Jonathan: Preparing for India

January 16, 2011

I left the United States for Israel on 1 January 2011, welcoming in the New Year with a sense of adventure. The week before I departed, the anxiety began to rise: I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had been working on this trip for eight months with meticulous precision, paying attention to every detail. And yet, as the date of initial departure drew nearer, I felt lost. It seemed that everyone had a piece of advice for me, usually utilizing a combination of the words “Giardia,” “thieves,” “colorful,” and “Monsoon Wedding.” All advice was well meaning, but I found it isolating, always prefaced with “I’ve never been to India but my friend’s friend said that…”  I threw myself into my books, reading all day trying to find some sort of truth about the experience I was going to embark on. Instead I found a fascinating assortment of paradigms that simplified my struggle in their complexity, yet did little to actually calm my nerves. To make matters worse, I had not thought about my two weeks in Israel at all. I knew I was attending Habonim Dror’s seminar, and that I would be staying with my grandparents, but the rest seemed hazy. Israel, a substantial trip in of itself was merely a stop over. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep for days, and as I became more exhausted the anxiety only mounted. I was leaving my comfortable, if unfulfilling, existence in the United States for something unknown, challenging, and isolating.

Today, as I sit looking out the window at suburban Tel Aviv, I recognize that this half way point is essential. Gone are the sleepless schizoid nights, instead replaced with deep reflection. This trip to Israel has served an important role in its own right, allowing me to settle challenging questions about my ideology and identity that I’ve ignored for years now. But it too acted as a transitionary point between the politically correct culture of the United States with the unknown of India. It is in this context that I can truly reflect on the experiences to come.

The end of World War II in large part marks the beginning of an era of nationhood and the death of colonialism as physical occupation (I would argue colonialism is still alive and well, merely veiled under ‘globalized economics’).  India won independence in 1947 and has since risen to be known as the world’s largest democracy and the second largest country by population. Its neighbor to the northeast, China, has too seen a remarkable rise in power and global prominence, making them very important countries to watch as we enter into the second decade of the twenty first century. Given their vast size, together accounting for over a third of the world’s population, the ways they confront issues of global importance, from the enviornment to labor, becomes ever more pressing. As a student of Public Health, particularly HIV, I’ve become fascinated with looking at the ways that India, a nation not often associated with the disease yet deeply affected by it, has begun to confront the epidemic. But more on that in a few paragraphs.

In ‘the west,’ India has occupied a very particular place within our conception of the ‘developing world.’ It seems that Americans are profoundly unsure of how to feel about the country. We all know the story of Mohandas Ghandi, and often list him amongst our personal heros; yet, we too profoundly fear outsourcing. China has come to represent the loss of low-skilled manufacturing jobs to the ire of many in my native Midwest. India, on the other hand, appears more disturbing, for the perception is that the jobs shipped to there are typically replacing those of university graduates, the who tried to do the right thing by getting a degree. We as a nation seem unsure of how to address this far off land of over one billion, often settling for a mixture of jealousy, anger, and respect. But the characterization that interest me the most is that of ‘spiritual.’ At every turn in this process, people have wanted to talk about spirituality. How the Indians are, and I quote verbatim, “the most spiritual people in the world.” How they embody such wisdom in their teachings. How the land affects one’s soul. [Please, note the sarcasm.]  For a non-spiritual person such as myself, it has been exhausting. Yet, it is profoundly interesting. Yoga and meditation have become India’s least profitable but most discussed export, becoming in vogue and very fashionable for the American and European gentry. I find this characterization of India as the “über-spirit” as problematic in that it seems to paint a highly inaccurate picture of the country, and one that I feel is even damaging. Foremost, to paint India as spiritual ignores many of the cut-throat reality that occurs throughout the country. After all, the situation with Pakistan and Indian Muslims is anything but based in righteousness. Female infanticide, which occurs throughout much of India’s most traditional (read, spiritual) locales is not very righteous either. Bride-burning too lacks the piousness many in the ‘west’ attribute to the country.  Yes, India does have a well developed construct of Spiritualism, but it also has many of the vexing human rights dilemmas. The author Edward Luce writes in his book In Spite of the Gods, ”No visitor in India can fail to notice the juxtaposition of great human deprivation with its deeply religious culture. In India the sacred and the profane always seem to be liked.”  Second, it serves to create two India’s, that which we do our morning stretches to and that which we fear will consume us (or at least our paychecks).

I am asked frequently why I chose India for study abroad and not some more western country such as France or Switzerland. The answer lies hidden between the lines of the paragraph above. As many reading this know, I am a Social Work and Gender Studies student with a primary focus on HIV. My path is towards Public Health and Medicine, but more importantly with developing a critical understanding of the health disparities experiences by queer men in the United States. While the work I do in America is complex, it boils down to the simple thesis that the academic, professional, and activist community addressing queer health dispairities has profoundly lost touch with queer men themselves. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, dramatic activism fought not just for justice, but also for the right type of justice. It told the CDC, the FDA, doctors, medical schools, and health educators not to moralize to queer men about their culture but to act in a way that integrated its rich complexity and diversity. Essentially, it demanded a culturally competent response. Most important, this was a community effort. HIV brought people together rather than drive them apart. Today, I and others argue, that HIV has undergone a ‘medicalization’ that funnels people away from each other into private clinic offices and focuses on HIV as an individual issue not a community problem. Rising rates of HIV indicate not that young queer men are irresponsible or uneducated, but instead that the messages we send out are so out of touch with their realities that they simply cannot hear them.

Which brings me a bit closer to India, with a brief stop in Africa. With staggering rates of HIV, the continent has become the locus of interest on a global level. And yet critic after critic has demonstrated that much of the work done there is ineffective, and at its worst damaging, because it utilizes a western conception of health, sexuality, and education. Which finally brings me to India, where I believe some very interesting work is being conducted. I want to see how health disparities are addressed at the ground level, and to learn how this is translated into culturally competent messages for the community.  On the sub-continent, HIV is not only a problem of men who have sex with men. Instead, it is mainly transfered by truckers who meet with sex workers as they crisscross the country, later spreading it to their wives. I have no expectations of investigating queer men’s issues in India, instead I want to understand what it looks like to develop a public health model from the ground up. In a strange way, it is only when I am this far removed that I can gain the perspective I seek.

As I prepare to enter India, I maintain many questions and expectations, but ones I feel are reasonable. I maintain no illusions of ‘understanding’ India. I don’t even pretend that it’s going to be all-fun, easy, or consistently fulfilling. Instead, I expect it to be at times exhilarating, inspiring, and challenging, and at other times frustrating, lonely, and confusing. I don’t maintain illusions of finding ‘myself’ or of affecting injustice. Instead I hope to be surprised, challenged, and to be able to better understand what it means to create a health agenda. I hope to reflect on my privileged status, to ask myself the right questions, and to grow. Most importantly, I expect to gain a unique experience that is fulfilling in retrospect even if it is challenging in the moment.

In sum, I am terrified and excited.


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