Intro: Angela Kohama, AIF Fellowship Class of 2013-14, writes about her experience living in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, and offers incoming Fellows personal insights and advice for succeeding and getting the most out of their placements.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of whatsapp, it was the age of gchat, it was the epoch of idealistic development work, it was the epoch of napping at my desk, it was the season of sunburns, it was the season of monsoons, it was the winter I lived in my Uniqlo down jacket, it was the spring of hope, (there was never a spring), we had every stomach illness imaginable, we were constantly running to the nearest toilet, we were all bussing direct to Delhi, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities (Priyanjana) insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
There were a boss that hated reporting standards and an executive director that only wore khaadi, on the throne of Shaishav; there were a mentor that rarely called (so much love for you Gaurang) and a project manager with a fair face (Priyanjana), on the throne of AIF. In both organizations it was clearer than crystal to the fellow placed, that things in a two-tier city weren’t going to be the most exciting.
It was the year of the chai, two thousand fourteen. Spiritual revelations were conceded to the cows at that favoured period, as at this. Ms. Angela had recently attained her twenty-fourth blessed birthday, of whom a prophetic project manager in the American India Foundation had heralded the sublime appearance by announcing that arrangements were made for the movement of her to India…
…which is where I am now. My name is Angela Kohama and I live in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, India as a William J. Clinton Fellow for Service. You’ve never heard of Bhavnagar before this moment? Neither had I, prior to July 2013. Bhavnagar is the city that I chose to work in for ten months as a fellow. It’s about four hours away from Ahmedabad by bus, the closest first-tier city.
When I refer to a ‘two-tier city,’ I am referring to the classification made by the Indian government of different cities based on status of business, real estate and commercialization in that city. Technically, Bhavnagar is a third-tier city, with less than 1 million people and fairly low real estate prices. But that is beside the point.
The point is, for future fellows, that some of you will be placed in two or three tier cities, or perhaps even in rural areas. You will probably be the only foreigner in your city (or there will be so few expats that you will be able to count them on one hand). There will probably be some small ‘supermarkets’ but they won’t have ‘Western’ food, you may have a coffee shop or two but you’ll have to actively look for them, there won’t be much AC to retreat to during 110 degree days during the summer, and there won’t be obvious ‘hangout’ spots for young people. Coming from a large city, whether in the U.S. or in India, the adjustment can be extremely frustrating. However, I’m hoping that you can learn from my experiences, to prevent the worst of times and bring out the best.
So, you’re being placed in a two-tier or third-tier city?
After finalizing my placement, my fear throughout the summer was “what on earth am I going to do in Bhavnagar for ten months?!” This was my third time working on the ground in India; and I had experiences ranging from the village level to state capitals. Villages are visually pleasing; you sit on your porch and read a book during the evening while looking out over fields of crops. State capitals fall under ‘tier-one’ cities; or large urban environments that have shopping malls, bagels, bars, international food and a variety of products and amenities. I had no idea what to expect from Bhavnagar.
Bhavnagar can be described much like the introduction to A Tale of Two-Tier Cities, with superlatives. Not so large that it’s unmanageable, but not so small that there’s nowhere to explore; large enough to have a ‘Dominos’ and a ‘Just Mexican,’ (which is a restaurant) but small enough to lack any other type of foreign food. Large enough to have a mall, but small enough that the mall was opened while I was here, and only has six stores. Large enough that there are sizable slum pockets and streets known for homeless people residing on them, but small enough that there isn’t a huge begging problem. Large enough that I wasn’t the only expat living here, but small enough that I had four foreign friends total, and they were the only foreigners that lived here.
Here are some of my reflections on working and living in a two or third-tier city, of course all based on my experience in Bhavnagar and those of fellows placed in similar cities:
You’re the foreigner in the city: You will probably be one of a handful of foreigners in the city, and there will be less people (Indian and foreign) that speak English overall (in comparison to a first-tier city). I think this is positive! You will increase your use of a second language and you will make more ‘local’ friends. This can also be overwhelming and isolating in many ways, and you will have to learn how to reach out to others when you feel lonely. (This doesn’t apply as much if you are moving to a tourist destination, e.g. Dharmasala or Darjeeling.)
Your social calendar will never be overflowing: Of course, you make friends with your coworkers and will be invited to their homes for dinner (this will happen in most places in India, especially in smaller cities or rural areas), but I have found that between language, age and cultural barriers there is no one in my city that I connect with on a deeper level. That is okay! Just make sure to reach out to friends, other fellows and family, both locally and through Skype, Google hangouts and other methods to stay connected and prevent isolation.
You will probably work more: Based on our fellowship class, fellows in two-tier and third-tier cities tend to work longer hours and more days than those in tier-one cities. Of course this is a generalization; but I know that the majority of the fellows in larger cities work 5 day work weeks, where in Bhavnagar I work 6-7 days per weeks. Be ready to adjust to this!
So it will be important to find ‘the things that keep you sane’: for me, this was a combination of regular exercise (which can be difficult in the monsoon, when it is 100 degrees and you don’t have AC or when the gym is too expensive for your stipend) and ice cream to balance out the exercise, of course. I threw the ‘only eat cooked food’ rule out the window the first day and have never been sick from a salad or piece of fruit. I found ‘safe spaces’ around the city, which included my bedroom and a wonderful little coffee shop with AC, and had the occasional ‘treat yo’ self’ day (reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZsABTmT1_M0) when I couldn’t quite cope. I also signed up for group tabla lessons, which helped me integrate myself into Bhavnagar’s (somewhat limited) music scene.
When things you miss magically appear in your placement city, you will be disproportionally excited: Here’s an example from my time here. Six months into my fellowship, a small foreign imports store was opened five minutes from my office. They have foods ranging from Cous Cous and Quinoa to a fairly nice sharp cheddar from Europe. Upon discovery of this magical store, Of course these are expensive items and I do not buy them regularly, but on days where I am homesick or cannot fathom eating chappatis and subji (vegetables and a thin whole wheat tortilla) I make my way over for some ‘home food.’
Going to a ‘first tier city’ will be really exciting: Large buildings! Shopping malls! International food! Train systems! Traffic! Pollution! The funny thing is, when I am living in the U.S. I don’t get excited about these things. However, in India I equate these things with home, and going to a first tier city for a margarita and a burrito (or whatever makes you happy) will provide you a nice little vacation from your present life.
When you leave, you will realize you have a ‘community’ around you: of course, the most important part of living in a smaller city is to integrate yourself into the community. I walk down the street and wave at my neighbors, the rickshaw-walas (tuk-tuk drivers) and subjiwalas (vegetable vendors) in my neighborhood, the dukhandar (shopkeeper) around the corner and Vodafone man who tops up my phone. I go to dinner at coworker’s homes to watch Indian serials (soap opera equivalents). This feeling of having a ‘neighborhood’ and ‘community’ is harder to foster in tier-one cities, and is an important part of this fellowship experience!