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

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About sarahkho

- Class of 2016, concentrating in Finance or OPIM in Wharton and minoring in Computer Science - Interests in healthcare, international development, and technology - Summer 2014 intern at DICCI in Pune, Maharashtra