Friday, May 15, 2015

Lessons in Mortality

When I was in Tamil language training before coming to India, I learned that Indians have a very interesting relationship with death and mortality. In the United States, though death is an every day occurence, as it is anywhere in the world, it does not seem to be a big part of our every day lives or occupy a big space in our conscious thoughts. Unless a loved one or someone close to us passes, which does not happen often, we do not think about death. Death is something that is far away and happens most often to people we don't know. Death is something that happens in foreign lands.

Contrarily, in India, death is much more in the fore, and--for reasons I will not begin to try to explain or understand--death is a bigger part of daily life, and death is not something that is to be feared or hidden, but is most often accompanied by a celebration of the life that was and less a mouring for the life that was lost.

This week at summer camp, Peter is learning about natural disasters. When I was in Tamil language training in Washington, we did a unit on disaster and accident vocabulary. Later in the course, we spent a week on terrorism vocabulary. During the natural disaster unit, we were shown videos of the 2004 tsunami that hit the east coast of India and Sri Lanka hard. We were subjected to repeated images of giant waves overturning buses and people being swept out to sea. I was made to watch videos of people clinging to the trunks of coconut palms, wailing for help, and trapped on the tops of houses, crying. During the week on terrorism, you can only imagine the videos we were made to watch.

At one point, I asked the instructor to stop, failing to see how watching videos of death and destruction was improving my comprehension of Tamil.

This is part of the reason I was so upset when I learned Peter may have been shown similar videos during his "Wild 'n' Woody" summer camp. They learned about volcanos, and Peter came home and drew no fewer than 12 pictures of volcanos erupting magnificently, lava spewing in various colors all over the paper. It was both awe-inspiring and more than a little frightening. Pete's study of volcanos was something that could either be seen in the MoMa or in the shuttered apartment of a crazy person.

When they learned about tsunamis, I received an email from the school saying they played a few games and learned a new Zumba move. Only later did I find out from Elise what they really did.

Elise asked Peter what he did at school. He replied that he watched a video. "What video did you watch?" she asked him.


When she asked him what he saw in the video he said he saw people crying and looking scared.

When she shared this with me over email, I was both incredulous and furious, because I knew exactly what he had seen.

I wasn't mad at the school, per se. Or with India. Though Peter isn't hold enough to connect what he saw to the larger concepts of death and mortality, I was mostly angry with myself for letting it happen at all. And not to say he does not feel deeply or is not empathetic, but of any of our kids he would be the least affected by what he saw, but as a parent, I feel strongly it is my responsibility (if not right) to decide when my child is introduced to the ideas of death and mortality.

Our kids have seen a lot in India, and we have had to explain some things to them we may not have had to explain to them if they lived in the U.S., but, in the end, they are still kids, just kids that live in India. 

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