Returning to India, Post 3: Rules, Rules, Rules
Posted on May 2, 2013
I’ve written before about the fact that I was just a teenager when I was last in Kolkata. In the first post I wrote about this upcoming return trip to Kolkata, I explained:
I was eighteen when I was last in Kolkata. I was eighteen, and I was there with a group of young missionaries. After that trip, which was cut short by my grandmother’s impending death, I swore I was done with short term missions. There were numerous reasons: I was sick of unethical evangelism practices, I was too old and too experienced a traveler to be involved with organizations that enforced such strict rules, I was skeptical of the evangelical Christian mindset, I had seen too many disturbing things done by eager young missionaries, I had had one too many power-hungry leaders.
I want to pay close attention to that bolded part: “I was too old and too experienced a traveler to be involved with organizations that enforced such strict rules.”
Because I first went to India with a youth missions organization, and because I was really just a kid, I wasn’t in charge of what I could or couldn’t do. For my safety, I had to follow very specific rules or risk getting sent home. Some of the rules made sense. Others didn’t.
Three years ago, as I conducted research for my MFA thesis, I sat in an auditorium in rural Texas and listened as a man who worked for a huge youth organization instructed new missionaries in the rules of the trip. I couldn’t help but compare what he was describing with my own experiences with that same organization in Nepal a decade earlier.
It is dark and cool in the auditorium. Seventy or eighty missionaries are scattered around in the cushioned blue seats listening to an even-voiced man in a black polo shirt and khaki pants. It’s too hot outside for a polo shirt, I think, but then again, this dude gets to stay inside for several hours today, giving the rules presentation every hour to a new group of arriving missionaries.
There are a lot of rules, and almost every one of them is phrased exactly as it was a decade ago, when I sat in this same auditorium and listened to some other polo-clad, khaki-wearing, rules-announcing man.
First, rules for behavior: no weapons, no fireworks, no porn. No movies, no secular music. No profanity. No stealing and no “long-term borrowing.” Rooms must be clean; they must be orderly.
Next, dress code: Modest one-piece bathing suits for females. Females and males must wear cover-ups to and from any pool. (He actually says “males” and females.”) No piercings other than ears for girls; no piercings at all for guys. No articles of clothing advertising alcohol, tobacco products, or secular brands. No skulls or other “dark images” on any t-shirts, even if they represent Christian bands or concepts. No shorts on travel days. No shorts or sleeveless shirts outside the housing complex when involved in ministry. Girls, wear skirts on ministry days. No jewelry during ministry or ministry training. No bizarre hair cuttings or other physical alterations during the trip.
Later, miscellaneous rules: You must call home as soon as you arrive in country. Personal cell phones can’t be taken along on ministry days. Use your cell phone too much, and it’s going to get confiscated. No boys in girls’ rooms, no girls in boys’ rooms. The speech is the same as it was ten years ago: “Don’t stand in the doorway and play little games and just stick your hand in the doorway, or stick your foot past the threshold. Listen, even playing games like that can get you sent home. Are we clear on that?”
Then he gets to the rules that interest me. The group regulations rules. The don’t-go-out-alone rules.
The rules that allow the organization to say to concerned parents, “We always know where your kids are. They can never go out alone, or in an unapproved group. Your children are safe with us.”
“This really does apply to your safety,” the man says. I make sure my mp3 recorder is working. He never raises his voice or changes his intonation, and yet I sense that he considers this one of the most important parts of his presentation. It’s in the way he stops pacing and looks directly at the kids who stare back at him under dimmed lights. “Anytime you’re going to be somewhere, your MA, your Missionary Advisor needs to know where you’re at. You may never be outside of the lodging complex alone. If you are caught outside of your lodging complex alone, you will be sent home.”
I never broke this rule. Not on purpose, anyway.
He continues, still rooted to his spot. He places one hand on the music stand in front of him, his fingers touching the summer manual. The other hand keeps the microphone, unmoving, just barely resting on his chin. “Now, if you go outside the complex at any time, real quick look at what’s written in your manual. You must be in an approved group. All groups must consist of four members, one Missionary Advisor, and at least one male who is sixteen or older. Groups must stay together at all times, regardless of the time of day and night.”
As the rule-giver tips his chin down and looks sternly at the kids, he repeats himself again. “This is really for your safety.”
What a different experience I am anticipating for this trip!
First, I’m not a missionary this time. Second, I’m not a minor. Third, I’m neither subject to nor enforcing long lists of rules.
I find myself wondering what it will be like to be free to do what I want in India. Of course I’ll be following basic safety guidelines, and of course I’ll be asking the students I’m in charge of to do the same. Still, I’ll have the freedom to come and go as I please. I can opt out of activities or do them on my own. I can choose to spend time in prayer, or I can write in my journal instead. No one will make me do push-ups if I’m late to a meeting or if my chair scrapes hard against the floor of the dining room after dinner. No one is going to forbid me from doing something I really care about because they say, “You want it too much, Liz, and you need to learn from the experience of not getting what you want.”
What a different kind of trip this is shaping up to be.