Growing up, my parents were adamant about maintaining the traditions and culture of Andhra Pradesh in their humble abode. A large aspect of this was solely speaking Telugu within the four walls of my home and I was constantly irritated at how strict they were about this rule. I spent 90% of my time outside of my home interacting with people who had never even heard of this language before, and heck, it sounded weird to me. There were so many days that I would come home and deliberately speak English to make my mother and father angry-I wanted to see what the limit was before they cracked. But no; they were resilient through it all. When I would come home and shout at the top of my lungs that I was ‘starving,’ I would be greeted with silence and only receive food when I grudgingly asked for it in Telugu.
It took me moving to India to realize that my knowledge of Telugu was in fact my greatest strength, and the key to my success in this fellowship. On my first day of work, I arrived to a very quiet office full of shy adults. However, once I started speaking in their native tongue, I could hear every single person in the room breathe a huge sigh of relief. In a matter of days, I understood their humor, their body language, and very quickly became a part of their family.
My first day in the field was marked, naturally, by suspicious looks and dubious side-glances. As my project dealt with speaking to adolescent girls and young women, an air of excitement filled the room as I was a new young girl entering their space. As the hoard of youths gathered around whispering and chatting about who I was and what I could possibly be doing there, my coworkers became my bodyguards. Once introductions were complete, and the girls were told that I could understand anything they talked to me about, every hand in the room went up, each stretching their arms higher to stand out so they could be picked to ask me a question. The level of comfort and delight they felt was overwhelming, and every day after that I was brimming with excitement to see and talk to these ladies. Every single day I made a field visit after that, I ended up extending my stay for a few additional hours to answer questions, ease tensions, and most fun for me, bond with these extraordinary human beings.
My greatest tool in these 10 months has not been my knowledge of public health, the English language, or Indian culture, but my proficiency in Telugu; something I’ve taken for granted my entire life. It was this one element that turned my coworkers into family, fostered immediate trust with vulnerable communities, and turned a fellowship project into an intimate journey. 26 years later, it is time for me to say Thank You Mom and Dad for your relentless efforts; you did good.