Sunday, February 24, 2013

Bursting Bubbles

February 11

You would think graduate school is a real eye-opener and one would go in and learn a ton of new concepts, find out how people think and work; that it would be a real asset in the real world and help us professionally.
You would think.

Sometimes I feel like the social work school has done the opposite of opening my eyes. Don’t get me wrong; I was overjoyed in my first semester as I sat in classes where real people talked about things others scoff at. Professors and students all care about changing the world, making a difference, fighting for justice, believing wholeheartedly in spending their lives in a field that is low paying, high stress. Most of the time we speak the same language – so much so that we forget that the world outside isn’t quite on the same page. Most of them are not even in the same book.

It always amuses me when social work students get worked up about something (usually) benign another social work student said. Some of us justice-fighters tend to overdo things to a point when it is hard to utter a full sentence without offending some identity.

If sweet, well-meaning, empathetic (yes, social workers actually know the difference between sympathy, pity and empathy!) colleagues can offend righteous social work students – well, take a trip to the business school.

Not to perpetuate stereotypes, but really. Everything is different – from the seating arrangement to the very white teeth and dapper suit of the professor, to the students with their printed name plates and their hands perpetually in the air to make a mediocrely intelligent remark (really, they must have mad muscles in one of their arms because of all the class participation!). There is a definite competitive edge in the class (even though this is the tamer version of the business school since it is a class on social entrepreneurship!). Kids in this class start off a comment with “I DISAGREE”. Nobody talks like that in the social work school! We usually have similar opinions! And even when we don’t we would say “that is an interesting point, however” … We don’t even say BUT! We like to promote freedom of speech and opinions (usually. Unless you’re a Republican and then the process becomes more difficult but we still try really hard), we urge using words like “and” rather than “but”.  

This is a class where people will talk about “commercial projects” and argue in favor of for-profits rather than non-profits; where the marketability and sales value of an idea might be worth more than the social message behind it. Or if it is not then you have to make a pitch for why it is worth more than the money.

I guess I really do appreciate taking this course and stepping out of my comfort zone. It is uncomfortable, like a soap bubble bursting in my face and it stings a little. But it a clearer vision of what the world is like outside of the social work school.

There is some sidestepping to do, what with certain enormous egos taking up a lot of room in the class, and the ever-raised hands. But it is a good way to question concepts and ideas that I have come to take for granted, and even more important, find out ways to perpetuate social messages via people who might actually not care so much about the social part of it but rather the efficient, effective, money-making aspect. It seems contradictory for social work professionals to be well-paid, financially successful individuals (which of course is another debate) but it might be good to learn some sales pitches and marketing skills.

It is also good to practice our social work beliefs of freedom of thought and action. I mean it is easy enough to argue for equality of all opinions when we all have the same opinion. It is another thing to believe in the essential goodness of all human beings when they are ignoring racism and talking profits.

Yep. Some digestion is required for this class! And it doesn’t help that the professor deducts marks for being a minute late and has prohibited eating when the class is scheduled for all of the dinner period! And I am talking American dinner time to South Asian dinner time. Man. 

Social work classes are all about sipping your tea and eating your carrots dipped in hummus.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Constant Struggle

February 6

There are some battles I have been fighting for several years now, and I think the only pat on the back I can give myself in this regard is that I am still fighting. Thank goodness for social work school and the art of reframing they have us practice in class – otherwise I would say I have a stack of failures piled in a corner. But as it is, I can be proud of being persistent, of recognizing what I still need to do and being mission driven – despite years of milling about the starting line of several goals.

I guess one of the problems with these goals is that they do happen to be lifestyle changes. I have heard or read somewhere that it takes just two weeks to develop a new habit. Isn’t that lovely? The flip side – it takes just two weeks of not doing something to unlearn that pleasant habit.

One-time goals are easier, right. An aspect of my self-diagnosed mild OCD is making goals out of everything: doing laundry, mailing the rent check, dyeing my hair. This means that I get the fleeting feeling of accomplishment every time I check one of these mundane everyday tasks off my list. Even slightly more ambitious goals like writing a 25-page research paper, traveling to Montreal in the summer, or finishing a scrapbook of one’s college adventures are good because they have a definite end point in time –the moment you type up the reference page, or book your tickets, or get the lamination done. The problem with my general goals of wellbeing is that they have to be achieved every other day: eat more fruits, drink milk, go to the gym, be more thankful, stop holding onto those five regrets like I’m a squirrel and the regrets are the nuts I have to feed myself on for the remaining winter. (What an absurd analogy).

We all have things that come really easily to us, and then those things that we try and try but we just can’t get the hang of it (in some cases we don’t want to get the hang of it, in others when we finally get it we just let it fall out again). For instance, I find it relatively easy to block out things (some things, mind you, others I cannot forget and subject myself and a certain other individual to torture regularly because the memories just stick, like that elusive twig in your jeans that you can never see but every now and then it pricks your skin annoyingly).  Usually, if something is out of sight I can do a pretty good job of putting it out of mind. Other people are not so lucky and they start fretting about something that is going to happen in the near future, or that happened in the near past and just won’t leave them alone.

I don’t stress out too much, I can rationalize, open the window and look at the bigger picture, or simply choose to ignore something so I can enjoy a movie.
I can be patient and listen to you, I can try and rein in my judgment and try and find the middle ground, be a peacemaker.

Then there are things that are hard for me. I will admit I find it hard to feel other people’s pain if I cannot see it. I can sympathize for the first few “my leg really hurts” or “my throat is on fire!” but then I find it hard to pay attention. I can pretend but I don’t really feel very sorry for the said individual. I know, it sounds awful, but this is just the truth. I mean I will still tend to their needs – hopefully – but my heart won’t be crying tears of blood. Other people I know can empathize so much better and really be sincere and loving and are meant to be nurses.

Then there are things that change about us. We used to be really good at, say walking in the morning, or riding rollercoasters and swinging so high but then something happens – we grow up, grow old, pull a muscle, get bored.

I believe we can’t let our lives revolve around one thing (individual, hobby or object) because that means we are ignoring the larger, creative world all around us. The economics of it is it is smart to diversify one’s risks, the social lesson is to be independent and holistic and willing to try new things.
Some battles, I guess, are meant to be constant – eating more fruit and becoming an independent, caring individual happen to be two such struggles. Sometimes it will be the body that reacts, and other times it is the mind that will refuse to listen, it will throw itself into a rut and stay there, mull over broken promises, budding fears, and pull the heart down with it. Sometimes it will be a hard battle. But I guess that’s okay. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Puzzle Project IX: Cut to Perfection

January 21

Smoking regulations are lax in Pakistan. Tahira baji would perch on a stool behind the reception counter and puff away at her Marlboro light. She is short, dark, and mostly has her hair straightened and streaked with light brown. She is usually in good shape and attributes her healthy weight to green tea. In recent years she has started wearing a dupatta over her head every now and then. The Bollywood music had also gradually been replaced by regular TV dramas. During Ramadan and other auspicious religious days she would put on the Arabic channel.

Parlors are great places for gossip. It seems like facials, haircuts and dyes are stimuli to reveal neighborhood secrets and share family regrets. As soon as the black gown is thrown around you and Pinky gently tips your head down to cut off the split ends – “I can’t believe my son married her. She refuses to even walk near the kitchen let alone enter it! I seriously doubt if she even knows how to make tea.”
Or you lean back with your eyes closed, your skin tingling beneath the white cream smeared on your face. “My daughter is going to Thailand for her honeymoon. I wanted them to go to Mauritius but the tickets have become so expensive you know…”

Tahira baji listens with a sympathetic ear, giving her suggestions every now and then, switching between Punjabi and Urdu depending on her clients. With her regulars she asks about their daughters and grandchildren.

She must be in her early 40s now. She started working in a parlor when she was barely 18 years old, attending beauty classes and learning the trade on the go. A few years in she was able to open her own parlor, near my house in DHA. She started small, hiring a couple of girls and teaching them everything. Like any other job, there is a hierarchy. From the girls who thread eyebrows and chins and make tea for everyone else, to waxing and facials and then haircuts. Finally there is the position of overlooking everything, which is what Tahira baji does now. Every now and then when there are a lot of clients and not enough staff, she will stand up, cut hair or if you’re a favorite client she would apply dye.

She is a good manager, I think, authoritative, chiding her staff frequently, delegating effectively. But she cares about the girls, making sure they get safe transport back home, understanding when they need a sick day and keeping good relations with the girls’ families.

Tahira baji always seems composed, a slight air of nonchalance that I attribute to the cigarette. She is always in good spirits – I guess one has to be in a job like this.
“She has worked so hard,” my mother would say, admiration and sympathy blended together in her voice. She was the only person bringing in any income for her family of seven for many, many years. There wasn’t a father in the picture and as the eldest of three daughters and a son, Tahira baji realized she had a lot to do. All the money she earns goes to her family – rent, grocery, education and so on. She singlehandedly married off her two sisters and a cousin (who used to work at her parlor too), arranging the events and the dowry.
“She always had so much responsibility, her own marriage was never a priority.” My mother sighs. “She still looks after her brother who has no head for education!”

Tahira baji’s parlor isn’t particularly impressive – small, curtains instead of doors for the waxing cubicles, tubs for pedicures. Tahira baji, on the other hand, is more impressive than any other polished owner of a polished parlor.