Untitled (at home)

Seeing that I am now eight thousand, five hundred and seventy-two miles (that’s thirteen thousand, seven hundred and twenty-two kilometers) away from stifling Sarjapur traffic jams, trendy Koramangala shops and eateries, meaningless H&M codes of conduct, hazy Indiranagar afterparties, lazy Cubbon park picnics, seemingly oblivious cows on the road, startlingly sweet (but oh-so-satisfying) Richmond Road lemon tea, and almost thinking I could pull off wearing a dhoti without attracting too much attention, I suppose it would do me good to reflect on what I’ve left behind, what I’ve brought back with me, and what has secretly snuck itself into my luggage and stubbornly refuses to stay back on the subcontinent from whence it came (see if you can guess which those are).

I ended up scrapping my project on developing a new visual language for Shahi’s posters and employee handbooks once I realized that none of the factory workers were interested in receiving more printed materials (part of being a designer is being aware of the needs of your client). Instead, I have focused on a broader analysis of the internal communication channels and strategies in place at good old Unit 7 in Bellandur. I found myself really, really regretting not learning Kannada before coming to Bangalore, as it turned out to be incredibly difficult for me to latch onto (I still can barely say “thank you”) and I felt rather embarrassed relying on my senior coworkers to take the time out of their day to not only translate but wholly facilitate my focus groups this summer. My biggest faux pas, though, came when I thought it would be a good idea to buy sweets for my interviewees as a gesture of kindness and to encourage more open responses (after all, what club at Penn doesn’t use food to mobilize participation among the student body?) — my bemused partner later explained the previously unseen (to me) sociocultural factors that turned it into an extremely awkward situation for probably both the workers and myself.

I’m still working on my final, comprehensive report that includes my recommendations for how to get people to be less scared to talk to supervisors and staff (I hope they work). In a lot of ways, though, I was even less open with the workers I spoke to than they were with me. For example, how do you tell a sewing machine operator you’re earning over twenty times as much as they are this month just for conducting this interview?

The first day I got home, I experienced a strange sort of culture shock (the reverse of my experience when I first set foot in Mumbai). WHERE ARE ALL THE PEOPLE?? As I stared out the windshield of my dad’s car, semi-suburban Chicago stretched out before us almost like a concrete wasteland. It was about 4 pm on a Monday, yet barely a soul was in sight; instead, car after car sped leisurely along the straight grid of roads. I had come back with three hundred rupees left over and told myself I should have given them away when I had the chance.

The other day I met up with an old friend at a shopping mall. As we chatted and meandered past stores like Zara, Express, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Tommy Hilfiger, the neatly organized clothing on the pristine racks and shelves gave away no hint of their long journey from halfway around the world. Once I got home, I noticed my mother had made a purchase at Kohl’s. I rummaged through the folds of the fabric to read the tags on the garments: Made in IndiaMade in Bangladesh. I called her over, muttered something about global production and supply chains, and went upstairs to my room.

Before starting to write this reflection, I had been messaging a friend from Bangalore on WhatsApp; I said I miss him and he said he misses me, too. While in India, I had accidentally bent my American SIM card. It’s been nearly four days, though, since I got back, and I still haven’t gone to the Sprint store for a replacement, so I’ve been limited to texting and calling over WiFi. In a way it’s convenient, because school is starting up again and I have a convenient excuse to postpone filling out When2meets and responding to emails with [URGENT: ACTION REQUIRED] in the subject line.

Yesterday morning, I was reading an anthology about Bangalore on the train back from my friends’ apartment (the night before, they had not ceased to make fun of the noncommittal Indian head shake that I found myself making at all of their questions. It’s so convenient: the perfect expression!). I had bought the book as a gift for one of my professors, but I started reading it on my plane back to Chicago and started wondering about how different it would be for someone who hasn’t physically visited the city (I’m still deciding whether or not I should give him something else). I was so engrossed in the text that I didn’t even notice the compartment clear out; fortunately, my stop was at the very end of the line. I exited the train and the weather outside was partly cloudy and pleasantly cool, which, yes, did remind me of Bangalore. How do I find my way back?

Despite trying really hard this summer, I still feel that ten weeks is not enough time to get to know a place so that any impact you make is not only lasting but culturally informed and responsible. I’ve already been wondering how I could go back — I can’t take Beginning Hindi because I’d have to drop URBS 452… and the Kannada department has mediocre ratings on Penn Course Review… Should I take up Malayalam? (I’m an urban studies major, and everyone knows this means I have trouble focusing on a single interest.) I’m already basically taking two courses on water, so that makes sense, though, right?

I know that I have a tendency to overthink, and my work environment this summer has definitely taught me to think simpler and more directly (after all, eating with your hands tastes so much better than the cold metal of a fork). However, I can’t help entertaining all of the different thoughts that have been swirling around in my head since well before my return home. How do I choose what stays behind in the summer of 2018 and what I take forward with me for the rest of my life? Or is that even a choice I’m able to make?

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About Piotr Wojcik

Penn Urban Studies c/o 2020 ~ intern at Shahi Exports, Bangalore, in summer 2018