I had been waiting for what felt like months, but was actually just a little over a week, when the Project Portal finally opened. Since learning that I was a finalist for the AIF Clinton Fellowship last April, I had been anxious to find out what project placements were on offer this year. I was anxious because they would determine what I would actually be doing over the course of the Fellowship other than what I already knew, which was that I’d be working for some kind of NGO somewhere in India. And more specifically, I was anxious because, though I wasn’t admitting it to myself at the time, the ideal placement that I’d fantasized about when applying to the Fellowship was actually fairly narrow.
In college my studies were focused largely around urban poverty and inequality, and ways that planning and governance can alleviate them. What interests me most are the specific built forms these phenomena take in megacities – places like Delhi or New York – which are so large and complex that they hold the wealthiest and some of the poorest people in their respective countries, and everyone in between. So what I was originally envisioning when I applied for the Fellowship was working with an organization like SPARC, which focuses on housing and infrastructure issues in Mumbai’s vast informal settlements (and now around India).
But when I opened the Project Portal last May, my initial anxiety only grew as I slowly made my way through each of the 30 proposals on offer. Because after the work I’d done to become a finalist and the other job offer I’d turned down, none of the project descriptions fit into the narrow Fellowship ideal that I’d envisioned for myself. It wasn’t that nothing interested me – there was plenty in many of the proposals that sounded fascinating. But I realized abruptly that my Fellowship experience would be different than the one I envisioned, and that realization scared me.
I ended up being placed in the opposite of a big city: on a rural tourism project in villages around Khandar, Rajasthan, with Udyogini. The project in many ways a great fit for me: it deals with human settlements managing their interaction with nature. It is something that’s always interested me, and involves a lot of research, which I may pursue further in my career. While it’s true that big cities fascinate me more than anything else, living in rural Rajasthan has confirmed what I already knew: that I can take an interest in many things, in or outside of cities.
But while I was excited and interested in my work, daily life in Khandar – including small things like communicating with my Hindi speaking coworkers, trying to buy food, living in a very hot environment without air conditioning, taking a bus to the train station, or simply walking to work – proved far more difficult for me to adapt to than I had thought. For the past few months, I have been thinking harder about why I was so anxious to be placed in a big city in the first place. I’ve realized that in addition to my academic interest in them, big cities also represent my comfort zone.
I grew up in Manhattan, a place where the subway runs all night, almost any cuisine or activity I’m interested in is within easy reach, and great diversity means that it’s hard to look out of place even if you try. The contrast with Khandar is stark. In Khandar, going out late at night is unwise due to the presence of wild animals, and even if you did, there would be nothing much to do. Most people probably don’t know what Chinese, Italian, or Mexican food even looks like, let alone know of a place to get it (there isn’t one). And the town’s isolation means that the presence of a foreigner – me – is always a spectacle worth pointing at.
The last part is what makes me most uncomfortable, by far. For the first few months of my Fellowship, I dreaded going outside by myself. I knew that I would be stared and laughed at by almost everyone I passed. While not meaning to be hostile, passers-by still made me feel like Khandar was a place I didn’t belong. I traveled out of Khandar as much as possible, nominally to see new places, but just as importantly to get some time away from the place I was living at. To this day I still breathe easier when I visit places like Delhi or Mumbai, which though I’ve spent less time in than Khandar, still feel more like home to me.
But as the Fellowship begins to wind down and I look back on my time in India so far, I am realizing more and more that the challenges of adapting to Khandar have made my experience more meaningful because they made it less comfortable. The Fellowship is not only a professional experience, but also a personal one. And one of the things I’m proud of accomplishing over the last eight months is building a sense of home, however small, in Khandar.
While I can still barely communicate with anyone, there are now a solid fifteen people around Khandar who I’m genuinely happy to see when I run into them, and who I know are looking out for me – the still very clueless foreigner about town. And where in the beginning of my fellowship I fell into an unhappy routine of staying inside as much as possible, which though against my basic nature minimized my exposure to strangers pointing, staring, and laughing at me, I’ve found ways to minimize these interactions, while figuring out how best to respond to them and becoming less uncomfortable when they do occur, all while regularly leaving the house.
This hasn’t been a simple or automatic process. It’s real, hard work, and I haven’t always been the most diligent at it. Sometimes I do find myself watching movies in bed all day rather than venturing into the dusty farming town that it’s still odd to say I live in. But over the arc of the Fellowship, I’ve slowly built my willingness to engage with the people around me, even when it’s difficult, and to experiment with different routines – both things that I’ve found as rewarding as they are draining.
Adapting to Khandar has ended up teaching me more about myself, what I’m willing to let go of, and that I really need to be happy. And while I will probably never live anywhere like Khandar again, that makes the work I’m doing here – professional and personal – even more of a privilege. When I originally applied for the Fellowship, I wanted the adventure of living in India, but within the comfort zone of a large, cosmopolitan city. What I got was far more difficult, but I’m beginning to think it will be more rewarding.