Andie De Arment, the Cultural Affairs Officer, of the US Consulate General at Chennai, talks about her experiences in different countries
By Shevlin Sebastian
Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram
Andie De Arment sweeps into the Aspinwall Hall at Fort Kochi. And one of the first exhibits she sees, at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, is the 'Powers of Ten' video installation by the late American artists Charles and Ray Eames. After seeing a few other works, the Cultural Affairs Officer of the US Consulate General at Chennai is all smiles.
“I appreciate the international aspect of it,” she says. “You have artistes from the US, Europe, Japan, Holland, Australia and so many other countries. They are all here, offering something to the festival. And I am so glad I could be a part of it.”
On her recent visit to Kochi, Andie had a busy schedule. She went to the Sacred Heart College, and spoke with the students. She gave two students, called cultural exchange grantees, certificates for completing courses in Pittsburgh and New York respectively. Then Andie attended a conference called 'Energy security challenges in India’, which was organised by the US Consulate General at Chennai, in partnership with the Centre for Public Policy Research. Later, Andie spoke with 15-year-olds at Choice School about the options of studying in the US.
“There are one lakh Indian students in the US,” says Andie. “And we want to increase that number. We want to ensure that students have the information they need, about visas, courses and how to apply to universities.”
Having just arrived in India three months ago, following a two-year-stint in Karachi, Andie is coming to terms with the country. “India has such a rich cultural heritage,” she says. “The US, at 238 years, is a young country. When I first arrived in Chennai I felt that there is thousands of years of history in the place. I feel the history every day. The temples are literally on the street, and you can see people practising ancient rituals. One of my favourite visits was to the Meenakshi temple at Madurai.”
And she loves the contrast in different cities. “In Bangalore, there is a lot of hustle and bustle,” she says. “Chennai is a little laid-back, while Kerala is green and completely different.”
Andie pricks the curiosity of people, because she is married to a Pakistani writer, Khaver Siddiqi, and has two children, Eva, 9, and Grant, 2. “This makes for interesting situations,” says Andie.
Recently, she was on a panel at a Bangalore literary festival. The discussion was titled, 'The Outsider Inside – India Through Foreign Eyes'. The moderator, Sunil Sethi, said, “An American diplomat, married to a Pakistani, living in India: all the complexities and contradictions of that.”
Andie met a trade group in Chennai that was going to Islamabad to help increase business between Pakistan and India. One member went on a tirade about Pakistan. Then somebody elbowed him and said, “Her husband is from Pakistan.” Andie says, “The man was very embarrassed, but I appreciated these opportunities for candid conversations.”
But Andie’s marriage is no longer uncommon in the US. “There are so many inter-racial, inter-ethnic and inter-religious marriages,” she says. “And it is increasing every year. When I look at my family I feel that we are a typical American family, with our multi-culturalism.”
In fact, she says, her children are becoming global citizens. “They have a perspective which is so unique,” she says. “To them Chennai is home now, and they have embraced it, whether it is the food, traditions, or festivals like Pongal or Diwali. They love the life here in India.”
And they were in Karachi, too. “Karachi is a flourishing city,” says Andie. “It is a huge metropolis. Of course, there are security concerns, but I moved around a lot, including Balochistan and Sindh. The people were very welcoming, even though, at most of the places, I was the first American they were seeing.”
She was also one of the rare Americans in Havana, where she had been posted for two years. “The Cubans are warm, expressive and optimistic,” says Andie. “Most of the action takes place on the streets. People hang around and play football. The music tradition is unlike anywhere in the world.”
And there is also a connection to the US. “It is not just the geographical proximity,” says Andie. “About two million Cubans live in the US, while there are only 11 million in Cuba. Everyone in Cuba has relatives in the US. And things are gradually changing. But it will accelerate now that President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro have agreed to resume diplomatic ties.”
Asked whether diplomacy works in a world, which is ridden with strife, Andie says, “Diplomacy takes a lot of work. You have to take into account the personalities of leaders, language, culture and people. It is a lot more tougher than resorting to guns and violence. Despite that, diplomacy always needs to be the first option. I believe that American influence is strong all over the world. And we need to be active in events like the Kochi Biennale, so that people get a better idea about us, and our culture.”
(A shorter version appeared in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)