Monday, June 30, 2008

Reactions to My News

This Sunday was the last Sunday night for three months that I will spend snuggling with my husband and watching bad t.v. Next Sunday night I will be airborn. Then every Sunday after that until October 26th, I will be in my apartment in New Delhi.

This entire week is punctuated by thoughts of "This is the last time I'll do [insert experience here] for three months."

One thing I will miss is just delivering the news that I will be spending three months in India to people. It's been delicious to see their widening eyes and sometimes even dropping jaws. I even enjoyed the slight disorientation at the pharmacy when I passed over my prescriptions for typhoid vaccine and malaria drugs. "Do we have this in stock?" the mumblings went on behind the counter.

Many more people have been wholly excited and supportive than not, but the very few who evinced skeptical reactions also took me aback. I got a lot of "They don't have toilets there," and, "You must be training your replacement."

Just for the record, they do have toilets in India, and I am not training my replacement.

Because it's the (Indian) elephant in the room (they have smaller ears), I'll address it briefly here. Outsourcing is an issue that has created a lot of angst in the United States. I've never lost a job because it moved overseas, but I've seen it happen around me, and it's clearly a point of pain for those who experience it. I'm not sure what more to say except that it's clear that the idea of "India" in Western minds has taken on connotations beyond the romantic exoticism of colonial times. In fact, it seems like this image has been wholly ecplipsed in some people's minds.

Back to the Surreal o'Meter: there is the idea of India, then there is the reality. I think it's safe to say that people whose reactions to my news were totally negative have a one-dimensional picture of this country, a picture that entails millions of people working ex-American IT and calling center jobs, perhaps even a picture that includes Indian nationals setting out purposefully to "steal" American jobs.

Perhaps I was previously naive, but talking about my impending trip with the various people I've encountered has alerted me to a kind of prejudice that I hadn't previously thought much about. I wonder how often Indian people run into this kind of resentment in our country. If I've encountered it in my very limited experience, I'd have to assume that it's not a rare occassion.

Boiling these issues down to a matter of race or country of origin makes no sense, but it's certainly easier than the kind of complex economical analysis you'd have to carry out to understand the market forces driving the outsourcing phenomenon.

The opportunity to participate in the New Directions program is nothing if not a learning experience, and I expect to learn the good and the bad--and find it all useful, if only so I can be more sensitive to such issues in the workplace.

On the bright side, those with negative attitudes are far outnumbered by people who have a more complex picture of the country in mind, or who have actually visited there, or who are from there, or who retain a wonderful sense of curiosity about life on the other side of the world.

While my trip is suddenly seeming very real to me as I count down the days, India is still just a stew of ideas to me, and I can't wait to start adding the real ingredients.

Six days 'til departure!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Surreal Conditions Persist

As promised, I am implementing the new Doppler Nexrad Surreal o'Meter 3000 to track my thoughts regarding my impending trip. As of the close of this work week, my trip to India seems: almost real. If you catch me at the right moment, the trip seems alarmingly real, but then the moment fades. Ooo, it just happened for a second. Did you see the meter shift?

This week, I received my visa in the mail with little fanfare. Really, I believe I expected some elaborately costumed gentlemen to show up at my door with drums and shofar and maybe some fresh fruit and present me with an official letter on a velvet pillow with gold-threaded trim. Instead, I got home from work and found a Federal Express envelope on the corner of my sectional couch. My husband found it stuffed behind our storm door. I tore it open and found my lonely passport inside. No letter. No tiny man blowing a shofar. Not even a receipt. Just my passport.

"Did they deny my visa?" I thought to myself, as I realized I really didn't know what a visa looked like. Then I started flipping through the pages of my passport and seeing some barely ledgible stamps. "Is this my visa?" I thought to myself as I strained to read the pink ink on the busy background and figured out it was from my 2004 Globus tour to London and Paris.

I was growing alarmed when I finally found it on a page near the very back: my newest ugly photo and a whole bunch of text in both Hindi and English. (At least I assume it's Hindi. All I really know is that it's an alphabet I can't decipher.)

So that's what a Multiple-Entry One Year Business Visa to India looks like.

Receiving the visa went a long way to making the trip more real to me. Another reality check came in the form of booking my flight. Truthfully, ever since I made the reservations, I've been a bit preoccupied with the fact that I'M GOING TO INDIA FOR THREE MONTHS.

Somehow having to nail down the dates and times for the flights suddenly made me realize that this isn't conceptual. It's not a fun fact or a story to shock people with. It's actually going to happen--in 15 days, 9 hours and 20 minutes, not that I'm keeping track or anything.

Just in case you weren't looking, the Surreal o'Meter just spun around to low again--or maybe that was just my eyes spinning because it looks like it's back to "Medium" again.

I confess to having the pervasive thought that somebody somewhere is still going to change their mind about this. "Vicki's going to India for three months?" this somebody will exclaim. "That's ridiculous. Who approved this? We're putting a stop to this right now."

I'll probably still be expecting this exclamation as I check my luggage and step into the 777.

Either way, the countdown has begun. I have my suitcase partially packed, and we're starting to make the final financial arrangements so that things run smoothly while I am *gulp* IN INDIA FOR THREE MONTHS.

By the way, have I mentioned I'M GOING TO INDIA FOR THREE MONTHS?

I just found out myself.

p.s. Special thanks to Caitlin Rasmussen (our new graphic design intern) for creating the Surreal o'Meter.

Monday, June 16, 2008

City of Djinns

If you want the story of the City of Delhi, this is your book.

William Darymple is an intrepid and perceptive British chronicler of the country previously known as the "jewel in the crown" of Britain's empire. In Delhi, he takes you down twisting alleyways to little known partridge fights and into massive throngs for Muslim pilgrimages. He peoples his narrative with quirky Sikh cab drivers and fierce (if not misguided) Mughul sultans. He peels away the layers of Delhi, a city said to encompass seven "dead" cities, each successive layer of civilization built upon the ruins of its predecessor. He brings rich context to the dizzying array of temples and landmarks that punctuate Delhi's neighborhoods.

And he does all of this with a wonderful dry wit, as when he describes navigating the city streets:
Although during my first year in Delhi I remember thinking that the traffic had seemed both anarchic and alarming, by my second visit I had come to realize that it was in fact governed by very strict rules. Right of way belongs to the driver of the largest vehicle (15).
The book begins with two charming hand-drawn maps, one of Delhi and one interpretation of Old Delhi. These are not maps to travel by; rather, they are lovely frames for the narrative. To look back at the highlighted locations after having read the book is like looking through a photo album. "Oh, remember when Dr. Jaffrey and William visited the temple of the great mystic Nizam-ud-Din?" you'll ask yourself. "Or how about the Mumtaz Mahal: the palace of Jahanara Begum, Shah Jehan's favored daughter who held illicit orgies on its premises and was boiled alive by her father when she was caught doing so?"

To write the book, William Darymple stayed in the city for one year and took his new wife, Olivia Fraser, with him. She is a minor character in the narrative, only appearing when she is propositioned by the landlord or chided by the landlady for not being demanding enough of her household servants and allowing them to do an insufficient job dusting. Her larger presence is felt in her line drawings (such as the introductory maps) that appear with little comment throughout the text but lend to the impressionistic tone of the book.

Temporally, the book slips in and out of present day into stories of prime ministers, English colonials, Mughal sultans, Persian invaders and ancient Hindu civilizations. For a region with such a dizzying and lengthy history, the structure of the book does little to elucidate this complexity. But no matter; one gets the sense that any simplification would be a disservice, that the essence of Delhi is the intricate weave of cultures colliding and merging through the millenia, and that finally, one's understanding will not be whole, but rather fragmented, momentary, focused, like Olivia Fraser's drawings which are studies of details rather than whole scenes: a man standing in an arched doorway, a shoe-shine boy sitting cross legged on the sidewalk, or the facade of a building.

Darymple begins his book by saying Delhi's history is not confined to architectural ruins:
But where Delhi was unique was that, scattered all around the city, there were human ruins too. Somehow different areas of Delhi seemed to have preserved in tact different centuries, even different millenia... Minds set in different ages walked the same pavements, drank the same water, returned to the same dust... In Delhi I knew I had found a theme for a book: a portrait of a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic... (9).
So it makes sense that Darymple does not unwind Delhi's history in orderly fashion. All of its strands tangle together to form a new weave. Perhaps it's not as important to know which civilization came first and who followed whom in the march of history. There is no one convenient and clean timeline. There are timelines which intersect and cross over and still walk around and talk to each other today.

Now I can look at my guidebooks and know that where a footnote exists about an emperor or a landmark, there is a fascinating and lively saga underneath. Darymple's City of Djinns has enriched my understanding of the people and the architecture I will see. I wouldn't have wanted to experience Delhi without it.

Reality and Surreality

On June 5th, I sat down with Brendan Kealey to get some advice on getting myself ready for my trip. Brendan had just spent three months on behalf of Pearson mostly in Mumbai (Bombay), but he also visited Delhi.

"You scared me," he said, after I had the woman at the front desk buzz his desk in our North Dodge office. Apparently, the week before, he had a surprise visit from one of his colleagues in India. "Come see me in the United States," he'd said, figuring he would get a phone call or email announcing any such visit. But this was not the case.

All the factoids I'd read in the guidebooks fluttered through my mind. Indians don't say no because they don't like conflict. They wobble their heads from side to side instead of up and down to signify agreement. Don't ever eat from street vendors. Was any of this true? It’s one thing to read a guidebook and another to hear from a person who’s just experienced the culture.

Right now, everything India is conceptual to me. I am building a picture of this country in my head, checking and comparing sources to affirm or deny the fa├žade I’m creating. Yet I still know my India is nothing more than a series of ideas. I read a book. I visit the Travel Clinic. I email back and forth with a few people who have been or are there.

So how’s my surreal India, Brendan? How close am I getting?

So far, so good.

Brendan affirmed almost everything I'd read except for the part about taking medication with you. "You can get a stick of Cipro for, like, twenty five cents at any drugstore--without a prescription." He regretted going to the Travel Clinic, he said, and buying his prescriptions here for our comparatively exorbitant prices.

The Travel Clinic, I should add, was exorbitant and not covered by regular insurance. My series of shots and brief consultation will end up costing over a thousand dollars. I still wouldn’t have gone without it, though. I think Brendan may have a different perspective, being the son of a doctor.

Brendan also helped me make a few more adjustments to the India in my head. I thought everything would be relatively cheap, but this isn’t necessarily the case. “Labor is cheap; products are expensive,” he said. Case in point: he went to the local mall looking for a pair of jeans and found a Levis store. The jeans were pricey and, strangely, all came in one size: 36/36. When Brendan was exasperated from checking the size of every pair of jeans and finding them all this one strange size, he finally asked the man at the counter whether they had any other sizes anywhere. The man then pointed to a tailor who makes the jeans fit you after you buy them for a very low price.

Because the price of labor is so cheap, Brendan said that over-employment is common. There will be five people working on getting you one cup of coffee, he said: one to hold the door open, one to tell you welcome to the establishment, one to take your order, one to bring your coffee to you, and one to take your money.

I also assumed that everyone’s English would be rather good, but Brendan said this isn’t necessarily true. “If you get a driver with good English, try to hang onto him,” he advised. India is a country where English is everyone’s second language, not their first, he explained. So imagine everyone in America trying to use their high school Spanish to communicate. He said for many Indians, this is their level of proficiency; not so much in the multi-national business world, but in local contexts like restaurants, markets and taxis.

So I add these ideas to my sambar stew of impressions about this country on the other side of our planet. I tell myself I have some idea of what to expect; that I will not be totally overwhelmed; that my culture shock will be mitigated by my copious preparation. But I know that reading something and talking about it are not the same as walking through it. I know my India is still surreal; ideas floating in my head, however accurate or inaccurate they may be. I’ve read that the kaleidoscope of sound and smell and sight will throw any westerner off balance, and all I can really do is accept this and make sure the battery on my digital camera is fully charged.

Thanks to Brendan Kealey for his time and his stories.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Timeline Part Teen (Three)

So when I arrived back at work after a long weekend, sitting on my desk waiting for me was an envelope from India.

Tearing into it, I discovered my invitation letter--the letter from the folks for whom I'll be working in Delhi.

It looked normal enough, but then I looked closer. The letter came on a size of paper that we don't have in the United States. I'd guess it was something like 9 1/2 by 11 3/4. Furthermore, the paper clip was all angles and points rather than our usual rounded loops.

And I suspect this is what life will be like in India. All the mundane aspects of life will be pretty much the same, but just a quarter inch different, or a little pointier here and there.

To return to my timeline, though, this Monday I took my invitation letter and put it in with my packet of goodies to submit to the Travisa Outsourcing office as part of my visa application. Two latest passport photos: check. Sponsor letter: check. Money order: check. Etc., etc.: check, check, check. I sent this off overnight and today received a call from the visa office asking whether they should use the enclosed money order or my credit card number (I had inadvertently supplied them with two forms of payment). With my overkill approach, though, I figure I have this whole visa thing covered. I'm just glad I didn't have to pay for it twice.

In addition to sending off the visa materials, I took the advice of Brendan Kealey, who just visited India on behalf of Pearson's IT department, and contacted my credit card companies to notify them of my trip.

I also applied for a debit card (the kind with the credit card attached to it), since Brendan assures me this is a good way of getting my hands on rupees when I am over there and I want to make sure the Indian ATMs recognize my card. I didn't have total faith in my regular Hills Bank of Hills Iowa bank card.

On Monday, I also heard from Ranjani who located some housing options for me. I chose the Ahuja Residency, which you can see online at: http://www.ahujaresidency.com/

Look under: Delhi properties / Service Apartments and you'll find pictures and information about my future dwelling.

The most scintillating part of this location is that under "Facilities and Services" it casually mentions that " ... An attendant is available to cater to all requirements of the guests, including cleaning and cooking." And that's included in the rent (which is 3,487 rupees--which translates to approximately 82 American dollars).

Nice to know.

And just today, human resources contacted me for help in assembling a cost estimate. So now I need to find estimated costs for:

  • Visa & Passport fees (application, consular, photos, etc.)
  • Immunization costs not covered by insurance
  • Airfare
  • Lodging
  • Laundry
  • Transportation
  • Meals

And that's the update on the formal goings-on.

Stay tuned for a write up of my interview with Brendan Kealey, a quick review of City of Djinns and the status report on the surreal-o-meter (which I'm inventing right now as a measure of how real this impending trip seems).


              Tuesday, June 3, 2008

              Timeline, Part Do (Two)

              What happened following timeline part ek (one) is much less like a clean timeline because many people are involved in the process in varying capacities right now.

              I have been working with Amar Dutta, who heads the development team in New Delhi, to get my itinerary complete. Just last week, Amar sent the final version to Ranjani Sridhar, who is the HR Director of Pearson, India.

              Ranjani has been working on finding me a place to stay and has also drafted an invitation letter, one part of the materials I'll need for my visa application. Ranjani popped this in the mail yesterday, so I'll hopefully receive it by the end of this week, depending on how long the courier takes to get it half-way across the world.

              Back in the states, I have been working on assembling all the necessary elements for my visa application. I filled out an online application that asked for my dates of travel, passport number, my address and my parents' names. The print out was just two pages long; not that detailed considering the kinds of questions a giant bureaucracy could inflict.

              I got some new passport photos taken because I have to send two of them along with my visa application.

              I got some more shots (and I'll be getting even more tomorrow) because, to my dismay, many of the necessary immunizations are series of shots.

              I've been taking my oral typhoid vaccination pill every other day for eight days with a glass of cold water. It was fun to watch the pharmacists at Hy-Vee shrug their shoulders and wonder out loud if they had it in stock when I got that prescription filled.

              I'm working on a list of things to pack with the help of people who have been/are there and the recommendations from my guidebooks. This list is getting larger than my suitcase so I have a feeling I'll need to downsize my necessities.

              And the human resources department here has written my "sponsor letter"--another tidbit I need for the visa application. This letter needs to explain my reason for visiting, outline my predicted whereabouts and guaranty payment of "my maintenance expenses." I found that last part just a bit odd. Is this a paternalistic urge to ensure they don't have a homeless American roaming their streets? Why would the visa people care?

              The question of the letters and what exactly needs to be in my visa application is the most confusing thing I've encountered so far. The Consulate General of India website (which is where I began by filling the online application) clearly lists eleven steps to take when applying for the visa. The invitation letter is not included in this list, but I kept hearing from Ranjani and others that this letter is necessary. Finally, I called the Consulate, and they told me that I need two letters: one from the organization sponsoring my trip, the other from the organization who will be hosting my visit.

              Even though this contradicts their website, they will be receiving two letters from me, along with my application, my consular fee, my itinerary and anything else I can think of to shove into the Fed Ex package. I am going the overkill route as I figure it's better to have too much information than not enough. I'll let you know how this approach works out.

              Since I have to have my visa ready before it's recommended that I buy any non-refundable airline tickets, I really hope to have everything ready to submit by next week.

              The website claims that visa applications only take five days to process. I hope they're right on that count!