As a child, on an annual basis, I would leave behind the lazy summers of the United States for the Indian monsoon. Both on my journeys to and from to India, I saw signs everywhere establishing the fact that so many people were doing exactly what my family and I did—the 30 hour adventure across the Pacific, hopping from San Francisco to Hong Kong to Singapore to Bangalore, spending the summer there and then touching back on American soil with a week to spare (just enough time to overcome the jet lag before starting school). Although the specific route may have been different for many, the experiences of the summer were was likely similar: spending several weeks being overfed by grandparents, visiting inquisitive relatives, sneaking out with cousins to eat street food against parental orders (and subsequently falling sick), and watching Bollywood movies.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place with a large Indian immigrant population, I was vaguely aware of the fact that this experience by no means made me unique. I had spent the summer in Bangalore? The neighbors had landed a few days ago after spending six weeks in Chennai. And the girl sitting next to me in math class? She excitedly told us tales of traveling around Gujarat and Rajasthan. Everyone around me was going to India or had family in India and I was one of many.
For many years, I took this similarity in background for granted. It was almost comforting to know that I was never the outsider because of my travels.
However, for close to two months now, I’ve been living in the small Tamil Nadu town of Ranipet, about two hours west of Chennai, as a Clinton Fellow. Here, although my features are ostensibly Indian, I am the obvious outsider, and my experiences are anything but universal compared to those who live here. Each day is filled with queries from colleagues at the hospital where I work, from students at the school to which I pay frequent visits, or from the patients that I assess. Although I get tired of repeating my entire history (born in India, spent the majority of my life growing up and going to school in the United States, parents still living there, one brother and one sister, both younger) the queries keep coming.
Similarly the townspeople have been coming to terms with the fact that their life experiences are as unique to me as mine are to them. I serve up a constant barrage of questions to patients I assess and each villager whose house I visit. As they reveal their histories, both medical and personal, they tell me about their household problems and triumphs, as well as their daily routines and they always seem surprised at my fascination with what they perceive as the normalcies of their lives.
As we share our stories, it is easy to focus on how our lives differ. However, the people of this community and I have come across something that we have in common: the curiosity to learn about each other, gaining new perspectives. Over the course of this fellowship, I hope to use this as a building block and develop shared experiences of our own.