In this journalist spotlight, Bianca Vázquez Toness talks frankly about how her life as an social outsider ultimately turned out to be a good thing, and perhaps is the key ingredient in her decision to become a journalist.
Though she also confides that Mumbai, India, where she is currently living, has been the ultimate test of her capacities to adapt. Though difficult it’s never boring, and she shares with us some of the interesting moments of creating the radio piece, “In India, Everyone Wants to be an Engineer”.
ON THE MAKING OF “IN INDIA, EVERYONE WANTS TO BE AN ENGINEER”
My husband is an engineer. What’s so funny about that is that the track here now is to be an engineer and then go to business school. And that’s what he did, and so I get so much more street cred when I tell people that he’s an engineer AND he went to business school.
People can’t understand what I do but he does something that they get.
So [producing this piece] made more sense to me because I see alot of people who are on this track.
This piece was definitely one of the most fun pieces I’ve done while I was here in Mumbai. A couple of interesting things happened while I was making the piece.
I had contacted this Reuters journalist because she had reported on the engineering tutoring schools. I wrote her and said how to get access to these kids.
She wrote me back to tell me that there’s a mall where they hang out between classes.
So I went I went to this mall – I didn’t even have to take out my recorder and I was just mobbed by these kids. In India, girls hang out with girls, boys hang out with boys, and they’d wander the mall just like American kids do. So when I was there they would just walk up to me and say, what are you doing?
I would tell them and eventually I started asking them if I could interview them. They were so curious about me. So it was not hard at all to meet kids. They all wanted to talk about who I was, where I was from, what it was like in the US, what the engineering schools are like there. So that part was really fun,
But that same Reuters journalist who told me about the kids hanging out in the mall had quoted a statistic in her article that said that 50 kids in the engineering tutoring schools had committed suicide the year before! That seemed kind of high to me, but I thought, well, this is a Reuters story, written by a person from India, who speaks Hindi. And she was quoting the top guy who started the school that begat more schools – sort of the dean of all these tutoring places. So when I talked with him I asked him about that number. And he said no it’s not fifty suicides, it’s five probably.
And so I told him about the story, which he hadn’t seen – and I went and found the mayor and the police and the reporters who follow and document this, and pretty much everyone agreed it’s three to five suicides. They called the reporter while I was there and confronted her, but she said she had it on tape. I don’t know if they ever resolved it.
I reached out to her after the story and she wouldn’t return my calls. But it was eye opening. Not that I haven’t seen that happen before, but it’s happened with alot of stories that I’ve tried to cover here – here I take someone else’s journalism as a starting point but I can’t take what they say as fact. Even sort of “brand name” outlets have been unreliable that way.
ON BEING AN OUTSIDER, AND BECOMING A JOURNALIST
I feel like it’s beneficial to be an outsider as a journalist. It’s much easier for me to think critically about what I see around me.
In high school I lived in the panhandle of Florida. I was definitely an outsider there! My dad moved there when I was nine, and my parents divorced, and I ended up living with my dad and my stepmom and my mom’s daughters, so if you really want to analyze it, that’s where the whole outsider thing started.
I started writing letters, chronicling my life in that house. I wrote letters to people on the outside about what it was like to be this – to live there.
I didn’t do journalism in the formal sense until college. That’s when I wrote some funny articles for the alternative weekly – there was this new crazy alternative to tampons thing that had come out on the market and I had this professor who had some involvement in it, and I wrote about the history of menstrual devices. And about this new thing that was supposed to double as an over the counter diaphragm which seemed kind of revolutionary to me at the time.
When I was in Boston I was always translating what was happening in neighborhoods of color, for the rest of Boston, or for my bosses, even though I wasn’t from that place. Even if they weren’t Spanish speakers, I’d report on the black community in Boston. It was different from the black communities I’d report on the west coast.
I moved to Mexico with a fellowship to do more anthropological research in Veracruz, and it became clear to me, “You’re not going to be an anthropologist. Where you want to be is in Mexico City and working for a newspaper.”
So I moved to Mexico City and worked for the English language daily there. It was good timing because it was the leadup to the election where the leadership was ousted and there was tons of interest in Mexico at the time, until 9/11 happened. After 9/11 alot of the foreign outlets pulled their bureaus and it was hard to get people interested in stories form Mexico, so I decided to move back to the states. I wanted a newsroom experience, instead of just being a freelancer.
I then worked in Minnesota and in Washington state, and in all those places I took on the role of the person who did alot of stories about immigrants, and about Spanish speaking immigrants.
I did that because I was always appalled by their previous coverage – or lack of coverage. So in some ways I made myself an outsider.
Its tough living in Mumbai. I had been here a few times but had never talked to people about living here. I think I made a misjudgement. I thought I had lived in Mexico City, an incredible mega-city, and I rocked that, so I thought Mumbai will be easier because of that. But that was a mistake because of two things – one, I’m older now, I have different expectations from life, and so I’m probably not as adjustable. And two, this place is so different from Mexico City. It’s just much more crowded, more dense, the infrastructure is worse.
And, I came here without Hindi or any other languages.
I think alot of American journalists here in Mumbai are totally fine without speaking Hindi, and with being complete outsiders, but the type of story they do is limited. The access, the ability to get in to things is harder. I’ve been learning Hindi but it’s a hard language to learn. Even doing internet research can be challenging at times when you don’t know exactly what to look for. There are so many strange turns of phrase – language from like Agatha Christie – terms that we just don’t use.
I hired a Hindi speaking assistant to help me. She’s a journalism major in college – not an engineering student!
It’s not clear how long I’ll be in Mumbai. I think at least another year, and then maybe longer, or maybe two years, or maybe we’ll adopt a life where we’ll spend six months back in Boston and six months here. My husband’sgoal is to get his company to the point where he can sell it.
It’s been an incredible eye opener. I sort of felt I was pretty worldly – before trying to live here. laughs.
Listen to “In India, Everyone wants to be an Engineer”
Bianca Vázquez Toness is a journalist living in Mumbai. Before moving to India, Toness covered immigration and education for Boston’s NPR station. She started her career writing about Mexico.