Originally from Northern California, I have lived in Western Washington for the past 10 years. My mother’s international job first sparked my love of travelling and experiencing the diversity of various cultures, a passion that I have not been able to escape since. In the summer of2008 I had the privilege of studying French in Cap D’Ail, a small town on the Côte D’Azure, which only furthered my interest in the study of international affairs.
Growing up with two sisters, four stepsisters, and a close-knit family may explain my relationship to women and interest in international women’s movements and ideologies. An interest in social justice and spirituality, as well as these experiences, have all lead me to Seattle University, where I am studying International Studies and Women Studies with the hope of working in international development after graduation. I am very excited and thankful to have been chosen to participate in the International Development Internship Program, where my interest in the empowerment of women in international communities can be fully realized and developed.
As part of the International Development Internship Program (IDIP) I wrote a cultural analysis paper before departing for my internship with the Center for Knowledge and Skills (CKS) in West Bengal, India. This paper was very helpful in learning about the overall political and economic structures of India. It was not particularly helpful in preparing me how to eat with my hands, or rather, my right hand. In fact, no amount of preparation and research could have adequately prepared me for daily life in India.
Upon my arrival in India, I spent approximately 24 hours in the home I am living in for the duration of my internship before leaving it. On the second day in West Bengal, Ted and I went to stay in a rural village for five days. It was there that I learned how to eat with only my right hand, when to take off my shoes, why I should wear my hair pulled back, and that ladies always wear a scarf in public. How did I learn these things? By doing them incorrectly, and then having my host Jayunti gently tell me “Sister, you must wear your hair back when eating, otherwise you look shabby.” Learning things via trial and error every day is exhausting, but also extremely rewarding. It creates a sense of intimacy and family more quickly than I have ever experienced anywhere else.
However, IDIP is not a program dedicated to cultural immersion, it is about international development. My work while interning at CKS is to research hawkers’ economies. Hawkers are men who sell small goods on the trains and platforms. These items include: chai, bananas, local newspapers, children’s books, small cakes, and many spicy Indian snacks. Observing and interviewing the hawkers has been an exciting process. I work with the wonderful Lukman, who uses his role as my interpreter as an opportunity to improve his English. We ask the hawkers several simple questions about their income, their daily investments, and other things regarding the capital required to become a hawker. Generally we find ourselves in a conversation about the man’s family, whether his daughter is married or what his son does. These facts reveal the pride these men take in their entrepreneurial work, and are evidence of the general friendliness of Bengali people.
At times I have felt frustrated by the difficulty that surrounds cultural immersion and learning, especially when I am also expected to work as an active member of an NGO. I feel as if I am a burden for CKS instead of an asset. In spite of this, I have come to realize that cultural immersion is part of development and fieldwork. To assume that researching the local culture in books or online will be adequate, and that you will be able arrive and know how to interact with the locals or relatively blend in, refuses to acknowledge the complexity and depth of the local culture. Working with CKS is a unique experience because it is a Southern NGO run completely by Indian nationals for Indians. Feeling like an outsider is important because that is the reality of this experience (I have yet to interact with another white person besides my fellow IDIP student). All Northern NGO employees are outsiders, and when they are working in an environment that is separated from the local people, the very people whose lives they want to improve, it is tempting to pretend that they belong or fully understand the situation around them. I am thankful that I am experiencing what perhaps is a more genuine situation—one of mutual learning and sharing.
Before coming to India, we had a class lecture on the importance of staying for tea. In India, this could not be more applicable. Whether I am talking to hawkers or sitting in on a meeting with a government official, there is always a cup of chai. Staying for tea is about learning about and participating in the local culture. It is about getting to know the names of the hawkers I interview, and about learning a few Bengali words while helping Lukman correct his English. It is about respecting local innovators and sharing different ideas. And especially for me, staying for tea has almost always meant embracing the awkwardness of being the only white woman in the building, and about absorbing what the locals have to teach me.
Riding a bicycle on Srineketan Road to the railway station is a bit terrifying. My cycle of choice is the Ladybird, a purple cruiser that is about six inches too short for me. Okay, this wasn’t really a choice—CKS staff member Subhra needs the medium sized bike more than I do and if the Ladybird is six inches too short for me, that means that it is at least a foot too short for Ted. So it goes, I cautiously follow Subhra to the railway station on the Ladybird. While riding I am simultaneously avoiding the women in saris slowly walking and marketing on my left, staying out of the way of the honking motorcycles and buses on my right, and keeping an eye on Subhra so that I don’t get lost. On top of all this, I am on the left side of the road! I am sharing the particulars of riding a bicycle on a busy street because while doing this very task today I realized that I was no longer stressed out. Riding on the left seemed natural (I actually had to think when typing this if we walked/drove on the left or right in the US) and I was not petrified by all the honking surrounding me. I felt almost comfortable!
This sense of comfort has not been isolated to bike riding. After reflecting on my successful bicycle journey, I began to realize that I had such a hard time starting this reflection because I have generally become accustomed to life in India. Bunches of kids staring at me, or being asked questions that are (by American standards) totally personal have become a part of my daily existence here. I used to have trouble drinking hot tea quickly or making sure that my scarf was draped appropriately, but now I do these things every day and do not even think about them. That is not to say that I am not constantly being proven wrong or surprised—there was a camel outside our house this morning, you can’t get a bigger surprise than that!
The way in which I have most appreciated this newly realized comfort has been in my work at CKS. My work with the hawkers is picking up and my interviews are becoming much more personal and rewarding. I have noticed a general pattern in my interviews; these men usually come from poor families and did not finish high school. However, most of the hawkers I’ve interviewed who have children are sending them to school, one man even had a son and a daughter in college. Hawking was an entrepreneurial career in which these men could begin to raise their socioeconomic status, and they continue to hope that their children do not have to be hawkers, but some other career that is even better paid than their own. I feel very privileged to hear these personal stories of hope and success. In addition to my research on hawkers, I have been assisting CKS in various administrative tasks around the office. After accepting that I am an American in India, I have found that I can be most useful doing work on the computer or helping some of the other staff members improve their own computer skills or spoken English. While these tasks may not be terribly exciting, I know that they are important to the organization and I am glad to be helpful.
Yesterday marked the end of my sixth week in India. This means that I have already passed the halfway point, that I only have five weeks left. Much like my bicycle realization, noticing that I had passed the halfway point happened by accident while I was looking at a calendar (a popular decoration in West Bengal). This realization, in conjunction with my new found comfort, has inspired me to live more fully and attempt to experience and learn as much as I can in my remaining weeks in India. What is the point of becoming comfortable if you are not willing to continue pushing boundaries and discover new things?
I’m going home in three days. This sentence feels a bit awkward since I have been calling this green house in Bolpur, India “home” for the past ten weeks. Part of me is convinced that home means a big cup of Stumptown coffee and some warm sweaters, but a little voice keeps telling me that chai at five p.m. sounds a bit more comforting right now. I have been thinking about the United States and India a lot recently. How alike and how different these two places are. After spending time in Kolkata, the previous center of British colonialism and a city of over 4 million people, I began to see even more similarities. Kolkata proved to be a thoroughly modern and international city. I heard English being spoken, ate Chinese food, and saw large offices for American and European companies. There are skyscrapers, sidewalks, and a metro. These things all pointed to the fact that India is not very different from America—that I could feel “at home” here too.
If the tall buildings and excessive cinemas are signs of India’s modernization, there is also no shortage of indicators of India’s tradition and past. Next to the metro are rickshaw wallas and hawkers selling jhal muri (spicy puffed rice). While walking down a street in the middle of the city I had to stop and let a heard of fifty goats walk by. I don’t want these markers of tradition or “old technology” to be seen as negative. Contrary, these are the parts of Kolkata that made me feel comfortable. There is nothing about being old or traditional that is inherently bad or in conflict with things that are new and modern. In Kaliaganj, the village where I stayed at the beginning of my internship, it was not uncommon for people who had no electricity or running water in their homes to own cell phones. I think that this illustrates my point that the delicate balance of tradition and modernization, of old and new, and of poverty and development has defined my experience in India. This is why India has proven to be simultaneously the most foreign and familiar place at once. When I first arrived in West Bengal I think I would say that there could not be two places more different than India and the United States. But now I am beginning to feel as if these two giant and diverse countries are not so different after all. They are both full of creative people working to make their lives and the lives of others a little bit better. They are both constantly growing and changing, challenging the world to keep up. Both India and America have people who I have grown to care about and miss. I just wish that saying hello to some did not mean saying goodbye to others.