Days of Frustration (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Country)

Sunghoon Kwak - India


March 2, 2018

Near the beginning of my fellowship, my TFI mentor taught his class a lesson on self-control and choices. A simple but engaging half-hour followed. He went over the factors that we as individuals are able to control on a daily basis. Despite being several years older than the target audience of sixth graders, I was entranced by his message:
“We can choose to be let our emotions overtake us, or we can choose to be in control. When we choose to be in control, great things happen. Don’t waste your time on the negatives. Instead, focus on the things that we can control – the tasks that can make us better people.”
He went on to say that keeping our emotions on a leash doesn’t exactly mean living a complacent life. The reality is that life is frustrating. Objects of frustration manifest all around us, yet it’s how we react to these moments that dictate whether we progress or stay stagnant in our development.
I’m nearing the end of my journey in India, and it’s hard to really gauge how much I’ve grown in my time here. One thing’s for sure though: frustration is a daily occurrence.
I’ll have days where I’m willing to tackle these tough moments head-on. Like the time I stumbled into a 9th-grade classroom and had to occupy them for two hours because the regular government-staffed teacher decided to take a day off without giving notice. I quickly found that, in these situations, practice problems, word games, and other activities become your greatest allies. Tread carefully, though; whipping out a game of hangman or thumbs-up-seven-up in front of kids barely four years younger than you can be catastrophic for your reputation.
And just like any other human being, there are days where I’ll be completely exhausted and unwilling to wrestle with life’s challenges. Instead of taking a bus ride, two crowded rickshaw rides, and a long walk back home, I’ll sometimes opt for a cab ride, shelling out more rupees than necessary to save myself nearly thirty minutes of headache for that day. Other times, I’ll treat myself to a savory samosa or a refreshing ice pop after a long day at school. The price points of these treats are incredible, but I can’t help but feel that it’s not entirely healthy to indulge in snacks to relieve some stress.
Initially, I had a lot more instances where I had the energy to fight through the frustrating times. As the days piled on, however, I found myself unable to keep up with deflating moments. While I knew that enduring these tough moments would lead to some of my most formative sessions in India, it became more and more difficult to stay motivated.
I thought back to my TFI mentor’s lesson. He emphasized practicing self-control, and one way to do that was to indulge in frustrating situations every single day. ‘Brush your teeth with your left hand every day’, he told the class. ‘See how frustrated you get, but fight through it. You will be surprised how much more tolerant you become after this practice.’
I’ve learned through this lesson that the greatest thing that being in a new country has to offer isn’t the fantastic food, or the authentic cultural practices, or the new people I’d meet, but rather the amount of frustration available to me every day. By just surrounding myself with irritating challenges, I’m able to grow and work the proverbial muscle that deals with self-control.
As I get acclimated to the land of India, I am slowly becoming aware of the endless opportunities that are there for the taking. The thing is, these opportunities are mostly hidden within frustrating happenings. A tough trek through the streets to find a bus back home can be just a great a learning experience as a lecture from a classroom teacher. Both instances should be valued when one hopes to accelerate growth.
Dr. Strangelove (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) remains as one of my favorite movies. The humorous oddities that happen throughout the film mirror my experiences in India. Despite being in an era where a nuclear bomb’s descent seemed as plausible as an album dropping from your favorite band, a light-hearted tone permeates the film. Similarly, despite weird and frustrating circumstances, I try to mimic this light-heartedness and take everything in stride.
I didn’t come to India to cruise. Challenges were to be expected. As I search for a  comfortable pace, I find solace in that embracing frustration on a day to day basis has become a regular occurrence.

Sunghoon Kwak