Saturday, March 27, 2010


Tamil Nadu in Southeast Asia is as far from the Northwest as you can get.

It's not just that in Tamil Nadu their cool time of the year feels like the hottest part of our summer. Or that my friend Thomas and his wife, Shiny, wrap their little baby in a padded snuggly that we would dress our kids in here at home, if we were expecting snow.

It's not just that their extremely spicy food is presented in a series of little pots on a fresh green banana leaf and a chili pepper on top, and is unrecognizable to the more timid North American taste buds—like mine.

It's not just that their traffic resembles a ride on a roller coaster. Everything seems different here—like the shopping.

I expected to see markets like those from pictures in a National Geographic magazine. However, the more upscale malls and shops are a surprise. The underground parking looks the same. The elevators are a smidgen tinier, but the escalators are no different from home.

What's different is, the staff of the various shops on each floor stand vigilantly at the elevator and do everything they can to get you into their store just short of physically coercion. At times like these I am so grateful for the firm chastisement our self-designated shepherd, Jerald, gives these bold shopkeepers.

Justin and Jerald have been babysitting the visitors to India for the past 7 years. A quiet reprimand from Jerald stops the pushy shopkeepers in their tracks. You can see the thoughts behind Jerald's eyes especially—no one is going to hurt or bother these people, they are my charges. From Jerald and others like him, I sense a love and a service that doesn't seem to know the words, self preservation.

Jerald and Justin are with us when we shop in the more upscale shops. It's in world famous Chennai Silks that my head spins. I've never seen so many exotic or different kinds of silk, the best quality of polished cottons, patterned and plain, in my life. Every bolt of fabric is neatly stacked like tall thin books behind counters where a plethora of staff waits to serve you.

The staff whips out bolts of fabric onto the counter top for each of us to examine. They whip out 6 or 8 or 12 more to please our frivolous and undecided hearts. Jerald or Justin do our negotiating for us in Tamil. Then they wait and wait and wait as we choose our material.

I can't help but wonder what Jerald thinks as year after year he escorts the visitors to do their shopping. After all, we North Americans can't go on a mission’s trip without partaking of the local merchandise.

Dazed by the selection, I quickly, perhaps too quickly, make my choice—6 meters of turquoise silk, encrusted with the amber beading that I know I'll probably never use. But I'm in India; I can't go home without authentic sari material.

My choice is made. The material cut. The staff member rings a bell. Another staff person rushes up to me, takes my selection, and goes to a desk to write up a slip of what it costs. He brings the slip of paper back to me and instructs me in Tamil to go to a central desk on another floor.

I stand there, blankly staring after the fellow who disappears with my sari material. As usual, Jerald patiently explains in broken English what's going on and with infinite care shows me where to go and what to do.

He takes me to the correct desk where I pay. A man behind that desk vigorously stamps my paper at least three times, nods me over to the next desk, where another person matches up my stamped receipt with a carefully wrapped package—my sari material. He then, just as vigorously stamps that bag and receipt another 3 or 4 times for good measure. Somewhat bewildered, I'm presented with my purchase. Jerald gently walks me and the other member of the team out of the store.

All along I can't help but wonder, what does Jerald think of these foreigners who come to his country, and for not much of our money buy a luxury that would take him months to buy, if it were even something he would consider buying.

There are a lot of differences on our two sides of the world. To someone in Tamil Nadu like Jerald it may appear we are extremely wealthy. In comparison to our brothers and sisters in southeast Asia, we are. Does this lack of equality of earthly goods make me appear cold and selfish, out of touch with the needs of the world?

With all the differences that strike me about India, what is it about me that puzzles or offends my Indian brother? Yet, they treat us so graciously. I can only hope that as I appreciate, with a large dose of humor, those differences in India, such as the traffic, the food, that they treat my North American idiosyncrasies with a smile.

Our physical packaging is different on the outside. We have different skin tones, different language, a vastly different culture. But inside the hearts of these people from Tamil Nadu and us from Canada, we are the same. It is the love of Christ, our savior that unites us. It is the love of Christ that shines through someone like Jerald that makes me feel at home. I can only pray he sees some of Christ in me.

It's not so much difference as diversity of the same type of thing. Much like the rows and rows, and floors and floors of silk materials in the Chennai House of Silk.

Different, diverse, and beautiful.

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