So, a little backstory. I was born in a tiny cow-ridden town called Marshfield in central Wisconsin. My mom is American and my dad is Bangladeshi If you go even further back, my mom’s ancestry is Belorussian and Ukrainian.
My dad believed that my sister and I should learn about the culture and the language of Bangladesh, Bengali. So, we moved there in 1996 and stayed till 2003. In early 2004, my parents became diplomats. The combination of being a mixed couple, and their job has led me to over two-dozen countries around the world.
So what are my top five favorite countries? I won’t divulge that yet, but, “Incredible India,” the country’s current slogan, would definitely be one of them. In the spring of junior year of high school, my mom kind of forced me to apply for this great program called the National Security Language Initiative for Youth. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
The program provides merit-based scholarships for eligible high school students and recent high school graduates to learn less commonly taught languages. You can learn Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Persian (Tajiki), Russian or Turkish. The language I applied for was Hindi and I applied to be based in the bustling capital city of India, New Delhi.
The flight there was quite long; 16 hours direct from Newark to New Delhi, to be exact. A large sporting event called the the Commonwealth Games was held in 2004 in New Delhi, so the airports, roads and other facilities were upgraded. However, back in 2005, I had had a layover in New Delhi, in the former airport. It was awful sitting on chairs clearly not designed for humans, and sweating from the heat seeping through the doorways.
My first memory, a funny one really, was that I had forgotten my passport in my seat-back pocket. So, a Sikh man dressed in the traditional robes and turban grabbed his Segway and rushed back to the gate to ask the airplane agent for help. Luckily, they found the passport and brought it back to the baggage claim.
Upon arriving at the airport entrance we were welcomed by a huge number of host parents. Participants of the program stay with local families whose children go to the same school that we were going to go to the next morning.
My “uncle” drove me from the airport to his house in his wife’s Maruti, the equivalent of the Volkswagen Beetle in India. We got to their neighborhood, Chittaranjan Park. My host family was Bengali, as in from West Bengal, specifically Calcutta (Kolkata).
Chittaranjan Park is a Bengali neighborhood formed of refugees from East Bengal who were displaced from their homes in East Pakistan during the partition of India and partition of East Bengal in 1947. You’ll have to flip through a history book to read about that.
Another thing you’ve got to know about me is that I love food and cooking, especially ethnic. The first day’s food was pretty ordinary Indian food, other than dinner when we had spaghetti with beef sauce. I had puri with chickpea curry for breakfast. Puri is basically unleavened deep-fried Indian bread. If you saw it, you’d probably describe it as an inflated tortilla.
The only really exciting thing on the first day was that my “aunt” had an “incident”. My host brother and I were playing badminton on the street. Unlike the Westerners perception of India, this neighborhood was not that crowded with few cars coming by on the streets. Suddenly, we heard a loud shriek coming from the direction of their apartment. Turns out that my “aunt” had found a rat under the kitchen sink. This was pretty surprising since their house was pretty clean and not that old, either.
It was the first day of school, so much like my birth mother would have done, I was woken up at 6 a.m. I ate breakfast and got ready for the day and took a medium-size rickety bus to school. It took about 40 minutes to get there. I found it weird that there were warnings on every seat saying if you find a bomb under the seat and turn it in, you will get a reward. However, based on the history of terrorist attacks in India, it should not have come as a surprise to me.
We were greeted at the school with garlands of marigold and some red paint for our temple. We met with the principal in the lobby and were given some water. Shortly after that, we were taken to the auditorium for some brief introductions from the vice-principal and principal.
They gave their thanks for allowing us to be there. We were introduced to the student council, which were the senior most members of the school, who much like in America are in charge of running the events and activities.
Later on, we were taken on a tour of the campus. We were shown the classrooms, music rooms, art rooms, canteen on wheels, study room sports fields, skating ring and other features.. Our class was to be held in the Audio/Video Room. They spoiled us by giving us the nicest, air-conditioned classroom. Only the music, art, dance rooms and pre-nursery have air conditioning. Then, we were given a brief one-hour introduction about Indian history by the various school history teachers.
They talked about Ashoka, British colonization and our schedule while we were here. They also gave us the I.D. cards for school security.
For tiffin, basically a snack in between breakfast and lunch, I had paratha, or flatbreads and chickpea curry. I came home had lunch, which was chicken curry, and some sort of starchy vegetable and rice. Later on, I went out with my host “sister” and her friends. We went to a cafe and had some snacks.
I also had some pani puri on the street, which is a local street snack. The best way to describe it would be that it is hollow puri filled with water, tamarind chutney, chili peppers, chickpeas, onions and potatoes. We also eat it in Bangladesh, it’s delicious. At home, we had Chinese delivery food delivered on a motorcycle.
Hang on tight. This is to be continued.
By Jason Kazi