My arrival in India this September marks my first time in this country. Though I consider myself a well traveled and highly adaptable woman, my landing was far from graceful. I decided to join the AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service, not because I felt an emotional draw to India, as I had actually never taken a particular interest in the country’s culture or lifestyle. I had done several stints working for NGO’s in Latin America and after three years working at a nonprofit in the US, I decided that it was time for something new. I am interested in exploring and developing new poverty reduction measures and India is ripe with opportunity in this area. So, it really made sense to come here on an intellectual and practical level. I thought that since I have lived in eight different places over the past ten years, and because I placed in Bangalore, a modern city filled with expats, I’d be able to settle into India fairly easily. I truly surprised myself by how much I struggled in my first month here, and am even more surprised by the strength that is coming out of that struggle.
When I first arrived, the crowded streets and constant honking depleted me of energy. The rickshaw drivers’ bargaining tactics left me feeling broken and demoralized. The food was never filling enough, and I was steadily gaining weight. The unfamiliar germs made the most sick I have been in many, many years. The differing communication styles prompted me to lose my temper at complete strangers. I had moments where I feared that I would fall into a depression and that my project would suffer as a result.
Things have become easier surely because I am gradually growing accustomed to a new way of life. However, a true turning point came when I received an email from my grandpa in response to a rant I sent him full of my despair and frustration. He gave it to me straight, “Survive, kid. Show ‘em what you’re made of.” His simple response reminded me that I am just as responsible for the quality of this experience as India. Then, of course, once I had this realization the concept kept being reinforced throughout my days. Perhaps most awakening was golden rule number two of the pre-school where I work, “Ask for what you need.”
It took a lot of humility to surrender to the idea that I am right now much like a pre-schooler, discovering a new world, and my needs within that world. Even more humbling, for this stubbornly independent woman now living in a largely interdependent society, is asking for help with meeting those needs. However, my grandpa’s words have inspired me to use my strength to show my vulnerability, and my life has become infinitely more enjoyable as a result.
I’ve hard to start with the basics: learning to cross the street, figuring out how to wash my clothes, adopting basic communication norms and trying new foods. I’ve discovered that I need raw vegetables in my diet, every day, and I can’t handle a lot of sugar. After much experimentation, my local juice stand man has concocted the most refreshing and energizing blend of vegetables just for me, which I look forward to every day. After my housemates and I awkwardly tried to find kitchen appliances on our own, and eating out for weeks, we finally decided to ask our apartment broker for help. By the end of the day we had a new refrigerator and stove. At work, lunch is delivered to all my co-workers and me and everyone eats together. As is custom for many Indians, my coworkers use their right hand instead of utensils, which is especially hard for someone like me who is severely left-handed. After struggling, for weeks I asked for a fork, and now am able eat comfortably.
These things seem so simple and obvious, but discovering a new world is disorienting, and everything can get thrown off balance. Now that I have slowed down my pace and step with humility and care, this adjustment has become fun and exhilarating. This fellowship has turned into the greatest challenge I have put myself through, and I am so grateful that it’s only the beginning.