Sitting on the plane ride home, I stared out over the wing into the vast blue Pacific, replaying our many experiences in India in my mind. I thought about the people we met, historic and fun places we visited, and the service-work we had taken part in over the past three weeks. After taking this time to digest all that I had experienced, I took a mental note of some key take-aways:
1. It’s ok to be uncomfortable.
From flying half way around the world alone, to standing up in front of 200 high school students to share advice about applying to college, to bargaining at a local market, to being asked to take selfies with strangers, there were many situations in which our ACE in India team felt uncomfortable. However, I realized that these situations were the most memorable and significant. Putting myself in these difficult situations was a great way to learn and grow.
2. It is important to honor the perspectives of others.
During our weekly reflections, we discussed our experiences about cultural differences and things that surprised us, and one major point of discussion was the dating process in India. With the expectation to marry within your own caste and religion, we were always interested to read the “Groom Wanted” section of the newspaper every Sunday. The page was dedicated to helping women find suitable husbands and divided descriptions of women based on their caste. Why was such a basic part of life, like finding a significant other, so different between the US and India? After a short pause, our on-site program director shared, “There is no such thing as truth. There is only perspective” (Gustave Flaubert). Our on-site program director explained, “India is a very paradoxical country, and these differences are based on the idea that humans create their own customs and ways of life.” After only three weeks in India, my idea of “normal” expanded and changed, and I began to understand that upholding these traditions were a large part of the country’s cultural identity.
3. Communication is the foundation of common ground.
The quality that makes humans unique is our ability to share and communicate. Although at times I desperately wished that I could speak Hindi, I learned that there are many ways to share and connect with others. From drawing pictures with children on the street, to playing sports and singing the “Gayatri Mantra” with students at DAV Jasola, I found my stereotypes being broken with each new moment of connection. On my first day volunteering on the mobile education bus, I started playing an English/Hindi flashcard game with one of the little boys and was impressed with how quickly he was learning and how kind he was to show me his neighborhood. Each day I visited, he was less of an Indian child I came to try and help and more of my eager and wickedly-smart friend. It was a privilege to be able to communicate and share with the people we met, and it made me appreciate both their generosity for welcoming us into their community, and the amazing opportunity we had to be in a small part of their lives.
Working with the children in India solidified my goal of becoming a doctor and helping others live the lives they wish to lead. As I go back to Duke, I cannot wait to continue stepping into uncomfortable situations, viewing the world from different perspectives, and sharing stories with my community. I am excited to carry this ACE experience with me throughout the rest of my Duke career and beyond.