Warning: This is going to recount a six-week adventure so it will be quite lengthy!
It’s been two weeks since I’ve returned from India after spending six weeks traveling and teaching so I thought now would be as good of a time as ever to recount my trip before the details start to slip.
For those of you who know me well, you’re probably surprised that I voluntarily spent half my summer in a country that I normally don’t enjoy very much. In the past, trips to India usually consisted of spending a majority of the time in Bangalore city (which by the way, is now officially Bengaluru..didn’t realize that before!), visiting a ton of family, eating straight up South Indian food for every meal (which again, for those of you who know me well know that South Indian food really isn’t my favorite), shopping, and visiting various temples. Granted, we also usually visit Hyderabad and Mysore but the fact of the matter is that India is still India. That means people everywhere, dirt everywhere, and poverty everywhere. It also means struggling to communicate as I can’t speak Kannada or Tamil (the languages that my parents speak in when we’re back in India); although I feel comfortable understanding the bulk of both languages, it tends to get a bit lonely after spending a month just listening to conversations and not being able to contribute anything.
Complaints aside, this trip was different. As I mentioned before, this trip was completely voluntary. Unfortunately, my parents weren’t able to join along so I was traveling solo (which had its pros and cons). I flew out of Chicago O’Hare on Air India, which I wasn’t too hyped about because Air India is pretty rough (for real, who has a weight limit for carry-ons?! I’ve traveled to five different continents and have never encountered any problem with carry-on items!) It took about 14 hours to reach Delhi, where I had about a three-hour layover, and then another two hours to reach Bangalore City (the way back was way rougher! I took an hour long flight from Bangalore to Chennai, had an 9 hour layover, took a 5 hour flight to Singapore, had a 2 hour layover, took a 6 hour flight to Seoul, had a 1.5 hour layover, and then finally took a 10 hour flight back to San Francisco). Interacting with airport officials in Delhi was pretty awkward because they all assumed I knew Hindi (which unlike Kannada and Tamil, I can’t understand any Hindi). With the 11.5 hour time difference, I was pretty exhausted by the time I got to Bangalore but seeing my grandparents at the airport was pretty great..they looked so cute!
I spent the next six days at my grandparent’s house in Bangalore trying to beat the jet-lag. Of course, we visited a ton of family (all of whom were very confused at first about what I was doing in India by myself), ate tons of Dosas (the epitome of South Indian cuisine), and shopped. Okay, I have to admit. Shopping in India is actually pretty awesome—especially Sari shopping. But for the first six days, it was shaping out to be very similar to prior India trips, which made me nervous. My grandparents did a pretty good job trying to keep me engaged and we minimized the whole temple routine, but they did take me to the ISCON temple, which was actually really awesome. Not so much because it was massive and beautiful (which it is) but mainly because of the Akshaya Patra program that is centered at the temple. Akshaya Patra is an Indian NGO that provides lunch for nearly 1.3 million school children across nine different states. We actually considered selecting Akshaya Patra as the charity for Tufaan 2014 so when I told my grandfather this, he arranged to have a tour set up at the Bangalore location. The tour was ridiculously impressive; for every question, they had a detailed answer. In Bangalore, the kitchen we visited provides lunch for nearly 200,000 children, everyday.
In a country like India, to see a project that’s actually making a massive difference was very inspiring.
Here’s a picture of the kitchen at Akshaya Patra.
After nearly a week in Bangalore, it was time for the real reason I came to India. My grandparents and I set out on a 2.5 hour drive to Baliganapalli, a village on the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu where Shanti Bhavan, the school that I’d be teaching at, was located. The drive itself was pretty daunting. We passed through multiple villages, which was very uncomfortable because this was my first real glimpse at the type of conditions some of my students were from. It’s hard to describe the scenery, but think the poorest of poor families and these were the people who inhabited the villages. I have to say though, almost everyone we saw looked happy; I can’t say healthy, but happy.
The final three kilometers to the school was a dirt road, and at this point, I was afraid. I’m not
really an outdoorsy type of person so the fact that we were literally driving into a village scared the hell out of me.
When I got to Shanti Bhavan, I was still a little bit disoriented. The school looked far better than anything we’d seen driving through Baliganapalli but I still didn’t know what to think. Five weeks was starting to seem like a pretty long time. The first real thing I saw was my room; it was pretty basic, but it had everything that I’d need. Then I went to the school building where I had my first interaction with the kids. It was 5th period (right before lunch) so the kids were a little restless! The very first kid I met was Janini, who was in the 8th grade. Janini, along with Yeshwini (who I’ll get to later in this post), had just returned from a leadership camp in Japan earlier that week. It was pretty funny because my grandparents insisted on talking to her in Tamil after learning she was from Ooty, so she politely answered all of their questions. A couple of days later when I was in class with Janani and the rest of the 8th graders, they told me how they thought I was a new Indian faculty member when I first arrived; apparently, they all knew that my family was from Bangalore just based off of how I looked, so until I opened my mouth and they heard me speak, they thought I was straight up from South India! Growing up in the US, I never really associated myself with specific part of India; there weren’t enough Indians to really be defined by a particular region so it came as a bit of a culture shock. This was also the first way I connected with the kids. They loved the fact that I was from Bangalore and that I could understand them when they spoke in Tamil and Kannada! Shortly after this initial interaction with Janini, it was time for lunch, where I ate my first of many, many, many plates of rice.
Janini is super cute!
Side note #1: The food at Shanti Bhavan was actually pretty good, or at least it didn’t bother me as much as it potentially could have. For every meal (including most days at breakfast,) rice was served along with a various assortment of South Indian curries. It was all pretty similar to what my mom makes back home (the only problem is that it’s been three years since I’ve lived at home) so apart from the spice, which I slowly got readjusted to, the food totally hit the spot. Aside from the rare occasion of Pongal for breakfast (which was hilarious to see the kids react to news of it), it wasn’t too difficult to adjust to.
Later that day, I met all the other volunteers; their ease in interacting with the kids was very reassuring. I also met that day the guy who would basically become my best friend at Shanti Bhavan, Abiram! Abiram had arrived a few hours after me and was going to spend the next four months there. I was shocked to hear this at first but as time went on, I became increasingly jealous that he had so much time to spend with the kids. Just like most volunteers, Abiram is pretty incredible.
Picture quality is pretty poor, but probably my favorite picture of Abiram. Look at this table of girls, so interested in whatever he had to say!
That night, we experienced our first lecture with DG (which stands for Dr. George; DG is the founder of Shanti Bhavan and The George Foundation. With out a doubt, he is one of the most inspiring individuals I have ever had the privilege of meeting). Every Thursday night at SB, Dr.George address the children, grades six and up, in a talk that usually has a specific topic, which ranges from a variety of different things. They’re usually pretty serious topics. One example of a lecture he gave while I was there was How to cope with the two worlds the children live in; life back home in the village and life at Shanti Bhavan. The topic that night, however, was on the universe, and how incredibly small and inadequate we are in the grand scheme of things. With discussions like these, it’s really not surprising that the kids are as amazing as they are; they’re all incredibly rooted!
Dinner the first day was my first real interaction with the kids. Dinner at SB was the only meal we were allowed to eat with the kids. During the day, they wanted us to maintain our status as faculty so breakfast and lunch were usually eaten with the other volunteers. I can’t remember for sure, but I think I sat with a table of 11th grade girls that night. That was the moment I realized my knowledge of pop culture was completely inadequate compared to these kids (which was surprising!) They asked me some routine questions but then we started to really break it down and man oh man, these girls were hilarious! They totally loved Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and that was when I knew we were going to be great friends :)
The next day, I got to shadow some classes. At this point, I still had no idea what I was actually going to be teaching. Watching the other volunteers teach was really useful because it provided insight on what the environment would be like inside the classroom. My very first class was 8th grade creative writing which got me really excited! The kids were super cute; they were all so eager to participate which I feel like is the complete opposite of classrooms back home. Every single kid wanted to read their story to the class, it was adorable! The rest of the school day was spent visiting various other classes, and trying to get a grasp on what the daily schedule would be like.
Side note #2: The schedule at Shanti Bhavan was pretty intense, more so for the kids than for us. Here’s how it looked:
6:30-7:30: Morning Prep (basically study hall)
I’m not a morning person at all, so the thought of waking up at 6 AM everyday scared the hell out of me before I got to SB but literally after spending a few days there, I was so excited everyday! I loved waking up and seeing my students every morning; it was definitely one of the best parts of my day.
8:30-10:45: Class (each class was 45 minutes)
10:45-11:05: Tea time (omg, the tea was delicious..definitely became light-weight addicted to that stuff!)
11:05-11:20: Assembly (Assemblies consisted of a presentation of the world news, which was really awesome because it exposed the entire school, grades k-12, to what was happening in the world. The kids also got to work on their public speaking skills, so although they were always incredibly nervous, it was amazing to see the improvement they would make throughout the week. During term exams, the volunteers had to present the news, and I have to say..it was pretty damn nerve-racking!)
3:35-4:00: Tea/Snack time
4:00-5:00: PT (basically PE, or recess. The girls and boys alternated between soccer and basketball but on Tuesdays/Thursday, they had dance/music practice during this time)
A couple of shots from PT. The kids loved taking pictures with my phone/camera so I think all of these were taken by them.
5:00-6:00: Bath time (Yup, pretty much everything for the kids was structured, including when they took their shower)
6:00-7:30: Evening Prep
8:00-9:30/10: Night Prep (The Indian faculty supervised this, so this was usually spent grading or lesson planning)
This was the schedule Monday-Friday. The kids had a half a day of school on Saturday but the Indian faculty took those classes.
The first weekend I was there, I went to Bangalore with three of the other volunteers. This was a great life decision because as it turns out, one of the school dogs, Chester, had been bitten by a King Cobra that night :( Luckily, he didn’t die, but the next morning at assembly, DG had the security guards bring in the dead snake so the kids could be educated on what to stay away from. It was only after I got to SB did I find out that three of the four deadliest snakes in the world resided on campus, and for those of you who don’t know me well, I hate snakes. More than anything else the world. I literally have a gigantic phobia so I freaked out when I heard this. Luckily, I never encountered anything more than lizards and centipedes.
Not Chester, but his friend, Chelsea! She was such a cute dog..she loved attention!
On Sunday, I finally found out what I was going to be teaching. I’d been assigned to 7th grade Creative Writing, Persuasive Writing, and Spelling, 8th grade Creative Writing, Literature, and Grammar, 9th grade Persuasive Writing, Literature, and Grammar, and 10th grade Grammar, Literature, and Civics. This was a challenge. For all my other classes, it wasn’t terribly difficult to lesson plan but I literally had no prior knowledge of the Indian Government. The kids obviously knew this, but they were awesome about the fact that their teacher was going to be learning with them. My students 8th grade and below called me Miss (which was pretty weird at first!) and 9th grade and above called me Natasha in class but they had an assortment of different nick-names for me, which was super cute!
Side note #3. For my first week at SB, there were a group of Italian Volunteers who were there so they took the morning prep classes. To quickly summarize the Italians, they were incredible! Every year, a team of dentists and doctors come to do check-ups on the kids and villagers in Baliganapalli but this year, they brought their kids and friends! That meant soccer coaches, musicians, and dancers. They didn’t speak very much English but that didn’t matter because they were all amazing and the kids loved them! For them, it must have been difficult to adjust to such a different culture but it didn’t seem like anything phased them; they were extremely generous and all-around great people.
Some of the Italians!
The next day was Monday, which meant my first day of classes and what a day it was! I never knew teaching could be so exhausting! I quickly realized the difference between being a teacher and a student is that you constantly have to be attentive, there’s no time to drift in and out of thought. For most of my classes, day one was spent doing introductions but my 8th and 9th graders actually had to take tests so it kind of sucked that that was my first lesson with them. It took a couple of days to match names with faces and I can’t remember when it exactly happened but I think the beginning of the second week was when everything clicked and their personalities took over. Because the Italians were there, we didn’t have much to do during PT, which meant I would switch off between playing basketball with the kids and watching dance practice.
Side note #4. Not only were these kids ridiculously smart but they were also talented as hell. I thought I could waltz onto the basketball court and take everyone but damn, they showed me up!! The height advantage helped a bit, but these kids were really good! When it came to dancing… Oh my God, THEY WERE LITERALLY SO GOOD. They could easily be a team at Tufaan (win Tufaan)!! Seriously, I loved watching them dance. So much sass!!
Hassan is literally one of the most charismatic kids I’ve ever met. He’s was a pro on the dance floor!
During my first week, I had to catch both Janini and Yeshwini up on what they missed while they were in Japan. Because I was new, we caught up together! Both of these girls are at the top of their class so they’re both very intelligent but Yeshwini and I had more material to work through so that’s how I really got to know her. Man, what a kid. I absolutely loved every second I got to spend with Yeshwini. From stories of her trip to Japan to stories of her life back home, she constantly brought a smile to my face. Yeshwini really wants to be a doctor when she grows up and I have no doubt in my mind that she will be. This girl is so bright and gifted, she has such an amazing future ahead of her. She’s also an INCREDIBLE dancer; definitely one of the best! For her, everything is so natural…Abiram and I would find ourselves completely mesmerized by her whenever she danced, we loved it!
Shanti Bhavan follows a very strict curriculum called the ICSE/ICS, which are board exams that the kids have to take in 10th and 12th grade. Because they carry so much weight, the kids basically spend two years preparing for each exam (9th/10th for ICSE and 11th/12th for ICS). That meant both my 9th and 10th graders had the same syllabus. This was challenging because it was hard to motivate my 10th graders since they covered the exact same material last year, but it definitely made lesson planning easier. While I was there, I really wanted to focus on their writing. All my students could speak English better than most Indians but their grammar wasn’t perfect, which meant their writing needed work. The first big assignment I had my 9th and 10th graders write was a persuasive essay. The topic was: Is giving back an innate part of human nature or do we need to be trained?The topic was a little more complicated than I had originally thought it would be (they really wanted to turn English class into a Philosophical debate) but they eventually wrote really interesting essays!
Teaching was a lot harder than I had anticipated it to be, especially when we were working on things like grammar. Being a native English speaker, I don’t regularly think about things like prepositions and subject/verb agreement as it seems very obvious but for my students, we had to spend a lot of time unlearning what they previously thought was correct before I could teach. Five weeks definitely wasn’t enough time to fix everything, but seeing them make improvement was an incredible feeling. From the very first writing assignment I had them do to the last assignment, woah, what a turn around!! Apart from the persuasive essay I had both my 9th and 10th graders write, I had to give to give all my classes their term exam (which is basically like a midterm). It was pretty difficult creating tests for subject material that I didn’t cover but they all did relatively well so I was pleased with that! After their exams, each grade had a separate project/assignment. For my 10th graders, we worked on their board project (on their ICSE exam, students can earn 20 points out of 100 by completing a board project). The project was a debate on whether Shakespeare only has heroines in his plays or if there are also heroes. Their syllabus covered As You Like It so I had them examine that as well as two other Shakespeare plays of their choice to support their argument. They presented on my last day and it was really cool to see what they came up with it; they totally blew me out of the water!
One of the coolest parts of teaching at Shanti Bhavan was interacting with the graduates. Every weekend, a handful of grads would come back to teach and they were literally all so incredible! (I wish they went to Northwestern so I could hang out with them here!!) All of them are studying in various colleges in Bangalore so it was really interesting to compare our experiences.
Some of the graduates hanging out after they were done teaching on Sunday.
Every single day at Shanti Bhavan was a privilege, but there were a couple of really special days that will always remain in my memory.
The Italian Soccer Tournament
My second Sunday at Shanti Bhavan was spent watching the kids compete in a soccer tournament put on by the Italians. It was adorable! The kids were divided into four different teams (there were two tournaments, one for the older kids and one for the younger kids) and we got to spend the entire day just hanging out. That evening, the kids put on a special show for the Italians, which consisted of a variety of dances and songs sung by the choir. I literally cannot get over how talented these kids are! Every number was so fun to watch, and it was just such a great day over all :)
Usually when I visit India, it’s during the first half of summer so I always miss Independence Day (which is on August 15th) but this year, I got to experience my first Indian Independence Day in India! In the morning, we had a special gathering that consisted of a presentation of the Indian flag. One of my most favorites parts of SB was hearing the kids sing the Indian National Anthem (which they usually sung on Saturday at assemblies) so this was my lucky week because they sang it twice! (Independence day was on a Thursday). We had the rest of the day off, so after a late breakfast (which consisted of Idli’s..wasn’t too thrilled about this) we got to hangout the entire day! My 8th graders took me on a walk in the morning (at this point, I was finally starting to get over my fear of wildlife) and the rest of the day was spent just hanging out with Abiram and some of the high school girls.
For Independence day, they dressed the some of the pre-k children up like Ghandi, Nehru, and Mother Teresa..they were so adorable!
Soo cute, after they raised the flag, all the little children ran up to Dr.George and wanted to hold his hand :)
Some of my 7th/8th graders on our day off.
So about half way through, the food at SB started to get REALLY spicy! That and it was starting to get a little tough eating that much rice, so Abiram, my supervisor (Mohit), and I decided that we were going to go on an adventure to get some American food. The only problem was that we were in a village, surrounded by other villages (so American food wasn’t really an option). However, we were super determined so we decided to go to Hosur (the closest city, which was about 25 kilometers away) and eat at Dominoes. The Indian in all of us refused to spend 1800 Rs (which is about $30) taking a car so we decided to take an auto-rickshaw! Autos are a really great way to get around in the city, but taking it from Baliganapalli to Hosur was quite an adventure! For one, it was dark by the time we left, and we were literally surrounded by fields/villages for most of the ride. Also, the lack of actual roads made it pretty interesting. However, after about an hour in the auto, we finally made it! And yes, it was totally worth it :)
Dominos written in Tamil.
While I was at SB, the 11th/12th graders as well as the graduates had the opportunity to visit Cisco in Bangalore all thanks to an amazing volunteer, who currently works at Cisco in New York City. I didn’t actually go with the kids to Cisco, but I had to go into Bangalore that weekend (my grandfather really wanted me to play a recital so I did that weekend; I was able to raise about $550 for SB as well through it, which was really awesome!) so I took the bus over with them. Oh my God. I’ve never had more fun on a bus in my entire life! I sat with the 11th/12thgrade girls and the entire hour and half trip consisted of the girls just singing, dancing, and laughing! They were all dressed up for the event so they all looked really cute…they were so excited to be going into the city, it was really incredible!
Sowmani breaking it down on the bus ride over!
We passed by a Papa John’s on the way there! In case any of you ever wanted to know how to write ‘Papa John’s’ in Kannada, now you know!
Sundays (in general)
Sundays at Shanti Bhavan were definitely my favorite. With the exception of a few chores, Sundays were the only days the kids had off which meant we really got to bond outside of the classroom on Sunday. Most of the day was just spent hanging out (with the occasional basketball game here and there). Seriously, talking to these kids made me so happy :) We’d talk about literally everything! They were so curious about my family and friends and general life back in America. Before I came to SB, I thought it’d be difficult to relate to the kids because I didn’t see us having very much in common (given that our backgrounds are drastically different) but I was surprised every day! They were also incredibly mature which made it really easy! I didn’t feel the need to hide anything from them and I think that’s why they really formed a close relationship with me; trust was all it took! I also loved hearing about their lives and families. Although it was difficult to hear about some of their cases back home, I really appreciated the fact that felt they could talk to me about anything whether it was good or bad. Being that person for these kids was the greatest feeling ever.
In general, the kids I got to interact with were the greatest; I could literally write an essay about every single one of them! (I wont, but a couple of them get individual shoutouts) One of the girls in my 10th grade class, Thanuja, really wants to work at Google when she grows up and I’ll never forget the day she told me, “Natasha, I think about it everyday! I want this more than anything in the world” That to me was so real and precious. I told her all about Google’s HQ in Mountain View and how one day we’ll both get lunch together at some restaurant on Castro Street. She was so excited, it was the cutest! She also really loved my purple NU sweatshirt so I told her she could keep it until she comes to California, whenever that may be.
Yeshwini, along with two other girls, Bhavani and Meena, became really close to me. They were my three musketeers! Man, the three of them were incredible. They’re all teenage girls, so obviously there’s still a little room for maturity, but they taught me so much; about myself and life in general. Regardless of what the situation was, they were always smiling.
Meena and I at the soccer tournament.
Yeshwini and Bhavani at dance practice.
Culturally, I think this was the first time I really identified with my Indian roots (which my mom is probably squealing with happiness over). The kids always thought it was cute/funny when I would do something that was considered “Indian.” For example, when they found out I call my relatives by names in Kannada and Tamil, they were so shocked, which was hilarious! Also, one day at lunch, they ran out of forks for some reason so another volunteer and I decided we’d just eat with our hand (which wasn’t a huge deal because I usually do this back home) but when my 9th and 10th grade girls saw me, they literally could not stop laughing! They insisted that I was eating incorrectly so that night at dinner, they took my fork :( so I ate by hand again…they did it with me though so it wasn’t too bad!
These were example of how relating to my culture was a positive experience but in some ways, it was eye opening in the wrong way. For example, as an Indian American, the Caste system (for those of you who don’t know what this is, here!) literally means nothing to me, but being back there, it took on a whole new meaning. It was partly my fault because I didn’t know how specifically/strictly the Castes were divided so various traditions that I’d expect the kids to know about because I thought they were recognized by all “South Indians” would turn into a “Oh, only Brahmins do that..” which was always a tad bit awkward. The whole system in general made me really angry, and after realizing how present the division was, I felt really uncomfortable.
In general, teaching at Shanti Bhavan was an extremely humbling experience. Even though these kids come from some of the roughest backgrounds out there, you would never know just talking to them! They’re so smart and confident, it’s incredible interacting with them. During the day, we’d just hangout like friends and there was no distinction between our worlds but at night, Abiram and I would often discuss our feelings towards what we were both doing. I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about who I was; I really didn’t do anything to deserve the background I was given and neither did these kids so it almost seemed a little unfair. I’d wake up everyday and want to give them the world, because every single one of them deserved it! I promised all of my students that if/when they come to America, regardless of what city they are in, I will come see them and help them get settled (it’s the least I can do!) I’m also going to do everything in my power to go back to SB and watch them graduate (I remember the first time they asked me if I would…How could I not?!) One day, every single one of these kids will enter the real world and make it a better place. I mentioned before, my 9th and 10th graders each had a final project. The 10th graders had that debate, but the 9th graders had to write me a letter/essay about how their past (life at home and at Shanti Bhavan) will influence their future and the type of person they will become. I wanted to save these papers for my journey back home (which in hind-sight, wasn’t the best idea because it just made me incredibly sad!) so as I sat in the airport in Chennai and read their papers, I was so moved when every single one of them said something about wanting to pay it forward and make sure that the opportunity they were given is given to someone else as well.
Even though I was the teacher, my students at Shanti Bhavan taught me more than they’ll ever realize. They provided me with the perspective I was looking for before I came and for that, I’m eternally grateful. I felt like when I was around the kids, they made me a better person. The five weeks we spent together made me the happiest I think I’ve ever been. It’s not so much the teacher part (don’t get me wrong, the feeling that overcame me when they got something right was incredible) but instead, it was the satisfaction that came with being “that” person for my students.
Thankfully, Abiram will still be at Shanti Bhavan for the next three months so he’s going to take on the official role as “messenger” between my students and I. Even now, whenever I receive an email from one of my students, I literally light up (it’s usually at 3 AM, but still!)
Until I return (which will hopefully be soon..it has to be because I’m missing my kids way too much!) peace out, Baliganapalli. It’s been real.