During and After the Program

When we arrived, we were exhausted. It was about 4am once we got out of the airport and into our big private tour bus (which served as our main source of transportation). There were not many people walking about at night so it was pretty quiet. But I think my initial shock was seeing how much trash was on the side of the roads and on some roof tops. There were also several stray dogs looking through the trash. But the worst part was seeing how many homeless people there were. I saw children and families living in make-shift tents as I rode past them in this nice, sheltered bus. I felt hopeless and privileged.

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We arrived at Zorba the Buddha, a nonprofit organization in New Delhi where they house many groups from all over the world (learn more about it here: http://zorbathebuddha.org/).We were greeted by the security guards and the friendly management team. It was dark so we couldn’t see much of our surroundings except the light that shone from our room. But in the morning when the sun was rising? Breathtaking. There were 12 of us (10 girls and 1 guy), and we all got to stay in one big room together. There were just enough mats for all of us, as well as our own private co-ed bathroom with 3 shower stalls and 2 bathroom stalls. There were 3 meals served per day with 2 tea breaks (talk about paradise!!) and let me tell you, the food was bomb. I’m a somewhat picky eater that eats a mostly vegetarian diet, so living in the states is hard since we live in such a meat intensive culture. But in India? They barely eat any meat. I’ve never had so many vegetarian options to choose from, and ones that actually taste good. Every time I hear I bell, I dream about the food they served us. It was that good.

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The first few days we were there, we went out to sight see and do some experiential learning with media. While we were out, we definitely stood out. The male gaze that we received (as women) was different than what you’d experience in the states. It was a mixture of a predatory + awe-struck exotisized gaze. While it made me uncomfortable, I understood that they do not really see people that look like me all the time. We went to several places where people asked to take their photo with us, especially to the one guy that was on our trip. It was especially hilarious when they would squeeze their way into where I group was standing and pose for a picture with us. A lot of times they were polite and asked for our permission. At first, I didn’t understand. But when we visited the small village with the non-profit, Navjyoti, we walked with villagers and they were very intrigued by us. I found out later that they had told our instructors that they were the first White people they’ve seen in their entire lives. I wondered if it was the same for all these people who were gazing at us and taking pictures of us. After that, it didn’t bother me. After all, I am entering into their country and the least I could do is allow for them to document their experience.

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The architecture, the art, the music, is all so different from our own. We visited several temples where we saw ancient works of art that were carefully crafted to meet the needs of the people living there. For example, at one of the palaces we went to, the architecture was built to ensure that the emperor would not over-heat in the hot weather (since this was before air conditoning existed). Not only is the architecture constructed with meaning and purpose, it is also visually attractive. We were also able to attend a concert while at Zorba the Buddha and it was such an amazing experience. It was not rehearsed, yet it worked together so perfectly. They even encouraged people from the audience to pick up an instrument and join in. They were dancing and clearly having fun, it was infectious!

I’d like to talk a little bit more about how my identity affected my experience as well. As a White/Asian female who physically passes for a White female, I was treated differently in many ways. When we went shopping, I was given higher prices and even had my money stolen from me by one vendor. When we stayed in hotels and went to restaurants, we were treated with a lot of respect. When we visited tourist spots, we were given priority (for ex. at the Taj Mahal, we didn’t have to wait in line because we were foreigners, but the native people did). There was also this towering limousine bus that we rode with air conditioning, comfortable seats, and a locking door. You had no choice but to look down at people, which was one of the more uncomfortable portions of my trip. I couldn’t look at the people at eye level, and something about that just didn’t sit well with me. There was already such a disconnect between us, that this just made it worse. Seeing the multitudes of poverty was not an easy thing to see, especially sitting in this nice bus where I am reminded that I have way more than they will ever have. And it sucks. It really does. I wish there was something I could do. But I wondered what it must’ve felt like for them to see us gazing down at them: if they felt humiliated or annoyed… Towards the end of the trip, I realized that if I made eye contact with someone, I would smile and give a friendly wave and they would do the same. I wanted them to know that we were not there to exploit them or view them as zoo animals, and that we are no better than they are because of the position that we were put in.

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On our final day, we got to experience Holi. This is a cultural celebration celebrated once a year. I believe it was originally just a hindu celebration, but I think now it is interpreted as a day that forgets about our differences and brings us together to celebrate life and color and to just have fun (you’ve probably seen the pictures of people covered in powdered colors). Water balloons may often times be used to make the colors stick better. We happened to be traveling at the time while this was happening so a lot of us were looking forward to this day. It seemed like good, harmless fun! That changed when we went to Ambedkar University (AUD) and sat in on a class that taught about gender and human rights with its relation to space (easily my favorite day during the entire trip–see photo above). If you are familiar with the school of IAS, they praise the “problem posing” style of education as opposed to the “banking style” of learning, where students learn from each other rather than just from the teacher. At the beginning of my education here, this was completely new to me. What I didn’t expect was that the class we sat in on had the same exact style of learning. We had the chance to collaborate with all of these students in small groups and come together as a large collective class, and I learned so much from these students. Not only were they kind and welcoming, but they were also accepting of the different ideas we brought to the table. We talked about our cultural differences and gender role expectations and we used a lot of the same IAS vocabulary that I was familiar with as well. And then Holi came up in the discussion and several women came forward to share their frustration for the holiday because of the violence they had experienced throughout the years. Apparently, men and younger boys would stand from roof tops and chuck water balloons down at women who are walking in the streets. Women reported having whiplash and bruises from these balloons. Sometimes the balloons were filled with fluids other than water. They even said they would often times have to lock themselves in their own homes and not leave for the day. Or if they were in school, they would lock the doors. I’ll never forget this, one student said, “This day is an excuse to abuse women. The balloon is an extension of violence similarly to how a fork is an extension of your hand.” Had we not learned this from the students, I would’ve continued to believe in what I knew about Holi.

We had a free day to go and do whatever we wanted in Delhi, so a few of us decided to walk to the nearby shopping area. And since it was the day before Holi, we were being targed by water balloons everywhere. They were being thrown from practically every rooftop. It was honestly pretty frightening and disturbing that boys would find joy out of hurting innocent women. Would we had been equally targeted if we were men? I knew I would never understand what it truly felt like to be a woman living in India, but I got a small taste of what it would be like. On the actual day of Holi, the streets that were once bustling with cars and people was a ghost town, with the exception of a few men here and there. Not a single woman.

When we arrived back at Zorba the Buddha, we celebrated Holi there. It was safe, and they used only organic powders (which is extremely important, otherwise it will stain your skin for days). Our day here was one of the best days we had on our trip. It felt like the Holi that I knew about before arriving in India: all of our differences were forgotten and we just let loose and celebrated life. Each of us had a white kurta picked out by our awesome tour guide that had beautiful colors that blended together beautifully. And that’s really what this day should be about right? We saw people ranging from 20-70 celebrating with us, dancing and being merry. Absolutely unforgettable in the best way. I will always be thankful that I was able to experience Holi in that setting where I didn’t have to fear for my safety and could just have fun. But I know that many others cannot afford this luxury.

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These are the parts of traveling that you may experience abroad. Your culture, your identity, your values, will all become so clear to you. It will change you, but in a good way. You’ll grow in ways that you didn’t think you could grow. What I also did not realize was that I gained professional experience that has made me stand out on my resume. Team work, communication, interpersonal skills, cultural sensitivity…the list goes on. I made so many connections, professionally and personally. To this day, some of my closest friends were the ones that were on this trip with me. There’s something about going abroad together that creates a special bond with people. Not only that but the people I met in this country were always inviting and hands-down some of the kindest people I have ever met. I even got to see hands on how a non-profit can better the lives of hundreds of marginalized women and children, something that I would like to pursue in the future. Even though some of my experiences were uncomfortable, I don’t regret one moment of the entire trip. I truly believe that God led me here to have these experiences for a reason. I will never be the same after this trip, and I am so thankful that I had this opportunity and that I got to share it with you all.

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It’s hard to sum up my entire trip in just one post, so if you have any questions feel free to comment below and ask! I left out a lot of the fluffy details and just shared the most impactful parts of my trip that I thought would be valuable to share with you all.

I discuss all of this and more in an online magazine (which also includes several pictures of my experience during my time there) so please check it out if you are interested! http://joom.ag/Ygxp

Thank you SO much for reading! And please, go study abroad. You won’t regret it.

Disclaimer: I own all these photos, please do not steal them unless you give me credit. Thank you.

Pre-Departure

Truth be told, I never thought I would be able to do a study abroad program because of the costs associated with them, and I had no idea how to sign up for scholarships. So I didn’t put any effort into doing them during my time at UWB. Then the perfect opportunity came along, a study abroad trip focusing on gender, media, and human rights during spring break…in INDIA! Practically my entire undergraduate education was centered around this topic, especially in India, it was meant to be. However, the cost almost scared me away again. But I knew that I had to at least try, and I’m so glad I did.

After my acceptance (which was a super exciting day for me!!), the Global Initiatives team were extremely helpful and encouraging, helping me step-by-step for the scholarship application process. It was my first time applying to one so I figured I wouldn’t get it, but here I am! It took care of half the cost of the tuition for this program, leaving so much of the financial burden behind. I was, and still am, truly grateful for that.

I was really excited for this trip and couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like! But when I started to tell people about it, the outcome was usually not so great. Here’s what a typical conversation would look like:

Me: “I’m going to do a study abroad program!!”

Friend: “Cool! Where?”

Me: “India!”

Friend: “Oh…why?”

Practically every time!! No one understood (or wanted to understand) why I wanted to go to India. They warned me and told me I would get sick from the food, that’s hot, and that it’s dangerous for a woman to go. All they really knew about India was negative, which was clear to me that they did not really know anything about the country. But it didn’t work. No one could talk me out of this amazing opportunity. I knew it wouldn’t be a vacation on the beach, but I knew I was meant to have this experience that would push me out of my comfort zone and help me grow.

That being said, I still did a lot of research on what I should bring. I got all of my shots, special bug spray, toilet paper, medicine, snacks, shoes, and probably the biggest struggle was finding suitable clothes. We were told to only wear baggy clothes, none that really showed our figures, so I had to buy an almost completely new wardrobe. I’m glad I did because I was comfy in the hot weather and I didn’t draw a lot of attention to myself, but at the same time, shopping over there was plentiful (and AMAZING) so I didn’t need to over-prepare as much as I did.

By the way, if you’re not used to eating Indian food, it might not be a horrible idea if you started to work on your spice tolerance. The food I ate was some of the BEST food ever, but also incredibly spicy for my pallet.

Okay! So more specifics on the structure of my program! We had to attend three orientations: each were 4 hour meetings that went over health, safety, and cultural adjustment issues, as well as historical and political information about India to prepare us for this trip. Our last pre-departure meeting was held at a Hindu temple. This was a very interesting experience, as it was many of our first time being exposed to this type of environment. There were lots of colors, statues, rituals, which we were all amazed by, but also were a bit caught off guard because we didn’t understand what was going on. I think my tip to those of you who are thinking of doing this program is to do a bit more research on your own and ask lots of questions to your professor so you know how to conduct yourself in these environments and know what to expect. Otherwise, it was a great experience and the people there were so welcoming and kind. We got to eat really good food afterwards which was a plus!

I think some of my pre-departure tips for India are to:

  • Keep an open mind. Don’t have set out expectations of what you feel you must do while you’re abroad. Plans change and you need to be flexible with whatever happens.
  • Know that you may feel uncomfortable with a lot of the things you see and experience.
  • Understand what privileges you hold and how that may affect your experience. (Ex. a white male may have a different experience from an asian female. I will explain this more later on.)
  • Pack light! You only get 1 carry on luggage. Hand-washing clothes is easy, you can do it!
  • Bring toilet paper and feminine care items. Toilet paper is not really something that is common in their bathrooms. (Also be prepared to use the squat toilets…they’re not as scary as they look!)
  • Bring a scarf. It’ll protect you from the heat while also being useful to cover your body when necessary (such as a low-cut top or if you are visiting a temple to cover your head).
  • Bring a water bottle and stay hydrated! Only drink filtered or boiled water down there, as the tap water is not safe to drink. Same goes for raw foods, be very cautious with these.
  • Learn a little bit of Hindi! I downloaded a free Hindi app on my phone and learned a few phrases such as “Hi, my name is…” and “thank you”. It shows as a sign of respect to the locals there that you took the time to try and learn their language.
  • Have fun! This is a once in a life time opportunity to travel with your classmates and study this curriculum. You are going to have a fantastic time!

My Journey through India

Blog by Angela Wirig, Society, Ethics and Human Behavior, Gender, Media and Human Rights in India

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Namaste! Meera nam Angela hei, and welcome to my blog! A little background about myself, I’m a Society, Ethics and Human Behavior major in my last quarter here at UWB, and I love everything about traveling! Packing, boarding the plane, arriving to a new and foreign destination…it’s all so nerve-wracking but exciting at the same time. I still cannot believe I was selected to participate in this life changing program through this beautiful country, AND become a Study Abroad Ambassador! I will use this space to talk about some of the key moments I experienced before, during and after the program. Stay tuned for more!