Reflections

 

After 10 weeks living, working and traveling in India, I’ve spent the last few days relaxing and unwinding at home. As summer comes to a close I feel very grateful for the whole experience and glad that I signed up for the CASI program. While I have visited India many times before, this summer was filled with new work experiences, friendships and cities.

 

Working for IFMR Rural Channels and Services was my first real job and the feeling of contributing to an organization, as opposed to simply studying and doing homework, was very satisfying. I gained a greater appreciation and understanding of the working world and am actually looking forward to future internships and jobs. Prior to this experience, I was convinced that being a student was the best thing for me- with the way some people talk about work, I was under the impression that full time jobs were something to dread. I had already accepted that I would probably not fall in love with my job. But, while I may not have discovered my passion just yet, my work at IFMR helped me come to the conclusion that something in banking or consulting would be both interesting and challenging.

 

Another big take away or me was that I thoroughly enjoyed living in India. This was the first time I experienced living in India by myself, as opposed to with grandparents. And the experience was entirely different. I explored more of India, taking day and weekend trips to areas in and around Chennai as well as Delhi. My family tends to travel to Bombay and Pune, and that’s it; we’ve always found reasons (excuses) to not make the effort to travel more within India and it’s been a big mistake. I underestimated how much India had to offer- between the old forts, great food, incredible temples, elephants and much more, India can be an incredible tourist destination. I ate food I wouldn’t normally dare to try with my parents, who are rightfully afraid of us eating the wrong things and falling sick. Nonetheless, I ate off leaves, drank iced drinks, had seafood in the monsoon season and came out of it unscathed. All in all, I ended my CASI program on a high note, with the knowledge that I would enjoy living in India one day. If you look past the poor infrastructure, mosquitoes and heat, it is a great place to be, and I hope to live there at some point in the future. As the slogan goes, it’s truly Incredible !ndia.

Chatting over Chai – I guess you could call them interviews..

After participant observation, I started my interviews with the older generation within the Karen community. The aim of the interviews was to get a better understanding of the cultural transformation this community has gone through. By talking to the oldest generation alive (second generation immigrants), I hoped to collect personal anecdotes which revealed the intimate sentiments of the community towards cultural change. Since the older people spoke in Karen, I was accompanied my a translator who helped conduct the interview. Having a local with me really helped me connect to the population and helped them trust me and my cause. 

The interviews were of a very unique format: the questions were open-ended to help gather maximum information. Before each interview, I reminded the participants of the ethical components of my research and explained them my motives. The interviews lasted 2-3 hours each and were more like chats since they were not strictly formed through my questions. By informally chatting with these people, I learnt more than I would have through short and direct questions. 

The participants were happy to share their experiences with me and I recorded a lot about the history of the community that is not previously published. For instance, they all mentioned a tumultuous times in their history when the Karen community was troubled by 5 Burmese dacoits- everyone had vivid recollection of this time and they described it as the toughest time for the Karen. They also mentioned that love marriage has always been a custom in their community and the age of marriage is decreasing in the younger generation which is very counter-intuitive. It is these small changes that I want to record in my research. 

In order to understand the degree and method of transmission of cultural knowledge from one generation to another, I decided to conduct a survey of the youth population too. After 18 interviews of the older generation and 19 survey responses from youth, it was clear that the third generation immigrants are the last ones to have a substantial  knowledge of old cultural practices. This soon diminishing cultural practices are going to be the focus of my thesis. 

Along with a substantial amount of field notes and recordings from interviews, I also received a ridiculous amount of chai and coffee since it is rude to visit a house and not drink Chai with them! 5-6 cups of Chai a day was something my stomach had to get used to… but I guess if too much Chai was the worst of my problems, then I had a great field experience :) 

Indian Health Care System

After weeks of interviews of physicians, hospital administrators, pharmaceutical company employees, and even a reporter and a “whistleblower” of pharmaceutical practices, I have learned a lot during my time in India. What I gained from this summer – in addition to data I can use for continuing research – was a lot of general insight into India’s health care system. While I had read about a lot of these issues prior to coming to India, being on the ground and speaking to people really helped understand the severity of the problems and gave me some ideas about how people are working to fix them.

Some overall findings on the Indian health care system:

1) There is excellent health care available in India – if you can afford it. Some private hospitals I toured had top-notch physicians (many who had practiced overseas), brand new medical equipment and impressive facilities.

2) Even in these private hospitals, for which there is a great demand, there is still a great emphasis on low prices, given that most patients do not have health insurance and are paying out of pocket. One solution to keep costs low is a high-volume strategy, with a quick turn around. As one hospital administrator explained, his hospital paid the same amount for an MRI as any other hospital in the US, EU, or elsewhere. However, his hospital could not charge the same prices as, say, an American hospital. So to recoup the cost of the machine, his hospital would have to perform 30 MRIs a day as opposed to the maybe 6 MRIs a day that an equivalent hospital in the US would perform. Another strategy is tiered pricing where costs are different depending on the room a patient is in. A patient in a private room (versus a shared room or a ward) would pay more not just for the room, but also for medication, procedures, and surgery.

3) Quality care is not just an issue in pharmaceuticals, but also an issue with physicians and hospitals. Despite spending significantly out-of-pocket, an estimated 70% of Indians do not have access to high-quality medical care. High-quality private hospitals are, not surprisingly, normally located in larger cities. In rural areas there is demand for high-quality care, but little availability. A lot of primary care doctors, especially those operating in rural areas, are “quacks” who are do not have sufficient (or any) medical training. To get any sort of specialty care, people living in rural villages often have to travel for hours or days, not to mention cover the cost of the care, which makes this out of reach of a lot of people. Proposed solutions currently being tested have included call-in medical centers (often linked to a mail order pharmacy, which could distort incentives), remote care, and a model in which physicians are trained to recognize the most common diseases and then follow a standard protocol (an example of this is the Glocal network of hospitals).

4) Public hospitals suffer from low budgets, supply shortages, corruption, absenteeism, and poor quality of care. While I had read about this prior to coming to India, the reality was further hammered home by people I spoke to in India. Said one physician, who had spent four years working in a public hospital after completing medical school, “If I got in a severe car accident, I would rather die than be taken to a public hospital.”

5) Corruption is an issue at every point in the health care system. Every person I spoke to at a management level told me about the issues they had preventing corruption and each one had put into place checks and balances to prevent bribes, whether direct or indirect (for example, free drug samples a physician could resell).

5) As elsewhere in the world, medical care costs in India are rising. The same pressures faced globally – increased costs of diagnostics, medicine, and technical equipment, are felt very strongly in a country where the majority of people pay for medical care out-of-pocket.

6) The Hindi word/concept “jugaad,” which essentially means an innovative and simple solution to a problem, is very prevalent in Indian health care and constantly impressed me. For instance, one hospital administrator for a very large facility explained to me that many of their patients were illiterate and would get lost trying to find their ward, not being able to read the signs. The hospital’s solution was to give each ward a color (cardiology, for instance, was red). All patients pay up-front in a central check-in area and then are given a card with the name and color of their ward. There is colored tape running from the central desk throughout the hospital, so a patient can follow their tape color to their ward, helping them find their way regardless of whether they could read or not. So simple, yet so genius!

Final Portraits of India

The life lessons I learned during my 3 months working for a NGO hospital in rural India were small and simple–but these daily encounters were absolutely necessary for my personal and professional growth. I did not understand what “entitlement” meant before I left to work in India. In the beginning, I met the wealth of typical NGO or “India” problems with frustration and disappointment. For fleeting moments I felt as if I deserved a more organized internship, better research resources, or more caring mentors to help facilitate my thesis fieldwork–just because I was a Penn student. It did not take long for me to realize that I was entitled to nothing. India did not owe me anything, no matter how smart or experienced or hardworking I thought I was. It was me who owed India: a chance, patience, time. Once I did, that was when the grand learning experience began. 

I will never forget the people I met—the faces who greeted me with unwavering smiles and caring eyes, even when I might have not deserved it. After returning home and truly reflecting on my experience in India, I find myself at a loss for words. India touched me in a way that is indescribable. It changed who I am in ways I could never imagine. I could wax poetic about these life-changing experiences or the first world culture-shock I experienced upon my arrival back to America but I feel as if I have spoken enough. Therefore, I will complete my blog posts with a few of my favorite portraits and let these faces tell you a story.

DhanyaVad, India.

Girls doing traditional Kumaoni dances

Girls doing traditional Kumaoni dances

Wendy

Wendy

Reetha schoolchildren

Reetha schoolchildren

Mohan Da wearing my glasses

Mohan Da wearing my glasses

Mohan Da close-up

Mohan Da close-up

wedding scene

wedding scene

little friends

little friends

bridesmaid

bridesmaid

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Sadu in Mukteshwar

Sadu in Mukteshwar

Saksham

Saksham

Best momos in town

Best momos in town

Dev

Dev

Dharamsala's best

Dharamsala’s best

Ram Singh Ji and Kunti-Ji, my host parents

Ram Singh Ji and Kunti-Ji, my host parents

The whole family (+ a random man)

The whole family (+ a random man)

A Great Teacher

How was India?  This is a question that I heard countless times from friends and family after returning from my internship. Coming back from a place that was a whirlwind of chaos, it is a question equivalent of asking how is life? Trying to describe the experience in a paragraph is an impossible task let alone trying it describe it in a couple of sentences. Having been my home for the last 3 months, India has been an indescribable experience. It is a land so full of diversity and energy and so many experiences and memories that it will be a part of me that only I myself will fully understand. This summer has left its indelible mark on me and taught me new perspectives that will undoubtedly shape who I am.  The people who I met, the places where I have been, and the things that I encountered have taught me lessons that have given me a new outlook on life. India has been a place that is so different from the places where I have been before and this difference has been exciting, enlightening, astonishing and disorienting, frustrating, and shocking like the country itself. This difference has made the experience what it was and offered opportunities for contrast that taught me a different way of living.

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons of India is the value of friends and family. Indian families are noisy, nosey, and never far apart. Family members always know each other’s business and secrets are impossible to keep. But this also means that there is always someone there to help or give advice when you need it. The value of family is also built into the very nature of the culture. For example, weddings are never small affairs with 100+ participants being the norm and many family members travelling hours to attend.  They are excuses to gather the entire family together and offer valuable opportunities to reconnect. Many festivals such as Diwali, Holi, and Rakhee show that valuing family has been an essential part of Indian history. Perhaps the immense competition and hardship faced by many in India necessitates it but there is a strong sense of interconnectedness. One never truly feels alone and no matter where you go there is somebody you know.

Every day in India is very different and you never know what the country will throw at you but one thing that remains unchanged every day is chai time. From the driver who stopped in the middle of the road at a chai stand to the guard who invited us to sit down for chai as we were rushing to begin a four hour journey that we only had three hours to complete chai is more than a sweet drink but represents a period of reflection. This slow pace of life in India allowed me to absorb more of the world around me and to take in what was happening instead of blindly rushing from place to place. I began to notice the beauty of the sunset instead of simply turning on the lights. I took time to stop and listen to the music of the singing on the streets instead of walking by with my head down.  Chai time was a chance to reflect on the day, prepare my mind for what was ahead and tackle the world with new energy.

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Worthy of reflection

A smile is free and priceless and I was able to find a smile on most of the faces I saw in India. No matter who they were or what situation they were in everyone seemed happy. There was a spirit of joy that transcended the chains of the materialistic world. That is not to say more was always great and everyone was always working hard to generate wealth but while they were doing so people were satisfied with what they had. A famous saying in India is that there is always someone worse off and this seemed to make people appreciate their lives much more. I realized that happiness is a choice that you have to make for yourself.

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                      Happiness is everywhere                                               Spontaneous Dancing 

If you try texting and driving in Delhi it will be a not a question of if but when an accident will happen. In a city where the most important traffic law is efficiency, causing cars to swerve in and out of the lanes trying to go through any gap possible, you must be alert at all times. This has encouraged people to develop a habit of disconnecting from technology and living in the moment instead of living online. As a bustling metropolis Delhi was alive and so full of energy. People were much more willing to talk with each other and I met so many people on the streets, in cafés or on the metro. The spark in everyone’s eyes encouraged me to live actively and to drink in the life around me.

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A country full of life and people

Living in India is a unique experience no matter how much you think you have traveled before. I left the country with a little piece of me behind and a little piece of it in me, shaping my identity in a new way. She was a great teacher who taught me many invaluable lessons on how to live. Time may pass but the stories, lessons, and memories will stay with me forever. Onto the next adventure.

 

First & Last Impressions

 

As I sit here thinking about writing my next-to-last blog post for this summer, I am thinking of all of the people that I have met while in India, because it is truly the people of any place that makes it what it is.  Though one may be inspired by the wonders of the Taj, the Qutab Minar in Delhi, or the beautiful peaks of the Himalayas as seen from a quiet hill-station, none of these sights compares to the value I have gained from interacting with people here.  It only seems fit that I should dedicate this post to go through and describe some of the amazing people that I have met here even if I can only do so in a sentence or two.  I am astounded by the kindness and the motivation of many of these people and others may not have been as inspiring to say the least, but they are interesting characters who added a richness to my experience in India without which it would not have been the same.

bikanos

Reuniting with our students before leaving India

new trainers

All dressed up with the new Leap trainers!

Arun & us

Bill, Arun, & I on our last day in Yamuna Nagar

   

Many of the people I interacted with India, but not nearly all.

First, the man who drove my taxi from the airport, who I excitedly told I spoke Hindi and who tried to chat with me, but slowly realized that my poor grammar would be a difficult obstacle to overcome.  The man who helped me carry my bags from the taxi to my room at the Habitat Center and at this time I was uncertain of whether you tip in India or not and so I confess, I didn’t.  The waiter at the American Diner who brought me delicious coffee and who was confused when this time I did tip, but perhaps too much.  The first rickshaw driver that took Bill and I to Saro Jini market on the second day of our journey who was amused by the frightened sounds coming from us at our first introduction to the Indian auto-rickshaw.  The many people at Sarojini who laughed when we tried to bargain with them at the fixed price places.  The man at the ticket counter who agreed to let Bill slide as an Indian national so he could get the cheaper ticket to see Humayun’s Tomb.  The woman at the restaurant on the top floor of the Habitat Center who let us sit at the bar at 7pm and wait until the restaurant opened at 7:30 because we had yet to learn that Indians tend to eat dinner much later in the evening. The man at a temple near the Habitat Center who gave us directions to Humayun’s Tomb when we had gotten lost and were on foot looking for a place we couldn’t pronounce.  Mr. Ankit Durga Sir (as our students called him), the Executive Director of Leap, who we met for the first time at Good Earth at Khan Market and his sunglasses left us with the correct impression that he would be pretty cool.  When we arrived to the office in Delhi for the first time and found it flooded and met the caretaker and guards near the office who would kindly help us in and out of the building at odd hours of the day and night.  Our very first and absolutely delicious dinner with Ankit where we met the Delhi interns, Arundhati and Sukhman, who we would soon become much closer to after sharing one month in Yamuna Nagar together.  Raj, perhaps the happiest person I have ever met, who was the guard at Mustache hostel that welcomed us on our third day in India and showed us our bunk beds in room 201.  Marcus, the outgoing South African guy who shared our room with us at Mustache and gave us many interesting conversations about Indian culture as well as a piece of Tibetan art to take home that I currently have lying in my journal.  The grumpy American, who always seemed to be sleeping whenever we were at the hostel and probably had not had too much experience living with roommates before.  The German guy who had been kind of suspiciously traveling for 18 years non-stop and claimed that he did not really like any country, but preferred Thailand above all the others he had been to.  Just before she arrived, we were a bit nervous that the CEO of Leap, Megha Aggarwal, would be a strict, overbearing person, but were relieved to see within seconds of meeting her that she was quite the opposite.  When one of the lodgers at Mustache picked up the guitar and kindly struck up a conversation about music with me and suggested that I go to the Nizamuddin temple in Delhi.  The Canadian guy who was waiting to Skype his parents and in the meantime decided to have tea with me.  The guy who saw me frustratingly completing the FRRO application at Mustache and talked to me about Philadelphia because he happened to be from Pennsylvania.  The less than helpful guy at the FRRO office who clearly liked his position of authority a bit too much and patronized this Chinese guy for barely being able to speak English.  Samir Nabar, who basically was the single reason Sofia and I were able to complete our registration in Delhi so that we could escape being deported for failure to comply with all the bureaucratic red tape in India.  The incredible singer we met when we went out for dinner with the Leap team who played the song Roobaroo which was stuck in my head for almost a month after that.  The sneaky rickshaw driver who acted so nice to us and gave us an unwanted tour before ripping us off royally our very first time in Old Delhi.  Pallavi, the first trainer I remember meeting who seemed so happy to see us on our first day working at Leap in Yamuna Nagar.  All of the students who on the first day introduced their names with an adjective following it, which meant that for the rest of the program that we held with them, I remembered them paired with that adjective.  Arun, who conducted the first class with our students and who from the start I thought had a remarkable amount of energy and ability to grasp the students’ attention.  The driver, Tony, who showed us that he was learning English on his own and who drove us all the way to Haridwar and took us to this random restaurant on the way up to Mussoorie that ended up having the best kadhai paneer that I’ve ever had.  Rakesh, who is probably the second happiest person I have ever met, and who constantly talked to us about how he wanted to come to the U.S. some day.  Ankita, the Leap trainer who I worked with most closely who always had a sweet appearance on the outside, but if something was going on that she didn’t like, she would be the first to let you know.  Shirin, the trainer who invited us to her home where we had dinner and danced in the living room.  The guards at M.L.N. College who always waited for us to come back at night before locking the gates and who always put out water and food for the stray dogs that hung out just in front of the gate.  The driver, Rajinder, who let us know that we should probably not eat at the restaurant right next to the college because some questionable things were definitely going on there.  The guys who worked at Orchid hotel in Yamuna Nagar, where we stayed for the first month, who had a habit of being a bit nosy and entering the room unannounced.  Rohini, who showed us how to cook the most amazing shahi paneer that I’ve ever had and who taught Sofia how to make a lacha paratha.  The staff at the Beauty Palace department store that happened to have everything we needed in Yamuna Nagar.  The man at the store that was a bit closer to M.L.N. College who was very curious about Sofia, Bill and I and who asked if I’d found myself an Indian man yet.  Nirinder, who taught IT courses at Leap and who talked to us for a half hour about bar codes the first time we met him.  Mohinder and Vijinder who I mixed up for the first few weeks because their names sound so similar and they were always presented as the IT problem-solving duo.  The woman who cleaned the guest house that we stayed in our second month at Leap and who showed me the proper way to cook Maggi instant noodles after taking one look at how I was doing it and snatching the pot away from me.  The people who worked at Brijwasi, the chaat place that we must have gone to at least a dozen times during our stay in Yamuna Nagar, and who seemed to be highly amused when we tried to bargain with them to cater for an event at Leap.  Sucharita, the first of the new trainers that we met, who let us give her feedback about her lesson plans and showed a lot of creative energy ready to be tapped.  Vinod, one of the people we could not have survived without in Yamuna Nagar because he was the first one we called for any problem we had.  Anand, the obnoxiously tall trainer who has an excellent sense of humor and who managed to find us the cheapest taxis anywhere.  The taxi driver who talked to me in Hinglish the entire 6 hour drive from Yamuna Nagar to Delhi and who offered to take us to the village he was from.  All of the past Leap students that came to the reunion/farewell event to celebrate their experiences with Leap who danced for three hours and took many photos with us.  The man at the bull semen donation center who helped us out even though we were at the completely wrong place and the veterinarian we eventually managed to find who cleaned out the wound in the small stray puppy we looked after.  One student, Simran, and her kind family that took us to the largest gurudwara in Yamuna Nagar one Sunday morning.  Another student, Namit, whose sister was getting married and let us drive two hours out to her wedding at last minute notice when we so desperately wanted to see an Indian wedding in action.  When we realized we could not stay up until five in the morning to see the rest of the wedding, the man who worked at the hotel in Dehra Dun we crashed at who gave us the hardest time booking a room and for whom we had no patience for at two in the morning.  Shirin’s sister, Alisha, and the rest of her family who let us borrow their beautiful clothes and helped us play dress up for the wedding.  The first group of people who asked us to take a photo with them at the rock garden in Chandigarh and then the creepy guy with a really nice camera who didn’t bother to ask us for permission to take photos.  Ramu bhaiya who cooked us the healthiest dishes we had in India for lunch and who always seemed to be so happy with his job.  In Agra, the auto-rickshaw driver who picked us up from the train station and who showed us his giant guestbook filled with recommendations for his tours from people from all over the world.  The guide who took us to Fatehpur Sikhri and helped us get through the masses of people bombarding us with overpriced trinkets that they were selling and who seemed to be really keen on photography because he kept asking to take photos with Sofia’s really nice DSLR camera.  The driver who kept taking us to really bland restaurants where I’m sure he received some sort of commission for bringing in tourists.  The security guard who herded us out of the Taj Mahal gardens just as the sun was setting and the young businessman from Gurgaon who I met on the train back from Agra.  On our way to Amritsar, the child stuffing things in his nose and shouting at his sister the entire train ride.  The guy at the Punjabi dhaba that we went to who told us that we hadn’t eaten enough and that we needed to finish everything when we were all beyond stuffed by their delicious and amazingly greasy food.  The man at the aam papad shop who kept giving us free samples and seemed to be highly amused by the “woo” sound that Bill makes whenever he gets excited.  All of the principals and vice principals of Yamuna Nagar schools that I met when we went around to ask if Leap could give a presentation there and who I could tell felt fiercely protective of their schools.  The teachers who we gave this presentation to, who actually seemed to listen to what we had to say despite how young and inexperienced we were.  The rest of the Leap team who taught me so much and never seemed to stop seeking better solutions.  The Chinese and Taiwanese duo traveling together that we met in Goa, Tara and Sarah.  The owner of a restaurant who trusted me enough to lend me The Joy Luck Club during our stay in Goa.  The many many men in Goa who really need to learn a better way to treat women.  Sofia’s parents who came all the way from Chile to see her in India and treated Bill and I to dinner.  The young guy in Dharamsala who helped us find a short cut to a Tibetan library and then took us all the way there.  The helpful buddhist guy on the bus back to Delhi from Dharamsala that gave me a blanket and kept me at ease while I was traveling alone.  The less than helpful bus drivers who tricked us by not taking us all the way to our stop in Delhi and forced us to take rickshaws from the outskirts of Delhi.  The woman at the airport who let me slide by even though my bags were definitely overweight and the man who helped carry my cumbersome sitar over to the fragile baggage section.  

propeller group

At the Leap celebration

MLN college

MLN College

I’m sure I’ve missed so many and I wish I could remember them all.  The good, the bad, and the somewhere in between.  They are all worth remembering, even those that we may have just met in passing.  Each person represents a part of India that I was given the chance to learn about and they each were part of the formation of my first impressions of India.  No other people will be a part of that again and that’s what makes me so grateful for them.

Lessons from India

To be honest, this summer wasn’t the most ideal one, but I am grateful for my summer in India because I learned a lot during my time there — through the good parts and bad, the unique experiences and prosaic observations. Whether it was because I was able to see things through the lens of a new culture or simply because I was exposed to situations I normally wouldn’t have been in (‘typical’ as they may be), my time in India has proven to be an experience that has added to the person I am and the views I hold.

Without further ado, here are some lessons that I have learned:

  1. Money is a means to an end, and not an ends in and of it self. I am a pretty frugal person, and so, because we had to eat out for every breakfast and dinner, I kept the money I spent per meal to a minimum, save for weekends when we ate at restaurants. This meant regularly eating meals that cost under 1 USD, such as 2 dabelis for 20 rps or a Bombay Masala sandwich for 40 rps — food that was tasty, filling, and authentic, but repetitive and far from healthy. While being mindful of how I spend money is important, I realized I was getting so caught up on how little I could get by on spending on food, and in doing so I was hurting my health. Put another way, I was putting more value on the money itself, rather than on the greater things it could be used for. Processed with VSCOcam
  2. Relatedly, Don’t just subsist, but live and enjoy life. Money is to be spent. Time (and energy and youth!) are meant to be directed towards endeavors that give your life fulfillment. It can be so easy for me to focus on what are really means and misdirected goals — e.g. spending as little money as I can, or slaving my life away to attain certain grades while neglecting the enjoyment of learning — rather than on the bigger, more important purposes in my life. 
  3. I am privileged, blessed, and undeserving of the life I have. And I almost always lack the perspective to be grateful for these blessings. This relates specifically to my Christian faith, but also more generally to my opportunities as an American and as a student at Penn (or as a student in general, for that matter). I am pretty sure all of us who have been in India have witnessed the pervasive poverty that, at least for me, was present all around me on the streets. The poverty I witnessed was so intertwined with my experience of “India” that it became just that — “poverty” that is always there, rather than individual women, men, children, and babies whose lives are filled with lack. I am also aware that I lived in Pune, a well-off city, in India, and that 60% of India is rural, to not say anything of other impoverished areas of the world (USA included). I surmise that this is something that we have all witnessed, so I won’t write more about this point except to say that I am gratefully humbled by the blessings I have. (I don’t mean to sound like I’m moralizing, and I hope I don’t come off that way as that’s not my intention — these are just the lessons that I’ve personally been learning.)
  4. Money goes a long way in other parts of the world. $5 USD spent on a Starbucks coffee is about 300 rps. The money I spend so casually on overpriced coffee, unhealthy snacks, or restaurant week (just as some examples) could go a LONG way towards providing food, healthcare, education, or shelter to people in need in other countries. The sacrifice for me to give up some of these things would amount to a simple lifestyle change, while for people living in developing countries, that money could multiply into a life-changing donation, if directed towards the right organizations (which, identifying them, is an important but not entirely difficult task). Living in India and really experiencing — if only to a moderate degree — how much farther money can go and how much it is needed in other countries, makes me view money/ US dollars very differently. For me personally, I hope that this understanding of money will stay with me and change how I spend my money and encourage me to give more. 
  5. Friendships can be easy to form, and barriers that separate people are not as set as they may seem. In general, people are careful with whom they choose to be friends with and they are just as careful with whom they choose not to be friends with. Along with that, it seems natural to categorize people into different circles — close friends, normal friends, acquaintances, people who used to talk to and now I don’t know whether I should say hi ahh, strangers, etc. I won’t go so far as to say that these barriers are artificial because I think the differences that separate us, individually and as groups, are important and meaningful. Yet, at the same time these barriers that we put up are not as set as they may seem. Being in a foreign country, we made friends with whomever we could. Those other foreign interns we met are now are friends. Those other backpackers or students in the hostel that we stay in are people we are willing to have conversations with or even travel with. Different backgrounds, different personalities, different ages, etc. etc. — all these criterions that we’d normally used to decide whether to (in most cases) not befriend someone get thrown out the window when we are abroad, save for the necessary criterions that they aren’t too creepy, sketch, or annoying or the like. And for the most part, most of the casual friendships I made proved to be enjoyable and people tended to be friendly. While real, deep friendship is admittedly rare and to be cherished, I realize that we put up so many more barriers than we need to in our lives back home. It’s ironic that we can put up more barriers for our fellow classmates or Philadephians than we do when we are traveling in a foreign country surrounded by strangers. I hope that in my own life, I may judge less (put up less barriers), and that I may be more willing to just be friendly, if only to say hi and smile on Locust Walk.
  6. Closely related, barriers are easy to build up. When I first encountered a women holding a baby asking me for money for food at a stop, I had such an urge to give, and I did on a few times. When Reya sadly told me that giving money might not be the best idea (and I trust her on that), I would, for the next couple of weeks, still at least look in their eyes and apologize that I couldn’t give them anything. However, towards the end I stopped turning my head to them at all, darting my eyes away from the child I saw coming over. It was mostly because I didn’t want to give them false hope that I would give them money (though I would want to!), but also because I did, to a degree, become desensitized to all the beggars who asked for money or food on a daily basis. It was striking to see how easily I put barriers up as well, and that realization is a good counter lesson to remind me that these barriers are not necessary.

These are just some of the more concrete lessons that I learned during my time in India. This post is already getting long, so I’ll stop with these, but I’ve learned so, so much more from this summer, relating to India’s history, culture, and religions; my own faith and person; and more. I am grateful for all the parts of my experience, good or bad as they may be, because they have in their own way challenged me and caused me to reflect. 

- Sarah