When I was a little girl, my family had a large house but not always a lot of money. To make ends meet, we rented rooms to long-term paying guests, mostly from abroad. There was Leah, the medical student from Frankfurt. She taught me German from her lap. Next came Misako, the movie set designer who cut her time between California, various set locations, and her native Japan. Eva from Chihuahua Mexico, the loving elder sister figure who taught me to dance salsa to Selena. Most significantly, there was Suresh. Hailing from Amritsar, he became a member of my family and lived with us until falling ill. With deep affection for his mother country, Suresh filled our days with tales of life in Punjab; our evenings with poetry and metaphors that I like to imagine were of Gandhi-ji. Many nights I spun to bed already awash in a dream of ancient markets and allegories, of a country steeped in history and colors and cows. So began my enchantment with India.
Fast forward 20 plus years. For as long as I can remember, I have had two callings. The first is service. There is a drawer in my childhood home of letters my parents never sent: Dear Florida: let’s save the Everglades. Dear Santa: can’t we do something about homelessness? As an adult, I went on to serve as a regional community development planner in the U.S., asking similar things of people I barely knew. My second calling is travel. Living in a multi-cultural household forged in me an enduring interest in language, culture, and what life is like elsewhere in the world. At age 33, I realized this calling was not going away, and that it was time to transition from domestic to international community development. The AIF Clinton Fellowship represented an opportunity to make this pivot, and to do so in a country that has interested me since childhood. I am now posted as an AIF Fellow at the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs (IICA) in the National Foundation for Corporate Social Responsibility. My current focus of my Fellowship project is an impact assessment of micro-finance on tribal self-help groups (SHGs) in southern India. Professionally, it is a dream project. Personally, my enchantment has given way to appreciation: of this country and the lessons I am learning here.
When I first arrived in India, I frequently collapsed to bed, dizzied by a sensory and cultural overload that surpassed even what I dreamed up as a child. After two months here, my perception is more nuanced and my connection to the country has grown stronger. What I am finding is that this is a culture that has a unique take on friendship, family, and community. It is a place that will embrace you (even when you make mistakes) and teach you to hug back. I came to India expecting the sites to take my breath away. More so, it’s the generosity and depth of relationships that leaves me breathless. I think this is the reason visitors get hooked on India. It’s why they return again and again, or stay. The feeling is exemplified by an experience I had shortly after arriving here. During the Fellowship Orientation in September, I was posted in a rural homestay with another Fellow. The hike in and out was a challenge for me. Until I felt the weight of my backpack ease, my Co-Fellow lifting it from behind. She continued to do so until we made it to our destination. Since moving to India, someone has lifted my backpack every day. Through my experience as an AIF Clinton Fellow, I am learning to do the same.