When are you coming back?

Dear Friends,

Thank you for making the effort to see me while I was visiting “home” in the US this past October. It had been a mere 14 months since I had last visited (and about two years since I moved from DC to India). Although I haven’t been completely disconnected from everyone during this period (sorry I’m not sorry for pestering you all to join WhatsApp, but trust me, everyone here uses it), it was a much needed return. I couldn’t see everyone on this short trip, but there’s always the next time (more on this later).

On this trip, I was lucky enough to spend a week with my family, and noticed that there was less filter and more of a social relationship with my parents in “adulthood” (just go with it). I was also lucky to attend two beautiful weddings of friends. I went on a hike with Ellie (my pup I shared with my old roommates), and I was touched that she remembered me. I learned that UberX is a thing now, and maybe almost as convenient as rickshaws. I met your new dogs, saw your new houses, met your significant others, heard about your professional successes, and even, met your new children. We ate tasty meals together. We watched big soccer matches. I accidentally ate Jumbo Slice. In short, I loved how easy it was to fall back into normal, but great times, and bad recycled jokes. It means more than I can fully express here, but I’ll stop dithering and get to the point of this blog.

During this vacation, I found myself continually deflecting your questions of “When are you coming back?”, “When are you done with this India thing and moving home?”, and even, “Are you ever coming back?!” My canned response surmised that I couldn’t give an answer because I would be clouded by the joys of vacation, and the ease and comfort of being with you all. To be true to myself and my experience in India, I would have to get back into the rhythm of life and work in India, and only then could I evaluate my future plans. Enough of you stopped after that. If you had pressed me further, I probably said something along the lines of “I want to fully focus on my projects at hand. My fellowship ends in the summer, so maybe after that I’ll have to come back depending on how things shake out, or what opportunities unfold.” Though, I couldn’t really elaborate on the meaning of “back.” I’ll make one thing clear: I do miss you all. At one point after a great week in DC heading up to Boston, I sat in the airport, utterly at a loss of why I was leaving. I’ll attempt, in this blog, to clear up and elaborate more of my thoughts to your questions.

 

Why did I decide to extend my Fellowship for another full 10-month term in India?

I felt strange heading into September orientation with the new class of Fellows after having continued working at my placement throughout the summer and knowing I would be traveling shortly to the US in October.

Was my extension the pragmatic choice? It was employent for another year, sure. After my switch into SNEHA last March, I found myself lucky that SNEHA valued my work, AIF appreciated that I built a relationship with SNEHA, and I knew 4 months of SNEHA would have been an incomplete experience. A part of me felt like I owed it to AIF (particularly Sridar, Priyanjana, and Dr. Paul, among other AIF staff) for their support during my medical issues (read here) and helping me engineer a rare switch in placements for my personal and professional desires.

Do I have so much more to learn? Always. I have various mentors within SNEHA, particularly Dr. Daruwalla (my boss with the Prevention of Violence against Women and Children team), who continue to push me to take ownership and responsibility of more work. I have more to learn about running projects, comprehensive research methods, working with personalities, environments, and perspectives wildly different from mine, and more about the myriad of issues pertaining to “development” in India.

Did I fall for India? In one of my last emails to you all, one of you remarked “your life is sounding very Eat Pray Love-ish”. Ugh. While I may not be Julia Roberts in her mid-life crisis embarking on global travels to find inner peace and joy, I am a (choose one: 20-something? millennial? young man? old man trapped in a young body? young boy trapped in an old man’s body?) still on my adventure in India. I have only experienced a small slice of India, and need to explore more of this complex country.

 

What are my hopes for the year?

Professional growth: As I feel dedicated to my work with SNEHA, my mentors, and the opportunities provided by the Fellowship, I want to ensure the success and sustainability with my projects. I had never associated domestic violence as a public health issue, and yet I’ve thrown myself into SNEHA’s important goals to better understand epidemiology of violence. As I said earlier, I have a lot to learn.

Adventures: Appreciating the other-worldly travel opportunities along with the newness of everyday life (not everything can be the Himalayas).

Life skills: Perfect my Desi cooking. Bargain better in Hindi.

Push myself personally and embrace being uncomfortable: I moved abroad because I was stuck in neutral and too comfortable in DC. During the “low points” in India, I need to remember it was my choice to jump into the unknown.

Am I going to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life? No. I don’t know if I ever expected that big of a realization.

 

When am I coming “home”?

Ok, back your original question. I don’t know. Why, as I’m getting older and appreciating my parents more, am I living farther away? Why don’t I want to live in an environment with cleaner air? Don’t I want to earn more money? Sure, but at the moment, I like having a steady, yet unpredictable work situation.

I’m sure I’ll be “back” at some point. I’ve always had an inner dialogue about what I could call “home.” Our house I grew up in, but my parents recently moved out of? My junior/high school a few towns away? My parents’ place in Boston? Washington DC, where I went to college and lived for five years after that? Now, I’m realizing that DC, Massachusetts, and India, all have elements of home.

Moving abroad has helped me re-evaluate what I think is important for my life of where I want to be, who I want to surround myself with, my selfish desires, and what I want to do right now. My initial reasons for moving out of DC to turn my life upside down have now progressed into adapting life in India as my new normal. Maybe deciding to stay and work in India is just a small portion of my natural stages of growing up. My October trip helped me step back, and view life through a lens that brings the obvious into focus. The different pace of life and values here has helped me think differently about big life decisions. Living in India has opened me up to possibly continuing to live in India, living somewhere else abroad, returning to DC, or living somewhere else in the US. Let’s hope I figure it out, but I know I’ll be okay if I don’t.

Talk soon,

Ashwin

P.S. I realize I could have saved us all a lot of time by writing this simple summary: “I don’t know.”

 

Ashwin has extended his Fellowship with SNEHA, which focuses on the health of women and children in the informal settlements of Mumbai. His work will enhance SNEHA's integrated health center model and life-cycle approach. He will also continue a project developing a crowd-sourced notification, data collection, mapping, and response coordination system for incidents of domestic violence. He moved to India to learn about systemic issues in the context of sustainable and capacity-building solutions, and initially worked with AIF's Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative (MANSI). He started his Fellowship with ICICI Foundation's project on truckers' health before moving to SNEHA. Previously, Ashwin spent nearly five years consulting in healthcare informatics and emerging markets security in Washington DC, with roles in project management, communications, and training. In addition, Ashwin committed himself to many volunteer projects on community outreach, fundraising, youth sports, and social enterprise.

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