wildly imbalanced sentencing laws and mass hysteria.

First, some statistics.[i]

  • The U.S. accounts for 5% of the world’s population, but accounts for a staggering 25% of the world’s jailed population.
  • In 2009, in the U.S., nearly 1.7 million people were arrested on non-violent drug charges.
  • African-Americans only account for 49% of crack users, and yet make up an overwhelming 90% of crack charges.
  • As of 2001, one in six black men had been incarcerated. At the current rate, one in three black males born today can expect to be jailed at some point in his lifestyle.
  • It costs the State of Maryland $86,000 per year to house a juvenile detainee.[ii]

Pretty grim situation, isn’t it. So what do we do with this information? The film drives home the point that Washington is in no way capable of true leadership on this issues – there are too many financial incentives and electioneering pitfalls to look the other way. The only way this ship is going to turn around is citizen activism, plain and simple.

The positive news is that in 2012, citizen activism is easier than ever. There are a number of ways that folks can get involved, and you can start with looking at The House I Live In website. Other organizations:

The House I Live In, in combination with Waiting for “Superman” (another excellent, albeit controversial, documentary about pervasive challenges with public education in the U.S.), present a picture of the structural race-based and class-based discrimination affecting this country in aching detail. Hopefully, these films also raise the profile of those championing to make a change in society, and in turn, spark a nation-wide movement to reform the American criminal justice and education systems.

Honest Abe on the Big Screen

29 Nov

My inner history nerd was out in full force last night when I watched Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s artful new film about the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life. It took me right back to my undergrad years, when I was majoring in US history, convinced that I was going to do a PhD in American civil rights movements in mid-twentieth century. Fastforward 10 years – the PhD part is true, but that’s where the parallels end.

I had mixed expectations going into the film. The trailer had me a tad underwhelmed, and I really couldn’t imagine how a movie that seemed steeped in rhetoric was going to keep up a strong pace for several hours (Spielberg? Less than two hours? Not a chance).

Not only did the movie far surpass all my expectations, I left feeling as though somehow, I was privy to a special, rarified side of American history. Granted, the movie is probably filled with historical inaccuracies For example, an NU professor, Kate Masur took to the NY Times Op-Ed page to decry the filmmakers crucial emission of African Americans’ role in ending slavery.

Despite all this, the film was arresting. With this performance, Daniel Day-Lewis has cemented his place as one of the finest actors to ever grace this planet. I was a little nervous about ‘the voice’ after watching the trailer, but his acting was so powerful that I came away feeling sad about the assassination of a president who has been gone for 150 years. The supporting cast is just terrific, particularly David Strathairn has Secretary of State William Seward. The costumes, sets and cinematography are bathed in authenticity. Many of the actors even look strikingly similar to their characters – see here for more on this.

The release of this film following the 2012 Presidential Election is poignant. Listening to the main players of the day debate about whether African Americans could ‘handle’ freedom, throws into sharp relief the fact that the current occupants of the White House are black. It underscores a point that politics aside, Obama’s presidency is a milestone in the history of race in this country.

But more interestingly to me was the dynamic between the parties – the more liberal Republican party and the stiffly conservative Democrats (oh how the tables have turned). The debates in the House of Representatives recalled a brutal, yet humorous rhetorical style, in many ways similar to what we see in today’s Congress (minus the humor). I wonder if folks will look back on the discourse taking place regarding same-sex marriage and wonder, wow those guys really didn’t get.

No doubt Oscar buzz will drive more people to see the movie in the coming months – but would suggest you guys get a head start and watch this film ASAP.

Brad Pitt’s new commercial – whaaa?

5 Nov

If you haven’t already seen Brad Pitt’s (insert your own adjective for crazy here) new commercial, I urge you – please visit this link. It will be the best thing you do all day 🙂

Obviously, this ad is ripe for ridicule. Of all the spoofs I’ve seen, this one hands down wins –

Oh Brad, what you won’t do to donate your money to charity 🙂