One of my favorite books comes from my 12th grade reading list, a thousand-page literary masterpiece from John Irving called A Prayer for Owen Meany. I still remember it was a thousand pages because we were given a week to read it, and everyone in the class panicked. I think I was one of the few who actually read instead of going to SparkNotes to skim over the chapter outlines, and I’m so glad for it. It’s one of those books that make you think about the meaning of life in a non-stereotypic sappy kind of way. I cried at the end, which normally would tell you something about the book if it weren’t for the fact that I cry easily anyway. I started reading it again a few days ago and came across three words that perfectly summed up an idea I’ve been struggling with during our internship:
“Logic is relative.”
Maybe it’s because my dad is so often hypocritical, and I know all of us can’t help it sometimes, but I hate hypocrites. They are my biggest pet peeve, right next to people who walk at a snail’s pace and take up the whole sidewalk while doing so. I mean, seriously? Some of us actually have things to do and places to be. But hyprocrites hold everyone to this standard that magically excludes them, and that’s worse.
It’s true that malnutrition and anemia are huge problems here in India. It’s true that people from rural areas suffer from both more than those in urban areas, as we’ve seen with the migrant female workers. And it is indeed important that I made health my focus. But there’s this idea that Westerners believe their knowledge and experiences to be superior to the rest of the world’s and that they love to preach these things, whether consciously or not.
And it just makes me wonder.
We’ve been designing a nutrition module in order to educate the girls on proper nutrition. It includes a list of key minerals and vitamins that are missing from their diets, which consist of mainly rice and potatoes right now. I actually sat down and made a table of common foods and their nutritonal content so we could make appropriate suggestions in the module. We list spinach, drumstick leaves, carrots, and beans as important additions to be considered. But how can I possibly stand there and tell them it’s important to eat these things when I don’t even eat them on a regular basis? When I’m at Penn, my diet consists of mapo tofu from Yue Kee and the occasional chicken over rice from the halal food truck across from Wawa. I try to eat healthily in the beginning of the semester, but it goes downhill very quickly after the first month. Between classes, work, and extracirriculars, nutrition is the last thing on my mind when I finally get back home in the evening and collapse on the couch. These women work for eight hours, six days a week in a foreign city away from family and loved ones. They live 6-8 people to a hostel room with a tiny, darklit, oftentimes dirty kitchen that hardly brings to mind healthy eating. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but how can we ask them to think about nutrition when there are so many other things on their minds?
Not to mention the fact that their eating habits have been deeply engrained in their culture for such a long time. Their parents ate that way, and their parents before them, and tradition is such a difficult thing to change. Many of the girls come from Odisha, a state in northern India, and we took a trip there a couple weekends ago to better understand the girls’ backgrounds and culture. A guy from the company named Ranjit was our tour guide for the trip. I learned that he was also originally from a tribal area and left to study and work in the city before coming back. Malnutrition was a serious problem in his home area too, and he tried to teach people in his community how to eat more nutritiously when he returned, but the elders scolded him for thinking that he knew better than they did. Understandable. Who’s to say that their way wasn’t already sufficient? After all, they’ve managed to survive for so long thus far. Who are we to come in and tell them what’s right and what’s wrong?
I can’t help but feel that I’m being intrusive and hypocritical to some degree. I think this is one of the hardest things I’ve had to wrestle with in my head ever since I’ve been here, the difference between coming into a space and shoving your own ideas into it rather than trying to understand that space as something that might be very unlike your own. It’s not to say that we haven’t spent the past two months trying to learn from everyone around us — talking to supervisors, visiting hostels and hospitals, interviewing girls about their diets and concerns and feelings — but despite the project that we’ve finally begun to implement, it just also has made me realize how little I still know and how something I thought was as simple as nutrition might be rooted in something much deeper and complex.