As I’m reflecting back on the Fellowship, there are a few things I’ve learned this year in India:
- Giggles and stares will be a common spectacle, especially when working with young children, so do not be offended. Just ACCEPT it. You will be the entertainment, so learn to fumble through the awkwardness with humor. A smile can be a potent communicator and an equally great ice breaker. A smile can get you a long way.
- Chai time is sacred. Even if you do not like chai, do not reject a chai invitation – you will find that it is the glue that holds communities together and rejecting it means missing out on quality bonding time. There’s no denying that even the most ardent coffee lovers will soon find chai an equal or equivalent competitor to their prior addiction.
- A simple “No” will not suffice when rejecting the third or fourth serving of food from your generous host. Repeating No minimally thrice while clubbing your hands over your plate will indicate that you are truly satisfied. Otherwise, the NO becomes a humble yes.
- It is inevitable that you will be duped while bargaining, but don’t let that discourage you from honing this art. You will find that it will become a very useful skill to survive with limited finances. NOTHING is non-negotiable even if signs indicate otherwise. Disclaimer: This does not work in fancy malls or similar establishments.
- Unless you are part of the lucky few with washing machines at their dwellings, become accustomed to the ancient skill of hand washing dirty clothes—though in winter months, especially in Northern India, it is acceptable to display the dirt and sweat on your fabrics with pride. No judgement!
- It is no secret that eventually everyone becomes homesick and longs for the comforts of home. Do not fret when waterworks and/or complaints fill your eyes and mind respectively because there is a cohort of other fellows going through similar things, so who better to call on for support? – even if it is just to have your thoughts fully understood without having things lost in translation.
- Just learn to accept that you wouldn’t be able to catch up with your shows, news, or contacts regularly. There might be times when your smartphone will be reduced to a camera and a clock. Although connectivity might be poor, this is your opportunity to make connections and relationships on the ground with the local community.
- When trying to survive in the heat with frequent electrical outages, the best remedy is a bucket shower. Do not be alarmed if you have to take at least three by the end of each day. When electricity is present, the fan followed by a bucket shower is your best friend.
- Sweet squash subzi and Masala Nimbooz drink are not so great, but raita with muli parantha and ras malai are some of the greatest culinary concoction I’ve savored. Take caution with the dhaba foods, especially the masaladare (having lots of masala) since your digestive system will take its revenge sooner or later!
- Don’t look into the eyes of the approaching monkeys, especially the large ones. If monkeys chase you, pick up a rock for protection and run. As a precaution, a slingshot is your best friend. Aside from the monkeys, try not to freak out (possible, though challenging) with the other creatures that might reside in your new home – lizards, bats, mosquitoes, flies, rats, and/or ants.
- When crossing a busy intersection alone, the cow is your guide. Follow its path across the street to safety, but should it rest in the middle of the road, then use your hand in the “stopping” signal as the ultimate tool to halt approaching vehicles. Otherwise, follow the crowd and take every precaution.
- Before embarking on a 20-hour bus ride, make sure to ration your liquid intake as there are no toilets on the bus, and the bus will only stop at its designated rest areas. Although you might not be accustomed to it, sooner or later, you might have to relieve your bodily functions in the open space, especially if you are in rural areas with no toilets in sight. Ladies, this can be a challenge – a skirt can be a powerful tool to avoid prying eyes.
As my journey comes to a close, I wanted to part with some words of advice to the incoming AIF Clinton Fellows. Deviating from the light-hearted messages above, I want to express that this Fellowship experience is by no means an easy undertaking—it will challenge you, but not in the ways you’ve expected. Despite the challenges that lay ahead, trust in yourself and have faith. There will undoubtedly be times where you will question your decision to serve in India or other states, especially regarding the sustainability of your service. What have I contributed to my organization in these 10 months? How does the work I’ve done continue to sustain after me? Despite perhaps your grandiose intentions, you’ll find that service in grassroots work is a very humbling experience if anything. You might end up playing a minute role in your respective NGOs but know that it is okay if what you expect does not come to fruition. If at the end of the fellowship the only person you were able to impact, and change is yourself, then that alone is a feat.
Please also remember that service does not mean self-sacrifice. Do not pursue extremely uncomfortable and dangerous situations in the name of service. Take care of yourself and respect yourself. Learning to balance self-advocacy and complacency is crucial to working in a cultural context different than yours. When language is a barrier and cultural norms hinder communication, try to respectfully be as simple, direct, and clear in your wording to get the message across to avoid miscommunications.
If you have a grievance with a co-worker, mentor, Fellow, or otherwise, do not let it fester until it’s too late; try to work out your grievances before they arrive at that stage. If you need support, seek it out from your fellowship cohort, fellowship team, and your other networks: Do not entrap yourself in a toxic environment, thus resenting this amazing opportunity to work firsthand in sustainable development in India. Follow your intuition and remember to serve with humility against the adversities that you will soon face.
As I close off with the last days of my Fellowship here in Dehradun, I am sincerely grateful for this opportunity to ‘Serve, Learn, and Lead’ with the AIF William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India. Despite my minor contribution to my host NGO, I am honored to have been a part of such an amazing team who has given me the opportunity and freedom to learn in a manner I’ve never had before. I accredit my exponential growth in conducting field research in remote regions of the Himalayan foothills and the Uttarakhand plains to the MANSI and the Fellowship team. Through this journey, I have met numerous people from all walks of life, while immersing myself in the Indian experience and exploring my Tibetan identity. India has been my one of my greatest teachers and guides, and I am grateful to have served on this fellowship. Thus, I sign off with a heavy heart and gratitude for the numerous life lessons I’ve learned in India.