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The Center for the Advanced Study of India provides funding and support to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct independent research and volunteer internships in India.
Updated: 20 hours 28 min ago

Some Final Thoughts

Wed, 08/26/2015 - 16:09

Sorry for the extremely late post! I had to give myself a bit of time for the experience of being in India to sink in while I’m here back in the U.S. I think being here in Philly for a little over a month now has given me time to reflect back on my internship with CORD in Sidhbari.

First off, I think the trip back was the longest trip I’ve ever taken in my life! I started off with an overnight bus trip from Dharamshala to Delhi, which took about twelve hours (from 6pm to 6am the next day). That was probably the toughest part, because even though the bus was really nice, I just couldn’t fall asleep with all the bumps of the ride. But I got to have some really interesting conversations with the girl who was sitting next to me; she happened to speak English fluently. Me being a huge movie fan, we started talking about our favorite movies, most of which were the same: The Dark Knight (I’ve seen that around 20 times probably), The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (extended edition for the win!), and The Shawshank Redemption, to name a few. That and some other conversations about life in India, etc. helped make the trip go by faster. When I arrived in Delhi the next morning, I was lucky enough to spend the day at the home of the Chief Statistician of India, since my flight from Delhi wasn’t until 1:45am the next day! Due to my being extremely sleep-deprived (maybe delirious is a better way to put it), I basically crashed and stayed asleep the whole time, which was totally okay with me. Then the flight from Delhi to JFK was 15 hours, so to keep myself from losing my sanity I watched four movies. Then I had a four-hour layover at JFK, and finally flew into D.C., where I would stay with my sister for a few days before going up to Philly. To sum it up, the trip—from the time my night bus left Dharamshala until the time I touched down in Washington, D.C.—took about 55 hours!!

Now that I’m settled in back at Penn again, I can begin to better appreciate what happened in India. I am first of all so grateful for my fellow interns and friends Ravi and Michelle. I could not imagine doing this trip alone, with the language barriers I faced and the potential isolation I could have went through had they not been there. Many of the evenings after going into the field, when it was time to eat dinner or just relax, they would be there to have a stimulating or even just goofy conversation about something that had happened to them that day. That was always such a joy and a breath of fresh air.

It was also a super awesome time when the LEAP interns came to visit us in Sidhbari! Some of my best memories from India are from that day, when we spontaneously decided to go to a wedding ceremony and take part in the festivities, including the dancing—but, most importantly, the eating.

Another thing I’ve taken away from my time in India is a greater perspective of my life back home, which was something I had hoped to glean from my experience there. The region I was in was, for the most part, farming land, extremely rural. And most of the people I got to meet first hand were themselves farmers, and I had the wonderful opportunity to go into their homes and learn a little bit—perhaps a small piece—about their lives. But although my project was focused on maternal and child nutrition, I think I also learned from these folks a little bit about life in general. Most of the families I interviewed were poor. They didn’t have the kinds of materials I possess and, admittedly, take for granted so much of the time: TV’s, Apple computers and iPhone’s, high-speed internet; even cars some of them didn’t possess. But they had family, and they had food and water, shelter and, for the most part, health and, although I won’t assess their own lives for them (especially having gotten such a small glimpse into their lives), many of them seemed content. Narender, my supervisor, had a couple of discussions with me, Michelle and Ravi about the “core necessities” of life, family being one of the most vital. So if anything, these lessons have given me perspective about my own life in the U.S., and what is and should be most meaningful to me (family, friends, home).

I will always be extremely grateful for this immersive experience and can’t wait to greet the next wave of CASI interns! Go CASI!

Hello, It has been three weeks since my

Tue, 08/25/2015 - 22:14


It has been three weeks since my return to France. My bangles acquired on the Delhi streets have fallen and the Henna peacocks on my hands have faded away: it was unfortunate but inevitable. I had enough time to get back into “French mode”, which, for me, includes reverting to slightly different norms of behavior, somewhat catching up with three months of politics and national news, eating French food and undergoing all the ceremony associated with it, getting accustomed to the rhythm of family life, and speaking grammatically correct French (although French is my first language, I often stumble with finding all my words after a long time going without it, and have a tendency to use “Frenglish” in the first couple of days… I wonder how some Indians manage 4-5 languages fluently).

Sort of random observation: (skip this paragraph if you are speed reading)

Something I noticed while back in France is how few Indian people actually live or do tourism in Paris compared to American cities such as New York or Philadelphia. In fact, during my three-weeks stay here, I have only seen one Indian person in the street. This is certainly not the most insightful observation and is certainly something I could have anticipated were I to pay closer attention to international relations, but it is one of those things that I only started noticing after having gone to India and Penn. I think people’s attitude in India and France also reflects the fact that these two countries are not as “close” and prone to exchange of people as India and the US. Where I was used to a very enthusiastic reaction from people at Penn whenever I told them I was from France, people in India did not seem to find it as cool (and so I started telling people there I was from the US instead!). Fun anecdote, my Indian roommate recently went to France, visited an elementary school there and got to ask a group of kids to guess where she was from. She got all answers imaginable: Morocco, China, …even Russia ?! But not India.

Enough digression. As of today, here are three things that I have realized I missed about my internship in Bangalore

I miss being a foreigner in India. As simple as this may seem, I loved learning many new things every day: being able to ask questions to understand certain landscapes, traditions and behaviors observed. For example, I really enjoyed learning more about the caste system because I felt that it was essential to understand the inner dynamics, social expectations and rules behind social interactions in the Indian society. However, during the half hour of my discussion with Chitra (my boss) about caste, I feel that she was able to lay down essential foundations but only to scrape the surface of the topic. For a deeper understanding, I think that I would need to spend a lot of time in the country and interact with many people from many different regions. This calls for another trip to India and gives me an excuse to come back. I also loved being able to try out new Indian foods every day. I am a rather adventurous eater and had great fun trying out a variety of different vegetables, bread and meats, each cooked in different sauces, seasoned with an array of different spices. (At Shahi lunch, we would always have multiple preparations to choose from to complement our rice and bread, which was perfect for somebody who loves sampling!). I was always amazed at the amount of work the cooks put in to prepare all the food and curries. We were told that, at Shahi, cooking starts at 6am for a lunch at 1pm. However, despite how tedious cooking Indian foods appeared to be to our foreign eyes, it was funny to hear some of our coworker mention how difficult American cuisine seemed to them. I guess it is a question of habit.

Another nice thing about being a foreigner was that people were generally open to explaining things to us and were tolerant of our culturally induced blunders. An obvious example would be the morning I went to the temple at Shahi for the first time, and I was on my own. I took my shoes off, entered the temple and then realized I had no idea what to do. Thanks to the help of the priest and of another Shahi employee, I was able to (successfully?) complete the ritual. I like to compare my experience in India to that of being a freshman at Penn. You are new to the place and the culture of the place, and people do not have clear expectations of you. You are free to try new things, try out new facets of your personality without people judging you too hard or comparing you with your past self. Your mistakes and clumsiness are usually no more than a good joke for upperclassman to enjoy and you will likely be excused for them.

Another thing I miss about India is looking around in the street and being amazed about how, despite the shambles I see, everything seems to work out and everybody get his work done. The streets in India are great fun to watch when they are busy, that is, most of the time. I liked to look at all the people running past another, past cows, interacting with one another, trying to sell things, just chilling on the sidewalk… etc. The cars also were scary; it felt like being in a racing car video game except with way too many cars on the racing track. And somehow, in this apparent chaos, there was order: people got their work done and also deployed a hint of craziness and bending of rules to achieve their means. A coworker once said to me that if one did not battle to bypass the other cars, it would be impossible for one to get anywhere. Another thing that struck me was how open people seemed to be to discussing and helping out strangers. While we were in Mysore, our Indian guide/friend Lakshmi would constantly open the car window and very casually hail passersby for directions.

Finally, I miss being with Amy, Chan and Kendra, my Penn co-interns, who were my “buddies” for those two months, and from whom I have learned a lot. They were a constant support and comforting presence, and were great fun to hang out with. Our different majors, backgrounds and personalities, but shared general curiosity and willingness to do good have enabled us to have enriching and thought-provoking discussions. After work, it was very interesting to hear one other’s different perspective on the experiences we had shared during the day, how certain details I had not particularly paid attention to were important to them (and vice versa). I loved learning from Amy’s attention to detail, holistic thinking, and from the talent she had for always considering an issue in all its different facets, from Chan’s great sensitivity and involvement and from Kendra’s passion and sharp critical thinking skills. Thank you for being such great co-interns!

Other random observation: French and South Indian cooking are completely different… except when it comes to dosas and “galettes” (savory version of a crepe). Not only do they look but they also taste similar.  However, the galette I had was not filled with masala potatoes but with tomatoes, egg, cheese and ham!


French galette

The Train from Amritsar to Delhi

Tue, 08/25/2015 - 19:21

With classes starting tomorrow and New Student Orientation finishing up, everything around me seems just like it was last year before the start of classes. I am a senior, but since I transferred as a junior, this is my second fall, and I find myself doing all of the same things- meeting with my advisor, fixing my schedule, and being really excited for the semester to star. But of course, the thing that is different is that a whole year has passed, with all of the changes and learning experiences that has brought, which at the forefront of my mind is the time that I just spent as an intern for Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development in Sidhbari, Himachal Pradesh.

I am so incredibly thankful for the opportunity to work with this organization and with so many inspiring people, and to have gotten to learn many new skills, mostly in terms of the interview and case study process, that I hope to use again in a future working with non-profit organizations. Working with the Mahila Kisan Sashaktikaran Pariyojana (Woman Farmers’ Empowerment Program), I don’t think there could have been a project that matched up more with my interests, since I am both passionate about the environment and women’s empowerment.

During one of my first blog posts, I remember writing about the different ways in which I was connecting with my new environment and the people around me. Now that I have been mostly by myself for a few weeks before school starts, I have also found it interesting think about all of the internal processes that were integral to my time in northern India, and also about how some of my favorite memories came as a result of doing something by myself, which usually was not what I originally thought I would do, such as the train ride which is the topic of this blog.

After our internship ended, I was able to travel for a little over a week with co-intern Ravi (thanks to his solid planning skills!), and also to visit two friends who were in Delhi at the time. Early in our travels, I decided to take a train from Amritsar to Delhi by myself (which takes around 7 hours), to visit a friend. It goes without saying that you are more likely to talk to strangers when traveling alone than with people you know, but having not traveled alone for that long, and having just recently started to feel comfortable in Hindi, I had no idea just how much I would get to talk to other people, for the entirety of the train ride, and how much of a fun and amazing experience it would be.

I had actually never been on a train before, so I couldn’t find my seat at first, and when I did find it there were already people sitting in it, so, feeling shy, I sat in an empty bench nearby. The lady who sat next to me was going part of the way to Delhi, and I enjoyed hearing about the place where she grew up, and where she was living now. Naturally, when we both asked each other why we were on that train, that lead to different pieces of our life stories being shared. At one point, I decided to go up to my bunk to take a nap. When I woke up, someone had sat in the seat I was sitting in before, so I moved to my assigned bench. No one really said anything at first, and then a little later, someone asked where I was from. When I said New York, after a little while, someone in the group who knew English started to ask me more questions, such as what I was up to in India and why I was by myself and things like that. We talked for a little bit, and it ended up so that I would talk to him in Hindi to practice my Hindi, and he would talk to me in English to practice his English. It turned out that they were actually a group of 13 people (3 different families), who are from West Bengal, and are lifelong friends, and who had been traveling for over 2 weeks all across northern India, on a pilgrimage and also to sight see throughout different states. I was thinking how amazing it would be to take a trip that long with all of the people closest to you, and admired how energetic and cheerful they were despite having been on trains all day and having over 30 hours to go before reaching their home.

After swapping stories, by then which the other people on the bench found out that I spoke enough Hindi to get by, they asked if they could ask me some questions. I didn’t realize how these questions would have me thinking for days after! Some were really hard to answer ("Between the people here and the people in the US, what is the one main difference?" and "How is a rural town in the US similar and different to one in India?") and others quite funny ("Can you tell us exactly when and what you eat for your three meals both in Himachal, and when you’re in New York?" and when I told them I eat rice with dinner, they were like, "How many grams of rice?") I didn’t expect some of the things that they found surprising (that I buy all of my clothes from thrift shops, that thrift shops are fairly common in the U.S., and that, being vegetarian, if I hypothetically married a non-vegetarian, I wouldn’t cook meat- they joked that they felt bad for my future husband!) They also found it funny that I had managed to learn Hindi but not the metric system! They asked me me about my project, and about the differences between agriculture in the US and in Northern India, which I realized was something really important for me to think about. Over all, I was so happy for the opportunity to talk with these people for hours upon hours, and also to hear about their perspectives of India and the US and also of their travels.

I never expected how much this conversation would mean to me, but looking back on it, it was a perfect way to wrap up my internship, as the things that we talked about I find thought-provoking whenever the memory returns. Being accustomed to living in India for 10 weeks, I had stopped thinking in terms of comparisons to the US, like I had in the first week. However, I realized that after my time in India, it is important to still make comparisons and contrasts, for example, between ngo’s I’ve worked with here and there, or agriculture here and there, in order to frame the experience in a way that is integrated with things I’ve done in the past and hope to do in the future. Thinking about how my experience relates to my classes and jobs and career goals is a long and interesting process that I think will lead me to look at my internship in different ways and discover things that were meaning for and helpful for years to come. I am so thankful to have had the great memory of the hours-long train ride and all of the people that I met, and am really happy of the mindset of reflection in which it put me. I wanted to share this memory, as a part of countless other amazing memories of learning, working, talking, having fun and being inspired, all of which have made their impact on me, so that even though so much is familiar with this first week back to Penn, I know that much has changed.

Pictured Below:

Here, I am with three of the woman farmers who I got to interviewed about their experiences with the program. Santosh Kumari, sitting on the left, in addition to participating in the MKSP program, is also the person who is implementing it in a neighboring Panchayat, since she works as CORD field staff. After going to women’s group meetings in the Panchayat to talk about the program and build interest, she facilitated the creation of about 5 Woman Farmer Groups, does trainings in the new organic farming practices, and overall checks on the farmers to make sure the program is going well. Since the program is adding 10 new Panchayats in its second year (there were 10 the first year), she is now doing this process in another Panchayat as well. Many of the people who work at CORD, in addition to their 9 to 5 job, also are farmers, which is full-time work in itself.

Namoshkar from Kolkata!

Mon, 08/24/2015 - 11:52

First, a quick re-introduction — My name is Nathalie Figueroa and I graduated from Penn in May 2015 as a Health and Societies Major. I was born in El Salvador and grew up in the cosmopolitan city of Miami, Florida. My parents’ love for travel quickly became an uncontrollable passion of my own and has driven me to explore many languages and countries around the world. My concentration in global health exposed me to Indian society, culture, and history and drove me to apply for the CASI internship in 2013.

Making friends in 2013 :)

It’s great to be back in India two years after having interned at the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (Chirag) through CASI. This time, I am living in Kolkata for 9 months as a Fulbright-Nehru English Assistant (ETA).

While hosting health camps in schools in the Kumaoni region of Uttarakhand I gained a firsthand look at the potential of schools as health promoting tools. We congregated in schools in different communities each week and saw them transform into clinics for vaccinating infants and classrooms that taught best practices for water purification and sanitation. My biggest takeaway that summer was how communities made schools access points for healthcare by incorporating health education into the schooling of children and families.

I applied for a Fulbright-Nehru English Teaching Assistantship grant in order to understand the classroom environment’s role in children’s health and how this can be used for public health projects. Schools have the potential to dramatically alter the prevalence of disease among future generations, while also improving learning. In order to integrate health education into the classroom, I knew I had to learn about the opportunities and obstacles that exist in incorporating these lessons into a curriculum.

Additionally, education has given me the tools to define and pursue my purpose in life with greater liberty and autonomy.  In elementary school, my parents reminded me that no matter what happened, no one could take my education away from me. Education became the most valuable treasure I could possibly imagine. At the time, I thought it was my small stature that caused people to underestimate me, but I realized my ethnicity and gender played larger roles. As a student at Penn, I had the opportunity to delve into these sorts of inequalities. I became intellectually empowered to challenge and reinvent my social and material realities. Nonetheless, it took an organization that identifies leaders, to believe in the importance of reaching out to students whose potentials are overlooked. The Posse Foundation changed my life by fortifying my strengths and including me in a network of individuals committed to positive change. The dynamic support I received as a Posse Scholar provided me with a unique perspective of leadership-building methods that equip students beyond classroom education.  For these reasons, I want to help students tap into their own potential and cultivate treasures of their own.

After two months, I realize that the variety of reasons that drove me to apply for the Fulbright-Nehru ETA are materializing, but I could not predict the immensity of lessons that have transpired thus far. I thank CASI for providing this platform to connect with others interested in health, education, and India and will continue to share this journey as time goes by.

Celebrating Founder’s Day at Narmada High School!

If you are interested in applying to the Fulbright ETA program in our outside of India, please stay tuned for more updates and feel free to reach out! I would love to answer any questions and receive feedback!

The End of a Great Summer

Sun, 08/23/2015 - 15:12

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.

Friendships are for Keeps

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 02:31

Sorry this post took so long. It was actually more difficult to find wifi in countryside China than in India. But here it is! Enjoy.

Being in a foreign country definitely comes with its fair share of hardships. It was difficult, even with the amount of help that I received; I have no idea how I could have survived these 10 weeks without the people that showed me so much hospitality. Whenever people ask what my favourite thing about India is, I would always respond food and people intertwined in the perfect but distinct orientation. I would not be able to differentiate the two, but sadly (and it breaks my heart stomach) this post isn’t about food.

One of the many wonderful things about visiting this country is the amount of stares that you get, the blank stares, the creepy stares. But wait…… there’s more. I have had countless incidences where a little head nod and a biiiiggggggggg smile would turn those stares into such pleasant faces. They are really friendly people; we may be different from what they are used to, and if I were in their situation, I wouldn’t know better than to stare. Us LEAP Interns, we are really attractive people.

Anyways, I have made it one of my personal hobbies to try to elicit as many smiles from others as possible. I mean for the long bus rides around Northern India, one has got to entertain him/herself. What better way than to share joy? I think that because I looked different, people stared. But a smile from me would elicit so much excitement in them. I was thinking the whole time: “Why not?”

(Sorry, I thought that taking pictures of others random people staring and smiling at me would be too creepy.)

One morning, I decided to rise around 5:30 in the morning (apparently this is when all of India rises too). The weather was amazing. It was moderately cool for once, with only a tad hint of humidity. But for the spoiled Vancouver brat that I am, this was already uncomfortable. But no worries, I was there to explore the country at 5:30 in the morning and indeed exploration I intended.

It turned out to be a fascinating idea to go for a run. There were just so much going on already in the grass field in front of small complex building that we are staying at inside the school. After a few laps through narrow lanes of the school corridors on the outside and in between buildings, I ran into a group resting on the side. And guess what I saw beside them? Badminton rackets. I love badminton!

Look at how happy we are

I asked if I could play with them for a little bit, and they are more enthusiastic than I way. After a few rallies and many more words of flattery, we sat down and got the chance to chat about each other’s countries and preferences.

The weekend that we, the amazing LEAP people, visited Dharmsala and saw the amazing CORD people with another lovely friend also doing IIP in Chandigard (HI MARA! How are you?), we had the chance to travel all together and explore a more rural region of Northern India. It was with great farmlands and rural development setting that CORD gets to work in. The scenery was amazing. Look at how amazing we look in the impressive background!

Look at how much fun we were having jumping over stepping stones!

Natural beauty is the best beauty

But here’s not the best part! Through the friend of a friend of a friend (or more like one of CORD’s security staff), we all got invited to the equivalent wedding reception. We were a 9-man crew and just like that, we got to enjoy amazing, and I mean amazing food! And it wasn’t alone in a secluded room, “reserved for foreigners” or anything, sorta like this:

Oh nose! I thought this picture captured everything, but on the top right corner, it says “Foreigner Gallery”

This picture was taken on the Wagah border between India and Pakistan for the daily border flag lowering ceremony. It’s been 3 weeks, I still don’t know how I feel about this :/

No, it was in a courtyard with lines and lines of people eating wave after wave. It was intense how good the food was, almost as impressive as the quantity that was made. Look at how much fun everyone (especially me) is having! The colors, the smells, and joy.

First time, but definitely not my last time eat with my hands. My mom looks at me weird now. Oh well~

Look at how happy we were dancing

Well, back at home (This is what I got to call Yamuna Nagar for such a long time ^_^ ), I also stumbled into a really nice group that play badminton every day, from 6:30pm to 8pm without fail. Most of the days when LEAP does pay us extra to keep us overtime, I join them. They love me and I love them. Sadly, when school started in early July we were not allowed to use the facilities anymore. But happy memories remains happy memories.

I also just recently gotten an India popular haircut at that time. Do you guys like?

Okay, one weekend, we decided to stay in Delhi and tour the amazing city that it is. So after I woke up for an early journey to the Chinese Visa Center (and secretly enjoyed a coffee at Saket Mall; it’s a really nice mall), I joined the rest of the interns at the Lotus temple. So I offered to take a photo for a family at the beautiful Lotus Temple. They were an adorable family…. All of whom poses with 5 inches between each person. So I put their camera around my neck and tried my best to squeeze them more together. So they had a better family picture. So I met up with Leora, Laura, and Eileen, stayed a bit at the temple and were stalked by tuktuk drivers (big surprise there) when we left. When we got to Humayun’s tomb, we were again sadden by the fact that our entrance is 25 times that of Indian citizens (oh that’s alright, we don’t pay taxes in this country). So it turned out that they entered just behind us, and they recognized me! So when I found out that they were actually Australian, I jokingly asked if they sneaked in with the Indian price, and they told me that they had family who is in charge of the tomb. Our jaws dropped. So they had a guy lead us through intricate tunnels of bats and bat droppings. So we ended up on top of the tomb with breathtaking views, ones not open to the general public. And so voilà, here’s me with a Fedora that belonged to the son:


And there’s us fooling around!

People are so pleasant. Especially you Puneet and your family!

I cannot leave out the two wonderful human beings at the corner store just by the back gate of the school campus that we worked at, Daman Deep Singh and his father! They own a humble little shop where they would make the best Lassi and give me the biggest smiles. Without them, the rest of the interns and me would have definitely died of thirst. Thanks for keeping us alive!

I also cannot leave out how hospital one particular propeller student was. Jaskirat was one of the more mature students, who invited me to go play volleyball with his friends on the first days of his summer session. I definitely could not have passed off this opportunity. Throughout my stay he would always bug me about visiting more of the city with him. However, time wasn’t on either of our sides. Thanks for the all the great memories Jaskirat! I will definitely see you and all of the other propeller students again!

You can see the net in the background, as well as the group of students trying to dislodge the volleyball from the tree. Hehe it was fun to watch. Jaskirat has such a big smile.

But most of all, the LEAP team is one that made our stay the unbelievably amazing experience that it turned out to be. Each member contributed a unique trait into the LEAP crucible. It was hot at days when even the backup generators gave out; but nevertheless, in the hot cauldron of India, each dynamic personality blended so well together. It was such an honor to work alongside such motivated and captivating people. Without them, our experience could not even begin to approach how the glamorous that it was.

These few stories are only the tip of the iceberg to the overwhelming hospitality this country offered me! What I am trying to express with this post is the amount of gratitude that is due for such an amazing trip. The friendships made, the relationships forged; in such a foreign country, I felt at home. What make the trip that CASI allowed me to embark on different from just a visit to the country. This is the difference. We were given a home instead of a location. We were given a chance to feel instead of just see (although we also did plenty of that). We were given a chance to be thoroughly immersed, rather than glancing over the food, the people in a frenzied haze. But most of all, we were given the opportunity to love and be loved by so many diverse people, each of whom leaving lasting impressions. This is absolutely more than I asked for. Friends will be for keeps even when everything else is for grabs :)

Your favourite,


Building the framework with SPS

Mon, 08/17/2015 - 02:10

The first half of my work with SPS focused on documenting the impacts of the Self-Help Group (SHG) program—forming groups of 10-20 women in a village through which members build bank savings, economic literacy, and social capacity in their community. Through interviews with SHG professionals, group members, SHG leaders, and mitaans (community residents who help operate SHG meetings), we recorded their personal anecdotes, efforts, hardships, lifestyle changes, and community history to demonstrate the successes and difficulties of working in the SHG program.

The second half of my work shifted focus from documenting these descriptive stories and interviews to working with an on-going SPS project with the goal of quantitatively tracking the impacts of the program. A few SPS members have been working towards creating a customized software that records and graphically displays the outcomes of SPS interventions for several programs (Watershed Management, Agriculture, Livestock, SHG). My role in this project was forming what would be the “framework” of the software—the data points and indicators that measure outcomes of intervention. When I started helping the SPS members, namely Raghav and Viju, with the project, I was hoping no one expected me to try and code anything. I don’t even have Microsoft office downloaded on my laptop. But, it became clear that my role was working on the logistics of making the “framework” of the software—determining the indicators that would measure outcomes of SPS interventions and the primary data points that could be collected via survey with program beneficiaries to calculate those indicators. For example, one of the objectives of the agriculture program is to minimize input costs for the farmers. An intervention for this objective would be linking farmers to government subsidies for drip irrigation tubes to reduce water usage and pumping costs, and so the indicators that would measure the outcomes of this intervention would be cost of water and reduction in water usage for the farmer. Working the agriculture team, I would figure out what data points would be necessary to calculate the indicators that could also be gather from farmer surveys and farmer diaries, in which farmers keep track of their own inputs and outputs. For the cost of water, agriculture team would need to record the farmer’s total hours of pumping for that season (written in his diary) and the hourly electricity charges (publically available). For reduction of water usage, the surveyor would need to record area of farmer’s land, number of waterings during the season, and the average depth of watering, which would be compared to a benchmark volume of water usage based on land size, crop variety, and cropping pattern. I listed these data points to cover the possible interventions from the pre-sowing stage to the post-harvest stage of the season. I was able to also begin determining the proper data points and indicators for the livestock and watershed programs. The next steps of the project are to conduct trial surveys with the data points and create the digital format for recording the indicators. Though my time with SPS is coming to a close, I look forward to seeing the progress of the project.

Interviewing SHG program members and creating the framework for the software have been two sides of the same project—working towards improved and expanded documentation of SPS program impacts. This work has allowed me to interact with all of the programs, understand how each are interconnected to the security of rural livelihoods, and study topics outside of my degree (microfinance, women’s empowerment, agricultural practices, commodity aggregation, etc.) that has this summer a truly invaluable learning experience.

Last Days: Delhi x Mumbai

Sun, 08/16/2015 - 14:32

Not going to lie, there was a part of me that did not want to leave Delhi. People say that Delhi is hectic and crazy, but it has been the kind of crazy that has become somewhat familiar. At the same time, I wanted to see more of India and my flight out was from Mumbai- formerly Bombay. People who I had met from Mumbai always claimed that it was better than Delhi (the same love for one’s own city could also be said of those from Delhi). Google Maps indicates that the journey between the two cities takes approximately 19-23 hours by train or 270 hours via foot; thankfully, it was only 2 hours by flight.

Perfect time for a quick nap- thank you IndiGo

Without any set plans, I decided to drop my stuff off and start exploring by walking around. The following are some observations and experiences from the little time I had in Mumbai:

Part 1: Gateway of India

A close two-minute walk from where I was staying, the Gateway of India was built during British Rule in Mumbai to commemorate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911. That being said, it was not completed until 1924. Back then, it was the first major thing people saw upon arrival to Bombay by sea and it was also where the last British troops left after India’s independence (an interesting scene to imagine as I was standing right in front of the structure!).

The Gateway overlooks the Arabian Sea…and I may have gotten a bit overexcited to see a major body of water. Being from Jersey, most summers include at least a couple trips to the beach so there was a part of me that missed the experience of having a large amount of salty seawater nearby (in other words, I missed the shore a lot).

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel- across from the Gateway of India. Interestingly, the original building was finished in 1903, before the Gateway.

Arabian Sea- it was about to rain!

Part 2: Art Galleries

The art scene in Mumbai is quite thriving. Walking through the streets, I came across a handful of galleries on main roads and tucked away in side streets. One of my personal favorites from the weekend was the Jehangir Art Gallery. The top level featured the work of Shubha Vaidya, an artist from Mumbai. Full of color and beautifully balanced, her work captures female empowerment in various roles. The women herself is as, if not more, vibrant as her work. When asked how long each piece takes, she responded, “However long as it needs”- a mentality that I remember having when I painted. Shubha went on to explain how she seeks to showcase women’s emancipation and the potential of an Indian woman’s role in society. Although I could not transport some of her physical art back with me to the US, it was a refreshing and inspirational conversation and I wished her all the very best.

Shubha and her daughter. Painting Veenavadini with Saraswati goddess of knowledge, arts, wisdom and learning. Somewhat fitting considering the work with LEAP

Part 3: Marine Drive

A long boulevard in South Mumbai, Marine Drive is also known as the “Queen’s Necklace” because at night the lights along the c-shaped road look like a string of pearls from above. My friend from Penn had brought me to the ending edge of one side on my first night and for some reason I was just really unexpectedly happy to feel the wind and see the shorelines. The second night, I decided to try to find the way again- after walking the wrong way for a bit, asking a couple times for directions and more walking, I finally found myself back at Marine Drive. Although there were people around, for the moment I felt at peace just looking at the sea. It is easy to see why people can sit for hours. Marine Drive also reminded me a lot of the Shanghai bund (although the view across the bund is much nicer, no bias intended!). Can you guess which is which?

After a bit, the person sitting to my left started talking to me- he was living in Mumbai pursuing an MBA that specialized in marketing. We talked a lot about the education system in India. He explained how due to pressure from family, he had originally studied engineering. After a few years, he realized that he had no interest in engineering and wanted to go into business. This made me think back to the Propeller students and how they have the potential to figure out what they truly want to pursue, but how that is also a tough thing to do. I came into the summer not knowing anything about education in India. Coming out, at least I can say that it is undoubtedly complex but I have a better understanding of the different influences and mentalities behind education in this vastly diverse country.

Part 4: Leaving

Getting to the airport the morning of my flight was surprisingly easy. Built a couple of years back, the Rajiv Gandhi Sea Link helped reduce travel time between Bandra and Worli. This reduced the total travel time to less than half an hour (vs the 1.5+ hours it had taken from the airport). Two days was not enough to see all that Mumbai has to offer, so until next time~

As a side note: I really enjoy architecture- so I may have gotten a bit overexcited by Mumbai airport’s international terminal. Cannot resist the opportunity to include a couple more photos so here you go!

Next 3 photos from Google of other viewpoints


Sat, 08/15/2015 - 14:52

I feel very grateful to have met so many kindhearted and inspiring people at Shahi over the summer. One of these individuals was Chitra, the person we had been assigned to work with and who was in charge of supervising us in Bangalore. Not only was she our boss, mentor and to some extend a “motherly figure” to us while in Bangalore, but she also became a friend, someone that all four of us will greatly miss.

Chitra our boss/mentor 

Chitra was a thirty six-year-old woman educated in social work. She worked in the OD (organization development) department at Shahi and had a team of HR under her supervision. She and her team would tackle various non-technical issues (such as attrition and health of the workers) and look at ways to help the predominantly female workforce achieve better wellbeing, for example through personal empowerment programs or health initiatives. Chitra also worked closely with factory heads and general managers and would participate in the decision making process at the corporate level. She was very knowledgeable about Shahi policies and about the factories’ current situation, especially pertaining to the workforce state.

I really appreciate how welcoming, generous with her time, supportive and helpful towards our projects she has been. Given the fact that the four of us were interns, studying at the bachelor level, who had little relevant experience in the garment industry, knowledge of the language and familiarity with the culture, we were very lucky to have been taken so seriously and to have received so much attention from the people at Shahi. For instance, when we arrived, we received more than one week of orientation during which we met various factory heads and teams, and visited different factories in the region. The project I choose to work on was to design and implement a buddy system for workers after establishing background research to assess their needs. Later on during the internship, I would frequently visit Chitra in her “cabin” (cubicle in which she would work, which had grilled windows to avoid monkey attacks!) and ask for advice and feedback about my project. She had a lot of experience and practical intuition and was very good at helping me establish a plan of action, prioritize tasks and understand mistakes. I also want to thank her for bearing with my numerous questions (anyone who knows me will know that I tend to be rather inquisitive!).

I have learned a lot from working alongside Chitra, seeing how she managed her team and got her work done. She was always very direct and would speak her opinion frankly with everybody. (I remember at first being slightly unsettled by her candidness). However, she would always listen attentively to a presentation before reacting to it, and would phrase her criticism in a constructive manner: helping the interlocutor understand his mistakes and orienting him in the right direction. As an example, the four of us have been able to witness her style of handling feedback one day when she summoned her team to give a presentation of various training modules they had elaborated for migrant worker recruits living in hostels. Even as outsiders, we could see that some of the modules had not been thought through correctly, had been elaborated with a too big use of the Internet and insufficient on-the-field observations. To the coworker who suggested to teach to the workers in hostels the benefits of making their beds in the morning, she kindly suggested that the coworker in question go visit one of the hostels and observe that the workers did not sleep on beds but on the floor without any cover attire. But most of all, I admired how, despite being a team manager, she would devote some time in performing more ground level operations such as interviewing workers herself or leading training sessions for them. In doing so, she would always listen attentively, show patience while teaching and do her best to relate and interact with them on an equal-to-equal foot.

visit to workers’ home

hostel visits

creeping in her cabin ( from our perspective)

( from hers…)

“Mama Chitra”

On top of being our boss, Chitra also was to a certain extent a second mom to us while we were in Bangalore. She constantly displayed little signs of attention, which meant a lot to us. She watched out for us, helped us solve potential issues with our hotel, and gave us advice on things to do and places to go on our days off. On Kendra’s birthday, she prepared a card and flowers for her and organized a pizza/ chocolate cake surprise lunch with a few of our closest coworkers. On the last weekend of our internship, she invited us to her place for a delicious homemade breakfast of dosas and introduced us to her family: her husband, two young sons and mother in law. After breakfast, we spent some time interacting/playing all together and then looked at some picture of Chitra’s marriage and of Vastav’s, (her eldest son) naming ceremony.

Chitra’s family

A friend.

But more that being a mentor and a “mom”, Chitra also became a friend, someone with whom we got to share fun moments as well as have more serious/personal conversations. Chitra liked to make jokes and tease us (…and we liked to tease her back). She would take life with a grain of salt and would remain open and friendly even when she was stressed. On Kendra’s birthday, we held clandestine lunch in a temporary cubicle we constructed using white boards in a room of the HR department. That day she told us, joking, “I like breaking rules”.

We also held more serious conversations with Chitra and got to ask her all the questions about cast, marriage, love, food in India that came to our minds. As much as we were eager to learn about Indian traditions/beliefs/ customs, she was very curious about “American culture”. At first, she would ask me various questions about American high school life that I, having gone to a French school in Paris all my life did my best to answer (sometimes using facts I had seen in movies as my sources I must confess…)

Saying goodbye on the last day was hard. It is not that often that you meet someone who is so good at endorsing all three roles of boss/mom and friend at the same time. I will miss her.

Kendra’s surprise lunch

a master at group selfies (about to board on a plane to Orissa)

on our way to a village house in Orissa

When Things Go South

Wed, 08/12/2015 - 12:13

The first words out of my mouth to introduce my lecture on calf feeding and management fell on the confused ears of my translator. I glanced over the attentive faces of village health care workers that sat ready to take notes and  tried again. Flipping through my mental thesaurus, I attempted to find other words to articulate and was relieved as my interpreter gave an understanding nod and began speaking my sentence in Tamil.   We had just begun the day of veterinary training in Salem, Tamil Nadu.  With the help of local and American veterinarians, we gathered to offer advice and hands-on skills involving a variety of animal husbandry topics. Transitioning to southern India in Salem after my previous research in Hyderabad, Telangana has been as stark as the change in barometric pressure.  The Telugu language certainly separates itself from Tamil and different crops dominate the fields. However, the characteristic blats of the water buffalo and the scurrying of geckos across the window screens remains the same.  The vast amount that I learn from the diverse culture and extravagant hospitality of India each day has also stayed consistent.

Teaching a lecture on calf health and nutrition

As I made my way through the lecture with much gesturing, chalkboard drawing, and rephrasing, I was delighted at what I learned from the farmers and workers in attendance. Much of the topic was the feeding of colostrum to calves. Colostrum, or the ‘first milk’ of a cow, is extremely important to provide maternal antibodies and nutrition to a calf. The recommended amount of colostrum for calves is 3-4liters within 6 hours after birth to efficiently protect the calf from disease.

A new calf nursing at a dairy in Salem, Tamil Nadu

Encouraging the calf to nurse frequently or bottle feeding the required amount may seem like a simple change, but I learned from my students that it comes with many challenges. In this area, colostrum is sold at a premium (at about 10xs the price of milk) to give to infants. Often, the first milk is even spoken for as soon as the cow is confirmed to be pregnant by the family of the farmer or by a local client. The demand for colostrum in the human market then makes it difficult to secure the health and growth of a calf. This delays the reproductive maturity of cattle and makes dairy production less economical. In some village traditions, colostrum for calves has long been thought as detrimental to calf health as it causes loose stool and feeding it is  also considered difficult long term investment. Through the lecture, which turned into an enriching discussion, many concepts and challenges like those just mentioned provided valuable insights that will contribute to further development efforts in the future. It seems that when things go south in the literal and figurative sense, it is just an opportunity to reorient your sense of direction and soak in new knowledge. Throughout my last few days here in India, I will be continuing to observe nutritional practices in this new Indian state to gain a wider perspective  and a more well rounded view of dairy nutrition. I also hope to savor the spices and fresh roti while avoiding pickled mango (there are just some things that you only need to try once).

The veterinary training class and instructors

Finding the Focus of my Dissertation

Sun, 08/09/2015 - 00:11

Friday was my last day of work and I leave soon back to the US, so it is time to reflect on where I was just a few months ago and on what the next steps will be. At the time of my CASI application for the summer travel research grant, I had access to one garment manufacturer and some fascinating but broad theoretical questions. There is absolutely no substitute for fieldwork to figure out what is actually going on. What does a purchase order look like? What signals does a manufacturer get that business from a particular client is ripe for marketing or pending decline? What does a merchandiser actually do?

Coming into my pre-dissertation work, I did know that I was more interested in the front end of manufacturing – communication with the buyer. This interest continues. Luckily, though, my boss had the foresight to make sure that I spent enough time with production to understand their processes and issues. He arranged visits to two other factories to study their production models, which led to an important breakthrough in my thinking. As in retail, there is no one-size-fits-all model of production. A factory manager must consider not only the capabilities of his workers and machines, but their organization according to production space, order quantity, and difficulty of operations. While a computer-aided cutting machine can slice plain cotton fabrics faster than large numbers of workers, it is not a sensible investment at a unit that specializes in knits (which will get stuck in the machine).

The same principle applies to the organization of merchandising and design teams. A strong design team can be a great way to chase new business. I studied one factory, however, who does well over half of their business with H&M. The buyer sends mostly tech packs, which contain detailed design instructions that can be interpreted without a designer. It is a risky for the manufacturer to have a client portfolio that is so imbalanced (what if H&M moves their orders to another factory?), but employing a dedicated customer service team for this particular client makes sense so long as the buyer continues to place large orders.

I now understand that even while my dissertation will not take a comparative focus, it would be foolish to spend too long at any single place. Basic processes are going to be the same at most companies, but strategies are not. Small, medium, and large businesses must make the kinds of investments that are suited to their capabilities and clients. I know not just from theory, but from owner interviews and production-floor experience that I need to gain experience at a business with the capacity to handle 25 or 50 clients, not 5 or 15. I understand the basic issues that a small manufacturer faces, but what problems arise as a business scales in size? Do they expand through M&A, vertical integration, or major loans and capital investments? These strategic decisions, in turn, will shed light on the options which are presented to owners and managers at small and mid-scale manufacturers. They will also have much better potential for theoretical innovation and a more general application.

As I wrap up, my pre-dissertation focus on processes and negotiations remains. I have, though, learned two very important things. The first is a basic view of what happens in garment manufacturing. The second is an understanding of how these processes and negotiations are informed by (a) the particular competency of a manufacturer and (b) particular specializations within the global competition for manufacturing. I am now finishing up applications to large funding agencies to find support for my return to India.

I am grateful to CASI for supporting an incredibly engaging summer.

Up in the Ivory Tower vs. Down on the Ground

Fri, 08/07/2015 - 19:25

I know it’s a strange thing to say, but it weirded me out that I felt so positive and fulfilled as Chan and I completed our final presentations and summed up the work that we had done over the previous 10 weeks. For those who know me back at Penn, I’m heavily involved in clubs and classwork focusing on international development. But, at the same time that I devote myself to these projects, I’m a huge critic of the often unethical ways that “development” plays out. Much of it comes from the West or “global north” to the developing world or “global south.” Because of this, it emphasizes existing differences in power and wealth, while following all to familiar historic patterns of intervening, “teaching,” or “saving” communities or countries who are believed to be unable to do so themselves.

Looking from a theoretical perspective, our own project had some ethical questions as well. For my and Chan’s project – why are two rising seniors in college cut out to tell a bunch of girls our own age about what to eat? (especially, as Chan mentioned, because our diets back at school are nothing to brag about) Why are our western ideas of nutrition and health to be taught, when they already have their own? Is that kind of teaching a form of neocolonialism? Why create peripheral interventions when the central activity of being a garment worker with a low salary is creating a number of problems itself? Why are we given the choice of what project to pursue, instead of polling what the workers wanted most? Etc., etc….

This past semester, I took a class called NGOs and Humanitarianism, where we discussed many of these topics. Throughout the entire semester, I became even more critical and I sharpened my arguments with theory. But, at the end of the semester I found myself challenged to answer my own question – if all of this is so problematic, why do we do it? Why does anyone try to help, especially if many of these projects end up causing more harm than good? I ended up using my final paper as a way to answer this, and came to the conclusion that the alternative—not trying—would be so much worse. Working towards justice and equality and engaging deeply with people who have far less privilege may be ethically problematic or re, but that generally seemed better than pure indifference.

My experiences working in a garment factory have only confirmed this.

Going into the internship, I was frustrated that the low salaries of the workers were a central problem, and that working on something like nutrition felt like ignoring the elephant in the room. But, when you’re on the ground doing this work, theory doesn’t hold up as well. The capitalist method of production can be very harmful to enormous groups of people, but the chances of me overthrowing capitalism or convincing a garment factory that employs 100,000 people to double everyone’s salaries was a bit slim. Why not focus on something small? If we could help provide bananas in the morning or a training session, and these things were met with approval from the workers, that felt like success. Of course, we can always do things better. When we received the first order of bananas, they were size of my ring finger. The workers complained, and fewer girls came the next morning to receive one. But, we talked to management and got approval for a size increase. After that, the number of girls who showed up to take fruit in the morning started growing again.

The bananas were maybe the size of the tiny ones on top  (thanks to wikipedia for the great banana diagram)

My last day in Bangalore, we decided to take an early morning trip to unit 11 and 12 where we had implemented our intervention. For the first time, I saw the girls filing through the canteen, picking up their free fruit. While the theory-loving side of my brain critiqued the minimal impact that this would have, I couldn’t help the creeping sense of happiness and satisfaction that it gave me.

Indian? … not exactly

Fri, 08/07/2015 - 18:38

One week ago, I took an auto rickshaw on my own. I haled the driver, and doing my best to copy the “Indian” English accent, managed to bargain an acceptable price.

While we were driving, I was honored to hear him ask me “ Ma’am, Kannada, Hindi, Telugu…? (But then felt a little embarrassed to have to answer him “ No,… English, only English.”) On the moment, I felt proud he had asked me the question, as I thought that I had finally managed to pass the Indian test, that I had fooled him into believing that I was Indian. In my head, I attributed this “success” to my borrowed Indian intonation, to the fact I was wearing a kurta that day, as well as to my effort to look self-assured and speak firmly to the driver. It is a general belief that, in India, rickshaw drivers tend to charge foreigners more, and so I had always thought that somehow the less American and the more confident I would sound, the easier it would be for me to bargain an acceptable price.

Looking back at the event, I realize that I had probably over-estimated the extent of my success in passing for Indian that day. If the driver had asked me which language I spoke, it might rather have been specifically because I looked like I did not quite fit in (and thus he was curious to know more….)

Earlier on in the internship, Chitra (our boss) told the four of us, nicely dressed in kurtas that day: “You all look Indian!”. She was probably only trying to compliment us on our clothes and make us feel good because then, observing us more closely, she added/felt constrained to add:“ …except the hair, the eyes, the skin, the way of walking….”. (This, to the four of us sounded almost the same as if she had said “ you do not look or act Indian in any way”).

But that was fine to us. Throughout the internship, we realized that being an outsider could also have fun sides: there was a constant challenge for us to learn new things every day. People were generally extremely tolerant towards our “Westernized” behaviors and always willing/eager to teach us their ways.

In our daily lives, we were constantly reminded of the fact that we were not Indian, for instance through explicit or implicit feedback we would get from the people we met:

Eating with hands

One day, our coworkers surprised one of their friends for her birthday with a cake at work. All four of us interns were present at the cake cutting ceremony and received a piece of cake on a cardboard plate. After handing out the last piece, Chitra started tearing apart one of the remaining cardboard plates and gave each of us four a piece of it. She saw our confused looks, so she provided some clarification: “spoon “ she said.

I remember the day we ate in the workers’ canteen with a few of the friends we had made amongst the tailors. At the staff canteen where we usually ate, we always had the option of using a spoon to eat. In the workers’ canteen, however, there was no cutlery and we were to eat the rice with our hands. In an attempt to not touch the burning rice, it tried to scoop it into my mouth using a papad, a sort of large light cracker served with the meal. I was immediately called out by one of our coworkers who, looking amused, asked me to not cheat.


Aside from the fact that we did not speak Kannada, the official language of the Karnataka region, we encountered numerous communication difficulties even while speaking English. Indeed, we soon realized that our choice of words/structures, as well as the way we pronounced these English words was also different. This often made it very difficult for us to understand and be understood by Uber drivers on the phone!

Even though I sometimes tried to copy the “Indian” accent in order to be better understood and to attempt to fit it (my interaction with the rickshaw driver is an example of such a situation), I progressively realized that achieving a somewhat accurate Indian accent would be difficult because it would require that I learn to pronounce sounds that I could barely make out, even less pronounce. Here is an example:

For a few weeks at work, we played an ongoing pronunciation game with our coworkers. All four of us would constantly try to enunciate the work “jhootha” correctly: if one pronounces the “th” using the  “t” sound normal to us Americans, the word means sandal. Pronounced with a Hindi “t” sound, the word means liar. To our ears, the difference between those two sounds was very subtle, and we would also struggle a lot to pronounce the Hindi “t”. Because this Hindi “t” was the “t” sound most of the Indians would employ while speaking English, I guess it means that we got all our “t”s wrong while trying to copy their way of speaking. On top of that, because I was very bad at the pronunciation game, I would call my coworkers “sandal” whenever I meant to tease them and call them “liar”. Below is an audio extract featuring one of our coworkers saying “jhootha” -liar and “jhootha”-sandal/shoe. I asked her to speak slowly and distinctively so as to make the difference between the two “t”s easier to spot. Can you hear the difference?

Game, Set, Match? Recreation at SPS

Thu, 08/06/2015 - 07:17

The following is a stylized account of an evening at the SPS Campus based on actual events.
Once a year, the Baba Amte Center for People’s Empowerment, as known as the SPS Neemkeda Campus, takes on a new purpose to host the Western Madhya Pradesh Table Tennis (TT) Classic: Men’s Singles Championship. Considered to be the Wimbledon of recreational table tennis, the match takes place on center table–the only TT table–housed in the larger covered space next to the computer room. Distinguished by fast-paced night-time play, the matches are fought under the fluorescent lights of the brick building and, sometimes, with flashlights when the power goes out. Occasionally, a crowd of one or two  bystanders gathers outside the screened walls to referee the game and keep score.
The 2015 Finals saw defending champion, Vinay S., an SPS employee of the livestock program, face off against the Vinay D., an up and coming university student out of Delhi and son of the SPS campus manager.  The match was highly anticipated amoung the five or six regular TT attendees on campus, since the two players held an even record in the regular season. On one hand, Vinay D. plays for showmanship–to make the high profile trick shots that would, in theory, appear on a Top 10 Plays of the Week list. On the other hand, Vinay S. plays methodically, almost as a scientific process. Keep the ball in play, calculate the angle and speed of return, and wait for the opponent to mess up before you do. Equally matched, the finals were set to be heated, and not just because the ceiling fans weren’t running in the room.
With a wave of  his hands and repeating the word “Come on, winner!” Vinay D. served the first shots like a magic trick, and the finals were underway. The first serves landed and quickly spun out of reach leaving Vinay S. at a 5-0 deficit at the start of the game. Not one to let the match slip away quickly, Vinay S. responded precisely placed serves and returns that forced Vinday D. to sprawl over the court, sprinting from edge to edge of the five foot wide table (regulation size). Soon, the winner of the individual points alternated back and forth like a ping pong ball in a game of table tennis. Tied at 16 all, Vinay S. moved to return a lob from Vinay D., but as he wound up to smash the ball like a home-run derby, the rubber pad of the paddle slipped loose. The ball whiffed into the net, and Vinay S. cried “Reeee!” (a re-serve) because of the technical error. Neither playing wanting to give up a point towards the end of the game, Vinay and Vinay argued the legitimacy of the “re-serve” call. Pradeep stepped in as referee to allow for the re-serve, and the melodrama of the match continued, both players with a renewed drive to claim the accolades of victory that would be carried until the next games of the following night. At 20-19, game point for Vinay D., Vinay S. managed to return a difficult serve that Vinay D. wasn’t able to reach in time, leading to a tie-break round. In a turn of events at the third serve of the tie break, Mogambo, the resident dog of campus named after an infamous Bollywood super-villian, ran into the TT room and snatched the ping pong ball in her villainous teeth. This was the last intact ball, and as Mogambo crunched down on the plastic, so she did on the end of the match, at least until someone could buy a new set of ping pong balls from town. With an inconclusive ending, the players and spectators left the TT room and left the hardships of the match on the table.
Even though the “2015 Finals” may not have had a clear winner or ever actually been a real event, table tennis has been a great source of entertainment and camaraderie  during my stay with SPS.

Magic Masala

Thu, 08/06/2015 - 01:45

Earlier on in the summer we had our high school Propeller students map out a pie chart of their day. Truth be told, if we had accurately mapped out our days in India, a huge chuck would have been dedicated to our two favorite activities (besides the work we do for LEAP of course): eating food and talking about food. In fact, most of the Hindi that we picked up is related to food- “one more aloo gobi, please!”

Since coming to India, food has been a bit of a bumpy ride: Over the past ten weeks, I have easily eaten more bread, rice and potato than in the past two years in college. Every bite of food is a new adventure that usually involves an explosion of flavor, which is mostly a good thing.

At first, I will admit that I was a bit concerned about figuring out which foods would not cause the dreaded Delhi-belly. There are plenty of stories about how some traveler ate something and ended up in the bathroom for the duration of his/her trip. Ten weeks is a long time to not get Delhi belly, so I came into the summer fingers-crossed and mentally preparing myself for the worst.

So our food journey kicked-off in the first week we were at the LEAP offices in Yamuna Nagar when there were always leftovers in the fridge. Needless to say our grasp of portion sizes and what to eat at what time was a bit off. Over the next couple of weeks, we slowly acclimated to the food scene in Yamuna Nagar. Instead of the usual cereal, yogurt and oatmeal, morning chai and parathas (a type of Indian flatbread) or samosas became a habit.

Parathas on parathas!

After we became somewhat familiar with various dishes, we (being the curious foreign interns) started wondering how they were prepared. When asked how to make various dishes the instructions seemed simple enough:

“You just cook the potato and add the masala.”

“Oh you just boil the tea and milk and add the masala”

“All you have to do is chop some spinach and paneer and put in some masala”

…the only small issue was the elusive combination of masala.

Finally, the last week we had the chance to try our hand at some of our own Indian cooking in Yamuna Nagar. Interns take on Indian cooking with the bosses + LEAP: Pav Bhaji style.

The picture narrative is as follows:

Full kitchen- mostly happy faces all around

Step 1: Steam and mash potatoes, peas, cauliflower, capsicum

Step 2: Melt butter in pan. Step 2.5: Don’t think about how much butter you just melted

Step 3: Fry onions. Add garlic, ginger and other masala. 

Step 4: Add Potato and Pav Bhaji masala

Step 5: Continue cooking with lid on top. Add in more masala, water and butter as needed.

Step off to the side: Carefully cut the bread (Pav part of the Pav Bhaji) in half and lightly toast with butter

Last step: Sit and enjoy!

Looking back, food was a great way to bring people together. And this fact was more important to me than how great Indian food tasted in India and my love for mangos. I’m not going to lie, over the course of the ten weeks, there were definitely points when I missed my mom’s cooking. That said, sharing meals with others became a comforting habit between going to the TIMT campus with the LEAP team, eating with the bosses and going over to people’s homes. Most people we encountered (with a couple exceptions) collectively agreed that their moms make the best food. Since our moms were miles away, we were able to get the next best thing: Aunty. Aunty, the lady at the TIMT canteen cooked us breakfast and lunch, the closest thing to home food. With her limited English and our limited Hindi, we tried our best to convey how we appreciated and enjoyed the food via hand gestures and “Bahut Acha Hai” (it’s very good in Hindi). Perhaps the best food we had in India was at the houses of two of our co-workers Niharika and Shruti. In both nights, there was more food than we could possibly finish!

Bottom Right: So MUCH biryani :D

And the food was absolutely delicious. Even though Shruti kindly provided the recipe for her mom’s chana (chickpeas), there is still some unwritten secret in the magic of the masala.

Full Circle

Mon, 08/03/2015 - 23:25

Outer Ring Road (ORR) is a fantastic highway that encircles the city of Hyderabad. The medians contain a spectrum of colorful flowers, the lanes are wide, and best of all; traffic maintains a speed greater than 60km/hr. In the first week of my research, I experienced much of this circular road and have now been back in the round to visit the Hyderabad College of Veterinary Science and the nearby Nehru Zoological Park. My first stop at the veterinary institution allowed me to see the resources available to students, current research projects, and a menagerie of livestock and laboratory animals. The school tour fell on Tuesday, July 28th which happened to be declared a day off for school and government institutions in honor of the death of a past president, Abdul Kalam, on the previous day.  Although there were less students milling about the halls during my tour, I was still able to fill three hours of the morning seeing fascinating anatomical specimens, parasite collections  (who doesn’t like tapeworms and liver flukes?), laboratories, and animals. Much of what I learned helped me to see the trajectory of veterinary research and medicine in the area and allowed me to meet some new friends as well.

A Leopard Skeleton in the Anatomy Museum

Lounging Livestock at the Hyderabad Veterinary College

My next stop of the day was to admittedly to fulfill a personal bucket list aspiration. I have, to put it lightly, a strong interest in bovines and I have always wanted to see the largest bovine breed to presently walk our Earth; the Gaur. The Gaur, known here as the Indian bison, is a fantastic creature whose massive withers at 6ft reach the height of the windows on a coach bus (If you’d like to, just do a quite jaunt through Google images for confirmation). They exist in scattered groups throughout South and Southeast Asia and have never been domesticated. When I entered through the archways and ticket lines of the zoo, my first stop was at the park map that is proudly displayed in front of the ‘tiger train’ ride that travels around various exhibits. With excitement, I pointed out the location of the Gaur exhibit (on the opposite side of the expansive park) to my slightly less-enthused driver for the day who  graciously decided to accompany me on my excursion. Nodding his head in the typical, ‘okay, yes, maybe’ way, he smiled and told me this speed walking meant he could eat more biscuits (cookies) later.  Weaving through primate enclosures, a butterfly garden, and even exhibits with life-sized dinosaur models was the perfect prelude to gazing through the fence at the herd of gaurs among the trees. I was even surprised at the number of large cat exhibits and thoroughly enjoyed seeing Bengal tigers, leopards, and jaguars roam about in their native climate. Oh yes! Of course there were Indian elephants too.

The Gaur bull at Nehru Zoological Park

After a satisfying mental check off the bucket list, my driver and I ended the afternoon with Irani chai tea and osmania biscuits which are both famous and delicious concoctions in Hyderabad. We also climbed the white marble steps of Birla Mandir temple and gazed down on the backs of brown hawks soaring out to the lake and the sea of buildings that stretch beyond the horizon.  Satisfied with a day of adventures, we again moved along on the circle of the ORR back around to settle again at the research facility.

Breaking the ice

Mon, 08/03/2015 - 17:07

As I described it in my previous post, empathizing with Shahi workers (especially incoming migrant workers) and establishing proper communication with them is often challenging. When I came into this internship, I had thought that, somehow, the proximity of our ages would strongly play in my favor, that it would enable the girls and me to relate to one another and establish some kind of proximity and complicity.

However, I soon realized that being and looking the same age and being as smiley and friendly as I could was not enough to erase the terrified -sometimes even glaring- looks I would sometimes get when I made them come to me for interviews. You could make a point that being the same age is not enough to outweigh the other fundamental differences in our upbringing, the cultural and linguistics barriers that exist between us. However, I think that, in this case, it is first of all the fundamental nature of the setting that created the communication barrier: a setting in which I am the interviewer, I have the power to ask the worker what I want, but in which she knows nothing about me. Intimidating for her but also a little awkward for me, because I am aware that the fact that I am the one who is sitting in the interviewer’s chair today -and not her- is the result of pure hazard. Fundamentally, I do not deserve this position any more than she does.

Hence, once a girl is sitting in front of me and I am about to ask her questions, it is usually hard for me to overcome the communication malaise created by the situation. When in such a situation, I try to make my interlocutor feel more empowered and informed about the situation by presenting my objective and myself first or by asking her if she has any questions about me. But really, I feel that nothing has been more effective than hostel/village visits and good old icebreakers!

When we were conducting hostel visits during the weekend with our boss Chitra, we found that the girls were generally more lively and opened to talking. I think one of the main reasons for this was that we were interacting in an environment in which they were our hosts, and us, their guests (as scenario almost opposite to the interview setting we used in the factory).

Moreover, we found that scenarios in which the workers would be the ones teaching us something or leading the activity were also favorable to good interaction and trust. While visiting one of the training centers in Orissa, a few girls we met mentioned how much they enjoyed dancing. (After a little pep talk), these girls performed a dance number for all of us. Somehow at some point, I was dragged onto the “imaginary “ stage, and encouraged to copy their dance steps. I was then integrated in a frenzied spinning polka dance circle and then summoned into a waltz with one of the workers. The energy level of the room reached its peak; everybody was clapping and laughing. I was having a lot of fun and began feeling more at ease… and so did they, it seems.

understanding the steps…

… before getting in the groove

Which brings me to topic of icebreakers: at Shahi, people know that there is no best way to start a meeting than with a fun game which preferably involves jumping around or running. As part of the buddy system scheme I have designed for new incoming migrant workers, supervisors get introduced to junior and senior buddies during a formal meeting on the second week of the scheme. During the meeting, junior and senior buddies can also raise concerns and questions with their supervisors. To make the atmosphere more relaxed before the Q& A session (new joiners at Shahi often perceive their supervisors as an intimidating figure), we had all of juniors; seniors and supervisors play a game of “protect your balloon”. Every player ties a small balloon to one of his ankle and must run around and try to pop everybody else’s while protecting his. I had not suspected that these shy looking girls would be able to play so fiercely…

To get a better idea of what I am talking about, you can look at this video I took of the game. I know it is quite long (so feel free to skip parts of it), but my favorite moment is on second 56 when a junior buddy sneaks in and attacks a supervisor from behind. (btw: in this video, all the men who are playing the game are supervisors)

Travelling Alone as an Extrovert

Mon, 08/03/2015 - 01:25

It’s hard.

Okay, fine I know I can’t leave it at that. As an extrovert, I crave human interactions as a way to energize myself. Being alone too long leaves me restless and deflated. Another thing that I guess is interesting about this experience for me is that I’m used to talking through my experiences with other people. It helps me process. I know it sounds dumb. Like, Kendra you can’t just look at a mountain and understand that it’s a mountain? Well, yes. I guess I just thought that witnessing beautiful scenes alone would give me profound thoughts or lead me to the meaning of life, but my mind is coming up blank. Everyone always talks about enjoying alone time and here I am constantly pinching myself: Are you enjoying it yet? Being alone is fun, right? RIGHT?!

Part of it is that I spend so much time being careful and worrying about my safety when I’d rather be meeting people and making friends. Yesterday I walked from Mcleodganj, where I’m staying in the Dharamsala area of Himachal Pradesh, all the way to the Bhagsu Waterfall. I noticed on the way that it was mostly couples and men or groups of men. A few men tried to join me on my way up. I was really careful about this and moved away from them. Finally, when I reached the popular Shiva Café at near the top of the mountain I stopped to go in. There were only about 4 tables and cushions on the ground to sit but three out of the four tables were occupied by groups of men smoking hookah. The café was really cool and I wanted to spend time there but was conflicted by the intimidating male-dominated vibe. I ended up ordering food and eating it quickly (sitting at the least occupied table I could find) and leaving.

Shiva Cafe

On my way back down the waterfall I ran into two women and two men who asked me where Shiva Café was. I pointed them in the right direction and asked where they were from. Delhi. One of the women said I could join them after I explained why I left so quickly. I went back up the mountain with them and chatted for a bit. The mist came down hard and it looked like it might rain. I did not want to be stuck on the mountain for long and one of the men who had tried to join me had also just reached the café. I was desperate for people to talk to, but decided to head back to town just to be safe.

Because I do not like to be out alone in the dark I have a lot of time to myself in the evenings at my hotel. Saturday night I spent a good hour or two attempting to wrap my saree. The Internet helped get me close, but I’m still missing something and get tangled up at the end every time. Last night I looked through old pictures on my phone. I look so different now from how I did during the school year. While in India I cut down on my (already pretty small) makeup routine and now that I feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere alone I have stopped wearing makeup or putting in contacts at all. It’s kind of nice, but I’ll be happy to go back home to all of my cosmetic products and a shower where I don’t have to put on the boiler 30 minutes before I need hot water. Mostly though, I’ll be happy to be reunited with my friends.

NO MAKEUP OMG. Taken by a nice couple. The man was taking pictures of his wife so I offered to take one of both of them in exchange for this.

There are some positives though:

  1. No one can judge me for how many momos I eat
  2. No one can judge me for how often I buy coffee/cappuccinos
  3. No one can judge me on how much I eat or buy souvenirs that I don’t need
  4. I can pass as Indian here thanks to my slightly melanin-enriched ambiguous skin color
  5. I can take as long or as short as I want to do things. The Bhagsu waterfall has many paths and detours and at first I felt like I had to go down every inch to prove I saw everything. When I realized I didn’t it was really freeing.
  6. Sometimes when you sit alone at a family-owned Tibetan restaurant they’ll offer you some of the food they’re eating for dinner and let you play with their dogs and show you videos of their band on an iPad. Check out JJI Exile Brothers here.

Fried momos and thukpa. Dharamsala and specifically the Mcleodganj region where I’m staying are known for being home to a large community of Tibetans in exile as well as the Dalai Lama. It is not uncommon to see Buddhist monks sitting in cafes drinking tea and browsing iPads.

One of many coffee drinks consumed.

In some ways I almost wish I had just gone straight from Bangalore home. It would have been an easy way to cap my experiences. To say “that was India” and call it a day. But as you may have gleaned from my last blog post, I had a huge support network in Bangalore. Adjusting to life in one of India’s more cosmopolitan cities was no huge deal when I had coworkers looking out for me and five other Penn students to hang out with on the weekends (s/o to Bengalu-cru if you’re reading this).

Bengalu-cru on Kevin’s birthday in June (before I stopped wearing makeup completely)

My best friend from home and I have a sort of running joke about how I’m not very mature. Compared to Maddie, who spent three months in Peru before starting college on the opposite coast from where we grew up, I haven’t done many things in life completely independently. Before I left for the summer she said she thought this trip might help me to grow out of that child-like feeling I had. In Bangalore I felt like I was always cared for and looked after. But after a SNAFU trying to get to my bus in Delhi (that included riding in the non-women’s-only metro carriages and a ride on an actual manual rickshaw at night) and a few days alone in the Himalayas, I do feel a little different. If I had just gone home after Bangalore, my goodbye to India would have been like leaving summer camp. Bye to all my old friends, and please keep in touch. But now I’m saying goodbye to strangers and acquaintances and a place I conquered myself.

All that being said, I think I’m ready to come home now, which is perfect timing since I leave in less than three days.

Finding Something Beautiful

Sat, 08/01/2015 - 10:09

It has been ten weeks. My internship at Aravind is over, and I am on the verge of leaving India for home. The time has flown by. The first day of this journey, when I met Olivia at JFK and caught an Air India flight to meet up with the other CASI interns in Delhi, does not feel like 10 weeks ago at all. The question that I am left with is what really came of those ten weeks? What have I done, what have I learned?

My projects are now essentially complete. If you will recall, I was working on two projects, one related to patient safety and one related to patient satisfaction. I helped to compile a patient safety manual with all protocols of all departments and some presentations to help with raising awareness about patient safety among staff. As a second project, my work with the patient satisfaction data has yielded some insights about the Aravind patient experience that have been compiled into a report, and in the final weeks we may have hit upon a way to better score patient satisfaction, that uses some of the methodologies of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in the US.

As I write out the results of my projects, I cannot help but feel that there was more to be done.  With more time, I could have done more to push the installation of new patient safety initiatives; I could have included several additional forms of analysis in going through the patient satisfaction dataset. And it hurts, feeling that there may have been rocks left unturned and knowing that much more work is needed to address patient safety and satisfaction.

I think that those thoughts are mostly a product of the fact that these projects are part of work with an extremely long arc. Patients don’t just become safe or satisfied in two months. The work of protecting patient health and meeting patient needs is constant and perennial. The challenge in this context is in making iterative improvements and refining parts of the system each day so that care can improve over time. Yet, even understanding the nature of long term projects, I think that in the world of development and service, this sense (that your impact was not fully felt or made) is something that can be difficult to reconcile. We all want that striking before-and-after picture which can allow us to quantify our impact. We all want to know that we made a difference.

And this, I think brings me to what I have learned this summer. Of course I have gained a lot in terms of learning about some of the technical issues of running a hospital, i.e. how do you bring down costs in the developing (and, frankly, the “developed”) world, how do you generate revenue to sustain a hospital when many don’t have insurance, how do you measure quality effectively. But equally important as these technical insights has been learning about what it means to have an impact and make a difference more generally. What does it take to meaningfully improve the lives of the people around you? There are two ideas that I think I will remember forever relating to this issue, and they both come from the vision of the founder of Aravind, Dr. V.

The first idea has to do with McDonald’s (of all things). Dr. V saw McDonald’s as a key model in creating Aravind. The goal of Aravind was to be the McDonald’s of eye care. Aravind was supposed to be able to deliver eye care at prices that anyone could afford using a standardized process that ensured a certain level of quality. Extending this analogy further, the idea was that in the same way that McDonald’s is able to use franchising to sell big Macs in every corner of the earth, it should be possible to design a blueprint for a high quality, standardized process that can be franchised and used beyond Madurai. One of the underlying notions is that if you want to cure blindness all over the world, you need a structure where it should be possible to slot anyone, anywhere in the world, into the system and have that system function. Of course, Aravind uses doctors and nurses instead of fry cooks and cashier managers, but the concept is the same. The key to making a difference across the world at scale on the order of global health is not superstar individuals, but rather processes and structures that allow ordinary people to do something extraordinary. This is fundamental, and it harkens back to the incredibly simple, Kindergarten-level, adage that teamwork at its best is incredibly powerful. A well-functioning team is infinitely more capable than the sum of its parts working individually.

This sounds great and undeniable, but if you are an individual in such a system, what is your psychology? Do you personally matter? Or are you a fry cook, who can be replaced? (please know that this is not intended to be a pejorative slight at all to the McDonald’s fry cooks out there; I am a big fan of their potato-fried work!) My sense in working at Aravind is that when you are a part of an institution that is working towards something consequential (like eliminating needless blindness), you don’t worry as much about your place. You sacrifice the self-assuredness that you personally are an essential part of making a difference for the assurance that you are part of something that is making a Huge (with a capital H) impact. I am leaving Aravind realizing that the biggest challenges and the greatest positive impacts can be sustained when a system of people work towards something. You can’t be afraid to be the fry cook if you’re working at the McDonald’s of eye care.

The second big idea comes from my favorite quote from Dr. V. In his words, “Intelligence and capability are not enough. There must also be the joy of doing something beautiful. Being of service to God and humanity means going well beyond the sophistication of the best technology, to the humble demonstration of courtesy and compassion to each patient.” The quote can be found written in places all over the Aravind Eye Hospital, including on a small sign in our office for the summer. The quote is so simple, and yet it is the most powerful thing that I take away from the summer. When I walked around the hospital and observed doctors, nurses, and administrators, I really felt that behind every person, there was “the joy of doing something beautiful.” People at Aravind are not shy about goals. The hospitals at Aravind and the many departments within the hospitals receive constant feedback through parameters and measures of quality. Everyone is trying to beat some mark, and across Aravind, the very tangible goal is to reach 100% of the patients in Tamil Nadu.  What I have realized, though, is that there is more to the work than achieving the goals. There is more to Aravind than the goal of eliminating needless blindness. Embedded within the culture is an appreciation and love of the pursuit of that goal. In a way, just the fight, just the challenge, just the struggle for something that you believe in, can be enough. Moreover, when you love that struggle, you really have an edge in overcoming all of the obstacles and achieving something. These past two months were fast, and I leave knowing that there is so much more to be done. But for a few months, I felt “the joy of doing something beautiful,” and I move on, understanding that I can find that joy again and in finding it, make a difference in the world.

With that, so long to India, and so long to a summer of adventure and discovery. It is time to find something “beautiful” back in the US.

In workers’ shoes

Sat, 08/01/2015 - 06:00

Two weeks ago, Amy, Chan, Kendra, Anant and Chitra (our two bosses) as well as doctor Leena (who looks after various factories in Shahi) flew to Orissa, a lesser-developed rural region North East of India. During our few days there, we visited local villages where migrant workers come from, as well as training centers, where new, young, female recruits receive sewing and soft skills training prior to integrating into one of the Shahi sewing units in Bangalore. After forty days of training and a two daylong bus ride, these women finally arrive to their hostel, their new home for the time they work at Shahi.

Our aim during this trip was to observe and learn about the living and training conditions of the Orissa migrant workers in their home state, and to pay special attention to certain features. For example, Amy, Chan and Doctor Leena’s focus was to investigate these women’s perception of heath, as well as their nutrition and hygiene habits. Upon joining Shahi, many of these women indeed suffer from moderate to severe health issues, (one of the most prevalent being anemia). These health issues damage their wellbeing as well as their productivity and have a strong impact on attrition. On my side, I was conducting a more holistic observation. I am designing a buddy scheme (partnering incoming migrant workers with a more experienced workers to help overcome adaptation problems – see previous posts), and I was intending to use this Orissa trip to get a general sense of the discrepancies that exist between their living and training conditions over there and their living and working conditions in Bangalore. This would help me further answer certain questions such as “Which aspects of living and working are more/less difficult for them to adapt to?”, and thus “In which respects/ domains would a senior buddy be helpful to the junior buddy?”.

In the first training center we visited, Anant, Docteur Leena and I were trying to interview a group of 20 girls and have them answer a couple of questions about themselves: What do you think you will miss the most when you leave Bangalore and come to work to Orissa? What aspect of your future life are you worried about…? etc… But we encountered the same difficulty that we had already so often encountered in Bangalore: getting answers!   We arrive with a list of questions, ready to get grand answers. But, the girls in front of us act shy and will not open up. They will answer with one word. If we are lucky…with a sentence. It is tiring and frustrating.

However, having these emotions and acting so impatient also makes me feel a bit conflicted. I am aware that these girls also have it hard but I am still overly demanding. Most of them are barely over 18 years old, they have just left leave their village and their family for the first time and are now training for a job they have to learn from scratch. They are about to leave the rural region of Orissa were they lived in mud houses for the cosmopolitan city of Bangalore. I cannot speak for the upbringing and education they have received, but I do know for a fact that these girls’ education does not make them accustomed or comfortable to think and speak about themselves. In fact, a lot of the girls in Shahi were brought up this way. Survey’s conducted on a large sample of workers show that many of them place their family’s wellbeing in front of their own.

Furthermore, we have observed that women, in particular from rural regions, are subject to many cultural expectations, and are brought up to follow certain behaviors such as being reserved, obedient and hard working…

Maybe repeating these facts to yourself and trying to mentally visualize their upbringing can help you empathize with them and understand why many of them are so afraid to talk to us when we summon then on personal facts? It does help for me …but for about 3 minutes, (the time it takes me to mentally run through all these facts plus 2 minutes (not quite enough for me give myself credit for !).

This is certainly not the most interesting or original example I could have given, but it is certainly little experiences like these that have made the following well known idea pop frequently back into my mind this summer : It is impossible/ extremely hard to get into someone’s shoes unless you yourself get to experience what they have experienced. Most of them time in the Shahi workplace, we as interns have to take all these decisions which we think will improve the wellbeing of these girls. Making these decisions is hard. We will never be able to fully empathize and therefore must rely on interviews, observations, lessons learned from past welfare initiatives, and sometimes even on intuition… I myself have had to use similar sources of information to design the buddy system. I have done my best to understand the needs of the junior buddies but my assessment will probably still be a little off.

I am grateful to have done this trip to Orissa and to have visited these training centers as well as villages where employees live. I figure it is one extra step towards empathizing fully with these girls. An individual is composed of infinitely different facets, but grasping yet another one of these facets is always an improvement…

Here are some photos of the village in Orissa where a few Shahi workers live

young girls just coming back from school