The Delhi sun is burning flowers until they feel crisp. I’m thriving on watermelon, cucumbers, and gol gappe because these are the only foods refreshing enough to beat the heat. And while time should seem to slow down during these ‘dog-days’ of summer, it would seem that it is mostly interested in speeding up. In just one week, I will be flying back to the United States. I feel: excited, satisfied, grateful, enlightened but also sad. Had you told me I would feel this mix of emotions, particularly sadness, eight months ago — in the midst of some tough days at work and moments of culture shock — I would have scoffed and said that after a whole year working in Delhi’s development sector, I will probably only be able to manage to express excitement.
After finalizing a field-tested, 200 page, bilingual report and activity bank both supporting the need for and instructing educators how to incorporate interactive, locally-oriented academic lessons into Indian government schools, my supervisor and I fell into a discussion about examinations and the impact that rote methods can have on stifling creativity. Aside from being a beautiful conclusion to this project, our conversation led her to say something that resonated deeply with my reflections and current emotions: (I am paraphrasing),
“Examinations exasperate our condition as humans. They make us feel unworthy. They make us feel more inadequate and uncertain about our abilities by demanding the same definitions of success from everyone instead of just asking us to try and become better learners.”
Like most people, I was always taught to feign confidence in most situations. To push away uncertainty and instead make it look like I always can provide an answer or offer a positive solution. Lost in the Delhi metro? Walk fast straight ahead and no one will stare. Not sure what to do when the printer jams? Google is your best friend. When I first started working with the Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative as an AIF Clinton Fellow, I felt utterly incompetent. My coworkers spoke Hindi better than me. They had more experience than me. They knew more about the community than me. They fit in better than me (obviously!). At times, I felt like the only contribution I could make was a tasty dish to the office lunch table. This was frustrating and I feared, above all else, that I would fail in my role or not make a “big enough” contribution as a Fellow. Yet for a while, I continued to pretend that I knew exactly what I was doing.
The funny part is this: I don’t think that I am typically an overconfident person. In fact, I tend to undervalue my experience except when it comes to knowing that I have a healthy amount of experience dealing with and adapting to situations outside of my comfort zone. I always try to remain conscious of the fact that I do not know everything and in accepting this, I often encounter more opportunities to learn. Being outside my comfort zone has always taught me how to question my expectations, challenge myself and persevere through adversity.
And yet, when confronted with another similar circumstance I, like most people, reverted to relying on what I had been taught: to pretend like I know exactly what I was doing when in fact, I really needed guidance.
Luckily, I had this revelation a few months into the Fellowship and realized that I had lost one of my most important skills: remaining humble. By listening to other Fellows’ experiences and reaching out to my supervisor for advice, I relearned the simple benefits of embracing this more humble mindset instead of attempting to feign confidence. I had lost this approach in the whirlwind of trying to keep up in my first job out of university in a huge, new, foreign city. I had forgotten that asking for help is often the best thing we can do not only for ourselves but also our wider community. As I slowly readjusted my mindset, I started asking my coworkers more questions about their roles within the organization. I sought out suggestions from the conservation architects about the most interesting parts of their projects instead of only doing independent research. I complimented the community teacher for her ability to control the classroom and asked for some key phrases and focus activities she found useful. These steps to broaden my network and embrace the fact that I was not an expert on this project and site but instead, wanted to learn not only moved my project forward but also deepened my relationships and connections to the people around me. I am so thankful for this.
In fact, on my last day, my coworkers completely shocked me by preparing a feast of their favorite foods for me. Given my love for food and the ways in which I often express gratitude through it, I was flabbergasted as they presented me with a handmade notebook in which they had written their recipes alongside well-wishes. This moment reminded me of the fact that without the people involved in my Fellowship and the learning opportunities that they provided me not only professionally but also emotionally and socially, this experience would have been little more than an extended stay in Delhi. While I am proud of the impact that my project has had and will continue to have, I am most proud of these relationships and connections that I have been able to cultivate.
For this reason, as I sat at the lunch table with my colleagues on the verge of tears, I was also immensely glad that I had made gifts and thus had a way to reciprocate my appreciation for their generosity of time and effort. From taking the time to appreciate and embrace my community as human beings and as resources with similar doubts and uncertainty instead of attempting to rely on my own independent abilities, we had grown to care for each other in a way that is mutually empowering. Had I not reflected on just how overzealous my initial approach was and relearned a new approach in which I was humble enough to learn, I think I would have failed my community. We probably would not have been sharing gifts over a beautiful lunch.
Instead, I am proud to say that I reached a point where I have the perspective to recognize that despite the challenges, these people were at the core of my Fellowship and I needed to properly thank them. Building community is not always easy, but to see the products of this labor and recognize that it is far more productive and valuable than confronting challenges alone, was critical to my journey this year.
Of course, at times I struggled with my community’s ideas or with the banality of their day-to-day demands. Ultimately however, there was no part of my project that would have been worthwhile without their presence, their feedback, and their support. There was nothing that ended up being more important than their friendship and our mutual recognition of each other’s abilities, adequacy, and potential. Everyone feels failure deeply and thus we all feel a need to pretend that we are completely competent at one time or another. Everything, from our examination structures to our approach to work, makes us feel this way. Moving past this urge for ‘success’ was a crucial step for me in achieving the objectives I had set myself and cultivating relationships of respect in Delhi.
Although it is much hotter now than it was in August of last year, in my own attempt to serve, learn and lead over these past 10 months, I can confidently say that I am most proud of the fact that I did not forget to learn.