Friday, March 25, 2011

Holi 2011 – The Rematch

Benny Padilla is a first-tour Vice Consul from the great state of California. When he is not participating in joyful Indian holidays, he enjoys playing basketball, traveling throughout the region, and sharing his love of Mexican food to both friends and strangers alike.  

I was not prepared for this when i was learning Telugu in the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) but not for a lack of trying.  About a year ago, I played Holi on the peaceful lawns of FSI in Virginia.  I considered it a bold decision considering the fact that all South Asian language students at the time were dared by the event organizers to douse their respective language teachers in water and bright colors.  We had the standard equipment: several brightly colored powders, water guns, and a clear space to run amuck while other students (those in Chinese or Arabic classes) looked out their windows with envy.  Yes, back in 2010, I thought I knew what "playing Holi" meant and since then I looked forward to the event in its native land.

This past Sunday morning I was ready to experience Holi all over again.  For good luck, I even wore the same old, white sweater which I used during the 2010 Holi event and had kept in its 2010 condition--complete with the colorful fingerprints and stains made by my Hindi, Tamil, Gujarati, and Urdu classmates.  Like I said, I thought I was ready.  Upon arriving at the designated Holi venue and being greeted by about a dozen friendly relatives of our host, I think most of my American coworkers braced themselves mentally for a one-of-a-kind type of day.  The host’s family greeted us with a "Happy Holi!" and a quick slathering of colorful powder across our face and/or neck, which would prove to be one of many layers we'd get throughout the day. Since no one objected to this cheerful greeting, I think our host’s relatives were happily convinced that I, along with the others who arrived at the same time, wanted to truly experience Holi.

It didn't take long for one of my American coworkers and me to rally each other (some saw it as wrestling) into getting soaked by buckets and buckets of Holi water.  After that, my day just got better. Not only did everyone present get soaked by the purple-ish Holi water at some point or another, but they usually did it with a huge grin on their face. And they continued to do it. Over and over again. There was music, there were delicious snacks (served by some of the most cautious waiters ever...I think they escaped without any bright spots on their sleeves), and, put simply, there was a good vibe. No one spoke about the heat or the rise in visa numbers or the rise in oil prices or the fact that everyone knew these colors would not come off in a 15 minutes shower (or three days later) was nice and it was unique.  How many times do you see a friend willingly get into an oil drum filled with liquid colors of neon, pink, sky blue and light green?  You have to see it to believe it.

In my opinion, as a two-time Holi "player", this year's event was a success.  I celebrated an important Indian holiday with a diverse set of friends in the convenience of a relaxed atmosphere and it was just really fun. Holi can be tiring, and I realized that you can't go into it 50 percent. You have to commit completely to it and that might be another reason why I enjoyed it so much.  Now I must return to scrubbing the Pink Panther tone off of my hands...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Taking My Online Connections Offline

At the Consulate's Social Media Launch conducted in association with Facebook India and GVK One
I want to thank everyone who came out to participate in the launch of the Consulate’s Social Media activities.  I was amazed by the interest and enthusiasm of the crowd there.  It was great to meet people who are interested in engaging with us.  I really appreciated the GVK One Mall’s hosting the event—it was a great setting, and especially good that cricket fans didn’t have to choose between our event and watching the World Cup. 

That Sachin Tendulkar reached his century during the ceremony only added to the excitement level at the Mall.  It was also an honor to share the platform with Kirthiga Reddy of Facebook. I find her an incredibly articulate speaker and an inspiring role model for youth.  Our consulate staff, as usual, did a great job, and it was wonderful that a number of our employees came out to join the event—including my guest blogger from a few weeks ago, Jeremy Jewett.

Diplomacy has come a long way from the old days when a diplomat’s role, outside of consular work issuing visas and taking care of citizens, focused almost exclusively on conducting government-to-government discussions.  We now have a much broader vision of the work of what constitutes diplomacy ( 

Here at the Consulate General in Hyderabad, our two fundamental missions are consular work and fostering the people-to-people connections that form the foundation of the U.S.-India partnership.  As a generationally-challenged individual, I’m just learning about how social media can help us achieve our outreach objectives.  I’ve never blogged before, but I’m finding this a great way to share my impressions as I learn about India—and as a way to connect directly with the people of Andhra Pradesh.  (I’d also love to connect with the people from Orissa—but I’ve never heard back from anyone there.  So Orissa, let me know if you’re reading this!) 

Social Media is particularly intriguing to me because it lets us hear back from the people we are trying to engage.  That’s not always comfortable for us, because you don’t always say what we want to hear, but it’s good for us to know what you care about and what you think.  So, except on visa questions, keep using our Facebook page to let us know what’s on your mind.  We may not always give you a substantive response, but we will take in and consider what you have to say. 

In addition to fostering the kind of dialog we seek, I know Social Media is proving immensely helpful in a variety of ways.  My colleagues at the Embassy in New Delhi used Social Media extensively after the flooding in Leh and Ladakh.  They found Facebook a great way of communicating with Americans affected by the floods and with their family members worried about them in the U.S. 

 Today it’s helping loved ones stay in touch with victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  And there is no doubt that social media has been a factor in the mounting wave of expression of democratic aspirations in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Calling these “Facebook revolutions” is a major oversimplification, but it’s clear that at a minimum, activists used social media as a tool to mobilize like-minded citizens.  It’s really great that the same tools that help individuals share information with their families and let us exchange ideas with the public are also well-suited to other communications challenges. 

Again, thanks for coming out to meet us.  And let’s keep up the conversation.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nothing is Impossible

Guest Blogger- Celia Thompson 

Celia Thompson is the Chief of American Citizen Services.  She has served as a Foreign Service officer since 2005 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  Mrs. Thompson trained as an Educator at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of North Texas and taught English in Thailand, South Korea, Colombia, and Ethiopia before joining the Foreign Service.  She speaks Thai, Swedish, Amharic, and Spanish.

 Last week, I traveled to Bhubaneshwar, the capital city of Orissa (aka Odisha), to take part in two exciting events for International Women’s Day. It was the 100th anniversary of this important holiday, and I felt greatly honored to get to speak about the women’s empowerment movement around the world. As the proud mother of two young beautiful intelligent daughters, Girl Power is something I strongly espouse.

The first event was put on by an NGO, and it featured a panel of diverse, distinguished women from Orissa: a human rights activist, a gynecologist who’s famous for her poetry, an Odissi dancer, a newspaper editor, a social worker, a university professor, and a director of a women’s college. We were all there to celebrate the launch of a new weekly newspaper called Janaani, meaning the Voice of Women. The exchange of ideas and opinions by the guests and the audiences was fascinating. 

Although I don’t speak Oriya, the panelists on my left and right graciously translated for me so that I could follow the main ideas. Topics included female foeticide, suicide, unmarried men and women cohabitating, the need to educate women in English medium schools, and discrimination against girls in the classroom.  I was greatly inspired by these women who spoke about topics dear to my own heart. It was heartening to meet Indian women who share my concern with the status of women.  It was also inspiring to meet women who do more than talk about the issues – they are turning words into actions and making an impact.

From there, I moved on to the second event. It was a meeting of women at the Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology, an impressive facility that educates 16000 students and hosts the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences, a boarding school that offers 12000 tribal children a free academic and vocational education. I spoke to a packed auditorium of women including college students, high school students, and university professors and administrators. 

After delivering a brief speech from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, I opened the floor to questions. They wanted to know what I thought about the “invisible glass ceiling.” They asked about pay disparity between men and women in similar jobs in the U.S. It was the most exciting event I’d ever attended in my six years as a Foreign Service Officer. The women were eager to know more about women in the U.S., and I was delighted to talk about how far we have come in a brief period of time. 

I also told them how proud I was of American and Indian women’s efforts, and how the only limits we have in our struggle for female empowerment are the limits we place on ourselves. Women have come so far in the world, but we still have far to go. If women in India and women in the U.S. work together to advance the cause of Women’s Rights, nothing is impossible.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Time to Introspect

With the women who shaped their own destiny in Vijayawada.
March is women’s history month, an important time to think about where we’ve been and where we’re going.  I’ve just finished reading a report put out by the White House on the status of women in the United States (Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being).  I am very conscious of the fact that the situation of women in my country has changed enormously over my life time, and many changes have occurred since I last lived in the U.S. in 1998.  This report, though, shows how far women have come in just about every area.  It got me thinking about how fortunate I am, compared to my mother and grandmother.
Education:  I’m the first woman in my family to complete a bachelor’s degree, but my mother and grandmother, unusually for their time, both enrolled in university before dropping out to get married.  Today in the U.S., there are more women than men enrolled in higher education at every level.  And they aren’t dropping out to get married.  Women earn 60% of bachelor’s degrees and about half of all law and medical degrees.  They lag behind only in science, technology and engineering. 
Family:  My grandmother was sixteen when she married, my mother was 18, and I was 44.  Since 1950, the average age at first marriage for women in the United States has increased from 20 to 26.
Employment:  Both my mother and my grandmother worked all their lives, but in their day, that was the exception.  In 1950, only 33% of adult American women were in the labor force.  In 2009, that figure was 61%.  During the recent recession in the U.S., unemployment rose rapidly in professions dominated by men, like manufacturing and construction, but much less so in professions dominated by women, like education and health care.  And even with recovery, the fields in which women work are expected to represent a growing share of the U.S. economy of the future.
Income:  My mother worked two or even three jobs throughout her life to earn enough to support a family.  I am grateful to have a job that provides a secure living and know how lucky I am to have a husband who was willing to put his career on the back burner to support me in mine.  American working women have made strides toward equality in recent decades.  Earnings of women working full time in the U.S. have increased 31% since 1979; men’s earnings have increased only 2% over that period.  However, I’m more fortunate than most American women.  Although they are making up ground, women still earn only a little more than 80% as much as men with the same qualifications.
I know that that situation for women in India today is very different from that in the U.S., and that there are large differences in society, culture and history.  Women may have more political representation in India than in the U.S., but less economic power.  I suspect, though, that today’s urban, educated Indian women are living very different lives than their mothers and grandmothers.  I’d be interested to hear their stories.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tolerance for Diversity

In his proclamation declaring the celebration of African American History Month during February 2011, President Obama said:
Bolstered by strong values of faith and community, black men and women have launched businesses, fueled scientific advances, served our Nation in the Armed Forces, sought public office, taught our children, and created groundbreaking works of art and entertainment.  To perfect our Union and provide a better life for their children, tenacious civil rights pioneers have long demanded that America live up to its founding principles, and their efforts continue to inspire us.
The U.S. has celebrated African American History Month (also called Black History Month) since 1976, and as the name implies, this is a domestically focused activity.  Here in India, however, I think there are two links that can be drawn.  One of those concerns the way in which both India and the United States value diversity and protect minorities.  The other involves the strong ties between the American civil rights movement and the principles of non-violent resistance espoused by Mahatma Gandhi.  Both tolerance for diversity and non-violent resistance are being tested today in different parts of the world.

In neither country is commitment to diversity unqualified and entirely secure.  Concerns about illegal immigration and about terrorism in the U.S. have led to debate over profiling of Hispanics and Muslims for scrutiny.  The Obama administration has firmly rejected profiling, but some states, notably Arizona, have enacted laws endorsing it.  Here in Hyderabad, a recent incident highlighted the fact that many Indians do not believe that minority protections or tolerance for diversity should extend to gays and lesbians.  

While the U.S. respects that values differ around the globe, we believe that it is impossible to stand up for human rights without also defending gay rights.  Article 2 of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
Just as Gandhiji’s Satyagrapha philosophy inspired Dr. Martin Luther King and the U.S. civil rights movement, today’s democratic movements in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere are applying the same principles of non-violent resistance to great effect. This is an exciting time for proponents of democracy in many parts of the world.  

In some places, however, reactionary forces are still powerful.  I was distressed to learn of the imprisonment on charges of treason of 46 Zimbabweans, including many friends whose courage I witnessed firsthand during my tour in Harare. Their “treasonous” behavior consisted of attending a meeting to discuss the implications of events in the Middle East.

As Black History Month ends, my thoughts and sympathies lie with minorities suffering persecution wherever they may be, and democracy activists putting their lives on the line in Libya, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.