My alarm went off on that Wednesday night at 10:15 pm, and although I wasn’t asleep, I just needed to make sure I logged in on time for this Skype date. In fifteen minutes, I would have an interview with the Program Manager (PM) of this NGO called Foundation for Social Transformation: Enabling Northeast India (FST). The time difference between Hawai’i and India is 15 hours and 30 minutes, and so finding a suitable time for us to complete this was already quite challenging. The interview itself was quite productive; the woman on the other end was a good balance of professional and friendly, and we talked for an about an hour about what kind of organization it is, what my academic background is, what the project entailed, and a glimpse of what life would be like in Guwahati, Assam.
Let me back up a bit…
Throughout my life, I’ve been an emotionally sensitive person, and it wasn’t until I went to college, that I started to fully embrace that aspect about myself. My academic and personal life paths were intrinsically woven together, and I would like to say I ended up choosing social work as my career, but it’s more like social work chose me. My mentors and social work teachers have taught me how to “hone and own” my empathic skills, to trust my intuition on things, and it has helped me so much throughout both my professional and personal life spaces.
Going forward to the night of that interview, I felt at ease as I went to bed, and that good “gut feeling” eventually led me (months later) to sitting in this house office, with the same PM sitting immediately to my left. My Safari browser is open with a million tabs, most relating to my research of these three things: Northeast culture, working with female youth in India, and life skills programs conducted in the slums. Juggling the three components, all related to my project, have consumed my days thus far.
Before I came to India, before I even got accepted as an AIF Fellow, I completed my service of two years in rural Thailand as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My projects there were all focusing on youth development specifically with female youth, through a sports and life-skills program. I consider my service there as very successful and fulfilling, and I joined AIF partially to continue working in the international development sector.
My project with FST lined up exactly with what my organization wanted, and what I had to professionally offer. The scope of FST’s work covers a range of issues that the Northeast faces, from ensuring gender and social justice, to enhancing natural resources and linked livelihood, to promoting regional arts and culture, and fostering youth development and action, while holding the designation as being an indigenous philanthropic organization (FST Annual Report, 2017).
The project I’m leading – entitled KOUSAL (Knowledge On Utilizing Skills And Leadership) and kousal also meaning “skill” in the Assamese language – would focus on adolescent females residing in an urban slum of my city, and I would establish from the ground up, a life-skills program in attempt to foster leadership and development of the girls in that area. Although I have overseas experience working with youth within a similar project area, I have never been to India, nor have I any ideas of the specific Northeast India context before, nevertheless I was eager to get started on this project. When I met my mentor in person during our Orientation in Delhi, I let out a huge sigh of relief when she gave me hug, and we started bonding immediately. Once we both confirmed we were, and would be, on the same page from that moment on, she gave me instructions on what was to happen when I got to my site. Stepping off the plane in Guwahati with very mixed emotions, I was nervous and excited to meet my new work family.
First week at site, and I hit the ground running. On my second day of work, as I walked through the humid streets of Guwahati, I accompanied my co-worker to the School Inspector’s office to get approval for my project, because we are hoping to secure the nearby school in the slum community as a resource/facility. I was grateful for the visit because I had the chance to learn about the history of the the city I’m living in, just from that first venture outside of my office. The welcome and support that my organization has extended to me since I’ve arrived, has been invaluable.
Later on that week, I was accompanied on a public bus to visit the area where my project is based out of, and I didn’t know what to expect. When I hear the world “slum” in an Indian context, immediately I think of the movie Slumdog Millionaire. My American mindset of what this community is made up of, is entirely based on what I have seen in the media. So, there I was squished between strangers, trying to remember landmarks as the the bus chugged further and further from my office, sweating through the nylon long sleeve shirt I happened to be wearing that day, while trying to mentally prepare myself. After a bumpy rickshaw ride, passing over some train tracks, we finally got dropped off next to this open field about ten minutes from the main road. I couldn’t even take a picture of the place because I felt uncomfortable pulling out my phone in that moment to start snapping photos. This was someone’s home, and I had to respect that. I know I am still very much the outsider, and I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize that relationship I have yet to build with the residents.
I walked through the community, carefully trying not to slip on the muddy pathways, past kids playing football with coconut husks, past boys huddled together on the tiny patches of grass, and past men working on motorcycles. Lots of curious looks were thrown my way, as my co-worker and I were conversing in English, while we walked through the rows of homes. We go into a home, and meet the woman Anganwadi worker, and throughout that interaction I could sense her connection to the community. As her words were translated to me, I felt a sense of loss at not being able to converse with her, in my own voice. She could tell me some of the issues that the females in the community deal with, but the one that spoke volumes to me was that of girls being forced to make the hard choice between survival of the family (e.g. staying home to be a caretaker) or continuing their education. I always knew what my project entailed, but until that moment, I didn’t FEEL what it entailed.
That first week, I didn’t sleep well, as my mind and emotions were battling within themselves, as well as with external forces. I felt very unprepared all of a sudden, for the work that I needed to accomplish, and another unexpected issue of how I, being a female of Asian descent, and having been raised in a Western country, would fit into this Indian developmental context. It was all talk before this, but when reality hit, it hit me hard.
These feelings are something that will take time for me to process, and with the amazing support network I have, I’m sure I will be able digest and look at things a little differently as I navigate my new life here. In addition, I am fortunate that my organization encourages conversations and questions from me as their AIF Fellow. I’ve learned so much about the culture of this area, the development sector in the Northeast, and operating in an NGO that covers a huge demographic are, just from my interactions with my colleagues. I know I have a lot of growing to do in this country, both professionally and personally. However, despite all the challenges and adjustments I need to deal with, I think I’m where I need to be.
I’m quite thankful that I followed my gut… all the way to Guwahati.
Foundation for Social Transformation: Enabling Northeast India. (2017) Annual Report 2016-2017. Assam, India: FST.