Likho Apni Kahaani

Growing up in NYC, I was constantly surrounded by new faces. On my commute to and fro school, I used to create backstories for people I would see on the subway. It was nothing harmful; it was just a way to cure my boredom and test whether or not I still had an imagination since my high school was essentially a mind-crunching sweatshop. The young woman wearing a neatly ironed blue blouse and pencil black skirt sitting in front of me bobbing her head back and forth to the music coming out of her white, Apple earbuds — she went to a pre-professional college in hopes to become a career woman but now holds small pockets of regret because she actually has a burning passion for horticulture. The middle-aged man sporting a nicely pressed blue-striped suit standing near the door reading a book on interior design — an actuary who has absolutely zero artistic ability but is trying to surprise his wife with a newly modeled kitchen. Exercises like these would help my early mornings pass by, especially when my friends were slumping over each other due to fatigue on our way to Chamber Street.

But now, thinking back, I wonder if this mindset was too presumptuous. I guess there’s nothing wrong with letting your imagination run for some self-amusement, but it’s important to recognize when assumptions are exactly just that — assumptions. During my high school days, I was definitely guilty of taking assumptions of people I barely knew and shaping their entire character based on the few pieces of their identity that I gathered either from firsthand experience or gossip. This would then affect our interactions and my perception of the person. And this is extremely unfair. Many times, we fail to recognize the fact that everyone’s actions and aspects is connected to some inner workings that is fully invisible to all but that person. By not realizing that each person has their own unique backstory, their own struggles, and their own battles, it’s very easy to judge whether or not something he/she does right or wrong. And by not staying open-minded, we fall prey to a tunnel-visioned mindset that our own code of ethics or way of reasoning is superior to those around us, which further fuels this need to judge. This is no new human phenomenon, but with the onset of social media and the anonymity of the internet, it has become far too rampant. Note, I am not saying that it is wrong to carry your own opinions and you should definitely have your own idea of what is right or wrong, but I don’t believe it is our prerogative to impose our ideals onto others and then judge them for doing something that is alien to our world of morality and boundaries, especially when the entire story is yet to be heard.

Now what does all of this have to do with India? Nothing, thanks for reading.

Just kidding!

This idea is deeply woven into my experience in India this summer. This mentality to not judge others under any circumstances is a practice that I tried to undertake last year and it was truly tested the past two and a half months. From the day I received my acceptance e-mail, I’ve been told India is a very undeveloped nation, portrayed by my peers almost in a barbaric light compared to the “first world comforts” of the Western world. So coming in, a part of me expected the worst and I couldn’t help but point out all of the things that were outside my understanding of the world, a.k.a. what I considered “wrong.”

There are no streetlights or road lanes here? Pedestrian-first is not a thing? Wait, I’m pretty sure there should be a sidewalk here. Wow, that’s a lot of trash on the street. Goats, cows, and dogs roam freely — casual. Okay that guy just spat at my feet, thanks.

But over the several weeks I have been here, I have taken the time to consider that a lot of these happenings can be explained and that I should not judge how people here live. I’m not saying I’m perfectly void of these thoughts; I still cringe my nose from time to time at some of the scents that linger in the air and question life. But by recognizing that the world is multi-faceted, I became more receptive to the beauty that this country holds: an amazing sense of community, a diverse array of ideologies, and a meticulous love for home-crafted beer, among other aspects. And if I had gained anything from my summer (besides gratefulness), it’s a sense of respect for the people here. Even with living conditions that many of us would deem unfavorable, people here are happy. After worrying less about what I might be stepping in and observing the things happening around me, I’ve noticed a lot of people smile and laugh, which to me was a living testament that happiness is not contingent to one type of living or only connected to material possession. This brings me back to my original point that there is by far more than two sides to a coin. Who am I to judge whether one’s way of living is worse off when in fact that person can be happier than I am (and my peers at that, considering the recent NYTimes article on campus suicide)? And isn’t that the end goal — to be happy and share that joy? Maybe, maybe not. Nonetheless, I think it’s important to remember to not only not judge a book by its cover, but also not judge the author for the words he/she has written. Or I guess in our day and age, don’t judge a Tweet by its hashtags..? (Sorry, I tried)

For those who are curious, “likho apni kahaani” is the motto of Janalakshmi Financial Services / Jana Urban Foundation, and it means to “build your own story.” Pretty dope, isn’t it?

One last trek to Yanaimalai, which means "Elephant Rock" in Tamil

Dear India

Dear India,

Before hopping on your luxurious (lol) national airline in May, the extent of my knowledge of your complex and varied culture was from restaurants, a handful of friends, approximately 2 actual Bollywood movies, and Slumdog Millionaire. I can confidently say that after spending 10 weeks wandering through your chaotic streets, enduring your heat wave, and meeting your incredible citizens, I’m going to be extremely confused when I return to American culture. I’m already terrified when I see the occasional white person walking around. I don’t know what I’ll do when I cross a street without fearing death by motorcycle/tuk tuk/auto. I can’t remember what it’s like not to smile at every single person I make eye contact with. I am definitely unprepared for the weather to go under 80 degrees Fahrenheit at any given time. Why wear shorts in the summer when you can wear kurtas and leggings? Why wear shoes?

My favorite part about spending 10 weeks here has been the individuals I’ve met, especially at Aravind. A day never passed when someone (ahem, Hepsiba) didn’t say, “you look like you need a snack” before handing me biscuits, carrots, cookies, etc. I started with a project team and ended up with a personal team of Tamil teachers who beamed with pride every time I attempted to speak with one of their friends or colleagues in their ancient language. Nithya and Sakthipriya notified me whenever a temple elephant strolled down the road and took pictures/fixed my hair like older sisters when I wore my sari. Sister Lakshmi taught me the basics of Indian culture my first few weeks here; how to eat with your right hand, the proper tea/coffee customs, how to speak to patients that came to the hospital. The younger MLOP sisters of the free hospital constantly made me laugh, told me about their lives, and included me in their daily routines. Dr. VPR, an eccentric, brilliant ophthalmologist, generously offered multiple books about his favorite philosophers and yogis. Vivek, Busra and I had the privilege of working under Ms. Dhivya, a disciplined and intelligent leader of Aravind’s administrative staff. Most of all, I am thankful for meeting the legendary Hepsiba Jawahar. This woman has more sass than I knew was possible. She has put me in more hilarious situations than I have time to discuss and served as my fearless mentor the entire summer.

Unfortunately I have one issue with you, India; your food has left me with severe trust issues. I never anticipated eating lamb’s blood and intestines a few weeks into this trip (or at all for that matter). I also didn’t realize that EVERYTHING has the potential to make you sick. I would like to take this time to thank the creators of Pepto Bismol/similar medicines, as my life would be a miserable place without them. The best part about living in a world where you’re constantly looking for hygienic bathrooms is that there usually are none when you need them. As one could imagine, being extremely carnivorous in a place where most dishes are made from lentils/rice/vegetables left a lot to be desired. In your defense, the meat dishes that I did consume while here were amazing (shout out to Spice Garden), and I don’t remember any of them making me sick. Parathas, or as I call them, the Croissants of India, could comprise an entire food group in my diet. By the end of this trip I expanded my horizons to lentils and vegetables, but still tons of rice, yogurt, and bananas. You definitely win the prize for Best Coffee, Best Tea, and Best Butterscotch Ice Cream (sorry America). Next time I’m here I’ll give North Indian cuisine a try.

India, you are geographically like the California of South Asia. There are beaches, mountains, forests, deserty areas, etc. I’ve never seen anything like the Western Ghats in my life. Every time we hiked or drove through them I could not fathom that something so beautiful existed, untouched by humans in many parts. It was a huge contrast from the scorching beaches of Rameswaram, the lush forests of Kodaikanal, the charming city of Pondicherry, and the jungles of Thekkady. I didn’t anticipate strolling along a sandy beach, plundering up windmill covered mountains, and getting eaten alive by leeches within the course of a few weeks. Your wildlife is magnificent, but I still get most excited about the goats, cows, and stray dogs that we encounter multiple times everyday. I think the U.S. would be a much happier place if there were puppies at the end of every trip, like our trek at Yanaimalai. I’m so glad I had people like Busra and Vivek along for these trips-two of the best people that I know and love (to harass).

Before embarking on a long-term journey like this, people always say that it’ll be the “adventure of a lifetime.” To avoid stringing together a million clichés about ‘broadening my horizons’, I’ll put it simply. India changed me, and in a way, I think I changed a tiny part of India too. I would be happy if I left an impact on the people around me in the way that they affected me. This experience has taught me to laugh at myself in countless strange situations. I’ve made friends from all over the world, and I learned that despite cultural differences, everybody still loves to talk about their pets, kids and favorite foods. I’ve learned little snippets of a language that’s thousands of years old, yet still proudly spoken by the citizens of Tamil Nadu. I’ve been forced to break free from meticulously planning every single thing that I do. I’m inspired by the work that I was able to do here, and I will absolutely transfer what I’ve taken from this experience into my future pursuits. I’ve been pining over this internship since I stumbled upon it on the IIP website in the fall of 2014, and I could not be more grateful to have spent 10 weeks in this extraordinary country. Romba nandri to Penn, the International Internship Program, the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI)/Aparna, and the Aravind Eye Hospital. Poittu Varén, India. Until next time.


Olive Chinna Pappa

One last trek to Yanaimalai, which means "Elephant Rock" in Tamil

One last trek to Yanaimalai, which means “Elephant Rock” in Tamil

Vivek: Please let me pay you back sometime. Your ‘pay it forward’ philosophy won’t work if you never let anyone else pay you back. Thanks for introducing me to the far superior India Dominos pizza and for counseling me about my neurotic academic/career concerns. You’re very wise (also a genius), but most importantly a flowing stream of hilarious quotes. Busra and I both love you for being a good sport when we take modeling photos of you. You will always deserve “the throne.” Rest assured that we will show up at your door and sit on the floor until you invite us in because “it’s awkward.” I’m very sad we aren’t traveling home together; the flight definitely won’t be a 9.5/10 without you. I look forward to our retirement in Auroville.

Busra: Shra Shra Shra. What would I have done without your 24/7 presence in my life? Probably would have eaten way less ice cream, that’s what. I am grateful I got to join you on your Ramadan journey (“Azan sounded, time for dinner, let’s go, it’s prayer time!!”) I was/am in awe of your discipline; if I could survive for that many days without constant food/water it would be a miracle. I’m so glad that we developed such strong telepathy over the course of this trip; it makes communicating so much easier. It was great having a partner to antagonize Vivek with. You’re also brilliant and underestimate yourself almost as much as Vivs. I am very much looking forward to our Turkish breakfast that you’ve mentioned (and in typical Olivia fashion I’ll talk about it 100 times until it happens). We’ll keep the Jay-Shawn spirit alive during the school year with ice cream/French fry dates, gotta maintain the “Fat American” stereotype. Can’t wait to see the five trillion (beautiful, photogenic, well posed) pictures you’ll have from Turkey. Peace, love, and Meat&Eat.

Who are you?

According to a recent talk at Aravind by Mindtree co-founder Mr. Subroto Bagchi, an individual can be defined with the following six criteria:

  • Education
  • Experience
  • Network
  • Networth
  • Family
  • Health

Adding these criteria together forms an individual’s platform. It is through this platform that we follow our dreams and goals in life. However, two individuals with the same platform may have vastly different outcomes in life. Why? Because we are highly influenced by our desires/purpose.

Mr. Bagchi says it all comes down to the matrix.


A. High platform, Low purpose

Individuals are very motivated by money. They desire consumption. Their biggest mistake is the belief that they are indisposable. For instance, they may fail to acknowledge the line of qualified people in line for their job.

B. High platform, High purpose

People who fall in this category desire legacy. They wish to leave something beneficial for the next generation. These people tend to hold a lot of power and are highly respected. Consequently, they rarely receive negative feedback.

C. Low Platform, Low Purpose

People who land in this category are motivated by existence. They make sure to attend every single wedding, birthday, and funeral. Their biggest fallacy is comparison. By constantly comparing themselves and others, they fail to recognize the intermediate steps and obstacles individuals face to get from one point to another.

D. Low platform, High purpose

And last but not least, these individuals desire innovation. Their mistake stems from a fear of scale. They worry of losing quality if they increase the scale of their work.

Note: Purpose is defined by impact over time. High purpose means impacting a lot of people over a long period of time.

In an ideal society, equal ratios of each category would provide a nice balance of innovators, money makers, event planners/attenders, and power holders. However, this is rarely the case. What’s more important, however, is that we are not tied down to one category. Depending on our desires and life circumstances, we have the potential to move through these categories.

Dr. V, founder of Aravind Eye Hospital, exemplifies someone who was able to move through this matrix. He started off in low platform, high purpose by serving in the Indian Army Medical Crops. After being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, he was bed-ridden for nearly 2 years, leaving him crippled and unable to continue his career as an obstetrician. He shifted to low platform, low purpose. While most people might have given up, Dr. V decided to pursue his interest in medicine through a field that would allow him to operate with his condition. By switching to ophthalmology and constantly training himself to hold a scalpel, Dr. V became one of the most well-recognized cataract surgeons. While most people might sit back and enjoy retirement, Dr. V worked even harder to develop a system of eradicating needless blindness. He saw the problems associated with access and cost to eye care so he strived to create a system of treating patients for free.  These pursuits moved him to the low platform, high purpose quadrant. Unlike people in this category, Dr. V was not afraid to scale his innovation. Working hard to develop his 11-bed hospital to a full 600-bed hospital and to open Aravind hospitals in other regions of India, Dr. V created a legacy. His remarkable eye care system has been studied by business schools all over the world, attracting curiosity in its ability to provide free eye care while still sustaining a profit. The current Aravind ophthalmologists follow in Dr. V’s footsteps, thereby also identifying with this rare category—high platform, high purpose.

After a nice run through the park with Dr. Tulika this morning, our conversation led to how we define success and how it changes with age and culture. She brought up Mr. Bagchi’s matrix and we had an interesting discussion about which category to strive for. As my internship comes to an end, I could not imagine a better way of thinking about my experience at Aravind. I’ve had to recognize my platform and reflect on the motivation behind my goals. The matrix offered a new perspective to understand my role in India and as an intern at Aravind.

Where do you fall in the matrix?

Money On My Mind

McDonald’s was something of a treat for us when I was growing up. We rarely ever went out to eat because it simply wasn’t economical. Every Friday afternoon, my dad would pick us up from school and our whole family would drive half an hour to the nearest mall. My sister and I would spend the afternoon dreaming our way through racks and racks of clothes we could never afford, and we’d all go to McDonald’s for dinner. It’s funny, but since I’ve gotten chances to try so many different restaurants in college, it’s my mom’s Vietnamese home-cooking that I constantly crave.

My parents worried about being able to send me to college. They could help me memorize my times tables and made sure I had enough to eat and buy me notebooks, but college was a monster that they couldn’t help me fight. It taunted them endlessly and initiated many arguments between the two of them, probably even more than I’m aware of. I’m not sure who was more relieved, them or me, when I found out I was accepted as a QuestBridge Scholar to Penn. Most of the people I interact with don’t really know what my financial background is like. Due to my generous scholarship, I’ve been able to fit in well enough among my peers.

Momos are Tibetan dumplings that bring to mind Japanese gyoza; they’re pretty popular here in India. There’s a guy that sells them pretty close to my hotel, and we often grab some after work or dance practice. Five chicken momos cost a mere 30 rupees. 50 cents. 10 momos for a dollar.

We interns spend about the same as we would in the states whenever we go out to eat. Back there, paying $10 for a meal wouldn’t be unusual. That’s like a Chipotle burrito bowl with a side of guac and some change. That’s like almost 10 dumplings. That’s like 600 rupees (Rs).

The average salary for a tailor at Shahi is about 6000 Rs, or $100, per month. Talking to many of the girls during our time here revealed that they only allow themselves about 1000-1500 Rs per month for food, opting to send the rest back home to their families. The money is very important in helping fund their siblings’ education and ensuring the general family welfare, which is why many of these girls were encouraged by parents to find employment in the first place. It is therefore essential that they are able to save and to send back as much money as they can.

Let’s take a moment to think about these 1500 Rs though. That’s less than a dollar per day. It’s one thing to be told that 20% of the world’s population live on less than a dollar per day, and it’s an entirely different thing to see that reality in front of your eyes and hear it over and over again every single day for a couple months. There were many different factors that Amy and I encountered while trying to piece together the overarching issue of malnutrition, and money was definitely a huge problem. Perhaps a potato and rice diet was due to habit, but there’s no denying that it’s also the most economical option. Even back in the States, eating healthy is particularly expensive and impractical for those who belong to the urban poor, as Gwyneth Paltrow failed to fully understand earlier this year. There is very little room for these female migrant workers to escape this negative feedback loop of malnutrition and long work hours. They cannot hope to continue working at their best if they do not take better care of themselves, but this would mean sending less money home to their families every day, a duty of which they would not deprive themselves.

So whenever we go out for dinner on the weekend and drop as much money in two nights as they do in a whole month on food, I can’t help but feel guilty. Again. I know, there was a lot of guilt in my last post and there is more in this one, and one could make the argument that I can’t feel guilty about living within my own current means, but that doesn’t mean that these things don’t cross my mind every single time I make a purchase here. This monetary facet of the malnutrition issue is one that we couldn’t come close to addressing despite Shahi funding the intervention — deworming tablets, iron tablets, and fruit — for its entirety of 30 days. We designed a supplemental training module in which we encourage the girls to think about their own health and allow themselves to spend more money on nutritious food, but the sense of familial loyalty and responsibility seems to run deep here. Amy sometimes points out that I’m a bit pessimistic, which is completely true, and that we are helping them move forward with the information we give them and the points we can address. It’s a matter of balancing out my critiques about what we haven’t been able to do versus focusing my energy on what we can do at the moment, and as far as money goes, I hope that our final data analysis and report will be able to convince Shahi to scale up the intervention for the benefit of all its workers.

Pearls, But No Swine

Pigs were a commonplace road-side decoration in Mulukanoor Village where I had collected my research data, but now as I am back at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) for data and sample analysis, swine  are few and cattle seem to rule the highway medians leading to downtown Hyderabad. I suppose I am intuitively drawn to notice livestock and new animal species anywhere I travel. This past Tuesday, I sat packed like a sausage up against a bus window on the way to shop at the markets and bazaars surrounding the historic Charminar monument and mosque. I couldn’t help but notice the water buffalo walking lazily past a crowded tea stand, yoked zebu waiting under the shade of trees growing out of sidewalks, and monkeys gleefully raiding a pile of coconuts on a wooden wheeled cart.  When my cohort Maureen, a PhD student from Cornell, and I finally arrived at the bazaar after a few additional rickshaw rides, we entered upon a different kind of zoo. Although the Charminar market has slowed significantly after the passing of Ramadan when large crowds come to purchase goods and clothing specific to the occasion, the streets are still bustling with a an amazing array of people flooding textile shops and our target for the trip; pearl vendors. Hyderabad pearls are plentiful and inexpensive in many areas of the city, but if you feel the need to tour over 40 jewelers and pearl artisans in a row, this market is the place to be. It is also a good location to learn some bargaining skills. I often feel uncomfortable demanding lower prices and theatrically getting up to exit until vendors lower prices, but Maureen takes to the bargaining scene naturally. One vendor jokingly told her that she should switch her PhD from Animal Science to Marketing and Business. As we sat and looked at the variety of colors and designs, vendors also displayed the authenticity of their pearls for us by holding them under a flame and describing their slightly uneven but natural surface. I felt slightly more at ease this time in the market after travelling through the crowds of people and climbing the Charminar towers a few weeks prior. It was at that time that I paid a small fee to climb up narrow, twisting stone steps with strangers closely in front and behind to reach the views from the Charminar balcony. Just before mild claustrophobia set in,  I emerged from the dark, pillar steps with the massive crowd to overlook the bustling streets below.

A view from the Charminar balcony

A view from the Charminar balcony

Approaching the Charminar Mosque through the Market

Approaching the Charminar Mosque through the Market

On the same day as my first visit to Charminar, I was also able to visit the historic Golkonda Fort in Hyderabad, Telangana. Although the current remains of the fort were constructed beginning in 1506, the fortified hill has been a coveted spot in the hands of many kings starting in 945AD. It is famous for its surrounding mines of gemstones and its impressive architecture. There are sets of outer and inner walls and many, many (emphasis on many) steps to reach the mosque, Hindu temple, and towers at the peak of the fort. With the sun beating down on us at noon, I attempted to race a 10yr old boy up the steps while his mother laughed at us from behind. I did ‘lose’ the race to the delight of the boy, but we both won a fantastic view of the ruins and the city beyond:


After taking in a sufficient amount of pearl shops and bargaining deals, I made my way back to the research institute to work on searching out more jewels (jewels of knowledge that is) in my data analysis. Although studying water buffalo milk production may not always seem as glamorous as searching out ancient ruins, I am excited to compile my results and refine the next steps for the improvement of livestock and livelihoods in this area which is certainly a different, but valuable treasure.

Saying Goodbye

I can’t believe it’s my last blog post in India. I think I’ve been avoiding writing this one. I hate summing things up. (so I should lead by promising that this doesn’t cover a tenth of what I really have to say about this summer). And even more than summing things up – I hate endings and goodbyes.

I’m thinking back to the end of this past semester. It had been a really crazy, exciting, fun-filled, and incredibly stressful semester (as I guess most are at Penn). And If I’m being perfectly honest, when it was over, I don’t think I felt ready to come to India. After two years in college, I felt like I’d finally settled into my groove: I had my friends, my clubs, my major(s) – everything was falling into place, it felt like home.

I remember my last night in school, wondering why I was going so far away from a place where things felt so good.

But then I remembered a quote I’d heard somewhere once:

If change is frightening it’s a good thing because it means you’re grateful for what you have.”

 And I remember having a really profound minute (profound moments hardly last longer than that), in which I reflected on how far I’d come in the last two years, and how lucky I was to have so many things – both at Penn and at home in New York City – that I was afraid to leave behind, if only for 10 weeks.

But of course that’s not the whole story. Because I wasn’t just afraid about leaving Penn, I was nervous about my first visit to a developing country

And I can’t pretend the lack of certain simple creature comforts haven’t been challenging:

I miss having a sidewalk to walk on so that I don’t have to worry about being run over whenever I walk outside.

I miss being able to stick my head under the faucet and drink when I’m thirsty.

I miss Mexican food.

I miss fast internet.

All of these are small, first world problems. But I’d be lying if I said they’re never on my mind.

And then there are bigger things.

I look forward to being back in a place where I’m not confined by gender-specific expectations. It gets tiring to feel like a second class citizen.

I look forward to being back in New York and not having to worry that the cab driver will stop at some warehouse stuffed with expensive goods where a smiling, sycophantic salesmen will endlessly try to sell things I don’t want.

I look forward to understanding what’s going on when I’m traveling.

Which brings me to the double-edged nature of traveling in a country like India. On the one hand, it’s exhausting – you never really can know 100% what’s happening, because all the directions and instruction are being shouted in a foreign language and things can change inexplicably in an instant.

For example, last weekend I traveled to Amritsar with Bill. We bought our ticket online beforehand, got to the station an hour early, everything as careful as possible. We asked someone for the bus to Amritsar, we boarded the bus and settled down. And then we showed our ticket to a man sitting near us to double check, and we found out that the bus we’d bought tickets for had been cancelled and we had to buy new tickets.

No had one bothered to tell us. or if they did, they said it in Hindi and we had no chance of knowing.

And yet – on the other hand – this kind of traveling is so exciting. You learn how you can manage on so much less or in such strange or different circumstances. You never know what to expect wherever you go. How the people there will react to you, what the landscape will look like, what crazy driver will be driving the bus – it’s certainly far more exciting than my usual bus ride from New York back to Penn. And I do think I’ll miss the excitement. Often there’s nothing harder than simple, predictable routine.

That also goes for the work I’ve done here. Sometimes it may have felt here like I was working pretty hard for summer vacation. And yet I was recently filling out some paperwork for school in which I had to describe the various projects I’d worked on this summer, and I was suddenly filled with a sense of accomplishment. LEAP’s mission is to prepare Indian students for their career, but I think interning here has in many versatile ways prepared me for mine:

I’ve had the opportunity to: write official statistical reports, work on designing classroom curriculum, spend hours researching about pedagogy and classroom management, think about effective ways to build an alumni base, try my hand at designing a promotional video, write promotional material for a website, and also conduct various workshops for teenagers, college students, and adults.



Laura and I running a workshop on improvisation and classroom presence

It’s been a true start-up summer, giving me experience in a wide variety of fields and especially in the one I’m quite interested in: education.

And it’s given me a lot to think about – vocational training (LEAP’s main focus) is not a field I’ve ever thought about much, because it’s nowhere near as glorious as the way we like to talk about education and empowerment in America. But it’s very reflective of the reality of a country like India.

It goes without saying that I will miss my co-workers at LEAP: so warm and welcoming, so passionate and hardworking, so eager to share their food and their experiences of Indian culture, so quick to offer their help and advice, so excited to learn more about us and our lives back in North America.


A going away party for two of the trainers

It is strange to realize that I don’t know when I will see them again.

And to end off: I want to return to the last piece of that quote from above for a second, that part about being grateful for what you have.

Because all other complicated feelings about India aside, I hope I return to America with a profound sense of gratitude for what I’ve been given in life.

I’ve missed my friends and family: I’m endlessly grateful to have had them supporting me from a far and to know I’m going back to be among people who care about me so much.

In the grand lottery of the seven billion people living on this Earth, I’ve pretty much hit the jackpot. Sure, there are plenty of people in the world wealthier than me, but the truth is that I’ve never lacked for what I need in life: I’ve always had a roof over my head, never had to worry about never had to travel in unbearable heat, always had a clean way to shower and relieve myself, always had nutritious and sufficient food, never lacked for a solid, well-rounded education.

power outage

Working away during one of many power outages

And that brings to my final point: what I’m most grateful for is knowing that I’ve been given the tools to essentially do whatever I want in my life. I’ve been given the power to shape my life as I wish and, even more than that, to shape the world around me – or at least have a small impact on it. That’s a lesson that India has taught me – and I hope it’s one I never forget.

P.S. the big thing I’ll miss about India: the food. hands down.

IMG_20150721_205902_244 IMG_2530

Workers, Staff, Faculty and… Healthcare?

Since we arrived at Shahi Exports, we’ve witnessed the stark differentiation between “staff” and “non-staff.” The staff includes the company’s management, the HR team that we work under, us, and all of the other marketing and design groups that help a garment company function. The people who do the actual labor – cutting fabric, washing it, sewing pieces together, adding buttons, dying jeans, etc.—they are non-staff or workers. While everyone works within the same building at unit 7, the staff and non-staff are mostly segregated by floor. There are also separate cafeterias and restrooms for the two groups. Often, these separations make sense because of the structure of the factory floor, but the distinction and the salary gap are both very real.

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A worker sanding jeans — one of the most physically taxing processes involved in garment production

Back in my hometown (Kutztown, PA), the same phenomena is easy to see. My dad is a professor at Kutztown University, where a very similar “faculty” and “staff” division exists. The two groups differ in education, salary, and benefits. When I asked my dad if he knew any specifics on the differences in faculty and staff health care, he said he wasn’t sure since they operated under separate unions. Back at Penn, race, dialect, and local West Philadelphia residents vs. non-locals often (but not always) enforce the faculty/staff division even more. While I’m curious to return to both Kutztown and Penn to better understand more about similarities or differences in benefits and healthcare, I was lucky enough to experience both worker and faculty heath facilities in the Shahi context.

Shahi provides all of its workers with a health insurance program called the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation, or ESI. ESI is a government-run program for individuals who earn less than 15,000 rupees, or $250, per month. The health insurance is immediately effective as soon as the worker is on payroll, and is paid for in part by the government, worker, and employer. This service is enormously important to many workers, as it covers both them and their families and services are usually free of cost.

ESI covers over 75,800,000 individuals across India, which puts tremendous strain on the facilities. We got to visit one of the nearest ESI hospitals, and found it packed with people. People were sitting on the floor and on windowsills, and there were lines to see general physicians that snaked outside in the hot sun. Many people would stand for hours just to be turned away after closing hours. The hospital was also over an hour away from the factory unit where we work. The hospital is not open outside of normal working hours, so workers have to take off full workdays in order to go. If workers are sent due to severe anemia, they will likely have to go first to an ESI dispensary (small, but more numerous pharmacies) in order to get recommended to the hospital, then travel to the hospital, stand in line to see the doctor, and be recommended for blood tests. However, the blood tests are only available until one o’clock. So, in almost all cases, the individual will have to return the next day to wait yet again for the blood tests. The results can take time to obtain as well.


A worker getting her blood pressure taken before her blood is drawn for a hemoglobin (anemia) test. This is part of the initiative that Chan and I have been working on.

When I later needed to see a doctor for my own stomach troubles, my supervisor, a member of the “staff” of Shahi, recommended the doctors’ office that she and her family used. It was a private hospital that was about 10 minutes away from the factory unit where I work, and I was able to sit down in an air-conditioned waiting room as soon as I arrived. After my appointment, I inquired about hemoglobin tests, and was told that I could get one right then and there if I visited the labs downstairs.

These discrepancies in services and care are difficult to witness from afar, but becoming part of the system myself was much more impactful. It also forces me to recognize that I am part of such systems of inequality back home, but their familiarity renders them much less visible. I know that broadening my understanding of the intersection of class, education, and health will not stop when I hop on my plane to Newark.