New Delhi: Festivals and Informal Education

I was in India two weeks ago during Navratri: the start of the festive season that includes Durga Puja, Ramlila and Dusshera and culminates with Diwali. The stories signifying these festivals can be easily found on various websites so I won’t go into that here. Basically the season is a colorful extravaganza that marks the triumph of good over evil across multiple narratives from Indian mythology.  I went to see the local street production of Ramlila (the story of Lord Ram) one night as I wanted to experience the Ramayana in drama form - something I last did several decades ago when I was a child! I soon realized that what used to be a modest roadside show had over the years evolved into a grand theatrical production with a huge stage, colorful backdrops and props, elaborate costumes and a live orchestra in the “pit”, not unlike The Lion King on Broadway which I had been to only a week prior to this. Except this was done by and for the local community - free of charge and in the outdoors. I went with my niece and we sat on rickety chairs on uneven ground, eaten by mosquitoes under a starry September night, watching Narad Muni strut up and down a colorful stage against a backdrop of the Himalayan landscape talking to Lord Vishnu It was exhilarating to soak in the local culture, but even more amazing to see how many families with young children were in the audience, mesmerized by the unfolding drama on the stage. It was a fabulous example of informal learning, and how oral tradition serves to preserve a local culture over generations as children attend the same events in the community year after year. It was a treat to watch it happen in real life, as children heard these stories of valor and courage, of ethics and morals, of honesty and kindness prevail over the vices of treachery and betrayal, greed and evil. There must have been at least a few thousand people in the audience, mostly families with children from the immediate community.  It was quite a display of teaching and learning of local cultural values via the dramatic rendition of an ancient epic that showcased the roles and responsibilities associated with being a father, a mother, a son, a brother, a wife, a husband, and so forth, within the Indian context…

China: Wining and Dining in Hangzhou

The car ride from Shanghai to Hangzhou is about 2.5 hours, and the hotel where the conference speakers were booked in Hangzhou is amazing. It's so new that you can't even google it yet. I have a beautiful large room overlooking a large expanse of woods and lake! The hotel is ultra luxurious and very glitzy; and inside, right at the front door, is a huge tank of the beautiful red coy fish supposed to bring luck and good fortune.

The first day at the conference was busy with conference sessions, tea break, conference sessions, lunch, conference sessions, tea break, conference sessions, and then a long dinner where I was introduced to the Chinese wine culture. Now, the Chinese sure can drink wine! And traditionally, many a business contract is signed at the dinner table after going around the table and toasting each other multiple times. I actually lost count of the number of times we toasted each other...It's a typical way of conducting an official or business dinner here. My own wine consumption was limited to a tiny sip as each toast was made but one is supposed to empty the entire glass of wine or beer with each toast - and accompany each toast you must to avoid offending anyone.

The official meals have been pretty typical as well going by all the lunches and dinners in the various restaurants where we ate. We sat at large round tables with a huge lazy susan as an unending stream of piping hot dishes kept appearing and being placed on the table. And as "susan" spins gently around you keep helping yourself to whatever you want as it passses by you, dipping into the serving bowls and lifting out with your chopsticks greens, peas, broccoli, spinach, eggplant, lotus roots, all forms of tofu, crab, shrimp, fish, clams, squid,chicken, pork, beef, duck, etc. in various preparations... It's quite a lovely experience as you share a table with a large group of colleagues and associates, dip into delicious food, sip wine or beer, and enjoy good conversation.

Underlying it all was my acute awareness of how many developmental skills (to use the language of early childhood education) are being called into play at these meals: listening and speaking, responding appropriately, going around the circle toasting each other in appreciation and with gratitude, carefully reaching out for foods, being attentive to whether someone else is helping themselves to a dish before spinning the lazy susan, handling the chopsticks deftly without dropping food all over (!), attending to your neighbors and asking if they would like something you were helping yourself to, asking them if they'd like more wine if a glass appeared empty, the importance of trying a little of everything to show recognition, respect and appreciation to the host... There was a clear sense of the self as being more a member of a larger group rather than an individual, and the importance of cultivating relationships rather than just signing a paper contract...

China: First impressions in Shanghai

October 27th:

Landed at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport at about 10 pm last night. Have to say that the airport is fabulous and the customs and immigration process was efficient, painless and not at all intimidating. Right from the immigration officer to the hotel staff and the public have been nothing but friendly in the few days I have spent in China. I reached the hotel close to midnight and checked in. It’s comfortable, clean and felt very safe and friendly. Couldn’t sleep as I was still on US time so I went down to the hotel massage club for a body massage at 1 am! Yes, the massage club in the hotel is open till 2 in the morning and it was glorious to have a massage after such a long flight.

I woke up late this morning since I went to sleep only after 3:30 am. I am on the 36th floor of the hotel and the view I have is of the rooftops and skyscrapers of Shanghai as far as the eye can see! It was like looking at a huge version of Manhattan. I went down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast - was so hungry I could eat anything. That’s what happens when you don’t have dinner and opt for the massage instead. I was craving for my usual breakfast of eggs and toast and coffee (we are all such creatures of habit). Unfortunately, since it was after 10am they had closed the breakfast menu and I had to choose something from the vast array of Chinese food early in the morning. The staff in the restaurant couldn’t speak enough English and I had absolutely no knowledge of Mandarin and was beginning to wonder how to place an order. But the menu they brought out was this large, glossy, colorful photo album kind of book which presented a gallery that included each item offered in the restaurant. So all I had to do was to view this tantalizing gallery and order what looked like the mildest and most familiar dish for that time in the morning - noodles and green vegetables. It was delicious and I wolfed down everything.

Walking around the neighborhood I found it to be busy – with plenty of roadside eating places, stores, high rise buildings, wide roads, heavy traffic and lots of people. Eating, banking, and technology seemed to be the dominant businesses here. On my first day in metropolitan China I definitely got a sense of high energy, growth, development, all mixed with human friendliness and warmth.

Bali - A School and a Banyan Tree

One day during my stay in Bali I got ready for the long drive to Celuk, Ubud, and the still-active volcano in the north-west of the island. The day was filled with long stretches on the road interspersed with several interesting moments. The landscapes were remarkable and I couldn’t get enough of the Balinese images that lined the roadside: the intricate pagoda-style architecture of the rural homes; rice paddies steeped in water; fruit stalls that lined the roadways with colorful heaps of watermelon, mango, durian, lychees, oranges, jackfruit, dragon fruit, and more; the wood and stone carvings on sale all along the roadsides; figures of gods and deities everywhere; people walking holding flowers in their hands to offer at the alters in their homes, in their cars, on the roadside, and at their place of work...

The most exciting moment came my way almost serendipitously. While driving through one town I spotted a simply huge banyan tree. My eyes were focused on the hundreds of magnificent roots that cascaded down to the ground like Rapunzel’s long locks falling out from the window at the top of the tower. I excitedly asked Ketut to stop the car so that I could take a photo. It was then that I noticed the scores of school children sitting on the low stone wall built around the massive circumference of the tree trunk, and shaded by its profuse foliage. I had stumbled upon a school! I couldn’t go inside the school but did get a good look at its exterior. The structure of the main school building was again very traditional with a large ornately carved gateway in the front, guarded by a statue of what looked like Hanuman on either side, leading into an open courtyard with a statue of Ganesh in the center. There seemed to be two other buildings that were part of the school as well. Outside was a large sign displaying the name of the school and a flag post with the flag fluttering in the breeze.

There were at least 200-300 boys and girls in blue and white uniforms hanging outside the school compound, freely moving in and out of the buildings. It seemed to be lunch time or some kind of break. There was a small dilapidated canteen outside the school serving snacks, cold drinks and sate dishes. The school kids were swarming all over the canteen as they got something to eat and drink, standing around, sitting on benches and at tables outside the canteen, or on the low wall around the base of the banyan tree. They were chattering, laughing and speaking in Bahasa Indonesia. I tried to ask some of them questions like the name of their school, and which classes they attended. Between sign language and spoken language they understood enough to give me some of the answers. One girl, who must be about 12-13 years old and was standing with her friends, said Class 1. But communications broke down when I asked what Class 1 was, or how many classes there were to finish school. My guess is they must have been in the beginning grades of high school. Clearly, we couldn't understand each other, and at that moment I so wished I knew Bahasa Indonesia to be able to understand more about the school life of these children I ran into that sunny afternoon in Bali...

Education: a socio-cultural-historical construct

One of my goals while on sabbatical was to start this blog and post brief descriptions of the places I knew I would be visiting for my research. For the longest time I was undecided on whether to make this a professional blog or a more personal blog. I realized eventually that many of my cultural and social experiences would indeed serve to frame my professional insights into the topic that I was researching - early education and teacher preparation in South Asia. The blog would be my attempt to reconcile these experiences. So far I have posted descriptions of places and experiences and now I hope to make the shift into discussions related specifically to education, against the backdrop of the socio-cultural-historical images already presented in previous  posts.

"Intimate connections are seen to exist between a culture's philosophical values and its educational values that shape schooling and curriculum in that society...Educational philosophies are usually expressions of a society's deepest beliefs and values...A system of education is most commonly derived in response to questions such as: What is the aim of education? What are the activities that will achieve that aim? What are the learning theories that will govern the activities? What are the teaching and assessment strategies that will be used? What is the nature of the role of the students, teachers, and administrators? The answers to such questions form the educational philosophy of a school or society."

    From Going to School in South Asia

Bali: Sensuous and Soulful

Bali: I try and telescope my visit into one journal entry by just letting my mind freely conjure up some images. Here I share those specific images that for me gave Bali its distinct flavor:

Beautiful, aesthetic, graceful, ethereal but not in an other-wordly way; a sense of serenity within the daily drudge of life; a calm but bustling island; friendly faces with a welcoming style as one is greeted by the word “selamat” everywhere;

Tropical; colorful yet muted; art and batik; wood carvings and stone carvings; vistas of seas, sands, stretching shorelines, and spectacular sunset skies across the horizon; banana trees with their large green leaves fanning out in every courtyard; palm fronds and coconut trees interspersed with paddy fields; rice terraces on every available inch of land as in the case of one rice terrace carved into a small open area between two modest homes along a busy street filled with people, cars and motorcycles; volcanoes and lakes; rural and urban; nasi goreng and cap cay in a warung, or pizza and pasta in a restaurant; bintang and boutiques; local and global;

Temples and beach bars; graceful architecture with carvings, gateways with flourishes on roofs and pillars; monsters and barricades at compound entrances to ward off evil; gods and alters everywhere in homes, massage parlors, schools, offices, stores, warungs and cars, and on the roads; a Hindu island in a Muslim dominated country…

Bali - a soulful way of life cradled in amazing human, terrestrial and spiritual landscapes; where warmth exudes from earth that is green and fertile, air that is pregnant with moisture, and human hearts that are hospitable and welcoming.

India: 'Perfect' in New Delhi

It had rained all night, and I started this November morning with a long walk in the park. The park was beautiful - damp, lush, cool, humid, green, muddy. The paved pathways curved around within the muddy grounds; the trees were shrouded by a light misty haze made of raindrops that looked like the finest gossamer veil covering the trees so lightly that it almost wasn’t there; I could hear the soft sound of water dripping as raindrops that had collected from the night rain slowly plunked from one leaf onto another leaf below it; the ground cover felt like a soft peaty packing of moist mud and fallen leaves under my feet; the whole forest was permeated with the faint fragrance of eucalyptus trees and alstonia blossoms; and in the background I could hear the myriad sounds of a thousand birds.  Yes, the park itself was beautiful and I could breathe deeply and let my energy surrender to the call of consciousness.

But the challenge was to learn to see beauty in the busy-ness outside the park: in the narrow cluttered lanes of a congested residential neighborhood; in the sight of stray street dogs; amidst the loud snatches of conversations of people passing by and those sitting on their terraces; in the sound of film songs on a blaring radio instead of bird songs; in the sight of the sun rising over rooftops instead of the tree tops…

We seem to always wait for the perfect time and the perfect space to make the shift from the physical to the spiritual. And in waiting for a future, more perfect moment, the opportunities in the “now” disappear and are lost. Sometimes there are second chances, but sometimes there aren't. So the moment I have now is the only moment that is real, and in being so it becomes perfect.

Words from a song by Leonard Cohen come to mind…

The birds they sang at the break of day, Start again I heard them say
Don't dwell on what has passed away or what is yet to be…
Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering;
There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

Singapore: A good heart

I was to meet my colleagues at 9:45 am at the Commonwealth  MRT taxi stand. I had planned on taking the bus to the MRT station, but since I was running a bit late I decided to take a cab from where I was staying near Orchard Road and told the cabbie where I needed to be dropped off. On getting out of the cab I did not spot my friend anywhere, and after waiting for about 10 minutes I called her (fortunately there was a small bit of charge left in my cell phone battery). It soon became apparent that we were in different places. The cabbie had dropped me off at the Queenstown MRT taxi stand, one stop before the Commonwealth MRT. Although it would mean traveling in the opposite direction to where we were eventually headed, my colleagues told me to stay where I was and took a cab to come pick me up since this was only my second day in Singapore and I still didn’t know my way around very well. We then looped back from Queenstown and finally took off toward Jurong to go to the PCF preschool where we had a scheduled visit. When we reached our destination and got ready to pay the fare we found that the second cabbie actually charged us less than the metered amount. He had deducted the fare for the extra round trip distance between the Commonwealth MRT and Queenstown MRT to pick me up. He said that even if the first cabbie had mistakenly dropped me off at the wrong spot we shouldn’t have to pay the extra. That was the sweetest thing! I couldn’t imagine this happening in very many places around the world. What a refreshing and touching gesture of the human heart this was, especially when urban behaviors in fast-paced societies can more often be driven by the “time is money” mentality…