Iris Chiang
Iris Chiang
India 2016-2017
I studied psychological science and art studies at Belmont University. I am going to Auroville, India to work under an art therapist for a program called Sankalpa. Read More About Iris →

The Henna Workshop

Ever since I was an infant, I have had very sensitive skin. My skin does not like extreme weather. In New Jersey, extreme weather was on both ends: cold and dry, as well as hot and humid. Then in Nashville, weather is still—if not more—hot and humid. As you can imagine, my skin really doesn’t prefer the long, even hotter, even more humid days of southern India. Needless to say, my skin has never been very good.

Recently, we held an art therapy based henna workshop at Sankalpa. Henna is a plant used to naturally dye skin, hair, nails, and textiles. Traditionally, women will pick leaves from the tree and use a mortar and pestle to grind the leaves into a paste. After adding other edible ingredients, it would be used to make temporary symbolic patterns on the body for ritual or adornment. I’d been pretty excited for this workshop and honestly, I wasn’t sure why. Suffering from eczema and/or psoriasis wasn’t necessarily a crippling insecurity, but it was definitely often on my mind. This workshop required me to focus on my skin, to draw attention to it.

The workshop emphasized self-image and encouraged self-love. We set intentions and affirmations to meditate on for the next few hours. My three affirmations were: I am capable. I am resilient. I am beautiful.

I had a small epiphany about meditating when doing henna, or doing really anything. (It’s a real game-changer!) The art was imperfect, which really made everything even more perfect in the moment and on my skin. Our group reflected and shared our experiences. We were vulnerable with each other. I found a fellow skin-condition sufferer!

If I took anything from the workshop it’s that beauty is not skin deep, but self-love sure can start there. (Another game-changing epiphany.)

I am capable (a reoccurring affirmation throughout all of the art therapy sessions I’ve participated and assisted in): Despite the way people have questioned me and laughed at me. Because there’s an overwhelming amount of stuff to do today, this week, this trip, this year, in my five-year plan. Because I am.
I am resilient: Despite my poor skin condition and extreme weather. Because my skin repairs and eventually the scars disappear. Because I am.
I am beautiful: Despite all of my physical blemishes and psychological flaws. Because I really don’t need to give any reason. Because I am.

I used to think the word beautiful was really extreme, so dramatic. But recently, I’ve been using the word beautiful a lot. It baffles me how I did not see it before. All around me, interacting with me, flowing out of me, made of me.

The henna workshop was a really beautiful session.

Work

It’s been just about three months (about halfway) into my trip here in Auroville. If I’m being honest, I feel the sparkly newness waning. I’m struggling with finding a balance between scheduled and productive stability versus taking opportunities for spontaneous adventure and not feeling complacent. I am feeling more comfortable and I’m afraid that it gives off a jaded, unapproachable vibe. I’m taking less video footage, but there is, no doubt, still so much overlooked and apparent beauty to capture. Adventure isn’t every single day anymore, but every so often I still get overwhelmed with the fact that this is real life and I’m in India. And it’s good, y’all. Really, really good still, I promise.

I’ve had a few people asking me, “But Iris, what about work? What are you actually doing?” So I figured maybe I should probably talk about “work” now…

The first task I took on for my internship in Sankalpa was the art cart. It’s a colorful station on wheels filled with art supplies. Part of our funding for Sankalpa goes into stocking materials propagating creativity (paper, coloring utensils, scissors, glue, string, beads, etc.). Usually stationed at the visitor center, curious passerbys would ask or be approached to make art for free. I often must remind new friends that art is for all to practice and enjoy (all ages, all professions, all experiences—“artsy” or not)! Our motto is “there is no right or wrong.” The intention for the cart is to be connected with yourself and with the community around you through art. I have witnessed a lot of imagination and precious collaboration during my time at the art cart. I have also met many wonderful strangers with fascinating stories and backgrounds. I have definitely seen myself grow and change through the art cart. I think I was taking a lot in the beginning (i.e, people would give me information, stories, encouragement). Since then, I’ve learned different ways to engage different people and new tactics to inspire creativity. I finally feel like I am giving back to these visitors and Aurovillians who come to the art cart, particularly through sharing my experiences and knowledge of Auroville, a place I now truly consider a home (that I really want to show off, like, all the time).

Once a week, I help out in a class called Art and Yoga in our art center. Each week, we would focus on a different chakra, or energy center, of the body. We would create an art work or mandala related to the different colors and ideas to represent the chakra we are focusing on that day. It is a time of creativity, reflection, exercise, and release.

In the same art space, we also have a dance therapy and art class every week with a dance therapist and life coach. Before arriving in India, I was not a dance-y person. But y’all: this is one amazing class. It’s never felt so good to MOVE. I’ve heard from others that this class has made them feel more free than they have in ten years! What an amazing thing to feel safe to express and not judged amongst strangers. What a gift to be able to create that safe space.

Every day we have a mandala session. Mandala literally means “magic circle”. It’s a meditative practice that can be done with one person or with a group of people. Typically, it is a silent process where communication is through creating patterns with beads, seeds, and any other materials while sitting in a circle together. Again, there is no right or wrong—certain patterns and symmetry are not necessary. When it feels finished, we meditate on our mandala and share words reflecting our intentions. It is posted on social media with #MySankalpa. (Sankalpa means intention in Sanskrit.) This part of my day is often near sunset. There are fewer vehicles driving around where we make our mandalas; the evening birds and insects are beginning to sing. Everything around me is so alive, but at the same time everything feels still. I feel connected and I remember to let go. I regroup from a busy day and week and month and year, and I am again at peace.

When people ask about what I’m doing here, I tell them these things. I also tell them I do some not-so-glorious things like taking inventory, accounting work, emails, cleaning up, etc. They tell me that it still doesn’t sound like very much work. It’s because it’s not. I get to play and make art and practice yoga and dance and use my imagination and challenge myself and push my creativity and chat with eclectic people. As cliche as it sounds, I learning so much about people and life. I am learning about true and deep connection, as well as the techniques and effects of healing through art. It’s a dream. It’s THE dream. It’s this wonderful, beautiful, incredible, real-life dream.

PS: very excited to share that month three video is done, currently in search for some good wifi to upload. Stay tuned.

Thankful

There is a huge money issue here in India right now. Basically, the government told Indians— just a week before— that all their 500 rupee notes (7.29 USD) were invalid because of corruption and black money. As you can imagine, this causes some problems. (Seriously, I wouldn’t know where to begin. My money problems are trivial in comparison to many people here. I’m just peeved.) So I’m standing in this line for the ATM right now, twenty people in front of me, five behind (and growing)— a considerably small crowd for an ATM filled with money. Usually, lines wrap around the building and down the street and it takes about three hours for the cash to run out and you must wait until the next day for the ATM to be replenished at an unscheduled time of day. And while I’m standing here, there is no guarantee that 1) my card will work for this particular bank or this particular ATM, 2) the ATM is not depleted before I reach the machine, 3) the limit is still 2500 rupees (instead of the usual 10,000) or less because they ran out of 100 and new 500 rupee notes, 4) the security guard will not get angry that you’re taking too long to figure out how to read this non-user-friendly machine, and 5) any store or business will take that new pink 2000 rupee note because they’ve also run out of change. Help. On top of that, it’s stormy season! :-) They say the storms are fairly mild this year. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t had our share of sleepless nights in torrential downpour, never-ending flashes of lightning, and crashing thunder forever. It for sure means slippery, uneven mud roads and no wifi or power for hours or days.
deep breath

There are days that are harder. But then, there are quiet Sundays after Thanksgiving (even though I feel so far removed from the American holiday season and spirit).

We sit at the window. It’s a nice window. There aren’t many large windows in India with a view completely filled with plant life.
“I picked this house because of this window,” she told me as we listen to the vibrant green leaves rustle.
We sit and listen.
She points excitedly to the neighborhood cat passing by.
We sit and listen and watch.
We chat with the cat about his bad habits of lonely mewing at night.
We sit and listen and watch and chat.
And then we just sit.
And I get that feeling again. You know that feeling that everything is okay and can you believe it this is your amazing spectacular life.

There are so many things to be thankful for this year. Happy (belated) Thanksgiving from a thankful American abroad.

What To Do

I have always proudly identified as an Asian-American woman. Anywhere in the world that I travel, at first they are confused. “But you don’t look American,” often addressing the slant of my eyes. Because all around the world there is a [black and] white image of what America looks like and I do not fit in that frame. But after a minute, (and yes, this has actually been told to me in several separate instances on this trip,) I am recategorized as “white”. Why? Because my skin is fairer than brown and I possess a strong, American accent. I’m basically as white as it gets here. It comes with a certain privilege and way of interaction that I am not sure I care for– even though people remind me time and again how lucky I am to be who I am wherever I go.

This election, I am truly learning that the world is always watching America. As I write this blogpost, I am overhearing key political names in local Tamil language conversations in small town India. Wherever I travel, even when it isn’t election time, when people find out that I’m American, political talk is always slipped into the dialogue. (Meanwhile, here I am standing around, looking like a doofus, apologizing for knowing little to nothing about Indian, German, Haitian, etc., politics.)

I know that I am relatively privileged in America. I am not Muslim, black, Hispanic, Native American, handicapped, LGBTQ+, or a refugee. Despite our many imperfections as a nation, I have been privileged to have never personally felt truly endangered by my identity.

I currently live in a world where the caste system can very explicitly define your worth and you bleach your skin because the fairness of your complexion defines your beauty. I am friends with businesswomen who are shamed by their hometowns for not following the status quo. For leaving home, for finding her own husband, for leaving him when he cheated on her, for being independent, for making money by building a business, for the way she raises her daughter, for having male friends, for having short hair, for driving, for going out alone, for wearing clothes that expose her knees. I live in a world where stereotypes are often considered truth and instill fear, idolizing certain cultures while alienating other people groups.

Slowly, the contrasting differences between India and America (and the progress between America today and America fifty years ago) begin to blur. This week, for the first time in my life, even being halfway around the world, I really feel threatened for being an Asian American woman in this undeniably heavy, oppressed way that so many people in the world have experienced for so long. Most of us cannot fully comprehend our responsibility as US citizens. This collective decision America has made has and will have a major affect not only in our little American bubble, but all over the world. And, by the way, the whole world is asking how we ever let this happen.

In this season of my life, I have grown most in empathy for all the different people surrounding me. In this week, I learned about negativity and hatred, but also optimism and love in a whole new light. To the devastated and hopeless, there is hope, and your fight continues. Don’t be so quick to judge, don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Truly listen and love fully. To all my friends and neighbors in grief and fear, I feel you and stand by you. In spite of everything going against us, this is how we keep going: hand in hand, all over the world.

Love always always always trumps hate.