The road I’ve traveled in the last 3 weeks since leaving India has been long and yet very short.
The 16 hour flight from Delhi to New York felt unbearably long, but considering how many miles and time zones I traversed, it was hardly anything.
I arrived home exhausted to the point of deliriousness, but less than 2 weeks later, found myself back on Penn’s campus, moving my same boxes and furniture into a dorm room, just as I’ve done for the last two years.
Seeing all my friends and more casual acquaintances, I quickly realized that talking about this summer was not going to be easy. It’s not the kind of conversation you can have in the hurried five minute small talk you have with all your on campus acquaintances. People will say, “So…how was India?!” And I find that I’m not really sure what to tell them. (Often I just respond: “really intense.”) Every day in India was such a mix of thoughts and emotions and experiences, that I’m not sure how to boil it down for them into something easily digestible.
Now clearly it’s always hard to explain everything you did in a summer to people, I know my summer wasn’t unique in that. But I do feel some kind of added burden, because I know that the people I talk to expect me to tell them not just about my experience, but about India – it’s this exotic, frightening, far away place and it’s become my responsibility to, in a sense, translate it for them. It’s scary to think that I will shape how they perceive Indian culture or society. I certainly don’t feel qualified to do so. It often feels easier to let them fall into their own stereotypes rather than try to explain the weird nuanced reality – a reality that in part aligns with their stereotypes and in part sharply diverges from them. That’s what makes digesting the summer so tricky: I didn’t cull one clear sense of the culture or society or mindset, I gathered a wide diversity of observations and experiences that are hard to to synthesize. Throughout the summer, and to this day, I remember Professor Kapur telling us at our CASI orientation that India is a country of contradictions.
But let me for a moment leave the challenges of translating my experiences for others, and return to myself.
When I landed back in New York, I remember feeling like I was in some kind of sterile heaven. I don’t mean to use sterile in the negative sense, it’s just the best word I can think of to express what I mean. Everything is so…clean, so simple. Everything happens so effortlessly. The 85 degree heat felt cool and breezy to me. The supermarket aisles seemed to gleam with prepackaged delicacies. The sidewalks clear and easy to walk on. I could walk into a store or call up a customer service agent and have a quick and easy conversation in English. Every car, bus, or train ride felt smooth and fast and so…comfortable.
But I couldn’t say that I still really think that way at this point. I’ve kind of settled back into my usual routines, back at school organizing my schedule and attending club meetings. India sits in the back of my head, in its own little separate, intensely spiced compartment.
So if I’m being totally honest, I don’t think I’ve yet figured out how to connect this summer to my life back at Penn. The two feel pretty disconnected. When I really start talking about India, I have lots to say, but I think even as I’m speaking I realize I’m repeating a lot of the same things, because I haven’t yet quite processed what I went through. And LEAP and Yamuna Nagar feel so many universes away from my life here that I’m not quite sure how to join them into a broader perspective or personal narrative.
Perhaps what’s most telling? When people ask me: “Do you think you’d go back?” I always respond, without skipping a beat, “Oh yeah, for sure.”
The team at LEAP on our last day