CASI Student Blog
Learning to travel abroad is a process. There are lots of different experiences that teach you how to hold your own in a new country. However, getting to that point is impossible without the kindness of strangers willing to lend a helping hand in needful times.
An experience that comes to mind is when I decided to venture into Bangalore for the first time without Meghana or Mallory, my two co-interns. Meghana had recently ordered a large number of books by South Asian authors, something that I thought would be valuable in understanding different cultural perspectives in India. As a result, I looked up a used book store in Bangalore where I could get different books by South Asian authors as well.
I planned to leave immediately after work. I had dropped a pin in the maps app on my phone. I had tried to familiarize myself with the area by studying the map, trying to find different landmarks that would assure me that we were heading to the right spot and locate the bookstore with ease.
As soon as work ended I hopped into an rickshaw gave the address and we were off. Midway into the drive a torrential rain hit which made visibility on the road nearly nonexistent. I got anxious, any landmark that I had hoped to identify would be impossible because of the rain. I tried to see my location from my maps app, but I wasn’t receiving a signal throughout the latter portion of the drive. As we slowly inched our way throughout Bangalore because of its infamous traffic, it began to darken and became evening.
Suddenly, the rickshaw driver pulls over and says that this is the general vicinity of the address I provided. I looked out, trying to make out through the rain any familiar landmark, shop, street that I had seen on the map before that would allow me to ascertain where I was. I looked onto my maps and to no avail, the lack of signal wasn’t allowing it to load. Feeling anxious, the only next step I could think of was asking people on the road if they knew where this bookstore was.
The first three people we asked had no idea where the store was or hadn’t even heard of this particular used bookstore. I was getting nervous. Did I find a bookstore that had gone out of business? Did I completely misread the address and send myself on a wild goose chase? I figured the only possible thing to do was to keep asking people. The next person I asked thankfully had heard of the book store, but didn’t know its exact location. She pointed us in the general direction of the bookstore and told us it had to be amongst a line of shops.
Still heavily raining, the rickshaw driver headed in that direction making sure to look with me at every storefront in search of that bookstore. Despite our efforts we couldn’t locate the store. I was about to tell the driver head back to where I was staying and prepared to pay double the fare. But, the rain had started to let up and although it was evening it gave me confidence that without the rain I could spend some time wandering until I managed to find the book store.
I paid the rickshaw driver and started walking amongst more storefronts hoping to find the bookstore or anyone who could tell me where it is. After five minutes of walking I came across a woman and asked her. Coincidentally she too was heading to that bookstore! We headed together to the book store and saw that it was sneakily tucked away within an alley, impossible to spot from a rickshaw in the rain, but amongst the storefronts and streets that we had driven through.
Getting to the book store was such a great feeling, especially because in the process I came across so many generous people who were willing to help, when they could’ve easily just ignored me. As the summer progressed I learned to become more independent eventually taking weekend trips alone and backpacking alone once the internship ended. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do this without knowing that there are always generous people out there willing to lend a hand
With the legacy of last year’s interns in mind, I decided that it was time for another trip three weeks before the end of my internship. Bill, a 2015 Leap intern, had told me about his legendary travels in India during his term. Since I only had about only 3 weeks left, I wanted to make it epic and relaxing. I wanted to take off from the stress of deadlines and Tribyte related things.
If you are wondering what Tribyte is, then I will gladly share more information. Leap has decided to finally use an offline Learning Management System called Tribyte to engage better with their students. An LMS is something that almost every college uses, and every Penn student is familiar with Canvas. My co-intern and I were mainly in charge of developing content that related well with the lesson plans and learning outcomes. At first, it was a very daunting task. However, as we were nearing the end of the program, the project was coming along very nicely. When the content was already developed for most of the days, I thought it would be a good time to leave and visit a different part of India.
I first went to Mumbai. Even though I only had a day there, I was determined to make the most of out it. I went to the Gateway of India, walked long Marine Drive, and went to markets to shop (I didn’t end up buying anything however). I also had a chance to meet Miguel, a former exchange student at Penn, who was also doing an internship in a company there. We went out to a restaurant called the Barking Deer (I thought the name was hilarious) for dinner and chitchatted about life at Penn and abroad. We had a good time talking about our experiences and travels within India, and when it was time to part, we planned to meet again despite knowing that it would be hard to see each other again since Miguel’s exchange period was over.
After the bittersweet parting, I went back to the hostel I was staying at (which had amazing people by the way) to get ready for my next trip. I was going to Varkala in Kerela! I was going to meet my fellow CASI interns, Alexi and Mallory, for more adventures. We met at a hotel in Varkala that had the most amazing view of the beach from the cliff. Seeing other CASI interns made me realize how much I missed Penn and the opportunities to meet my friends everyday. We had time to catch up, swim and eat amazing food.
Then, together, we took a train to Alleppey for a houseboat night stay. The beautiful view of the backwaters and the canals took my breath away. It was a great time to pick up a book and read while navigating through the waters. The houseboat also included our own personal chef (ooooh la la) so we were treated to authentic South Indian Food. I can attest that the Dosa we ate there was the most amazing Dosa of my life.
But of course, all good things must come to an end. However, we couldn’t leave without doing more touristy things. Although I am not a touristy person myself, Alexi and Mallory had me in the spirit of things, and I realized that it is actually fun being a tourist. On our way back to Kochi Airport, we made a few pittstops for elephant rides and nature visits. Although I didn’t personally have the chance to ride an elephant, I still managed to get a couple of pictures of them up close. The elephants were so cute, yet, reality hit as we heard the clangs of their chains every time they took a step. We tried not to think about the cruelty of not letting them live freely and wildly and to continue on with out day, yet, those sad eyes continue to haunt me till this day.
The trip overall was very successful. I can say that I truly did my best to make those 5 days worthwhile, and I am proud of myself. I managed to see 4 places in a relatively short amount of time. Although I wished that I could have stayed longer to truly appreciate the beauty of each place, alas, time was not on my side. One thing that I did realize on this trip was: I am definitely coming back to India in the future.
“Maa” by Shankar Mahadevan (listen as you read)https://casistudentprograms.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/05-maa.mp3
On one of my first days at CORD, I noticed a little room called Play Therapy with moms giving physical therapy to their children. The next day, my co-intern Rhea and I learned some basic phrases in Hindi to introduce ourselves to the mothers in the room and ask to sit with them as they go about their therapy. One of the women in the room, Jyoti, stood out because she could speak English fluently and helped Rhea and I communicate with everyone else in the room. I assumed she was a therapist because she was helping all the mothers administer various exercises and stretches, laughing with us, and seemed less stressed than the other mothers handling their children. She told us how her husband was a medical doctor in another town and how she became a college professor after receiving her Master’s in Engineering. These are feats not only uncommon for women in Himachal, but for the general population that I interacted with. I was amazed by her unique passion and drive. However, a little while later, her son woke up and her demeanor completely transformed. She became tense, trying to calm her crying son, tilting him up and down until she finally carried him to quiet him down. This woman who had previously talked so effortlessly about her education and background sacrificed it all to be there for her son with mental retardation.
CORD’s disability program, Community Based Inclusion and Rehabilitation (CBIR), serves as a center for disabled persons to seek therapy and treatment. CORD serves patients with a host of disabilities. In Himachal and the surrounding state of Punjab, there are very few centers that offer comprehensive, continuous therapies for these ailments. Therefore, people travel hundreds of kilometers from various villages to seek CORD’s free services. I had the opportunity to conduct case studies on the spinal injury patients, wheelchair users, and mothers of children with special needs in the field and in the center, with the goal of evaluating the current resources available for disabled persons and recommending improvements to the CBIR team.
Jyoti’s son isn’t the only young child stricken with mental retardation. Around fifteen mothers come to CORD Monday to Saturday, most living independently from their husbands and families, seeking physical therapy, speech therapy, special education, and play therapy for their children with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, or autism. They stay in rented houses in the local town, Sidhbari, typically visiting home only once per month so their child can see their father and grandparents. During the interviews, most mothers expressed their extreme gratitude and appreciation for CORD’s unique services, as other centers do not have the dedicated staff, comprehensive programs, and familial environment that CORD fosters. Most mothers stated that they had ample support from their husbands and in-laws; however, a few stated that their in-laws “looked down upon their disabled child and did not love them as much as they loved their other grandchildren.” Although the commitment of CORD staff plays a major role in boosting confidence, it is the pure love each and every mother feels towards their child that motivates them to sacrifice their personal desires and channel their all into bettering the child. There is something so special about loving something more than you love yourself.
CORD’s Community Based Livelihood: Farm and Allied Sectors Department strives to empower women farmers to make informed decisions in their households and collectivize with other women farmers in their communities. While agriculture has been an essential part of the Himachali lifestyle, women farmers are often marginalized and are not given formal resources to learn about innovative farming practices. However, through CORD, women farmers are grouped into Women Farmer Groups (WFGs) consisting of eight to ten members. CORD currently serves a total of 2,500 women farmers across 24-26 panchayats, or local villages. WFG members can attend special training workshops on organic crop intensification methodologies and locally sourcing inputs to decrease input costs. Specifically, Himachal’s hilly terrain and summer monsoon season lends itself very well to paddy farming.
Among other assignments, I had the opportunity to document the success story of one of the farmers in the Paddar panchayat. Sunita Devi, a fifty-year old illiterate farmer, has four daughters who are all married and one son who is completing his BA. Her husband runs a local catering business, earning about Rs. 1,800 per month, which equates to about $27 per month. Before adapting MKSP’s farming initiatives, Sunita Devi participated in government schemes for employment for Rs. 165 ($2.50) per day. However, she experienced a large gap between her earnings and her financial needs.
After the initiatives of CORD, she was able to learn and adapt the integrated agriculture techniques, leasing two kanals (0.25 acres) of land from local Paddar residents. Sunita Devi attended trainings led by her Women Farmer Group and CORD agricultural assistants, perfecting the Vermi compost method to produce organic, highly effective fertilizers. She was able to locally source her demand for high quality seeds and saw an increase in her production of crops, including rice paddy, wheat, all vegetables, ginger, and garlic. Also, by using organic cattle feed for her cow, she is able to produce five liters of dairy products a day, including milk, yogurt, and cheese.
Sunita Devi, combining her motivation with clever enterprise, found her niche in the community, catering her surplus organic products to the population of women who do not have kitchen gardens and cannot grow their own vegetables. Sunita Devi’s son delivers her dairy products around the village every morning. During the afternoon, Sunita Devi leaves her home with a large bag of vegetables and travels by foot around her panchayat. She advertises her organic products as chemical-free and serves a group of about twenty to twenty five families. However, not only does she promote her products in her panchayat; she also walks a few kilometers to the local Chamunda Devi Temple area with her vegetables, dairy products, and flower arrangements, selling these to at least ten regular customers everyday. Because of her driven and tireless nature, Sunita Devi is now able to bring in a total of about Rs. 20,000 per year through her sales. Sunita Devi states that, through CORD, she feels like an empowered entrepreneur, able to sell her organic vegetables, increase her family income, and actively serve her village with healthier produce.
Like Sunita Devi, I met countless other individuals who have transformed their lives after adapting CORD’s farming initiatives. Reflecting on how these women have taken their lives into their own hands, fighting gender inequities in the decision-making process at home, I am truly motivated to work harder and take advantage of the opportunities I have been given.
Many of you are aware of how I spent my free time this summer in India. Some are even aware of what work I did while in India. Fewer are cognizant of The Aravind Eye Care System (AECS) that I worked for, and my impetus for coming to India. AECS is the single largest surgical eye care provider in the world. Hindu mythology affirms a triumvirate of cosmic gods controlling the universe: Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer. Their forces work in harmony, complementing one another and each force capable of dominating when necessary. In a way, Aravind is driven by three forces of its own — volume, quality, and affordability. Aravind’s founder, Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy (“Dr. V”), found his inspiration in the assembly line model of fast food franchises like McDonald’s. He applied this mentality to the hospital healthcare and as a result appeals to all socioeconomic classes. The synergy between these forces and patient demand is what drives Aravind’s business model forward and demands our admiration.
Understanding Aravind’s largest asset, access to astoundingly high volumes, is the first facet to analyze. By 2010, AECS was seeing more than 2.5 million patients and conducting 300,000 surgeries a year. Compare this to the entire United Kingdom National Health Service that did a little over a half million eye surgeries in the same time period. A doctor at Aravind performs over 2,000 surgeries yearly; the average in India is 400. My supervisor is considered a high-volume surgeon at Aravind; performing up to 100 cataract procedures in the span of a single day is not uncommon for him. When speaking with a US based ophthalmologist about looking at glaucoma risk factors to study, it was suggested I try to collect data from at least 20 patients a day over a two-week duration to garner solid stats. Glaucoma is a leading cause of irreversible blindness on a global scale. Aravind is dedicated to eradicating treatable causes of blindness including glaucoma. On my first day collecting data, in a matter of 5 hours, I was able to assess 67 patients for the study. The huge sample size available through Aravind is incredibly helpful for research and understanding disease processes.
The high quality of healthcare Aravind delivers to patients is consistent across all pay scales, whether a patient pays $0 or $1,000 for their procedure. The same surgeons who operate on the highest-paying patients, including politicians and celebrities, are the same ones who operate on nonpaying camp-sponsored patients. The differentiation between paying and free patients comes in the form of accommodation add-ons. For example, patients pay for provisions such as an extra bed for a family member, air conditioning, or private rooms. There is a differentiation in surgical procedure and lens implant as well. Charity cases are done without utilizing costly automated machines, excimer laser or phacoemulsifiers, depending solely on physician dexterity which is a nonchargable service here. Aravind offers locally made intraocular lenses and medications instead of costly branded ones to free patients. Affording patients pay a $1 consultation fee for either up to three visits or 90 days, whichever comes first. The consultation fee includes individual tests such as refraction, ocular pressure, and slit lamp biomicroscopy. Obviously, this fee is waived for free patients, but they receive the same quality of care. Outcomes between paying and nonpaying patients are statistically the same. Quality analyses of outcomes over many years have shown parity between the groups and even stand up higher than international standards!
The final element of the trinity, cost, is a source of inspiration and a beacon of hope for American healthcare. The US, while known for quality, is infamous for its skyrocketing medical costs. Over 17% of US GDP spending goes toward healthcare. In fact, if our $3 trillion health care sector were its own country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest economy. Despite this, hospitals and physicians find it very difficult to collect reimbursements from insurance companies including the government. Even a recent Time Magazine cover story explored the exorbitant, not to mention often arbitrary, inflated, unfair, and often erroneous, bills patients receive for routine healthcare. The American system favors insured patients, often leaving the uninsured with inequitable to no options. The Aravind system sets up a new reality. There, patients are split into three categories: free, minimal, and paying, where patients self-identify themselves without any burden of proof required. “Those who elect to pay, the consultation fee is roughly $1, and the various surgery prices are capped at local market rates…patients who decide to pay for cataract surgery choose from a tiered range of packages. Midrange prices start at about $110, while high-end packages can go up to $1,000.” (Infinite Vision, p.19) A free or minimal patient will pay anywhere from $0-$17 for cataract surgery. The government reimburses them $15 for every free patient surgery performed. Some paying patients are covered by insurance and have most of if not all of their costs covered, save the consultation fee or “co-pay”. People choose Aravind regardless of their ability to pay because of their strong reputation and efficiency.
Often, we hear of people undergoing hardship to come to America for access to and for high quality care. When people talk of going to the third world, it is often implied that it is to change something there and westernize them with our philosophy. In Aravind, I have experienced the exact opposite. I have learned so much over the course of my time here that I believe it is in fact the western world that has something to learn. I have true admiration for the work done, the people served, and the results gained. Dr. V’s mission to end needless blindness is the mantra that inspires everyone from the orderlies to the CEO. Seeing the forces of volume, quality, and cost work together to that keep Aravind in balance, makes me wonder if there is a way the Aravind model can be applied to healthcare in the United States.
Yesterday, August 15th, was India’s 70th Independence Day. While it is time for much celebration across the nation (and for diaspora, outside the nation), in recent years it has also been a time of much reflection for me. For example, my newsfeed yesterday was filled quite a bit with friends sharing messages on the traumas of partition, reflections on nationalism, and so on. Others shared articles and information on non-traditional narratives of the independence movement—for example, stories of freedom fighters from poor, rural backgrounds that have been forgotten in the Indian nation’s history books.
This day led me to think more about a recent visit to the Wagah Border between India and Pakistan. As the end of the internship neared a couple weeks ago, all of us from Shahi (the three of us interns and Chitra, Anant and Dr. Leena) visited Amritsar together. Amritsar is known for its famous Golden Temple, but about 30 kilometers away is where the Wagah border is located.
I didn’t hear about Wagah until this summer, when I was talking with a friend who mentioned it. He explained that every day at the border there is a ceremony that takes place, when briefly the gates between India and Pakistan are opened, and soldiers from either side interact with each other. He and others described the ceremony as a unique experience that was not to be missed, as it is the only border between India and Pakistan where such a ceremony is performed. Further, having read more about partition and Indian history this summer, I was excited to see what this ceremony and solidarity between the two nations, who have historically had a tense relationship, could look like.
Going into the ceremony, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I had heard parts of the ceremony were supposed to show solidarity and friendship between the two nations, while others had told me there was a competitive spirit, where each side would try to yell to music and be louder than the other. After passing through security and finally getting our seats (in the foreigner section, which ironically by the way have much better seating than the Indian national section), we settled in. The time before the actual ceremony was filled with nationalistic songs playing in the background as people from the audience danced to them in the bleachers and on the street. Later, different groups of people from the audience volunteered to run up and down the street carrying huge Indian flags. There was also a lot of patriotic cheering, with soldiers on the Indian side encouraging everyone to be louder than the Pakistani side.
Shortly after, the ceremony started. Unlike what I had been expecting, the whole ceremony was choreographed, with very particular steps and movements. Further, a lot of it was very aggressive—the gates of the two countries were flung open, and the soldiers from either side would march up to each other and angrily stomp or display fists. The two videos below (courtesy of Anant) capture some of the ceremony; the first is part of the choreographed sequence, while the second shows the gates being (aggressively) closed after the ceremony ended.
I found myself really surprised and somewhat upset by the whole experience. I suppose I was expecting more solidarity and friendliness. While Alexi and I were discussing how the ceremony was different than imagined, we agreed that we definitely still enjoyed attending and observing it. Anant, who also saw the ceremony with us, explained that he almost preferred for it to be so aggressively patriotic. Although I was surprised at first, he later explained that any solidarity displayed at the border would only be superficial, and might suggest that India and Pakistan are friends, when in fact we have much work to do in that sense.
Talking with an Indian-American friend later, who had attended the ceremony a couple years ago and has actually visited Pakistan, he explained that the ceremony was especially painful for him because his family was forced to migrate during partition. Some of them were even killed in it. We discussed the constructions of borders and the ideas behind them, and it was almost baffling to my friend that the people of the land where his family once lived are now considered to be enemies.
As I was reflecting on these conversations, on our way back from Wagah we ended up going to Sarhad, a dhaba close by. The dhaba, suggested to me by the same friend, is politicized and expresses hope for peace. From the murals and artwork to the food (which is from both sides of the border), the owners of the dhaba envision the two nations healing together from partition and forgiving each other.
While this notion of peace and friendship at Sarhad may be too good to be true, at least for now, nevertheless it was a good note to end the evening on. It also provides a lot of food for thought, especially around Independence Day, when these kind of nationalistic feelings flare up once again.
Electoral politics involves a steep learning curve: first learn the rules, then learn to bend them and ‘work around’ them. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), or Liberation Panthers Party, Tamil Nadu’s largest Dalit (formerly Untouchable) political party provides a case study for how straining and, at times, embarrassing this process can be. Upon entering the electoral field in 1999, the party has relied foremost on coalitions with Tamil Nadu’s dominant parties, the DMK and AIADMK, to contest elections. These electoral arrangements provide access to financial means and extensive party infrastructure required to manage a competitive campaign. Yet, ahead of the 2016 Legislative Assembly Election, the VCK consolidated six smaller parties [CPI, CPI-M, MDMK, TMC, and DMDK] to take on the dominant parties as a third front, referring to themselves as the Makkal Nala Kuuttani, or the People’s Welfare Front (PWF). Although the PWF drew a blank, it influenced electoral outcomes in many constituencies and is presumed to be partially responsible for the defeat of the DMK. Aside from electoral returns, the PWF experiment provides a case in point about forms of subtle subterfuge used to deceive gullible voters as well as a paradigmatic example of electioneering techniques gone awry.
Despite contesting in a third-front without direct electoral support from a major political party, most pollsters still pegged VCK Chairman Thol. Thirumaavalavan to win his legislative assembly contest in Kattumanarkoil constituency. In the end, he lost his bid by a razor thin margin of 87 votes. Thirumaavalavan secured 48,363 votes, just shy of the 48,450 polled by his AIADMK rival. While multiple factors contributed to his defeat, some have received greater press coverage than others and, curiously, the VCK’s ‘own goal’ has elided media mention.
In a now commonplace ploy, one of Thirumaavalavan’s competitors fielded what is colloquially referred to as a ‘dummy candidate,’ that is a candidate with a similar name intended to confuse unsuspecting voters on the ballot. In this case, one party induced (and likely paid) an independent candidate named “T. Thirumavalavan” to contest in Kattumanarkoil against VCK Chairman Thol. Thirumaavalavan. To further amplify confusion, the independent candidate contested under a similar election symbol. The Election Commission of India uses election symbols to assist voters in identifying their candidate on the ballot. As many voters are illiterate (or under-literate) they identify their candidate by the symbol adjacent to his or her name on the ballot slip. For the past two elections, VCK party candidates have contested under the “ring” symbol. In Kattumanarkoil, the independent candidate “T. Thirumavalavan” contested under the bangle (bracelet) symbol, which bears a striking similarity to a ring when mass-printed on black and white forms. Once the votes had been counted, “T. Thirumavalavan” secured just under 289 votes, more than sufficient to swing the election.
Although the VCK likely anticipated this ploy, party workers also confess their own blunders during the campaign. For instance, party workers did not properly understand the procedures for postal ballots, many of which were declared void on technical grounds. For example, 102 ballots were nullified due to misplaced signatures on the declaration form – again, a sufficient number to turn the tide of the election. “We have no one to blame but ourselves,” proclaimed one VCK organizer, adding, “we did not properly understand the technical aspects of the rules.”
But, perhaps the most bitter pill was administered by the VCK itself. The polling agent, a candidate’s representative who works from within the polling station on election day, is among the most critical players in an election campaign. Having contested alongside major parties for the past fifteen years, the VCK adopted a maneuver from the playbook of their erstwhile allies to gain an edge. VCK workers informed me that political parties routinely field independent candidates in order to gain an additional polling agent across the constituency – hence the independent candidate’s polling agents act as a proxy from within the booth. Following suit, the VCK allegedly fielded their own sympathizer as an independent candidate in Kattumanarkoil in order to secure this advantage. Much to their chagrin, this individual tallied more than 1,000 votes without campaigning or soliciting the people’s support. In fact, the ECI allocated the “belt” symbol to the candidate, which, much like the bangle, closely resembled the ring symbol – leaving party workers to surmise that their own stratagem spoiled their prospects in Kattumanarkoil!
On the invitation of Geshe Konchok, I stayed for about two weeks at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies in Choglamsar. During this time, I visited high school, undergraduate, and graduate level classes, interviewed faculty and students, and guest taught all three levels of these classes. I also met with Geshe Konchok twice every day and we discussed the challenges facing Bhoti language and traditional Buddhist education within Ladakh, the central issues the university strives to address.
The charge of the university is particularly great when considering the cultural heritage it is responsible for preserving. What many historians consider the world’s first international university, Nalanda, was located in the present state of Bihar, in eastern India. Between the fifth and twelfth centuries, monks and scholars from as far West as Persia and Greece and as far East as China and Korea traveled here to study the vast corpus of Buddhist scriptures and commentaries by great Indian philosophers. However, when the Moguls invaded India in 1200 CE, they destroyed the university and burnt the six-story library to the ground, decimating centuries of accumulated knowledge from this classical period of Indian culture.
Fortunately for our shared cultural heritage, this voluminous literature was already preserved in another classical Asian language: Tibetan. Outside of the world of Tibetan and Buddhist studies, it is an understated fact that beginning in the eighth century, the emperor of Tibet sponsored the largest translation project in history, commissioning hundreds of Indian and Tibetan scholars to translate the vast corpus of Indian Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Tibetan. Therefore, as the present Dalai Lama frequently states, if one wants to study the complete Nalanda Buddhist tradition, Tibetan is only language in which to do so.
Recognizing that this literature is an important and otherwise lost aspect of Indian culture, the university is directly sponsored by the Indian government’s Ministry of Culture, who have tasked CIBS with preserving and perpetuating this Buddhist literature as well as the traditional Buddhist arts and culture of the Himalayas. To this end, the government pays for all tuition, fees, and book expenses. Students even receive a monthly stipend that covers all accommodation and living expenses so that all their studies are fully funded. Due to the fully subsidized nature of this university education, many of the students come from Ladakh’s most marginalized socio-economic backgrounds; the institute, therefore, provides a college education to students who would likely otherwise never access such opportunities.
A majority of the students come from Changthang, the largely nomadic grasslands on the border with Tibet, and Zanskar, a remote region separated from the rest of Ladakh by the Great Himalayan Mountain Range. Many are the first generation to receive any formal education, with most of their parents being illiterate farmers or nomads. The students are, therefore, not only first generation college students but also often the first to become literate in their own language, not to mention the mandatory languages of Hindi and English. Of the six majors offered at the university, generally the monastics major in Buddhist philosophy and either return to their home monasteries or go to a Buddhist institute of their particular Tibetan Buddhist sect for further training on graduation. Most of the lay students select their concentration in Bhoti language and literature and return to their villages to become Bhoti teachers after completing their studies; the overwhelming majority of Bhoti teachers across Ladakh are all graduates of CIBS. Tellingly, in one third-year college class I taught, 18 out of 22 students wanted to be Bhoti teachers.
When I asked an unusually intrepid undergraduate woman from Nubra why she majored in Bhoti language and literature, she explained to me, “It’s our language and literature and culture. Who are we if we don’t know these things? How are we Ladakhi if we don’t know our own language well?” She later added, “It’s totally free to study here. Were I to study someplace else, there would be big fees that maybe my parents could not afford them. Here, I get to study our language, but I also don’t have to pay for it.”
Her perspective seems representative of that of many of the undergraduate students. While they may be interested in their chosen subject matter, there are undeniable social and economic advantages in studying at CIBS. Without this fully subsidized opportunity offered by the Indian government, it is unlikely many of these students would be able to pursue a college education. I found myself wondering if a similar opportunity were available at a secular institution teaching modern subjects, how many students would remain studying Bhoti and Buddhist philosophy at CIBS.
Perhaps to be expected, the graduate students generally expressed a much deeper engagement with their subject matter. I had extended conversations in graduate classes about the true purpose of education, and why an institute like CIBS is important. One second-year master’s student from Changthang told me, in true Buddhist fashion, “These days in Ladakh, so many people are just focused on making money, on living like Westerners or Indians in the big cities. And yet I don’t think this is making people happy. Material development alone isn’t enough to make people happy. Actually, in Ladakh, I feel like sometimes more suffering comes with development. That’s why I think Buddhism and the study of the mind are so important. This is ultimately the only way we can really guarantee happiness.”
While at the university, I found myself again marveling at the irony that the majority of Tibetan language translators are Westerners who begin learning the language decades Ladakhi students such as those at CIBS. It is strange to me that the task of translating such a massive corpus of literature largely falls into the hands of people who learn Tibetan so many years after these students who begin learning it as children. However, I have hope that as the institute continues inviting visiting lecturers from other countries and expanding their ties with international Tibetan, Himalayan and Buddhist studies organizations, the students at CIBS will take a larger stake in the important work of studying and translating this Nalanda Buddhist heritage.
My choice of clothing for working at the hospital was something that I was unsure about as I was packing. Our handbook recommended a regular business casual outfit, but even then I was hesitant about appearing disrespectful by underdressing. I prepared my suitcase with black dress shoes, a few different pairs of khakis and slacks, and a plethora of dress shirts.
All my worries were resolved when one of the hospital staff shared some gossip he overheard. Some other staff there had given me the nickname “Mr. Consistent”, due to the invariability of my outfit every day. Shirt always tucked in, sleeves never rolled up, while I even scrubbed the dirt from the street off my shoes about once a week. In contrast to the open-toed shoes prevalent in the hospital, I may have actually appeared overdressed for my task at hand. As the anxiety over my own dress started winding down, I began paying more attention to the dress code that many of the women at Aravind adhered to.
The majority of the women at Aravind didn’t have an opportunity to choose their clothing for work. Women who worked as medical personnel were given saris as uniforms which varied only by color based on the different work they do. This dress code was actually very helpful for the hospital. It told both patients and fellow employees the exact role that a hospital staff member had. This was similar to the white coats that doctors put on everywhere, including the Aravind hospital. A green sari meant that the wearer could counsel patients on their medical status, the same way that a white coat meant that the doctor could perform patient examinations.
Regardless, there was still a gray area of dress code for women at Aravind without a uniform. Our handbook gave an explanation for women’s dress at Aravind that was much more detailed than the two-word explanation of “business casual” given for men. In vague terms, it seemed that women were expected to cover their legs fully with clothing that isn’t too tight, while their entire upper body should be covered with particular attention on not exposing too much chest. For many female workers at Aravind, a scarf was normally worn over their shirt to give assurance that no upper torso skin is visible. Another intern from the U.S. was actually advised multiple times by other workers at Aravind to wear a scarf even if her shirt reached up to her neck.
In stark contrast to the U.S., the conservative dress of South India became the norm for me. So much so that seeing a woman’s shoulder blades from a low-cut sari felt like I was violating that woman’s privacy. You may be able to imagine my surprise when I saw crop tops and short shorts during our first night in Goa, a less reserved beach town in India. Going to a restaurant where a host was teaching salsa dancing incited a lot of culture shock.
However, what surprised me the most that night was seeing how people were dancing; I felt as though I hadn’t seen anyone truly free in the last eight weeks. Every dancer was moving entirely at their own will; completely unfazed and unburdened by any fear of shame or judgement. In the same vein, dancers were freely choosing their partners. The host who was leading the large group learning salsa commanded the men and women to switch partners regularly. For most of the night, I was actually in disbelief that I could see women dressing in whatever way they wished to, dancing as expressively as they wanted to, and choosing their dance partner with complete freedom.
This isn’t to say that my social experiences with residents of Madurai were non-existent or minimal; I actually ended up talking to a diverse range of people. I had one long conversation with a man training to be a paramedic, kept up with a dentist who went to the same gym as me, and maintained a friendship with an autorickshaw driver who donned a handsome mullet, among countless other experiences with doctors and other hospital personnel. But the one aspect lacking from these relationships was a female presence.
Most of the women in Madurai who I got to know were doctors at Aravind. I don’t think I ever spoke to a woman outside of the hospital for anything other than buying goods. In the same way, no woman initiated conversation with me the same way the training paramedic struck up conversation with me. My dialogue with female hospital staff didn’t extend beyond “Hello” and “How are you?” except for one occasion.
One day, I was intent on staying in the records department until I got all the patient information I needed. At first, the staff members in the records department (all women) strayed from conversation with me, but as more senior staff members went home, the younger ones stayed to finish the day. During downtime while I was waiting for a patient record, one woman asked me how old I was. My aura of seniority vanished after I answered, and I was bombarded by questions from the workers who were all shocked to be at least three years older than me. There are many other (valid) reasons for why someone would avoid talking to me, but that instance made me wonder to what extent the fear of judgment stopped hospitals workers from asking me about life in the U.S., or why I was working in the hospital.
That fear of judgment or fear of shame does add a layer of professionalism to the system that Aravind employs, and perhaps keeps workers from distracting themselves or taking unnecessary breaks. But while efficiency improves, there is a human quality that suffers as well. There’s a chance that a good amount of innate curiosity is stifled by the haunting presence of shame, and possible connections between diverse lives are blocked.
As with everything else in society, there is a trade-off that has to take place. The improved patient care at Aravind may benefit the hospital, while the atmosphere of judgement extends further into the nearby culture. This experience served as a reminder to me that there’s no black and white in culture; there’s only a balance where every positive come with a negative and every cost is tethered to an unsuspecting benefit. If I choose to only see new experiences through the lenses of “wrong” instead of “different”, then it’s impossible for me to learn from those experiences and apply what I learn in a productive way. That being said, I would encourage everyone to go salsa dancing once in a while, and forget about judgement, if just for an evening.
What was most striking to me about India when I first arrived was the traffic. The unbearable honking, the fact that no one actually uses the lanes, the pollution, the cows and all the vehicles that read “Sound horn OK please”. I thought to myself “Why are they encouraging this sorts of honking? What is going on? What does it mean for the sound of the horn to be OK?” Bangalore traffic is definitely the worst in the country (that’s not an exaggeration) as three kilometers can very easily turn into a 45-minute cab ride in traffic. I remember being thoroughly annoyed at how difficult it was to get around and it made me so uncomfortable.
10 weeks later, I still feel similarly about the traffic. It’s no longer overwhelming though and now I can even laugh about all the occurrences I see while walking to work or riding in an auto. I think my change in perspective about the traffic is representative of my growth and development during my time in India. The sounds of the horns are okay now as I have learned to accept the unpredictable and sometimes hectic flow of traffic (and things in our lives). Just knowing that although I may have to wait 5 minutes to cross the street and weave through cows, motorbikes and autos I will cross the street in one piece! I think the traffic is an analogy for getting used to things that make us uncomfortable and learning how to deal with change as it comes, which is something I very much needed to reassure myself about coming into this summer.
I’ve been abroad for three and a half months this summer. This past semester was by far the most difficult semester I’ve had during my time at Penn. I struggled academically, emotionally and psychologically and the thought of going abroad when all the support systems I had were in the U.S was very scary. I wouldn’t have imagined that I would create such wonderful relationships with the people here and that they would become my support systems during a time of personal flourishing. As I’m getting ready to leave India, I’ll miss the people who I’ve become close with the most. I don’t know when I’ll see them again, but I know that they’ve touched my life in a way that’s unforgettable.
Updates on my project:
This was my last week at Jana Urban Foundation and my work has been a wonderful learning experience and has taught me a lot about what I would like to after graduation. The final deliverable of my project was a short list of MSE that JFS should reach out to organize by zone, ticket size and segment. Along with this, I also helped curate two field studies that will be used by the field teams at JFS and JUST.
P.S- I’m here for about 10 more days and while my internship at Jana has ended, I will be heading to Madurai to stay at an ashram for a week. Until next time (When I’m finally back in the U.S)!
Last summer (2015) I participated in the Critical Language Scholarship, a 2-month Hindi language program in Jaipur, Rajasthan. I won’t lie—this was absolutely the most fun summer of my life. Learning a language I absolutely love, meeting like-minded, research-oriented friends, traveling throughout Rajasthan, living with a host family—all of these experiences made for a fairly carefree and enjoyable summer.
But I’ll be the first to admit that my CLS experience was like living in a cartoon version of India. Food, housing, travel—all of the most difficult parts of this 2016 summer were completely taken care of for us. In Hindi school we were taught a puritanical, rigid form of Hindi that one rarely finds actually spoken. After school we had conversations with “conversation partners” who constantly self-censored their language to make it sound “correct.” And then we had cultural classes, a snake-charmer, a visit to a rural school—it was all somewhat a caricature of India, what you would expect to find in a drama-filled Bollywood movie.
This summer as a Leap intern was much more messy. First language: as much as I tried to speak Hindi with my coworkers, I also succumbed to the constant code-switching between languages and the frequent use of English verbs in my sentences. This was a conscious choice in order to “fit-in”—who wants to sound like that annoying grammar nazi from your 8th grade English class?
Housing was also messy. Sometimes I stayed in a fancy hotel in Delhi, other times in a mice-infested hotel in Yamuna Nagar, sometimes at a PG where my evil landlady rigged my electricity meter and tried to make me pay her extra money. Food was also all over the place. One meal might be at an auntie’s kitchen in Yamuna Nagar and the next at a Subway in the high-end Neelkanth Dhaba.
But the personal growth that came from this summer is quite clear. Besides teaching and tutoring in the past, this was my first work and workplace experience. I learned a lot about my leadership style, my strengths and weaknesses, and what kind of work I enjoy. Moreover, I learned how to stand up for myself, whether it was fighting with my scheming landlord or the colleague who demeaned my stutter.
I had many uncomfortable experiences this summer, and many of my expectations about India were shattered. If there is one major takeaway, it is that India requires not just flexibility but endless, bottomless reserves of flexibility. I didn’t think I had them, but when I dug deep enough I was happy to discover they were there. Don’t worry, India, I will be back. The simple joys of speaking Hindi, bursting with excitement when one of my favorite Lata Mangeshkar songs comes on the radio, eating aam ki barfi or dudh ka peda, having a nice conversation with a shopkeeper—these daily things are always my most treasured experiences in India.
I think all of the CASI interns would agree that the summer went much too fast. It feels like only a short time ago that we arrived excited, nervous, and with generally no idea of what was to come.
It’s a set of mental gymnastics to contrast those first few days at Leap—lost, exhausted from the flight, stressed about all the work we already had—with our final day at the office, when our amazingly kind coworkers threw a surprise going-away party for us. How in the span of only two months did we feel like we had become a part of the Leap family?
When our coworkers asked us to speak about our experience at Leap, in front of the entire Leap staff, I immediately tensed up. I have never been a verbose person, especially when it comes to sappy/motivational/inspiring things. I could already see myself saying “I had a great time” and then embarrassingly sitting back down.
So when I actually started speaking and saying heartfelt, (somewhat) nicely-worded things, I was shocked. I spoke about how hard the first week was, how worried I was about working on an LMS (learning management system, like Canvas or Blackboard) when I had no tech experience, about how blown away I was by the kindness of all of the trainers, how we all laughed all day long at work. When I finished, I realized I was not the same person as at the start of the summer. I never would have had the courage to express myself so openly and freely in front of a crowd of people I cared so much about. Just like Leap inspires confidence in their students, in that moment I realized they had done the same for me.
Confidence, persistence, teamwork—these are all traits I considered myself relatively poor in before this summer at Leap. I will forever be grateful to them for challenging me to do things I would have balked away from, and for pushing me when I needed to be pushed. Can’t wait to go back and visit!
In the past, visiting and spending time in India for me has always meant being the “least Indian” one in any given group. Whether it was with family or at previous workplaces, I never consciously realized how American I always was in comparison to my Indian family or co-workers.
If I just recently started to understand that I experience India through Americanized ways, I am starting to realize that American bubbles can exist as well. Put multiple American students together, and despite the fact that you are in an entirely different country, the American Bubble will follow you and cocoon you everywhere.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A friend from Penn who is currently in India on a Fulbright recently mentioned that she understands how Americanized her experience can be, but regardless she knows that this is likely the only way in which she will ever understand India. She accepts that as someone who is non-Indian and also American, the way she relates to India will not be the same way I do, or the way someone who grew up here does.
However, as someone who has perhaps seen India through ‘less Americanized’ ways in the past, this summer was unique and markedly different. Most importantly, my role as a visibly brown person traveling with two foreigners (my co-interns) renders me many different things to those that see us. Oftentimes, I am asked if I am the Indian host, boss or something of the like to Mallory and Alexi. Strangers on the street will ask me questions about where Mallory and Alexi are from, what they are doing here, and so on. Oftentimes, people are confused when I try to explain that all three of us actually attend the same university and are from the U.S., even though my family is Indian.
For example, we were at More (a grocery store) a few weeks ago and one of the cashiers greeted me and we started conversing in Telugu.
“Oh, you remember me and remember I’m Telugu!” I said.
He smiled and responded, “Yes, but I remembered you because you always come with foreigners, ma’am!”
In other words, my presence to strangers here has come to be defined almost entirely in relation to my non-Indian co-interns. When I’ve come to India in the past, I’ve never received nor expected any kind of visible preferential treatment. In fact, whenever I saw vendors or auto drivers flock to white foreign tourists, I have always felt frustrated, and then reflected about internalized racism and colonialism. However, this summer has been quite different in that sense. A friend of mine had mentioned to me, before I left for India, that I might receive “peripheral white privilege” when here with non-Indians. And while that did not make sense at the time, I can at least see what she might have been alluding to. The situations do not always feel so glorifying–it can actually often feel stressful or accessorizing to be approached as a point of access to others just because they are foreigners. However, it is clearly an effect of white privilege and colonial legacy that strangers give Mallory, Alexi, and I special treatment, or are at least extremely curious about us.
So while this is a new and difficult position to be in, it certainly has led to me learning new things about myself and the way I belong to India. Mallory, Alexi and I have also had many profound conversations on what it means for us to be here as American students, and what it means for me to be the only student of Indian origin in the group.
Reflecting on the summer and trying to better understand the larger picture, it is clear that race relations and colonial legacies larger than us shape the way the three of us interact with people around us. People are oftentimes excited to see foreigners, perhaps because of internalized racism and aspirations to whiteness and foreignness. I cannot say what the solution is for working through these dynamics, but I know that at least part of it is attempting to decolonize my own mind—ie process internalized racism and continue to have those difficult conversations.
As I prepare to head to Morocco for a semester abroad, where (as Alexi often said about his own experience here) my Americanness will perhaps precede by browness, it will be interesting to take these lessons with me and continue to grow from them.
Finally, the workshops were finished. Although there was a breath of relief that I would not have to deal with my nervousness while I am in front of the class, I also felt a pang of sadness. This would be the last time I would see my students. Even though I encouraged them all to add me on Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, I knew deep down that the conversations would not be the same. I was always better at communicating with people face to face because it was easier for me to guide the conversation in the right places, however, it was hard reading another person’s feelings through a screen. Even though we only had two sessions together, I felt in some ways connected to them.
This connection was something I did not expect. For Leap, my partner and I had to conduct three sessions that taught students some basic soft skills and encouraged them to learn more about the importance of skill development. The workshops concentrated on Communications, Professional Etiquette, and Innovation. At first, I thought it would be easy. I thought that since I had taught elementary school kids before in China that it would be a piece of cake. Yet, as I learned more about the students and how close (or even older) to my own age they were, I feared that they would not respect me. Besides, how can a 19 year old teach something of importance to another their own age? Not to mention that I was from a completely different culture that had a different humor, way of life and etc…
Yet, the students were nothing but kind and respectful. They called me “Mam” despite the fact that I told them multiple times that the formality was not required. They offered to hang out and sought to have simple conversations with me whenever they saw me. I began to wish that I could be a part of their group. Even though I could see that there was a cultural barrier, I wanted the opportunity to get past that and actually just be their friends. It made me wish that I had more time to spend with them.
However, my time at Leap is short. In the end, I hope that these memories will suffice and that I can keep some semblance of communications with my students. They were a lovely bunch to work with.
Though based in Pondicherry, I had the opportunity to get a “taste” of other Indian locales during my time there. I visited Bangalore, Goa, and Chennai for brief interludes. In a surprising twist, I found India’s large cities similar to NYC’s ‘that never sleeps’. Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, and Chennai are plagued by a constant hustle and bustle, traffic, and all the strife that accompany big cities. These four rank among India’s top 5 most populous cities (Hyderbad is No. 4) comprising of over 38 million people as of the 2011 census (in comparison it requires almost 30 of the largest US cities to come close to this number). Each of these places added memorable experiences to my Indian adventure.
The small village of Thavalakuppam that I spent most of my time boasts a population of fewer than 8,000. Most inhabitants here walk around barefoot and use Nokia flip-phones for communication. The city of Bangalore, in contrast, considered the Silicon Valley of India, has a skyline of tall buildings, people dressed in the latest fashions and using multiple personal devices simultaneously, and has technology heavily incorporated into daily life. The weather in Bangalore is also much more tolerable than in Pondicherry–I actually found myself feeling cold walking around one afternoon! Driving around Bangalore reminded me of rush hour in New York City (Fun fact: Bangalore traffic is absolutely insane: travelling 7 kilometers easily took an hour in an Uber…but only cost Rs. 90 ($1.34)). Unforgettable memory no. 1: I was totally not expecting to participate in strategy-based games with my other Aravind interns at ‘Escape the Room’. I had never played in the US and certainly was not expecting it to be a ‘thing’ in India!
Another extended weekend was spent in Goa. This Indian state was liberated from the Portuguese in 1961. It borders the Arabian Sea on the west and is known for its beaches. This was a true vacation as our group blended sight seeing of historical places with experiencing Goan culture (Goa is the equivalent spring break destination for Indian college students). It was wonderfully refreshing to meet other students and people our age. Activities included a pick-up soccer games on the beach, Salsa Night at a dance club, and getting to know a pop-up kitchen owner. Unforgettable memory no. 2: While visiting a fort on the northern Goan border, we got trapped in the midst of a monsoon downpour. It was one of the coolest experiences any of us had ever experienced. We had climbed up the fort and were taking in the beautiful view when, all of a sudden, winds began to blow our umbrellas inside out, rendering them useless.
The sky effortlessly opened into a torrential deluge and we had to shelter behind the fort wall to shield ourselves from the pellet-like raindrops. We debated waiting out the storm there until it became clear that there were no signs the storm would let up any time soon. Ensuring that all our electronics were turned off, we started the climb back down the fort hill; all the while avoiding slippery rocks (harder than it sounds when you are wearing flip flops), mud puddles, and the current of the impromptu river the rain created. Thoroughly soaked at the descent, our taxi driver only begrudgingly let us back into the car. His anger was replaced by shock when instead of driving us home we asked him to drive us to the beach instead. Everyone warns you about monsoon season, but there is something exhilarating about all that rain.
I had two experiences in Chennai with two different people carrying different attitudes about the excursion. Nimay, my fellow Pondicherry-Aravind intern, had to be dragged along to visit the multitude of temples I desired to see. I’m sure I tested every ounce of his chivalry checking out temples dedicated to the various gods and demigods from ancient folklore. He was put out of his misery when my Mom accompanied me as temple buddy on my second trip. The first excursion was to the beautiful shore temple in Mahabalipuram. There, we saw 15 different monuments and learned about the Pallava Dynasty as well as the architectural history of the structures. The temples in Mahabalipuram are different from other South Indian temples in that they are entirely carved from unpainted rocks or into caves. The monochromic style contrasts the plethora of colors adorning typical granite Dravidian temples. Among others, we visited the Shore Temple, Krishna’s Butterball, and The Pancha Rathas. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the stories of each temple and the gods adorning them. With my mother I visited the Kapaleeshwarar Temple in Mylapore, Chennai. Both Mahabalipuram and Kapaleeshwarar are Shiva temples, as he is the prominent Southern deity. The Kapaleeshwarar Temple is more typical in appearance and is an active temple, not just a heritage site. Four large towers mark the entrance gates in each direction. An enormous water tank sits at one end forming a reservoir for temple activities. Shiva, his consort Parvati, sons Ganesh and Murugan (known as Kartik in the North), and vahana Nandi, the bull, adorn the walls and inner chambers. The painted outer scenes tell their stories. The day we visited was dedicated to Shiva as mate, so the temple was filled with women praying for their husbands. Unforgettable memory no. 3: I’m not sure if my dad felt it, but my mother did pray for him – bowing her head and dropping rupees onto open platters at every turn, receiving blessings for him in return as flower petals and vermillion on her forehead.
There are so many more memories etched into my brain; many of them would seem meaningless when recounted, but are so worthwhile to me. Certainly the circumstances carry weight, but it’s really the people who shared them with me that make them so vivid and significant. I doubt I would have been so adventurous, tolerated the heat and torrential rains, or appreciated the culture so deeply if left onto my own. While I narrate my stories, I acknowledge that it is the characters more than the setting that are so meaningful – the setting just let that come forward. For that I will always be thankful to India.
My last week at Aravind was by far the most hectic out of the ten when I was there. Even my last day ended with an afternoon and evening spent in the records department; desperately scouring for the occupation of certain patients through hurried scribbles and misplaced files. Although I had the chance to say goodbye to all the hospital staff that supported me throughout my project, it wasn’t quite with the same sentiment as I would’ve liked it to be. Much like eating a delicious meal under a time constraint, I wasn’t able to take in everything that I could’ve with no rush.
It wasn’t until I was dropping off candy for glaucoma clinic staff (the other interns and I noticed that offering food was commonplace for significant events) that I realized how familiar the clinic was. As I’d mapped out the clinic, I noticed the particular horseshoe shape made by the main hallways in the clinic. For all the hundreds of times I’d walked the length of the horseshoe, either looking for a certain doctor or new patients in the waiting areas, I had never noticed how progressively comfortable I became. Each day, new patients were confused as to why I was sitting in one of the cold metal chairs the clinic provided but the medical staff grew accustomed to me as the weeks dragged on. Initially, I only had to interrupt a stare by a nurse to ask if Dr. George was in, but in my last week I would have to get into the same nurse’s field of vision and address her by name if I had any hope of finding Dr. George.
The clinic was also a place where I accidentally stumbled into a point of reflection in my last week that made me question which values are most important to me.
Throughout my life, I’ve always viewed education as something valuable. This view was one shared by my family. Growing up next to my brother and sister, I understood by seeing their life choices that going to higher education is something that should accompany adulthood. My sister graduated high school early to move onto college, and moved onto an MD-PhD program after that. My brother learned when he was young that he wanted to build a career around music, but he still went to Boston to gain an education. Although there are purposeful and fruitful career paths void of education, my family also placed emphasis on the benefits that come from education.
My father’s father was the son of German immigrants, and never had the opportunity to go to school. Before he passed, I remember him describing at length the conditions he worked in when he was only a child. He spoke of the risks associated with working in a textile mill, saying that only the children employed were small enough to reach beneath the spinning wheels and pull out any clutter with their tiny hands. But if he had been too careless in his task, he wouldn’t have been lucky enough to keep his hand. Despite his lack of schooling, he made a great life for himself and his family by becoming a jack-of-all-trades and taking on a wide range of jobs throughout his life.
My dad was the first person in his family poised for academia; the oldest son of a couple finally settled and stable. He took every opportunity given to him, graduating high school a year early (and skipping graduation to my grandmother’s dismay) and moving directly onto a tuition-free stay at a small Catholic school in Seattle. My mother was also the first woman in her family to go to school, conveniently at the same small Catholic school in Seattle. After their rendezvous and subsequent marriage, my mom became a full-time (and overtime) nurse while my dad pursued a PhD in biochemistry. Eventually, my parents moved out to the Midwest after a faculty position in neuroscience at the University of Michigan became available for my dad while a role in their health system opened for my mom.
Seeing how different members of my family have both created opportunities for themselves and earned achievements from those opportunities set expectations high for me, but have also inspired me to realize the potential I have. Regardless, I see the most important part of an education as not the opportunities that are made, but the freedom of thought gained. Having the ability to challenge different ideas that are presented to you, to recognize attempts to manipulate and deceive, to test the knowledge that you consider to be true, are all so valuable in the world we live in. Having control over knowledge and more importantly the ability to learn has been a crucial facet of oppressive governments that seek to exploit its citizens. From my view, creating my own opinions and refining my own thoughts while challenging outside perspectives has always been the most important part of my education.
One day in glaucoma clinic, I was sitting, patiently anticipating a new wave of patients into the waiting area that I was settled in. I began leafing through surveys that had been completed, and noticed that almost every patient surveyed in that mass of paper had no education or barely completed the equivalent of elementary school. I started to wonder how differently my values must differ from the average patient in the clinic. If the next few years of my life are bound to yield one degree from a grab-bag of MD, PhD, or MBA, while most patients had only experienced a few years of schooling, the gulf in difference between how important I consider education compared to how important the average patient considers education must be great.
At that moment, I felt some degree of sympathy. I thought of voter bribing that I heard occurs in some pockets of India, where uneducated individuals are given small sums of money in exchange for a vote. In an ideal world, each person would be able to earn an education and have the power to challenge different ideas. I thought that the present situation was generally unfortunate. But my next thought turned me on my heel from a sympathizer into a hypocrite.
As I looked around in the clinic, I didn’t see patients; I saw families. Some of the surveys I held indicated that patients traveled hundreds of kilometers to see a doctor. Despite these great differences, the patient almost always had some family with them. One man had only his wife, who almost never let the lock of their arms break. Another man was accompanied by his two children, who were switching between active states of play and passive naps on their father’s belly. Even one young man had his younger brother tag along with him, if only for him to play on his phone in the waiting area.
I took a minute to look at myself, and all I saw was how alone I was. Time has stretched to over two months since I had last laid eyes on my parents. My siblings and I hadn’t met up since Christmas. I had last seen most of my extended family in Seattle about a year ago. All the people in my life who helped me create the values and morals that guide me had been out of my life for months now. What was the point of valuing education, if I can’t even see and appreciate the people who had helped me develop that value and every other value that made me the person I am today?
The patients really should have been pitying me; someone whose view became so narrow that he can’t see his own ignorance to his most important value.
In all of my experiences abroad the dreaded yet, essential question most people ask when meeting me is “Where are you from?” I usually reply with “I’m from the U.S,” and although it’s the truth, it doesn’t encompass all the truth. Having pondered my response to this question almost every time it was asked during my six months in Brazil, I’ve had to revisit the question here in India. When I met with professor Kapur at CASI before leaving Penn and I talked to him about my interest in emerging economies and how I had spent a semester in Brazil he said that I would “see tints” of Brazil during my time in India and that people might even think I was Indian and speak to me in Hindi. Both of these things have happened.
Brazil and India are both incredible diverse and immense countries. They are both “BRICS” countries and sit in a hot bed of incredibly rapid globalization. Studying(for six months) and interning (for just 10 weeks) in a place bring very different experiences but these are my observations from just being in these two countries for some time. Unlike Brazil, India does not strike me as having a sense of “brasilidade (Brazilianness)” or its equivalent. Brazilianness is the idea of a national identity, that while the country is so diverse in many ways there is still a unifying identity. In India, every state has its own language, food, and culture and it’s like every state is its own different country. My coworkers all speak at least two to three languages and this seems to be the norm, where as in Brazil everyone just spoke Portuguese. In Brazil, I went to the beach almost everyday and would stand out for not wearing a Brazilian bikini. This summer, I have not worn shorts at all and my few beach experiences have consisted of staring at the water from a distance while wearing my kurta.
Yet, in terms of globalization, there are many parallels between these two countries. Both have huge populations and an enormous amount of natural resources. Yet the rapid globalization leads different segments of the population to benefit at very different rates which leads to absurd inequality. This can be seen when there are slums or favelas right next to skyscrapers and having beggars on the corridors of the fanciest neighborhoods. These “tints” make me realize that these two countries are similar in many ways but my identity and the way it is perceived is completely different in these two places. So back to “Where are you?”, it’s a bit complicated.
My experience as a Latina abroad is quite interesting. I don’t consider myself Dominican-American as I became a U.S citizen less than two years ago, and attaching –American to my identity would be over simplifying my experience. I am both Dominican and American but the nuances of this identity are difficult to navigate while abroad. In Brazil, people would assume I was Brazilian until they heard the accent in my Portuguese, at which point I would answer the question with “I’m from the U.S” but people were often curious and probed further and after a few encounters I modified my answer to “I’m from the U.S, but was born in the D.R” and this seemed to be a much more acceptable answer. In India, I answer “I’m from the U.S” and people’s response usually vary depending on who I am with (White Americans, Asian Americans, or on my own). When I am with White Americans there is no follow up, but when I am with Tina, who is Asian, people ask if both of us are from the U.S. When I am on my own people ask if I am Indian or if my parents are Indian. Either way, it’s never an easy answer.
My “ambiguous” look often helps me go undetected and attract less attention when abroad but it is also a reminder of my “ni de aqui, ni de alla (neither from here nor there)” dilemma which many immigrants face. It is the idea of not really belonging to any one place. I’m not “truly” Dominican but I will never be “fully” American, but what does any of that even mean anyway?
So “I’m from the U.S”…kind of and although this question is somewhat annoying having to revisit it this summer has made me feel more confident about my identity and has helped me see that I don’t need to be one thing or the other because we are all citizens of the world. And while a fluid identity maybe one of the “hardships” of my international citizenship, it is negligible hardships compared to the benefits. I am extremely lucky and privileged to be able to see the world through the lens that my unique identity and experiences have helped me acquire.
I’ll start my blog post by giving a little background on these past few days. I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Darjeeling in the Himalayas, which took my breath away with its beauty and majesty. The region was like a different country within India, and I could go on and on about the hospitality of the people and the way they made me feel wonderfully at home. But I’ll save that for another day. The rest of this post is dedicated to what happened once I returned to Bangalore.
On the flight from Bagdogra airport (a tiny building with one terminal that was actually just a modified army base which allowed for the occasional civilian plane landing) to Delhi, the thought crossed my mind that if the plane went down, I would plan my escape strategy around saving my laptop, which contains so many of my memories and stories and photos and writings. I scoffed at the safety card that explicitly told me not to bring any belongings if an emergency occurred. I convinced myself that my laptop is essentially who I am. Fortunately, nothing of that awful magnitude happened and I arrived safely back to Bangalore. I can’t say the same for my laptop. The next day at work, it simply would not turn on nor would the battery charge. None of the remedies we researched online could resuscitate it either, which led me to believe there was something seriously wrong with the mechanical internals of my loyal sidekick. There are conveniently no Apple stores in India, so I had to go to the equivalent of a Genius Bar in a tiny nook of a shop called Imagine. I was told that “our engineers will diagnosis the problem in three days” and my laptop was confiscated. I could almost hear its terrified whirring as it got shuffled into an unlit back room with stacks of other dejected and misshapen electronics. Three days! In a city teeming with engineers! That means limited access to email, world news, Microsoft Office, and Spotify for almost the same amount of time it would take for me to finish Gilmore Girls on Netflix. The separation anxiety immediately kicked in. I’m writing this post on Kat’s laptop, which she so kindly lent to me in my moment of darkest despair.
I recounted the anguishing series of events to my other friends at work, and when I got around to explaining my logic on escaping from a doomed plane, Elizabeth raised her eyebrows and joked that I needed to get my priorities straight. I laughed good-naturedly, but a little voice in the back of my mind asked, “isn’t every joke a half truth?”
It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been in India for eight weeks. I hadn’t realized how much this country has changed me until today. I remember one of the most frustrating culture shocks initially was that nothing happened on time. Our Ola app would indicate that our driver was five minutes away, but he was bound to only arrive after fifteen minutes. Our coworkers would schedule lunch for 12:00pm, but wouldn’t saunter in until 1:30pm. Our meetings would start “in thirty minutes” which essentially translated into “some ambiguous time this afternoon—keep your calendar clear”. We called this phenomenon “Indian Time”. We began to habitually say, “I’ll be there in five minutes, Indian Time” or ask, “do you mean 1 minute, Indian Time?” Our Indian friends at the office always chuckled, perhaps a bit sheepishly, at this quirk. After two months in this country, I’m now finally realizing that the concept of Indian Time is more akin to a way of life than a tendency to be late. In fact, “being late” is a very Western construct. Indian Time is the acceptance that everything happens for a reason, and incidents that are meant to be, will be. There’s no need to rush a system that is already perfect. It stems from a belief in the inherent oneness of the world, and it teaches patience, faith, understanding, and serenity. There will always be tomorrow, so today should be lived to the fullest. This was a liberating epiphany. I risk sounding extremely cheesy, but nonetheless I will write it for the sake of accurate blogging: for the first time in my life, I could consciously choose to not feel rushed and flustered because I could truly believe that things will work out in the end.
I slowly began to love the phrase “no issues”—which ironically usually foreshadows a large, looming problem on the horizon with no discernable solution—because it’s intricately connected to the concept of Indian Time. My faith in letting things run their course was reinforced by seeing again and again that what my Indian friends promised would indeed come true. We never faced a challenge we couldn’t overcome. Allow me to give a few illustrating examples. We don’t have a mode of transportation from Kodaikanal to Munnar? No issues (we spent ten hours on three different government buses, but we arrived in one piece). We can’t hike back to the park entrance unless we negotiate a rickety bridge with missing planks? No issues (we made it across with just a handful of heart-pounding moments). My flight is taking off in an hour from Kolkata and my cab just sputtered to a stop in the middle of a busy intersection? No issues (my driver handed me off to another random cab and I arrived just in time to cut the lines at security). I learned to relax more, to take in and process the present more, and to enjoy living more.
I feel happier and less stressed than I had been in a long, long time. Maybe that’s why the panic of losing my laptop caught me so off guard. I pondered Elizabeth’s words after we parted, and it became clear to me that my attachment to my laptop, and everything it represents—schoolwork, job interviews, extracurricular obligations—is perhaps not as mentally healthy as I had always assumed. As much as I had grown to admire (and dare I say, to utilize) Indian Time, a part of me has never let go of rigid punctuality and cold efficiency and vague fears. I’m starting to believe that after having those morbid thoughts about plane crashes and emergency exits, this whole incident is a divine intervention to remind me of how great my emotional and intellectual growth has been since first landing in India. This is the final blazing hoop I have to leap through. Of course, I’ll never replace the significance of my laptop in my heart with an ambiguous concept of Indian Time, but I can reduce the stressors and negative mentalities that fuel cycles of worry and dread. I can also learn to live without a piece of metal that occasionally runs some complex algorithms. My laptop will be returned in three days, Indian Time? Tikay, no issues.
At MMTC-PAMP, my project involves coming up with a strategy to provide safe drinking water to villages that have very limited access to quality water. Over the past eight weeks, I’ve learned more about water than I ever thought possible. Everyone has heard that the human body is around 60% water and that the ground is a great source for freshwater. Here are some things I’ve learned this summer:1. More than just H2O
100% distilled water is not safe for drinking. In fact, the water we usually drink contains plenty of dissolved compounds: calcium, magnesium, chlorine, fluorine, sulfurs, and other organic compounds. Chlorine is often added to tap water to kill harmful bacteria while fluorine is added to prevent tooth decay. Our bodies need minerals to function, and drinking water is a great source. In fact, drinking “soft” water, water low in calcium and magnesium salts, has been correlated increased morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular disease.2. So many parameters
The World Health Organization and Indian government have both outlined a long list of biochemical parameters that drinking water should follow. A detailed water analysis report, like the ones that MMTC-PAMP’s ecology lab creates regularly to test its own drinking water, measures water for all of these chemicals to ensure that it falls between the recommended ranges. Who knew that water was so complicated?3. Access vs. quality
Providing access to water and ensuring quality of water are two separate but highly related issues. In Mewat, the district that MMTC-PAMP is located, both access and quality are large issues for the majority of the population. Recently, when I asked a villager whether or not he thought drinking water from various sources was safe to drink, he replied, “Why should I even care about how good the water is when I don’t even have any water to drink?” Wells in Mewat often run dry, and the government tap water supply is highly irregular and often shuts down because the residents don’t pay their water bills. As a result, many villagers have resorted to purchasing water from private tankers, nicknamed the “Water Mafia” who illegally pump water from nearby wells and sell it. Although this solves access, it far from solves quality: 90% of the tankers supply unpotable water. Any solution that is designed must address both access and quality.4. Dirty water can make you sick
Impurities in the water we drink can cause many illnesses. Most notable are water-borne diseases like rotavirus, the most common cause of diarrhea, cholera, and hepatitis A; but there are also many other illnesses caused by nonmicrobial impurities. Groundwater is often contaminated with high levels of fluorine, lead, or arsenic. Too much fluorine can cause fluorosis; lead can cause lead poisoning leading to learning disabilities; and arsenic can cause arsenic poisoning. While human actions can contaminate groundwater through the use of fertilizers or leaking sewers, soil composition can also drastically affect the composition of groundwater.5. Sweet or Salty
How would you describe to someone what water tastes like? Water just taste like…. water. Measuring water’s total dissolved solids (TDS) is one of the easiest ways to get a broad sense of how contaminated it is. TDS simply measures how much stuff is present in the water. While this could be simple salts, poisonous lead, or E. Coli, TDS is a very simple metric that’s often used. In a lab, TDS is measured using a conductivity meter, but our tongues are also great at differentiating between very subtle differences in salt concentration. This is why when we asked villagers how bottled water tastes, they all exclaimed that it’s sweet. Compared to Mewat’s unpotable groundwater, whose TDS varies from 1000ppm to 7000ppm, bottled water tastes as sweet as gulab jamun. For comparison, seawater has a TDS of around 30,000ppm.6. The ground purifies but don’t dig too deep
Mewat really struggles with this. Groundwater is usually a great source of drinking water. Soil acts as a natural filter, so by the time water reaches a natural aquifer, many microbial impurities are removed. However, if the groundwater table isn’t replenished by rainwater as quickly as it’s depleted, the water table falls. And the deeper you go, the saltier the water gets. Not only are villages in Mewat struggling to afford more powerful, more expensive pumps that get access the deeper groundwater, but the water that they pump from such depths is saltier, way above the WHO’s recommendations.7. One filter doesn’t fit all
Water can be filtered a number of different ways, and several highly specific filters have been designed. Slow sand, rapid sand, multimedia filtration, activated carbon, Birm media, RO, UV disinfection, and many many more are often used in series to fine tune the composition of water. One size definitely does not fit all, and the filtration system for a particular village needs to be designed for the particular input water. For example, Birm media is only included if the raw water has a high concentration of iron, and RO is only required if the raw water has a high TDS.8. Reverse osmosis
Osmosis is indisputably everyone’s favorite process, second maybe only to the Calvin Cycle1. Water naturally moves from areas of low concentration to areas of high concentration. Reverse osmosis is a process where water with high TDS is pressure pumped through a selective filter so that the opposite happens: water flows from high concentration to low concentration. As a result, water with high TDS can be converted to water with lower TDS and some wastewater. Because Mewat’s groundwater has such a high TDS, RO filtration is essential.
1 Definitely not sarcasm