The End of a Great Summer

I have been back in the US now for a full three weeks, and today, I finished moving into my dorm in Rodin College House at Penn. It has all been a whirlwind- Madurai-Bangalore-Pittsburgh-Philadelphia- flying, driving, riding trains with some time at home sandwiched in between.

The past three weeks spent at home have been a really interesting opportunity to reflect on my time in India. A daily-regimen built up over three months does not collapse so easily, and there are so many elements of daily life in India, which were deeply embedded in the daily Aravind routine, that were suddenly absent.   My Delhi-born-and-raised cousin once asked upon arriving in America for the first time, “Where are all of the people?” Driving on the streets of Pittsburgh when I first got back home, I was struck by the same type of question. India’s bustling city arteries and millions of people make the quiet streets of American suburbia feel naked. The darker questions that come to mind pertain to the sometimes mind-boggling differences in wealth between India and America. So many of the basic infrastructural differences- the differences between the neatly cut buildings on gentrified American city corners and dusty Indian bazaars- throw into stark relief the massive disparity in standards of living. It is easy to look at those differences through the prism of developed and developing, but I don’t think that fully captures the whole picture- who is to say that all that is western is good and right? Is America really the next step in some progression? Working in a place like Aravind really pushed me to believe that more nuanced and ostensibly better approaches to things like health care (ie approaches rooted not entirely in profit-seeking corporate culture, but in a determination to do something good and beautiful) can easily be hidden in the “developing” world. But even when the dichotomy of developed and developing sometimes feels retrograde, it is nevertheless often hard to swallow the gaps in wealth. It is hard to believe that America and India are on the same planet when they feel (economically) like two totally different worlds.

Recognizing the economic differences between India and America is not entirely new to me because I have been to India before, and returning to the US always tends to elicit a shock to the system and a heightened awareness of American wealth. As I have gotten older, I have become more conscious of the cultural differences between India and America.   And more than becoming conscious, I have increasingly found myself asking where I “fit” in the cultural chasm between the two. My parents immigrated to India, and as a second generation Indian-American, I grew up in an American world painted in Indian colors. Having grown-up entirely in the US, I am undeniably American with an unmistakably, nasally American accent.  But my parents gave me Indian perspectives and an exposure to Indian culture. I was always told that I could seamlessly walk between American and Indian environments; I was always told that I was fully Indian and American.

In recent trips to India, I have increasingly begun to see that those transitions are not always so seamless and that I am not totally American or Indian. In high school, I received a grant to work at a tribal hospital in the Nilgiri Mountains, and living by myself in a small Indian town, I felt like I was connecting with my roots. One of the great shocks to my perception of myself came when I realized that the school-kids, who I waved to every morning like family on my walk to the hospital, recognized easily that I was foreign by the type of American shoes I was wearing. I remember becoming increasingly conscious that I didn’t speak any Indian languages, and I distinctly remember a growing feeling that I was not truly Indian.   When I came back to the US after that trip, though, I also became increasingly conscious of the fact that I was not fully American. I loved India; there were so many ways from the food, to the traditions, to the ways of addressing people, that India actually felt more like home. With each cultural asymmetry that I discover, I find myself increasingly unsure of my identity as an Indian and as an American.  However, I have absolutely loved reading the other CASI blogs this summer as they have exposed so many interesting ways that Indian and American cultures differ. The reason is simply that increasingly I feel proud of my identity in the cultural chasm between Indian and American. I love being able to recognize how I am Indian and how I am American; I love the idea that I can be someone defined not just by my skin color or where I grew-up. Reading this paragraph back, I am not sure if I have been terribly coherent, but I can summarize my feelings about my identity as an Indian in another way by saying that India will always be special to me, and I know I will be back to explore it further and help it continue to grow.

I feel so grateful to have had this unbelievable summer opportunity. I don’t think that I have ever really taken the opportunity to thank the people who made it possible in this blog, so I better use these last few sentences to do just that. Thank you so much to Aparna, Professor Kapoor, and everyone at CASI for making this internship possible and for being so incredibly supportive. Thank you to everyone at Penn IIP for opening the world to us as Penn students with these kinds of internships. Thank you to Dr. Stokes and Dr. Rea in the LSM program for supporting me through this internship and helping to make it possible. Thank you to everyone at Aravind, particularly my amazing supervisors, Ms. Dhivya and Ms. Ushalini, and Devendra, for inspiring me and teaching me through continual examples of compassion, diligence, and vision that I will never forget.  Thank you to the many people I met while working at Aravind: Hillary, Dr. Inoti, Craig, Dr. Munar; I’ll miss all of our dinner conversations at Inspriation. Thank you to all of the CASI fellows- past and present- for making this an amazing community that I feel lucky to be a part of. And thank you to my fellow Aravind interns, Olivia and Busra- this trip would not have been even close to the same without you both; I will always remember our many adventures, and I can’t wait to see you both back at Penn.  Lastly, thank you to anybody who has kept reading my blogs to this point (I am sure it hasn’t always been the most compelling read, but I promise it’s almost over!!).

To any future CASI fellows and Aravind interns out there, take advantage of this opportunity; it will challenge you and push you, but it is special for those same reasons and for so many more.

One thought on “The End of a Great Summer

  1. Hi Vivek,

    Your communication skills are great – very good essays of your educational experience at the Aravind Eye Clinic, we learned a lot from your blog. I was wondering if I can contact you directly about a request to reprint one of your entries. Please do let me know via a direct email reply to me.
    BTW, my husband is a professor at UPenn and went to grad school in Madurai.

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About Vivek Nimgaonkar

Rising Senior in the Roy and Diana Vagelos Life Sciences and management Dual Degree program, majoring in Biology and concentrating in BEPP and HCMG at Wharton. Intern at Aravind Eye Care Systems in Madurai Tamil Nadu for summer 2015.