Sunday, June 22, 2008

Integrating Two Worlds: Life in America with an Indian Twist

By: Jennifer Kumar

This post has moved to my more popular blog, Study Abroad News. Click here to read.

Tags: "cross cultural", "cultural confusion", "cultural integration", "culture immersion", "culture shock", "hidden immigrant", "research", "reverse culture shock", "third culture kids"

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Test Taking Trials and Tribulations in India

By: Jennifer Kumar

It was 2001 November. I was supposed to have finished my final exams in May, but due to a college strike that confused exam fee payments, mine was never processed and hence it forced me back to the land of India after a few months absence to take the tests.

Today, in 2008, I found my old diary from the day of my first exam. In reading it, I impressed myself. If I had been given a test of that day itself, down to the littlest detail, I could study my diary and get full marks!

Here goes with the story...

Friday, November 9, 2001.

Today was the first day of my exams. Though the exams started at 9:30, I left the house toward the college at 8:30. I was due to walk from the West side of Tambaram to the East, over the train tracks to Madras Christian College. I was anticipating the route I used to traverse a little over two years ago when I first landed in Tambaram, before moving to Martin's Hall on the Madras Christian College Campus. I also looked forward to stopping along the way to buy a new pen- this would be my lucky pen for all my exams, including the one I was about to write.

Stopping at my favorite Sriram stationary stall, I was shown a wide variety of pens. The guys working at this stall knew me well as this was my favorite 'school supplies' store in the past two years. Because of this, they did not show me the most expensive pens because I was a foreigner, but because they knew these pens were my favorite. The great thing about buying pens at this stall was being able to try before buying. The consumer can get a good feel for how the pen writes. This was important to me, in preparation for one of four three hour long exams. Also, pens are sold singly, no need to buy in 10 piece packages. You can get as many as you need and come back for more as needed. I decided on buying my favorite pen- the cello pen, two in blue (each Rs. 15) and bic pen (rs. 5) in red for highlighting. I also purchased a 'scale,' (Rs. 5) a much needed item for making sure the answers are written in straight lines and highlighted with straight lines underneath.

In entering the room, I was relieved to see two other classmates in the same fate as me. I was not alone. We had a few minutes to catch up on news before the test was to start.

Test taking is an art in itself. I was not given any training in taking tests when I first landed in India. Yes, taking -or as they say- "writing exams" is a lot different than what I was used to in U.S.

Upon sitting down, the testing staff hand out blank pieces of paper. These white sheets of paper are about 10 inches by 14 inches rectangular. Sometimes this paper is also 20 by 14, folded in half. The papers all have one hole punched out of the top left. Then you are handed a tiny piece of string. This string is used to "tie your papers" together at the end of the exam. Generally, a student is given about 3-4 pieces of paper to start out with. If you want more, you can always request it as needed by raising your hand. It is also imperative to use both sides of the paper- no space is left blank- except the left margins.

Since the paper is unlined, it is required for the students to have a scale to place a margin on the left side, about 3/4 to 1 inch is preferred. Scales can also be used to write lines for one sheet to use as a guide underneath other sheets to make sure your writing is in a straight line and the spacing between lines is equal. The scale is also used for 'highlighting' important parts of your answer. Highlighting was not done with highlighters, but with a red pen and a scale, by underlining.

Keeping all this in mind can improve your marks. When I first landed in India, I did not put margins, keep my writing in straight lines or highlight important parts. I know I was docked for that. I was also docked for not having legible handwriting! Even then, I blamed that on e-mail! (Yeah, right!)

It is called 'writing tests' for a reason. Writing is done throughout the three hours. There was a story once of my classmate's sister who did all the right things on her test- margins, line spacing, neat handwriting and highlighting all the right parts. But, there were parts on her test to fill space she wrote about last night's cricket game! Ah, the shame! But leaving blank space or not having about 1 1/2 pages front and back per answer can also diminish your chances of getting 'full marks.' This goes to prove- "Who reads all that anyway!?"

Talking about marks- the test I was about to write would grant me 40 marks at the highest. It is rare if not a Guinness' world (or maybe in India's case, Limca's) record for a student to get 'full marks.' on a test. It was hard to be graded at 50% marks (20 out of 40). First rank or class toppers had the highest marks at 60%, second rank went to those with 50-60%, and third rank went to those with 40-50%. Those falling under that I believed had to repeat the class altogether.

Every test is also broken up into sections. In this test the break-up in points was as follows:
Part 1 - 10 questions - 2 points each - do all - 1 to 2 page(s) per answer - 20 pts.
Part 2 - 6 questions - 10 points each - pick 4 - 3 to 4 pages per answer - 40 pts.
Part 3 - 4 questions - 20 points each - pick 2 - 5 to 6 pages per answer - 40 pts.
100 pts. total

It is not only the test that appears to be 'against' you, but the atmosphere could also appear to be against you if you're not used to it. Tests were given in regular classrooms on the campus with open windows and no air conditioning. Students sat at wooden desks, two per table, on hard wooden chairs. The climate (weather) was very moist, sticky and hot (in the 80s)- normal for that part of the country, providing a very sultry, sticky place to take an exam. Though there were two ceiling fans in the room, it is quite possible they were not in use during this exam. Because of this, you'd frequently see students take their handkerchief from their pocket and wipe their foreheads throughout the exam. As it was also quite common for the power to be cut throughout the day, ceiling fans and tube lights would occasionally turn themselves on and off throughout the day as well.

As the test nears to an abrupt end, five minutes before we are all released, the test moderator informs us to 'tie our papers and write.' This announcement assures all the students papers will be secured together with the string I mentioned earlier. Staplers and paper clips were not used. Failure to tie your paper would definitely dock marks from you as test readers would not collate your sheets- you as the test taker are responsible for that.

When the time is up, the test moderator informs us and we all get up at the same time, hand in our papers and leave the room, collecting our book bags and belongings that set in the corridor in front of the classroom. Yes, all test takers generally leave all together when the test moderator signals time is up- rarely do students leave testing rooms before time is called even if they are done writing- it doesn't look good. I learned that the hard way!

So, this is a day in the life of taking a test back in 2001 in Madras Christian College, India. I wonder how it has or hasn't changed. If you have any feedback leave it in the comments below.

Thank you for reading.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Can you handle cultural immersion?

By: Jennifer Kumar

When I originally prepared to go to India to study, I read a book on an American who studied somewhere in Africa. When he returned, he referred to his parents and family members by terms he learned in the native language of the African country he studied in. No doubt, not another American soul for miles forced this type of cultural immersion. It was his personality that accepted and integrated this behavior.

I wanted that to be me, in India, all alone, no other Americans around for miles.

Maybe that was one reason, beside the financial reason, that encouraged me to discontinue my preplanned study abroad program. I had taken the time to consider how much cultural immersion I wanted. I had found out my study abroad experience to India would be travelling with a group of Americans, possibly studying in the same class with them and bunking with them also. The type of personality I am this offered me too much of a comfort zone to go out on my own and meet the locals as it were. I knew I had to be the only American in the area (for the most part) to get the experience I want, almost like the one the student above had.

Of course, that is why many students study abroad; to learn about another culture through cultural immersion. Though there are many factors to consider in your study abroad choice, the amount of cultural immersion desired should be carefully considered.

Do you want to be the only American (or person of your nationality) in your classes and in your dorm (hostel)?
Do you want to travel with a group from your college, but be in class with locals, stay with a host family or with local students in the dorms?
Do you want to travel with a group, be in class with this group and also bunk with this group?
Do you want some mixture of the above?

When I was in India, foreigners did come and spend short periods of time in the college at various degrees of immersion. Two students from St. Olaf college actually stayed in the hostel with the Indian students for a few months, following the same strict rules and curfews as all the rest. Then, there were foreign students who stayed in the guest house. These students that came in groups of 10 or more studied in the same classes together (classes did not have Indian students, though they may have been taught by a local professor), and bunked together. It was infrequent you'd see them mingling with the Indian students, especially in one-on-one situations. Looking at them, I knew if I had taken my original study abroad program through the American university, I would have been one of them. I can appreciate the difficulty in acculturating to India. It's not easy. Being in a group of Americans may make it seem like it's easier. It's all in how you look at it. For me, I know I would have been tricked by the facade of the American group- thinking I can make it in India, I have my posse with me. But, also it's hard to assimilate a culture when you're only hanging out 'with your own' - even if you are in another land!

Some people do need the comfort of that group. I respect that. It's hard to socialize with people who may not be fluent in your language or way of speaking English. I know, I been there! If you need a comfort of the group, going it on your own definitely should not be considered. Culture shock at your detriment can happen in that case. Culture shock can happen anytime you live in a place that is new to you, but when you are in a foreign country with a totally different culture learning about the rules ahead of time is not like having to live them. Intellectually knowing something and behaving out of thought or habit are different sides of the coin. This requires an open minded attitude in thought and being conscious about changing your behaviors if it is required for your success in your study abroad location.

In fact, I firmly believe once you experience your study abroad culture shock and then adjust the best you know how, you will be able to handle the ups and downs and changes of life with a different type of ease and grace than your counterparts who have not had this experience.

Related articles: Is Mine a Case of Reverse Culture Shock (Reflections on adapting back to American life after a life in India.)

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

When to Cancel Trips to Kenya?

By: Jennifer Kumar

Last week many British and European tour operators announced cancelling tours to Kenya and encouraged those in Kenya to come back as soon as possible.

As yet, I have not heard such an announcement from U.S. tour operators.

Though I have been privy to few discussions regarding the possibility of cancelling study abroad tours to Kenya for this spring 2008 semester, I have yet to hear of formal cancellations.

The situation in Kenya is bad. Bad is putting it lightly. In addition to regional [African countries] refugees in Kenya, Kenyans themselves are now refugees in their own country. Those who are not refugees may not be returning to their normal routines soon as expected. Many schools, colleges and universities have postponed the first day back to class after Christmas holidays. Dates to restart some institutions have been posted, but they may not be set in stone, as one article eloquently stated, "The university management said the security situation would not make it safe for students to travel from their homes to their campuses." (source) In one blog I follow, a housekeeper of an expat refused donations of items out of fear of being looted. People in slums have few possessions, and coming into a slum with bulging bags makes someone a moving target for looters.

When I studied in India, I was in slums two to four days a week. This was in a country that was stable and safe. Like any big city anywhere in the world in slums and 'bad neighborhoods,' one's personal safety is always at risk. Taking advice of my advisers and professors, I was never in harm's way. Now, some are questioning whether to send their children to Kenya for study abroad to work in the slums with the poverty and HIV/AIDS stricken. If the election and it's aftermath had not occurred, then going to Kenya would be quite safe for these activities (as I know they have been going on for years now without reports of harm to aid workers). But, now I am not so sure this can be said.

Of course, guaranteeing a tourist or a student would not be harmed is impossible. However, after carefully assessing current information and predictions from pundits in the area, it is safe to say that going to Kenya now and at least for the next few months would not be a good idea.

Related articles:
Travel Q&A: Take extra precautions in Kenya, UW expert says
Study-Abroad Officials Keep Close Watch on Kenyan Violence
Kenya: Varsities Postpone Opening Dates
Amid Violence, Kenyan Universities Postpone Opening
British Tour Operators Cancel Kenya Holidays
Our ex-askari paid us a visit from Kibera today
Travel Warnings- U.S. Embassy Nairobi