How a Year in India Changed Everything – Q&A with Ed Wallace

Ed Wallace

[NB: This interview first appeared in last week’s Oconto Reporter.]

Ed Wallace, Oconto, WI native, is a senior majoring in Languages and Cultures of Asia (LCA) and English. Last year, he studied abroad in Varanasi, India on an intensive Hindi language and research program. He has recently been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to return to India to pursue his research on divorce law after he graduates.

Division of International Studies (DIS): Why did you decide to study abroad? Why India?

Ed Wallace (EW): The first semester of my junior year I was taking Modern Indian Civilizations at the University of Wisconsin–Madison with Joe Elder who started the intensive Hindi language and research program in Varanasi. I was inspired by his life story and by the uniqueness of this program. I studied Rajasthani painting there with Mukund Lal, the last survivor in the line of Mogul painters and had one-on-one Hindi instruction for over a hundred hours. What other study abroad program offers you that? And then it just sort of happened, I decided I wanted to go there.

DIS: Where did you stay?

EW: I stayed in Varanasi, on the roof of my Hindi instructor and his wife’s home. She spoke no English which pushed me to learn even more Hindi. My instructor had built two rooms up on his roof and I stayed in one of them. It was such a large room! With a bathroom and a view of the Ganga. It was a real luxury—in the room next to mine which was the same size, there were two families—15 people living in the same amount of space I had. From the roof next to mine kids would scream “color, color, color” all the time—they wanted paper and crayons. I gave them what I could. Even though I didn’t have any crayons I gave them my colored pens. The little kids would have class on the roof—their teacher was their 12-year-old sister.

DIS: What were you doing while there (studying, service learning, etc.)?

EW: There were three components to what I was doing there: the first was intensive Hindi language class four days a week from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The second component was a tutorial where I learned about Mogul painting. My instructor, who is one of the most famous Mogul painters in India, didn’t speak English and while I painted he used to watch the NFL. The third was an independent fieldwork project. I focused my fieldwork on how marriage in India was changing. I interviewed six women, transcribed their interviews in Hindi, and then translated them into English. It was a sociolinguistic study because I focused on how they used language differently to answer the same questions. An interesting thing that I noticed was that they use “ego” to explain many of the changes that happen in their lives, like when kids rebel against their parents or someone disobeys the law. This world obviously comes from Sigmund Freud but how did it become such a big part of Hindi language, where did they pick this vocabulary up? I have obtained a Fulbright scholarship to go back and study divorce law after I graduate. If parents arrange marriages, couldn’t they also be responsible for arranging separations?

DIS: And when you weren’t studying?

EW: I spent a lot of time on the steps along the Ganga River drinking Chai and having conversations with people I met there. Most of my conversations were in Hindi, but some of the people I met spoke English as well. It was there that we (me and a few other members of my group) met the unofficial tour guides who showed us around for months. They took us many places including their own homes where we shared meals with their families. We also went with the guides to waterfalls and on pilgrimages and ate chicken with them on Tuesdays that was so spicy I could barely eat it! Among the things the guides told us about was a palm reader who I went to see. He showed me pictures of himself with Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett whose palms he had also read. He told me that I was lacking ‘inner energy’ and wanted to prescribe me some pills to help me—I never took them.

Ganga River
Ganga River
DIS: What is one of your more memorable and/or invaluable experiences?

EW: One of the most memorable moments was when I left Varanasi. My instructor’s wife gave me the bindi (dot on the forehead) for the first time and I saw her close her eyes and pray for me. She and her husband then  took me to the airport in a car—I hadn’t been in one for over four months—and as I looked back out the window to watch my Hindi instructor who was following on a motorcycle I saw him stop in front of a temple and start to pray to Hanuman, the monkey God. I was touched. I knew he was praying for me, for a safe trip and for my future. This was the most emotionally important moment for me.

DIS: What was one of the most jarring experiences you’ve had there? Why?

EW: When we went from Delhi to Varanasi—we had just arrived and we hadn’t been on a train before in India. This man who saw us (nine foreigners) started pointing to beggars and cripples while he was yelling at us. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and he kept screaming. He made us feel like we were responsible for it all. It was very troubling and I was so angry with him for blaming me for all this hardship. Also, it was hard when one of the travel agents who was about twenty-seven years old asked me aggressively “so what are you studying about my people?” I felt like we weren’t there to learn about them but to learn from each other.

DIS: Do you believe there is an importance in today’s world to be bilingual? What is the advantage of speaking Hindi over any other language?

EW: Hindi is the third or fourth most spoken language in the world, and there has been a lot of discussion about India and China as emerging powers. But I also think it’s important because India has a long tradition of literature. I think bilingualism is really important today—it’s a crime that I was monolingual for so long.

DIS: How do you think these experiences will help you after you graduate?

EW: My experience in Varanasi will help me when I go back with my Fulbright scholarship to have an enriching experience. The program changed everything for me, even my major—before I was only an English major and now I’ve added Languages and Cultures of Asia to my majors.

DIS: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

EW: I want to teach and stay connected to India. I also love Wisconsin and could see myself teaching here.

DIS: What advice would you give a person who is planning on traveling abroad?

EW: Because I was there for a full year rather than just a semester I really got a chance to discover Varanasi and India in a deep way—my experience would have been very different if I’d only been there for a semester.

If you’re going to go there give yourself enough time there to be challenged and to get beyond the initial physical and material discomfort. Once you get over that mental adjustment you will be able to really engage with the culture and people. You don’t remember it’s hot and that you’re sweaty all the time but those “moments of happiness” that make your experience so special. Also, language is so important—if you don’t have the language then you are setting yourself up for an uncomfortable experience.

Interview by Nina Gehan, Division of International Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Read about more Badgers who have spent time in India.