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A letter from YAV Tyler Orem in India

January 1, 2010

Email: Tyler Orem

I recently taught my nursing students what it means to wear many hats in an attempt to elicit a conversation about the myriad roles they would have in their coming profession. As it is a communicative English class, the goal was mainly to encourage speaking, the one aspect of the language they don't learn in school growing up. To my delight, though, they treated it as far more than just a lesson in discussion. By the end of the class, the chalkboard was covered with different responsibilities and characteristics needed to be a great nurse, and indeed to be a great human being. They took the wonderful approach that it is the humanity that matters rather than the profession itself. Thus, you must always be a student, a friend, a listener, a comforter, a smiler, a historian, a scientist, a servant, a spiritual presence, an artist, and the list goes on and on. After this exercise, I started to reflect on my own "hats" as a YAV at Mundakapadam Mandiram Society, Kerala, India. My students did an impressive job of bringing out specific traits emanating from the self that are vital to interaction with others, but for this reflection I will set forth only the hats that others have given me — literally what my perceived role is to specific groups of people here.

Sayip — To the wide world of Kerala and anybody in my community who does not remember my name, I am sayip, a term originally used to describe the British during colonial times. Now it is applied to any white males (females get the distinction madama). Even though in essence it is a term of respect and usually uttered by people out and about who are excited to see me, it is still strange to be singled out and given a specific title because of my skin color. And as I said, this title carries respect with it — I cannot even begin to grasp the courage and resilience of those given generalized names out of hatred and condescension. I have come to terms with this name because there is no getting away from it, and it truly is a role that I cannot deny. I am a white male, a representative of the power center of the world in all aspects. So, my role as the sayip is to show those I encounter that the sayip is indeed no better than they. It is my job to make apparent the truth that I, a white male, need them so much more than they ever needed from anybody or anything from the power center.

Mone — To the ammachees(grandmas) and appachens (grandpas) here at the old age home, I am mone (son). These residents have been abandoned by their families or are the only survivors of their families. They have built up a new family here with each other, but as they are all similar in age, there is not an abundance of children and grandchildren. Enter Tyler. The best I can be for these wonderful people is a son, and the knowledge that I am loved by so many as such is indescribable. I am still very new to this culture in every sense, and therefore really am like a child who needs to be raised. So, in treating me as a son who is to be taught, laughed at, entertained, and loved, they gain some refuge from the loneliness of being without family.

TyTy — Nicknames, or pet names, are very important here, because those who are closest to you do not want to call you by your formal name. There is crucial familial and friendship intimacy wrapped up in using one's pet name. Thus, my supervisor wanted to know what my family and friends call me at home. Again, I am invited into the closeness of family. Specifically with my supervisor, my role as TyTy is that of the student and apprentice. I learn Malayalam under his tutelage and help out with any whims that my skills are suited for in improving the community here.

Sir &mdsash; I mentioned earalier that I teach communicative English to a class of nursing students. In line with the typical student etiquette here, they call me "Sir." As Sir I seek to make speaking English interesting, simple, and unintimidating. I seek to bring in topics of great importance to our world and inspire critical thinking. I seek to be a friend to neutralize the unapproachable stigmas of being a teacher and male. Because class can be tedious sometimes, I sing the Titanic song on demand. I learn Malayalam out of reciprocity.

Achachen — For the 13 girls in our girls home, especially Saira the 3-year-old who screams it every time I am in sight, I am achachen — older brother. This is definitely a new designation for me, always the younger brother. I must say, I enjoy this role quite a bit. I get peed on by the 1-year-old, pulled up and down the hallway by the 3-year-old, and schooled in Malayalam music, dancing, and cinema by the older girls. I play shuttle (badminton), hand clapping games, and rain games. I hang out and talk. I endeavor to be a friend and equal, a non-patriarchal male in a very patriarchal society. I seek to empower and be inspired through it.

Tylex — The sounds in "Tyler" do not transliterate well into Malayalam. No matter how many times, how slowly, or how loudly I say it, people just cannot understand what I am going for. I often become a tailor or a tiger. At the hospital where I visit patients, though, I am Tylex. I will repeat my name over and over, and then the chaplain who knows me quite well will step in and say "Tylex" quietly and matter-of-factly. There is immediate recognition and approval for all involved, and then that is my name. As Tylex, I go around with said chaplain to patients' rooms at the nearby hospital. We talk, laugh about my lack of Malayalam, and pray. I encounter everything from simple fevers to amputations, comas, and schizophrenia. Through it I experience the dignity and deep humanity of those who suffer physically and mentally and the families who suffer with them.

Uncle — For the 50 or so boys down the street at the boys home, I am Uncle, one of my favorite roles. The first time I showed up there, I was showered with shouts of "Uncle! Uncle!" Mainly I play football (soccer) with them, or cricket, or spin the hoop, or whatever is the game of the day — usually football, though. Typically they run circles around me and remind me of how out of shape college made me. More importantly than the games, I get to just talk and hang out with these boys ranging from 5 or 6 years old to their late teens. They are ecstatic that I can speak some of their language and care about their culture. We will talk about the best Malayalam and Tamil actors and favorite subjects in school, Michael Jackson, and the colors of the flowers surrounding us. I show interest in them, and they show interest in me, and it is enough. I am their uncle.

"Hello" — Finally, many ammachees and appachens forget my name on a daily basis (as I do theirs) or have never even heard my name because they are deaf. For them, I am "Hello!" with a grin. Honestly, I cannot think of a more flattering name. A smiling "Hello!" carries so much joy and sincerity. My actual name does not matter, nor does anything else for that matter. It just matters that I am a fellow human being, and that is sufficient for a beautiful connection.

Upon reflecting, I realize that all of these roles, or "hats" if you will, are really just me. When the day is done, I am still myself. As my students so perceptively uncovered in our little exercises, these hats are inseparable from my humanity, my self. So, I am Sayip. I am Mone. I am TyTy. I am Sir. I am Achachen. I am Tylex. I am Uncle. I am "Hello!" And I do not think I can ever stop being these things. I think I can live with that!


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