It has always taken me awhile to feel comfortable around people and to be myself; in new settings I take my time observing, thinking and ‘figuring things out’ before I jump in. Living in India has required me to push myself in this area; most, if not all of the time, I have to jump right into new situations before I feel even close to comfortable doing so- whether it’s with friends, in the workplace, or doing something ‘simple’ like buying bananas, everything here has been new and different and so ‘figuring things out’ before jumping in just isn’t possible. Being constantly out of my comfort zone has been a difficult, but an important challenge; in a way it has allowed me to get to know who I am at my worst and work through that, it has shown me courage I have within myself that I didn’t know was there, and it has helped me build resilience. The whole experience -living in a new country, navigating cultural differences, language barriers and structures of power and privilege, searching out and trying to unlearn my own assumptions and expectations- has left me feeling very vulnerable most, if not all of the time.
It has been really difficult! Probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life up to this point. But something about being vulnerable has made my experience here so much more meaningful. In particular, finding that sense of being ‘at home’ when a short while ago I felt lost, lonely and unsure in world that seemed so vastly different from the one I grew up in, is something that will stay with me for a long time.
A big part of feeling at home in Ajmer has been due to the community that I have gradually become a part of; the friends I have made through work, their incredibly kind and welcoming families, and my colleagues who I spent all my days with- working, but also chatting, sharing meals, and laughing.
When the last couple weeks came to a close and I prepared to say goodbye to this community, I couldn’t help but think of all the people whose names I don’t even know but who nevertheless were, and still are, inextricably intertwined with my sense of ‘home’ in Ajmer. They are the women who waved at me every day when I walked to work, the auto drivers who patiently listened as I tried to explain where I wanted to go, the owners of the shop that I stopped at (a little too often) to buy biscuits, the men at various chai stalls around Ajmer who always welcomed me with a smile. It was that feeling of being recognized and welcomed, of human connection with people who barely knew me but were still kind to me, that gave me a sense of comfort and belonging.
I’ve never relied on the kindness of strangers so intensely as I have while I’ve been in India, and I’ve never felt so much appreciation for everyone who made it possible to survive. It has made me reflect on what it really means to be independent, a word which has been continually attached to my internship experience in India, both in terms of the ‘independent’ research project I am doing, and outside of work- moving to and navigating Ajmer all by myself for nearly four months. The reality is that during my time here, I have felt most confident, comfortable, capable and “independent” when I am connected with others. And I think that even if we don’t recognize it, this is somewhat of a universal truth; independence stems from interdependence, not only with our friends and family and those who exist in our immediate community, but also with the millions of people whose work allows us to live our everyday lives the way we do. Where I grew up, we are used to having drinkable tap water, systems of waste collection which allow us to throw our trash away and never think of it again, toilets that flush and sewers that are hidden far from sight, heat and electricity, endless varieties of fruits and vegetables easily accessible in the grocery store aisles. How ‘independent’ could we really be without these things that we more often than not take for granted? Without paved roads and public transportation which allow us to get where we need to go, nurses and doctors and other health care workers who ensure we are healthy enough to make a living, and teachers who educate us? We are able to be independent only through reliance on others, and we need each other to survive.
As my internship and time in India comes to a close, I am most grateful for all the people I met and the lessons I learned through those relationships and the process of building them. When I first arrived in Ajmer, I never could have imagined that it would come to feel like a home for me, and it is thanks to all the people who smiled and waved every day, who were consistently patient and kind towards me, who recognized me, who welcomed me, who allowed and encouraged me to lean on them whenever I needed anything, that it did.