Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Culture Whiplash: India & Singapore Trip

I'm a few weeks back from a 1 week around-the-world trip to India and Singapore. I travelled with an old friend to visit some of his friends and coworkers in India. The Singapore trip was business related and very short. Like everyone, I had my preconceived notions of India. I must say, I was at turns, surprised, impressed and bewildered by what I saw. I'll recount a few things here -- mostly to aid my own remembering1.


Poverty in India is ubiquitous and acute. While the most heartbreaking cases are the destitute beggars, orphans, and widows who are starving "out in the open," -- the real tragedy is that vast areas of rural India are dotted with villages wherein the majority of people are living hand to mouth. These villages are in a bizarre state of pre-industrialization. Most have a common well from which people haul water with a cell tower in sight and a cell phone in most pockets. I found myself asking why a generous, resourceful Indian culture allows these backward conditions to persist. My initial impulse to assume that a Western template of development offers a solution is, on further consideration, incorrect. Perhaps the "solution" to India's problems will never come from Westernization. Western patterns of infrastructure can serve as a distant example only. For instance, adding a million wastebaskets around India will not solve India's garbage problem (every public waste can I saw was empty, with litter lining the streets). The big, obvious problems that I witnessed -- sanitation, nutrition (India contributes to over half the world total of child deaths each year, primarily due to malnutrition) -- are so rooted in cultural norms that they call for uniquely Indian solutions.

To offer another example, in the backward villages through which we travelled, women who have lost their husbands are either banished from their homes, or not allowed outside the home because of superstition (seeing a widow is a "bad omen"). The Western solution to this would be legislation mandating various agencies to provide a social safety net, education initiatives, etc., etc. The scale of this one problem is, by itself, enough (given Western approaches) to completely overwhelm the coffers of any Indian state. It seems hopeless.

I am encouraged by the work of my new friends Paul and Grace Moses. A part of their ministry (in addition to a children's home) is to serve food to widows (over 250 of them currently) once a month. The rations are around US$4.00 per widow and consist of a kilo each of rice, sugar and dal (lentils) as well as some vitamins. Not only does this meet the immediate need of feeding the widows, it provides a mechanism by which they may be welcomed back into their families.

Now, to my Western sensibilities (and sense of justice), the idea of reintegrating a widow into a family strictly because of what she has to offer is unseemly at best. However, this program works with all the leverage available to it. My sense is that India will need many more indirect steps such as this -- particularly to development at the village level. Applying traditional Western thought to these problems is like saying that "in order to solve a math problem, we must first build a computer."

Anyway, that's probably quite enough opinion for one post.

We visited a beach and resort town on the southeast coast in the state of Tamil Nadu. The town of Mamallapuram (also referred to as Mahabalipuram) has a couple of interesting attractions: a beachside Hindu temple and a batholith/stock that has been carved with some fantastic art. Off the coast are some undersea remains of construction that are the subject of much speculation. The town was hit by a 30 ft wave in the 2004 tsunami, though very little of the tsunami's affects are visible. We were told that there was a large migration from the coastal areas since the tsunami, but its hard for me to discern movement within a population like India's -- people are everywhere.


We departed from the Chennai Airport late at night and arrived in Singapore early the next morning. That overnight flight may as well have been a trip to another planet. Singapore is culturally opposite India in many ways. The economics are vastly different, of course, and attitudes and the general societal posture are also markedly different. For example, upon disembarking at the airport in Chennai, India there was a row of machine-gun armed officers lining the exit breezeway to the parking lots, with filth and waste behind every column. Conversely, in Singapore the only police presence (besides a few cameras dotting the train terminals) was the lone police car we saw driving through downtown -- and the streets, sidewalks, terminals and stations were spotless. I'm sure money has a lot to do with this difference, but I've never seen a more glaring example of the broken window theory. Of course, Singapore had the highest per-capita execution rate in the world between 1994 and 1999. Twenty four of the 136 folks executed during that time were foreign nationals.

That said, Singapore is a beautiful place. The climate was warm, but pleasant. There is quite a bit to do (particularly if you like to shop) with tons of development taking place -- even in the midst of a global recession. It's hard to imagine that many of the development projects are in the billions of dollars (notably, a casino) while malnutrition is rampant in the same hemisphere. Crazy stuff.

This was the trip of a lifetime -- and one I hope to repeat soon. I'm anxious to see some of the friends I met along the way again.

1 I fully expect these first impressions of India to be corrected and refined as I see and learn more. So, as G.K. Chesterton once said, "There is nothing the matter with Americans except their ideals. The real American is all right; it is the ideal American who is all wrong."