Our Landing Story
Exactly 10 years ago in 2007, my family and I immigrated to Canada and landed in Calgary, Alberta – in the middle of freezing February. Talk about the weather shock!
My family had a hard time settling into Calgary. They weren't used to the snow, the negative infinity temperatures and the empty streets after 5 p.m. We spent our days mostly indoors. The winter didn’t allow for much to do, we either caught the C-train to get to the public library or to go to Eaton Center (shopping mall).
After a lot of back and forth, indecisiveness about Calgary, and a road trip to Vancouver in April (when cherry blossoms are everywhere) my family decided that they wanted to start a new life in Vancouver, British Columbia. Vancouver was beautiful, had beaches, mountains, moderate weather, and most important of it all – it had over 10 Persian restaurants where my parents could seek refuge in whenever they felt homesick. My dad, being a stereotypical Iranian man, had clearly expressed how he couldn’t live in a place with no “chello kabab.” So we did, we moved to Vancouver and our little two-bedroom apartment in North Vancouver became my home to my new Canadian life.
My entire life, I had gone to a segregated all-girls school. The last time I was in a class with boys was in grade four, and my parents tried their best to shelter me from boys and their raging hormones to the best of their abilities. But going to high school in Canada was a whole other ballgame. Going to school meant sitting in a co-ed class, next to boys, and their freshly sprouted testosterone. My conservative dad was going to have a heart-attack.
He immediately told my mother to look for an all-girls school, where I could ease into my newly liberal environment without getting pregnant—because that’s the only thing that happens at co-ed schools—classrooms are replaced with cubicles dedicated to teenage insemination.
Send Her to (Christian) School
We did some research and found out that the only all-girls institutions around our town were Catholic schools. So on our third day in Vancouver, I phoned the school and asked if I could enroll. The lady over the line asked me if I was Catholic, to which I responded negatively. She then asked me if any of my parents were baptized, I didn’t even know what baptism meant at the time, so I quickly said no and found out that there was no way I could join the school as a non-Catholic. This was the greatest news my ears could hear. If Catholic school didn't want me, it meant that my parents had no choice but to send me to a public school—a school with no uniform and a school with the greatest evil of all, boys!
To my newly-landed immigrant parents, public school meant exposing your innocent teenage daughter to all the evils you spent years sheltering her from. This was a complete rewind and destruction to all their years of parenting. My poor dad, who only had an understanding of a Western public school system through Hollywood movies, thought I would stop coming home and spend my days and nights smoking weed, if not doing lines of cocaine, at house parties. He shrivelled in fear.
After asking around for some of the better high schools around the North Shore, I ended up going to a smaller high-school in West Vancouver. A friend of mine that I knew prior to our move to Canada had recently graduated from there and spoke highly of the school.
Since my dad was so frightened for me, I too started being frightened for myself and chose to take the safe and recommended route and enroll at Rockridge Secondary School.
My parents trusted my friend so they honoured my decision.
Every morning, I commuted for an hour and took two busses from Lower Lonsdale to Caulfied to get to this prestigious public school in this prestigious area. I thought I was free now, the rows and rows of personal lockers, the big shiny floored basketball court, the cafeteria with all the cool kids —I was studying in a Hollywood high school movie, it was unreal.
When You're New and You Suck
The Hollywood dream quickly died down as I faced with the day-to-day difficulties of being new. From stupid little mistakes to absolute embarrassments.
The admin lady at the front desk had given me a lock with a code to use for my locker. I was extremely excited that I could put my personal items in my locker and not haul my things from class to class – this was a blessing to a student that was used to carry kilos of textbooks every day to and from school or else my teachers would make me stand outside of the classroom in the heat if I had forgotten to bring my book one day.
The lock code read 8.23.38. However, this kind admin lady probably didn’t know I was an extremely fresh off the boat kid and that I had never seen a combination lock in my life. The only time I had seen such a lock was in a cartoon called Aristocats where the mouse struggles to open the lock on a wooden chest (I found the clip below).
I thought it should be easy, I have the code anyway.
I locked my locker with the lock by pressing down on it, and said I would open it before I caught the bus to go home. The last bell rang at 3 p.m. and the kids ran to get their things from their respective lockers. I too rushed to my locker and turned it to 8,23,38..but it wouldn’t open. I did it again, and again, but no luck. My brain was frying as I saw other kids open their combination locks effortlessly. The students were in a hurry and I was too shy to ask for help, they would think I was such an idiot. I kept my pride and kept trying. It was 3:30 pm and I was still at my locker. I realized the city bus that would take me to Park Royal had left and I had no idea when the next bus would come. I was still trying to get my bag from inside the locker, and couldn’t leave without my transit pass and school papers. Around 4 p.m., a teacher walks by me and sees me in a panic, he asks me what’s wrong and I tell him I can’t open my locker. He takes my lock, turns it three times to reset it, stops on 8, then turns counter clockwise, passes 0 and stops on 23, and goes straight to 38. NO ONE HAD TOLD ME THE MAGIC TRICKS I HAD TO PLAY TO OPEN THIS GODDAMN LOCK. He opened my locker, I took my stuff and politely thanked him without explaining why this lock was foreign to me. I was so hungry, tired, and frustrated. I just wanted to go home. I sat in the bus stop for one hour before the next bus showed up, I felt so alone and stupid that day.
Little things that seem so normal and natural to me now were a whirlwind of mistakes and misunderstandings back then. For example, P.E class – I show up to the school gym and my teacher tells me I can’t join the class because I don’t have “gym strip” – wtf is gym strip and why do I have to strip to play volleyball? I thought there’s no way he means “stripping” – he’s talking about something sports-related. Maybe I need stripes? You know track-suits that have stripes on the sides on them, it’s a special “strip” or “striped” uniform. I think I stared at him for 5 minutes before he told me that I needed “athletic wear and athletic shoes.”
HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE
These blunders were quite alright compared to what I was about to face socially. The mean place that is high school, throw in a new immigrant kid with no sense of style and no friends and you’ll have yourself a teenage breakdown.
I remember being in homeroom and the teacher was taking attendance. She called out very typical Western names like Sarah Smith, John McGuire, Jessica Porter etc. She then called out a guy that had a slight Middle Eastern ring to . She asked for “Adam Rahmani”** – my head turned like a satellite struggling for signal and looked for him in the room. There he was, big eyes, dark hair and very dark eyebrows. A Middle Eastern Canadian in my class, surely he could be my friend, surely he could understand me, surely he could teach me how to integrate, ahh I had found my saviour.
As soon as the bell rang and we dispersed to get to our first class. I ran behind Adam and tapped him on the shoulder. He was wearing a snapback hat and carrying his bag pack on one shoulder in a very cool-boy kind of way. I smile in excitement saying: “Hi…you’re Adam right?” Adam was much shorter than me, so he kind of looked up completely puzzled by this giant girl towering over him. “Yeahhhh…???” “My name is Mina and I’m new here..I just moved to Canada” He looks at me in confusion mixed with disgust, says “cool…” and walks away.
Part two of this post will be uploaded shortly...
** Name changed to protect person's privacy
Hello beautiful people. Happy (almost) Spring. The post below is an interview I did this past summer about the use of Snapchat for raising awareness and social advocacy. I went to Athens, Greece to work as an independent volunteer, but somehow, I ended up staying 3 months. JC is the interviewer, and MM is the interviewee (a.k.a me).
This was during the time when Europe had just decided to close its borders and many refugees were stuck at Idomeni— the border of Greece and Macedonia. Slowly, many made their way back to Athens as they waited for their paperwork to be processed by UNHCR. During their wait, I worked closely with many families from different backgrounds and used Snapchat to report on their day-to-day, inclusive of happy moments and not-so-happy moments.
The video above is a saved Snapchat clip from one day of my life as an independent volunteer. Showing people where I live during my stay, what I do, and the people I meet.
The video is mostly in English, except when I'm talking to a Syrian, an Iranian or an Afghan.
JC: What inspired you to use snapchat as a form of advocacy ?
MM: Well, I used to blog about issues I cared about and write long thorough articles with facts and empirical evidence but nowadays people are becoming less and less patient with reading long text and would rather have the information fed to them. I then realized that instead of using snapchat as a platform to show what I'm eating or where I'm partying, it can be used to bring awareness to a critical issue.
JC: How successful have you been in reaching an audience or bringing an effect ?
MM: It has been an amazing snapchat journey. Ever since I started volunteering in a refugee camp a month ago, my friends and acquaintances have shared my stories and I get new followers every day. In fact, just using snapchat, we were able to fundraise over 5,000 USD and over 200 kilograms of donations.
JC: What are the intended effects of your social media advocacy outreach?
MM: Social awareness and reaching people of my age or younger. I wanted people to see "real news" and not something tainted by political agendas. Additionally, for more millennials, snapchat has become a way to gain access into the lives of the rich and fabulous celebrities with their "oh-so-perfect" lives. Celebrities and social media influencers tend to snap their curated "fabulous moments" and their hyperreal lives become a idolization for "ordinary people." Let me show someone else's everyday sans curation. I wanted my generation to be appreciative of their lives no matter what they are going through and stop comparing their lives to each other.
JC: Do you believe it has more outreach skills than standard journalism?
MM: With snapchat, you can not Photoshop or Finalcut your events. You have 10 seconds to show something and you don't have much room for digital manipulation. There's something extremely authentic about the "live" "this is happening right now" feature. People use the platform on their phones, holding it really close to their face - it almost feels tangible. It wakes people up and brings them closer to the experience.
JC: Would you consider yourself a journalist?
MM: In a way yes, trying to be as unbiased as possible. Showing both the good and the bad conditions. Sometimes people criticized me for showing "refugees smoking shisha" and I was shocked to hear their reasoning. Don't show the refugees smoking shisha and having fun, because people will think that they are living comfortable lives in the camps and won't advocate for opening the borders or send money to fund camp facilities.
Excuse me? Smoking shisha is an integral part of many cultures. It's like someone in Canada saying: "don't show a homeless person drinking Tim Hortons."
It's not a crime or a luxury to drink coffee in Canada, and it's definitely not a luxury to smoke shisha in many Middle Eastern societies. The fact that the use of shisha has been commodified in many luxury cafés around the world is a whole other issue.
In the video embedded in this post, I have deliberately included a video of them partying. At first, I didn't understand why they would dance and sing in the weekends? Were they that happy being confined to a camp and being denied access to Germany where their other family members lived? After interacting with them, and seeing things for myself, I then told myself: "Why should they not party?" - They've lost everything, they may never make it to Europe, they may never see their family, so why not just dance to forget? Everyone has different coping mechanisms, so who am I to judge?
JC: If so explain your journey to getting to this point of photography - journalism - advocacy ?
MM: I've always loved photography and being able to capture a moment to freeze it in time. Around six or seven years ago, I started with fashion photography, ventured into portrait and then started documenting more important issues. I told myself that if I have a voice, and a platform to reach people - I should be using it for a good cause.
Now, after having gone to journalism school for my master's, and learning more about the field, I am more passionate than ever, and I got really sucked into the world of news. I think my new
JC: Do you consider snapchat a efficient journalistic medium .. And why?
MM: Both yes and no. It's very quick, they are short and people aren't easy bored with it. It doesn't require any editing or dealing with large files. However, once again because of its temporal quality, if you miss it within the first 24 hours - the video is gone. You could, however, save your clips and upload it on Facebook or Youtube later on but then it loses its hot, timely factor.
JC: How do the refugees feel about you documenting their situation ?
MM: The refugees want their voices and their conditions to be heard. Most of the time, they voluntarily ask to be on camera so that the world can see their living conditions and fight for their cause. That's why journalism is so important.
JC: Do you have any comments about the nature of snapchat in first world society in comparison to third world society ?
MM: No, because good and bad conditions are found every where regardless of the government running the entity. The U.S. is considered the first world but I can use snapchat to show certain housing conditions in Detroit worse than refugee camps. I don't believe in the first world/third world dichotomy.
Perhaps, people in the West use Snapchat for more everyday purposes such as food blogging etc. I think people who can afford high gigabytes of 3G/4G internet can afford to use Snapchat. If not, then it's not an application for everyone. I feel Whatsapp is a more popular application for people of various economic backgrounds.
JC: Do you have any comments about preconceptions of intended uses of snapchat?
MM: I think the snapchat used for "sexting" or sending "dick pics" is so passé. I think the application has evolved from that stigma and is now used for so many other things. From marketing, to DIY tutorials to social advocacy. Snapchat is "the app" for this generation.
JC: Do you have any advice to pass on to those who feel the application is limited to a specific kind of social use ?
It is important to understand that most tools can be used both positively and negatively. Snapchat can be used to showcase whatever you want. Your life, the life you want to have, or the life you want to raise awareness about. It's whatever you make of it.
What do advocacy and social media apps (snapchat and others alike) have in common in your opinion ?
MM: Placing a viewfinder, up close and personal into people's lives. To show the truth, the reality, both the good and the bad.
JC: Why use snapchat in comparison to other media outlets?
MM: Because of its raw, quick nature. I don't have to worry about uploading or editing large video files. Compared to YouTube, you don't have to worry about music choice, edits, file length. Even if you make a mistake or mumble during your live stand-up, the clip is temporary so it will go away in a day.
JC: Do you feel protected by the privacy/ anonymity option of snapchat in your journalism ?
MM: No, I don't necessarily feel protected. My snapchat is public and anyone who adds my username has access to my snaps, my face, my identity and my commentaries on various situations. Viewers can form their own opinion of me and my journalism style and I respect that; to each their own, right?
A map of where the Quebec City shooting happened. Sunday, January 29th at 7:50 p.m.
After hearing about the mosque shooting, a Western University Ph.D. student decided to turn her heartbreak into a positive initiative. In just two days, 24-year-old Ala-Terry Ghamroui gathered more than 150 letters from around the London area to be sent to the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City.
A day after the shooting, Ghamroui asked her students if they wanted to join her card initiative. She initially had doubts if her idea would pick up but her students responded with excitement and encouragement, said Ghamroui.
Ghamroui made her initiative very quick and easy to join. People can simply email her their messages of support and she either prints them or hand-writes them on different cards to be sent to Quebec City.
She spoke about how the idea of the cards came to fruition. "When you when you get a letter in the mail, there's a level of excitement. You can't wait to open it. It's handwritten, intimate and personal. Now multiply that feeling into 150!"
"I want them to know that they're not alone and that we're behind them all the way in London Ontario," Ghamroui explained.
"They weren't angry, they weren't vengeful, they were calm and that's how Muslim-Canadians need to be seen." - Ala-Terry Ghamroui
The card initiative was not just about sending hope and support to the victims' families but for showing gratitude and appreciation to the greater community. Ghamroui said she wants to thank the Muslim community for remaining calm and patient during such adverse times, because it's changing the rhetoric around Muslims.
"They weren't angry, they weren't vengeful, they were calm and that's how Muslim-Canadians need to be seen," she added.
Rev. Michael Bechard, from King's University College's campus ministry also joined in and contributed to her cause saying that acts like these can try "bring healing to those affected by this tragedy."
However, not everyone Ghamroui contacted was on board with the idea. Amit Chakma, President of Western University, did not respond to spread the word about her initiative. In an email, his secretary Malcom Ruddock said that the university had already taken their measures for responding to the attacks and wished her all the best.
Universities across Canada—including U of T, Ryerson and York University--organized vigils to honour the victims of the shooting. However, Western University did not participate.
The mosque was attacked by 27-year-old Alexandre Bissonnette where he opened fire on a group of worshippers and killed six men. In a news conference following the attack, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the incident "an act of terror."
If anyone is interested in joining Ghamroui's initiative, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hello beautiful people! How are you? Happy New Year! What are your resolutions this year? I usually don't have any in January because I feel my new page usually starts in September.
For me, January doesn't bring anything new other than the number on the calendar. It's always the beginning of September that gives me the feels. Ever since I was 4 years old, it's always that first week of back2school that makes me all excited and anxious. Who's going to be in my class this year? Who am I going to sit next to? Do I have all my books covered with brown paper and cling film? In all seriousness, I am always sleepless on the night before the first day of school (even after being in school for 17+ years).
Anyways, let me back up for a bit. What happened this past year? Where was I? Why was I not blogging and what am I doing now?
Well, after graduating McGill and interning in India, I took a year off and found myself doing some pretty life-changing things. I worked in a refugee camp as an Arabic and Farsi cultural-mediator with Doctors Without Borders and I got to see the refugee crisis first-hand. Do I want to talk about it? Not really. At least not right now. Many people have asked me to blog about it and for some reason I've been hesitant. Perhaps in time, I will.
I then moved to this city called London. Not the London with the fancy ferris-wheel and the big clock that's on all the fridge-magnets. This London is in Southern Ontario— a 3 hour sandwich between Toronto and Detroit.
How did I end up here? To be honest, I don't know. I just remember clicking on some links that made me apply to graduate school and getting an acceptance letter in my inbox a little later.
Now obviously I had a very very hard time transitioning into a small suburban town. I came home everyday hating everything about the city: the public transit, the emptiness, the lack of diversity, you name it.
Keep in mind, I had just moved here from a very different environment. I was in a medical-clinic every single day in a poorly-kept refugee camp in the outskirts of Athens. Flash forward to London, I was on a sidewalk, trying to make my way to class while pushing through a crowd of drunk froshies. I hated it!
Within the first 2-weeks, I dropped out of my program and asked for a refund. I wanted out. I struggled every day. After kicking and screaming like a little child afraid of an injection, I gave in and decided to stay. A special thank you to all those who endured my misery during that time period. Y'all know you are.
I pulled through the semester and said to myself: "Mina, you got this! Christmas break is right around the corner. In no time you'll get the hell out of here and you'll be enjoying the time-off"
Therefore, In order to give myself more incentive, I booked my Greyhound ticket to New York for the day right after school ended and promised myself some "adventure awaits" BS.
I bus from London to Toronto (3 hours) and then I bus from Toronto to New York (12 hours). How I did that? Let's just say that a few melatonin pills get me a long way.
I finally get to Port Authority, calling my friend non-stop to wake her up so she can come get me. But of course, just my luck, she slept through her alarm and all my calls. I find myself dragging my luggage through New York's dirty and overly complicated subway system.
By the time I got to her place in the Upper West Side, I was exhausted, had pulled a few muscles, and was sweating and cold at the same time — but this is nothing to the real calamity that awaited me in New York City.
My friend lived in a tiny shoebox of a room, poor girl was paying $700 USD per month just for a single-bed-space. Since her bed could only sleep one person at a time, we took shifts in sleeping (true story people).
Although I was physically not in school, I still had a paper to finish before I was done the semester. This was the perfect opportunity to write all night while my friend slept, and when she woke up in the morning, I drew the curtains, took her bed, and slept all day. Our strategy and scheduling worked great! Except that, there was one problem. . .
That morning I woke up scratching my arm, and noticed a tiny little creeper run away into the shadows. What was that? A cockroach? A centipede? Maybe it's Superman!
Two days later, I notice big red bumps all over my neck, my chest and my arms. I couldn't stop itching. I itched and itched until I bled. Have you guys guessed already? New York left me with the best of Souvenirs... the mighty and highly reproductive bed-bug!!
Bed bugs aren't just a small thing you ignore as part of your domestic habitat. No, they infest your soul, live in your books, your clothes, your bedding, everywhere. They are satan's very own soldiers sent down to drink your blood. They will make you go mad. Believe me when I tell you.
I obviously left my friend's place, put all my clothes in a bag and managed to wash everything away. My friend however, till this day, struggles with them. Even after having moved and bought new furniture. Bed bugs are a story every real New Yorker can tell. After this incident, I really thought twice about moving there!
Problem solved. 4 days into my bed-bug-free "vacation," I'm having fun, spending time with loved ones and thinking ahhh "finally, a well deserved restful holiday."
The next day, I have a high fever, horrible whooping and wheezing dry coughs, zero energy and zero appetite. Wait 3 days to "let the cold pass" but oh no, it's not a cold, it's a throat infection. Rush to the doctor, get two penicillin shots, and be given 10 days of antibiotics.
You would think that a full round of strong antibiotics would cure any infection or bacteria. However, not in my case. I cut my trip short and rushed back to London, Ontario. In a way I missed it, I missed the quiet, my own room, my own clean bed, my own space where I can rest and recover.
Exactly 1 month later, today, January 25th, I am STILL sick. Haven't been to university in a week and have been put on my third round of antibiotics. They make the inside of my mouth taste like a toilet-bowl. Doctors guess maybe it's mono maybe it's pneumonia, or maybe I'm just turning into Superman.
Until later, folks!
à tout à l'heure
I first knew of Selva via email. He was introduced to me via the Arts Internship Office at McGill University to be my future supervisor for my project in India. I was asked to send an email introducing myself and asking questions about what to expect upon arrival. I started the email by saying “Dear Ma’am”, only to realize that Selva was a guy’s name.
I actually met Selva when I first flew in to India. I had landed in the Chennai Airport in India and I found myself in a pool of dark-complexioned and moustache-rocking Tamil men staring at me at the arrivals gate. He quickly recognized me from my photos and waved at me and suddenly I had a friend in the strange city.
Tamilians, or people from Tamil Nadu are generally very small in bone structure, which made me feel like a complete giant the entire three months of my stay.
Selva was your average Tamil man: small physique, thick moustache hanging over his upper lip, and had a typical Indian man potbelly, which before you get all offended, is a cultural a symbol of prosperity in both men and women. Plus, when rice is your staple food, eating it almost 3 times a day in various shapes and forms, you’re bound to get a belly no matter how much you exercise.
He helped me with my bags, walked me to the car and dropped me off at the hostel for Working Women. That hostel has stories of its own, and if you want to read about my rat and cockroach stories, refer to my earlier post here.
So who is Selva, how do I know him, and how come I’m writing about him. While working with AID India, a not-for-profit, this past summer, Selva was my coordinator. Does Selva work at AID? No, he does not. Infact, Selva works at a Chemical Engineering lab at IIT Madras, a polytechnic educational institute. Infact, he is a fulltime non-paid volunteer with AID India, and offers his services after 5pm on weekdays and throughout the weekend. Without exaggeration, he has spent the past 12 years of his evenings and weekends volunteering with AID INDIA - an NGO that tackles problems from the grass-root level. Since he was volunteering while working full time, he became a role-model in his community and eventually inspired more people to join the movement of volunteerism. In time, Selva and his colleagues at AID mobilized more than 3000 volunteers who undertook over 40 projects in the field of education, environment, women’s rights and social justice campaigns. Additionally in 2013, he won the title of “Volunteer Hero” of the year, an award given by the iVolunteer conferences held in the US – but that’s not why I am writing this blogpost.
I am not writing about Selva to encourage volunteerism (okay maybe I am subliminally) but rather I am using his life story as an example to allow our pasts to make us better not bitter.
Ever since childhood, he showed himself as a self-starter and a self-motivator. Selva has a deep compassion for all humankind, and has showed his acts of altruism through his numerous years at AID India.
He hails from a small town, from an impoverished family with many problems; however, he never allowed poverty to be used an excuse for looking down on his life. In fact, he took his challenges as an opportunity to become a better person.
During his days as a young student, his class teachers admired his hard work and encouraged him to participate in extracurricular activities. Whenever a school play was organized, Selva played the lead role, and won multiple awards for his performances.
Due to financial restrictions, he could not pursue a university degree and had to take up an early job to support his mother and sister. Right after his diploma, he started working in the industry. He took the responsibility of steering his family at the age of nineteen. Something I personally couldn't do.
Once employed at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, he started to give back to his community.
Selva believes volunteerism is a responsibility that must be fulfilled by everyone in society regardless of age or class. He started to coordinate a volunteer movement in Delhi and built a network of volunteers independently.
While at his day job, he excelled by innovating and improvising the laboratory he was working at. He wrote laboratory manuals, which helped students to perform experiments in the laboratory better and renovated the laboratory.
Additionally, He managed to balance his work with volunteering and eventually built a movement of more than three thousand volunteers who worked on forty different projects in the field of education, environment, women empowerment and social justice issues. He managed to coordinate a large group of people without having an HR degree or doing a management course. Indeed, it was not schooling, but rather his life experiences and his volunteering that shaped his life.
He then moved to Chennai and started to coordinate volunteers and international interns for AID India at Chennai. He became a key member of the team, apart being from a skilled fundraiser. He has cumulatively raised more than six hundred thousand US Dollars in the past three years. At the age of 30, he started to practice archery, and is currently a professional archer in the state of Tamil Nadu. There's nothing this guy can't do.
Selva may have been the small boy from the small town of Ambasamudram, but today he is an avid traveler and has traveled across length and breadth of his motherland to understand people and their problems at the grass-root level.
I don't know about you, but I'm thinking "impossible is nothing"
MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS
"Let go of opportunities that are not good for you," said one of the journalists as she remembered an incident that was too hurtful to share. Being in a news room means stress. Stress is part of the everyday life of a journalist. From impossibly tight deadlines, younger and hungry proteges nipping at their heels, threatening job security, to executive decisions trickling down from the higher-ups. Let's not forget the need to keep up with cutting technology and enduring unforgivable work hours. "Find a way to balance your productivity, self-care, and leisure. This is absolutely necessary if you want to function in the long run," she added.
CLIMBING UP THE SOCIAL LADDER
The working professionals spoke about the "drinking and smoking" culture prevalent in both journalism and communications. One of them alluded to Rachel from friends, who pretended to smoke to get a promotion at her job at Ralph Lauren. "Remember Rachel from Friends?," she asked. The Rachel story is far from fiction, "the best promotions and story assignments get passed on during smoke breaks and bar sessions," she added.
LEARN TO SAY NO
In a fast paced industry where people are being constantly replaced by someone new and younger, employees find it hard to say "no" due to the fear of missing out. But for the sake of self preservation, not to mention sanity, learning to say no means the difference between a long, prosperous career, or one that’s brutish and short. Younger employees find it difficult to say no out of fear of being looked over. The pressure to accept last minute requests, and extra assignments, all in an effort to feel valid. One investigative journalist once explained, “they give you as much was you accept.” Your hours are tracked by no one, and your life situation is never considered; As long as you’re still standing, the assignments will keep coming."
LOAD UP ON YOUR SKILLS
The key to survival and sustaining a career in journalist is to consistently skill-load. The skill set you possess now will look stark a year, even months from now. Audio, video, photography, editing and everything in between, learn it all, and transform yourself into a multidisciplinary master. As one journalist once said, consistently “under promise and over deliver.”
KEEP YOUR AGE A SECRET
"I was too young until I was too old," said one of the journalists. Somehow, someone will find a way to criticize your age. When one journalist, now turned PR agent, was managing a team of 5 in her mid-twenties, others kept reminding her how young she was to handle a responsibility like that.
On the flip-side, now that she’s older, she faces the constant reminder that younger employees, with more dynamic skill sets are waiting to take her place.
Keep your age a secret!
WOMEN ARE HARDER ON WOMEN
When I asked women in the room to share their experiences of gender inequality/sexism in the industry, they surprised me with their answers. "The men are quite nice actually, it's the women who will put you down and make you cry," one reporter said. She continued to explain that for some reason, the tensions between women were harder where she had worked and it really toxified the environment. I looked at her with a sad look on my face, because I too know that feeling of "women hating on women" quite well.
KEEP YOUR FRIENDS CLOSE, YOUR ENEMIES CLOSER
"The industry is incestuos" said the reporter as I reacted to her word choice. "Be nice to everyone since you never know who's going to have your winning ticket." In this field, you can't afford to have someone You will hear and see the same people over and over again." Duly noted, ma'am. If I don't like someone, I will just wave and smile, just wave and smile.
YOU WILL BE JUDGED ON HOW YOU LOOK
I spoke to two female journalists who had experienced the different sides of the discrimination spectrum. One of them started her career as a blonde, tall and slim reporter and the other had started her's weighing 250 lbs – both of them were discriminated against. The first reporter said she was very interested in international affairs and social justice issues but was pushed into the lifestyle and arts scene simply because she was a young attractive female. She said her managers felt she had the right look to be around celebrities and important people in the arts and culture scene. "I didn't choose that route, it was just the result of certain favoritism," she confirmed.
The second journalist was very qualified at her job but felt like she was not given the "cool and interesting assignments" until she lost her weight. She was usually at the office, in a dead-end loop of repetitive work assignments, which eventually led to her depression and hospitalization. "Once I lost the weight, I found more assignments at my desk, people started to realize that I existed and I was given more of the things I was interested in," she said. "Ever since I've become slim, I've gotten promoted and had more doors open for me," she added.
FILL YOUR SWEAT EQUITY BUCKET
"Get uncomfortable with being uncomfortable," said a professional in crisis communication. Whether you're in journalism or in communications, sometimes, if not most of the time, you have to do some uninteresting things. "If you don't like something, do it anyway," work hard and collect sweat. You continue doing this until you're at a stage where you're comfortable with making changes to your assignment or pitching ideas of your own.
The next time a story is boring and uninteresting to you, come up with a better idea and suggest it to your editor. The concept of a "sweat-equity-bucket" is to basically collect enough sweat to dip in it later. If you prove yourself to do well on various assignments that weren't "that great," you will be allowed to spearhead more projects that you are passionate about.
LEARN TO COLD CALL
"Cold calling is a skill," said one of the sports journalists in the room. Whether it's over the phone or in person. Find the courage to go up to people and start a conversation. "I saw Jim Pattison in a party one day, and everyone was so intimidated to go talk to him, I went to him and introduced myself. The guy felt relieved that someone finally broke the silence. People aren't as scary as we make them up to be. I then had Jim Pattison as a connection, someone who knows my name. That's how you make connections", the journalist, now turned author, added.
The Truth Behind Travel
“I hate you for traveling so much”, “ugh, you’re so lucky” ,“I’m so envious of your free-spirit”, “I’m so jealous of your life” – these are constant messages or comments I’ll get from friends and acquaintances. Although their intention may be complimenting, I find it quick-to-judge and presumptuous. You’ll find out why below.
Yes, travel is a privilege; however, there is no LUCK needed for buying a flight ticket and going somewhere. There is no LUCK required to work the different jobs in order to pay for those flights — traveling isn’t a one in a million chance to win the lottery. Traveling is simply planning and acting on your plans.
On the contrary, there are many girls and women out there, who aren’t allowed to travel alone. People will scare their daughters, sisters, or nieces, and tell them all these elaborate stories about all the horrifying things that could happen once they step outside the door. The funny thing is that these people who scare you, are acting out on their own ignorance: they have no direct experience of traveling in the world of ubiquitous 3G/4G internet, location services, Facebook check in’s, GPS tracking, Credit Card tracking, Couch Surfing and Air BnB’ing.
Good Girls Don’t Travel
Now, there is a different argument. The argument of the young girl who lives with her conservative family and has to be home every night by 8 or 9 pm. Good girls from good families don’t let their daughters wander off on their own. Good girls stay at home. It’s okay if the girls stay at home and while away their precious youth behind their computers watching all sorts of nonsense TV shows that inculcate their minds with drama, gossip, and materialism. Everything can be passed off “okay” as long as you’re home. I argue that keeping your daughter happy and satisfied by providing all the entertainment at home is doing more damage than good.
I do not want to start a religious argument but rather a cultural argument. Regardless of religion, you can be Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian - if you come from a traditional family, your freedom as a woman was put in the hands of your father, your brother, and eventually your husband. Sometimes, your immediate family might have been a little more accommodating to your freedom; however, in order to avoid chitter chatter and hearsay from relatives and neighbors, they quickly enforce orthodox ways unto you. They will try to calm you down with: “It’s not our fault, neither is it yours, it’s just in our culture sweetie. Learn to accept it.” You could respond with: “But mom, why would people think like that? Why should I live for them to put on a show, while I live with myself miserably?” Travel? What does that have to do with dishonor? Rumors? Hearsay? Wake up people, it’s 2016, not 1927.
A Little About Me
Growing up in a traditional family, I didn’t dare to dream of traveling by myself before I was married to a man who would provide his protection and companionship in dark and foreign lands. I thought it was impossible for a girl to go to an unfamiliar place by herself. Think of all the dangers that she could be exposed to: theft, rape, kidnap, having her kidneys ripped out for the human organ black market, or a real life replay of the famous scenario from the Hollywood movie TAKEN (where the girl is sold as an exotic slave dancer to an Arab sheikh). I was constantly fed stories about girls leaving the house and being forced into prostitution by evil people. And as usual, the evil people only targeted these girls because they were outside unaccompanied by a male figure and “available” in the first place. Somehow, everything is your fault.
More About Me
Like most Middle Eastern and Sub-continental families, I wasn’t allowed sleepovers or being anywhere outside the four walls of my house beyond 10pm. The night was evil and evil things happen at night and only at night, as if the day were completely immune to all these atrocities. Till today, when I stay at my grandmother’s house, she starts getting anxious as soon as I change into anything other than my PJs. “Where are you going?” “Why are you going?” “It’s too hot outside, no don’t go.” “You don’t know the ways.” “But I just made lunch for you.” She will literally do anything in her power to keep me in sight. It may have worked 5 years ago when I was younger and naïve but not today. I appreciate her care and worry but I simply assure her that times have changed.
I once asked my mother why she would fill my ear with frightening stories to deter me from traveling. Why I wasn’t allowed to apply for a university outside of my hometown that would require me to move out? When I graduated high school, I got accepted to the Academy of Arts in San Francisco but my parents refused to let me go. They guilt-tripped me into staying, listing all the benefits of living at home, and all the things they had provided for me. So I kept them happy, lived at home, did my chores and commuted to university everyday for 3.5 hours. Two years of university had passed, and I felt miserable every day.
How was I supposed to grow as a person if I was constantly hanging out with the same people doing the same things? Even at university, I hung out with the same crowd I went to highschool with — gathering in the same places, living in the same neighborhoods. I had met people in class and had offered to get together after school but campus friendships can only be sustained within campus vicinity. If you didn’t live on campus, it was extremely hard to remain friends with someone who did. I tried to join different social clubs and activity groups in order to meet like-minded people only to find out that most events were held after school hours, which meant that I would get home pretty late. I’d reach home by 10 or 11pm after taking a bus home from an event. I’d come home exhilarated for having gone to an event and having met new people, only to hear my dad express his displeasure with my late arrival. "What kind of a school is open till 11pm?" "What kind of events do you go to?" "No Dad, the event ended at 9 it just took me 2 hours to get home." "Why are the events held at night? Have they taken the morning away from you?" Sigh, I’d drag myself to my room long faced and teary eyed for having to constantly negotiate the clashing cultures.
The culture of my parents and the culture wherein I was trying to make something of myself were completely different. My parents didn’t know what networking events were, they didn’t do fundraisers and volunteer trips when they were growing up. It was very hard for them to understand that being outside the house didn’t necessarily equate to sex, drugs and rock&roll. It could simply be a study session with a friend at the 24-hour library the night before the exam. But the question was: “Why would you go to a library when we have given you your own room?” I love my parents to bits but I was speaking Greek and they were speaking Latin.
One night during March of 2013, I decided that I no longer wanted to live in Vancouver. I hated the city, the gloomy grey skies and the rich immigrant kids who would compete with each other on who could buy the fanciest car with daddy’s money. That was not the environment I wanted to be in. Moreover, I was still living at home and trying to negotiate cultural boundaries in a Western society. Every step forward resulted in 5 steps backward while taking a toll on my energy and optimism. I felt constrained and suffocated. You can’t keep a Wandering Albatross in a Canary's cage. I turned on my computer and decided to apply to McGill University in Montreal. Deadlines had already passed in the beginning of February, but I decided to try my luck anyway. That very night, I applied and paid the application fee. Were my grades good enough? Would they transfer all my credits from UBC? Were they still accepting applications that late in the first place? I waited.
In August 2013, I got my acceptance letter from McGill University. It was like they had given the world to me. I was ecstatic beyond measures but I was also extremely nervous. How was I supposed to break the news to my parents? How was I to support myself financially? How would I pay rent, food, and living expenses? School starts in 3 weeks, how am I going to pack, move to the other side of the country, find a place and find furniture in that span of time? All these questions popped into my mind as I entered a panic attack. This was the first time in life that I had to make an independent adult decision and stand by it. The decision wasn’t easy, and of course I was met with a lot of disagreement and obstacles; however on August 21st 2013, I moved to Montreal with 2 pieces of luggage and started living.
" Travel does not equate to indecency. Travel does not end in kidnap or murder. Travel will not break your bank. Travel is a way to self-growth and learning. The more you see, the more you know."
I am alive. I am free. I am a bird with a wingspan of the Earth’s circumference. I take every opportunity, and I am grateful for every day of my life. I have fought blood, sweat and tears to live this life. If I didn’t fight for it, I’d still be living at home waiting for a husband to come around and save me. I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree from one of the top universities in the world (while working 2 part-time jobs). Through McGill, I got a chance to live and work in India for 3 months where I conducted research and video-documented women in slums and rural communities — an absolute dream come true. You can read about it in a previous blogpost.
Ever since I left Vancouver 2 years ago, I have travelled to 35 different cities in 10 different countries (well, 19 cities in India itself) and I have taken enough photos to fill up 3 external hard-drives. I went to all these places without a brother or a husband – shame on me, right?
No, sorry but travel does not equate to indecency; travel does not end in kidnap or murder; travel will not break your bank; travel is a way to self-growth and learning; the more you see, the more you know. In fact, the more you put yourself out there, the more the opportunities you will have.
Take Charge and Bring Change
Change is always difficult to absorb—both for you and your family—but I promise you, no one can make that change other than you. No one and nothing should stand in the way of doing the things you want to do. Your parents may be upset with you at first but will love you no matter what you do (okay, maybe they won’t love you so much if you dance around a pole for a profession). You could be the next Celine Dion, Zaha Hadid, Coco Chanel or even the next Lily Singh but you cannot live your full potential if you let others make decisions for you.
What is it that you want to do? What is that very thing that makes your voice high-pitched and excited when you talk about it? If you want to achieve greatness, you should stop asking for permission. You are only young and healthy now, these are your most valuable days. Later, you might be able to pay thousands of dollars to look like a 20 year old, but no amount of money can give you the energy and drive of a 20 year old. This is your chance. Your chance is now. Seize the day my friend, seize away!
*This post has been an extremely cathartic process for me.
The description is very personal but at least you know that there was someone out there in your exact situation. I understand that a lot of women reading this may have different circumstances that may not avail travel at the moment; however, that does not stop me from fighting and creating a shift in our cultural paradigm that will allow more women—regardless of marital status—to travel.
Want to know me better? Follow me on instagram: minamohit / snapchat: minathemohit
Hello, and welcome. Happy New Year! I hope 2016 unravels good health, exhilarating surprises and great destinations for all of us. This post was inspired after speaking to some friends who were inquiring about the “unknown life” post graduation. So voila boys and girls, I am extending this post to anyone curious about where the white rabbit takes you after university.
Disclaimer: this topic is very subjective and experiences of individuals may vary. This is no set-in-stone prediction for recent graduates but rather a recount of my personal journey.
You Lose Structure
During university, you live inside a rollercoaster cabin; you have absolutely no time in your day because you have to deal with quizzes and assignments, show up at meetings on time while still squeezing in lunch, laundry and washing your hair (aka dry shampoo). The pressure really shapes what you do and how you craft your organizational skills. You have things to look forward to - like the weekend or the next stretch of holidays. However, when you’re out of school and you roll in a blob of timelessness, you freak out because the first time in twenty-two years, you don’t have to get ready for school. Your alarm went off at 8:30 am? You hit the snooze button and it rang again at 8:40 ? Well, it’s not like you have a conference call to get to. Your pulp and paper business deal with moguls in Hong Kong can wait. The reality is: you are living back home, in the basement of your parents’ house, relax — sleep an extra hour. You have nowhere to be.
You Lose Identity
When you are in a class with 300, 50, or 25 other students, you are continuously interacting and socializing with them. You're constantly challenged, and you get social feedback on almost everything you say or do. Whether it is the way you dress, the way you titled your last term paper, or that point you raised in class questioning gender norms. You send off these rays of “self” to your surroundings, and they come shooting back with good or bad feedback. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that we don’t really see ourselves as who we are, but rather we come to realize our idea of “self” based on an understanding of how other people perceive us. I’m not going to know if I am a good photographer or an adequate writer unless someone else validates it for me. We all need that feedback, no matter how much self-confidence and self-esteem we have. As social beings, we construct our self-image through the responses and evaluations of others in our environment. So when you’re out of school, and you’ve left your university’s town, your social network diminishes and you no longer get the responses that you relied on.
You Lose Confidence
After your 27th cover letter, you write “I am a strong contender for this position because….” and then you stop to ask yourself “really? I don’t believe it anymore” When you have written that many cover letters, with no promises of any interviews in the near future you really start to doubt yourself. You wonder, “Why did I study that hard to raise my GPA? No one really cares about your GPA anyway ”or “I should have gone out more, maybe then I would have made more connections into the real world.” Whatever your regrets may be, you end up questioning your abilities and you become jaded with the whole idea of applying to jobs behind a computer. You’ll say things like, “how can I prove to them who I am through a piece of paper, they do not really know me or what energy I can bring to work.” You stop for a while, recuperate, and start again.
You Lose Your Creative Outlets
Remember all your side-projects you never had time for? The reason you thought about them so much was because you could never possibly fulfill them within your academic time constraints. You would say something like:“Ugh, I have final tomorrow, I wish I didn’t have to study for this and was watercolor painting instead” “If I had more time, I would go to the gym more often” “If I didn’t have to go to class, I would be taking pictures outside.” This pretty much sums up how I lived the last four years of my undergrad — unceasingly complaining about “how academia was killing my creativity.” However, once I graduated and was floating in an ocean of leisure time, I no longer had the urge to escape academic stress by clinging onto fun projects. I only liked doing them in comparison to something I disliked. Many times, I would write a blog post or edit a photo in the middle of a chemistry lecture — I thought it was therapeutic and a good use of my time. It felt amazing to multitask; to take notes on carcinogens and retouch blemishes on Photoshop on a single screen. Yet, in the course of this interim period, I learned something about myself: I don't like my hobbies unless I have something distasteful to balance it with.
You Have To Answer People
This is something I struggled with the most and it took me a long time to accept my situation. Right after final exams in April, I went to India, and it felt amazing to finally be doing something I had always dreamt of. However, my internship had an expiry date and once my time was up, I had to come home. With no 9-5 job waiting for me back in Canada, I came back to this static uneventful life, as opposed to the life I was living there (yes, I had a severe case of post-traveling blues and I don’t wish this feeling upon anyone).
By September, most people in my graduating class were already in grad school making something of themselves, while I was hanging out with my two cats — enroute to becoming a crazy cat lady.
When I got back, my friends and family would ask me numerous questions about how it was like, how brave I was, or what my next grand move was. To me, the humanitarian trip didn’t seem like a big deal because I was comparing myself to all the geniuses at McGill — girls my age were designing innovative solar-backpacks for underprivileged kids in Kenya. To me, I was a nobody.
“So Mina, what's next after McGill? India? What’s next for you Miss Globe Trotter??” Or my mother would ask "when are you applying to Law School?" It felt quite uncomfortable to be placed under this social pressure of “having all the answers.” At anytime if I responded with “I do not know,” or that “I am in a dark place right now” they would swiftly comeback with phrases like “that’s so unlikely of you, I thought you were strong, I thought you were a go-getter!” Everyone from your grandmother to your parents, your friends, and that one girl who sat next to you in Swahili class, wants to know what you are doing.
I understand that they mean no harm yet when you’re trying so hard to figure things out by yourself, those repetitive aforementioned questions can really trigger anger and frustration. I've been in school from age three to twenty two. I’ve had no time to test things out because I've been so consumed with getting good grades. Good grades that serve no purpose to me right now. Therefore, if you know someone who just got out of high school or university, try not to pester him or her with your questions —despite your good intentions— because most probably they don’t know what they’ll be doing, and are still trying to resolve things on their own time.
The only advice I can give to anyone graduating within the next few months is to plan your summer and your time off accordingly. I personally am a strong advocate of traveling, meeting new people, and learning more about the world. This interim time is perhaps the only occasion where you are stripped from your school and work responsibilities. Go travel but make sure you have a plan and something to look forward to when you are back. No matter how long or short your trip is, you still have to get back and face your dilemmas. If you want time off, go ahead and take time off, in fact – you deserve it! Kick back with hours and hours of uninterrupted Netflix, living rent-free with warm home-cooked meals; yet, give yourself a deadline. Two weeks can easily become two months, if not two years, within a blink of an eye.
If you’ve had no luck finding a job, sign up for an evening class, or volunteer at your local community center. You never know of the tiny unexpected opportunities that may arise from doing something absolutely different (a classmate I met in one of my evening classes just offered me a job five days ago – no jokes). Sometimes, you may even go back to your old high school job and stand for eight hours on your feet earning minimum wage. That’s okay though, there’s no shame in that (I did it). Do anything that will put you on a roll and give your life some structure while keeping your eye on the ball. Try different things and test your likes and dislikes, and the next time someone asks you about what you are doing with your life, direct them to this blog post.
I hope this little piece of thought can be useful to you or anyone else going through the same situation. Until next month
Á tout á l’heure
Hello and Namashkar,
Well, as one of my previous posts mentioned, I am currently in South India and I haven’t been writing because I am still trying to adjust to my new environment (even though it's been a while). I had to deal with some serious food poisoning, an eye infection, a rodent infestation and all the work and village visits assigned to me. I will therefore try to summarize bits and pieces of this month's past happenings into a single blog post.
My work with AID INDIA has currently based me in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Our main office is located here and we organize the macro and the micro projects from this station. Chennai can be called the "Detroit" of India, since it's the motor city of the region: Ford Motors, Volkswagen, Hyundai, they're all right here. It's a super busy and chaotic city with big shopping malls that house expensive (but empty) brand name stores. Sometimes, you'll find people taking pictures outside Marks & Spencer with the logo in the background, but no one will actually go buy anything unless they want to forfeit their monthly rent in lieu of spandex leggings.
Personally, I'm not a big fan of the "big city chaos" but my work does involve a lot of traveling to interior regions (and leaving Chennai), so I always choose the window seat, and stare at the beautiful palm trees that make Disney's Jungle Book a reality for me.
India's rural landscape is breath-taking, If I were to draw the sceneries I saw, I would use every shade of green from my childhood owned Faber-Castell colour-pencil set. Every picture you take is an instant masterpiece, but before you get all excited about packing your bags and booking your next flight, let me tell you that you need to experience all the goods by embracing all the bads. You'll find out below :)
The Price You Pay For Pretty Photos
Now that you've seen what I've seen and what every post-card or desktop background from India will look like. Let me give you the backstory, the hidden secrets, the things they don't tell and all the other dirty details....
I’m writing to you from my hostel right now, just prior to starting this post I killed 15 cockroaches that were chilling in our kitchen; "Chappal" in one hand, bug spray in another. Unfortunately, I only have two hands or else I would go all Durga on them.
Here’s a thing about India (or at least my experiences) – nothing will go smoothly the first time around. Whether it’s about getting a SIM card, an Internet data stick, finding a bathroom where it’s safe for women to use –almost everything is a constant struggle. Even daily activities such as catching an auto-rickshaw (Indian taxi) to get you from point A to point B will raise your blood pressure as you try to save yourself from getting ripped off. I understand that they think of us as tourists or working expats and therefore want to “make hay when the sun shines.” First of all, I am not a tourist but rather I am paying out of pocket to be here, and secondly it gets a little frustrating and annoying when it happens everyday!
Truth be told, I knew what India had in store for me, I knew my line of work would take me to rural areas and put me in situations that would make me beyond uncomfortable. Nevertheless, “knowing” and “experiencing” are two different things. Even after studying India extensively and researching what I was getting into, I was taken by surprise by all the things I came across. For the purposes of this month's post, I will try to fit a few major incidents that occurred to me and hopefully leave the rest for another time.
Our Living Arrangements
The first two days at the hostel weren’t the best. The water had cut off and we couldn’t shower or use the bathroom. The wireless connection was a bit shaky as well, it was really hard speaking to family and friends when you're still a newbie (the hardest days). I wasn't a big fan of the hostel food either: other than the fact it was very poor in nutrition (mostly just carbs (lots of rice or fried bread) and very little vegetables), I found hair in our food multiple times and it was just too much to go through all of a sudden.
But ultimately we knew we were in India on a low-budget, we weren't staying at the Ritz Carlton, so the onus was on us to adjust to our new environment.
There were times I would walk in the kitchen in the night, and I would get completely disgusted with the way ingredients were prepared and just left overnight. I found a dish of chopped up onions left open out in the dark. I lifted my flashlight up only to see 10 cockroaches swirling around in our chopped onions, the same onions we were going to eat in one of those watery dipping sauces they would give us.
Cockroaches became the least of my worries, when we were met with our new roommate: Mr. Fat Rat.
I was on the phone one day and I heard something like a chainsaw under the bed. There it was, the sound of intense gnawing into the metal rods of the bed. That’s when I heard the little rascal for the first time; he was inside the hostel and had roomed with all of us.
Cockroaches are disgusting, but in the end, all it takes is a shoe to end its life. Rats, on the other hand are smart, stealthy and on top of all, they're big and meaty. You can't kill it with a shoe nor can you spray it dead. You need some legitimate manpower for its extermination.
Anyways, let's talk about something else -- food for example. I went through a severe culture shock when I realized breakfast in South India is a whole other story!
Early in the morning, a lady came into our room and placed two food pots on the bed (Visible in the picture).
She hardly spoke any English but she managed to say “break-fast” and “lunch.” I opened one of them and it looked like “lunch” and I opened the other one and it also looked at “lunch.” I absolutely had no concept of what an “Indian breakfast” would look like. Here’s what it sort of looked like. I found these pictures on Google.
The food here is very spicy but mostly vegetarian. The good thing is that I don’t have to deal with pork or seafood (imagine my project was in China??). During the first week, I would scrub my lips with toothpaste after every meal to soothe the burn from the spices; however, by now, I have become a little more accustomed to it. It is advised to stick to vegetarian foods as eating meat in this heat can invite illnesses – food handling/storage becomes an issue in 40 degrees Celsius and the meat can go bad quickly. This is something I learned the hard way after dealing with food poisoning, the emergency room of a hospital, and last but not least, INJECTIONS. I ate some chicken around 9pm at night (which was probably made in the morning) – I spent all night throwing up and went to the hospital the next day. Even writing about it now makes me feel uneasy.
Bad Event; Good Story
I’m sure you’ve have one of those life happenings that leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, and you can’t really do much about it, yet you shrug your shoulders to laugh it off and say “at least I have a good story!” Well, I have one of those, and although it caused me much frustration at the time, I can sit back in my chair now and write about it since time has allowed me detach myself from that experience and look at it in a different light.
The head office usually assigns the village trips along with a translator to accompany you. Moreover, a phone number will also be provided of the “person in charge” to contact when you get to the assigned village. You’re asked to leave early (usually by 5 or 6am) so that you get there on time to get some work done before dusk, and if need be, you are required to stay the night at someone’s residence or on the floor of one of their village station/offices.
I woke up, packed up a bed sheet and a small complimentary airplane pillow I had nicked from Lufthansa Airlines. I met my translator at the main bus station and off we went on the bus stop. It was “supposed” to be a 6 hour ride, but never believe anyone’s time assumptions in India: 2 minutes is 15 minutes, 10 minutes is half an hour and 1 hour is definitely longer than that. So I need to get into the details of how things are done “on time” here.
Well, since I love loud music so much (I don't ! I don't like Tamil Music at all - those who have me on Snapchat can confirm) , of course I had to endure the most blaring sounds throughout the entire trip. We sat in an exclusive bus that had a TV set for the traveling passengers. What was on? A horror Tamil movie with Lord-Of-The-Ring-Orc-looking creatures bursting into choreographed dances every 15 minutes. Not only did I have to withstand intense shrieks of suspense during my “attempted sleep” but there was intensifying and loud music to be the perfect lullaby playing in the background of my journey.
3,4 hours had passed and the bus hadn’t made a stop. There I was sitting with a full bladder trying to concentrate on strengthening my will power and my bladder muscles; however, India’s amazing roads along with their deep potholes wasn't helping my case. I made a few phone calls to try share my misery and try pass the time.
The bus stopped, “yes, thank God, ahh finally.” I get up, flashlight in my right hand, and toilet paper in my left. We stopped at this random midway “hotel” (cheap restaurants/cafeterias are called hotels here). “Excuse me An’na, bathroom Inge-Irkeh?” I ask in Tamil, which is the first thing I learn in every language. It’s along the lines of “Excuse me big brother, where is the bathroom?” He directs me to the back of the hotel, where I am met with my next challenge.
Last Level: Slaying the Dragon – The Guardian of the Bathroom
I reach the bathroom, I don’t think I even needed directions to get there as my olfactory senses were quite on point—I could smell the stench of the bathroom from miles away.
All right, ready to rumble, but no. I couldn’t get to the final stage unless she slayed the final dragon of the game. There he was, green, scaly and fat standing right in front of the bathroom door. He looked at me from the corner of his eye, he knew I had come and didn’t budge an inch. I knew if I gave up now, I would lose a life, and would have to wait another 3-4 hours until I get to the next bathroom. It was now or never, I pulled up my sleeves, picked up a few rocks and prepared myself for battle.
Not going to lie, I was pissing my pants doing this (both literally and figuratively). I threw multiple rocks at him, but the “oedipal polysyllable” wouldn’t move!! My cherry on top was that the bus started to call on all the passengers; people were boarding back onto the bus while I was still trying to deal with a fat lizard and a full bladder. To my luck, he wasn’t one of those fire-spitting dragons, so I was able to defeat him with a throw of a few heavier rocks. At last, he forfeited the battle and waddled away into a nearby bush – victory was mine and I was overjoyed with relief. But the journey continued...
All That Effort; No Fruit
Finally, after 9 hours of travel time, 4 different buses, and all sorts of playlists in the background. My translator and I reach Chidambaram. The block coordinator came to the Bus depot to receive us. The three of us rode his motorcycle for another 20 minutes to reach his house (my poor translator was squished between us). We had to stay the night at his place since it was too late and too dark to work, we decided to wake up at 4am the next day to be at another village by 6am. He was nice enough to offer us his bed, while he and his wife slept on the floor. The whole night was quite challenging: the electricity kept cutting off every 15-20 minutes, thus we had a short span of fan time followed by absolute heat. I poured some water from a bucket on myself to cool down but that wasn't enough either. The bathroom was also worth mentioning: I had to run outside take my shoes inside, use it in the bathroom (while holding a flashlight) and then run back out and put my shoes outside again (wearing shoes inside a traditional Indian household is an absolute NO-NO). I also made sure I didn't touch the walls as numerous amounts of lizards were chilling on their walls and had become part of their general household decor. I must however acknowledge that lizards are actually good since they eat all the mosquitos and cockroaches. Lizards are your friends Mina, learn to accept that.
We woke up the next day at 4 and took another bus to a nearby village to visit a woman who was the perfect candidate for our documentary. We get to her house exactly at 6am (we wanted to shoot her from dawn to dusk) but her daughter refused to let us work with her mother. I was so shocked and disappointed at the same time. The lady knew we were coming, why wouldn't she run this event by her daughter? Why wasn't this discussed prior to our arrival ? Despite my translator's efforts, we were asked to leave and we got zero footage. We tried filming a few more women, but it wasn't the same and it didn't turn out the way we wanted. We hopped onto a return bus and off we were for another 9 hours.
All that effort, no fruit in return :-(
On to Better Things
Yes, I may have had a few hiccups here and there (at times, I really wanted to give up) but it's all about the experience in the end. As cheesy as it sounds "things don't get easy, you just become better at dealing with it". Similarly, I look back at all the good times now and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities I have been given. I was able to fulfill my lifelong dream of coming to India, working with women, and indulging in some of the most historic and culturally-rich surroundings—that itself fills my heart with satisfaction and reminds me of how grateful I should be for being here.
I have so many more anecdotes to tell and some of them are really funny. It's difficult writing all of them but if you follow me on Instagram you can get a glimpse of my work with the organization with snippets of stories under the captions. If you want a little more detail into what goes on everyday then Snapchat is your best bet (I snap quite a lot and India is too entertaining). Usernames for Instagram and Snapchat are both "minamohit"
I hope you enjoyed reading a condensed version of my 6 weeks in South India.
There are 6 more weeks to go!! Enjoy the rest of your summer & Ramadan Kareem to everyone observing the holy month this year :-)
Until next month---
Dear fellow friends and blog readers,
If you do not already know, I have this obsession with India and Vedic culture, and upon graduation from McGill, I was looking for a position where I can leave my books and atlases at home and see India in its true form! So... if you haven't found out yet, I will be spending this summer in Chennai, India on a media (photo/video) project with a not-for-profit organization. Many of you have asked me what I'm up to so I decided that I would simply do a blog post for the month of April. So there you go, read below
&& Wish me luck!!
Where will I be working?
I will be working with AID India
(Association for India's Development)
in the southern region of India, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.
3 Months (May 2015-August 2015)
Why AID India?
AID India’s development covers all interconnected spheres of life and livelihood such as agriculture, health, education, natural resources and women’s empowerment. They not only highlight the problem in the afflicted area but they find creative ways to address it and implement micro projects or campaigns in the area as powerful tools to bring about change.
What's my story?
I first embarked on my application as an educator to help improve children’s skills in basic reading, Mathematics, English and Science. However, I soon realized that I could combine my other “out-of-the-classroom” skills and initiate a project that would perhaps leave its remnants years after I leave. This thought encouraged me to contact the coordinator with hopes of contributing a creative vision to their organization.I have been in the creative field for over six years, and I am confident to say that I am adept with my camera. Although I had initially presumed that the organization would prefer to do more traditional projects; to my surprise, I found out that the AID India was looking for someone with my skills to ameliorate the quality of integrating technology in the classroom through video.
What's their story?
There are some fundamental changes that need to happen at the grass-root level and AID India hopes to use my visual stories at different rural schools to tackle preexisting social problems and stereotypes. For example, in the educational textbooks students use at their primary schools, the various illustrations reiterate the inferiority of women in society, especially those who are housewives. Children going to school, even having been exposed to education, soon become molded with the ideology that their father is the source of knowledge whilst their mother’s knowledge is only restricted to the domain of the kitchen or their home. The vast layers of the internalization of inferiority has been inculcated over generations and despite the shift in modernity in India’s main cities, the rural areas are still suffering from high levels of gender inequality.
How can I instigate change?
I understand that this issue might be a difficult onion to peel; nevertheless, I do not underestimate the power of an awe-provoking video aimed towards challenging and changing the seed of an idea that was rooted generations ago. Videos and photographs in the classroom are a new appealing way to address important issues in the classroom, especially those students in the rural regions who do not have the means to access technology. By targeting school children, we hope bring change while they are still in the process of developing their worldview. We realize that we can only make meaningful change on a small scale at first, and even if one child changes his/her mindset in his/her community, then we will have succeeded.
Please feel free to follow me on Instagram @minamohit to see recent updates about my project. I am currently private on Instagram because Google keeps using my photos in its searches and I'm not cool with that so just ask to follow and I'll accept right away. I'll be documenting my India adventures and posting them here every month. Many people have asked me to get snapchat, so if that happens then it will probably also be "minamohit" or something... However, Instagram is the best bet so far. I need your blessings, luck and prayers. I can't wait to share my journey and my learnings with all of you!
Until next month folks
- my next post will be from a hot and humid internet cafe in rural India!!
Enjoy your summer and happy holidays!
Hopefully it's not as hot as mine :-p
Mina lives in the chaotic city of London, United Kingdom. She uses writing as a way to bring calm the chaos.
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