Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Homeless at home

Finally, after all the traveling, I am back in my own territory.  Sure, the bed at the Hilton was much better a quality mattress than is mine at home.  But, I slept much better here.  There is no place like home, indeed.

Not on the road meant eating at home.  I can have eggs with feta cheese then.  But, oh, I first have to get eggs and feta, and more.

It was time to visit the store.

The rain was back, with a blustery wind too.  But, the mind tolerates that because of the awareness that winter is now long gone.  The cold and dark days, and the long hours of the night, are already distant memories.  The days will get longer. And slowly warmer.  Life has returned.

As I walked into the store, I looked across at the checkout counters.  None of my friends were at work.  I suppose it was because I was at the store at an hour that I am usually never there.  The same store without my friendly checkout clerks seemed so much an alien place.  I hurriedly gathered the supplies and didn't bother to engage in any chit-chat with the clerk on duty with whom I have no relationship and nor did I feel like initiating one.

The drizzle and the breeze felt refreshing.  The familiar natural elements compensated for the oddly alien feeling when inside the store.  The rain has become so much a part of my life here that I miss it when it does not sprinkle for a few days.  I tire from the sun and the warmth, and look forward to the dark clouds.

A smallish figure on a small wheelchair approached me.  In the dimly lit parking lot, it was not clear whether it was a child or an adult.  As we got closer to each other, it was clear--a small built woman, whose arms and legs were either not fully formed or had gone through amputation maybe?

"I hate to bother you, sir.  I am homeless and new to Eugene.  Any way you can help?"

The richest country that the planet has ever known.  Yet such sights are far from uncommon.  How could this be possible?  How do we let this happen?  Why do we tolerate such injustice?  How am I supposed to respond?  At least if she were able bodied, I could pretend that I did not hear her and keep walking. Or, politely tell her a no.  But, she was no able-bodied adult.  Not only the wheelchair but a lot more.

I looked into my wallet. Will one dollar be enough, I asked myself.  How about two?  There was no way I was going to give her the only twenty dollar bill that I had.  I had established for myself that it was going to be number between one and twenty.  How does one decide in such a situation?

I cursed the government. I pay taxes. I expect the government to use the revenue to take care of my fellow humans in this country. Instead of doing that, my government spends a gazillions on the military in order to bomb the shit out of countries and send them back to the stone age.  A gazillion for defense, but ask for a couple of millions for some homeless program and they cry poverty. And I am forced to then deal with this reality on a windy and rainy night at the grocery store parking lot.  Pox on the war-mongering demagogues!

I spotted a five-dollar note. So, that was the number between one and twenty. She said thanks, and rolled away.

At least I have my arms.
My legs.
A home.
A car.
A career.
Damn, I have everything.
I am one of the rich!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Racism in our dating and marrying preferences

Even before I reached my teens, I knew that I was against the tradition of arranged marriage.  It did not seem right.  Into my teens and as I passed those years, I was all the more convinced that the arranged marriage was a screwed up system.  Looking back, I am all the happier that I have lived out a life in which there has not been any place for that tradition.

Even if I leave alone the emotions of love and going after what the heart wants, I could not understand how one could restrict the choice of a spouse in that arranged marriage context only to a suitable mate from similar backgrounds.  It was nothing but a rigid institutionalization of us-versus-them.  A Tamil Iyer Brahmin will be set to marry only a Tamil Brahmin Iyer because the others are inferior?  Not worth a look?  Isn't such a narrow-minded approach nothing but racism by another name?

 If we want to systematically associate ourselves only with people who are like us, well, isn't that racism?  Yes, in a way I am returning to the racism topic; you thought I will leave my dear grandmothers in peace, eh!

Back when I was still in graduate school, I once wrote to The Hindu that inter-marriage is the key to harmony in India--harmony among people who are otherwise defined by differences.  Marriages across caste lines. Marriages across religions. Of course, that was one of the many unpublished essays that I have authored.  Blogging has at least taken care of that problem--after all, I am my own publisher ;)

Now, I live in a different country.  Thankfully!  (No offense meant to the readers from the old country ... hehe)  A country in which racism is not anything new either.  A part of life here too, though most people think of themselves, especially here in the white Pacific Northwest, as beyond racism.  In my adopted country, could one ask whether it is "racist to date only people of your own race?"  Reihan Salam raises that very question and the byline gives away the answer: Yes.

First, about Salam.  I have been reading his commentaries for a few years now.  A sharp thinker.  Well informed.  And, of course, I am especially excited that he has made himself a name even when young for one reason--he is a fellow South Asian.  Well, his parents immigrated from Bangladesh.  BTW, is it racist to get excited about some stranger all because he comes from that part of the world?

Anyway, Salam seems to be slowly evolving in his own views.  It appears that he is not as sharply conservative as he once seemed to be.  Or am I imagining it?

So, back to the issue of racism and dating only people of your own race.  Salam writes:
Is a strong same-race preference something one ought to be ashamed of? Or is it enough to say that the heart wants what it wants and to leave it at that? This is a more important question than you might think.
Now, ask yourself this.  Our hearts might like whatever our hearts want, yes.  Perhaps the heart likes slim people. Or fat people. Or short people. Or tall people.  Notice how I have only referred to "people."  But, even before we allow the heart to fall for a person, if the brain is screening out people from "other" races, then, well, isn't that racism?

Salam writes:
To be sure, dating is about more than the sharing of bread, and OkCupid users who express strong racial preferences may well be doing the world a favor by being open and honest about their wants. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask those who do express such preferences, and those who live them in practice, to reflect on them, and on how there might be more to fighting racism than voting “the right way.”
My grandmothers lived long lives for their generation, but not long enough to witness the changes in the lives of some of their grandchildren, when it comes to this spousal issue.  It was well beyond an arranged marriage in my case.  One cousin wed an Oriya. Another is married to a Marathi. Yet another is married to a Christian.  A pretty darn good record, though the number of cousins with arranged marriages to Tamil Brahmin Iyer spouses outnumber those of us who did not care to remain in that box.  A healthy start, nonetheless.  If the rest of the Tamil Brahmin Iyers and entire world begins this practice ... hey, a man can dream, can't he?

Monday, April 21, 2014

No more Borlaugs if smart ones rush to Wall St and the Silicon Valley?

As I have often remarked in this blog and elsewhere, a primary trigger for me to get to doing what I do now was the context in which I grew up--born into relative privilege with a great deal of material deprivation all around me.  I did not know how I could ever contribute to help in reducing that deprivation; but, I wanted to at least understand it.

Thus, even in the early semesters in grad school, I was impressed with how much people had invested their time and energy into not only understanding many of those issues but even doing something about them.  Oddly enough, even though it was Marx who urged philosophers to go beyond interpreting the world and into doing something about it, it was more often than not the anything-but-Marxist ones that seemed to have done a great deal, and doing quite some work to change the world.

One of those was Norman Borlaug.

The readers of this blog are way informed and they know the name all too well.  But, in the world outside of this blog, most likely the response will be "Norman who?"

In 2014, especially in the obese and overweight US of A, it might be difficult to imagine that not too long ago there was a real threat of food shortages. And famines.  While there were political reasons, such as Mao's crazy policies, the threat of undernourishment was real.  Which is where Borlaug's contributions in developing better varieties of staples take on remarkable weight:
Mexican wheat production per hectare leapt from 1,400 kilogrammes in 1960 to 2,700 kilogrammes in 1963. ...
Borlaug repeated the trick in India and Pakistan, despite initial resistance from farmers wary of planting a crop developed by Americans that might (so they had been told) introduce foreign pests to the sub-continent. However, the new seeds were soon embraced and Indian wheat production jumped from 12million tonnes in 1965 to 17million tonnes in 1967, while Pakistan soon became self-sufficient in wheat seeds.
And, just like that, conditions changed in a matter of a generation.
Borlaug’s single-minded devotion to his task and his optimistic belief in the possibility of improving the world demonstrate what can be achieved by science as a humanist and humane endeavour.
Secondly, Borlaug is a wonderful example of a life lived well. Touched by poverty and hunger both in his native United States and in the developing world, Borlaug devoted himself to the task of finding solutions to problems that were ruining or even ending lives. We can only marvel at the intelligence and stamina of individuals like Borlaug who persevere to make innovations that change the world.
Even now there are plenty of real problems that we humans face in the contemporary world, which is vastly different from the one more than fifty years ago.  However, I do not get a sense that there is a commitment to innovations that are driven by "science as a humanist and humane endeavour."  As has often been reported, the attraction to earn gazillions juggling numbers at Wall Street or by making us waste time are luring plenty of scientific and technological talent.  Do we have the likes of Borlaug in the works at all?

I worry that our priorities are messed up.  Which, perhaps, is all the more why Borlaug's contributions are impressive.
For all you did, and all you represent: thanks, Norman. RIP.
Yes, thanks, in this centenary year.
A fitting epitaph is a line from a poem by Matthew Arnold: a man “who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.”

Sunday, April 20, 2014

I commented about a woman's nail polish. And lived!

The restaurant was busy.  The patrons at the tables reflected the name of the restaurant and the cuisine it served.  Our table was no different--all of us family folk with Indian origins.

The waitress, who seemed to be in her mid-twenties, handed us the menu.  I noticed her nail polish, which was all in blue.  Well, not all.  The nails of all the fingers except one were in blue.  And one nail had white with what I thought were some patterns.

It was a year or so ago that I noticed a young female student in one of my classes having one finger nail in a color that was different from all the other fingernails.  She explained to me--yes, I was curious enough to ask about that in front of the entire class--about this fashion trend.  Not that I always ask such questions publicly.  Ahem, I know better.  For instance, a few years ago, there was a male student in class with all his fingernails painted black.  I did not ask him anything.  I did not even convey to him that I had noticed it.

As we were well into eating, the waitress swung by the table to ask that annoying question that the wait-people always ask: "is everything ok?"  At least, she did not add "guys" to that question. I did not tell her that my balding head was sweating from the spices and red chili.  I did not tell her that the portions were way too huge.

"I am fascinated by your nail polish" is what I told her.

She smiled a wide smile.  Her eyes lit up.  She said quite a bit about her nails and the polish.  After the waitress left, my cousin was curious and wanted to know why I made that comment.  "Chumma" I replied with a shrug.  "I felt that it would make her happy.  If I can make a stranger happy with something as simple as that, well, why not?"

A waitress is a person, too.  She might be rushing from table to table, doing the same job shift after shift, day after day.  Maybe it is a temporary job until she moves onto something else.  Maybe it is also her business, her career.  To her, too, there is more to life than the mere wages and tips that the job provides them.

It was a similar experience at another restaurant that we went to the following day. No, it is not another nail polish story.  It was a family owned business.  When the young woman, who seemed to be the owner or a part-owner, came to pick up the plates and give us the bill--which I left to the others to pay, haha!-- I asked her "how did you decide to locate the restaurant here?"

She, too, like the waitress the previous night, smiled big time.  And she said a lot about having come to this part of the country as a tourist and thinking that she and her family would love to live in a charming and scenic small town like that where they could run a restaurant.  "We were confident that people will drive to this small town if we provided quality food and service" she beamed with pride.

Chances are high that I will never run into those women again.  It is even more likely that they do not even remember any of these conversations.  But, in the blip of a life we lead in this cosmos, for that fraction of a second, I think I made them feel a tad good about themselves.  And I meant them well.  With good food and good service, they certainly made my fraction of a second in this universe that much more enjoyable.

In our short lives, we meet plenty of people--most of them for very, very short periods.  If every meeting, or at least most of those meetings, will only make us smile, imagine what a wonderful world this would be!

Where are the mile high Indians?

Not that mile high!  What a dirty mind you have, dear reader!

In all my flights within the US--either entirely domestic or the domestic segments of international flights--I have never, ever, been in a plane with a flight attendant--male or female--who looked Indian-American.  In the international flights--even on Lufthansa--there have been quite a few Indian personnel, yes.  But, for that matter, even when waiting at US airports, which I have done a lot, I have not seen Indian-American flight attendants rushing around.  Ground-staff I have seen in plenty, yes.  But not the flying kind Indian-American staff.

Of course, there could be a huge sampling error at play.  But, within this sample, when I have seen flight attendants who are Chinese-American, Korean-American, Japanese-American, Filipino-American, well, how come no Indian-American?

It could be that Indian-Americans are chasing other occupational opportunities:
Indian Americans lead all other groups by a significant margin in their levels of income and education. Seven-in-ten Indian-American adults ages 25 and older have a college degree, compared with about half of Americans of Korean, Chinese, Filipino and Japanese ancestry, and about a quarter of Vietnamese Americans.
Seven-in-ten!  No wonder that my friend is impressed that every Indian-American I know seems to have at least one graduate degree!

The American story is full of one kind of "group" having its glorious moment.  In a country that was long dominated by the WASP elites, then came different groups with economic success.  Five decades ago:
In 1960, second-generation Greek-Americans reportedly had the second-highest income of any census-tracked group. 
A couple of generations later, the "group" is no longer statistically different from the mainstream averages.  Perhaps it is the Indian turn now.

The picture of the Indian-American is certainly not narrow anymore to being a motel owner (Patel motel) or being in a science/engineering occupation.  The recent Pulitzer Prize in Poetry is perhaps the most recent piece of evidence:
Bangalore-born Vijay Seshadri’s volume of verse, “3 Sections,” won the Pulitzer prize for poetry on Monday.
Mr. Seshadri lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College. When he was five, he moved with his family from India to the United States.
It is a huge achievement--an Indian-American stating to his parents about his wish to be a poet, when the "norm" is to enter the more traditionally high-income occupations.  Of course, Seshadri is not the first of such off-beat success:
Mr. Seshadri is the first Indian-American to win in the poetry category. He joins a growing list of Indian-American writers to have won the prestigious Pulitzer. In 2000, Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel “Interpreter of Maladies” in the fiction category. Then in 2011, cancer physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” won in the general non-fiction category.
We have had Indian-American motel owners, 7-11 caricatures, physician and engineer stereotypes.  On to literature also.

But, how about the Indian-American plumbers and electricians? Flight attendants?  Are there any?  Surely not all Indian-American kids have the abilities or the interests to be surgeons and programmers and poets.  Where are those Indian-Americans?  What lives do they lead?  I would love to read a profile of a flight attendant who was born in the US to parents who immigrated from India.  Wouldn't you too?