It’s still too overwhelming for me to fully process the experience I’m embarking on so I’ve reduced all my enthusiasm, curiosity and anxiety down to two promises to myself: to help and to learn. I think if I can keep those, I’ll be alright.
The first promise stems from a service learning trip to Mumbai I took in high school. I still remember everything about where I was sitting — the smell of the chai cooking over a burner on the floor, the rest of the slum steaming all around me — when I interviewed the mother of a girl in the third-grade slum classroom I had been assisting in. Through a translator, she painted for me a grim picture of her daughter’s life: the family had money problems due to their illiteracy and innumeracy, the girl’s father drank and frequently beat her, and she had been held back in school. When I asked the mother what profession she thought her daughter was likely to enter when she grew up, she gave me an answer I will never forget: I will make sure she goes to college. If she wants to become an engineer or a doctor, she will become an engineer or a doctor. It has happened to children who grew up from our slum, and it will happen to my daughter.
Even though I was sixteen and barely had a clue about what I was getting myself into, I silently promised that when I was older, I would make sure this girl could indeed become anything she chooses. I’m returning to India on this fellowship to take more steps toward fulfilling that promise. In college and beyond, I of course came to the saddening realization that “fixing” the developing world, particularly as an outsider and someone from non-South Asian heritage, will never be as simple as building schools or water lines. Sometimes it would be physically taxing at times, usually intellectually rigorous, and always emotionally so. Far from depressing me, every time I learned more about the complexities and nuances of India’s economic, social, religious, and cultural structures, I got even more revved up to get back out there.
When I’ve told people where I’m heading this year, they usually have one of two responses. They either assume that I am on spiritual Eat Pray Love-type quest to have my dharma handed down from on high (or something equally ludicrous) or they assert that I have no idea what I’m getting myself into: the heat, the dirt, the disease. To all that I say bring it on. All of these assumed negatives are part of the second promise I’m hoping to keep during my fellowship: to observe, ask, and learn. Something I love about India is that for whatever I see, smell, eat, and hear, there are a multitude of stories, explanations, sources, histories, myths, and realities, depending on who I talk to. I want them all. It’s easy to make assumptions about the behaviors and situations of others, but I am making it a personal goal to hold back from doing so for as long as I can.