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Jonathan: Internship phase

March 15, 2011

I write today from near Udaipur, Rajasthan’s southern oasis of lakes, rivers, and relative peace. After traveling from Jaipur yesterday, comparable to the trip from Paris to Neice given that Rajasthan is roughly the size and shape of France I finally arrived at Jatan Sansthan (literally translated to “The Effort Organization”). This officially ends our classroom phase of the program; for the next six or seven weeks we will be working for an NGO and battling the inevitable question of what it means to be young, American, and ‘working’ even if ones contribution is negligible given the tremendous language barrier, short term reality of the stay, and lack of community acceptability of you as a social activist. These are vital questions, and ones not to take lightly, but perhaps require a separate blog post altogether.

Like so many situations in India, this has thus far been a tremendous comedy of errors.  Important information lost in translation, a general lack of planning, and difficulties in accessing reliable modes of communication.  And as such, I made it to Udaipur, but not much farther.

Jatan works primarily with migrant youth in a small group of villages about 65 km away.  Their regional office is located in the nearby village of Rajsamand (their ‘head office,’ that houses administrative offices, just one or two programs, and me [for the moment] is on the outskirts of Udaipur).  The average age of migration is 14 out of the villages near Rajsamand, and Jatan works at the departure point providing information and knowledge for youth who will travel as far as Mumbai in search of work.  Jatan too runs centers at migrant destinations.  Migrant youth laborers experience tremendous obstacles that are social, political, and physical in nature.  Rather than discourage rural to urban migration, a phenomenon that is ingrained in Indian history, Jatan seeks to provide the greatest number of resources for them.  Providing skill building, photo identification and registration, and health information, Jatan’s work is unique and interesting for India.  With all hope, I will be working on the organizations sexual health education initiatives in Rajsamand, especially because the majority of migrants are at the peak of their sexual exploration phase.  Men, in particular, are over represented, and recorded to engage in a number of sexual risk taking behaviors when far from their villages, families, and support networks.  Furthermore, migrant laborers are viewed as being a community of significance to India’s HIV/AIDS epidemic (third largest HIV sero-positive population [in absolute numbers] in the world, although there is just 0.29% prevalence in India itself – but that’s for another blog post).  To complicate the issue, migrant laborers, significantly including youth, either engage in or purchase commercial sex that is a highly unregulated industry with low rates of condom usage.  If all goes well, I will be working in osme capacity on these issues.  My background in HIV, sexual health education, social work, youth leadership building, community organizing, informal education, and gender studies will certainly all come in handy and I am really excited.  But, like anything that happens in both the NGO world and in India, I am remaining cautious, as change is possible at the very last second (for proof, read below).

Arriving in Udaipur last evening, Jezelle (another student working on a different project with Jatan who will based at the head office) and I were told that we would be spending the night with host families before our final arrangements would be decided today.  Bright eyed and bushy tailed we were excited and waiting.  I was to leave first to stay with the wife of the executive director who is out of town and usually sleeps at the office. Jezelle was to be picked up by one of the board members and walk to his house.  Just one minute away, however, we turned around and went back to the office.  Jezelle was to stay in my original home stay and I was to wait.  As the hours passed it became abundantly clear that I would not be sleeping there.  Soon it was just the office assistant (in charge of chai and sweeping) Pitu who speaks no English and I.  As the clock inched ever closer to bedtime, a flurry of activity began ending in a series of confusing exchanges where I gathered I would be sleeping in a spare room at the office with Pitu.  It was at this moment that it became abundantly clear what lay ahead: gone was the staff with proper British educations and cultural capital.  It was Hindi or bust.  A call to a Jatan employee helped some, but the struggle was evident.  In sum, I am now spending at least two nights with Pintu here, and we’ve begun to develop a strange and broken friendship.  With my broken Hindi and his broken English we quite the motley crew.  We literally have the exact same mastery of the others language.  It is hilarious how tragic it all is.  Yet, we’ve made it work with a bit of pantomime and good faith efforts. Furthermore, we’ve developed a reciprocal relationship of sorts.  He has a beginner’s English book that he dutifully studies for hours that I have come to help him with.  In turn, he corrects my Hindi pronunciation.  The exchange is not perfect: we have about the same skill in reading Hindi (both of us are proficient but we must sound out the words slowly), but it is somewhat mutual none-the-less.  Further, we joke in our weird broken way, go on long walks together and talk about how beautiful the moon is, and cook together.  But ever the good student, it is also an interesting lesson in the construction of non-western masculinity in India.

At my last host family I lived with two middle class young adult men.  My host brothers, at 16 and 19 were both highly westernized.  With this comes a rigid definition of masculinity that includes baggy clothing, little to no emotional expression (other than anger, of course), and a limit of physical contact.  But ‘non-western’ masculinity (or rather, in this globalized world, ‘less-western’) involves many of these things: tight bell bottom jeans, much emotional expression, and an almost oppressive dose of physical contact.  In America these men are immediately labeled as sexually suspect and typically subjected to a lifetime of homophobic taunts, but here they are the hetero-normative masculinity.  As such, my time with Pintu has been enlightening to say the least. For the first time in my life I am not the masculinity outsider, rather I am expressing a gender expression much more similar to the norm.  Together we cross our legs, walk with a similar gait, and dress alike (although I have skinny jeans to his flared bell-bottoms).  To say the least, it adds a new and interesting dynamic to this adventure.

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