Monday, August 19, 2013

an alternative syllabus for inner city life

I have a short resume of living in ghettos, slums and "the hood," as people inside and outside of these neighborhoods will refer to them. While there, I tried to be more than someone with a mailing address there - I tried to be a neighbor. For me, that meant primarily being a friend: speaking some Spanish (or Tagalog, for the short time I was in Manila), playing Uno, watching tv and eating some really great food. It also meant difficult conversations about cell phones, school behavior and math homework. And now, a few blocks away and a few years later, I realize it also included some misunderstanding, wrong assumptions, and plenty of mistakes. (Some of this I acknowledged at the time, but to acquire insight required a bit of distance.)

Recently a few books have been shelved on my "read" bookshelf that might have helped my perspective and understanding of my neighbors. It may also be that these experiences have helped my reading of these books to be deeper, more full of appreciation. Either way, I imagine that these three books - all different in scope, topic and style - would make a lively and helpful syllabus for cross-cultural, cross-socioeconomic living. Here are quick excerpts from each that, in my mind, capture the themes of these books. (Emphasis mine.)*

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo:

(Abdul, Sunil and Kalu are all young Indian men living in a Mumbai slum.)
"Do you ever think when you look at someone, when you listen to someone, does that person really have a life?" Abdul was asking the boy who was not listening. He seemed to be in one of the possessions that came over him from time to time, ever since he got locked up at Dongri.

"Like that woman who just went to hang herself, or her husband, who probably beat her before she did this? I wonder what kind of life is that," Abdul went on. "I go through tensions just to see it. But it is a life. Even the person who lives like a dog still has a kind of life. Once my mother was beating me, and that thought came to me. I said, 'If what is happening now, you beating me, is to keep happening for the rest of my life, it would be a bad life, but it would be a life, too.' And my mother was so shocked when I said that. She said, 'Don't confuse yourself by thinking about such terrible lives.'"

Sunil thought that he, too, had a life. A bad life, certainly - the kind that could be ended as Kalu's had been and then forgotten, because it made no difference to the people who lived in the overcity. But something he'd come to realize on the roof, leaning out, thinking about what would happen if he leaned too far, was that a boy's life could still matter to himself.
Random Family by Adrian Nicole Leblanc:

(Cesar is in jail, and his young family is visiting him.)
Cesar pulled out the gooey taffy and offered it to [his daughter], but just as she reached for it, he pulled it back. He teased her with the offer again, and just as she reached for it, he swallowed it and smacked his lips. He smothered her hurt feelings with hugs, making it into a game, drowning out her crying with laughter and kisses and silly smooching sounds. In the subtle tyranny of that moment beat the pulse of Cesar's neighborhood - the bid for attention, the undercurrent of hostility for so many small needs ignored and unmet, the pleasure of holding power, camouflaged in teasing, the rush of love. Then the moment passed, and Cesar's three-year-old daughter walked back out into the world and left him behind.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman:

(Neil is an ambitious, highly respected pediatrician who is treating young Lia, a Hmong girl with epilepsy.)
Neil Ernst was a doctor of a different breed. It would have gone completely against his grain to apply two different standards of care to his patients: a higher one for the Americans, a lower one for the Hmong. But might Lia Lee have been better off if her family had brought her to Roger Fife? Might Neil actually have compromised Lia’s health by being so uncompromising? That latter question still bothers him. For example, if Lia’s prescriptions hadn’t been changed so often, her parents might have been more likely to give her her medications, since they would have been less confused and more confident that the doctors knew what they were doing. Neil was pretty sure, however, that because Lia’s condition was progressive and unpredictable, he could treat it best by constantly fine-tuning her drug regimen. If had chosen a single pretty-good anticonvulsant and stuck with it, he would have had to decide that Lia wasn’t going to get the same care he would have given the daughter of a middle-class American family who would have been willing and able to comply with a complex course of treatment. Which would have been more discriminatory, to deprive Lia of the optimal care that another child would have received, or to fail to tailor her treatment in such a way that her family would be most likely to comply with it?

*I intended to say more about each book and what they offer, as part of a syllabus, in addition to the more typical fact-driven expository nonfiction. But I'm leaving on a jet plane in the morning (a real vacation!) and wanted to get this written. So you may see more of this - just a warning.

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