3 Takeaways from 2 weeks in India

We recently returned from a trip to India, and for me, it was a significant learning experience. Some of my previously held assumptions about the country turned out to be inaccurate. Even more important, lessons I’ve been learning for years became real for me in a new way. So here are my India takeaways.

 

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Prior worries upended

I’d long wanted to visit India. But movies, documentaries and books I’d seen or read emphasized a country of desperate poverty. Friends and blog posts warned me about “Delhi Belly,” traffic, congestion, pollution, dirt and general mayhem in this country of 1.3 billion people. I started the trip with some worries, but soon cast them aside.

I realized that, as foreign tourists staying in fine hotels, we were shielded from India’s slums and many signs of poverty and oppression. We still witnessed roadside shanties, and people living under bridges or plastic tarps. We saw humans dwelling alongside their livestock and roadside brick factories where we feared there might be enslaved workers. At the same time, our impressions of Indian poverty weren’t that different from what we’d seen in places like Mexico, Guatemala or Peru. Jarring — but sadly, not unique.

And yes, traffic and congestion were terrible in the larger cities. However, air quality wasn’t as bad as we’d thought it would be. Our trip occurred at the end of the monsoon season, when the rain has “cleaned” the air. Maybe that’s why pollution didn’t affect us, but at no time did we experience trouble breathing such as one hears about when traveling in parts of China.

Last and most surprising, neither my husband nor I felt ill even one day in two weeks! We ramped up our intake of probiotics, and we consumed bottled water and filtered ice everywhere, even for brushing teeth. We took care in what we ate, although we tried many Indian dishes. Which, by the way, we found to be delicious!

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Incredible Indian hospitality

We enjoyed wonderful hospitality every day of our trip. We first met up with Indian friends who showed us around Bangalore and took us to some 12th century temples that UNESCO recently added to its list of heritage sites. They introduced us to southern Indian cuisine served on traditional banana leaves. We got to see how family life in India’s IT capital is similar and yet different from a place like Silicon Valley. Then we visited Kochi and the Kerala backwaters, touring via auto rickshaw and houseboat. Our trip continued on the opposite coast, in Chennai. Finally we journeyed north to the Golden Triangle of Agra, Jaipur and Delhi.

Our style of traveling in India was different from traveling in Europe, or even in Latin America. We made a point of staying in top-rated hotels, whose air-conditioned facilities offered relief from outdoor heat and humidity. We took advantage of hotel restaurants, drivers and concierge services to book tour guides, shopping excursions, etc. At the same time, most of our accommodations in India cost less than comparable establishments in the US – particularly in the larger cities. In Agra and Jaipur, we splurged on hotels in the famous Oberoi chain, both of which offered outstanding experiences. Their facilities and services added to their incredible surroundings, creating magical days and memories.

Now, on to my personal India takeaways.

(1) Happiness has more to do with your attitude than your circumstances

I have understood this truth intellectually, even preached it to my children on numerous occasions. But person after person in India, many of whom appeared to have every reason to feel impoverished, depressed or anxious, struck me as positive and even upbeat.

I know most of the people with whom we interacted worked in hotels or other industries where cheerful service to tourists constituted good business practice. But still, Indians’ overall good humor amazed me. One would have thought that, in fourteen days of dining out, flying low-cost Indian airlines, bargaining in shops and observing regular people in the streets and temples, we would have seen at least one person who was out of sorts. Not so. (Well, as long as you don’t count a handful of other tourists!)

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Stanford SEED: optimism and energy harnessed

A highlight of our trip was attending the launch of the Stanford SEED program in India. They have sites in East and West Africa, and now in Chennai. As part of the launch festivities, we met a number of entrepreneurs and founders of small to mid-size companies across India. Their energy and optimism overflowed, especially after interacting with Stanford Business School professors and each other. Without a doubt, these leaders will use their SEED training to scale their businesses, hire more people and thus alleviate poverty in their communities.

Another reason for Indian optimism is its economic potential. India is a young country, with an estimated 65% of its population below the age of 35. In 2016, the median age for India was 27.6, compared to 37.1 for China and 37.9 for the US. (source: CIA World Factbook) The entrepreneurs we met were positioning their companies to take advantage of India’s growing population and wealth. Everywhere we went, we noticed a youthful energy, vitality and positive attitude. Certainly the country has its share of problems, but young Indians seem optimistic about their country’s future.

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(2) Never underestimate the power of a kind word or gesture

This is another lesson I’ve heard my whole life, and to which I’ve repeatedly committed myself. (How many times did someone tell you as a child, “Just smile?”) But again, on the trip I took particular notice of this principle – maybe because I was often on the receiving end of someone else’s kindness. Related in part to the low cost of labor, Indian hotels give outstanding customer service. They have lots of staff whose main job is to make their guests feel comfortable.

And you know, it’s nice to have people treat you well. I felt special when hotel staff greeted me by name, pulled out my chair and placed my napkin in my lap in a restaurant, or responded to unusual requests as though nothing was too difficult for them.

A common gesture in India is the slight bow with hands pressed together at chest level – the namaste posture commonly practiced at the end of yoga classes in the US. Everyone in the hotels, even security guards, would press their hands together in this way when I passed by. People in the shops, streets, anywhere you might encounter someone, would make the gesture as a greeting, a sign of respect, an expression of thanks. It occurred to me, as I was often carrying my phone or camera and unable to do a reciprocal greeting, that to make a namaste gesture, you have to keep your hands free. Symbolically at least, you indicate that you are completely available to the other person, that you’re not multi-tasking, that they are the most important item on your agenda at that moment. This is powerful.

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Guest is god

In Hindi they have a saying, “Atithi Devo Bhava,” which means “Guest is god.” Multiple guides and drivers told us this, emphasizing how happy they were to accompany us, and that their first desire was to please us. In the US, I would have viewed such a remark with skepticism. But in India, it seemed to be more than just a saying. Perhaps I was naïve to believe people really cared, but their attention seemed genuine.

Maybe one reason I enjoyed the trip so much was that I felt so well cared for. Plus, when people were nice to me, I of course was inclined to be nice to them. Funny how that works. In general, I felt more patient and less frustrated than I often do at home. Although I won’t be trying to incorporate a namaste gesture into my everyday actions, I hope to keep the internal posture evident in my outward behavior.

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(3) So much good proceeds from loving people

The greatest privilege of this trip was getting to spend time with our friends, Bob and Dottie. We met them in Chennai for the Stanford SEED launch – a program they founded within the Stanford Graduate School of Business. We loved visiting places like the Taj Mahal with them, as well as the fun we had together riding elephants, having cocktails or chatting with hotel staff. But I especially appreciated Bob’s willingness to ask probing questions that moved our conversation to deeper levels, and Dottie’s phenomenal ability to connect with all kinds of people.

Partners in connecting

Dottie and Bob bring together individuals from different spheres, and they make sure guests feel welcome and have meaningful interactions. During nearly sixty years of marriage, they’ve extended hospitality to countless friends, friends of friends, and even strangers. One practice Dottie started years ago was to host Stanford international students when they first arrived in this country. At the time it was a great way to expose their children to different cultures. But taking things a step further, our friends have kept in touch with their students over decades, attending their weddings and visiting in their homes abroad.

They’ve been blessed to associate with all kinds of people — rich and poor, powerful and weak. And to a person, Dottie treats everyone the same. My guess is that she was born with the gift of caring about others, but it’s clear that she’s nurtured and honed her natural ability for connecting. She unfailingly notices people’s “good sides,” loves to hear their stories, and helps them recognize gifts they can contribute to their communities.

It may sound corny to describe a person like this, but you have to know my friend. Both Bob and Dottie are incredibly generous people. For Bob, a key aspect of philanthropy is the leverage potential: he operates from a vision of how an investment in human capital can multiply to great impact. Dottie, on the other hand, focuses on the possibility for making a noticeable difference in people’s lives.

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Results and stories both matter

They joked with the SEED entrepreneurs about how Bob wanted to see “results” as people grew their companies, while Dottie wanted “stories” about lives being changed. Both perspectives are valid, of course. But, as a person steeped in Silicon Valley mores, which prize results, I relished seeing Dottie’s enduring love for people and their individual journeys.

Wherever we went, we saw Indian women wearing colorful saris. Dottie would ask if she could take their photos. They always said yes, and then invariably one of them would start taking selfies with Dottie and our group. I thought this was amusing the first time it happened, but it became a regular occurrence.

My friend’s ability to connect with people didn’t stop with strangers in the street. Back at our hotel, she admired a bartender’s turban, part of his staff uniform. After she told him about her assortment of hats at home, and how she liked to throw “hat parties,” the bartender gave her the turban to add to her collection. Dottie’s laugh echoed across the lobby and down the hall.

I loved riding the coattails of Dottie’s good humor and personal warmth. As more of an introvert myself, I enjoyed her initiative and openness toward others. I also felt privileged to witness first-hand how maintaining an appreciation for folks around you can make a big a difference in other people’s demeanors. And usually in your own mood, too.

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Sounds simple, but doing it is hard

What I took away from my two weeks in India wasn’t the thrill of seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World, or fascination with an economy called “the next China,” or even shock regarding the contrast of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. All those things made an impression, definitely. But my India takeaways concerned truths I’d heard all my life, but that I came to appreciate in a new way.

For me, this was a trip of a lifetime. Because I want to live differently now than I did before.

Happiness comes from within, not without. Kind words and deeds are more powerful than you might think. And genuinely loving other people results in all kinds of good things.

Sounds simple enough. But practicing this “attitude of gratitude” in everyday circumstances is actually complex and challenging. After my experience in India, though, I’m seeking the grace to live this way: to be happy regardless of my circumstances, to practice kind words and deeds, and to just love people.

Friends, I need your help – let’s do it together.

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Back to school, back to anxiety

It’s that time of year again. Yes, it’s exciting to enter a new year at school, meet new friends, learn new things. But many back-to-school experiences are infused with anxiety — both for students and their parents.

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Student anxiety

Students of all ages are nervous as well as excited, whether they’re in elementary, middle, high school, college or beyond. Their questions vary on similar themes: will I get a “good” teacher? How will I find something I like to do and people I like to do it with? How can I make good grades without working too hard?

For students moving away to college, the thrill of living on their own is often matched by a latent fear of whether they’ll be happy. Whether they will find people who accept them for who they are, or whether they should “try on” new personalities in order to fit in.

Even going back to college after a summer away brings worries: will I still like my friends from last year? Will they like me? What am I going to major in? How am I going to juggle all my responsibilities?

Parents are anxious for our kids

We parents may try to hide our anxiety, but it runs high. We’re worried about how our younger children are going to choose friends, make good grades, excel at sports, get their homework done. Anxiety builds as they start high school. We fear that even tiny missteps will limit their options for college.

Clearing the college hurdle brings on new worries. As parents of college students, we have to content ourselves with what our kids choose to tell us. Even if we had tried to guide kids’ choices in the past, they’re out of our reach now.

We worry about ourselves, too

Those are the worries we have for our kids. What about the anxiety we feel for ourselves? For example, how can I volunteer at my child’s school while still leaving time for my job or other commitments? Are the other parents going to accept me as one of them? Now that my kids have moved on to college, what should I do? Should I change jobs, start working again, go back to school, take up a new interest? How will my spouse and I get along with each other, now that the kids have left home? How can I meet new friends, now that the interactions with parents I used to see at school or sports are more random?

Relationship anxiety

So we worry about our relationships with other adults, and also about how we will relate to our children who are becoming adults. But deep down, both parents and students want to know the same things:

  • How do I separate?
  • How do I stay connected?

 

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Letting go of anxiety

Vague advice for anxious parents or kids like, “Just chill out!” may be well meant, but it’s not particularly helpful. Of course we know that worrying doesn’t do any good! Various religious traditions (not to mention common sense) admonish us to let go of anxiety. For example, Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount: “Which one of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?(Matthew 6:27 ESV)

For those of us who are prone to anxiety, however, it’s not so easy. As a near-professional worrier myself, I struggle with letting go. But my own experience suggests starting small can help. For example:

  • Commit time to take a “worry break.” Go for a walk or sit outside and breathe slowly. Get a pedicure or massage. See if you can think about something else for thirty minutes, maybe even an hour. Block the time out on your calendar.
  • Let go of one thing: Figure out something you’re worried about that logically, you know you can’t control. Don’t try to let go of all worries at once — just this one.
  • Turn the camera around: notice what’s going on in the lives of people you encounter every day. The cashier, receptionist, school janitor, or homeless person. Sometimes the simple act of focusing on another’s problems, even briefly, can give you perspective on your own concerns.

Letting go of anxiety, even temporarily, is something we can train ourselves to do. Not unlike learning to hit a slice serve or sink a four-foot putt, this training requires us to practice and build on small successes. But even little improvements will start to add up.

OK, it’s time for me to walk my dog. Likewise, go on your own “worry break!”

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Images licensed under CC BY via Flickr: Mari Z., T. Goskar, P. Nouhailler

Patrick Nouhaill

 

Messy today, empty tomorrow

Today my house is messy and happy. We just returned from vacation, so there are suitcases everywhere, mounds of laundry, mail spilling off the entry table. Plus the packing activities of my youngest son, who leaves for his second year of college tomorrow morning. And my oldest, who leaves tonight with his bride. My daughter was here for a few weeks, but she left nearly a month ago. Our house reflects a summer of coming and going, living in the moment, not concerning myself with clutter. But tomorrow they’ll be gone. The house will be empty. There will be time to clean, but I will be sad.

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When does it get easier to say goodbye to my kids? One or more of them has been leaving for six years now. Their lives are lived elsewhere. While they come back to share themselves with us from time to time, our home will never again be the center of their world. I know this is how it should be, how I want it to be. But I hate it all the same.

Tomorrow I’ll start to clean up the remains of a summer where I relaxed and enjoyed my family’s company. It’s actually easier now, since I no longer have to mediate children’s squabbles, remind them to do their homework, or drive to their innumerable activities. Tomorrow, while I clean, my footsteps will echo through the house. My husband will go to the office. Only the dog will hear my quiet crying.

For one more day, I’ll live in the mess and be happy. Cleaning can wait until tomorrow.

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Have YouTube don’t need Mom

Say you’re a teenage boy. There’s a girl you have a crush on, and you want to ask her to the school dance. But you can’t begin to tell anyone or get tips on how to act calm when you’re nervous.  Least of all, you can’t discuss it with your mom. She wouldn’t get it, anyway. She’d probably say something dumb and make you feel embarrassed. But that’s okay: lots of other guys have gone before you, and they’ve documented their experiences on YouTube.

Or you’re a middle school girl, and you’re itching to dye a pink streak in your hair. You know your mom will freak out, though, so you can’t ask her to help you do it. Again, no problem: there are tons of YouTube videos to show you how.

In short: have YouTube — don’t need Mom.

YouTube shows you how

YouTube is not merely the source for home videos, humor riffs, stupid cat movies and viral memes. It showcases people demonstrating all kinds of practical skills, answering questions like you used to ask your parents. You’ll find YouTube channels devoted to cooking, makeup, home and car repair. You can learn to sew, knit, crochet, do macrame or pottery, just by watching videos on your smart phone or computer.

YouTube takes over mom’s job

Mom’s job of teaching her kids how to do stuff is becoming obsolete. For example, none of my kids cared about learning to do laundry before they left for college. Never mind: there are plenty of videos online where college girls or guys show you how to wash your clothes, and they’re much more fun to watch than Mom. For more info on garment care, young men can turn to Esquire’s Virtual Valet channel, which has videos on how to iron a shirt, pack a back, polish a shoe, sew on a button, and more.

Mom’s not the expert anymore

Moms no longer possess exclusive knowledge or skills. Anyone can use web video to learn to make pie crust, peel an orange in one long strip, fold perfect hospital corners on a bed. My son sent me a link to a video for “spatchcocking” your Thanksgiving turkey to cook it in half the time. Not only has YouTube replaced me as the source of cooking knowledge — I’m now a recipient of its wisdom, directed at me through my offspring.

YouTube targets ever-younger audiences

As if that weren’t enough, YouTube assistance is reaching down to younger ages. For example, there are numerous videos on how to tie your shoes. Moms can get advice on potty training or sleep training from YouTube. But think of it this way: we can outsource tedious child-rearing tasks — especially now that lots of kids have iPads. Too bad a video can only show you how to change a diaper.

YouTube states that its users watch over 6 billion hours of video every month, with 100 hours of video being uploaded every minute. It’s no wonder you can find better how-to instruction online than Mom could have ever offered. More than that, you can learn stuff Mom never would have told you.

But YouTube can’t do everything

What’s a mom to do? She’s no longer the one her kids look to for advice on domestic matters or traditional passages along the way to adulthood. However, a video can’t look at the jam your son is cooking and tell him when it’s thick enough to put into the jars. And while YouTube might show him the best method for tying a bow tie, it’s not going to tell him how handsome he looks as he leaves for his senior prom.

Furthermore, YouTube can show your daughter how to pick up a slipped stitch in her knitting, but you’re still the one she’ll turn to when she gets frustrated and needs someone to correct her mistake.

You can’t beat YouTube, so embrace it

Here’s how I see it: YouTube offers more and often better “how to” information than moms could ever provide. It’s crowd-sourcing at its best. For moms, delegating instruction in tasks where we don’t excel anyway is a win for us and our kids.  It leaves us more time for the aspects of parenting that YouTube can’t handle. We get to focus on things we do best, connecting with our children in more meaningful ways.

And since we’re saving time by having YouTube teach our kids basic chores and life skills, we can do other stuff. Like watch stupid cat videos.

 

Image credits: YouTube, fdecomite via flickr

Communicating with your college student

When my eldest child left for college, he chose not to call, text or email us for three weeks. This was his way of separating, but I didn’t like it. My daughter, on the other hand, follows the more typical college student practice of phoning me on her way to class. From a parent’s perspective, neither of these communication styles is particularly desirable. But we take what we can get. Technology may have made communicating with your college student easier. But in fact, modern communication vehicles compound age-old communication issues between parents and our emerging adult children.

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Cell phones make communicating with your college student easier

It goes without saying that cell-phone equipped college kids are more “in touch” today than we were. Members of our generation generally shared a landline phone with one or more roommates. Sometimes the best way to reach a friend was the memo board on her dorm room door. Now parents can call kids directly, plus we can send quick emails or texts like, “good luck on your midterms!” or “buy a plane ticket home before prices go up!” There’s no need to plan for a Sunday night phone call or interrupt our kids’ busy (ahem) schedules with a short message or reminder.

Cell phones make authentic communication harder

Even with smart phones everywhere, authentic communication between parents and our college children remains elusive. While it’s great to receive a photo of your child and her roommates, you’d really like to know how she feels about her relationships with them. You wish you knew whether she wants to be going out with her roommates, or whether she’d prefer to be doing something else. In short, you wish you could tell from the photo whether she “fits in.” But you can’t. It’s even worse with boys, since most of them give their parents minimal information. When they lived at home, at least you could see them and observe how they were doing. Now you’re at the mercy of their choice to reply (or not) to your messages. My youngest has a personalized ringtone for me in the tune of La Bamba, “You got a call from Mama.” It’s hilarious, but I can be sure he won’t answer the phone without knowing I’m on the other end.

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Communicating with your college student: The iConnected Parent

The iConnected Parent, first published in 2010, addresses cultural shifts in parent/student communications that parallel changes in technology. Written by Barbara K. Hofer, a psychology professor at Middlebury College, and Abigail Sullivan Moore, a journalist who reports on high school and college for the New York Times and other publications, the book compiles Dr. Hofer’s research on undergrads at Middlebury and the University of Michigan in 2006. While it paints a picture of helicopter parents who can’t leave their children alone at college, it also connotes the complexity of parent/child relationships in the Internet age.

Parents and students average 13.4 contacts per week

A frequently cited statistic from The iConnected Parent is that, on average, college students and their parents communicate (via phone, text or email) 13.4 times per week. This figure is slightly higher for girls and slightly lower for boys, but it doesn’t vary by ethnicity, race or distance from home. (Ch 2)  While parents initiate more of the contacts than kids do, communication goes both ways. And habits that started in high school, such as a parent helping to edit a child’s paper, can continue throughout college thanks to the ease of emailing documents back and forth.

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Problems with the “electronic leash”

In addition to emphasizing the student’s need to further his/her own development by separating from home, The iConnected Parent points out that parents are short-changing themselves by staying too connected to their kids. In past generations, the empty nest period tended to give parents a chance to reinvigorate their marriages and explore new interests or careers. Now parents never completely end their child-rearing years, as they continue to manage their children’s lives via cell phone and Internet. A conscientious parent may feel she needs to be constantly available to her college-age children — indeed, her kids depend on instant access. But such an arrangement heightens stress for parents and can even create a false sense of security for the child. (Ch 6)

Communicating with your college student: cut the cord

For the sake of parents as well as kids, the authors say, both parties need to “cut the cord.” How easy this is to do depends on patterns established during childhood. The authors’ observations suggest that helicopter parenting has lasting consequences, and their research highlights parent/child relationships with these types of patterns firmly in place. Given this vantage point, I feel relieved to have fewer contacts per week with my college kids than their study revealed to be the norm. At the same time, however, it would be nice for my offspring to phone home once in a while . . . A future post will offer tips on communicating with your college student. But if I’m going to achieve the average 13.4 communications with each of my college kids this week, I’ve got to shift my attention to texting and calling now. TTYL.

Image credits:
the girl who owns the world via Flickr, Stuart Miles via freedigitalphotos.net, Amazon