Stephanie Mora Hernandez '13: On Returning and Remembering

Stephanie Mora Hernandez was the 2013-2015 Shansi Fellow at Lady Doak College. This is her second year narrative.

It’s been exactly 43 days since I left my home in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Although I know I just spent 21 months of my life there, it eerily feels like I never left my Chicago home in the first place. Yes, my parents’ faces show a few more wrinkles and grey hairs than before. Yes, the neighborhoods I once knew inside out underwent complete makeovers with renovated buildings and new shops. Yes, I am still nervous to drive since I am used to being on the left side of the road, not on the right. Nonetheless, any time I am asked the general, yet complex, “How was India?” question, I truthfully reply, “It all feels like a dream”.

And it is a dream, until I see WhatsApp messages from friends and former students at Lady Doak:
“To Steph…so we miss you at this very first day of this year in ISC…but all we can do is take pics with you virtually! Miss you Steph! #lovesnhug”

Current LDC students on their first day of the school year

 

The experiences, relationships, and love that I came out of Madurai with were all unexpected.

Anita Tiphagne, professor of sociology and former visiting scholar, enjoys sharing an anecdote about my arrival to India. Before coming to pick me up from the airport, she made sure my apartment was all in order. She even made it a point to ensure the beloved, grey Shansi fellow Scooty Pep was completely serviced so I could use it right away. As the taxi pulled away from the airport and headed towards Lady Doak, she asked if I had any questions. Looking out the window in sheer amazement, I shyly asked if there were any driving laws in India. “Of course, people just fail to follow them most of the time,” she responded with soft laughter. It never crossed her mind that I would need a moment, or two, to adjust to the driving style here. She was ready to hand over the scooter keys, but I needed to learn how to cross the street safely on foot before I could even imagine trying to navigate the roads on a scooter. In the chaotic mess of maneuvering in between trucks, cars, bicycles, auto rickshaws, street sellers, pedestrians, potholes, and the occasional cow standing in the middle of the road, there was still a sense of functionality and efficiency which allowed you to drive without constantly crashing into others.

Japan Fellow Anabel Hirano with Stephanie and the Scooty Pep

Fast forward to March 2015. On a regular day, you can catch me adding onto the chaos of packed streets, zipping through the dusty roads of Madurai on my way to yoga or Bollywood dance class. Most of the time however, I would head over to a hotel (a common name for a restaurant) to order and annihilate a rava dosa with coconut chutney, my absolute favorite South Indian dish. It was through the scooter that I felt a sense of independence and agency in an environment where I usually needed assistance to finish any project. When it was time to take a break from Madurai’s blaring car horns, I could drive to the outskirts of the city, climb Jain Hill, and see Madurai from above. The best moments on the scooter were the ones where I drove alongside an elephant out for a walk with its handler. Those days were sure to be auspicious ones.

By the time I realized how comfortable I was navigating Madurai and making my apartment a home, it was time to pack up my belongings and head back to the States. Before departing, the principal of the school asked me to put together a three-minute presentation on my time at Lady Doak for the faculty meeting. In preparation, I started looking through photographs to brainstormed everything the International Study Center and I did during my time there. Where do I even begin? What do I focus on?

ISC staff – Jansi Rani, Anita Tiphagne, Stephanie, and Mercy Packiam

I knew there was no way to do justice to the work I did with the ISC and my students in just three minutes. With six PowerPoint slides, I rushed through our renovation of the library, thrift shop sales, student-led classes, “Celebrate the ISC!” week, interactions with international and exchange students, beginning Spanish classes, student teams, holiday celebrations, and ISC carnivals.

Students explain their rangoli to judges for the ISC Caribbean Carnival

What I couldn’t convey in that presentation were the things that occurred outside of the formal center activities; sitting in perfect circles with students during lunch to share our meals with one another, laughing with them long after the center’s regular working hours, clearing out the office furniture to follow along with Just Dance videos on Youtube, and feeling a constant excitement in the air to engage in and take on new activities. The entire LDC community was welcoming and supportive throughout my stay, but it was the students who frequented the center that defined my time there. They poured their time, talents, and energy into being present and believed we could positively contribute to the larger campus community. I cannot thank them enough.

The scariest feeling I’ve had so far upon returning is how all of these experiences already feel so far away, surreal, and completely out of my reach. I never quite felt the same about any of my other traveling experiences abroad. Perhaps because this was the first time I truly made another country my home. I spent time building beautiful relationships with incredible individuals and communities who opened their homes and hearts without any conditions. I finally felt settled in, and now I had to take all of these moments, bring them back to my other home, and attempt to convey them to those around me.

Saying the last goodbyes at the airport

At the same time, there are physical reminders in my surroundings. For the past twelve years my family has lived in a predominately Indian/Pakistani neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. Growing up I would walk up and down Devon street and admire the colorful clothing patterns and delicate jewelry, watch families enjoy their evening tea and chat, and listen to the various languages being spoken. Yet, I did not understand the greater context from where this all derived.

The other day though, my partner and I took a stroll around the neighborhood and stepped inside a grocery store. I immediately started pointing out everything I recognized: dosa batter, paneer blocks, Maggi noodles, jackfruit, frozen parathas, asafoetida, masalas, milk bikis. I thought about all of the possible dishes I could try to make and share now that I had found this cornucopia of ingredients.

Maybe I won’t be able to share my experiences to the fullest extent verbally, but I can convey them partly through food. Although I won’t see street side filter coffee stands or trash eating cows any time soon, I can perfect my crispy dosa and savory coconut chutney until I am able to visit once again.

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