TO PAINT A PICTURE

Brandon Richards - India


January 18, 2019

I’ve been struggling to sit myself down and write a blog post.

I’ve written a bunch, but nothing with the intention of sharing it with the
internet. Maybe with my friends, or my mom, or my cohort. The reason I
haven’t published a blog is because talking about India, and painting a
picture of India frightens me slightly. I don’t want people to think it’s
easy to navigate, that it’s a vacation, that it’s simple, that the
experience is easy. I also don’t want people to think it’s scary,
disorganized, fearful, chaotic, impossible. I really had no idea what to
expect before I came here. I made this decision on a whim. I find that
probably for the rest of my life, anytime someone says they’re going to be
in India for maybe 7-12 days, I’ll be happy for them, but also kind of
sad. I can’t imagine my entire idea of India being based on the first 7-12
days I spent here. Before I arrived in India on September 2nd, a man that
worked at my summer job decided to tell me about his brief trip to India. I
don’t think he said where he went specifically but he said that India is
dirty, smelly, and you can barely breathe there. These kinds of
interactions happened a lot. People who’ve been to India briefly, or
sometimes not at all, start to tell me how shocking and impossible a whole
country is.

I realized something about myself early on in this experience. When I
experience culture shock, or an intense moment that makes me judgmental or
uncomfortable, I become defensive and critical, and I put up a wall, which
I believe is very natural. I call my mom and I complain about how hard my
day was, or how hard an experience I had was. It’s a defense mechanism.
Even as the words come out of my mouth on the phone call, and my wall is
still up, I know that it’s not the whole truth. That it’s just the moment.
I’m learning how to remain open, even when I don’t want to and it’s an
ongoing process. On one of my first days in India four months ago, I took
an auto rickshaw by myself from Hindi class to home, which is about an hour
and a half away. I don’t know if I believe in messages from the universe,
but I think some higher power was making sure that every first experience I
had in the beginning was challenging. Usually I can call an auto rickshaw
on Uber or hail one, show the driver google maps, and I’m home soon. On
this occasion, with it being my first time, my driver had no idea how to
get to my building and insisted on dropping me nearby, close but not close
enough to walk. He was speaking Hindi, I couldn’t understand and it wasn’t
working out. I called my host mom and she said to just let him take me to
the circle by our house and then she would come get me. It’s a ride that
takes me all around Hyderabad, plus tons of traffic, so I was exhausted.
Now, this driver kept trying to hike up the price of the auto while driving
and he essentially gave me the foreigner bill. I naively paid way too much
money to get dropped off on the side of the road, and not even home.

Now, this situation would absolutely not happen now, I know how to
navigate. I can confidently say now, that I know my way around Hyderabad.
Following the ride, I immediately called my mom on the same night and was
like “????!!!this is insane, I CAN’T BE AN ADULT!!!!” Soon I had family
members calling me weeks later citing this situation after my mom told them
about a few of my experiences. It felt weird for me. I felt that my one
story was going to become their only idea of what it’s like to take a cab
in India and that worried me. I feel that I have a responsibility to
portray my experience fairly and that’s a lot of responsibility. Being away
from home for what is now 144 days, has been difficult, sad, lonely, and
anxiety provoking, but also..incredible, fun, exciting, rewarding,
educational in the best way ever and immensely fulfilling. When I’m sad,
my culture shock and culture discomfort (I’m making up terms), makes me a
little judgmental and a little too hard on both myself and on my
surroundings. It’s incredibly valid to have trouble growing up and learning
how to be an adult in a new country. I’m hesitant to immediately share
these feelings because I don’t want someone to think my anxiety and
negative feelings, in a passing moment, is a reflection of a beautiful and
diverse country. Someone in Country Launch at Stanford spoke about
responsible social media sharing. I’m paraphrasing, but they said how in
today’s society we are so used to experiencing something and immediately
sharing it, as opposed to experience, reflect and then share. I don’t
expect myself to be entirely in control of my narrative, I can’t control
what people think. Nonetheless, I want to have control over the way I share
my experience. Friends text me all the time and once I get the message
“How’s India?” I usually don’t respond. I’m working on breaking this
habit. I usually don’t respond because I truly don’t know what to say to
that. If I do respond I say something along the lines of “It has it ups and
downs, and I’m learning a lot!” If someone asks me to elaborate, that’s
when I’m truly stuck. It’s hard to hand someone my experience in a short
iMessage convo.

Occasionally on other India fellows posts, someone will comment that the
fellow is doing “God’s work” or how brave and wonderful it is that they’re
helping these “poor children in need.” That is when I become really, really
nervous for the whole cohort. I work with Teach for India, in a 4th grade
English medium class, which has been an incredible experience so far. I
feel that even though I’m there for these kids, and for the organization,
I’m no mother Theresa, and I’m not here to save any children. I’m here to
be the kind person I am in that space, which is no different than how I
choose to live life everywhere else. At the end of the day, I came here
for myself and I expect to make the most change within, not to “change” a
school where I’m a new and temporary member of the community. It doesn’t
mean I’m not important to my school community, it just means that I’m a
guest, and it’s a privilege to have this experience, but I also must
recognize my own privilege within that space.

Of course, there’s a 5 minute story and then there’s a 15 minute story, and
then there’s the 1 hour story. It’s easy to quickly explain to someone
back home and even in India, that the work I do here is volunteering as a
teaching apprentice with Teach For India. It’s much harder and more time
consuming to explain a journey of self discovery, a bridge year. It’s more
tangible to say that I’m a teacher. Even though I am a teacher in that
classroom, I feel more like a student in that space, it’s cliche but it’s
especially real. These kids have already taught me more about joy, love,
and curiosity, than I ever could imagine. I hope I can teach them, whether
it’s educational or personal. But I know that I’m going to walk away from
that experience as a student enriched. Not only am I a student in the
classroom, but in every other space I frequent in Hyderabad. I hope I can
give to the community here by sharing myself, but I know that they will do
more for me than I can do for them.

It’s not my responsibility, nor should I let myself be consumed by other
people’s perceptions of my experience. I’m fascinated by the idea of
owning my own narrative. Essentially, I believe I’m doing that by being as
nuanced as I can, while also being responsible in how I express my
experience in this culture. A balance between being vulnerable and
expressive, while also accepting that my point of view is just one of many
and that I’m an outsider looking in.

“Strength is buried in the depths of you and the only way you’ll begin to
understand it is when you’re forced to dig for it.” – J.M. Storm

Brandon Richards