One India, Many Experiences


Last summer (2015) I participated in the Critical Language Scholarship, a 2-month Hindi language program in Jaipur, Rajasthan. I won’t lie—this was absolutely the most fun summer of my life. Learning a language I absolutely love, meeting like-minded, research-oriented friends, traveling throughout Rajasthan, living with a host family—all of these experiences made for a fairly carefree and enjoyable summer.


But I’ll be the first to admit that my CLS experience was like living in a cartoon version of India. Food, housing, travel—all of the most difficult parts of this 2016 summer were completely taken care of for us. In Hindi school we were taught a puritanical, rigid form of Hindi that one rarely finds actually spoken. After school we had conversations with “conversation partners” who constantly self-censored their language to make it sound “correct.” And then we had cultural classes, a snake-charmer, a visit to a rural school—it was all somewhat a caricature of India, what you would expect to find in a drama-filled Bollywood movie.


This summer as a Leap intern was much more messy. First language: as much as I tried to speak Hindi with my coworkers, I also succumbed to the constant code-switching between languages and the frequent use of English verbs in my sentences. This was a conscious choice in order to “fit-in”—who wants to sound like that annoying grammar nazi from your 8th grade English class?


Housing was also messy. Sometimes I stayed in a fancy hotel in Delhi, other times in a mice-infested hotel in Yamuna Nagar, sometimes at a PG where my evil landlady rigged my electricity meter and tried to make me pay her extra money. Food was also all over the place. One meal might be at an auntie’s kitchen in Yamuna Nagar and the next at a Subway in the high-end Neelkanth Dhaba.


But the personal growth that came from this summer is quite clear. Besides teaching and tutoring in the past, this was my first work and workplace experience. I learned a lot about my leadership style, my strengths and weaknesses, and what kind of work I enjoy. Moreover, I learned how to stand up for myself, whether it was fighting with my scheming landlord or the colleague who demeaned my stutter.


I had many uncomfortable experiences this summer, and many of my expectations about India were shattered. If there is one major takeaway, it is that India requires not just flexibility but endless, bottomless reserves of flexibility. I didn’t think I had them, but when I dug deep enough I was happy to discover they were there. Don’t worry, India, I will be back. The simple joys of speaking Hindi, bursting with excitement when one of my favorite Lata Mangeshkar songs comes on the radio, eating aam ki barfi or dudh ka peda, having a nice conversation with a shopkeeper—these daily things are always my most treasured experiences in India.

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About Jacob Berexa

University of Pennsylvania alum; MSEd in Intercultural Communication (2018), BA in South Asia Studies (2017). Currently working as a linguist and researcher at a market research firm