CASI Student Blog
If you’ve spent a summer in India on a CASI internship or research assignment, you probably have an understanding of how valuable these experiences are. And unless you’re a jerk, you probably think more of your peers should take up similar opportunities in India!
I first came to India on a CASI summer research grant in 2011. I’ve now spent the past two years working in Delhi for a company called IndoGenius. Through a partnership with the US State Department and Ohio State University, we’ve re-launched an initiative called Passport to India, which was originally founded by Hillary Clinton in 2011. Our goal is to increase the number of young Americans going to India on study abroad programs and internships.
As US students who have been to India (or anyone else for that matter), we would love to get your feedback as we move forward. We have a brief survey open on our website: www.passporttoindia.com
We’re working in a number of directions, but one of the most exciting is a MOOC on the Importance of India that will be available on Coursera in summer 2015. Hope to see you in class!
Life has a funny way of making you be honest with yourself. It’s been three months since I left the Kumaoni Himalayas and I am infinitely grateful for the universe’s way of giving me a wake-up call. The past two years at Penn, I was significantly invested in research (both in terms of time and energy)—even sacrificing my academics at times to run experiments and feed my cells in preparation for motherhood. Why? Because it seemed to be the right thing to do given my Bioengineering major. I was convinced that if I didn’t like research I wasn’t in the right major/I had made bad life decisions. (I know, sometimes I can’t believe myself either!!). Now I realize there is no such thing as a bad major—every major is marketable in its own way and successful careers are almost 100% based on what you are willing to put into them, regardless of what you studied! That’s the best part. I have always loved, love, and will love technology, especially in the biotech/pharma/healthcare space– that’s why I studied Bioengineering. In fact, there is nothing that excites me more, and as far as industries go, life sciences is growing at a tremendous rate in the US. For me, there is something so attractive about putting technological innovation and business development in the same space. It combines my engineering background with my secret interests in strategy, commercialization, and management. I say secret because it isn’t until this year (after my internship) that I really took the time to explore the things I enjoyed but wouldn’t admit because I thought it was out of my realm. It takes courage and a lot of confidence in your own ability to adapt, learn-fast, take leadership, and communicate in an effective way.
This summer made me realize how capable I was (and how much I gained) in spaces of management and consulting. I developed infrastructures for trainings, mediated relationships between communities, worked in some of the most challenging team set-ups, and successfully implemented a plan to improve groundwater management in the Kumaoni Himalayas. There is nothing more amazing than realizing you are in love something that you have been exposed to all the time- it’s like suddenly falling in love with a friend you’ve known for a while. My relationship to business development and consulting work is very similar and the scope of my interests have grown to include consulting opportunities in the general and healthcare life-sciences industries, as well as in smaller biotech/pharma startups.
So where am I at? And what are my interests and plans? I joined Wharton Undergraduate Consulting this semester to work on a project for a rising social enterprise in Ghana looking to expand their market and increase their brand equity. It’s an exciting project because I bring a useful experience-base to the team—I am aware (through CHIRAG) of the challenges organizations (NGOs, social enterprises, etc.) face in developing countries and I am also very much into technology-based startups and product commercialization. The other aspect of what I’m doing is much more informal and equally valuable. I am having conversations. As I eat dinner, grab coffee, walk on Locust, do HW, sit in common lounges, or wait for OH, I perpetually have conversations. I learn the most by talking and listening to people! I see students not as students but as future leaders, entrepreneurs, chairs, and CEOs and I value them for the time and interest they take in speaking with me! Being free from desperation on expectation is a beautiful thing. I think the most successful kind of networking is that which you do naturally and without any desire to get something out of the conversation—instead when you are authentic to yourself and express interest in just speaking with a person because you enjoy it; they too will enjoy it more then!
I am happy to be in the place that I am in right now- which is 6 am in the comp lounge in Harnwell. But overall, I couldn’t ask for a better experience or support system as I go through the process to find an exciting and awesome summer opportunity which gives me access to the business side of healthcare/life-science industry. I have found advocates in the craziest places, people who are perpetually willing to help and advice. I want to thank everyone who has been with me and will continue with me on this journey of discovery.
The food. Perhaps what I may miss most about India, haha. It is certainly a memorable part of my experience because:
- I found out I really like Indian food, and I can eat spicier than even some Indians (*cough* Reya *cough*)
- Somehow. SOMEHOW. By some miracle, Reya and I both ate hella street food / food in general and never got sick. I know, unheard of.
As well, Reya and I talked about how I should make a photo collage of all the food I ate, because that would be the most accurate representation of my time in India, so I have decided to dedicate my last post to the wonderful, delicious food of India. (P.S., Reya’s other idea for what I should blog about was an Aparna Wilder appreciation, with photos and quotes. Aparna, we really really appreciated you, as evident by Reya’s post and that blog idea, haha! But I figured a food photo journal would be more representative of my actual time in India ;))
Without further ado, I will now make myself and all of you readers miss / want to go to India.
An internship at an NGO in India is certainly a unique way to spend the summer. While most of my peers in Wharton seemed to be doing some sort of corporate internship at a known company in the States (usually finance), I admit that many times during my time in India and as well as when I returned to Penn, I fretted over my decision of how I chose to spend my summer – not just because of the nature of the internship, but also simply because what I did seemed so different.
After many weeks of reflection and conversations though, I have resolved that I am grateful for going down an untraditional path. Experiencing a new culture, working in a unique environment, and exposing myself to so many different challenges has broadened my understanding of myself and of this world. This perspective is one that I would have never gained if I had stayed in my comfort zone and not broken out of the larger “Penn bubble” of people and experiences.
For one, it influenced my thoughts on my future career. It is so easy to follow the step-by-step map that our peers and society tells us to take; however, along that path, it’s hard to get the guts to swim away from the current, because all other possibilities seem so uncertain and so precarious. “Do something you’re passionate about,” has become a tried cliche that few follow, very much for the aforementioned reason. Heck, it is so difficult to even find what you are actually passionate about, when society tells you to try only a, b, and c instead. However, spending time in India and thinking about my future has helped me to recognize for myself that I rather go down an untraditional, seemingly risky path of uncertainty, in pursuit of a life that I find meaningful, then blindly follow the traditional path, with its own, often discounted, risks of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
Importantly, this untraditional path has exposed me to more of the world — a different culture, different people, different experiences, paths, and perspectives. The “Penn bubble” is not just about spending all your time on campus or being surrounded by Penn students. It encompasses, as well, being exposed almost solely to how people at Penn think and what people at Penn do. With all the chaos in the news this summer that is still ongoing (Ukraine-Russia and the crisis with ISIS is just two of many, many issues), all that I, as a typical student, usually worry and obsess suddenly becomes ridiculous and steeped in privilege. Does getting a internship instead of b internship or this grade instead of that really matter in the grand scheme of things? I don’t mean to simply trivialize what happens at Penn and what we students think about and do. There is always chaos in the world, and there are always “greater” things to be concerned about. Our lives, and the real personal challenges and joys we have, are important too. I’m not saying it’s wrong to worry about what we worry about and do what we do. However, I maintain that it is important to take a step back and maintain a healthy perspective that is grounded in the greater realities of the world. Taking a trip down an untraditional path has helped ground me by exposing me and reminding me of life outside of Penn. It has added nuance to the way I think and what I do.
It is impossible to pinpoint the innumerable ways an experience can influence you, for better or worse, in subtle or dramatic ways, but these are two of many interrelated thoughts that particularly stand out during these weeks of reflection.
For anyone who may be reading this who is debating whether to try something “untraditional” consider this: whether the experience turns out to be “good” or “bad,” there are important benefits and always something to learn from trying things outside of your comfort zone. I know, for me, I am grateful for how this experience has changed my perspective and my appreciation of the untraditional path.
“You went to India this summer!??” The surprise and near wonder I hear in people’s voice is almost universal to the reactions I get when I tell people I spent my summer in India. Their reaction is very natural. There is something wondrous about traveling to a foreign (perhaps “exotic”) country, and moreso to spend an extended period of time there. Although, I really enjoy traveling, I don’t love it, and I am cautious to overly romanticize it. I read an article about how to travel long-term, and I think most people who have traveled a good amount (as I have) would agree with the article that traveling is worthwhile, but it is filled with many of its unique downsides as well.
One thing I was careful about when I came to India was to not just allow myself the easy, tourist experience. I am grateful for Reya who had a similar heart, and who as well had family in the area that could give me a taste of what it is like to live as a local. Of course, simply spending 10 weeks in a city helps to give you a more “local” experience of India — or at least as local as you might be able to get, as a clear, temporary foreigner who doesn’t know the language. As well though, during my time in India I also got to spend some time with Reya’s family in Mumbai — an overnight stay where I got to know her family and cousins, in an experience that gave me just a bit of insight into what a parallel, nuclear family in parts of India look like — and Pune — in which I flipped through wedding photo albums with Reya’s great aunt. I also was able to some time at a local church in India, filled with English-speaking youth (Indians, but not locals to Pune, a young university city). Through this church, Word of Grace, I was able to talk to people my age and get to know about their lives. I was invited over to the pastor’s house on several occasions to eat a home cooked meal or study the Bible, as I met his young children and spent time with the church community.
Perhaps, the most standout of these experiences was when Reya and I agreed (perhaps foolishly) to take a 27-hour non-AC sleeper class train ride from Pune to Delhi. 27 hours. Sleeper class. Almost everyone told us not to do it. Our co-workers, who are definitely better-off than the large majority of India, would not take the sleeper class themselves, not only because of the duration of the trip and the non-AC, but also, to be frank, because the type of people that you would encounter in the sleeper class are much different. These people tend to be the lower-class and the middle-class (middle class being very different from what it is in the States), and most of the people we talked to had concerns for Reya and I whether we would be comfortable or even safe traveling on this train.
I was pretty adamant about taking the train though, justifying to myself that this is how the majority of India travels! And I wanted to experience it too, rather than just coming to India as a wealthier foreigner who avoided anything uncomfortable or potentially dangerous. Granted, it definitely could have been dangerous (getting harassed, getting our things stolen, simply getting lost because we were traveling by ourselves…), and there certainly needs to be caution in undergoing these “adventures” as well (caution that we took), but in the end I am grateful for the experience.
The 27-hour, non-AC part of the train definitely was not great, haha, but it was not as bad as we expected either. We got through it, just as the thousands of Indians who travel by train everyday get through it. And through it — even if, objectively, it was not a “pleasant” experience — we were able to experience for ourselves India more as it would be for a local.
These are not the exciting, exotic stories that people may want to hear about my trip to India. They are not the amazing adventures or the sensational sights that some people may associate with foreign travel. But they reflect a real, normal, and a times mundane part of India, that I am grateful to have experienced. I am grateful for these experiences, the people I met, and the insights into Indian culture in and of themselves, but also as well for how they ground my perception of India into something that is closer to reality.
For me at least, seeking for a genuine experience of a country is more honest and respectful of the country that I am visiting, for it leaves me with a more accurate picture of what life is actually like for the people of the country. It leaves me a better picture of what “India” actually is.
So I’m back at Penn now, and have been for a month. Sometimes summer in India seems like an odd, if vivid sort of dream. Real life is surely not quite so chaotic, so colourful, or so crazy.
The last large project we did before we left India was working on I-gate, a web portal for the facilitation of B2B trade among STSC MSMEs in the country, spearheaded by one of DICCI’s partners. I-gate is still a nascent idea, and our work mostly involved planning the design, features and implementation of the portal. It’s always interesting to apply a theoretical framework to a real problem (and see how well it holds up) and we had a lot of opportunities in this project. We performed almost every strategic analysis in the book, from Porter’s Five Force analysis to a Feasibility study and even applied a little bit of Game Theory. We also worked on strategizing the implementation of I-gate, which involved everything from researching potential partners to deciding which state the portal would first launch in.
Unfortunately our time at DICCI was up before we could see our plans for Igate move toward becoming reality, but I’m looking forward to seeing how it all turns out in the future. Honestly though, by Week 9.5 after our internship, I can safely say that both Sarah and I only had the idea of home and Penn in our minds. Thoughts of Rajput Dairy turned to thoughts of Wawa, samosas lost their favour. I left with highly mixed feelings on a rainy Saturday night.
Looking back then, with rose tinted glasses:
– Food food food. God I miss the food. I’ve lost weight here for sure, but please someone give me a bread pakora and chai.
– The cheapness of everything – I nearly cried when I had bhel puri the other day and cried again when I saw it was $7.
– The colours everywhere, especially in the fashion – Ann Taylor Loft insults me with its perpetual grayness as I walk past it everyday. And everyone at Penn seems to have entirely black wardrobes.
– The amazing chaos, Indian standard time, and other assorted facets of Indian bureaucracy: Okay, I don’t miss it. But everything seems absurdly straightforward here. Am I playing on easy mode?
– The Taj Mahal, the Gateway of India, the Ellora caves, the Tung fort, the monsoon rain, the yoga classes, the rickshaws. I really want a wooden rickshaw to put on my bookshelf.
– The memorable friendships with both locals and international interns, and the shenanigans which will not be published on this blog.
– The wonderful, warm DICCI staff, the lunch routine, the chocolate runs in the middle of the workday, the second cake on our farewell day because we all love cake that much.
– I can’t end this list of wonderful things without two huge shoutouts – Aparna and Sarah.
Aparna had basically been rock, lifesaver, confidante, resource and friend all in one – all the way from America (god bless Whatsapp). Sarah and I frequently squeal about how much we adore her. Aparna I know you’re reading this, so
a) You’re the absolute best, really you are
b) Thank you, thank you so much for everything
c) I kind of want to text you throughout the semester too because your support was incredible and I feel a little lost without it.
And Sarah. Well, we’d been together 24×7 for ten weeks. Same job, same room, same commute, same friends. For two very different people who didn’t know each other before this internship, that’s a big deal. We differed on many things – but we also had so many adventures together, laughed so much, had intense debates, ate a ridiculous amount of food, conspired, gossiped, travelled, complained, commiserated and basically lived together. It was awesome. So Sarah, if you’re reading this, thank you so much for showing me a lot of different perspectives to a country and lifestyle I thought I knew. I truly respect you so much.
I was sitting in the Philadelphia sunshine a few weeks later when I realised it was August 15th. The date is a sad irony for me – I left India for the first time and for forever on August 15th 2002, and every year while I wore my saffron, white and green dupatta, I still felt a little further away from the country where I was born. After this summer, I feel like my connection is renewed. I am excited about the country’s future, and invested in its present. Looking back at my first post just confirms it – I am, and forever will be, in love with India.
When I first returned to Philadelphia at the beginning of August, I was amazed. The streets looked so clean and the cloudless sky radiated. Students had not yet arrived on campus, so Philadelphia was a welcome respite from my last few days in Delhi, trying to shove my way through crowds and hail autos.
India challenged me in many ways and taught me about my own resilience to difficult circumstances. Traveling through Agra during my final week exposed me to indescribable images – of children playing naked in the streets and houses visibly deteriorating behind piles of trash. I still find myself reflecting on my gratitude for the abundance we have here at Penn – in opportunities, resources, and comfort.
This year, I am researching jugaad innovations in India for my Wharton Research Scholars project. Jugaad innovation describes the process of searching for solutions under resource constraints, while exceeding quality and performance standards. Examples include:
- Aravind Eyecare, a network of eye hospitals founded by Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy that performs around 1,000 cataract surgeries per day for $30 each (US price: $3000)
- Jaipur Foot, a high-quality rubber-based prosthetic leg that retails for $28 (US price: $8000)
- Dabbawalas, a hot meal system run by bikers in Mumbai which delivers 175,000 tiffin boxes per day with a rate of 3.4 errors per million
- Vortex Engineering, the producer of solar-powered ATMs that bring banking services to remote villages
- Mitticool, a low-cost, eco-friendly clay refrigerator that runs without electricity
- Tata Motors, which produced the Tata Nano, the world’s cheapest car launched for $2000 in 2009
- The Indian Space Research Organization, which sent the Mangalyaan space craft to Mars for $73 million (less than the cost of Boeing’s cheapest commercial airplane)
After reading around 30 books and articles and creating a database of product, process, and business model innovations, my current plan is to return to India over winter break to interview companies and produce case studies. From a business perspective, I am very optimistic about India’s future – it holds so much potential – and look forward to further incorporating the lessons I learned this summer into my academic pursuits.
First of all, super excited to be here in India! It has been a long awaited journey here to Madurai and I am finally ready to begin my project. I hate talking about myself, but a little about my past and my intentions through the Sobti Fellowship seem in order.
I was born in Philadelphia but spent a good part of my childhood in Tamil Nadu, India with my grandfather where I picked up Tamil, the local language. I eventually moved back to the US after my parents were able to kick start their careers, and I have been in the suburbs of Philadelphia or proper Philadelphia city since. At UPenn I studied bioengineering and was also pre-med. I had numerous interests in Penn, including teaching through Weiss Tech House, volunteering my time at CHOP, and working in the Lazar Lab at Perelman. However, it wasn’t until I was a senior that I truly understood what it meant to be an engineer. I took some upper level electrical engineering classes and had the opportunity to create what I think was a cool medical device through senior design my senior year. Originally set on solely focusing on medicine, these projects really sparked my interest in creating medical devices.
As the first Sobti Family Fund Fellow, I will have the opportunity to pursue several of my career interests here in India. My interest in medical devices really stems from how I like to interact with the world around me. I like using my hands and all my senses when working on something meaningful, and to me it doesn’t get much more meaning than making a product out of my own two hands that can help save lives. After working on my senior design project, I came to an important realization. Innovations that are going to be used to create the most advanced devices of the future like Watson or the iPhone 6 can also be used to bring down the cost of health care, and my hope is my career will land me somewhere in that happy medium. Innovations like the 3D printer are making it possible to increase accessibility of basic medical devices (such as Enable the Future – http://enablingthefuture.org/). As a Sobti Fellow, I will be working with Aravind Eye Hospital to create a phacoemulsification device at reduced cost. This is used for cataract surgery, a very common surgery in India and throughout the world. I will be working with Aurolab, the device company partnered with Aravind that provide cheap and quality medical equipment to Hospitals within India and Africa.
Aravind Eye Care System is a hospital in Madurai, India. It is a World Health Organization Hospital known for its many training programs and unique business model. It operates a free clinic that has given thousands of free surgeries here in India. It is self-sustaining but has obtained help from generous donors and volunteers for about 30 years. However for the first half of the year I will be focusing my efforts at Aurolab. Aurolab provides surgical equipment to Aravind and hospitals throughout Asia and Africa. They provide simple products such as blades and sutures, simultaneously producing more complex items like lens’ replacements for cataract surgery. Aravind is also working on creating surgical medical devices like a phacoemulsification device. This is primarily used in cataract surgery to remove the patients lens and replace it with an artificial one. By creating medical devices and surgical equipment, Aurolab and Aravind work together to bring the cost of surgery and those provide cheaper services for area like Madurai. My hope is to complete the phacoemulsification device with the team already working on the product.
For the second half of the year I will be working with doctor and patients to expand surgeries to rural areas. I hope to have the details hammered out soon as I learn more about Aravind’s operations.
Now that I have been in Aurolab for about a month, I have set several tangible goals that I would like to set out and accomplish come next summer that align with my career objective and can really help Aravind, India and other developing countries. If everything goes according to plan (fingers crossed).
My immediate goals for the phacoemulsification device include creating the user interface and user manual for the device. I have already created most of the user interface of the device and am now working on getting the device ready for clinical trials. This is a long process and one I would like to oversee throughout my duration here in Madurai. I will also help create the mechanical design of the final product. The goals centered around this project for Aurolab are all about cost and quality. These values are essential to my future goals in global medicine and low cost medical device. I look forward to learning from my Aurolab and Aravind mentors while I am here, and exploring India too!
I promise the next post won’t be so dry! Enjoy these pictures from Kanyakumari (Southern Tip of India)!
For my final blog post I though I’d talk a little more about my trip to Delhi, as it was one of my favorite experiences of the summer. With some of the other interns, I took a weekend trip to the capital. Much larger and a little more chaotic than Chennai, Delhi was a fun change. The moment we landed I was surprised and impressed. Delhi has a great airport- and not just by India’s standards. It’s comparable to almost any top class airport in the world. To top it off, we traveled into the city by a special, airport metro that was overpriced, air conditioned, clean and absolutely empty- it was surreal how different this was from practically every other mode of public transportation in the country. The moment passed quite quickly though- we came back to reality as soon as we stepped outside and got hit with a wave of heat, pollution and noise- ahh India.
And so began our Delhi weekend. Over the next few days we explored restaurants, bars, monuments in the city, and Agra (of course), we stayed in a sketchy little hotel for 2 nights so we could treat ourselves to the Leela Palace on the 3rd night, and we watched a ridiculous Bollywood movie in a dingy cinema (that I had to translate for the others) and kept up with World Cup matches as best as we could. There were a few things that I really loved about Delhi. First and foremost, being able to communicate with auto drivers (in Hindi) was a small yet incredibly fulfilling thing. After weeks of frustrating miscommunications with autos in Chennai it was a relief to be able to move around easily. The food was also fantastic. We made it our mission to eat at some of the city’s best places. The first night we went to a famous restaurant called Bukhara, which has some incredible kebab dishes and probably the best dahl I’ve ever had- they cook the dahl for 18 hours, and you can taste the magic of each hour. The next day we ate at Karim’s- probably the most famous street food vendor in the city, in the heart of the Muslim quarters. We walked through crowded alleys and tiny streets to find this gem of a restaurant, with kebabs that matched and maybe even bettered the likes of Bukhara. Can’t forget about the delicious fusion fine dining either. We were all foodies as you can tell!
And, without a doubt, my favorite part of the trip was seeing the main historical monuments. The Red Fort and the Agra Fort were incredibly massive and well built structures. It’s crazy to think that a few hundred years ago the men and women who ran and protected kingdoms resided in them. And the best, by far, was the Taj Mahal. I was quite awe struck as I walked into the main courtyard. It got bigger and bigger as I moved closer, glistening white, with incredible carvings and wonderful gardens- pictures do not do it justice. In all honesty, as an Indian I felt incredibly proud at that moment. With all the over-population and pollution, India’s beauty is not necessarily in pristine structures or well developed cities, but rather the culture and people. However, the Taj is an incredible building that we’ve maintained for this long, and that was really nice to see. I spent the rest of summer telling my family that they all had to take a trip to Agra! The trip was a lot of fun and a great learning experience too- I got to see parts of India I had always wanted to check out, so that was great. A big thank you to CASI for the whole experience!
These are the new lines on my resume:Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Pune, India – Intern
- Researched and wrote proposal, agenda and 10 point memorandum for the new Indian NDA Government advising it on its forthcoming policies for the betterment of minority entrepreneurs
- Conducted primary research about the welfare and status of minority entrepreneurs in India
- Interviewed and performed SWOT and other analyses for 5 DICCI member firms
- Analyzed the feasibility and strategized implementation of I-Gate, a new DICCI initiative
These new lines on my resume can’t hope to fully encapsulate ten weeks of exploring, learning and growing; nevertheless I am very proud of them. We worked on four major projects during our stint at DICCI, and each came with its own exciting challenges and opportunities for learning.
The first, and to me the most exciting, was the proposal and memorandum we wrote for the new Indian government. DICCI commands so much respect in the Indian political sphere that we were looked upon as advisors to the new Cabinet as it devised its budget and policies with regard to STSC MSMEs for the next five years. We were really thrown into the deep end after a slow start as Mr. Kamble assigned this memorandum to us. After a lot of research – from Byzantine documents on tax policy in Andhra Pradesh to critiques of the German government’s MSME policies to comparisons between the Industrial Districts in Maharashtra vs. Gujarat, – we prepared a ten point document that I am very proud of. The agenda represents weeks of research and also learning to deal with the way things work in a small Indian office, and it really was something to know that it was actually presented to the Indian government to consider in their future policy-making. It really got me thinking about public policy, something I’ve never considered before at all, and I’m going to take a couple of BEPP classes next semester because of this new interest.
The other big DICCI project we did was actually 5 mini projects – We visited and interviewed 5 different entrepreneurs in disciplines ranging from steel fabrication to solar energy, and we wrote a report on each, with a SWOT analysis and recommendations tailored to specific problems the firm was having. Here, too, we faced challenges – language barriers, business owners who were skeptical that two young women from abroad could understand their problems, and of course, Indian Standard Time and all the delays involved therein. But I also learned how to apply research to analyse real problems, how labour contracting, supply chains, client demands and obtaining financing work in real life for micro businesses and the unique problems that minority entrepreneurs in India face. Our deliverable for this project was a casebook of DICCI member’s businesses, showcasing their diversity and resourcefulness.
We switched gears completely for the final task – working to plan the implementation of an online portal envisioned by one of DICCI’s partners and our mentor, Ira. That project was something totally different – but more about that on my next post! [Along with some real withdrawal from samosas and chai - like I love you, Penn, but you are seriously lacking in the chaat and chai department]
It’s been a few weeks since returning from India, but I wanted to wait on this last blog post until I was fully immersed back into Penn. It was an interesting transition, and it casts light onto some of the challenges immigrants face when coming to a new modernized country like the US. Of course, the transition is much easier for me considering I’ve grown up my entire life in the US, but still it does give insight.
One of the biggest changes was the pace of life. There seems to be no lull in the late afternoon like there was in India. Here, there is a push to always be doing something. If not classes or studying, then it’s tennis, information sessions, GBMs, and parties. Sometimes I look back and I’m not even sure how we passed the time after work; somehow with dinner and going to the gym, the day always wrapped. In India, there seemed to be a value placed on just sitting around. Not particularly doing much, but just enjoying and relaxing. Also, the day at Penn ends at 3 am, while in India it rarely went past midnight.
Another hard transition has been the food. Man the food in Madurai was amazing (widely regarded as the best place for South Indian food). Parottas, mutton chucka, and idlis at all hours in the night, it was awesome. Though having gone home first upon coming back to the US helped, now I’m at Penn. And I pretty much refuse to go to the Indian restaurants (at least for the time being until I can’t bear the lack of spice in my food).
One of the funny things I talked about with the other interns who came with me, Jane and Zach, is the “scandalous” clothing in the US. Not saying it’s scandalous to wear shorts or a tank top, but that’s how it would be perceived in Madurai. Not going to lie, I was a little taken aback by the amount of “skin” when I came back to the US. Now of course, it seems the normal again. But it makes more sense when my parents refuse to let my sister wear short shorts, or when they argue the morality of high school dances.
Another tough part is not being able to travel as much. That was one of the best parts of my summer in India. Every weekend, Zach, Jane, and I would go somewhere. As you have probably read in all our blog posts, we pretty much covered most of the major places in South India: Kodaikanal, Ooty, Pondicherry, Bangalore, Cochin, Alleppey, Munnar, Rameshwaram, Coimbatore, and Chennai. Not being able to do so now feels almost empty; there is a lack of new stimulation if you will. I hope that this upcoming school year, I’ll be able to the find the time to make road-trips. Even getting on the road to visit the other east coast cities would be a cool experience.
There are many other major changes when coming back to the US, the way people talk to each other, the technology, the more materialistic lifestyle, everything is more expensive, and of course the weather (who would’ve thought that I now feel 70 degrees to be on the chilly side??). But it’s traveling like this that shows how much we should appreciate the things we take for granted. It shows what we sometimes miss out on in life because we are used to doing this a certain way and fail to consider different perspectives, merely out of ignorance. I made a lifetime of memories in India and gained fresh perspectives on certain aspects in life. I’ll be forever excited to share my experiences with everyone and will fondly look back on this summer. And I hope, sooner rather than later, that I will be boarding a flight to make another trip back.
Thoughts on my return to India only three weeks after I left it!
Originally posted on 200 Wanderlust Days:
As you may know, I am back in India, but this time a study abroad program with SIT, called International Honors Program: Health and Community. It is a program in which you are supposed to learn about anthropology, public health and research methods in an experiential context – where you put your lectures and textbooks to real life programs and policies, to real life situations and people. And while we do have the opportunity to stay with homestays, to explore Delhi, to visit sites, and hear from guest lecturers, I find that most of the time, I am once again sitting in a classroom, being lectured at. Once again, back to school with formal assignments and curriculums, albeit in a different context than on a college campus. But frankly, as I am listening to the professors and Indian guest lecturers talking about the health system, the National Rural Health Mission…
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I stand on the train platform outside of the baggage pickup area and it is QUIET. There are 3 other people on the platform, even though it is only 8:30pm. The train pulls up and people migrate on and off in an incredibly ordered fashion. The other people on the platform are at my elbows corralling me and my huge backpack forward, but still maintaining a certain distance. I get on the train and very easily find a seat. In fact, I find 3, one for me, one for my backpack, and one for my shoulder bag. Oh space, how I have missed you. The conductor comes over and I ask him, in complete English sentences, 1. How much the fare is to 30th street and 2. If I can get a transfer to the Market/Frankfort line. And he responds, in English! No semi-confused look, no repeating the questions, no breaking the sentence down to it’s basic elements of “30th street?” (and I would have NO idea how to ask for a transfer in Hindi or even broken English so a non-English speaker could understand). And I pay $8.00 to go from the airport to 30th street.
I maintain my full bench seat on the basically empty train all the way to 30th street, relishing my free lap and elbow room. And the lack of stares. No one is staring at me for the first time in almost 3 months. In India I got used to the fact that staring was going to happen, but I never got used to the staring. I get off the train and onto the street. The city is so silent! There are few if any people on the streets, and the streets themselves are almost void of cars. There is no honking, no motorbikes, no one peddling beads or wooden snakes or fake Ray Ban sunglasses, no one sitting in the street or on the sidewalk, no cows, no goats. It almost feels like I am in one of those movies where the protagonist wakes up after Armageddon to an empty world (almost).
And there is money on the streets! Literally! On the 12-block walk home I found $0.15 in nickels and pennies, or 9 rupees, which is almost enough to take the Delhi metro halfway across town (almost. Not quite). I walk past known coffee shops and pizza joints and bars. I walk past closed street vendors and think “Oh man, I can eat that food and I probably won’t get sick!” What a reassuring feeling, especially after 6 days of GI “excitement” and a loss of 15 pounds from some funky Paneer Masala in Munnar.
Even 2 weeks later the re-entry to life state-side has been overall positive. I really enjoy not being stared at and being able to communicate without being somewhat confused and excited that things happened to work out. I am able to drive my car, walk by myself even at night, wear whatever I want (although, like Mary, the “near perfect clothing” Kurta has become a wardrobe staple), and feel like an independent and capable Woman with endless opportunities and options. It is awesome.
I absolutely miss many things about being in India, and if given another opportunity to visit I will not pass it up. I feel so privileged and lucky to have been able to embark on an adventure and experience like this, and I also feel so privileged and lucky to be able to come back to a place like the one I call “home.”
A couple days ago, I stood in my new bedroom, surrounded by the dozen or so boxes I have been lugging around from house to house for the past three years. I picked up piles of junk and, unable to decide what to do with them (do you throw away some chap stick when you have five tubes you haven’t touched in years?), immediately placed them in some new location on the floor. I felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of my possessions as well as bigger life issues. I worried about upcoming job interviews and the decision of what classes to take. These are standard “start of the semester” concerns, but, even though I am a senior, I felt more stressed than ever before. Giving up on my personal mess, I decided to check Facebook. Caro had just uploaded dozens of photos from Chirag, and, before I knew it, I was sobbing. In that moment, I would have done anything to be back in the Himalays. But, after throwing myself a pity party for the rest of the afternoon, I started to actively think about the things for which I am grateful now that I am back in the U.S. In my last blog post, which I wrote just a few days after leaving India, I talked about the things I expected to miss about India. I do miss them, often even more than I had anticipated. Yet rather than living in the past, I am doing my best to use what I learned in the past to shape the way I perceive myself and my life in the present. So, here is my previous blog post cast in a new light, written precisely one month after I left India.
From a Nokia to an iPhone – When I check my email for the tenth time in an hour, terrified I am going to miss something (who knows what) important, I sometimes want to drop my smartphone in the toilet. But the ability to map where I am going and talk to my family without factoring in a twelve and a half hour time distance and an exorbitant cost are priceless.
From cheap carbs to an endless array of options – Though I miss the simple pleasure of eating second-rate chow mein that is redeemed by the fact that it was made to order and cost less than fifty cents, I feel tremendously healthier and happier. I went from eating basically the same thing everyday to enjoying a variety of food in two of the best food cities I have ever visited—Singapore and Portland, Oregon. Back in Philly, every morning as I struggle to decide if I want yogurt or oatmeal or eggs or cereal, I remind myself that in India I would have died to have the ability to make such a choice.
From hiking everyday to walking when I can – I always loved nature, but trekking through the Himalays everyday gave me a newfound appreciation for the outdoors. I hiked whenever possible during my vacation in the beautiful Sierra Nevadas and Pacific Northwest. Now that I am in the city, I make an effort to go on a lengthy walk everyday. As I learned in India, there is no better way to clear one’s head.
From kurtas and leggings to kurtas and shorts – The key difference between my attire in India and my attire in the U.S. has been that my legs have finally seen some sun. Yet when I am faced with the dreaded daily decision of what to wear, more often than not I still reach for a kurta. I get compliments every time I do, and I take this as proof that kurtas are a damn near perfect clothing item.
From a language barrier to information overload – As I lay on a beach last week, I could not help but listen to a group of girls discuss a recent rowdy trip to Las Vegas. They were discussing personal matters that I did not want to or need to know about, but I am the sort of hypersensitive person who tends to notice everything happening around me. At times like these, I miss minding my own business as people chatted in Hindi. The overwhelming majority of the time, however, I am thankful for something I took advantage of before living in India: the ability to express myself.
From sleeping like a babe to sleeping like a college student – Though my irregular sleeping habits of late have elicited some fascinating dreams, I miss how consistently well I was able to sleep in India. The drop-off in the quality of sleep I have been getting is most likely due to the fact that I am stuck on a pullout couch while I wait for my mattress to be delivered as well as the returned presence of one of my worst vices…
From chai to coffee – As I grab a cup of coffee in the morning, I think back longingly to the good times the interns had at Mohan-da’s (and cringe upon realizing that I just paid thirty times what I would have there for my caffeine fix). Though I miss the social aspects of this summer’s chai breaks, I have been reunited with my favorite beverage in the world, and I am thrilled about it.
From hitchhiking to getting places without a hitch – This summer, getting anywhere seemed to turn into a massive ordeal, but this is mercifully no longer the case. With the help of GoogleMaps, a car or public transportation, and my friends, I have yet to get lost. The sense of adventure I felt travelling in India was a blast, but now I am left with some good stories and gratitude for being able to get places in a reasonable amount of time.
From new friends to old friends – In Singapore, I visited a friend I met in London, something I never expected to have the opportunity to do. In Reno and Portland, I was reunited with high school pals as well as my family. Now I am back in Philly, where I am headed into my senior year with some of the best friends I have ever had. Every single one of these loved ones has commented on how much more relaxed and healthy I seem. I owe much of this to the people I met in India. As our lives head in separate directions and we contact each other less and less often, I have to remind myself not to cry because it’s over but to smile because it happened. I cannot thank these people enough for the lessons they taught me and the memories they gave me.
I catch myself wanting to say, “I miss India,” every five minutes. It is difficult, but I have start saying, “You are not in India anymore. But the experiences you had are part of you now.” I talked to Dani Castillo last night, and she said she is experiencing a worse culture shock coming back to the U.S. than she encountered going to India. It is hard to believe that it would be harder for a person to adapt to the culture they were raised in than to a completely foreign culture, but I agree with Dani. I think the reason for this is that we are too wrapped up in our crazy little lives when we are at home and so open to new experiences while we are abroad. If my time in India taught me anything, it taught me to live my entire life—not just the parts where I am abroad—with a carefree spirit and openness to new things and new people. It is too easy to put up a wall and keep going about the same daily routines, eating the same food, walking the same routes, being with or avoiding the same people. We can only grow through experiential learning. Even though my time in India is done, I am going to seek out new experiences wherever I possibly can. Who knows what could happen?
My last days in India. I was in the Ellora caves, sitting against a rock pillar when I saw a foreigner walking towards me with a camera. He asked to take my picture. And I smiled.
After having the summer of a lifetime, I’m back at Penn. Feeling grateful. Feeling stronger. Happy to have good people in my life. They told me there would be the reverse culture shock of returning, but I think that only happens when you haven’t come to terms with the reality that you are returning to. I am the Himalayas even at Penn.
There is something so sweet about remembrance—to know that you have experienced something so fully that there is nothing left to experience. I ate more bal mittai than I ever thought I could, I walked uphill so much that I no longer feared it, I let my hair grow so knotted that I stopped caring, I laughed enough times to know that my side would ache, and I saw so many stars- so many nights- that I thought the constellations were imprinted in my brain. But that is nothing and everything at the same time.
I want to paint an image of the truth—but anything less would break my heart. So I haven’t tried yet. To explain to people what I really learned this summer and how I really felt. I tell them about the work I did instead and the fun I had and the places I went because I know that is what they will relate to—even a little before they go back into their own lives and leave me to mine. I keep the secrets to myself…
After 10 weeks living, working and traveling in India, I’ve spent the last few days relaxing and unwinding at home. As summer comes to a close I feel very grateful for the whole experience and glad that I signed up for the CASI program. While I have visited India many times before, this summer was filled with new work experiences, friendships and cities.
Working for IFMR Rural Channels and Services was my first real job and the feeling of contributing to an organization, as opposed to simply studying and doing homework, was very satisfying. I gained a greater appreciation and understanding of the working world and am actually looking forward to future internships and jobs. Prior to this experience, I was convinced that being a student was the best thing for me- with the way some people talk about work, I was under the impression that full time jobs were something to dread. I had already accepted that I would probably not fall in love with my job. But, while I may not have discovered my passion just yet, my work at IFMR helped me come to the conclusion that something in banking or consulting would be both interesting and challenging.
Another big take away or me was that I thoroughly enjoyed living in India. This was the first time I experienced living in India by myself, as opposed to with grandparents. And the experience was entirely different. I explored more of India, taking day and weekend trips to areas in and around Chennai as well as Delhi. My family tends to travel to Bombay and Pune, and that’s it; we’ve always found reasons (excuses) to not make the effort to travel more within India and it’s been a big mistake. I underestimated how much India had to offer- between the old forts, great food, incredible temples, elephants and much more, India can be an incredible tourist destination. I ate food I wouldn’t normally dare to try with my parents, who are rightfully afraid of us eating the wrong things and falling sick. Nonetheless, I ate off leaves, drank iced drinks, had seafood in the monsoon season and came out of it unscathed. All in all, I ended my CASI program on a high note, with the knowledge that I would enjoy living in India one day. If you look past the poor infrastructure, mosquitoes and heat, it is a great place to be, and I hope to live there at some point in the future. As the slogan goes, it’s truly Incredible !ndia.
After participant observation, I started my interviews with the older generation within the Karen community. The aim of the interviews was to get a better understanding of the cultural transformation this community has gone through. By talking to the oldest generation alive (second generation immigrants), I hoped to collect personal anecdotes which revealed the intimate sentiments of the community towards cultural change. Since the older people spoke in Karen, I was accompanied my a translator who helped conduct the interview. Having a local with me really helped me connect to the population and helped them trust me and my cause.
The interviews were of a very unique format: the questions were open-ended to help gather maximum information. Before each interview, I reminded the participants of the ethical components of my research and explained them my motives. The interviews lasted 2-3 hours each and were more like chats since they were not strictly formed through my questions. By informally chatting with these people, I learnt more than I would have through short and direct questions.
The participants were happy to share their experiences with me and I recorded a lot about the history of the community that is not previously published. For instance, they all mentioned a tumultuous times in their history when the Karen community was troubled by 5 Burmese dacoits- everyone had vivid recollection of this time and they described it as the toughest time for the Karen. They also mentioned that love marriage has always been a custom in their community and the age of marriage is decreasing in the younger generation which is very counter-intuitive. It is these small changes that I want to record in my research.
In order to understand the degree and method of transmission of cultural knowledge from one generation to another, I decided to conduct a survey of the youth population too. After 18 interviews of the older generation and 19 survey responses from youth, it was clear that the third generation immigrants are the last ones to have a substantial knowledge of old cultural practices. This soon diminishing cultural practices are going to be the focus of my thesis.
Along with a substantial amount of field notes and recordings from interviews, I also received a ridiculous amount of chai and coffee since it is rude to visit a house and not drink Chai with them! 5-6 cups of Chai a day was something my stomach had to get used to… but I guess if too much Chai was the worst of my problems, then I had a great field experience :)
After weeks of interviews of physicians, hospital administrators, pharmaceutical company employees, and even a reporter and a “whistleblower” of pharmaceutical practices, I have learned a lot during my time in India. What I gained from this summer – in addition to data I can use for continuing research – was a lot of general insight into India’s health care system. While I had read about a lot of these issues prior to coming to India, being on the ground and speaking to people really helped understand the severity of the problems and gave me some ideas about how people are working to fix them.
Some overall findings on the Indian health care system:
1) There is excellent health care available in India – if you can afford it. Some private hospitals I toured had top-notch physicians (many who had practiced overseas), brand new medical equipment and impressive facilities.
2) Even in these private hospitals, for which there is a great demand, there is still a great emphasis on low prices, given that most patients do not have health insurance and are paying out of pocket. One solution to keep costs low is a high-volume strategy, with a quick turn around. As one hospital administrator explained, his hospital paid the same amount for an MRI as any other hospital in the US, EU, or elsewhere. However, his hospital could not charge the same prices as, say, an American hospital. So to recoup the cost of the machine, his hospital would have to perform 30 MRIs a day as opposed to the maybe 6 MRIs a day that an equivalent hospital in the US would perform. Another strategy is tiered pricing where costs are different depending on the room a patient is in. A patient in a private room (versus a shared room or a ward) would pay more not just for the room, but also for medication, procedures, and surgery.
3) Quality care is not just an issue in pharmaceuticals, but also an issue with physicians and hospitals. Despite spending significantly out-of-pocket, an estimated 70% of Indians do not have access to high-quality medical care. High-quality private hospitals are, not surprisingly, normally located in larger cities. In rural areas there is demand for high-quality care, but little availability. A lot of primary care doctors, especially those operating in rural areas, are “quacks” who are do not have sufficient (or any) medical training. To get any sort of specialty care, people living in rural villages often have to travel for hours or days, not to mention cover the cost of the care, which makes this out of reach of a lot of people. Proposed solutions currently being tested have included call-in medical centers (often linked to a mail order pharmacy, which could distort incentives), remote care, and a model in which physicians are trained to recognize the most common diseases and then follow a standard protocol (an example of this is the Glocal network of hospitals).
4) Public hospitals suffer from low budgets, supply shortages, corruption, absenteeism, and poor quality of care. While I had read about this prior to coming to India, the reality was further hammered home by people I spoke to in India. Said one physician, who had spent four years working in a public hospital after completing medical school, “If I got in a severe car accident, I would rather die than be taken to a public hospital.”
5) Corruption is an issue at every point in the health care system. Every person I spoke to at a management level told me about the issues they had preventing corruption and each one had put into place checks and balances to prevent bribes, whether direct or indirect (for example, free drug samples a physician could resell).
5) As elsewhere in the world, medical care costs in India are rising. The same pressures faced globally – increased costs of diagnostics, medicine, and technical equipment, are felt very strongly in a country where the majority of people pay for medical care out-of-pocket.
6) The Hindi word/concept “jugaad,” which essentially means an innovative and simple solution to a problem, is very prevalent in Indian health care and constantly impressed me. For instance, one hospital administrator for a very large facility explained to me that many of their patients were illiterate and would get lost trying to find their ward, not being able to read the signs. The hospital’s solution was to give each ward a color (cardiology, for instance, was red). All patients pay up-front in a central check-in area and then are given a card with the name and color of their ward. There is colored tape running from the central desk throughout the hospital, so a patient can follow their tape color to their ward, helping them find their way regardless of whether they could read or not. So simple, yet so genius!
The life lessons I learned during my 3 months working for a NGO hospital in rural India were small and simple–but these daily encounters were absolutely necessary for my personal and professional growth. I did not understand what “entitlement” meant before I left to work in India. In the beginning, I met the wealth of typical NGO or “India” problems with frustration and disappointment. For fleeting moments I felt as if I deserved a more organized internship, better research resources, or more caring mentors to help facilitate my thesis fieldwork–just because I was a Penn student. It did not take long for me to realize that I was entitled to nothing. India did not owe me anything, no matter how smart or experienced or hardworking I thought I was. It was me who owed India: a chance, patience, time. Once I did, that was when the grand learning experience began.
I will never forget the people I met—the faces who greeted me with unwavering smiles and caring eyes, even when I might have not deserved it. After returning home and truly reflecting on my experience in India, I find myself at a loss for words. India touched me in a way that is indescribable. It changed who I am in ways I could never imagine. I could wax poetic about these life-changing experiences or the first world culture-shock I experienced upon my arrival back to America but I feel as if I have spoken enough. Therefore, I will complete my blog posts with a few of my favorite portraits and let these faces tell you a story.
How was India? This is a question that I heard countless times from friends and family after returning from my internship. Coming back from a place that was a whirlwind of chaos, it is a question equivalent of asking how is life? Trying to describe the experience in a paragraph is an impossible task let alone trying it describe it in a couple of sentences. Having been my home for the last 3 months, India has been an indescribable experience. It is a land so full of diversity and energy and so many experiences and memories that it will be a part of me that only I myself will fully understand. This summer has left its indelible mark on me and taught me new perspectives that will undoubtedly shape who I am. The people who I met, the places where I have been, and the things that I encountered have taught me lessons that have given me a new outlook on life. India has been a place that is so different from the places where I have been before and this difference has been exciting, enlightening, astonishing and disorienting, frustrating, and shocking like the country itself. This difference has made the experience what it was and offered opportunities for contrast that taught me a different way of living.
Perhaps one of the greatest lessons of India is the value of friends and family. Indian families are noisy, nosey, and never far apart. Family members always know each other’s business and secrets are impossible to keep. But this also means that there is always someone there to help or give advice when you need it. The value of family is also built into the very nature of the culture. For example, weddings are never small affairs with 100+ participants being the norm and many family members travelling hours to attend. They are excuses to gather the entire family together and offer valuable opportunities to reconnect. Many festivals such as Diwali, Holi, and Rakhee show that valuing family has been an essential part of Indian history. Perhaps the immense competition and hardship faced by many in India necessitates it but there is a strong sense of interconnectedness. One never truly feels alone and no matter where you go there is somebody you know.
Every day in India is very different and you never know what the country will throw at you but one thing that remains unchanged every day is chai time. From the driver who stopped in the middle of the road at a chai stand to the guard who invited us to sit down for chai as we were rushing to begin a four hour journey that we only had three hours to complete chai is more than a sweet drink but represents a period of reflection. This slow pace of life in India allowed me to absorb more of the world around me and to take in what was happening instead of blindly rushing from place to place. I began to notice the beauty of the sunset instead of simply turning on the lights. I took time to stop and listen to the music of the singing on the streets instead of walking by with my head down. Chai time was a chance to reflect on the day, prepare my mind for what was ahead and tackle the world with new energy.
Worthy of reflection
A smile is free and priceless and I was able to find a smile on most of the faces I saw in India. No matter who they were or what situation they were in everyone seemed happy. There was a spirit of joy that transcended the chains of the materialistic world. That is not to say more was always great and everyone was always working hard to generate wealth but while they were doing so people were satisfied with what they had. A famous saying in India is that there is always someone worse off and this seemed to make people appreciate their lives much more. I realized that happiness is a choice that you have to make for yourself.
Happiness is everywhere Spontaneous Dancing
If you try texting and driving in Delhi it will be a not a question of if but when an accident will happen. In a city where the most important traffic law is efficiency, causing cars to swerve in and out of the lanes trying to go through any gap possible, you must be alert at all times. This has encouraged people to develop a habit of disconnecting from technology and living in the moment instead of living online. As a bustling metropolis Delhi was alive and so full of energy. People were much more willing to talk with each other and I met so many people on the streets, in cafés or on the metro. The spark in everyone’s eyes encouraged me to live actively and to drink in the life around me.
A country full of life and people
Living in India is a unique experience no matter how much you think you have traveled before. I left the country with a little piece of me behind and a little piece of it in me, shaping my identity in a new way. She was a great teacher who taught me many invaluable lessons on how to live. Time may pass but the stories, lessons, and memories will stay with me forever. Onto the next adventure.