Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

CASI Student Blog

Subscribe to CASI Student Blog feed CASI Student Blog
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 Global Internship Program (IIP) and through the generous support of CASI donors.
Updated: 12 hours 1 min ago

Ubering everywhere

Thu, 08/09/2018 - 05:43

My friends and family keep asking me what I think of city life in Bangalore compared to life back home. This seems like a very basic question, yet I have an incredibly difficult time answering it due to one simple fact: the way I experience Bangalore is incredibly different from the way I experience Philadelphia or Chicago.

In many ways, much of it boils down to how I navigate my environment. I would not feel like I belong to Chicago as much as I do today had it not been for the countless hours I’ve spent sitting, standing, swaying, and squeezing into the CTA’s buses and trains. One thing that sometimes keeps me from feeling like a “true” Philly resident is the limited portion of the city that I routinely navigate on foot. Essentially, walking and taking public transportation are two great ways to get to know a city or neighborhood, neither of which have been a large part of my time in Bangalore.

It all starts with my morning routine—as we finish up breakfast, my three co-interns and I all desperately try to secure an Uber that will take us the entire 7 km (a little over 4 miles) from our apartment in Ejipura to our office in Bellandur. The reason we’re trying so hard? No one wants to drive 7 km in Bangalore morning rush hour traffic.


Future Shahi interns, if you’re reading this: make sure you stay within walking distance of the office!

While there have been days when we (by some miracle) completed the trip in 20 minutes, our typical commute takes between 40 – 60 minutes. However, the next time anyone in the states complains about traffic, I’m going to tell them about the time it took us two whole hours to drive to work… according to Google Maps, we can walk there in an hour and twenty! Even waiting for our ride to get to our pickup location can take nearly half an hour—something that I could never imagine happening in Philly.

The congested roads have definitely affected where we travel to in our leisure time. If there’s a cool place that we want to go to but it’s far away, we’ll most likely pass and head somewhere closer. Of course, since our commute to work is unavoidable, we’ve all figured out our own uses for the time spent idling in traffic jams. Generally, it comes down to sleeping, catching up on work, or reading; personally, I’ve finally had some time to read some books for pleasure!

Getting work done on the ride to work in the morning.

However, more significantly than deciding where to eat dinner or finding ways to deal with downtime, Ubering everywhere has detached us from the regular pulse of the city. Looking out from within our closed automobile, we roll past a collage of storefronts, barbershops, chaat stands, vegetable carts, shoe stalls, and juice bars. Despite the slow-moving traffic and our relative proximity, the fact that we’ve isolated ourselves inside a car severely limits the extent to which we can interact with and experience the ongoing street life.

Though I realize that in India’s cultural and historical context, my whiteness will always label me as a foreigner, it feels slightly awkward to shuttle from one place to another in a cab that, while very inexpensive for me, may come close to the daily take-home pay of a tailor at the factory where I’ve been conducting my research. And while feeling discomfort regarding this situation is better than feeling nothing, I’m totally unsure of how to confront my obvious privilege.

Even though lunch at my workplace canteen is wholly subsidized for this summer, I can still eat out at any nearby restaurant on any given day without blinking an eye at the $2 it would cost me. For dinner, I have the option of choosing to stop in at a quaint roadside dhaba near our apartment or heading out to a trendy new gastropub in a hip colony of Bangalore (notice that cooking at home isn’t even considered here!). I can almost entirely make this decision based on my current mood or craving, because I came to India with the spending power of the American dollar.


For me, getting momos (Indo-Chinese dumplings) at the stand next to where I live or going out on a date to a fancier restaurant like the photo on the right makes the same difference because of my relative wealth.

It’s true that the stipend I received from GIP goes much farther here than it would in a city like London or Tokyo. However, does that give me the right to live a relatively lavish lifestyle of Ubering to dine at a new restaurant nearly every single night? I feel like I’ve still been able to meet many incredible people from a very wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, but my social life in Bangalore has certainly been dictated by my willingness to spend more per week than a college undergrad interning domestically.

And while I’m incredibly thankful to be in this situation and have all of these different opportunities, I can’t help but wonder: do I really deserve this? Am I enjoying my time here too much? Does the work that I’m doing justify my behavior in the slightest? What do other people—my friends, coworkers, shopkeepers, etc.—think of me and my lifestyle here? When I come home… will I keep asking myself these same questions?

Nighttime scene from a busy Koramangala street, where many of Bangalore’s “yuppie” eateries and bars are located. My co-interns and I made the decision to live near here despite many people warning us about traffic we’d encounter during our commute.


Knowledge is Power

Wed, 08/08/2018 - 09:12

My co-interns and I have now completed our 10 week internships at Aravind Eye Care System, and it is time I share with you what I worked on. My project involves raising patient education and awareness. Before I delve into the details of my project, I want to point out a key difference between the US and India that makes patient empowerment particularly important in India. When you go to the doctor for a certain problem in the US, you talk with your doctor and ask questions. Most people are engaged in the doctor-patient relationship and have legitimate conversations with their doctors about the issues they are facing. Whether or not you realize it, that brief 5-minute conversation about the side effects of your medication or the possible outcomes of a condition improve your care and make you more willing to take care of yourself since you are given some responsibility over your health.

Many patients in rural India may not have the same level of understanding about their conditions or the same access to resources to learn about their ailments. Health literacy is quite low in many parts of rural India where education and general literacy rates are not high. Furthermore, patients respect doctors to the point that they hand over all responsibility of their health to the doctors. Doctors are so respected in India that we stood up every time they walked in the room (they forgave us when my co-interns and I forgot). While that extreme respect for doctors shows the prestige of medicine in India, it can actually negatively affect some patients’ health outcomes. Since most patients do not put a lot of thought into doctors’ instructions and diagnoses, the opportunity for asking questions and gaining knowledge and information is lost.

I recently had the opportunity to present at the Aravind Journal Club, a weekly meeting in which a research article is presented and discussed. I chose a study that was related to my project about the association between awareness about Diabetic Retinopathy (a condition characterized by damage to the retina due to weakened blood vessels from diabetes) and attendance at eye screening. A somewhat unexpected result of the study that I presented showed that doctor recommendations are not necessarily associated with changes in patient behavior. Rather, what was shown to be important is the patient’s own awareness of their condition; those who were more aware about Diabetic Retinopathy were more likely to attend the screenings.

Journal Club Presentation

In a setting like Aravind where the large volume of patients that each doctor sees requires them to go quickly between patients, doctor recommendations are not necessarily feasible. To address this issue, Aravind has counselors in every department so that patients can seek further advice. Despite this, a large portion of patients do not fully understand the conditions that they face or see that treatment really is essential. If you don’t understand enough about the eye or your diagnosis, you can’t engage with your doctor or counselor about your condition. Your doctor inevitably has power over you and you may not have the opportunity to ask questions to take charge of your treatment. And if you don’t have control over your treatment, you are less likely to care and take care of yourself in ways that are necessary for prevention of progression or for treating your condition.

Enter my project involving raising patient education and awareness. Aurolab, a division of Aravind that is dedicated to manufacturing, has commissioned the production of 100 videos dedicated to patient education and awareness of eye care in honor of the 100-year anniversary of Dr. V’s birth (Dr. Venkataswamy founded Aravind as an 11-bed clinic in 1970). As part of this bigger project, I produced 10 awareness videos. In addition, I am editing patient education materials for the new Aravind website, as well as producing brochures and pamphlets. This is one of the videos I made about CVI, a condition that is not very well-known even among doctors:

The videos that I have worked on involve Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI), Awareness for Preterm Screening, Squint, and Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP). I also worked with the Eye Bank team to produce videos about eye donation. Once I decided which topic to work on, I met with the relevant team in the hospital and discussed their expectations and requirements for the videos. I mainly used an animation software called Powtoon (which is extremely entertaining and fun) as well as Microsoft Powerpoint.

The work I did at Aravind was clearly outside my comfort zone since all my health-related work so far has been in research labs. Reading articles and looking into cutting-edge research is what I have previously enjoyed. This experience was an adjustment in terms of working with many experts with different specializations. Coordinating between mentors in LAICO and doctors in the hospital to get everyone on the same page without calling a meeting for every little thing was a challenge. However, these challenges helped me grow in terms of becoming better at communication and allowed me to meet so many people in the hospital. My time at Aravind conducting a project on my own about a topic that is highly relevant and meaningful has been rewarding to say the least. I’ve said this in other posts, but this experience has showed me such a different side of medicine, and I am so glad to have had it. I look forward to working hard to complete the rest of my project, and I am incredibly grateful to CASI and Aravind Eye Care System for this wonderful opportunity.

Some other updates:

  • I got to watch a few cataract surgeries and the eye donation procedure which were super cool and interesting.
  • We visited Thanjavur and Thiruparankundram. Thanjavur is famous for its architecture and there is a huge temple that is incredibly impressive. Thiruparankundram has a small cave temple that does not get much attention; we visited with a group called GreenWalkers that works to raise awareness about local monuments that are somewhat lost and forgotten. We went with a few colleagues and then the four of us climbed the whole hill all the way to the Shiva temple at the top.
  • I met one of the two families in Madurai that speak my native language (Havyaka, a dialect of Kannada) and got to visit their home for lunch. Making connections through language is really awesome! I have been slightly self-conscious about my ability to speak Havyaka because the amount I use it has steadily decreased, but I spoke solely in Havyaka with them in all our interactions so that was really exciting.
  • We went to our colleague’s house for dinner and ate some homemade food, which was a refreshing change.
  • We visited Delhi and Agra. At Delhi, we saw the India Gate, the Red Fort, and Humayan’s Tomb. In Agra, we visited the Taj Mahal and got to see a marble shop where they use the same material the Taj Mahal is made from

    At the beautiful Big Temple in Thanjavur.

    Hiking in Thiruparankundram.

    After observing cataract surgeries, one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip!

    The Taj Mahal!

    Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi


precious last moments

Wed, 08/08/2018 - 06:36

Driving away from Coorg and this is one of those sweet flash in the pan moments that I want to hold onto forever… “Sweet Disposition” by The Temper Trap pumping from the sedan stereo, driving through winding roads on mountain faces surrounded by the lushest, purest, untouched-by-man greenery and tall thin trees with their wispy dropping leaves and the cool grey sunlight shining from the luminescent sky. And realizing that you may never be back, and even if you do come back, it will probably be years later with different people, purpose, and place. Never again with the generous, warm-hearted co-workers who you will never get to know enough of, or the 3 co-interns who have become your siblings.

It is only in this otherworldly place that otherworldly visions and ambitions can be prophesied and unleashed into the cool, crisp air and find their landing on fascinated ears. Where promises of international recognition, fundamental shifts in business, and explosive growth are not just promises – but realities – all set to the tone of dope beats. 

The Qutb Shahi tombs in Hyderabad

Leaving Coorg is like a precursor to leaving India. This country which saturates the senses with its cacophony of honking horns and weaving scooties and cows flicking their tails on the roads; and women in vibrant saris wading in beaches; and movie poster-esque political campaigns; and fruit sellers hawking their exotic wares. This country steeped in millenniums of history and tragedy and triumph which has maintained its stunning diversity of dress, music, religion, food, film, and more. This country which has captured the iconic landscapes of everywhere from the lush greenery of New Zealand to the mountains of Austria to the deserts of the Sahara, and everything else in between. As someone once said, there is nothing you cannot find in India, and the things you find in India, you cannot find anywhere else.

All the things I will miss

10 weeks, 70 days, 1680 hours, 6 048 000 seconds. 
number of cities visited: 9
number of times i’ve exclaimed at seeing cows on the road: 70
number of hours spent sitting in stationary traffic: 300
number of dosas eaten: 
15.5 and not enough
number of times we’ve broken out in song to kanye’s “mercy”: twice as many as our co-workers or neighbors would appreciate
number of trips to the frro (foreigner regional registration’s office): 2 too many
things I will miss about India: chai breaks, the entire shahi and GBL team, $3 shawls and meals, $1 uber rides, fresh coconuts and fruit juice stands and dosa and biriyani, the iconic head bobble, ola play, the overwhelmingly long restaurant menus, cows on the road, tourists taking photos of Piotr everywhere we go, the generosity of its people, Angela’s extraversion, Piotr’s funkiness, Siddharth’s cynicism, the loose sense of time, the chalta hai and jugaad
things I shouldn’t miss about India but will miss everyday anyway: the cracked pavements, 1.5 hour long bumper-to-bumper traffic commutes to work, walking across 6-lane highways, the sweet smell of the sewage canal by our apartment, communication barriers, the loose sense of time, the chalta hai and jugaad

I take from it a humbled heart, new acknowledgements of the inadequacy of my understandings and considerations, the hypocrisy of my critiques, and most of all – the knowledge that I know nothing and the hunger to know everything. I don’t want to forget the selfless kindness of people here, the incredible nuance in every aspect of life, most of all – it’s beautiful, terrifying, frustratingly awe-some complexity.

Little Memories

Sun, 08/05/2018 - 14:59

Sitting in the Chennai airport, I’ve been trying to gather my many thoughts about the past 10 weeks. Although I will try to write something more overarching about my experience on my next post, I realized many of the things that touched me the most are not grand or picturesque, but instead small things we have seen or people we have met. As cheesy as it may be, I want to share a list of these little moments:


At the eye camp

I really enjoyed spending the day with the MLOPs. They laughed at dilating my apparently large pupils with a flashlight and watching them move back and forth, giggled as I struggled to eat with my hands, and shared pictures of their houses and families over Facebook on the bus ride back. My most poignant memory of the camp was when Roshni and I happened to see a woman put on her spectacles (their term for glasses) for the first time. She was over the moon and kept laughing happily with her friend.


The long car rides

For many of our Sunday trips, we spent lots of time in a car traveling from place to place. Even though these rides were supposedly the means to the destination, I found myself looking forward to the time spent in the car, looking out the window, talking occasionally but mostly sitting in our own thoughts.



We were lucky enough to get to travel to some incredible places in South India. Hills and hills of tea plantations, hikes around Madurai, watching the clouds come closer through the mountains of Munnar, and so many other moments made me want to sit for hours just to take it all in.



From the excessive dubstep at a dance floor in Pondicherry, to the prevalence of Facebook, to the love of selfies, it was fun coming here and seeing how the prevalence of these cultural items is similar to, but slightly different from, what I knew in the US.


Paints and portraits

I’m afraid that Philly will seem like a sea of grey and beige after spending so much time here. Every rickshaw has different décor, the trucks are painted with care, the boats are beautiful, and many signs are painted in yellow blue and red. The streets are lined with posters of people, murals, and signs.



Although it sometimes betrayed me with stomach cramps, I will miss eating lots of mangoes and kiwis every week, the paperboat and dosas, the butter masala, the interesting but very delicious pizza served at inspiration, the lime sodas, the lassis, the chocolates, and above all, chai.


Dance class

Three times a week, we all went to a dance class a few blocks away from our hostel. At the beginning of each class, we loved watching the adorable little kids class bop along to songs like Chihuahua. The other people in the class were very fun and welcoming, and the environment was (thankfully), not judgmental at all. I will never forget master Gopi, with his intense “more attitude” demonstrations, his instructions to go “maximum range,” his sweet salsa moves to Ed Sheeran, and many more little quirks.


Roshni, Oliver, and Liz

There are so many reasons I will remember these wonderful people, and so many reasons I am thankful to have spent this time with them. But this is a post about the little things… so I will miss the intense fits of giggles over nothing when we got too tired and had spent too much time together.  I will miss the dance, dominoes, and Harry Potter nights. I will miss playing cards and getting too intense over Egyption rat screw. I will miss the world-cup watch parties, salsa, vine references, late night conversations, and getting to know three wonderful people so well.



The part of leaving that tore me up the most was saying goodbye to the people at Aravind with whom we have spent so much time. If I could change one thing about my time here, it would just be to have gotten closer to them sooner. These are a few of my favorite things:

Coming over to Devendra’s house for chai and food, and playing Carrom terribly

Going on spontaneous coffee breaks with Deepa in the middle of meetings

Talking with Siva about current issues in America and in India

Going on a hike the first week and being a part of the Wanderers group chat

Getting advice from Mutu, who ran the lunches at Inspiration house

Talking to all the characters who stayed at Inspiration about their lives back home

Witnessing the kindness and humility of the upper management at Aravind

Eating lots of little treats from the Aurosiksha crew

Seeing the Aurosiksha department make each other gifts and scavenger hunts

When Pradeep brought chocolates over “just to spread the love”


And so much more…

The sound of Tamil and people’s reactions when I tried (and failed) at speaking it

The head bobble that can mean so many different things

Being thoroughly confused by Kabbadi

The commentary at a martial arts presentation in Munnar

Teaching gymnastics to a bunch of kids while waiting for a bus

Getting to know our driver Keshevan, and all his playlists

Seeing wild elephants from the side of the road

Being expected to stand up for myself

The stillness of the Ashram at Pondicherry

Getting time to slow down and think


Of course, I won’t forget seeing the Taj Mahal or any of the other spectacular things we saw here. But the little things made my experience much more special.

Creating something new

Sun, 08/05/2018 - 14:06

So much has happened over the past ten weeks, from enjoying the Pondicherry beaches, to goofing off in dance class, to playing carom with co-workers, to seeing the Taj Mahal. However, the true reason I came to Madurai was for the privilege of working for Aravind Eye Care Systems. My co-interns have already written about the incredible work done by the people at Aravind. I’ve loved seeing the way this organization works, with all its ups and downs. To be entirely frank, I came into this internship unsure of how much I could actually give back. Aravind is such an impressive organization, unlike any other. However, I was excited, flattered, and motivated by the amount of agency the people there gave us. We took part in structuring our own projects, and these ideas were respected and considered by management. Aravind stays true to its values, including a philosophy of constant innovation. I was somewhat taken aback at first by how open people were to change if you could prove it would significantly help.

For my project, I re-structured an employee training course and moved it online. Aravind must train all its employees on quality and safety standards for the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals and Healthcare Providers (NABH). Throughout their employment, employees are re-trained every few years. Right now, HR runs six sessions over the course of several months to teach this material. Attendance and assessments are taken by hand then processed by HR to show NABH auditors that training occurs. Since there are over five thousand employees, manually checking for signatures is logistically difficult, as is training and retraining employees every year with material that is, frankly, somewhat dry. That’s where my project comes in.

To create the content to put on the site, I sorted through the variety of materials currently used and re-structured the organization of the course to better target the interests and needs of doctors. I also organized that content into a database. Then, I took this content and created animated videos, films, and text files accessible year-round by the doctors. For each section I also created a pre and post assessment. HR has gradebook and course completion dashboards where they can view staff results in groups filtered by hospital and department. 52 weeks after completing the course, the system sends an automatic email reminding employees to be recertified. Sadly, I did not finish all the content materials before leaving, so I trained some residents to use the software and upload the rest of the content.

We hope to have the full self-learning course with all the content up by September 30th. Until then employees will be taking the online assessments after in-person training sessions. Eventually, the administration wants to expand this training course to over 5,000 of Aravind’s employees, as well as to open the course to other interested hospitals. I really respect Aravind’s policy of sharing their knowledge and materials to focus on stopping needless blindness, instead of on having a competitive advantage. They have already received requests for this type of system from other hospitals, and I am excited to see its progress in the future.

I am very happy with this project. Coming into this summer, I was expecting to learn more than I gave back. I still feel this way, but I now feel as though I made more of a tangible impact than I expected. Admittedly, I do not think I want to continue to pursue making learning management systems or working with the same material. However, I’ve really enjoyed the feeling of creating something from scratch with a visible product at the end. I’ve also really enjoyed being in charge of my own work. Since there are so many complementary parts of this project, I did not have a head person working on the same project as me, I instead coordinated between all the different stakeholders. Although it was sometimes frustrating not having one single point person, I learned a lot from handling these differences on my own, and getting to see people in many parts of the hospital.

This project was an excellent mix between what I already know and what I want to know. Most of my work so far has been in coaching and tutoring, so I have a generally good understanding of which educational organizational strategies that work better than others. I also really enjoy behavioral science, so it has been interesting thinking about how to make the information as engaging and effective as possible. However, I also really enjoy learning about the technical side of creating platforms like this one. Although I did not get to code this summer, I now know I can teach myself how to use confusing programs and figure it out eventually.

Overall, I feel like I contributed while also learning a lot, from both my project and from trips to places like eye camps, vision centers, and the operation theater. I’ve left this summer feeling capable of creating something and motivated to keep pursuing the more technical side of future projects.


The course completion page HR can use to keep track of students.


The primary vision center we visited. Each of these centers has their own spectacle shop, as well as a telecommunication system that connects patients with doctors in the tertiary hospitals.


Cards used at the eye camp

Being Colombian in India

Sun, 08/05/2018 - 06:42

“Pongase las pilas.” If directly translated from Spanish to English, this phrase means “put on your batteries.” When placed into context (and appropriately translated by a Colombian), it becomes an idiomatic phrase which means “get your act together.” Growing up, I was often commanded by my parents to “put on my batteries” as they consistently reprimanded me for being “dormida” (relaxed or slow-moving) or demanded that I become more “avispada” (sharp or keen). At a young age I was trained to move quick, remain ambitious and always be clever. As an American-born Colombian, the training was essential to my growth and progress.


But, why am I talking about Colombian cultural terms and beliefs on a blog post thread meant for discussions about student intern experiences in India?


Allow me to explain. I offer these pieces of my culture to preface my retelling of some of the experiences I’ve had during my time in India. I specifically discuss those which have lead me to develop a better understanding of my identity as a first-generation, Colombian-American. You see, when beginning my internship, I didn’t realize how much I would feel disconnected from my Latinidad in a foreign environment and how much that would affect me. Being consistently reminded as a child to be “avispada” meant learning to always defend my culture and proudly uphold my traditional beliefs, especially when I was the minority. Thus, I grew accustomed to sprinkling my English with Spanish words in public and being unapologetically straightforward about my upbringing as the daughter of immigrants. As you can imagine, I was frustrated when I found myself editing my phrases, changing my vocabulary and limiting how often my accent came out during my time in India. I realized I was filtering myself for the benefit of those around me, something I had taught myself to never do.


Throughout the 10 weeks of my internship, there were several instances in which I felt homesick, many of those stemmed from my feeling like I was out of touch with my culture and my mannerisms. I spent a large chunk of my free time (when I wasn’t traveling or working in the office) trying to understand what it was that lead me to feel so disconnected from that (besides the obvious physical separation). I had to ponder about the interactions I had in general, but more specicially with my co-interns. We are a very diverse group, all from very different socioeconomic, cultural, academic and religious backgrounds. As you can imagine, this allowed us to learn so much from each other about different perspectives, opinions and biases regarding some very controversial topics. Before you read on, I have to emphasize how grateful I am to have spent my summer with these three other individuals. They were some of the most supportive, loving, kind and intelligent individuals I have ever known and they made this experience even more incredible than it already was. However, to continue my previous thought, there was something about our diversity that influenced my identity crisis (to be dramatic). There were some instances in which, mid-conversation, I felt there was a barrier that kept me from expressing my unfiltered thoughts. You see, I was different than them. I hadn’t traveled to various countries for vacation, I hadn’t seen a world wonder (until this trip), my parents weren’t doctors or business people, and I didn’t know about many common pop or history facts. My whole life, my Colombian identity has dominated over my American identity so I was detached from the mainstream culture and oblivious to many common references. My lifestyle was shaped by the histories and experiences of my immigrant family which meant that I lead a life very different from your average American girl. I was used to being around people who easily understood that fact, and here I was surrounded by people who could never, and not by their own fault, begin to comprehend that kind of reality.

Now it was not just my interactions with my co-interns that were leading me to feel so….”un-Latina”, for lack of a better term. I realized this later when I had an interesting conversation with one of our neighbors at Inspiration, the trainees hostel we were staying at in Madurai. After lunch one day one young lady asked me, “are you Indian?” As I had anticipated, I was asked this question multiple times throughout my stay in India. My physical appearance has always prompted people to try and guess my ethnicity. I wasn’t easily identifiable as a Latina, instead, many asked if I was Indian or in some cases Egyptian. I never saw the question as inconvenient or provoking, but in this instance, when I asserted that I was not Indian, the woman persisted with “then what are you?” For the first time, I found myself struggling to find the words to clearly communicate what I was. I decided to respond with “I’m Latin American, I was born in America but my parents are Colombian”. I didn’t feel satisfied with my answer, something about classifying my American identity made me uncomfortable and she exacerbated that feeling when she concluded the conversation by saying “then you’re American” and walked away.


With just one sentence, this woman had erased an entire part of my identity for the purposes of clarification. Then it all made sense. During my entire trip, I was only ever given two options to identify myself; I was either possibly Indian or American, there was no in between. The part of me that was unapologetically prideful of being Colombian seemed to have no place here and I was not used to that feeling.


In America, I represent Colombian culture. My skin color, my limited vocabulary, my sometimes Latin accent, and my mannerisms make it obvious that I’m not white or privileged and so I fall in the Colombian, minority category. In India, I represented American culture. My quick English, my embarrassing accent when trying to speak Tamil, my wardrobe, my inability to handle spice among many other things made it clear that I come from the U.S. and so I am categorized as just American. That seems uncomplicated, but the issue is that for me it was a strange, out-of-body experience. In the U.S., I’m not “American enough”, I’m obviously a minority, but here I am in India, playing the role of the “American girl doctor volunteer”.


Being American in public and at work was fine, I could get used to that. Being American with my co-interns was different, it made me feel like a fraud. That identity comes with intrinsic pieces of knowledge and worldly experience that I don’t have because I wasn’t raised as a Colombian, so I had to shift when I went from being in public to being in private with my co-interns, but that wasn’t easy to do. I myself got caught up in the role of the “American girl” in public that when we were in private, I forgot to remind myself that there were some conversations I couldn’t contribute to, some experiences I couldn’t relate to, some things I just wouldn’t get.


After realizing why it was that I felt disconnected from my Latinidad, I “put on my batteries” and I readjusted the way I was expressing myself. I stopped being afraid to admit when I had no knowledge of certain topics we discussed as a group. I stopped filtering my vocabulary and allowing Spanish words to slip into my sentences. In some instance, I even taught my co-interns some common idiomatic phrases like “no dar papaya”. When we practiced salsa at dance class (we went to a dance class three times a week after work!) I identified the songs that were classics and pointed out the ones that were not salsa at all. They were all so welcoming of my unbounded excitement every time we started a new salsa class. Ultimately, I stopped filtering myself and reminded myself to be the same straightforward, proud Colombian I have always been.

Us at dance class!

As our 10-weeks in India come to a close, I have been reflecting on the experiences I had. Having a better understanding of myself and my identity as a Colombian-American is one of the many lessons I take home with me. I am grateful to my co-interns for the support they offered me throughout the entire time and for allowing me the time and space to discuss these issues and thoughts with them. Being in a foreign environment and so far away from home and familiar faces is difficult, but all of my co-interns made India feel a little more homey. Without them this experience and these lessons I learned would not be the same.


To be both American and Colombian can get complex and confusing, but I’ll continue learning to embrace both part of my identity. I’m proud to be both American and Colombian and I’m excited to soon be going home to both my Colombian home and my American friends.  

“I can’t talk right now! I’m cutting fish!”

Sat, 08/04/2018 - 14:38

I have now been in Delhi for a month and my interview project is fully underway. A significant portion of my time has been spent with my Research Assistant making “cold-calls” to people to ask them to participate in the study. As I’m sure you can imagine, cold-calls are not the most fun part of the project. However, participant recruitment is an essential, though less glamorous, part of the research process and dramatically shapes the pool of people included in your study and, as a result, your findings.

My project builds on findings from the CASI Delhi NCR survey which took place almost two years ago. The survey used the electoral rolls (lists of all registered voters and their addresses) as a random sample. The survey data yielded interesting findings about how marriage is changing but left me with as many questions as it gave answers. I decided that in-depth interviews with some of the families which participated in the survey would enrich the quantitative results and allow me to dig deeper into how marriage decisions are negotiated in the family.

The survey respondents gave CASI their phone number at the time of the survey and agreed to be contacted for follow-up study. I identified young unmarried respondents and we began calling.

As you can expect, people are quite skeptical of and sometimes annoyed about random phone calls. Even after explaining the research project to them, some people still didn’t understand what we want from them as many people are unfamiliar with qualitative interview research. Then there is catching people at a bad time. “I’m in the office right now.” “I’m driving.” “I’m in the village.” And our favorite- “I can’t talk right now! I’m cutting fish!”

We found that our approach of calling young unmarried respondents did not yield great results. Often the phone numbers listed were of the parents and they were usually hesitant to hand the phone to their son or daughter. We found people to be especially guarded with their daughters. When we did speak to young women, they often told us that they would need to ask their father’s permission before agreeing to participate. Young women were around 3 TIMES more likely to refuse participation than young men. Given concerns about safety in the city, it is not surprising that so few women agreed to meet us.

So, we tried another strategy. Since parents, and especially fathers, were the gatekeepers then maybe we should contact those people directly. I drew up another list of potential respondents, this time of middle-aged men and women with unmarried adult children living at home. Once we started calling parents, we started scheduling more interviews. Fewer people hung up on us. Also, older respondents tended to be more honest from the first phone call, telling us flatly that they didn’t want to or have time to participate. Younger respondents tended to not give a straight answer, leading us to waste time on follow-up calls which led nowhere.

A lot of people asked me why I was going through so much trouble. They suggested young unmarried people that they knew for me to interview. Couldn’t I just recruit at one of the local universities? Each sampling strategy has pros and cons. Your research questions should guide how you select people to include in your study. One possible drawback to using your social network to recruit interview respondents is that the people we know are more likely to be similar to us and each other. Recruiting respondents from one place, such as a workplace or a university would also only reflect certain types of young Delhiites. But because my interview project is supposed to complement the quantitative findings, I elected to go with a random sampling strategy so that I could recruit a broader sample of people. Drawing from the survey respondents has another advantage- I have a lot more data about each household.

I feel that the hard work of cold-calling has paid off. So far, my Research Assistant and I have completed almost a dozen interviews which highlight the diversity of the city. Our interviews have taken place in all different regions of Delhi, from centrally-located areas to new settlements on the fringe of the city. We have done interviews in fancy malls and homes in congested low-income neighborhoods. This sampling strategy allows us to reach people that may be difficult to find but, nonetheless, remain a significant chunk of Delhi’s millennials like the self-employed, the unemployed, and people preparing for job placement exams.

The best part of the project is the interesting people we meet who have kindly donated their time to talk to us. “Cold-calling” may be frustrating and tedious work but it has helped my Research Assistant and I find people who we otherwise would have never met. Their stories have enriched our understanding of family and marriage in the city.

On Work as Family

Fri, 08/03/2018 - 07:50

It’s 9.30am on a Friday morning and the rush-hour traffic is moving relentlessly in all directions. From afar, a smiling face enclosed inside a green motorcycle helmet drew closer as it stopped outside the local hospital in south Bengaluru. In response to my request for a conversation, Surya* a now-retired engineer and ex-employee had suggested I also meet with his ex-colleagues. They have worked as geologists, engineers, and technical experts, at the public sector iron-ore company established in Kudremukh in 1976. While they’ve currently retired from active work life, some have spent close to three decades working for the company. Surya and I are soon on our way to the company colony that was built to house the employees, which today houses even non-company affiliated residents.

During our conversations, Surya reveals his son works as an engineer at a multinational firm. While the job is well-paying, Surya opines that it lacks the “connection” that he and his colleagues associated with their public sector employer, which was “just like family”. This phrase comes up again when I meet Surya’s ex-colleagues who, like many others in the 1960s and 1970s, contributed first-hand in shaping postcolonial India’s nascent mines and minerals industry in Karnataka, and elsewhere. As the anthropologist Jonathon Parry (2003) has pointed out, under the first Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision, heavy manufacturing projects were integral in propelling the newly-Independent India towards “modernity” by strengthening its domestic industries. These industrial projects were also envisioned as spaces that would build “national integration”, as they would employ workers from different geographical corners and linguistic backgrounds to work together towards the nation’s progress.

How does a company become “like a family”?

On one hand, both the family and company units are similar in that they tend to be hierarchical. For instance, in the former, individuals have precise (e.g. breadwinner) and diffuse roles (e.g. care-taker), while roles are necessarily precise and organized in the latter. Yet, in a company, people are necessarily paid for their labor-time through salaries, promotions, incentives, and so on — while individuals are rarely, if ever, paid a salary for the labor of belonging to the family unit. For instance, work by women in sustaining family life through cooking for the house-hold, child-rearing, or decision-taking is not typically compensated. Yet, in characterizing the company as family, Surya and his friends emphasize the affective bonds among themselves as if they were kin.

Recounting their work-life, the ex-colleagues cast themselves almost as a pioneer collective: whether it was huddling under tents during the heavy coastal downpours; or the struggles involved in early iron-ore extraction feasibility tests; working multiple shifts; or even taking on work outside of their official job descriptions in order to “get the job done”. It seems to me that their experiences of daily work performed in Kudremukh’s remote, hilly and challenging landscape, may be one reason why this “like family” solidarity is emphasized. Work and livelihood then, becomes much more than the act of labor that one is paid to do, it is also how employees and workers make claims to identity and belonging.

*Names are anonymized to protect the privacy of my informants.

“Why are you here?”

Tue, 07/31/2018 - 23:53


Water, sanitation and hygiene issues are particularly important to girls as they often must stay home from school during their menstrual period and are expose to violence if they practice open defecation. Women are vulnerable to harassment or assault when they travel long distances to fetch water, use shared toilets, or have to defecate in the open. Women and girls often wait until nightfall, which increases the risk of assault. The availability of water and sanitation facilities increases privacy and reduces risk of sexual harassment/assault while gathering water. Women play a key role in sustainable solutions to water and sanitation problems locally and globally. Therefore, WASH projects with positive financial benefits for women will contribute to community development. Women’s full participation in water and sanitation projects is strongly correlated with increased effectiveness and sustainability of these projects. I have  the privilege of working with Nishtha, an local rights-based non-governmental organization, that empowers women to take part in water and sanitation advocacy and human rights training.  As a strong community-based organization or water management and gender equality, Nishtha can improve social capital of women by giving them leadership and networking opportunities and building solidarity. Over 75% of their staff are women and from the remote rural villages. I have also worked with Sabuj Sangha, non-profit non-government development organization dedicated itself improving the lives of less fortunate people in West Bengal through participation and empowerment. Both organizations have nee working towards the advancement and empowerment of women especially in the WASH area.

While meeting with school administrators in a rural school in West Bengal to build better sustainable hand washing facilities and sanitation facilities and proper water supply , one of the administrators asked me “what is your qualification”. He was trying to understand his other question, “Why are you here?”. I said that my family is from an impoverished village like this in Nigeria. The community faces the same school WASH issues. This is my third time working with local NGOs and communities in India. I have two master’s degree in public health and environmental studies. I’m starting an applied PhD in Demography next month. I’m not an expert in global WASH issues but have been learning and growing. I’m a student who cares about people from different backgrounds. I never name drop where I went to school. I never want to be the person who’s only justification to be somewhere is based on where they went to school and not by their own merits.

He questioned why this Black woman traveled all this way to sit in a room filled with Indian men to talk about addressing waterborne disease in their school. This is why I’m getting a PhD. I never asked anyone about their qualifications to be in a certain space. but I appreciate his curiosity and candor. Women especially women of color need to be in included on matters that affect our communities that we live, work and serve.

School WASH

Tue, 07/31/2018 - 22:56


This week, I have been working with a local NGO, Sabuj Sangha, one their school WASH intervention. The area that Sabuj Sangha serves are remote village in thee South 24 Parganas District of West Bengal. South 24 Parganas is the largest district of West Bengal and second largest by population. It is also the sixth most populous district in India. The area is rural and the main source of income is agriculture.

We visited two government schools that are in dire need of proper water, station and hygiene (WASH) facilities and education. Over ten years ago, the government helped build the minimal infrastructure of the school pit latrines but not with the maintenance of the sanitation facilities. Due to lack of money, proper management and maintenance system, the condition of the facilities gradually deteriorated. The students and the teachers use the same facilities and have been suffering due to lack of adequate  and proper facilities. The schools don’t have any running water to supply the pit latrine. The schools ground water pumps are broken. Students and teachers use the pond water (inside the school area) for the use of toilets, cleaning, and bathing. Sometimes the boys defecate and urinate in the pond. The school also does not have hand washing station. This is a huge problem during lunch time because students either do not wash their hands or use pond water to wash their hands before and after eating. Water from the pond is unsafe and breeding ground for waterborne parasites and diseases.

Children reading in schools don’t have adequate sanitation and hand washing facilities, hygiene education and suffer from waterborne diseases. Female students face greater problems for lack of proper water supply facility. Girls miss about a week of school during their monthly menstrual cycle. The school doesn’t have money to purchase menstrual pads.

The schools will be working with Sabuj Sangha on five areas of the WASH program: (1) development of infrastructure, (2) management and maintenance system, (3) school WASH committee to monitor the progress of the WASH intervention, (4) hygiene education and (5) financial sustainability though small tariff fees for students and teachers. The needs of female students will be meet through the construction of changing rooms, disposal tools, and supplies of sanitary napkins.

I have been collecting field data to create marketing, fundraising materials and grant writing support to help Sabuj Sangha, school committee and their local partners raise money to build the necessary toilets and handwashing facilities. We collected baseline data on the school’s conditions and will train school officials on how to collect data pre- and post-intervention. A key part of the intervention is the introduction of financial sustainability. After completion of construction the process of tariff collection from the students and teachers will be introduced to generate maintenance fund, which will be used for repair and maintenance in future. In addition, youths from the community will be trained by Sabuj Sangha on repair and maintenance of WASH facilities. They will be paid laborers. Community ownership is encouraged through formation of school WASH Committees with multi-stakeholder representatives to monitor and manage the repair and maintenance of water and sanitation facilities using funds generated by the students, teachers and administrators.


A definitive ranking of tourist destinations

Tue, 07/31/2018 - 09:21

One of Judy’s and my goals for this summer was to travel. We wanted to see as much as we could of this country in the 10 weeks that we had here. We started off with a detailed spreadsheet of research and some words of advice from previous CASI interns about where to do and what to go. Filled with wanderlust, we were ready. However, once we landed in Araku, which is three hours from the nearest airport, and where Naandi’s offices had six-day work weeks, this plan was put on the back burner. We embraced the slow pace of life, the long winding roads, and the endless greenery of the Valley, but by the time we returned to Hyderabad at the end of June, we were itching to experience new and different dimensions of India. This resulted in a hectic weekly schedule of full, longer work days on our new project Monday through Friday, and then consistent sleep deprivation Friday evening through early Monday morning. In total, we saw 12 cities in India (plus a day-long layover in Dubai) by the time we returned home. Here’s my definitive ranking of them all:

  1. Pondicherry: We were so lucky to spend our last weekend in India in Pondicherry, which we both agreed was our favorite destination. We stayed right on the beach, and it was one that put other beaches to shame, because it was so clean and yet not overly crowded. Saturday, we went to Auroville, an intercultural community in the north of Pondicherry, and Sunday, we visited the French quarter. Everything was just so pleasant, quaint, and so different from other places we’d been. We felt like we got the best of a beach vacation and a historical experience and some shopping that we needed and everything in between.
  2. Alleppey: We took a day trip here on our Kerala weekend to explore the famous backwaters. We decided to do this via a day-long canoe tour, which included breakfast and lunch and a ferry ride from the city to the backwater canals. The village life around the backwaters is a unique dynamic, with people using the water for cooking, cleaning dishes, doing laundry, bathing, and fishing, and each area was vibrant with color. Lounging on a small boat in the middle of a huge body of water was a memorable moment of blissful relaxation.
  3. Kochi: On our weekend in Kerala, we stayed in the Fort Kochi area, and spent one day in Kochi and the next in Alleppey. Fort Kochi was a quaint and quiet city. The shops were all closed and the streets were all dark and empty by 8 PM at the latest, but it still felt incredibly safe. Everything was within walking distance, and everything was right near the water, so it provided some respite from our weekdays in the city.
  4. Araku: After a month here, it started to get a little repetitive, I will say, but I never fully got tired of life in Araku, and I can’t wait to return. It was incredibly peaceful, and I’ve never seen a place quite so untouched by civilization. The mountain drives were some of the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced, and the people were kind and interested in talking to us.
  5. Ajmer/Pushkar: As you’ve previously read, we got pretty lucky with a friendly and helpful auto driver taking us around the Pushkar area from Ajmer, and we got to see a lot in a short span of time. While Jaipur was a tourist-filled area, in Ajmer and Pushkar, we got to see the desert side of Rajasthan that it is known for. The Ajmer Dargah was also a highlight–it was almost like a small market inside the dargah and so packed with people that it was a beautiful sight to see.
  6. Mumbai: We’d heard a lot about how great of a city Mumbai was, so we squeezed in a one-day trip right at the end of our internship, the day after our last day of work. We only spent time in South Mumbai so that we could move around on our feet instead of wasting time driving around, but there was luckily a lot to see in a small area, from Haji Ali Dargah to the Gateway to India to Dhobi Ghat to Marine Drive. Haji Ali Dargah was a highlight for me, especially the walk to the mosque on a rock bridge through the water.
  7. Jaipur: There was a lot to see in Jaipur and it was beautiful–truly a Pink City. The Amer Fort was a highlight. However, half of the day was spent in a bazaar area that was crowded, hot, and full of people trying to rip us off, but I did come out of it with a few little trinkets and a new pair of shoes
  8. Hyderabad: I got to see a new side of Hyderabad on this trip, one that I don’t usually see when I stay with family at my grandparents’ house on our regular trips to India. I’ve seen the historical and cultural monuments, so I was eager to explore the newer, younger side of town. There was a lot to see and a lot of places to eat, but not quite as much as in a bigger city like Mumbai or Delhi.
  9. Mysore: Downside: The one thing everyone told us was a must-see, the Mysore Palace light show, was canceled due to a forecast of rain that never came. Upside: I had the best dosa of my life here and I will never forget it.
  10. Bangalore: Bangalore was a cool city to walk around, but there wasn’t that much to see in the way of tourist destinations in the city itself. We did get a little bit of shopping done, though, and Judy and I got our ears pierced, which is a nice little memento of our trip.
  11. Goa: We were excited to be at the beach, but Goa’s beaches were way too filled with trash and too much of a tourist destination for us to relax by the water as we had envisioned. It was also a hard place to tour on a budget because of the lack of Ola/Uber/reasonably priced transportation, so we spent most of the weekend relaxing. and not doing much.
  12. Delhi: I have never experienced this much pollution in my life, and it was rough. I’ll also concede that this was the first place that I landed in India so the intense jetlag probably colored my time here negatively.


Click to view slideshow.

A slideshow of moments from the above destinations in ranked order

Learning about Indian Feminism

Sun, 07/29/2018 - 16:01

My first inkling that feminism in India meant a very different thing to what I had been exposed to in the West, came from the counseling sessions that were arranged by CASI before our trip to India. There, our director Aparna stated that she herself had had to adjust her version of feminism when visiting India.

And in my limited time and experience here, it has indeed seemed vastly different. Trying to understand what feminism means entails wading through centuries of social conditioning by rulers, seminal texts, and customs — as well as the other cultural aspects which tie into the issue.

My project at Shahi has thrown me directly into this issue. In a country where the garment sector provides one of the few sources of acceptable formal employment for women, Shahi is one of India’s largest employers of female workers. This is especially key given India’s low and declining female labor force participation rate. The garment industry has the potential to be a bastion for female empowerment – but currently, although 80% of the workers in the industry are women, only 20% of them are supervisors. And this is just looking at the supervisor level – the level immediately above the worker level. When it comes to higher management, women are even less present. My goals of these project have therefore been to:

  1. Prove a business case for why Shahi should have more female supervisors
  2. Find out why there are so few female supervisors
  3. Find out how Shahi can get more female supervivors

With women who have undergone PACE, an empowering soft skills training program

To do this, I’ve interviewed female tailors and supervisors, male supervisors and senior management, and talked extensively with our boss Chitra who feels passionately about the issue. And throughout these interviews, it was definitely a struggle for me to refrain from imposing my own Western frameworks of feminism upon the stories that were told to me, and recognize that these frameworks were narrowing my vision, instead of focusing my interpretation.

Western women face glass ceilings and find it hard to climb when “merit” and “leadership” are defined by masculine characteristics. There was also a strong perception that Indian female supervisors were less productive than males, despite them having an equal ability to perform. It would be easy for me to characterize these experiences as being painted by the same brush, but that would also be me erasing the complex nuances behind the attitudes and their causes.

Similarly in the family sphere, Western women face issues related to maternity leave and attaining the mythical “how can you have it all” work life balance. Well, all women have wombs, and Indian women too are stopped from rising because of pregnancy and family issues. Except here, the problems and solutions are different when women in India do 90% of all household work (the highest proportion of all large countries) and social attitudes much accepting of having women in the workplace.

There are a also myriad of challenges faced by Indian women which cannot be encapsulated by comparison to Western feminism, or at least – exist to such an extent that the two can hardly be compared. The safety considerations that are attached to women working late, the social attitudes which keep even educated Indian women at home, the inability for pro-female policies to reach the majority of women who work in the informal market, the intersectionality that comes with caste, femicide and dowry payments, the remnants of colonialism, dress codes, and too many other issues which I have barely scratched the surface of understanding. And Indian feminism itself is such a diverse umbrella, as it must be when the nation is comprised of such a wide range of religions, customs, ethnic beliefs and socioeconomic status.

Angela and I with migrant workers at their hostel

I still have so much more to unpack about the causes and manifestations of these attitudes in India. But something else which is common between Indian and Western feminism, is the strong role models who manage to rise up despite the barriers. From the migrant female supervisor who overcomes language and gender barriers to supervise even male workers, to the female who has risen in a male dominated department to manage the entire thing — there will always be women who overcome challenges and prove their mettle.


Agra Experience

Thu, 07/26/2018 - 07:32

Last weekend I went to Agra. Agra’s energy was extremely similar to Delhi, in my opinion. I was immediately approached by rickshaw drivers once I got off the train. By “approached” I mean something more like harassed. As someone who clearly looks like a tourist, I have gotten used to being approached by locals trying to sell me things at an exorbitantly higher price than what locals are paying for the same product. This experience was heightened in Agra though. One man who was trying to get me to hire his rickshaw proceeded to get into my Ola cab with me after I politely rejected his offer. He told the Ola driver that I needed a tour guide and that he had been hired by me. My Ola driver looked at me with a confused expression and then promptly shooed the man away. To say that this experience was bizarre would be an understatement.

Instances similar to this continued to occur as I went sightseeing in Agra. Countless rickshaw drivers and local merchants would follow me for multiple meters trying to get me to buy their products. This has happened in other cities as well, but it was so much worse in Agra. My main mission while I was there was to get from place to place as quickly as possible so could enjoy whatever I was going to see without being bothered.

The most significant example of this haggling was at the Taj Mahal. Foreigners are offered a tour guide as a part of the deal for having to pay INR 1000 to get into the Taj complex. My tour guide was very informative, but once I told him that I was not interested in ending my tour in the gift shop because I was starting to feel a little sick, he yelled at me for being cheap and not supporting the Taj. I was a little startled and decided to just walk away even though he followed me for a bit attempting to apologize. I understand why he was frustrated, but it did not help improve my Agra experience.

My experience in Agra reminded me a lot of my first couple of weeks in Delhi. I didn’t understand how to navigate the city, so I often looked lost and confused. This made me an easy target for merchants who wanted to make east money off of an unaware tourist. As time went on, I was able to see the appeal of Delhi and be more confident in my surroundings.  Being in Agra made me feel like a newbie again. I bet the city is much more charming once you are able to slow it down and really see all of the great things that it has to offer.

Other than being haggled, experiencing the Taj Mahal in person is incredible. I have never seen anything with as much detail as the Taj. It left me in awe. I completely understand what the hype is about now. Everything about the Taj is so detailed and the story behind it is totally captivating.(Me having my Princess Di moment)

On another note, it’s starting to feel very real that my time in India is almost over. I’m not sure if I am excited to go home, or starting to feel desperate to cram in as much as possible before I leave. I have about one week left, so hopefully I’ll be able to see a few more monuments in Delhi and grab some last minute souvenirs. I’m looking forward to being able to reflect on this experience.



Emotions from the End

Wed, 07/25/2018 - 09:20

I’m sitting here, at my desk at PHFI, on my last day of the internship. In an hour or so, I’ll have to clean up my desk, pack away my things for good (not that I have that much stuff. It’s mostly just a few papers, but it still feels weird), and give a final goodbye to the office and the people I’ve met here.

Me finishing up some work on our last day!

It truly has been an amazing ten weeks here in India, and I have to say I’m quite sad that I have to leave the country tomorrow. Hareena and I had the privilege of experiencing a lifestyle here that we would’ve never had otherwise. Apart from the fact that we’re in India and experiencing a whole new environment, it was also pretty interesting to work in an office setting– the opportunity doesn’t come up often for someone interested in becoming a doctor.

Some of the highlights of the internship were going to meetings and field visits. It was so cool to see the desk research we contributed to translate into actual programs and interventions being discussed with high-level experts and professionals. The discussions we witnessed provided great insight about how work in the public health sector really has to be culturally feasible in order to work in India, which isn’t so easy in such a diverse country. We also had the chance to visit some schools to see the implementation of PHFI’s school health activities, and it was an interesting experience to find the parallels between schoolchildren in India and in the US.

While I’ve always been into public health, my interest had mainly been in the communicable disease aspect before this internship. However, at PHFI, Hareena and I worked in a department that was basically all about non-communicable diseases (NCDs), so it was kind of the exact opposite to what I was most familiar with. At first I was a bit disappointed with my assignment, but now I’m really glad I got the chance to delve into something completely new! After working in PHFI, I feel that I’ve become quite knowledgeable about the NCD situation in India, and with all the research I’ve done and all the papers I’ve written on the topic, it’s a great feeling to have some degree of expertise on a topic.

PHFI was an amazing chapter in my life, and I can’t wait to start the next!



The Dosa Diaries

Tue, 07/24/2018 - 14:29

dosa /ˈdəʊsə/ (noun): a pancake made from rice flour and ground pulses, typically served with a spiced vegetable filling (source: Oxford dictionaries)… and utterly delicious (source: me)

When I told my Indian friends that I was going to be in Bangalore, they immediately instructed me to get dosas. Dosas are a south Indian classic and are centuries old – indeed, a recipe for dosas appeared in a 12th-century Sanskrit encyclopedia. So of course, I was super excited to try some modern versions of this flagship dish.

And after visiting 5 cities in south India, stuffing myself with around 15 dosas, and probably gaining freshman 15 all over again in the process, here are a list of the dosas I’ve eaten in south India (so far… I’m still on the hunt!).

Hotel Mylari – Mysore

This was my first bite of dosa, and it was life changing. We (Angela, Judy, Veena and I) were ravenous and dehydrated after trekking across Mysore, and Hotel Mylari was our dosa oasis. Crispy on the outside, oh-so-fluffy on the inside, and accompanied with a side of freshly made coconut chutney (so freshly made that you could see the workers in the back room shelling it themselves). For only 40 INR a pop (roughly 60 cents), we easily scoffed down 3 each.

Rating: 10/10

Hotel Vinayaka Mylari – Mysore

Commonly touted as one of the best masala dosas in the world. The dosa (and the restaurant) may look exactly the same as Hotel Mylari (the two restaurants are right down the street from each other, and, fun fact! are also run by two brothers who split up), but it was a lot crispier/oilier and less fluffy (think: more French crepe-like, rather than American buttermilk pancake-like). It was also a lot more strongly flavored with masala.

Rating: 9/10

Shahi Exports – Bangalore

Contrary to most places which feed masses of people, I’m actually a huge fan of the Shahi staff canteen. Its food is nutritious, a lot lighter than what you’d get at restaurants, and has more of a home cooked vibe. Masala dosas are served once a month and this one had the classic Bangalore crisp, but also a touch of the Mysore fluff. While it wasn’t very spicy, the filling still had a great flavor!

Rating: 7/10

A2B – Adyar Anand Bhavan – Bangalore

This place was right next to the Foreigner’s Regional Registration Office (FRRO), a government office where we had to register our visas. I’ll save this story for another time, but let’s just say that I don’t think I’ll work as hard in my life for another document as I did for that FRRO certificate – and that includes my Penn diploma. This was a rava onion dosa – crispy around the edges, but also fluffier towards the center, with a filling of aloo (potato) and onion. A2B is also known for its sweets – I’d recommend the milk halwas.

Rating: 7.5/10

Sukh Sagar – Bangalore

Whilst I got the classic masala dosa here, my co-worker Shruti got the awesome looking cone-shaped paper masala dosa! It was crispy and reminded me a lot of the Mamak roti cones that are so famous in my hometown, Sydney.

Rating: 6/10 + 1 brownie point for the novelty

Anand Stall – Mumbai (outside Mithibai College)

Watching this delicious jini dosa being made right before our eyes was a massive treat. Stuffed with mixed vegetables, spicy sauces and grated cheese, this Mumbai street stall take on the classic dosa was crispy and packed with flavor. Also recommend: the vada pav (mashed potato with spices, deep fried and sandwiched between a bun… aka carbs on carbs… aka heaven).

Rating: 9/10

Bonus: Dosa… burger? – Pondicherry

Rating: 0/10 for being too American

A little bit about respect

Tue, 07/24/2018 - 13:39

In English, I can use the word “you” to address my mother, or my friend, or a 2-year old child, or a professor. In Telugu, and in many other languages around the world, this isn’t the case. With English as my first language, I’ve always struggled in other languages with when to use which pronoun, and with what implications it might carry. I never really understood it until I learned the same rule in a French classroom with more explicit instructions and guidelines. Here and elsewhere, the notion of respect for elders and others is built right into the language. “Nuvvu” can be used to address a friend, while “miru,” the plural form, might be used to address a grandparent or an official at work. The culture of respect is obvious in day to day speech. This means that references to social and professional hierarchies are unavoidable.

Over this trip, Judy and I have both been unwitting and often uncomfortable recipients of the “miru” address. It’s probably because we introduce ourselves as coming from America, whatever that implies to whoever we are talking to and which I won’t get into now, since our age and education level don’t merit it on their own. In Araku, we would be offered the few available chairs while the entire rest of the village sat on the mud floor and we would have to insist upon sitting with them. We would be served lunch and have to scramble to clear our own plates before the older women of the village swooped in and did it for us. What was basic hospitality to one side of the group was uncomfortable and awkward for us to experience at times. Reframing the interactions as a matter of friendliness and hospitality was something we had to do consciously.

Some villagers giving me an impromptu Adivasi Odiya lesson after we completed our interview

In the second half of the summer, Judy and I have been working at N-Star centers in Hyderabad, which are after-school skill-building and life skills centers for young women around the ages of 15 to 20. No matter how much we’ve tried to shed the formality of the situation, no matter how many casual and natural conversations we have, and no matter how many impromptu dance parties we participate in, we still get greeted by a “Good afternoon, ma’am,” and addressed with at least one “ma’am” per sentence, by girls who are just about our age. Even though we feel like we’re getting to know each other on a similar plane, talking about books and movies and college classes, every time we hear a “ma’am”, it makes us wince a little, as though there is a barrier between us that can’t possibly dissolve, although we were breaking it down bit by bit.

Getting henna done by some artistically gifted students after class at an N-star center one day

It’s a lot to keep track of, and it’s hard to remember that some of these norms are paralleled back home as well. For example, even in the office, these subtle cues are prominent. We eat lunch in groups, which correspond roughly to different roles in the office. Younger employees address older ones with respect even if they’re in similar positions, and junior employees address more senior ones with respect even if they’re the same age. While it may not be as explicitly tied into the language back home, it’s not too different from office culture in the US, and it took some time for me to realize that. For now, I still default to English when I’m not sure which conjugation the situation merits, but it’s more because I need more practice and not because the entire concept makes me uncomfortable and out of place.

Saying our goodbyes to a bunch of people in the office who were heading out on a business trip

Today’s our last day in the office, and we’ll be heading back this weekend. It’s bittersweet but we’re also eager to be home. Thank you for reading my reflections on the way!

Dupattas and delights

Tue, 07/24/2018 - 12:31

As someone who loves fashion and clothing, coming to India has been a dream. Literally, I’ve been dreaming about the beautiful colors and textiles of India—wearing clothes and trying out styles here is so much fun, since there are so many more options here than back home in the US. Throughout my trip, I’ve been collecting dupattas (also called chunni, a type of scarf that women wear with Indian clothes) from all the cities and regions that I’ve visited, and it’s been a unique way to keep a memento of my travels with me. I’m planning on displaying them on the walls of my apartment back in Philly—I’ve never been so excited for interior decorating before!

Since this has been a theme present throughout my travels in India, I thought I’d introduce you to the dupattas I bought and some information about the regional specialties of textiles. The textile industry is the second largest employer in India, and there’s a world of culture and tradition behind every stitch.

  1. Amritsar: Punjabi phulkari

“Phulkari” design is a traditional style of embroidery from Punjab; typically, they are floral, as “phul” means “flower” in Punjabi. When we were in Amritsar, I fell in love with the beautiful, intricate embroidery, and buying my first phulkari dupatta was actually the catalyst of this collection. According to my co-intern Hareena (and authority on all things Punjabi), people often gift phulkari patterned items to brides-to-be, and are often worn for celebratory occasions like weddings. I got the chance to wear one that I picked up at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where it’s required for visitors to cover their heads (although I’m not getting married anytime soon!)

The blue is a traditional design, while the black is more contemporary.

  1. Jaipur: Rajasthani embroidery

A common characteristic of Rajasthani embroidery is the use of mirrors, or “shisha”. The mirrors are stitched on to the fabric (usually cotton) using a special technique (fun fact: I know how to do this stitch! My grandmother taught me) and lots of colorful threads to create designs and patterns. I bought a yellow embroidered dupatta at Johari Bazaar, the most popular market in Jaipur. Had to haggle a bit to get it at a good price, but that’s where half the fun comes from!

Rajasthani tie-dye textiles, called “bandhani”, are also quite famous across the country. It’s a very intricate process to make these designs, as the artisans tie hundreds of small knots into the fabric, dye it, then pull it out (sometimes they do this right in front of you at the shop, which is pretty fun to watch).

My yellow shisha work dupatta from Jaipur and an example of bandhari print (actually gifted to me by a friend back home)! 

  1. Varanasi: Banarasi silk and brocade

After its religious significance, Varanasi is best known for its silk sarees. Banaras (a British-ization of the name of the city Varanasi) silk is one of the finest types of textiles in the country, and it’s quite common to find a Banarasi silk saree in an Indian women’s wedding wardrobe. The silk is typically paired with with brocade designs in gold thread (also called “zari”), producing a wide border around the dupatta/sari and smaller, floral patterns throughout the body of the cloth. You can find silk shops on every corner around Varanasi, and there are even stores where you can see the artisans making them! I bought mine in an alleyway, or gali (pronounced “galee”, not like my last name, “gaali”) in Godowlia market, which is an adventure in its own right.

An example of Banaras brocade designs from Varanasi!

Title image: a picture of the markets in Banaras. Peep the silk sarees up top!



Experiencing Indian Culture Through Food

Mon, 07/23/2018 - 12:41

India is filled with a medley of rich cultures, all really unique but forming a small part of larger Indian culture, and I personally feel that one of the best ways to experience the differences and similarities in the cultures is through the food. Throughout this summer, Varshini and I have travelled to different cities, eaten various cuisines in Delhi, and have both decided with resounding conviction that food in India is better than food anywhere else we have been. There is so much traditional Indian food that gives us a peek into each culture, yet also more urban, modern cuisine that is irresistible because of combinations of Indian spices and flavors with other global flavors. Three of the most memorable meals of this trip have all been really different.

In Amritsar, we ate at a traditional Punjabi dhaba, an establishment usually found on roadsides of highways in the Punjab state or in small alleyways, to serve locals and hungry truck drivers. As someone who visits a dhaba once every time I come to India on the way from Delhi to Punjab, I was pretty excited for this. Now, dhabas are popular amongst people all over. We took a rickshaw ride to Kesar Da Dhaba, found in the back corners of Amritsar. It is iconic in Amritsar, and rightfully so! This place has been around since before the India-Pakistan Partition in 1947! This definitely shows – as soon as we entered, we could see paint chips, older looking looking walls, and other decor aspects characteristic of an old building and dhabas. Sitting in a restaurant that has been around for so long, and served everyone from your local handyman, truck drivers, tourists, and even Indian celebrities. In the interest of not blocking our arteries, we chose to not go crazy. We got half portions of 2 dishes – mixed vegetable dish and Kadai paneer (firm Indian cottage cheese cubes in a thick gravy of cream, spices, and tomatoes), as well as lachha parathas (Indian flatbread made with wheat, this one specifically made with intricate layers that become flaky once cooked).

Lachha paratha (a layered paratha) with mixed vegetables.

Missa paratha (mixed grain flatbread) with shahi paneer (paneer cooked in rich tomato gravy)

Closeup of the missa paratha with herbs, spices, and ghee

This highly anticipated meal turned out to be indulgent and rich thanks to the creamy paneer and gravy, flaky and crispy parathas, and loads of ghee. While this was a memorable meal and took us a while to finish, it also represents a rich part of Punjabi culture. Ghee, creamy gravy, and paneer are staples in this region. The no-nonsense decor and service in the dhaba are typical of what dhabas represent – filling, delicious food for busy, hungry customers. Punjab is the agricultural heartland of India, where many people farm vegetables, wheat, rice, and other Indian staples. The seasonal menu in the dhaba, offering vegetables that are grown in Punjab at that season, represents the true essence of Punjabi culture.

In Jaipur, we ate a traditional Rajisthani dish called Dal Baati Churma. Comprised of a mix of dals (lentils), baati – balls of dough made from wheat, milk, and ghee, and churma – an unbaked version of baati with sugar and cardamon. This combination of dishes evolved over time in Rajisthan to what it is today, and was originated when Rajput troops left unbaked baati to bake under the sun in the Rajisthani sun (which was intensely hot, as we learned firsthand). The baati can come with various stuffings, the dal is pretty traditional, and the churma is sweet and delicious. This dish has such a rich culture in various Indian empires that ruled in the area, and is directly related to the peoples’ love of spices and use of their environment. A must-eat if you’re in Rajisthan!

The third meal was very different from the first two. We live in Gurgaon, which is in Delhi NCR and has a lot of young people, there are many things to see, do an explore, including amazing food. One such place that we were dying to try was a restaurant in Sector 29, a place filled with restaurants, bars, clubs, and all the hustle bustle of a happening place. The menu in Prankster is everything I love about modern Indian fusion food in India – Thai prawn kulchas, Indian style hot dogs, and Tandoori lamb chops. We got chicken chettinad shawarma (a twist on the classic chicken chettinad curry from Tamil Nadu), Chilli Chicken Paneer Paratha tacos – a cool new way of approaching a delicious parathas (hot Indian flatbread cooked on a tawa pan) and paneer tikka Egyptian pizza, which had a flaky crust. These dishes took the best Indian flavors and concepts, and applied them in unique, global dishes. This kind of food is really popular in India, especially amongst the urban and suburban crowds, and I’m really going to miss being able to walk in to any restaurant and eating such flavorful food.

Chicken chettinad shawarma rolls and chicken and paneer paratha tacos

Egyptian pizza (a light flaky, layered crust) with paneer tikka on top (paneer and onions, peppers, and chillies, cooked in spices)


Forever a learner

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 01:16

The second portion of my internship at Naandi Foundation has been documenting and profiling the participants at N-star centers in Hyderabad. N-star centers are spaces that the Naandi Foundation has provided with laptops and WiFi, books, and self-education materials. The target participants of the centers are female students between the age of 16 and 18, who has completed her grade 10 examinations. The centers function as physical spaces in which the participants, labeled “learners” (because the students come to the centers to learn life skills) can come at free of cost in order to learn English, financial literacy, nutrition, reproductive health, and other skills in order to have a better chance of being hired for a job.

The centers are located in low-income neighborhoods for various reasons. First of all, the training offered at the centers are most effective for young women in low-income households. These families are more likely to marry off their daughters after finishing her 10thyear, discouraging them from pursuing further education or acquiring a job. Second, almost all learners are prohibited by their parents from going anywhere other than school on their own. By placing the centers in their neighborhood, it eliminates location and safety as a concern and makes it easier to persuade the parents to send their daughters. Third, it makes it easier to identify women’s education rate by location. By going around the entire neighborhood and asking every resident to send their daughters between the age of 16 and 18 to the center, young women in that neighborhood are getting a valuable education. Fourth, with a system that brings girls from the same neighborhood and socioeconomic background together, the participants are more likely to make closer friends here than elsewhere. This, in turn, creates a stronger peer support group that the learners can socially benefit from.

Sheroes is a website that provides women with professional and social tips so that women can overcome their difficulties and achieve their goals.

Coming from Korea, a country that obsesses over higher education and boasts one of the highest education levels in the world, discouragement of higher education came as a shock. No one I knew was dissuaded from going to college, let alone studying whatever they could in order to be competitive against their peers. The things I learned from talking to the learners clashed against my ingrained ideas of education. Every time I stepped into an N-star center, I was actually stepping outside of the bubble of what I experienced during my whole life.

Despite these differences, the ambiance at these centers felt so familiar to me, and the spark in the learners’ eyes reflected the excitement I felt when I first learned English. I started learning English before starting school at an apartment suite in my neighborhood with two other seven-year-olds. The very fact of learning something new excited me so much. Every day, we would have a different lesson ranging from reading, pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, writing, and speaking. Watching the lessons at N-star centers reminded me of the storybooks I’ve read, folk songs I memorized, Go Fish games I played, the worksheets I filled out, and the short presentations I wrote and gave. I went into the centers with the expectation of simply observing something new but spent each minute chipping away at my memories.

The zest in the learners wasn’t exclusive to the English lessons. The energy was present during all of the lessons I’ve observed, ranging from women’s empowerment to financial literacy to nutrition. It was the purest form of enthusiasm I noticed, a result of granting the right to pursue education to young girls by providing them with the necessary lessons. This eagerness to learn reminded me of what my grandfather had told me countless times as a child: that learning was the most worthwhile and fulfilling activity one could do for oneself, as knowledge and education aren’t things that can be taken away, ever.

Return to India

Fri, 07/20/2018 - 00:10

It has been two years since I was last in India and almost five years since I ran my own research project in India. I am excited, although a bit nervous, to return to “the field.” For the past three years, most of my attention has been focused on coursework, teaching, learning methods and theories, and fulfilling requirements for my PhD in Sociology and Demography at Penn. Now it’s time to return to India to tackle new research questions.

On my last trip to India, I helped run a large survey project for CASI in the Delhi National Capital Region (NCR). Before I started the PhD program, I had been the Research Coordinator at CASI and helped design the survey. We were interested in exploring urban life in India- from safety and transportation to social and political attitudes.

One of the topics we were interested in was marriage. We asked people about their own marriage as well as their expectations for how marriage would be different for young people today. While most respondents reported that they had a “parent-only” arranged marriage, 62% of them also said that they expected young people in their family to have more say in selecting their spouse than they had.

Our findings from the Delhi NCR match with national trends. Researchers have found a rapid rise in “joint-arranged” marriages in India, where children are consulted by their parents in selecting their marriage partner. By the 2000s, it had become the dominant marriage type, comprising 2/3rds of all marriages in India (Allendorf and Pandian 2016).

Despite these results from survey data, little is known about these joint-arranged marriages. How do families make a collective decision about marriage? What does joint-arranged marriage actually look like for most people? What happens when there is a disagreement about when, how, or to whom a young person should marry? Is joint-arranged marriage just an intermediate step as India moves towards self-arranged marriage?

To explore what joint-arrangement means for families, I realized that I would need to move from quantitative research, which I have grown most comfortable with, to qualitative research. Using the CASI Summer Travel Funds for Research, I plan to conduct an interview-based study of family decision-making around marriage in Delhi. My aim is to interview young people who are on the marriage market and, hopefully, their family members who will also be involved in marriage decision-making. This will allow me to identify where family members agree and disagree, illuminating the family dynamics behind marriage decisions.

I look forward to updating you on my project as it progresses.

Megan N. Reed