Monday, January 16, 2006

Return to India! (Part 1)

I’m in India and have so much to tell. But first, let’s talk about me!

I usually think that the biggest benefit of travel is that stepping out of your normal world changes the way you look at yourself. Usually upon my return from some place foreign, I’m all set to launch the newest New Michael Melcher. This trip, however, gave me an opportunity to do something even better: revisit the Old Michael Melcher, or at least a particular vision of myself I’ve been carrying around for a couple of decades.

I shall explain.

First, a bit of background…

My first real job was as a junior office in the Foreign Service. Just months after I turned 24, I was dispatched to Calcutta with a black passport and a zeal to see the world. As an employee of the U.S. Information Agency, I was charged with public diplomacy, which consisted of informational and educational…well, it wasn’t all that clear what I was charged with, which turned out to be part of the problem. Anyhow, I did spend nearly a year in India, mainly in Calcutta with two months in New Delhi. Afterwards I went off to Taiwan.

Living and working in Calcutta were difficult for me or, as we say in resumes, “challenging.” I had a difficult, WWII-vet boss (and was inexperienced in “upward management”), went through big culture shock (despite my image of myself as an experienced world traveler) and was pursuing a dramatic, long-distance relationship, which I had—naturally—started just a few weeks prior to leaving the U.S. At the four-month mark I got really sick, which depleted my remaining reserves of confidence and peppiness. And there were some additional factors, such as institutionalized homophobia of the Foreign Service under the Reagan administration. (In a bizarre, Kafkaesque scene, the U.S. government once put a friend on mine “on trial” for being gay, with the intention of yanking his security clearance and thereby ending his career. Though he managed to keep his job, this is not the kind of thing that encourages one to make one’s career with the government.)

Anyway, even though things improved quite a bit at about the halfway point, I was very relieved to leave India. A year later, I left the Foreign Service altogether. Because things had not worked out the way I wanted them too and I had gone through moments of pain and confusion, I tended to think of my Foreign Service experience as a sort of personal and professional failure. When I’d recount my time overseas, I would mention a few interesting anecdotes but typically emphasized the negatives. If people exclaimed about the unusual and interesting aspects of my experience, I would often make (or think) self-deprecating rejoinders.

I also made the great error of youth, which is to over-generalize and over-personalize everything that happens to you. (It’s all about me, right?) I therefore made many of the inane assessments you can make in your 20s about work and life. I had fallen behind, had fallen off track, was not where I should be, had some explaining to do about my choices, blah blah blah BLAH. Now in my glamorous and enticing adulthood, even hearing myself think about this kind of juvenile negative self-absorption makes me tired!

Now, on to the insight!!!

Well, guess what? It turns out that story I have been carrying around since 1988 about my year in India is….wrong. It’s a significant misinterpretation of what actually occurred. Sure, the remembered episodes took place—assorted gastrointestinal conditions, culture shock, air pollution, low staff morale, a boss that told me not to speak Bengali to our Bengali constituents because it would be “counterproductive” (you figure that one out), not to mention the nagging, gross sound of crows outside my window every morning. But lots more happened as well!

This became quite clear during the five days I recently spent in Bombay with our wonderful hosts Ranjana and Sanjeev. Ranjana is a sweet friend from my Calcutta days who is now a high-powered (yet fun and caring) business exec. We hadn’t seen each other for more than a decade, since she was studying for her MBA in the U.S. When I lived in “Cal,” Ranjana was part of a group of American, European and Indian students and hangers-on who boarded at a place called the Ramakrishna Mission (nicknamed the Swamiramayana Dingdong Institute for Meditation and School of Hotel Management). I used to have bunches of them over to my enormous apartment for dinner, partly for company and partly to provide professional fulfillment to my cook, who found it boring to cook for me alone.

Ranjana and Sanjeev are the consummate hosts, attending to our every need—car, driver, cook, shopping tips, and most of all warmth and conversation. My travel companions—my mom, Trini and my friend, Cheryl—and I ran around Bombay doing various things but also spent several hours each day just talking with our hosts. What I discovered was that Ranjana and I could crack each other up for hours just remembering and reviewing that year. Some of it was recalling the internal dramas of the Ramakrishna mission crowd; my cook Jan Alam (who wrote “happy birthday Melcher” on the special cake he made for me); the boring, self-important people who hang out at Consulate functions; the tendencies of Bengali intellectuals and their foreign groupies to overhype everything related to Rabindranath Tagore; the diet contest I organized at the consulate, the female Indian student who stalked me when I got home. You know, challenging people and wacky experiences—your basic entertaining dorm chat.

We also talked about current things: economic and political reforms in India, the cultures of the nonprofit vs. private sectors, and the parallel between self-important Washington DC and Delhi on the one hand, and fabulous, free-for-all New York and Bombay on the other.

These conversations exploded the way I had been remembering my India experience. I saw a much more complex and positive reality. My year in Calcutta had been challenging, sure. Who wouldn’t be challenged? But all things considered, I did pretty well. I managed to create an interesting, vibrant life. I made good friends. I learned tons about India and the world in general. And I didn’t hurt anybody! Things didn’t work out that way I planned, but when do they ever? In fact, I’m going to give myself a post-hoc “A” for that year. Just because I can.

My two little coaching takeaway points from this:
(1) If you focus too much on how things are supposed to be, you miss the great things that are actually happening,
(2) It’s worthwhile to reexamine the stories you tell about your own life. They might be totally wrong.

Calcutta in the late 80s was really a trip! I’m glad I was there. :-)