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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. Funds for the CASI internships are made possible through the support of Penn’s Office of the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives in conjunction with Penn Abroad and Penn’s International Internship Program (IIP) and through the generous support of CASI donors.
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Wed, 08/16/2017 - 13:46

India is thousands of years older than the United States, yet the western world has an enormously pervasive influence on this country.

During our trip, Nancy and I visited Amritsar, deciding to visit the Wagah Border, where at sundown each day, Indian and Pakistani Border Security Forces demonstrates feats of military strength. The energy there is palpable, as crowds try to prove that not only is their military superior, but their love for the country is as well.

Wagah Border Ceremony


And at this nationalistic event, anyone with a foreign passport is entitled to a VIP seat. Perhaps ­so people from other countries can see India’s strength with a great view— but it seemed to me as another example of preferential treatment given to foreigners.

When we visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar the next day, local sweet shops selling aam papad (mango taffy) and jutti (a traditional Punjabi shoe) are interspersed with Subways and McDonald’s. America chains here are far from uncommon: when I asked for Mexican food recommendations, I was advised to visit Taco Bell and Chili’s; Pizza Hut ads fill my Facebook feed. While menu items have an Indian spin—Chicken Tikka Pizzas and McAloo Tikki Sandwiches­—modern culture have a definitive Western influence.

English is a status symbol here: speaking better English, having less of an accent is an indicator of wealth and the ability to receive an American education. Despite sweltering heat in Delhi where loose, cotton Indian clothes are much more appropriate for the weather, an overwhelmingly large number of people wear jeans. Whiter skin is a beauty ideal- Americans go to beaches to tan, and Indians try whitening creams and facials in an attempt to meet these beauty standards.

These ideals extend further into academia. The resources I have been developing throughout the summer have their basis in the Health Belief Model (HBM), a well-documented behavioral change model for diabetes lifestyle changes. The model draws on 6 constructs (perceived susceptibility, perceived benefits, perceived barriers, perceived severity, cues to action, and self-efficacy) to help understand why individuals

The Health Belief Model

are not performing a certain behavior (i.e. exercising, eating healthily) and develop educational resources to target these specific reasons.


At the Second National Civil Society Consultation on Non-Communicable Diseases in India, Dr. Arora (Director of the Health Promotion Division) explains this ongoing project.  Afterward, she informed me we need to revise our project- an American organization at apparently discontinued the use of the model and we should follow accordingly.

Although our team was unable to find news of this organization or what they had replaced the HBM with, it was so interesting to me that there was a such a readiness to discard a model specifically chosen for its success in diabetics, youth, and in Low and Middle-Income Countries. It spoke to this overwhelming perception that “American” must equal “correct”.

There is a danger to ignoring the Indian context. The HBM is largely based on culture and on people’s perceptions which are entirely subjective to the region. The success of interventions depends on the relevance to Indian perceptions rather than Western ones.

Many in our country strive for America to be great, but in India — even as people joke about Trump — there is still an encompassing respect for our “greatness”. But as our time in India came to a close, I wish there was a way to convey to many of these people, that India is pretty great too.


Tue, 08/15/2017 - 14:24

“A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.”   ~George A. Moore

Only after returning home have I fully realized the unique opportunity provided me by Aravind. By coming to the quiet comfort of this desk, safe from my adventure am I able to appreciate what I have. Gone are the incessant car horns, the streets full of litter, and the rampant urban sprawl, all replaced by the clean infrastructure of suburban Houston, Texas.

Through my journeys I was offered the chance to meet people from around the world. I’ve met travelers finishing their 6 months of backpacking, weary and ready to go home. I’ve met students from schools all across our country and doctors from countries all around the world, each coming to taste the unique medicine that Aravind has to offer. I traveled to temples by the ocean, built by Siva, to plantations in the mountains, filled with tea, and to rivers in the jungles that divide the land and the sea.

It’s easy to call these adventures, but likewise was living in India. To me the street vendors, bartering, transportation, weather and work were all challenges to be surmounted, unique experiences to remember upon my return. I’m lucky to call these experiences an adventure, a test of my abilities and an exposure to new ideas. For 1 billion other inhabitants those experiences are everyday life.

Now would I do this all again? Absolutely. I could happily go back to Aravind to conduct research. I could go as a doctor seeking ophthalmic training. The institution has so much to offer on so many levels of skills. My horizons have been broadened, and while I now return to my regular patterns of school and studies, I will see it all the additional lens that Aravind has granted me.

Taco Bell in Delhi: Doing the Global Locally

Sun, 08/13/2017 - 14:18

In the bright, air-conditioned atmosphere of Delhi’s Ambiance Mall, Taco Bell emits a daring, urban vibe in the corner of the food court. Its walls are covered with bright-colored graffiti tags naming exciting menu items: taco, chalupa, burrito, nachos. The names are interspersed with hashtags and taglines challenging customers to try new flavors. Alongside the invitations to “dare” something new, are familiar words such as ‘roti’, ‘paneer’ and ‘masala’. If it weren’t for the shining bell on the sign outside the door and the  Taco Bell brand name plastered on almost every surface of the restaurant, this space would be difficult to recognize for an American as a part of the well-known Taco Bell franchise. When you order, the server asks for your spice preference and brings your food directly to your table. Half of the menu is vegetarian (stuffed with beans, potatoes, fajita vegetables or paneer) and the other half is different preparations of chicken.

In the summer of 2015, I tried Taco Bell in India for the first time. I have always had a bit of a guilty soft-spot for American fast food brands in India. Something about seeing these familiar names and dishes reconstrued for an Indian audience with a new masala flavor has always felt like a particularly satisfying synecdoche for the way we all find ourselves translated and reinterpreted in the new context of a different country. When I first came to India in 2011, McDonald’s, Dominoes, Pizza Hut, Subway and KFC were already well-established brands. Since then, I’ve seen the re-imagination of Starbucks, Burger King and Taco Bell. Though this re-imagination happens in different ways for different brand names (for instance, Starbucks arguably tastes more or less the same in every country), it always happens, even if such reinterpretations only exists in the way the product is perceived and used socially in its new environment.

Taco Bell in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi. The walls are covered in stylized graffiti tags listing menu-items. 

Taco Bell represents an extreme case of re-imagination. When Burger King came to India, this particular genre of Fast Food chain (the burger restaurant) was already well established, from international chains like McDonald’s, to roadside burger vendors who serve their potato patties on a bun with a side of chutney. Similarly, India already had a number of coffee shops before Starbucks arrived (not to mention a tradition of filter coffee consumption in the South), so there was already a model that the chain could follow to make their goods recognizable to an Indian audience (by the addition of sugary ‘cold-coffee’ as a menu-item, for instance). Americanized Mexican fast food chains were not familiar to most Indians however when Taco Bell started establishing itself. The first Taco Bell was in Bangalore in 2010, where members of the Tech industry, who had studied or worked in the States, were arguably at least familiar with the chain. However, as the franchise expanded, it faced the same problem that all new businesses face when marketing to new audiences: how do you make a product intelligible and desirable to someone who is not familiar with it?

On the surface, this seems to be a question of new and old, foreign and local. The terms of globalization are often cast as such. In fact, McDonald’s and Starbucks are sometimes argued to represent two models of global marketing: one embracing the local, the other using the foreign as its selling point. However, the relationship between new and old is dialectic and generative, one of new olds and old news, foreign-locals and local-foreigns. The labels of foreign, global, local and new are constantly in a process of reinvention as the situations they describe change. Taco Bell provides a lens through which we can see the processes through which the marketing of American fast food chains is both limited and bolstered by its foreignness. Though the results and the life-histories of processes of global marketing vary widely, this example shows us how products (such as fast food, employees and cellphones) are both changed by and change the contexts in which they are marketed.

Taco Bell’s ad campaign originally was one which sought to make its food understandable to the Indian market. I remember when I first went to Taco Bell in Delhi (about a year ago), there were signs and placemats that explained the different menu items in terms of local foods. A burrito was “a roll [as in kathi roll] like you have never seen before” and a tortilla was a roti [the Indian wheat flat-bread]. Here the foreign made itself intelligible through reference to the local cuisine. Though these efforts were less evident this year, as there was no longer any dictionary of Americanized Mexican fast food readily available in the restaurant, these processes are still evident in product descriptions on the Taco Bell India webpage. A chalupa is described as a “crispy taco-shaped pita bread[something more familiar than chalupa shell]…”. There were also spray-painted tags of “tortilla=roti” on the sides of chairs and tables in the restaurant itself.

Tortilla=Roti painted on the side of a chair at the Vasant Kunj Taco Bell in New Delhi.

Along with these arguably local references, themes of newness and daring were common among the decorations in the store. “If you never do, you’ll never know” was painted on the side of my table. On the Taco Bell India webpage, in the “Do & Dares” section, they describe their goal as providing food both with local ingredients and utilizing multiple flavors to “dare to challenge your taste buds”.  With these scripts and the graffiti motifs on the walls, Taco Bell is marketing the new and foreign aspects of their product.

Further, they introduced fusion food items that would be intelligible in terms of their flavors and ingredients. Enter, the Tikka Masala Burrito! This is a burrito filled with paneer or chicken tikka masala. Advertisement for this fusion burrito referred to it as “the rebel side of tikka masala”. Similarly, there is a new product at Indian outlets called the “Kathitto” which is an overt fusion of a Burrito and a Kathi roll [a traditional street food that is especially famous in Kolkata], wrapped in a paratha and filled with “Mexican fillings”. For this product to be a success both burritos and kathi rolls have to have been already established as food-items for the customers.

“Tikka Masala Burrito: the Rebel Side of Tikka Masala” sign outside of Vasant Kunj Taco Bell in New Delhi

What we can learn from these marketing strategies is that even newness is always packaged in a somewhat familiar way. The very concept of foreign fast-food brands is well established in India. This concept organizes how Taco Bell approaches its expansion. It offers value meals similar to McDonalds, it plays with Tikka Masala flavors in foreign packages. The menu-items are familiarized by drawing comparisons with already familiar food items. Once they are established, new combinations, like the Kathitto, become possible. In order to account for this we, as scholars, have to move beyond the global/local dichotomy. We also have to treat the local-global, or how “global” itself is conceptualized by consumers. Global isn’t an attribute of the product inherently, it is an association that the consumer makes. It becomes a selling point and is embedded in local networks of meaning that are associated with global products. How a “global” product gets taken up by its consumer is always effected by how “global” is understood for the local population. Foreign foods become localized, new Indian taco chains have become more popular across Delhi.

In addition to this local-global imagination, there is also a level of analysis that might be called the global-local. The multinational corporation itself is limited in its ability to imagine the local perceptions of its brand. Therefore, global companies like Taco Bell must, though market research and trial and error, interpret local tastes and perceptions to make them intelligible for corporate employees who are not familiar with the cultures they are selling to. They construct ad campaigns based on their perceptions of the local consumer and based on how they understand the local consumer to interact with global brands.

Taco Bell is therefore suspended in negotiations between different parties and their understandings of each other in terms of ‘local’, ‘global’ and ‘foreign’. By opening up our understanding of globalization to include not just modals of “global” and “local” but also the feedback that exists between these models in different contexts and locations, we see that it is not a dichotomy, but a chain of interactions and feed back loops that expand through time and space. These chains of meaning make products like the Kathitto and the Tikka Masala Burrito not just a possibility, but a manifestation of the models that give rise to them. The supposed “transfer” of knowledge that occurs through globalization is, in fact, a series of actions on the part of the consumer and the marketer. It is a culmination of actions that sometimes more congruent understandings of words like “burrito” and “tortilla”, lending a new level of truth to the writing on the side of my table: “If you never do, you’ll never know”.

If you never do, you’ll never know: on the side of my table at the Taco Bell in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi. 



Before Goodbye

Wed, 08/09/2017 - 20:08

It finally happened. We taught young girls volleyball.

It is the last night of my internship here in Araku, and my departure will be nothing if not bittersweet.

My co-intern, Gabriela, and I returned from a quick weekend trip in Mumbai to notes from our supervisor detailing how she would like our final report to look.

We’d collected our desired information—having interviewed more than fifteen interviews over sixty farmers and their families asking our list of cultural change related questions—and had dozens of pages of transcribed information. The next step was to complete our analysis. What did the answers that farmers provided us with tell us about their culture and the changes that were being made in the culture? And what was Naandi’s role in the entire process?

Using a set of “Cultural Change Criteria,” we took the transcribed interviews and made a series of data tables, charts, and conclusions. Some of the categories that we included and deemed important signs of cultural change within a village included, “a decreased reliance in traditional medicine (TM),” “lack of traditional nose rings and jewelry,” and “preference for English alcohol over local.”

These topics were decided upon for a number of reasons. Pertaining to decreased reliance in TM, tribal Indians have strong ties to the creation of Ayurvedic medicines, or TM, and thus a decreased reliance on something that they are credited to helping create insinuates a detachment from historical practices that have been in place for, at minimum, centuries. Likewise, local alcohols such as tapping a tree called toddy and letting the sap from the tree ferment and wearing a series of nose rings—in which size and number designate one’s position in the community—are synonymous with Adivasi culture, and thus changes in both preference and actions highlights a removal or detachment from the culture that is currently in place for those communities.

Following a few 10 am to 3am days in a row, we came to the overall conclusion: cultural change is happening in tribal farming villages. However, those changes are not purely the result of partnering with Naandi, nor are the changes that are happening not welcome by the farmers. In fact, most asked expressed a likeness for their present state.

We gave a detailed presentation to higher-ups at the Araku office and left with them a written report nearly 125 pages long.

Immediately after our presentation, Gabriela and I ran back to the guest house to get ready to teach some children volleyball.

Approximately four weeks ago, Gabriela and I were casually hitting around a volleyball, which eventually turned into an impromptu coaching session for some nearby children. My only complaint? They were all boys. In India, unlike the US, volleyball is almost exclusively played by men, especially in more rural areas such as the Araku Valley. I wanted to change that. Throughout that lesson, I kept on telling the young boys that if they were to come the next time, they had to bring their sisters and girl neighbors with them. One would think that I had miraculously grown three extra heads. The concept of girl playing volleyball was completely foreign to them, and they were unsure how to approach it.

As monsoon season picked up, all of the planned occasions for us to teach locals volleyball again were washed away with the clay outdoor courts laden with thick red mud.

So we took on another approach: Naandi employees’ children. Almost all of the employees have children, and what’s more, almost all of them have daughters. We invited them to tell their children, some of whom we had met briefly in the past, that we wanted to teach them some basic volleyball skills. And, most importantly, while boys were more than welcome to participate, we really wanted to teach girls.

Around 5pm on our last day in Araku, this mission of teaching children volleyball finally happened!

Taking notes from volleyball camps that I have coached in the past, both at the high school and collegiate levels, and created a schedule. Gabriela and I would teach the children the basics of passing, and serving, followed by attempts to send the ball back and forth across the court located in Naandi’s coffee processing unit, or CPU.

Gabriela and I piled into a Mahindra Bolero with eight eager children dressed in everything but athletic wear—jeans, flip flops, large hair bows—and our driver Santosh and made our way to the nearby CPU where we would play. The lesson ensued, and I must admit there was nothing more rewarding than seeing the children take the instructions that we gave and find success in the skill we were working on.

As I look at my packed up suitcases and await the arrival of our incredible driver, Santosh’s, wife to give Gabriela and I henna, or mehndi as it is referred to as in India, I have only one regret about this experience: that we didn’t start teaching the children earlier. Though the monsoon was a major reasoning as to why we were unable to start a few weeks before, it would have been great to start some form of a constant program at the beginning of our internship.

It is crazy to think that this journey is coming to an end and that I will soon be on my way back to the United States where I will again be coaching children playing volleyball and will soon be back to playing with my team.


A Man Beyond Intelligence and Capability

Tue, 08/08/2017 - 09:59

There is none other like Aravind. It’s a massive institution for eye care. Every day it treats hundreds of people who can’t afford treatment. Every year it grants the right to sight to countless grateful souls. What powers it? What feeds this massive machine? Look to an image Dr. Venkataswamy, or Dr. V., a smiling old ophthalmologist with rheumatoid arthritis and an unwavering vision.

He’s gone. I was able to attend the 11th anniversary memorial in his memory.  This doctor began with an 11 bed hospital, and from the beginning he focused on patients, nothing else but his patients. To him, the greatest spiritual growth came from treating those in need. With this mindset he adopted a policy of never turning down a patient, they could come without a dime to receive the same treatment as those who could afford to pay.

Since then his care center, Aravind, has experienced a massive growth. Coming from America, a country where healthcare totes the status of highly paid doctors and high cost care, it was difficult for me to grasp at first how this business model was sustainable. How could Dr. V retain such great clinical skill while paying them cost-saving amounts. There are two reasons visible to me. The first is quite straightforward. Aravind receives high volumes of patients that allows doctors here to become highly trained in their department due to the all the cases they meet and all the experience they gain. Doctors can come here from around the world to obtain some of the best training in their field. The second reason is far more interesting.

Analytics aside, Aravind possesses something I’ve never seen in a hospital: Spirit. Dr. V’s spirit permeates through every working piece of this hospital, literally and figuratively. His smiling face and words of wisdom hang on many of the walls. Next to them are two more faces, a bearded man and a smiling woman, Saint Aurobindo and Mother. Dr. V was a spiritual man and these two figures served as the guiding lines for his values. Dr. V. is able to link the work of his hospital to a quest to achieve a greater, spiritual good. I believe tying the religious believes of the majority of India to the hospital he is able to share his vision with every doctor, ophthalmic assistant, and consultant at Aravind.

As I sat silent amongst the bowed heads at the memorial in his memory I listened as several speakers took their turns at the podium. Everyone praised Dr. V. for the man he was; for the spirit he had. Never did they mention his intelligence or capabilities.

I was obvious to me that to Dr. V. and now to every Doctor at Aravind, “Intelligence and capability are not enough. There must be the joy of doing something beautiful.” –Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy (Dr. V)

Dr. V. left something more than a hospital, he left a way of life and a clear vision for his hospital. I don’t see America having as effective a healthcare as this in the near future and I am grateful to have the opportunity to experience a system as unique as this.

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Ten Weeks – Ten Cities

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 19:53

Before leaving for India, I spent hours creating a google doc with different cities in India and the major tourist attractions within those cities. I knew that I wanted to make the most of this summer and see as much of India as I possibly could in the ten weeks I had. Thankfully, my co-interns supported this idea of mine and followed me along as I routinely booked us weekly trips all over India (mostly in the south though). I want to dedicate this blog to the different cities I was lucky enough to see in India and the unique character each one of them had.

Delhi – Delhi is the capital of India (duh). With the visas we had, our only port of entry and exit to and from India was the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Thus, our two short periods in Delhi were the very beginning and very end of our internship. Delhi is probably what comes to mind when the average foreigner thinks of India. My first experience in Delhi was quite abrupt as I only spent one full day there and half of that day was spent sleeping due to jet lag. Josh, Gabby, and I went to do some shopping in Khan Market, which was a close walk from the Indian Habitat Centre where we were staying that first weekend. Across the street, we could see Lodi Gardens (even though we didn’t actually go to the park until our last day in India ten weeks later).

Agra – Our second day in India, I went to see the Taj Mahal in Agra. The Habitat Centre provided us with a car, driver, and guide so that we could have the best experience possible. It was a three hour drive from Delhi to Agra on the newly built expressway. We received a detailed tour of the Taj and drove by the Agra Fort. Agra is also famous for its handmade carpet industry inspired from the Mughal period. At the end of our tour, the guide took us to a shop where we saw the long and intricate process of such carpets being made. At the end of our second day in India, I was feeling pretty productive in that even if nothing else happened, at least I’d seen the Taj this summer!


Bangalore – I’m not sure exactly sure when it happened, but at some point early in the summer, I started calling Bangalore “home”. After returning from every weekend trip, my bed at the Octave hotel really started to feel like home. Despite the city’s atrocious traffic and the inability to get anywhere in less than an hour (if not more), Bangalore was where I felt most at peace. In addition to its perfect weather conditions – around 81 degrees in contrast to Delhi’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit – I enjoyed working and living in Bangalore. Like most foreigners, I was guilty of only knowing of India through Bollywood movies and its erasing of south India as part of India. Bangalore is walking around Lalbagh, going out for dinner in Koramangala, and catching up with my friends in Indiranagar (shout out to Rohan and Noah). Bangalore is going on factory visits, sitting in the car for four hours at a time in traffic, and doing the same thing all over again the next day. Bangalore is Chitra, OD, Shahi, the Octave, and most importantly it’s a home that’ll always be a part of me.

Thiruvananthapuram – The first weekend we had after arriving in Bangalore, we planned a trip to Kerala. While logistics were quite difficult at first because most travel websites didn’t accept international cards, we managed to book the trip with the help of our amazing boss, Chitra. It rained most of the weekend, but regardless we got a taste of the rocky beaches and coastal foods that the state has to offer.


Pondicherry – This was the second place we visited from Bangalore. At this point, booking busses and hotels had become much easier and I was planning trips like a pro. We met up with other CASI interns in Pondi, QuanQuan and Maggie, and enjoyed abundant amounts of french food. We also visited numerous museums and historic structures.


Chennai – Chennai was particularly special because I met up with a friend from Penn while I was here (hi Aps). We met up for lunch and she showed us around the city. We went to Marina beach, the lighthouse there, and a temple nearby. We also saw a British museum the next day before almost missing our bus back to Bangalore.



Hyderabad – If I could choose one city to live in India, it would be Hyderabad. Not only was this trip extra special because I stayed at a friend’s place and her mom stuffed us with homemade food, I also found the city to be majestic in itself. Hyderabad is the perfect blend of north and south India, its religious diversity is remarkable, it has modernity but continues to preserve its rich history and culture through forts, palaces, and monuments. I loved how most of the street signs were in Hindi, Telegu, AND Urdu and the Muslim population was a lot more visible than anywhere else I had seen in India thus far.  


Mumbai – I think my co-interns and I all agree that going to Mumbai was a must this summer. It was too far to take the bus so this was our one and only weekend trip via flight. Similar to Kerala, it rained the entire time we were in Mumbai. We spent most of our time indoors in museums but nevertheless it was great to experience monsoon in Mumbai and see the city’s magnificent architecture.


Faridabad – Faridabad is where the Shahi headquarters are in the north. While we spent most of our time here inside the actual Shahi unit and did not actually get to see much of the city, it felt wrong to not include it in this travel blog. Faridabad is the most populous city in the state of Haryana and a major industrial hub. It took about an hour to drive here everyday from where we were in Delhi.

Jaipur – Both of the past two years of the CASI-Shahi partnership included Shahi taking the interns on a trip somewhere in India. While the first year was more work-related, the second year was not. Similarly, we had been anticipating a trip and our supervisor mentioned Jaipur early on in the summer. We spent all summer hoping this trip was actually going to happen as we all wanted to see Jaipur and also wanted more bonding time with Chitra and Anant. Even though personal circumstances made it so that neither Chitra nor Anant were able to join us on our trip, they still provided us with all the resources necessary to make the trip happen. The pink city was absolutely gorgeous in every way possible and its structures and monuments looked as if they were straight out of photographs. We also enjoyed seeing numerous elephants, camels, and the colorful culture of Rajasthan.


Delhi (again) – Our second time in Delhi was at the very end of our internship. We did all the typical sightseeing including India Gate, The Red Fort, Qutb Minar, and Rajpath. Since Anant was based out of Faridabad and we only saw him a handful of times throughout the summer, this was our chance to bond with him in his city. After walking around Lodi Gardens with him and hanging out at his place watching bollywood movies, it was soon time for us to head for the airport to fly back to the US.


I am beyond thankful to have been able to spend this summer in India. These past ten weeks were an incredible adventure filled with ups and downs (but mostly ups). As someone who loves to travel and explore new cultures, this summer was truly a dream come true for me. As I sit at home now reflecting on the past ten weeks, I also have to start planning for my next adventure. I’ll be spending the fall semester of my junior year studying abroad in Seville, Spain and I leave in about 20 days! Being a Penn student has given me the privilege to travel around the world and follow my passion and I am incredibly grateful for these opportunities.

Wrapping up at Shahi

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 16:44

As I explained in my last blog, my two projects at Shahi this summer have been focused on specific struggles that migrants at Shahi face and developing a standard health and nutrition guide for the creche (childcare) facilities at Shahi units. With our time at Shahi (and India) coming to an end, this is a good time to reflect on all the work I did this summer and the progress of our projects. Just this morning, we presented to several Shahi board members about our projects at the headquarters in Faridabad.

For my first project, I conducted a survey of 150 migrant respondents with the help of four other OD team members. As mentioned in my previous blog, the survey covers four main areas: hostel life, adjustment issues, language classes, and long-term aspirations. I chose ten hostels from ten different units, ensuring a variety of both large and small hostels. I also made sure to include hostels from both South Bangalore and North Bangalore (Peenya). Lastly, eight of the chosen ten hostels were female hostels and the remaining two were male hostels; this was representative of the migrant population being 80% female and 20% male. I conducted 30 of the surveys myself in Hindi and this allowed me to connect deeper with the results of my survey as opposed to simply having others conduct the surveys for me.

There were several major conclusions from the survey. First, there needs to be a better relationship established between Janodaya staff and Shahi staff. I found that many workers did not know the difference between Janodaya and Shahi or know who Janodaya even was. Not only does this show a lack of agency for the workers, it also has implications of misplaced complaints workers leaving Shahi for the wrong reason. This lack of knowledge rang particularly true for the male workers I interviewed, who in general seemed to be more confused about their living situation in Bangalore as they were misinformed at the rural training center (RTC) they came from. This leads to my second big finding: the information being given at RTCs need to be closely monitored and standardized. Generally, the workers that come from Shahi RTCs tend to be better informed and more knowledgeable about what to expect that those who come from RTCs of other companies. It’s also no correlation that Shahi has no male RTCs currently and the males seemed to be misinformed more often. Furthermore, my survey set straight some misconceptions about migrants such as the fact that the residents at the hostels prefer free time rather than organized programming. In reality, 92% of the respondents surveyed showed a preference for more programming at their hostels when they are not at work. Another huge misconception is that migrants only come to work at Shahi for a short time and they do not see a future here. My survey found that most migrants actually aspire to work at Shahi longer and eventually be promoted; however, the current circumstances make it hard for them to achieve their goals as a lot of workplace discrimination happens based on linguistic privilege. Lastly, in terms of language classes, 98% of respondents showed interest in having language classes and the majority said that this would be the most effective way to alleviate adjustment issues in Bangalore. I found out exactly what, when, where, and how often the migrants want to learn and clearly laid out the next steps to implement these classes.

My second project didn’t require a survey but rather many field visits and interviews on site. After visiting over 20 creche facilities all over Bangalore, Lawrence and I had a good idea of what a model creche should look like. For this project, I gave a handful of clear-cut recommendations that can be easily implemented to immensely improve the health and nutrition of the creche kids. My first recommendation is to incorporate seasonal fruits into the creche diet as this is easily available and affordable in India. I also researched what vegetables are high in protein so that these can also be made available. Introducing young children to new fruits and vegetables in fun ways will engage them and encourage them to eat healthier. Furthermore, as these children are coming from low income disadvantaged backgrounds, it is especially important that Shahi do the best it can to ensure healthy development in these children. My next recommendation is adding some physical movement to the creche schedule to make sure that the children are not just sitting around all day. I gave ideas for activities that require and encourage movement that are possible even when space is restricted (as is the case in many of the creche centers). Lastly, I set forth some guidelines for hygiene education and diagrams/displays that can be put around the creche walls to make the children and their mothers more aware about healthy living.

While there are always improvements to be made at any institution, the work that the OD team at Shahi does is truly inspiring. I am immensely thankful to have been a part of this team for my short time in India. I hope that Penn’s CASI-Shahi partnership continues to mutually enrich Shahi Exports and Penn students as well as bring light to the great initiatives that are often overlooked by the one-sided negative portrayal of the garment industry by the media.

Starting at Shahi

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 16:38


When we first came to Shahi, we were presented with a list of potential projects as options for what we could choose to do this summer. Confused and overwhelmed, we weren’t sure how to narrow down what we wanted to work on when every project sounded like such a great idea. Our supervisors, Chitra and Anant, wanted us to decide on our projects earlier in the summer so that we wouldn’t be rushed towards the end, as this had been an issue during previous years. While Chitra was away one afternoon, we were told that we needed to have our initial project proposals done by the end of the day. We frantically attempted to collect our  thoughts and put them down on paper.

Given my background, interest, and knowledge of different languages, I knew that I wanted to do something related to this. Two summers ago, a previous CASI intern (Kendra) had done a project at Shahi focused on language differences and the effects that these differences had on migrant workers. In summary, she found that while it was previously assumed that migrants from northern and northeastern parts of India spoke and understood Hindi, this was not true for many migrants from Odisha, Assam, and other states where the native language is not Hindi. Not only did this discrepancy lead to workplace discrimination and mistreatment, it also had a lot of negative implications with regards to safety as these migrant workers were not able to read or understand safety signs posted around the factories. Kendra’s project gave a clear indication to Shahi that more work needs to be done to understand and accommodate for migrant workers at Shahi.

With my natural inclination towards studying languages, I was very fascinated by this project and Kendra’s findings. This inspired me to design my primary project around creating language classes for migrant workers. Language is a huge privilege and my initial goal was to equip migrants with the power to navigate their way around Bangalore a little more easily. While reviewing this idea with Chitra and the rest of the OD team, I was immediately hit with a lot of questions. Do the migrants even want to learn a language? If so, what? Do they have time for these classes? Who would teach these classes? Where and when would the classes take place? I realized quickly that I needed to learn more about the current situation and exactly what the migrants would like before imposing my own ideas upon them. This lead me to create a survey in which I attempt to ask these questions and more including questions about hostel life, adjustment, and long-term aspirations.

Long before designing and implementing the surveys, I visited numerous hostels around Bangalore and interviewed residents about their living situation, diet, leisure time, freedom of movement, etc. I distinctly remember the first hostel we visited when we were all attempting to ask questions in English and the young women at the hostel appeared to be very shy and answered only in short phrases. That’s when I got the idea to switch to Hindi. The minute I asked my first question in Hindi, the girls’ faces lit up and they started asking me about how I knew Hindi. They immediately became more talkative and it seemed almost like I could have a natural conversation with them without the help of other staff. This was the moment I realized that my project should be related to migrants as this is where my strengths are. I could use Hindi as a tool to truly connect with these young women and talk to them myself instead of having to work through other channels.

I decided my second project in a similar way. While visiting many different units around Bangalore, we met with HR personnel, visited counselling cells, dispensaries, and creches. Learning about Shahi through all these field visits was a truly incredible experience but I was immediately drawn to the little kids at the creche facilities. One of the ideas on the initial list of project options was standardizing creche across all Shahi units. While my co-intern Lawrence was busy interviewing the teachers of every creche unit we visited, I often became distracted playing with the kids or taking the little ones onto my lap. I have a lot of previous experience working with young children through summer camps and tutoring jobs and this was an area where I had clear interest. Lawrence and I decided that he would create an academic guide for the kids while I looked at it from a health and nutrition perspective.


In my next blog I’ll go into depth about completing the migrants project as well as my secondary project with the creche!


Déjà Vu (Halfway Point Entry)

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 04:15

Please note that this blog post is to be the third entry in my blog series!

Wow how time flies! Nearly four weeks have passed since the start of my internship with Naandi, and what an experience it has been.


Naandi assigned my co-intern and I our first project: to conduct an ethnography evaluating how an increased income, as the result of partnering with Naandi, has changed different socioeconomic factors of Adivasi farmers’ lives in two specific villages.


Based off of this statement, one might have a few questions. (1) What in the world is Naandi? (2) What is an Adivasi? (3) How are farmers increasing their income? (4) How are you researching this?


Let me start by explaining Naandi. Naandi is a non-profit organization headquartered in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad, Telangana in southern India. Naandi, partnered with several major companies  such as car manufacturing Mahindra-Mahindra and yogurt producing Dannon, heads several initiatives all across India to help disadvantaged demographics, such as the girl child, young adults, and, where I am spending my summer, the Adivasi, or tribal, farmer.


These farmers historically faced extreme financial burdens and were in a stagnant mindset where the only thoughts occurring were how to make it to the next day. Mentioned in my previous blog, Naandi partners with farmers and villages throughout seven mandals (districts), and together the two produce and manufacture coffee. Farmers receive all the necessary supplies and teachings from Naandi, procure the coffee, and sell their best coffee cherries to Naandi, who then buys the coffee at the highest market price from farmers. This method has resulted in farmers receiving an increased income, which is where our research comes into play.


First, we conducted preliminary research to learn more about tribal communities and their lifestyle, as well as to see how an increased income has historically impacted traditional communities. Then, we created a series of verbal and observed questions that we sought to answer, canvasing topics from hygiene and cultural norms to financial literacy.


After creating the types of questions to ask, the next step was to determine who the questions would be asked to. In order to get what was perceived to be the most representative response, it was determined that the best people to interview would be those who had received the most “average” income in their respective villages. Calculations were performed to determine who these farming families would be. Then, the interview process commenced.


Throughout the past three weeks, we visited the two aforementioned villages and, through extensive conversations, gathered our information. At every conversation, we were met with numerous warm, genuine farmers and their families. In these villages, we talked with groups both large and small and conducted our interviews as two-way conversations. The villagers were extremely interested in the two young foreigners who had travelled thousands of miles to meet with them; all conversations proved to be not only informative but also extremely enjoyable! Questions of family, food and traditions occurred for hours and the farmers spoke of how they were so happy to meet with us and expressed an interest in or lives as much as we were interested in learning about their lives.


After analyzing the interviews and experiences in both villages, my co-intern and I created a preliminary report and at the moment are preparing to take a train ride to Hyderabad to present to the heads of the organization!


Of the villagers that we are meeting, I must admit that my favorite individuals have been the young children that we meet. These children, so joyful and curious, are often the first to smile at us as we enter their villages and follow us around to see what exciting activities we may be up to! Every time I meet and interact with one of these young children, I cannot help but be reminded that all language barriers can be crossed with a smile, and that these children, with dreams to explore the world, are our future. I perennially feel blessed for the opportunity that I have this summer and cannot wait to see what comes next.

learning about the coffee process


Some of Naandi’s cows



Learning about the Complex Gold Industry in India

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 01:34

Until I started my internship, I was not aware of the massive scale of the gold industry in India. The company I worked at, MMTC-PAMP, takes raw impure gold dore, refines it to purity, and sells it to vendors and individuals in the Indian market. During my internship, I examined the global nature of the gold industry and pondered on why the metal is so powerful today, especially in India. 

An aspect of the gold industry that initially caught my curiosity was how people have gone through great lengths to acquire the yellow metal. Today, it’s not as if gold is simply dug up from the ground; gold mining, and mining in general, is one of the most resource intensive and environmentally destructive industrial activities, as it releases toxic compounds into the air and water, is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, causes damage to the landscape around the mine, and require a large amount of water [1]. In turn, the gold mining process contributes to natural habitat destruction, global warming, societal and cultural displacement, and risks to human health.

However, in today’ model of global supply chains, I think that the end consumer often remains oblivious to the process by which their commodities are created, and the demand for a product is not greatly shaped by its material consequences. Since there are few mines in India, India gets most of its raw gold from abroad, and even despite the harmful consequences of gold production, gold is one of India’s largest imports. The skyrocketing demand for gold from Indian consumers – an average of 895 tons per year from 2009 to 2014, or 26% of the global annual demand, according to the World Gold Council, is a main contributor to the country’s current account deficit, where imports heavily exceed exports [2].  

Talking to people at my company, I learned more about the cultural importance of gold, a key driver of its demand. In Indian weddings, gold jewelry is given as a gift to the bride, and similarly to the marital context, gold also holds significance in the context of religion, as gifting gold is popular during the Hindu festivals of Akshaya Tritya and Diwali. While MMTC-PAMP primarily sells gold bars and ingots, it also sells minted products and coins with designs, many of which reflect the religious importance of gold.

Aside from its ornamental and gifting value, gold in India has also served as a form of currency and financial security, which is a large contributor to the importance of purity for Indian consumers. According to a Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry study, almost 77 per cent of respondents cited that gold was a safe investment [2]. Unlike ornamental value, where design matters, the financial value of gold is based almost solely on its purity and quality. During my risk management project, my co-intern Nick and I analyzed the probability-adjusted cost of risk events for each step of the production line, from the moment the gold dore is received from abroad, to the various products the company sells. Although it took a while to adjust to the commute to the company’s gold refinery in Nuh, Haryana, which is located 2 hours away from Delhi, visiting the refinery, along with working in the corporate office, highlighted the meticulous steps that the company takes to ensure the of the purity and quality of the gold it produces. 

Sunset at the gold refinery in Nuh, Haryana

The idea of investing in physical gold, as opposed to investing in a savings account, or other type of financial instrument, was new to me, but it opened my eyes to the fact that the global financial system has yet to offer its “benefits” to everyone on earth. Gold is not simply a commodity here, but a financial asset for many households. Although my internship focused primarily on analyzing the internal business model, I also found myself learning about the gold in a broader social and economic context. And sometimes, the best things learned are unexpected. 



Finding Your Voice

Sat, 07/29/2017 - 08:27

Last week we visited a school that Shahi has partnered with as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility. Shahi provides this school, and several others, with sports equipment, computers, science labs, and other valued resources for children. Part of our visit involved a ceremony of sorts, in which the program was explained in detail and important figures were recognized amongst both parties. As interns, we often receive tangential praise simply for being a part of Shahi, even if we have had relatively little exposure to the initiative at hand. Roses are gifted with lasting applauses as our names are announced in the same breath as the heads of departments and school principals. This attention can feel uncomfortable at times. While it is always well intentioned, and incredibly gracious, I can’t help but feel undeserving.

School officials asked our intern group if we would say something to the room full of students and teachers. In similar, past visits, I remained silent. But I realized that I was sitting up on the stage, receiving praise for a program that provides students with the tools to aspire to high level universities, to skilled professions like doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, engineers. And here I was, a student at a high level university, applying to law school, and I was sitting silent, receiving undeserved recognition. Was this really the model to aspire to?

I am a self-proclaimed introvert. Speaking to a large room, in an unfamiliar environment, with limited language capabilities, and limited experience with the program being discussed, would intimidate anyone. But as a more reserved, “shy,” person the expectation that you’ll say anything diminishes even more. My co-interns looked absolutely shocked when I stood up. But that’s partially why I felt so inclined to speak.

Sure, it was a bit nerve wracking. I think the kids could sense that when I walked to the front of the stage, because they broke out into laughter. But a couple words in, and I found my genuine thoughts and feelings about the program overcome those nerves. I forgot about who might judge me, and what could go wrong, and I just spoke because I felt it was a message that should be heard.

To the students I am from a noted University in the United States working at a large company. I am what they’re often told to aspire to. But standing there in front of them, I was just a young woman, speaking to a large room, in an unfamiliar environment, with limited language abilities and limited experiences. One day, sooner rather than later, they might find themselves in a similar situation. Feeling out of place, a little judged, in a new, unfamiliar place. It might not feel natural, or of extreme comfort to “speak up.” But I wanted them to see that the level of confidence, and assurance, and success, that they are told to achieve, is a constant work in progress. Unfortunately, for reasons simply because of the country, class, or skin color they were born into, there will be more barriers placed in front of them. There will be plenty of people, institutions, and regulations that attempt to restrict their growth. But that should never deter them. Who they are, and what others perceive as flaws or weaknesses, should only motivate them further.

Although on a smaller scale, this is something I always try to keep in mind. People who can’t appreciate differences in personalities, upbringings, character molds, origins, try to tear others down. But there is no better way to combat judgment and criticism than by continuing to be you, and using those distinctions to your advantage.

Abrupt end!

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 15:29

I can’t believe it’s come to an end. 10 weeks felt like 4 weeks. My feeling right now is a mixture of anxiety that I may not finish my project and of pride to have done something meaningful in life. The irony is that the more I approach the end, the better I understand what I should do, and the more I see ways to get things done faster. Now, each hour of my time here is more expensive, and I try my best to make it worthy. I wish I had the same feeling from the first week of the internship, that moment when I looked at my calendar and thought I had immense time to explore everything. Nonetheless, I am very happy to have been at Aravind and in India.

During the last week, my focus has been on making more progress on my project. I met with my supervisors, talked to patients, and built on the feedback I keep receiving. An important aspect of growth I learned from Aravind is the importance of feedback. I believe this is one of the things that keeps the institution moving forward. Every week, they have regular meetings where different staff members present about ongoing projects, in presence of directors. The whole purpose of these meetings is to ensure everything is on the right track and keep everyone updated on what’s happening. During this week, I also presented about my experience. My presentation included my achievements, my failures or challenges, and the lessons I learned (more on this in my next post). Anyway, it was nice to hear the “good luck” wish from the executive director of LAICO (Lions Aravind Institute of Community Ophthalmology) and “thank you” from staff members at the end of the presentation. Now, I am clarifying my last input into the project before I hand it over to Aravind, and I hope my introductory work will be a good basis for future improvements on patient education.

In addition, I did what most people do a few days before a flight: laundry, packing, saying thank you to those I lived and/or worked with, etc. This is the time when you realize the importance of everything and what everyone meant to you. My roommate and I are planning dinners and semi-parties, just to make our last days at Aravind and in India more memorable and maybe longer. But the countdown timer is still on. Our flight on this coming Saturday is quickly approaching. There is nothing we can do at this point to stop it. We just need to get ourselves ready to go back to our old lives. At least, it’s been quite an experience that marked our lives. Over the next few weeks after I leave India, I will meditate on my entire summer experience, comparing my expectations before the internship and what I found. Did I get all I wanted? Is there anything I missed? Is there anything I would do differently if I were to go back in time? What will my first summer in college contribute to my future career? My educated guess tells me that my next blog’s title might be “I learned more than I gave back,” or something similar. And I do believe learning was my priority in any case.


A few pictures from our last days at Aravind and in Madurai.

With our supervisor

Drinking the Indian chai tea for the last time!

My favorite restaurant ME

I will miss Meat and Eat restaurant!!


LEAPing into a New World

Fri, 07/28/2017 - 14:55

When I first came to India, I was aiming to evolve and improve myself for the better. I wanted to develop a change in my perspective on the world and begin appreciating the significant things more after my time here. And although 10 weeks isn’t a short period of time, it isn’t necessarily that long either. The answer to the question of whether or not my mentality and perspective has changed since coming here still remains a mystery. Perhaps, it will be answered in the future, or I didn’t even change that much from my first trip abroad. But what I do know for a fact is that I’ve gone through experiences and adventures that I never would’ve expected to have had before.

I’ll never forget about the first few weeks of my stay here. The temperature was over 100 degrees everyday and walking from one block to the next would make me sweat buckets.

I’ll never forget about the time when I traveled to Jaipur with several other CASI interns, and we were able to travel to the monkey temple, a scene that was filmed in Planet Earth II. Peanuts were available near the location to feed the dozens of monkeys in the area, and the monkeys would slowly come up to you to grab the peanuts from your hands.

I’ll never forget about the journeys in the 12 hour overnight buses without a bathroom. They sound horrible, but they were worth it in the end. One of the trips was to a mountain, where we hiked up and were 9000 feet in the air. I literally stood among the clouds.

I’ll never forget about the beautiful appearance of the Taj Mahal. With its exquisite features and bountiful history, it had really earned its title as one of the 7 wonders of the world.

I’ll never forget about going to see a performance right by the border between India and Pakistan. The crowd of thousands of people cheering and being prideful of their country could be one of the most exhilarating atmospheres that exists in this world.

I’ll never forget about the many people that I’ve encountered here who have expanded my horizons. This includes the people that I met while we were staying at a hostel who were traveling from all around the globe, as well as the awesome co-workers in the office that I was able to bond and become friends with.

And lastly, I’ll never forget about my two great co-interns, Hari and Jodi. From our daily interactions in the office and at home to our late night introspective conversations about the meaning of life. I wouldn’t have expected to get along so well with two people that I hadn’t heard of before this internship to the point where they considered me to be their “son” because I was the youngest one amongst us.

There are some moments which we never forget in our lifetimes. The beautiful places that we see, the amazing people that we become acquainted with. However, these moments usually only last for a brief amount of time. They coincidentally happen to be on the same path that we’re on so that we cross paths. And many times, it’s sad to say goodbye to these things because change isn’t always good. But it isn’t necessarily always bad either. The fact that I was able to have all of these experiences and opportunities to meet all of these people will always be a part of who I am. Without me realizing it, everything that has happened to me here will become a memory that has affected me in some way in creating the person that I will be. One thing I know for sure is that the adventures I’ve had in this new world will become a part of the stories that I’ll share with others in the future.

On my project

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 00:17

Interning at Aravind has been an honor for me, and it is such an inspirational place. However, my experience is not only about being inspired. It is also about helping Aravind accomplish its mission: “to eliminate needless blindness” through completing my assignment as a project student. When I started my internship nine weeks ago, I chose to focus on patient education. The project was intended to improve patients’ knowledge and management of eye health, and raise awareness about what to expect at Aravind. I noticed that I have been providing very limited details about my project. So, let me share about my project.

Here are the topics that I worked on: Aravind locations and facilities; spectacles; diabetes affecting the eye; glaucoma. The deliverables for the project will be videos and posters to be displayed on different screens inside the hospital. Below, I briefly elaborate on each topic.

  • Aravind locations and facilities

Many people, including patients, do not know everything that Aravind has to offer. This impedes service delivery to those in need of care.  Aravind has multiple locations for eye hospitals, community eye clinics, and vision centers. Within the eye hospitals are optical and medical shops, general medicine, radiology and chemotherapy departments, prosthetic eye clinic, labs, contact lenses clinic, eye banks, meditation rooms, restaurants, etc. The objective of the project was to clarify where each facility is found and/or its main use.

  • Spectacles

It is important to educate patients about how to choose the right pair of spectacles and how to properly take care of their spectacles. For example, some patients find wearing spectacles very uncomfortable because they chose oversized spectacles. Other patients’ lenses have accumulated many scratches as a result of improper cleaning methods. Although opticians educate patients on proper eye care, miscommunication or misunderstanding can occur. And so, patients should be warned about the possible challenges and be more educated about spectacles so they can make more informed decisions.

  • Diabetes affects the eye.

At one point, India was described as the capital for diabetes. The sad reality is that diabetes affects more than 62 million Indians, which is more than 7% of the adult population. While many patients are aware of diabetes, they usually ignore the worst of its symptoms: diabetes is not limited to high levels of blood glucose. It actually impairs other organs such as the brain, heart, kidneys, teeth, organs, eyes, etc. In particular, diabetic patients’ eyes are at risk of Diabetic Retinopathy. The devil of diabetic retinopathy is that it’s progressive and is only symptomatic in late stage when the loss of vision is irreversible. Thus, a yearly eye examination is recommended to all diabetic patients to track the DR in its early stage.

  • Glaucoma

Notoriously known as a sneaky thief of sight, glaucoma is an eye condition where the optic nerve is damaged due to an increase in intraocular pressure. Glaucoma’s surname derives from the fact that the disease is asymptomatic until vision loss occurs. Unfortunately, it cannot be cured, but only controlled if detected early enough. In addition, glaucoma is hereditary and more prevalent in adult populations. An annual eye checkup is highly recommended for patients who are over 40.

In a nutshell, these are the main messages that Aravind wishes to convey through videos and e-posters. My focus has been to define the scope and content for each subject, as that should be the first step to making sure the right messages are conveyed. This process involves consulting doctors and other specialists in the concerned departments in addition to talking to counselors and sisters (see my previous blog) who are constantly in touch with patients. Last, and probably most importantly, I talked to a few patients to gather their perspective and figure out their understanding of eye health, since this project is aimed at ultimately helping patients.



People, Publications, and Perspective

Wed, 07/26/2017 - 15:32

One billion. Your brain can’t even imagine one billion things at once- the number becomes abstract in its sheer magnitude.

India has over one billion residents.

Context: The size of India vs. the size of America

Sitting in a seminar about tobacco control interventions, successfully causing cessation in 1% of smokers sounds small, nonsignificant. But when India has over 100 million smokers, helping “just” 1% means helping 10 million people. (That’s more people than live in all of New York City)

Public health research has an entirely different context here and entirely new issues to work around. For researchers at PHFI, publication is less important. They are not concerned if the journals they publish in are high profile and are far more invested in clinical results. It is a stark contrast to research mindsets in America, where having one’s paper in Nature or Science is considered the ultimate achievement. As one speaker puts it at the 2nd Annual NCD Consultation- “It’s about health improvement, not CV improvement”.

At PHFI, I am working towards developing resources for diabetes education, but any classroom activities conceived cannot involve any additional materials. Rural schools do not have access to the art supplies, wifi and computers, etc. that many American teachers rely on for effective lesson plans.

More so, because of the immense cultural diversity that exists in India advocating a healthy diet means completely different things in different parts of India— our resources must account for this. North Indians eat paranthas for breakfast, where south Indians

A typical South Indian breakfast

eat idli, vada, and sambhar.  

I experienced the range of diversity myself on a visit to Bangalore. The last weeks made me comfortable in North India: I became used to calling drivers “bhaiya”, walking in 100 degree plus weather, beggars knocking on your window attempting to sell you balloons. Even trips to Jaipur felt similar- a pinker, more history focused version of a city I was used to.


But now, the signs around me were no longer in familiar English or Hindi- in fact, English was much more of a language asset than Hindi was. Going to a typical South Indian restaurant, I felt completely out of my depth as the waiter kept placing unfamiliar food on my banana leaf plate.

A sign in the local language Kannada


One billion people means one billion individuals. Logically, I knew that people spoke hundreds of languages in India, that each state was a cultural hub of its own. But regional differences in India extend far beyond how you pronounce “coffee” and what you refer to soda as.

Whenever I pictured India, I have always envisioned Delhi- it was the only India I ever knew. Now, working on national diabetes interventions or researching about adolescent health problems in Assam, I have begun to view India as a nation rather than a singular city.




The power of Bollywood

Wed, 07/26/2017 - 04:15

I watched my first Bollywood movie when I was 8.  Only ancient movies were available on that cheap bus that was taking me north of Lima to see my grandparents. After looking at the scratched CD’s for “Tiburón” (or “Jaws”) and “Misión imposible” (ok, that may be an easy one), the hostess decided to put the very last movie everyone was expecting: “Billu, the barber”, with Spanish subtitles.

It was love at first sight.

I fell in love with the pressing need of the director to include a song every 5 minutes, of course accompanied with the energetic group-choreography, the continuous outfit change and the rhythmic melody. I fell in love with the tragic story of two friends who had been separated as children, and who had come together after many years; one of them, once poor, now a rich actor, and the other one, a barber like his father. I fell in love with Shahrukh Khan’s acting (yes sir), his great ability to make me cry with his tears and make me laugh with his chuckles.  But mostly, I fell in love with that country where everything took place, where film’s songs run in everyone’s bloodstream, and where film’s scenes are engraved in everyone’s memory. That night, while everyone slept, I dreamt.

I became an avid Bollywood fan. I watched all of Shahrukh Khan’s movies, then discovered Aamir Khaan, Shahid Kappoor, Ranbir Kapoor, Kajole, Deepika Priyanka, Sidhart Malhotra… Now, being in the land where Bollywood started, I am amazed by how movies are the unifying factor of mother India.

It was in Hyderabad that I started to come with this realization. I had been looking forward to go to Hyderabad since the beginning. And now, that we had completed the first part of our assignment, we got to go to the city that is catching more and more people’s attention throughout India and the world. To make it the best experience, rather than a plane ticket, Naandi decided to book a train ticket for us.

After checking in our hotel, we were ready to go see Naandi’s main offices. I was able to see a little bit of Hyderabad on our drive there; I saw the construction of a new metro system, Pizza Huts, KFC’s, Hardrocks, and big malls with Tommy Hilfiger’s advertisements on their front walls.  As big as the Tommy Hilfiger ad of Gigi Hadid was, it was not the main attraction. The biggest ad was that of actress Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor holding an Oppo phone. Again, Bollywood ruled the city.


But it was another instance where Bollywood demonstrated to be well within the Indian DNA: when Taylor and I visited the Mahindra Pride School. While meeting the voice behind the phone, our coordinator Anupama, she told us that she had scheduled a visit to a center that was part of Naandi’s education branch – a Mahindra Pride school (MPS). These schools are intensive training centers where disadvantaged youths who have graduated the university develop specific skills to be able to acquire a job. Young men and women- who come from farmer’s villages, slams or poor sides of the city- have English classes, Math lessons, strengthening personality sessions, and work on their computational abilities, all this in 90 days and for free.

Like its name suggests, these schools which are starting to expand across India, are strongly supported by Mahindra – a big Indian company which provides Naandi with funding. Mahindra’s ample business network provides job openings and guarantees that these pride schools get 100% employment rate. This means that every youth who completes the program gets hired and is able to sustain themselves and their family.

The manager of the MPS we went to had arranged two classrooms to be free during our visit. She expected us to have a chat with the students, to tell them about our experience in India so far. Later she explained to us that all she wanted was the students to have an encounter with foreigners so that they were used to make conversation with everybody. But for me, it was much more than that.

When I entered the classroom, I was welcomed by a myriad of curious eyes and rhythmic clapping. There were about 40 properly-dressed students, who were eager to hear the words I had to say. As of me, I was wordless. I had talked to young children before, told them about my story, about how I got to Penn, about who I am. It was easy to teach young children, who had lived less than I had, and who could definitely learn from my “wisdom”. But I felt that these youths in front of me knew more about life than I did, that somehow those eyes that looked straight at me were older than they seemed. This feeling proved to be right, when, after introducing myself, I asked them to tell me their stories; student after student told about how they were forced to provide for the family after their fathers had died, about how they had to live with other friends in small apartments because their families had stayed on the farms waiting for money to be send, and about how they had never wore oxford shoes before; they told about how their dream was to work “in those big skyscrapers in the center of the city” so that they would be able to send their little siblings to school.

They had been dealt a rough hand in life, and I felt that they should be teaching me, rather than me teaching them.

However, I remembered that I hadn’t been dealt such an easy hand in life either. I told them my story. I told about how my grandfather was a farmer too, and about how my dad had to work extremely hard to leave the farm and acquire higher education. I told about how we lived in a little province in Peru, and how my parents decided to move to the capital to give their children a better education. I told about how my parents had taught me that sacrifice, perseverance and effort is all success required. I told about how it was my grandfather’s words – that night where he told me how he had built his house with his own hands- that had motivated me to go beyond what everyone expected. I told about how I had filled my college applications with no help except that of my mom’s power milkshakes. I told about how my non-English speaking mom was the best counsellor in the world, how she knew the names of every American university as a product of her late nights doing research. I told about how I got a scholarship. And I told about being a Latina second-generation student in Upenn.

I told them that if I could do it, they could do it as well.

The students seemed motivated, but not fully.  And then I remembered that next to English, movies were also an official language in India. Maybe the most official one.

So I started telling my story using ‘films’ language. I told them that just like in “3 idiots”, my mama had taught me that studying is not only for the sake of passing grades, but for the sake of knowing and being passionate about what we do. About how I had learned that being a woman doesn’t mean limitations, but means strength, just like “Dangaal” showed. I told them that family support, as showed in ‘Kuch Kuch Kota Hai’ is important, but willingness and strength of mind is even more important. I told them that they should value their roots and their culture; that they should where they came from so that they know where they are going, just like ‘Billu, the Barber’ had showed me.

The youths seemed amazed. I was speaking in the same language, and they understood. Thanks to Bollywood.

That day I left my mark in those students, and they left a mark on me. I left my grandparents and parents’ words on them, so that they could linger, grow and germinate. I think back and I realize that maybe, the universe wanted the Jaws and Mission Impossible CD’s to be scratched, that I was meant to meet Shahrukh Khan and Kajole, and that world of color and flavor behind it, that I was supposed to learn another language so that someday, I would use it for best.

And I did. Used it for best.

I was not able to take a photo of the MPS, but I did take a pic of a North Star school – similar to MPS but directed to young girls

Actors of a film being recorded in Golkonda fort for goddess festival, Hyderabad

Tuk-tuk, Uber, and Negotiation

Mon, 07/24/2017 - 18:04

I became acutely aware of my reluctance to negotiate in everyday situations one day as I was waiting on an Uber for 20 minutes on my way to work. I often opted for Uber over going to the street to call an autorickshaw, or tuk-tuk, to avoid haggling for the price, and any miscommunication about my destination. Last semester, I took Negotiations in Wharton, and while my peers evaluated me as one of the most skilled for distributive negotiations, which includes traditional bargaining, I didn’t find myself wanting to negotiate for the price of a rickshaw ride in India.

Growing up, I remember watching my parents adeptly negotiate for things like furniture, but when I tried bargaining, even at the flea market, I felt clueless at first. Haggling for prices is a skill that I think many people from “Western” countries do not develop in everyday life; the existence of price tags eliminates a need to bargain, yet in many parts of the world, people still bargain. 

However, for me, bargaining with my auto driver includes another level of unsureness – I am an extremely economically privileged person from one of the most economically powerful countries in the world. When I bargain for a rickshaw ride, it’s usually over a few dozen rupees, which is a few cents. These few cents, quite frankly, are worth more to him than me. But this shouldn’t be act of charity, either; I’m not trying to be a “benevolent” rich person and donate my cents to him. Should I try to follow cultural norms of bargaining? People see me and hear my American accent and know that I am willing to pay more. Although at first I felt a sense of injustice that I was being “ripped off as a foreigner,” I also am reminded of the sheer irony of the situation, as systemic injustices have disproportionally “ripped off” the economically marginalized.

The emergence of Uber and Ola into the Indian market has created competition for autorickshaw drivers as Uber and Ola tend to be less regulated than autorickshaws; for example, autorickshaws in Delhi are required to use CNG, or compressed natural gas, for fuel, which is more expensive than diesel. Additionally, Uber’s business model focuses on gaining as much market share as possible through increased demand and rock-bottom pricing – sometimes, I find that I end up paying similar amounts for Uber and a rickshaw. Uber drivers, who enter the job with guarantees of a stable income, have found themselves making not only little profit, but also in deep debt due to the capital cost of their vehicle, as well as cost of fuel. On an early-morning journey to the airport, our Uber driver pulled over and asked us to stop the ride and start a new one because he had to meet a certain quota to receive a bonus. Despite our language barrier, I could tell that this bonus was very important to him. 

Throughout my time in Delhi, I have reflected more on my position of economic privilege and ability to bargain. I have haggled for the price of hotel rooms and boathouse stays, yet bargaining for a rickshaw is more uncomfortable for me. Perhaps I have opted more for Uber, rather than rickshaws, not to avoid a logistical inconvenience, but rather an ethical dilemma. Although sometimes I feel that I am overanalyzing the situation, I know that taking time to think critically about the context of negotiations is important, especially in a different cultural setting.

Contradictions and Cricket

Mon, 07/24/2017 - 16:38

June 18, 2017


There is an argument in Evolutionary Psychology that humor exists as encryption-decryption process. Being able to understand humor implies a similarity between individuals. The underlying idea is that there is some culture-specific implicit knowledge or “key”; without which, only surface meaning can be interpreted.

I am adjusting to life in India, but this ever-elusive key still escapes me.

As I pay the foreigner fee at tourist attractions or the auto drivers tell me the fare to work is 50 rupees (even after I’ve been paying 40 for three weeks), this dichotomy frustrates me. I am ripped off like any other American, but when the Ola driver or delivery-man need to discuss anything, I expected to act like the Indian I look like.

Polluted River surrounds Jal Mahal, Jaipur

But contradictions more than anything seem like the norm here. Dirt, pothole- ridden roads lie below gleaming tech buildings. No one spares a glance at men holding hands, but same-sex marriage is taboo. People will argue on the streets for a difference in 10 rupees, and argue with their friends later that day for the honor of paying the 10,000 rupee bill. Beautiful, historical palaces lie in polluted water.  Everyone constantly seems to be in a rush on the streets, yet no one ever is on time. Admittedly, I am victim to the IST phenomena as well.

Makeshift shelters below office building

The streets outside PHFI are bustling with activity- cars speeding by, often almost running us over. The noises of the street are a direct contrast to our office environment, where is largely quiet. The AC hums in the background, and light conversation can be sometimes heard, but it is nothing compared to the whirlwind six floors below us.


One thing that is simple, immutable: India’s love and passion for cricket.

The India-Pakistan final was yesterday, and the build-up to it was crazy to watch. Border patrol officers on TV interviews claimed we’d undoubtedly win- as we always have. WhatsApp forwards made light of the match’s scheduling on Father’s day, laughing that India’s “son”, Pakistan would lose to its father.

This confidence is something ever-present here: drivers assuredly getting lost, trying to convince you that this is indeed your location (It wasn’t, we were 45 minutes late to dinner), fellow passengers claiming that the station was actually Jaipur (it wasn’t, if another intern hadn’t messaged us right then, Nancy and I would have completely skipped our destination).

And disappointingly enough, India lost the match as well. But witnessing the hordes of strangers gathered around screens set up the streets, a city of millions (almost) quiet as they united to watch a cricket match, I experienced a part of India I never have before. Indians love their country-quirks and all.

Watching the match streetside


100+ people gathered to watch the match in Cyber Hub, Gurgaon


Ode to Quan Quan

Mon, 07/24/2017 - 08:50

To my co-intern Quan Quan, whom I promised a well-deserved shout out. So few of my memories with Quan Quan are outside of India (as of now), and so few of my memories in India are without Quan Quan. As I reflect on my time in this country, separating the two is nearly impossible.

To our countless unfortunate, unglamorous adventures which likely won’t be the first ones to surface when asked “how was India?”, beginning with our confusion as we took our first steps in Pondicherry nonetheless:

Much to our surprise, the bus from Madurai had not dropped us off outside Aravind as we were told. It was 5:00 am. We proceeded to “Aravind Guest House”, which we now know is a remote, beach-area guest house in the complete opposite direction of Aravind Eye Hospital. It just coincidentally shares the same name as the clinic. 500 rupees later, the desk boy at this Aravind guest house (who we had no choice but to awaken at the then-ungodly hour) informed our tired, sweaty, desperate souls that indeed we did not have a 10-week reservation at their establishment. Alas, we trudged on to a main road about a quarter mile away with every belonging we had brought with us overseas. Another rickshaw. More communication issues with the driver about Aravind Eye Hospital. Finally, a call back from someone at Aravind to Quan Quan’s ancient Nokia phone, someone who could clear things up with the driver in Tamil (as much as one can with the Nokia’s questionable sound quality). 500 more rupees shelled out, and we had arrived at Aravind at last. We wandered aimlessly around the hospital campus grounds until we gathered enough strange looks as foreigners with large luggage for the right person to notice. Approximately two and a half hours after getting off the bus, we entered our new home for the next ten weeks. Anger and frustration had left us speechless, but in the heat (literally) of the moment we did not direct it on each other. We soundly slept.

To the looks we have shared being pushed around like sardines on the public bus:

Panicked glances, like when google maps revealed we were headed in the opposite direction of our scheduled surfing lesson to which we were already running late.

 And other times, looks indicating we were both at ease, laughing at the comedy of the language barrier as the woman next to us addressed us in Tamil as if we were natives and had known each other for years.

To the bickering, not unlike the way my sisters and I poke and prod at each other, which made me feel a little closer to home:

Quan Quan picked out the pomegranate Olivia and I had been eyeing all day from the fruit bowl. She brought it to the housekeeper, Malika, to cut up. Malika returned, bringing the pomegranate in a single bowl and setting it in front of Quan Quan as Olivia and I watched, wide-eyed with envy. Quan Quan smiled matter-of-factly. Olivia and I threw up our arms, jeering, “Why do you the pomegranate! That was for all of us!” as Quan Quan defended herself, “Well I was the one who picked it out and brought it to her!” Malika, innocent and alarmed and not knowing much English, had no issue interpreting our immaturity. “Madame! Madame! I will cut another, no problem!” she said, settling us down.

 And the numerous spats that resulted from only having each other to validate our recollections—“How do you NOT remember how much we paid the driver of the fifth rickshaw we took two weekends ago!!!”

 In fact, our bickering is the reason for this very composition. Having introduced me in her own blog, Quan Quan felt simply BETRAYED I hadn’t done the same.

 On a more serious note, to the support that not all co-interns may give, or even need to give, each other throughout their temporary employments:

Navigating the workplace across the world brought a new challenge every day. In the peak of my dilemma of trying to get a Stata package (see previous post), Quan Quan must have heard me vent about it at least twice daily, in one way or another. She offered tips and listened to me without ever complaining that I sounded like a broken record.

When it felt like our projects were moving at a rate slower than the line at Allegro Pizza on a Saturday night, I would have surely gone insane without the comedic relief she never failed to provide.

Interning so far from home also meant being immersed in a new culture outside of the professional realm. Some norms were perplexing to our western-born minds, but I couldn’t have asked for a better, more open-minded person to discuss with and help me wrap my head around new ideas.

I began this post by saying separating my time with Quan Quan and experience in India would be nearly impossible. But it’s more than that. It’s like trying to take the chili powder out of a nice tomato chutney— not only would it be extremely difficult to do, but no one in her right mind would want to remove the vital flavor from the dish in the first place.

On Belonging

Fri, 07/21/2017 - 02:01

I’m not sure why, but I have always found comfort in anonymity. In the U.S., I enjoy blending into my surroundings, just one person in a sea of others, each a little different but overall just another small piece of a much larger landscape. Maybe it is the introvert in me, but I have never been one to enjoy being the center of attention.

As a result, I am always thinking about how to fit in, trying my best to carry myself in a way that doesn’t warrant any extra attention. In India, I have found it nearly impossible to do this, to fade into the background like I have always done. No matter where I am, I am always thinking about what I’m wearing, how I move and talk and act…

Is this shirt too American-looking? Am I taking too long to cross the road? Am I acting touristy? Is my backpack weird? Am I talking too loudly? Was that gesture I just made impolite? Why are people looking at me? Do I look lost? Am I lost?

…a host of questions whirring through my head at high speed all at once, no matter where I am.

It can be overwhelming to be thinking about so much all the time, but I find the sensation of sticking out to be much worse. Perhaps the fewer stares I get walking through the city or sitting in a restaurant or wandering through a store, the more I feel like I belong in a place so different from where I have lived my whole life.

However, I know deep inside that I can never fully fit in here, no matter how hard I try. I might be able to change my behavior, but I can never change how I look or sound. And I can never fully understand a culture I was not born and raised in. I still need come to terms with this, I think. It takes time to accept the fact that there are places where some people might inherently never be able to feel like they belong.

This struggle to fade into the background has given me a lot of perspective on how some people around the world feel every day of their lives. I’m privileged to not experience this same struggle at home. In the United States, I am able to sink into the background when everyday countless others live their whole lives in fear that they will be scorned, attacked, or hurt for acting differently or having the wrong skin color.

I keep this in mind as I finding myself getting lost in my thoughts, trying to figure out how to modify my behavior and appearance to fit the surroundings. I have found myself the happiest when I am not trying so hard to blend in. Coming to terms with the fact that I might never fully be able to do so, and reminding myself that what I’m facing is trivial compared to the struggle of others, has allowed me to let go a little bit.

One Saturday evening, a friend from the area decides to take us to a local venue where people our age go to dance and spend time with friends. At first I am nervous, worried that I would feel like an outsider. But to my surprise, as we arrive, I find myself once again fading into a sea of people, a crowded space filled with laughing and singing and dancing and music that’s a bit too loud. I felt comfortable, at ease, even. I don’t think I felt this way because I looked and acted like everyone else (which certainly wasn’t the case), but because for the first time in a while, I let myself let go of obsessing over fitting in. And that night, if even for a moment, it felt like I really did belong.