“You’re deferring law school for another year?” – “Why India – isn’t it hard for people with Pakistani backgrounds to get visas?” -“What exactly are you gonna be doing there?” – “There’s so much going on here in the U.S., don’t you want to contribute that?”
These questions plagued my conversations leading up to the AIF Clinton Fellowship Orientation. Although my friends, colleagues, and family asked from a place of concern and curiosity, the questions made me incredibly anxious. I criticized the questions for being too simplistic — even baseless — but I knew that my frustrations ran deeper. I knew that my answers stood on the shaky foundation that was very much still forming.
At the fear of not coming across like an aimless millennial with a political science degree, I crafted meticulous responses that addressed my consciousness of the 1947 Partition, the necessity of an open dialogue between the U.S. and India, and the invaluable opportunity of gaining field experience at this point in my career.
Hiding behind these elevator pitches wasn’t new for me. Those same rehearsed responses dominated my Fellowship application essays and interview responses. My answers honest — they spoke to my motivations and hopes but much like any of elevator speech, they were purposely meant to sound flashy for a quick introduction rather than an engaging or thoughtful discussion.
As I waited at JFK to meet my co-fellows, I feared they would see through my overly ambitious and nebulous responses about my motivations and goals for the Fellowship. Thankfully I was saved by culture shock, Delhi belly, and sleep deprivation. Our first days in Delhi were spent sharing oral rehydration supplements, mosquito repellent, and of course caffeine as we powered through ten-hour days.
Between stuffing five people in a rickshaw and sharing stories from our childhood to college — our group identity formed quickly. I was immediately thankful and looked forward to sharing my Fellowship experience with these twenty-seven people. Yet I was still hesitant to share more about myself or my hopes for this experience.
The same exchanges I dreaded quickly became the most impactful part of my orientation. Diving into the complex, controversial and downright confusing topics is the only thing that has helped me come with the solution to my frustrations — asking even more questions.
Exasperated by the mosquito bite on my leg that quickly turned into a second knee, I slumped down unto the bed that my co-fellow Camille and I shared. I ferociously itched my leg with one hand and waited for my Facebook app to load in the other. A friend back home’s post loaded: she had just accepted a position at a law firm. I knew I had no desire to be in her position, but the news made me question the role this Fellowship will play in my long-term career.
“Do you ever feel like you still don’t know what you’re doing here? If you won’t be able to contribute anything to your host organization? Or that this experience won’t help you gain a better sense of the kinds of jobs you want?” I asked Camille. I spoke so fast that I could hardly believe how much I had just said.
She quickly chimed in, “Oh yeah.” Relieved and excited – I jumped head first in this conversation.
We talked at length about our abilities to work with marginalized communities, shared our fears about working in the Indian development sector as Americans, and speculated about how this experience will impact our future studies and careers. We confided in our fears about how difficult this year was going to be for both of us.
The questions we were left with: How do we navigate the unstructured and fluid work environments often found in the Indian development sector? How do we use this experience to guide our larger career trajectory?
“Acha…..theekh hai, wa-lakium as salaam,” Asra said as she entered the room. She was finishing up a call with her family. Hearing the Islamic greeting made me instantly nostalgic for my family.
Not used to religion being a topic of conversation, due to my own complicated relationship with the faith, I reluctantly asked “Are you Muslim?”
“Yeah, I am” she answered.
The interaction served as introduction to a long conversation about what it meant to grow up as and be young Muslim women. Our discussion revealed parallels ranging from generational gaps to the fears that come with being a Muslim in India and the United States. The conversation forced us to dig deeper about how our faith impacted our patriotism and vice versa.
The questions we were left with: How do we balance our patriotism and our disappointment with problematic policies towards Muslims? How do we accurately create a positive image for Muslim women in the workplace without speaking for Muslim women as a whole?
Sitting across from each other at dinner, Jackson and I found our ourselves comparing (and ranking) regional South Asian cuisines. Noting the diversity in food and culture of the region, our conversation organically transitioned into discussing the blatant disregard for these same regions in the 1947 Partition process. As South Asian Americans, much of our understanding about partition came in a distant and abstract manner and yet felt so personal. We talked about our experiences in the U.S. where we found ourselves as the sole South Asian in the group — the pressure to paint an accurate picture and speak for an entire region of the world.
The questions we were left with: Do we have a responsibility to bridge those gaps? How do we successful help the region overcome partition? Should we find a way to contribute in our professional lives?
Lets Not Forget about Politics…
Sitting late at night, a small group of us found ourselves trying to understand how our work over the next ten months would fit in the larger political climate of today and tomorrow.
The Indian Fellows explained the difference between DMs (District Magistrates) and CMs (Chief Ministers), and the U.S. Fellows described the concept voter ID laws and the electoral college. We shared our perception of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and the Indian PM Elections. We confided with each other about being frustrated with our respective governments.
The questions we were left with: Confronting the reality of working in a sector that is heavily dependent on government institutions and funding and understanding — how we will continue to work through these challenges when we disagree with the presiding administration? How do we work for marginalized communities that may have voted for policies and candidates we oppose?
In each of these conversations, it felt like I could feel my pre-rehearsed answers slowly evaporate and be replaced by a deeper understanding — one very much still forming — about my purpose, motivations, and identity.
I realized my frustration wasn’t with the questions I had been asked or even my lack of ability to answer them. In fact it was the quite opposite.
It was people’s willingness to accept my carefully chosen words.
What I was missing was the need to direct my thoughts, eliminate the nonsense and dig deeper into the very complex but very necessary questions.
Now as I venture through Delhi traffic in 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it is these conversations that have become fond memories from orientation. It is these conversations that come back to me as I trek through a daily hour commute on the Delhi metro.
These conversations that are an ever present gentle reminder to confront my vulnerability, embrace contradiction, and be brave enough to admit that much of my goals, hopes, and motivations for this journey are still unwritten.
For me, these conversations will help guide my narrative for the rest of my Fellowship experience. It is okay that I am here without a specified purpose or direction. I just need to keep asking questions.