Saturday, June 26, 2010

India: on the art of cockroach musings

There's a famous expression whose origins I do not know, and in fact, I have no idea if it is really famous, or if I made it up. Either way, it goes: "Truth is stranger than fiction." Clearly the author of this quote did not grow up in Virginia, because I assure you that nearly nothing about the first 18 years of my life was stranger than the crap I managed to find in the public library; however, I am happy to report to you fine people that I have indeed heard a story that makes this quote, every "Fear Street," and every "Babysitter's Club" seem entirely possible. (Side note: "Babysitter's Club" was in fact quite boring, but the amazing qualities the series possessed were the facts that what's her face author managed to publish so many books, and I continued to read them until the age of 13.)

Bring Your Own Cockroach to School Day

My self-congratulating plug in this post is as follows: Thanks to the help of a friend, I managed to land myself a nice little grant to do thesis research in Bangalore, India. Go me.

As it so happens, said city houses the majority of my blood relatives. My dad decided to join me in India a week after I landed, and as expected, a series of visits to each of his sibling's houses took up the majority of our nights. My brother and I are perpetually reminded by every person in this city that neither of us speak either of the two local languages. As kids, our cousins couldn't speak English well enough to communicate, so our visits usually consisted of the two of us seated on one couch staring at our cousins seated on another couch. Needless to say, this staring, blinking, awkward coughing, and warding off large, unwanted quantities of oil-laden Indian food didn't do much in the way of bonding with our Indian counterparts.

Thankfully, through the perils of Indian education, my cousins all speak English now. Unfortunately for my appetite, but fortunately for this blog, these English speaking skills relayed the stranger than fiction story of "Bring your own Cockroach to School Day."

For those of us who went to American schools, we can all recount at least one story of dissecting a random animal or worm. My childhood stories include two girls and one guy storming out of the room in near vomit spurts during rat dissecting, one guy seeing how far he could drop kick a kidney during frog dissecting, and one teacher nearly cutting herself on a blade during worm dissecting, prompting an emergency room visit for a Tetanus shot. What's my point? I had to dissect a lot of creatures.

Anyway, on father's sibling visit #43, one of my cousins, Pallavi, told me that her school required her to dissect a cockroach. For those of us who live in New York, Chicago, LA, or really any city ever, the "cockroach" equals five things:

1. Gross
2. Disease
3. Really gross
4. More Disease
5. Your first apartment

But, I figured hell had indeed frozen over, and someone, somewhere, decided that there aren't enough cockroaches in the world, and they should be grown en masse in a lab and neatly preserved in formaldehyde. Apparently, I am a still too much of a Western thinker, for this was not at all the case.

Pallavi's instructions went something like this:

"Each student must obtain his or her own cockroach that is to be measured at least 6 centimeters in body length. Appropriate places to obtain cockroaches include trash piles, sewers, and under buildings. Students shall bring the cockroach alive to class, and will dissect the cockroach alive. Please bring scissors."

Somehow, after hours of rummaging through the trash heap outside of her parent's house, poor Pallavi was able to find a large enough cockroach, and lure it into a container. So she tossed the little bugger (see what I did? huh? huh!?) in the carrier of her motorcycle, and spend off to school.

To make these even more disgusting, when Pallavi opened the carrier of her motorcycle, she found Mr. Cockroach dead…and fried. Apparently the engine sits under the carrier of the motorcycle, which produces enough heat to fry the damn thing to a crisp. Ironically, the bug was cooked to exactly the same point that upscale restaurants in northwest China cook cockroaches to serve as delicacies. THAT’S A LIE. Restaurants in northwest China don’t serve cockroaches. WHY!? BECAUSE THEY’RE DISGUSTING! Every freaking person on the planet knows that. But I bet you believed me, right?

Anyway, so Pallavi was a little stranded. Somehow, this family genius faced failing her first assignment ever because she didn’t successfully wrangle a live cockroach for class. Not to worry. Finally, dirty kid comes in handy.

Every class has dirty kid. Dirty kid is, well…dirty. He or she bathes less than three times a week, has things growing in their hair, and is probably in possession of an ant colony. My class dirty kid kept his ant colony in his backpack, which I discovered by accidentally kicking said backpack while trying to retrieve a school graphing calculator. Damnit mom, you were right. I should have put my stuff in my bag the night before.

Needless to say, cockroach assignment was Pallavi’s class dirty kid’s glory day. This little dirty girl managed to secure not one, not two, but 20 live, 6+ centimeter cockroaches – enough to outfit the entire class. So “luckily,” Pallavi was still able to participate in the class exercise. Then the real fun began.

Guess what the scissors were for? Yep. A star quality decapitation. To be completed while the cockroach was still alive. Makes me think of this. After the decapitation was complete, Pallavi was instructed to [censored, because even though cockroaches are f-ing disgusting, describing this the slow dissection of their body parts is about a million times worse.] And then she was done!

Her parents are thinking about changing schools next year.