¿Algo más?

Laid back is not really my style, which is quite evident to anyone who knows me even the tiniest bit. It’s why, before I started Bonderman, I assumed I would spend most of my time in cities and urban jungles, just like the way I hope to spend my “post-Bonderman life.” But within a few weeks of my fellowship, I realized that, in order to truly connect with individuals, disconnect from Western influence (as much as possible), and immerse myself in the experience, cities were not the way to go.

South America has put that to the test even more. Even in the largest city on the continent, Buenos Aires, I found myself wandering through sleepy, residential streets, on edge because of the incredible, pin-drop silence of this “bustling metropolis.” I was shocked by the way that, even on the major streets, strangers said hello to each other, people stopped for conversations. Meals stretched from one hour to three, as waitstaff took their time getting to the diners who took even more time. Life has seemed to move in slow motion these last few weeks, but it has allowed me to try to slow my mind down, as well, as I enter my final two months abroad.

A traditional past-time in most South American countries is a post-siesta gathering amongst family and friends, usually including cakes (four in this case), and endless coffee and tea.

A traditional past-time in most South American countries is a post-siesta gathering amongst family and friends, usually including cakes (four in this case), and endless coffee and tea.

Another obvious statement: right now is a scary time to call the United States home, and it is even more painful each time I hear it from another person not from the States. Every individual seems to have an opinion on our upcoming election and who the new leader of the not-so-free world should be, which I have no qualms about since they will all, undoubtedly, be impacted by the policies of our next President.

I have had earnest strangers ask me whether I really think Trump can win, what I will do if he is, am I scared? I assure them that I have faith in my fellow Americans, trying to convince myself as much as them, while we ironically drive by the Trump Towers that’s being built in Punta Del Este, Uruguay.

During one of many lazy afternoons, accompanied with maté, lemonade, and snacks, I found myself deep in a conversation on politics, world affairs, and religion. The best way to remember your Spanish? Try explaining a religion most South Americans have never heard of to them, and then answer their innumerable questions. About an hour into the conversation, I realized my tone was different, that their tone was different. This was a conversation I’d had countless times (albeit in English) and yet it all felt…different.

Rather than me feeling that I had to defend, explaining and giving excuses, I was sharing my honest opinions, my deep beliefs and fears, while the people across from me probed honestly, lovingly, with pure curiosity. The beautiful, and sad, difference I’ve found between the North and the South of the Americas? Only in one of them do people truly care about their neighbors, the strangers they’ve just met, their fellow humans. The 2016 elections have only been an even clearer reminder of this ugly truth.

Making a delicious, vegetarian dinner with two of my beautiful Uruguayan hosts.

Making a delicious, vegetarian dinner with two of my beautiful Uruguayan hosts.

Each time I’m finishing my meal, the waitress or waiter always, always, asks, “algo más?” Do you want anything else? Times when I’ve eaten quickly, in a rush to get to my next destination, it’s generally with a hint of surprise, unsure of why I am trying to leave so quickly. What’s the rush? Only a few weeks into my time here, and I’m constantly reminded of the ways we live our lives on fast forward in the States. Hurrying, scurrying, rushing, running to beat the rat race and be first. Always first.

The longer I’ve traveled, the more distant I’ve felt from home, physically and mentally. I certainly don’t feel that I have all the answers I left to find, but the problems in American culture have become increasingly clear to me as I immerse myself in the cultures of others. The United States was built upon the bones and blood of Indigenous communities and slaves, our engines and motors run on the sweat and tears of the working class and the poor, our skyscrapers look up at the clouds but down upon the slums and ruins of those who have been wronged by our justice system, our government, our people.

Between the trees and buildings, American air whispers to us, beckons to us to continue stepping on the shoulders of our neighbors to grasp at the clouds for ourselves. We continue scurrying in our rat race, never looking up until we reach the end, realizing we forgot to look at the scenery along the way. When I spent my summers in the big cities, the promise of the States, I was constantly told and reminded that my Midwestern manners would get me nowhere. Translation: being nice to my fellow citizens was not something to try. When did we develop this mentality? Why are we letting it run our country, choosing our politicians based on how quickly they can dismiss the validity of another human’s life?

I’m not claiming that South America, nor Latin America, has all the answers. I’m only just starting my journey here, and there is plenty to learn and unlearn. But, the one thing I know for sure is that they still remember that, in order to learn, you must listen. And sadly that seems to be a thing that we, in the good old USA, have forgotten.

One of my favorite days in Uruguay was spent in the countryside, riding horses and drinking tea.

One of my favorite days in Uruguay was spent in the countryside, riding horses and drinking tea.

Our Hands Weave Legacies

At my parents’ home in suburban Michigan, the central area is a large, open “family room.” It has a large couch, a TV, and more than several family photos. There are floor to ceiling windows that look into our backyard and a fireplace to keep warm during the frigid Midwestern winters. The ceiling is tall; the second floor opens up above the family room, leaving space for acoustics that can be both wonderful and annoying, depending on the circumstance.

A majority of the space is taken up by a large, L-shaped, leather couch, which faces a coffee table and behind that, against the opposite wall, a large TV standing on a dark, wood cabinet. On the tall wall that reaches from the wood floor to the white ceiling, there is a burst of color outside of the neutral whites, beiges, and browns. It has pinks and oranges and lots of hues in between, sewn and stitched together by hand in an intricate pattern. This piece of art, and culture, is a traditional Punjabi phulkaari, made by my maternal grandmother.

I remember, in our house in Wisconsin, the phulkaari was hung above my parents’ bed. I would often run into the room to jump on the huge bed, sometimes pausing to look up at the colorful cloth against the white wall. Perhaps because my favorite color has never been pink, or I just didn’t know entirely what it was, I never realized what a unique piece of art we had in our possession.

As I grew up, I began to hear about the fascination with the phulkaari, and how unique it was. The word literally means “flower work,” and this is embodied through its incredibly colorful design and incredibly detailed stitching. The patterns are stitched with silk, usually onto a stiffer cotton-based fabric. They are made up of geometrical designs or patterns, often completely covering the fabric. This is a tradition that was primarily based in the villages of Punjab, allowing women to creatively express their emotions through art and color. However, phulkaaris were mainly made by women for their own use or by other women in their family. So, although it was a cultural art work, it was also familial and community-based.

Not only is the phulkaari a priceless Punjabi cultural relic, it is a piece of my cultural history that ties me to my grandmother. A woman I never had the privilege to meet, as she passed away just a few months before I was born, but a woman with whom—I’m often told—I have many similarities, physical and personality-wise. Each time I trace the neat, clean stitches of the phulkaari, I remember that my grandmother’s hand pieced it together, channeling her own tale into it. A mother of seven, she raised my own mom and my six aunts and uncles, not knowing that almost all of them would leave their small town for the city, and eventually North America. And, with the youngest, my own mother, would come this colorful fabric.

Despite living in some of the least diverse areas of the United States, we were often the only ones from our community, this handwoven phulkaari hung in our home, reminding me of the faraway places that I am connected and rooted to, through my own mother. Although these roots may have been lifted and put down elsewhere, they still reach deep down through the soil, going across the Earth to Punjab. Each time I look at that burst of color against the white wall, I am reminded of how maintaining my own heritage and culture is a small burst, a small revolution, against the forces that tell me to keep it inside.

Across generations and time, across soil and air, my grandmother’s legacy speaks to me through her phulkaari. I wonder if she knew that, one day, her granddaughter would look at it and think of her, a woman who is only a story to her, yet entirely real all the same.

Whenever I touch the Earth Heir scarves, or trace the rattan in the bags, I feel the pulsing of these narratives. Although they are cultures and stories unfamiliar to me, I know other women and men have weaved their own stories into the fabric, hoping to preserve some of their own culture for generations to come. 

This is the beauty of hand weaving, of our hands touching these raw materials and colors. It carries emotions and stories across time and place. Each handcrafted scarf reminds me of my own heritage, and that our histories and narratives are often knitted closer than we know. Perhaps, many years down the line, these artisans’ own grandchildren will touch the patterns, trying to connect to a nostalgic homeland like I do. Perhaps, as I do, they will hear the stories of other times, sense the smells and sounds of other places, and feel that they have found a little piece of their own legacy.

Originally written for Earth Heir

What Remains of Punjab? [Guest Post on Sikh Studies Forum]

I was given the chance to reflect back on my time in Punjab, this time thinking about how my experience differed from the images I had of this homeland throughout my childhood. You can find the piece, and other great posts, on the Sikh Studies Forum. Check it out here: http://sikhstudiesforum.com/what-remains-of-punjab/.

Social Entrepreneurship and Earth Heir

Something that should come as a surprise to no one who knows me well is that I'm a bit of a workaholic. (That may also be a bit of an understatement.) One of the hardest parts of this fellowship has actually been the lack of a routine, the lack of work, and not being sure of what exactly I'm moving towards. As time went on, I was able to realize the incredible growth and knowledge that is occurring for me everyday, something that I'm very grateful for. But it was still difficult to continue on this journey that doesn't really have a set destination or path.

I started to love the surprises and the moving and became more comfortable with carrying my entire existence on my back in smelly busses and hot trains and dark taxis. But then—all of a sudden—I was half-way done. The crazy, scary, mysterious 8 months that I'd be spending abroad were already slipping away. From now on, each day would be moving closer to the U.S., a place that now seems a bit scary from afar, and further away from this wonderful journey and these beautiful places and people.

Maybe to find some reassurance or to find something familiar, I reverted back to workaholic Harleen. I found a job.

For the last two weeks, I've been working with Earth Heir, a social enterprise based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Earth Heir focuses on sustainability and ethical fashion, bridging the gap between artisans and those who want to appreciate the art and fashion they're creating. The organization works with artisans in five different countries, designing products that draw from traditional craftsmanship of that culture. Then—the cool part—they help the artisans sell these products and ensure that they receive the price they truly deserve for their work.

Beautiful, woven document cases by Earth Heir. My hand also makes its debut!

Beautiful, woven document cases by Earth Heir. My hand also makes its debut!

The last few weeks have flown by (as the rest of the trip), but it's been a blur of meetings and writing and photography and learning. Sustainability and ethical consumerism is, unfortunately, one aspect of public policy I never really experienced, and it's been really fascinating to slow down start that process now. Seeing how much ethical consumerism ties in to race, culture, social class, government, and so many other factors is just another reminder that, if we truly want to be socially conscious beings on this planet, we cannot pick and choose which issues and which people we want to stand up for. It's all interconnected.

One moment that still sticks out is when I was able to meet one of the artisans, Uncle Kl Ng, who crafts beautiful baskets, chairs, tables, and so many other things out of rattan. Below, you can check out a video of him working on the Earth Heir Nelly Bag. The way his hands moved so quickly and effortlessly captured my attention for minutes on end and I was in awe of how much he could make from so little. The way he intertwined pieces of rattan reminded me of all the thoughts and ideas in my head from the last few months, starting from strands and weaving together, one by one, to form this larger, beautiful idea. I think my process still needs a bit more work, however, before it looks as good as Uncle's rattan pieces.

Working with Earth Heir has been a fascinating journey, and I'm excited for all that I'll learn as I continue to work with them over the next couple weeks. Also, keep an eye on the Earth Heir blog, as I'll be writing some fun things for them, as well!

Lessons from China (or why museums are the best)

Just like that, another month and another country have passed by. This trip is going so much faster than I expected, so I took the last week to reflect and recuperate in Hong Kong. China certainly proved to be a challenging and trying experience, but I'm excited about all the connections I made, all the personal growth I saw, and, of course, all I learned. Here's what I'm leaving with:

History is Often about Who Discovered It and When

I've always been a museum junkie. Perhaps it's because my childhood was shaped by them. Instead of trips to the movies or arcades or wherever else kids spent their free time, my dad took every opportunity he could—even on family vacations—to take me to a museum. So, whenever there's been a rainy day so far, I had no pause about how I would spend it.

Poly-chrome glazed statues, developed during the Tang Dynasty.

Poly-chrome glazed statues, developed during the Tang Dynasty.

One such day in Xi'an, I made my way to the Shaanxi History Museum, the largest museum in the province. I became a part of the large holiday crowds and snaked through tourist groups, taking extra care to find the few descriptions that had been loosely translated to English. I remember the pangs of jealousy as I saw others deeply discussing the artifacts in front of them, reading detailed timelines and historical contexts. I suppose I could have spent money on a guided English tour, but I'm still very much in frugal college student mode and find it hard to spend on anything more than food and a roof over my head.

What I could read, however, were the titles and dates of all the objects, and this was enough to leave an impact. As I went from one object to the next, I saw bronze vessels from over 3000 years ago, the start of modern-day ceramics, and Buddha statues scraping the ceiling. Although I shouldn't have been surprised, all I kept thinking was how much more vast this country's history was compared to the US, and yet if not for an awesome AP World teacher, I would have heard nothing about it.

Walter Benjamin said that "History is written by the victors," but it's also written by those who gave themselves the power to write it. China's history, as well as India and many other colonized nations, is thousands of generations deeper than the US, but youwouldn't know it by watching our news or asking the average student what they know about the countries on the other side of the globe in their classroom.

I keep reminding myself that all of these issues are deeply intertwined with modern-day problems with immigration and international policy. Western nations' refusal to acknowledge the significance and contributions of other nations started with the first white man that docked a ship on land that wasn't his and will continue with the Donald Trumps and Rush Limbaughs of the world. Until we see that history is more colorful and intricate and deeper than we can ever know, and we acknowledge all the players in this complicated story, we cannot understand the full picture.

The Importance and Power of Communication

China is filled with expats. The opportunity to teach English is not limited in any sense. As someone with a degree in English, and several years of teaching experience, I was pushed even further towards this type of work. Thus, a week of my time in China was spent in the beautiful village of Yangshuo, at an English college for adults.

I had only taught children before, so the idea of having students that were all my age or older was a bit nerve-wracking. I also had very mixed feelings about teaching English, not wanting to contribute to the notion that one must speak English to have success, but also understanding that I have privilege in being able to hold that opinion, too. After all, it is only because my parents were able to leave India that I "speak English like they do on TV," as I've been told time and time again.

Perhaps I let go of these emotions because of how much I bonded with the students and other teachers, or because I couldn't find an answer for my internal debate. But, one day (at yet another museum I should add), I stumbled upon a page from the Canton Weekly News, a paper for the Guangdong region.

Excerpt from the Canton Weekly News regarding the existence of a bilingual paper.

Excerpt from the Canton Weekly News regarding the existence of a bilingual paper.

In it, the paper justified its usage of both Cantonese and English, stating that through this bilingual existence, they allowed a link between multiple worlds, and also gave a chance for those learning new languages to practice and understand.

I also thought about the number of times I had felt frustrated or lonely or powerless because of my lack of language skills in Japan and China. How many times I had wished that learning Japanese or Mandarin could happen in a few days instead of a few years. I thought about how much power my students talked about feeling once they had reached the upper level classes, and how much shame came with not being able to speak English for the new students. With language comes identity and with identity comes pride. It is all about a level of self-recognition.

In this, I realized the issue is not that people want to learn English, it is that native English-speakers often refuse to learn other languages. The number of expats I met who had lived in China for years even and could not speak a single word in Mandarin nor Cantonese was astounding. These individuals perhaps felt that (and many unashamedly said this) they did not need to learn another language because they knew the only one that matters. And perhaps in some ways this is true, but only because people continue to state it as the truth. In denying the importance of a language, you deny the importance of a people. By validating communication between all types of people, all levels of literacy, and all different languages, we can open up new worlds, just like the Canton Weekly News hoped to do.

We're More Similar—and Different—Than We Think

On yet another rainy day at a museum, this time in Shanghai, I wandered through more than five floors of exhibits to see as much as I could before the museum closed in a few hours. I knew that I couldn't see everything, so I picked up a museum map and checked to see what caught my eye. Immediately, one exhibit stuck out: the Chinese Minority Nationalities' Art Gallery. I made my way up to the top floor and walked into the exhibit, immediately struck by colors and patterns all over.

I wandered around, taking in beautiful coats, pants, dresses, jewelry, weapons, theatre props, and more—all handmade, as I had to keep telling myself. What was even more remarkable than the the incredible designs and details, however, was how much these things reminded me of others.

I saw a headdress that reminded me of Native American headdresses. Uyghur designs pulled from all parts of the Muslim world, reminding me of both South Asian and Arab designs. The theatrical masks were reminiscent of those I had seen in Japan. The more I saw, the more I remembered other things I had once seen. The diversity of China was not only its own, but also of the whole world.

In China, I saw things unlike that which I had ever seen before, some which I'm sure I did not understand, but I also met strangers with whom I connected within our first five minutes of conversation. I did my best do broaden my understanding outside of what I had been taught of China and I believe that I did, but I look forward to continuing my learning and continuing to move forward.

Traditional outfits showcased in the Chinese Minority Nationalities' gallery.

Traditional outfits showcased in the Chinese Minority Nationalities' gallery.

love letters to china, part i

dear china,

i know we just met, but i feel that i owe you an apology.

on my first night in beijing, you rolled out the welcome carpet, no expense spared. your smells, your sounds, your tastes, all unfamiliar, wrapped around me, trying to give me a hug, but i'm afraid it was too much for me. you see, it takes me some time to open up to people. your kindness overwhelmed me, like a brown auntie who tries to feed her guests too much food, or an overenthusiastic supermarket greeter.

i did not know how to respond to your welcome, so, instead, i ran.

i wish i hadn't run.

Communist statue in Peasant Movement Institute.

Communist statue in Peasant Movement Institute.

i kept my head down and eyes closed. i ignored your smiles because i only saw unfriendly stares. i did not hear your sounds as signs of life, but i mistook them as indicators of how you had perhaps not understood the ways in which you were destroying it. i felt that somehow my presence allowed me to pass judgement on who you are and this was wrong.

i tried for a few days in beijing—explored the small hutongs with their lively shops, meandered through the sightseeing spots like summer palace and temple of heaven, visited the historic tiananmen square and saw the flag lowered at the end of the day. but on my third day, i went to the great wall, as all of us do, and i felt something else. i felt fresh air and saw a blue sky and i knew that somewhere in china, there was something that would feel like this every day. i needed to find it for my own good, and perhaps for my own comfort, too. i hope you understand.

i moved onto xi'an, where i explored, but i also hid from you more. i felt somewhat grateful when i fell sick, as it gave me an excuse to watch some tv shows on netflix. i used the rain as an excuse to spend more time in bed or at cafés, only venturing out for a few hours a day. i think, in a silly way, i was intimidated by you. it's always awkward to admit that to someone, isn't it? but i was. i saw something in you that i was afraid of. it seemed familiar but also completely new, and it took me some time to figure it out.

Old Buddhist bell near Small Goose Pagoda, Xi'an.

Old Buddhist bell near Small Goose Pagoda, Xi'an.

i understand now, though. for after i realized that i was wasting the time away, that our time was passing quicker than a midwestern summer, i entered your embrace. i walked out into the visible air and let myself feel the stares and shouts and smells and all of it. i looked deep into the eyes of your people and i finally recognized it: strength.

in your shouts and relentless horn honking, you refuse to be unheard. in your smells and dusty air, you refuse to be unseen. in your words and walk and manners, you refuse to let the world forget you exist.

to be frank, i think i fooled myself into thinking that simply coming to see you would allow me to break out of the western mentality that had made me think poorly of you in the first place. seeing you, though, was a reminder of how much america has crafted my brain and how hard i must work to reach outside of her.

you've taught me that an american mentality often means i expect the worst and hope for the best, i search for the bad in people because good is only a rarity, and it is a lucky day if i come back to my hostel alive. you also taught me that this is not the way i want to spend my eight-plus months outside america.

it's okay to trust strangers because most, if not all of the time, they will be good too. it's okay to laugh and smile when people stare because they're only curious and don't mean anything by it and it's okay to try and speak the little chinese i learned from my dictionary app because trying is better than nothing.

i'm thankful for the chance to explore a land with such rich history and people and culture. but i wish that i could have spent more time appreciating what was in front of me rather than misunderstanding it.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing.

although i think half of traveling and seeing new things is recognizing that the glasses through which the world told us we must view it aren't that great, and we can see just fine without them. thank you for challenging me to throw my preconceptions away and start new. perhaps, next time, i can see more clearly from the start.

best regards,

harleen kaur

Lessons from Japan

It's hard to believe that I've been gone almost a month and already "completed" one of my countries, but I could not have had a better start than I did in Japan. A country full of history, culture, and tradition, but also with its own spin on modernization, Japan taught me a lot and made me excited to see all that I will learn on this journey. But, before saying goodbye, here are three of my biggest lessons:

Mutual Respect and Trust Go A Long Way

One aspect of Japan that stuck out to me in the language, gestures, culture, and actions of the people was respect. In a conversation with fellow hostel guests (all Westerners like me I should add), it was brought up that even those who clean the subway stations were wearing a dress shirt and tie and would be greeted by subway patrons. I saw this throughout my visit; no matter who it was, where they worked, there was always a level of respect in interactions. And I couldn't help but wish, each time, that something similar existed in the United States.

It may be a naïve assumption, but I feel like this basic sense of respect for others translates to a lot of other great things I saw in Japan: very little pollution or littering, an essentially non-existent crime rate, and no chaos even during the worst of rush hour. Everything seemed almost too perfect.

My amazing hosts for part of Japan! So thankful for their kindness.

My amazing hosts for part of Japan! So thankful for their kindness.

In the U.S., I think we live too much on fear, but that doesn't seem to be the right sentiment because it's clearly not working for us. I know it was so hard for me to leave because I truly felt that I wouldn't see that level of respect, feel that level of hospitality and kindness, or get that sense of undeserved love again. But it's certainly a message I hope to carry with me and continue practicing even when I finish traveling.

The Pros and Cons of Cultural Retention

Although I remarked in earlier posts about how much I loved the retention of Japanese language and culture in certain cities and day-to-day business, downfall was the opposite: the rejection of anyone who isn't fully Japanese. Without going into the details, becoming a Japanese permanent resident or citizen is quite difficult if you are not a Japanese national (meaning not of Japanese descent). This has led to a population that is over 98% Japanese and very little understanding of anything else.

I found it interesting that while I was in Japan, a story about a biracial woman winning Miss Universe Japan was surfacing on the internet. This story seemed to capture everything I was seeing. Although the Japanese have a great pride in their culture, and have been able to retain their language and customs, this has led to rejection of those who do not fit the norm, as Miss Universe Japan discussed in the backlash she faced for being half black.

In talking with some of the Japanese friends I made, particularly the younger ones, I heard a hope for a Japan that can be more open towards other cultures. In fact, I would love to see how Japan can move towards embracing more cultures, because I think it would be a wonderful example for the U.S. Japan could demonstrate that a country can both be proud of its own culture while seeing the beauty in others. I love the small and large ways that Japan has resisted complete Westernization, but I hope that it can also move towards a more diverse Japan, so that more people can enjoy the profits of this great country.

Coffee culture has certainly made its way to Japan, particularly through young Japanese business owners who spent time abroad crafting their skills. Not that I'm complaining...

Coffee culture has certainly made its way to Japan, particularly through young Japanese business owners who spent time abroad crafting their skills. Not that I'm complaining...

Being Alone is Important

Although not necessarily Japan specific, this first month has shown me how, at least throughout the first 22 years of my life, there have been very few moments where I am really, truly alone. Sure, even now, I'm usually surrounded by at least a few other people, or several hundreds when walking down city streets, but this has been different. The language barrier for me in Japan (and now China) have meant that it's rare for me to meet someone that I can connect with on a deep level. Even when meeting folks in hostels, or in a restaurant, the time passes quickly, and we usually have a day or two together at most before our paths split. This leaves little time to get beyond pleasantries and sharing travel stories from the past few days.

Human connection is important, and I've come to cherish my family and friends even more already, but I'm also seeing the immense value in building a relationship with myself. This time will allow me to better understand what values are the ones that stick throughout all environments and cultures and which ones I may need to outgrow. It will allow me shift my beliefs and knowledge beyond what I learned in school and through both an Indian and American upbringing, and create a philosophy that is truly all my own. And then, when I do return home, I will have the knowledge and power that what I want is truly what I want, because I had the time to figure it out for myself.

Unreal sunset as I flew out of Osaka's airport (which, by the way, is an island they constructed to have enough room for an airport). Best way to say bye to Japan!

Unreal sunset as I flew out of Osaka's airport (which, by the way, is an island they constructed to have enough room for an airport). Best way to say bye to Japan!