Tag Archives: Life Lesson

More to the Story


Recently, there has been a lot of negativity in the press about India. I get comments like: “I can’t believe you went there.” and “I’m glad you’re not over there now.”

I feel compelled (and was asked) to share my own thoughts and reflections on my experiences in India and how they compare with the image of India that is being portrayed in the news. I am basing this response specifically on the CNN iReport that was widely circulated in the past few weeks, though I caveat this post with the following: I do not mean to trivialize anyone’s individual experiences there, nor do I claim to be an expert after only spending two plus months there. What I would like to do is add my voice and perspective to paint a more holistic view of what it’s like for the many Americans and foreigners who may not get(or choose to take) the opportunity to travel there.

I would first ask that you at least skim this piece and realize that this has become part of a caricature of the current state of affairs in India: http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1023053
(which I argue, while being an important part of the narrative, is not complete and therefore alone it stands as an unjust representation). Warning, the piece is a bit graphic. I will not be offended if you scan it.

Personally, I never experienced sexual harassment in the slightest which is why I feel compelled to respond. Though, I will be honest, two Italian girls were killed in the state I visited the week before I arrived. Many of the what we would call counties were closed to foreign visitors. While I wouldn’t take this lightly, I don’t find it remarkable either, having lived in Dallas, Washington, DC, and now outside of New York and Philadelphia. It’s not that it isn’t newsworthy, it’s just not unheard of (unfortunately).

Despite being in one of the poorest, most “backward” states (as classified by the government), I was working with a fairly “progressive” group of men–all college educated and interested in development, helping the impoverished, dedicating their professional lives to it. I would most closely associate my coworkers with 12 year old boys–even the married ones. I don’t mean that condescendingly, but in the way my brother’s and my relationship was when I was 16 and he was 12–it’s relating to a culture they are not fluent in and the norms for gender interaction are different–like speaking a different language.

So to that extent, some of my colleagues were awkward around me (as I’m sure I was around them), but always very kind. We developed a type brother-sister bond which I very much appreciated and made being far from home less difficult. When I left they called me “sister” (still sort of like a 12 year old brother would relate to his high school sister–sweet, endearing, a bit hard to relate to, though professionally treated me like an equal). I would say where I was it didn’t seem they don’t interact with many women professionally.

I also dressed as appropriate for my village (in a salwar kameez–the long shirts with leggings), followed customs for shoes, and didn’t venture far without a male escort (driver and translator were with me most the time). I don’t know how much of this was required, but it was appreciated. I didn’t go out after dark often. I stayed at my apartment in the evenings after work except to walk with a friend to the store or a nearby restaurant both within a 3 block or so radius of the apartment (and one rogue evening hanging out with some local college-aged women at the Pizza Hut).

I ventured to Catholic Mass most Sundays–about 40ish minutes away in an auto-rickashaw/tuk-tuk by myself–that was a little scary, but more for the arranged marriage proposals I received after Mass. (“Funny, I’ve had a difficult time arranging my son with an American Catholic woman. Can I have your father’s phone number?” Um, no. I’m still working on a more polite way of saying arranged marriage is just not my style in preparation for my next overseas adventure). [Side note: If Hillary Clinton is only worth two camels, I don’t want to know what they’d offer for me. I should clarify, this references a story that was in the paper all summer about a terrorist group putting ransom up for someone willing to kidnap Hillary when she was Secretary of State, NOT my colleagues wanting to marry her.]

I never felt particularly unsafe, except riding in a car in Delhi and that’s not because I am a woman–the sheer amount of traffic and chaos would frighten most American drivers. Did I stand out? Yes, my friend and I were the only white people in our part of the city. Everyone stared as we walked down the street–but out of curiosity. There is no feeling in the world that replaces this experience–being a physical minority and attracting attention just by your appearance–a very valuable life lesson.

If I’m honest, I did flirt with/was flirted with by some lovely gentlemen (mostly bartenders in Goa) in the more touristy/European areas, but nothing was threatening, and everyone was friendly. No major problems. One invited me to a party with his friends–which I SO would have gone to had my friend and I been traveling with a male companion, but we didn’t. We were cautious, even though it was probably fine. This to me is a reality of traveling in a country where you don’t speak the local language or even going out in the States by yourself or with only females.

I did have one colleague who always said things like (at the beach) that my friend and I should bring our boyfriends or husbands back so we could swim next time. He’d say that about most activities. As an independent, adventurous, and-yes-American woman, I thought, “Newsflash, we came halfway across the world by ourselves, we don’t really need our boyfriends hear to walk barefoot in the ocean.” But, of course, the truth is that is a part of his culture and no matter how you conceive of it or what similarities there are, there will always be some differences.

Also, I knew locals and India is a higher context society than ours. We don’t have a caste, so they have to know where to place us. My local contact was very well respected–so I felt that I was, too. Many Indians I encountered wanted to know what my parents did for a living, because their jobs have been traditionally divided by caste/social class.

It’s not that there were not difficult parts about it, but my most difficult parts were (keep in mind I was not in the most cosmopolitan of places, but rather in a more rural and less international area):
1) It’s just a different culture with different values. You have to learn/become “fluent” so to speak in the new culture. Body language, intonation, eye contact norms, etc.
2) The caste system made less and less sense the more they tried to explain it to me. It’s connected to their last same…so someone with a surname like O’Reilly or O’Connor is obviously of Irish decent and that you are Hispanic as a Garcia, Singh means warrior caste–it’s in your blood so to speak, who you are. Some people didn’t understand that I don’t have a caste. The divide between rich, middle class, and poor is incredible.
3) There’s a lot of materialism in the big cities like Delhi or Mumbai. I see materialism as the result of believing that faith causes conflict and that religion (all of it) is backwards.
While I also met a lot of very devout Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Muslims,Buddhists, and Baha’i followers, it doesn’t seem that most people they encounter from developed nations are religious (think about many Ambassadors, government officials, UN officials, aid workers, academics–in the U.S. many of them tend to be not religious–or not publicly religious).

I would keep in mind that I did not spend much time in major cities and that India is one of the most economically, physically, and culturally diverse places I’ve ever visited. More languages and races exist in this one nation than most other places in the world. More important than my individual experience is that there are many vast and varied experiences in India and not all of them are violent or chauvinistic or what we would consider immoral. The more we perpetuate this myth that these negative experiences are “what India is” the more fear we foster among our fellow human beings and the less open we are to working together to tackle common problems and share in friendship.


Solidarity, Sister


Today, I went to one of the best panel I’ve ever attended (and definitely better than any I’ve planned/hosted/moderated). And, I have been to many panels in my day. This particular event was entitled White House Women in Foreign Policy, a part of the White House’s celebration of Women’s History month. Aside from the yearbook’s worth of photos I took of the East Wing, the even itself was just spectacular.

What about this event was so spectacular? Was it an audience of predominantly women listening to some of the most powerful women in foreign affairs? Was it all the cute professional clothes and shoes I now feel inspired (compelled) to go out and buy?

These were all wonderful accidents of the amazing substance. Hearing four accomplished women talking about their mid-20s was like having them read my mind. I ran into a friend from grad school in line for security and we ended up sitting next to each other. We kept glancing at each other with looks that said, this is down right creepy–it’s like they’re reading our minds.

These well-educated, poised women were up here talking about the fear and uncertainty of their 20s and onward–of their careers, of their families, of their first boss, and of their first jobs. What it’s like to be a minority in the field as a woman. They discussed work-life balance and whether or not it was realistic to “have it all.” Everything that has been on my mind–working abroad, working in government, working outside of government, careers, relationships, plans for a family, all of that were accounted for in the wonderful accounts these women gave of the ups and downs of their lives.

To say the least, it was encouraging. These women worried and planned. They got degrees and went through job searches. They had jobs and bosses they didn’t like. They got opportunities that changed their plans and careers. They sought out mentors. They worked their butts off. They failed. And they succeeded.

There is something immensely encouraging about knowing you’re not alone. And there is something immensely inspiring about knowing these women have trodden the path before me–that many of them blazed the trail. I find that there are few things more valuable in life than being an attentive listener to those that have walked before you and those that walk with you. There is a comfort in knowing that even if we don’t always know the answer, we’re not alone.

White House Women in Foreign Policy Panel

Linda Etim-Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa, USAID; Caitlin Hayden-Spokesperson, National Security Council, White House; Maria Otero-Under Secretary, Dept of State; Michele Flournoy-Under Secretary, Dept of Defense

Come Sail Away…


I’m sailing away,
Set an open course for the virgin sea,
‘Cause I’ve got to be free,
Free to face the life that’s ahead of me,
On board, I’m the captain, so climb aboard,
We’ll search for tomorrow on every shore,
And I’ll try, Oh Lord I’ll try, to carry on

I’ve been singing Styx since a very young age. There was not a family road trip that didn’t involve rocking out to Styx (along with a few other favorites…The Night Chicago Died–who doesn’t love a song about gang warfare? And of course, a family favorite, Afternoon Delight…yeah, don’t ask). In fact, I remember a bus ride at camp singing Styx with one of my first crushes. Styx. That is true love. (I may have had better taste in men as a twelve year old…the jury is still out).

And this. This is the song that comes to me this weekend in the midst of a silent retreat. Have you ever spent 48+ hours not talking? I highly recommend it, especially in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Advice from friends, family, and mentors is great–often essential. But sometimes you have to quiet all the voices and listen to what it is that you want and what you need. Plus, I’m all about inner peace and tranquility; living life in a rather large metropolis focused on success and achievement sometimes requires that you take a step back to reestablish the inner calm among the chaos and the busy.

So here I am: thesis-ing, job searching, working, homework-ing (yes, I invent school related verbs), blogging, and volunteering. Well-rested, I attempt to attack my thesis and my upcoming projects with a more sane (less anxious) mind and a firmer sense of direction. I have come to realize in my silence that what I am really seeking is not just the next adventure or the answer to the inevitable “What am I going to do when I grow up?”, but joy. The joy of travel. The joy of family and friends. The joy of my faith, of new experiences, of exploring new hobbies, of celebrating life.

And to my future, I say…

On board, I’m the captain, so climb aboard!

My Culture


A friend of mine told me about a book that talks about the difficulties women have dating because they are ambitious and career-oriented, but want to have a family and be stay-at-home moms. That apparently men who are supportive of career-driven women may not see the value in a stay-at-home parent or that men looking for a wife who would value a stay-at-home parent may not know that about his ambitious female friends.  (DISCLAIMER: I haven’t read the book, I was just told about it. So this is my interpretation of what I heard. I also think she said it was specific to DC, or urban areas. Regardless…)

I can’t say this worry had ever occurred to me personally. Certainly, I have been in real experiences in which that conversation is necessary. I’ll out myself as an ambitious woman who would love to eventually have a family and be able to stay at home (I say stay-at-home loosely, I’ll probably be “on the road.” 🙂 ) But, it has never been a difficulty in finding someone to date. And let’s be honest, there are a lot of necessary conversations in any relationship. (Like my addiction to international travel…my bank account and I already go back and forth on that. I can’t imagine my future spouse and I won’t have to have that conversation. Or better yet, we should just have the same addiction to adventure. Hey, girl can dream!**)

This post drifts from away from a strictly “travel” blog here and shifts in to one about culture and values. As I was contemplating the existence of this book, I didn’t quite get it. But it did lead me to think more deeply about why staying at home or having a more flexible job as a parent would be important to me. I came up with this: my desire to create a culture unique to my future family. I love traditions, holidays, and rituals. These are what make life so rich. They are the very reason I yearn to travel—to see how others celebrate the joys in everyday life and in the monumental occasions (life, death, birth, marriage, coming of age…). Life is beautiful and it is the celebration of the joys and how we handle sorrows that makes one ordinary moment different from the next.

This thought led me to something else. I have these beautiful friends that aspire to own a farm. They have an amazing blog where they chronicle their made-from-scratch recipes and other craftsmanship projects. I see them value the hard work and the virtues that come with those efforts and I admire them greatly. They take their values and live them. Admittedly I have wondered to myself, if I really wanted to create a culture as I said above, would I be making lye soap or beeswax candles? After all, I like the values they hold that lead them to do this. But let’s be honest…I love projects, but I don’t ever see myself making detergent from scratch more than once for the novelty of it.

Part of the reason my friends’ blog has sparked so much thought was a debate in my Global Ethics class about particularism versus universalism in tackling poverty—that is are we more effective in our efforts to help our own and do it well or are we more effective in helping the most objectively impoverished though they may be in far corners of the world or isn’t the most effective use of resources? While most of my fellow master’s students argued in favor of universalism, I found myself defending a greater responsibility to our own children and our immediate neighbors. (How did I end up in an international affairs program instead of social work, if this is the case? I may never know.) In this same vein, I found myself inspired to volunteer and support local NGOs, dedicated to ending hunger and homelessness locally, upon my return from India.

If I truly feel particularistic—in that I can most effectively help the world by the children I may raise or serving those in my own little corner of the world—would I not be doing something radical like my friends’ in saving for a farm (or whatever it may be that you value) to create that particular culture that fosters those values?

But I have come to a conclusion. (Besides the fact that I think too much about things that haven’t happened yet…) It is through my love of people and exploration of culture—learning what and how people attribute meaning and significance to in life—that leads me to this frame of mind, to my desire to build a domestic culture. I know traveling has taught me so much—it’s pushed me to my limits and beyond on more than one occasion, but it’s also stretched me and forced me to grow. (In retrospect, I think relationships, families, and living together is similar–pushes your limits, but ideally challenges you to improve).

If I have values, I want to live by them…otherwise, they are no better than a presidential campaign—all rhetoric and no substance. It has just occurred to me that some of my specific values are learning, exploring, and finding meaning in it all. Maybe international travel is my farm–the a part of the way I live out my values…and maybe it doesn’t have to be particular OR universal.

***Speaking of dreamy: For anyone who saw The Bachelor finale this week, I wouldn’t mind riding off into the Thai sunset on an elephant either.

Uncomfortable Moment-Part II


Now before posting this, I wrote it out at the same time as Part I on the airplane to Odisha. First, let me assure you that I will get to posting about daily life in Odisha, my research project, and the incredible cast of characters with whom I work.

This post however, brought up an interesting debate in my mind…the liminal between my private thoughts and the insights I share. That is what of my thoughts to I want to save for my journal and what should be thrust upon the world wide web. I think this is a tough debate for my generation–instant sharing, “like”ing, retweeting, etc. Even when looking for jobs, self-branding is important and blogs, LinkedIn, digital resumes, and more could give us a needed leg up in this challenging market.

But focusing on the internal is important, too. I know for some it’s a prayer life or meditation, or just time alone to process experiences and new ideas. We need that nearly extinct quiet time with only ourselves where we’re not thinking in Facebook statuses or pithy 140-character comments and where we’re not being inundated with constant “updates” from others. (Not to say that new media can’t be a great tool, I love blogging and keeping up with friends and family…just to say sometimes we need a break).

So it is in the spirit of deciding whether or not to publish this, I offer you my second installment of Uncomfortable Moments…for the whole world wide web to see.

The next “uncomfortable moment” is related to my experiences traveling and the role of women in society. Glass ceiling? Didn’t that break when my mother entered the workforce? (She’s now cringing as she reads this–at my naivete and at the fact that I tossed that out like it was ancient history–you’re not mom…ancient that is.)

In my defense, I have been blessed with strong female role models my whole life. My grandmothers are definitely the matriarchs of our large, loving, close-knit clans. I never saw them unable to accomplish anything to which they set their minds. Of my 13 aunts, almost all have a college education–some advanced degrees–and every single one of them is an accomplished and respected mother and professional. My female cousins have globe-trotted, are intelligent, and know how to stand up for themselves and achieve their goals. I could go on…

But there is something different here in India that I noticed on my very arrival in the Delhi airport. Among high-powered female executives, intellectuals, politicians, and even some of our pilots and airport security officers, there is still a very specific role women fill. One could argue that women always fill a unique role in society–and I agree insofar as women provide a distinct perspective and contribution to society (and not to mention the many that bear children and are primarily responsible for their upbringing).

But this, this felt different. Standing in line for airport security for the umpteenth time that week, I put my carry on bags on the conveyor belt. The security officer directs me to walk through metal detector #4. Assuming (which I should know by now ALWAYS gets me into trouble) this #4 was the same security lane I was in, I proceeded to walk through the detector. I’m stopped as I’m halfway through and redirected to the other end.

Ah, the infamous portal #4…alas we meet. What is so special about metal detector #4? It’s for women only. This is when I notice for the first time that the other 3 metal detectors and screening lines are for men only. As Allison and I take this in, she points out the ratio of male travelers to female. It makes sense. There were actually many female travelers surrounded by children, but almost all seemed to be accompanied by men.

A look through portal #4 revealed a tent for security screening reminiscent of a white changing tent on a beach. The affixed sign said, “Ladies” with a silhouette graphic sporting a figure even Barbie would envy. Uncomfortable moment.

I’ve read about developing countries, poverty, and other cultures in which women are treaty differently. I’ve studied the UN Development Programme and UN Department of Peacekeeping Operation’s focus on women and women’s empowerment (both within the organization and for aid-recipients).  But never. Never have I been confronted with it.

Uncomfortable moment–making me grateful that I’ve had family members, teachers, coworkers, and friends value me for my contributions and my personhood–not biased by my gender.

This is not to say that I saw any individual man disrespect an individual woman. I haven’t. The organization I work for fosters women’s empowerment as a secondary goal to livelihood and microfinance. The man that works at the grocery store kindly carried Allison’s and my groceries all the way from the store to our house when neither the store or us had bags. But I have learned (observed?) that it is difficult for NGOs to operate locally here if women’s empowerment is their main or only goal…at least it appears that way. Society does seem to be catching up with educated individuals within it and with human rights norms throughout the world.

This blog post is merely just commentary on the societal differences. Between my past experience and the reality confronting me. You can’t tell the difference between a real advertisement for flawless new airline stewardesses and the PanAm tv show ad–a male pilot sporting aviators surrounded by stewardesses 155 cm tall of proportional weight and clear complexions.

Perhaps, to each his own…but nonetheless there is something uncomfortable in the juxtaposition of my past and even my future, and this, their, present.











NEXT POST: After having talked about what has thus far made me uncomfortable, I will write about “Guest is god: India Hospitality”, discussing some of my favorite parts of India culture.

Uncomfortable Moments-Part I


Here is a blog entry I wrote in Thailand last Thursday. More to come this week on my new apartment and neighborhood in Odisha!

There are always those uncomfortable moments when experiencing something new that cause me to shift my previous (even sometimes firmly-held) perspective. That moment when something which is one’s own—be that my own expectation, modus operandi, etc.—clashes jarringly with something new I see or experience in the world. I’d like to say my week of travel and initiation into Asian cultures has been all sunshine and daisies, and really, it mostly has. But devoid of these moments that shake our core and cause us to reconsider, what is the worth—the expense (time, monetary, or energy expended) of travel? Once experienced, those uncomfortable moments force me to incorporate them into my knowledge, opinions, decision-making and ways of thinking.

Precisely when we have left our comfort zone is when we have the most to gain, to learn about ourselves and the world around us.

As we embark on our last flight to Odisha, I can think of two particular “uncomfortable moments” which have caused pause and reflection my own perspective. The first of which I’ll detail in this post, and the latter, I will save for another—as this is already a long post!

The first of these encounters takes place at the small Thai Resort near the airport. For those of you that are not aware, I have an auto-immune disease known as Celiac. Now this blog’s purpose is not to discuss that journey, or the battles and victories so contained—that could fill a blog in itself. I’ll spare you (though I promise to take pictures and discuss food here, it’s just too good not to)! However, traveling poses challenges to ensuring that my food is free of gluten and cross contamination, to say nothing of the language barrier. I’d spent 6 months research “traveling with Celiac” and “Celiac and [insert my specific destinations here].” I created a gluten free manual and came armed with my allergy cards—which explain my dietary issue in Thailand, Hindi, Nepalese, and English (there was no Oriya card, I checked). I felt prepared for most anything and resigned to both having half of my luggage space devoted to safe foods and foregoing the food markets and other uncertain local eats (normally something I’d love!) to avoid being sick. This is me—researched, prepared, and able to adapt.

At the little resort was a restaurant staffed with locals. Armed with my Thai allergy card and an empty stomach, I attempted to hand it the waitress prior to ordering. She looked down at the card and then from me to Allison, unsure. She may have said something in Thai before she hurried out, leaving me unprepared for this. She was illiterate. Uncomfortable moment.

She very helpfully brought someone from the front desk to tell her what it said. But that moment in which my past experience and expectations didn’t meet with the reality in front of me struck a chord. How could I assume…? I felt guilty for creating the situation in the first place. After all, hadn’t I (or shouldn’t I have) read about literacy rates in a news article or a guide book? I hadn’t that I remember—and who knows if that would’ve helped—but the “I should’ve known/been more sensitive” feeling washed over. Upon reflection, this uncomfortable moment was just an in-my-face reminder that 1) I cannot prepare myself for everything and 2) people have vastly different lives, opportunities, and desires—some shaped by our own choices, some by our society in which we live, and some by our circumstances.

This caused me to reflect even further. I have a fairly extensive book collection. My mom even once said when helping me move in or out of a dorm room during college that I might be one of the only college-aged girls with more boxes of books than clothes (rest-assured my storage in DC is now about equally bursting at the seams with books and clothes). I try not to take my book collection for granted; I’ve worked hard to buy many of them. But reading? A skill I acquired when I was 6 years old? Which ever since has felt as natural as breathing? That. That I’ve taken for granted. Up until that very moment.

Sometimes, even often, we need these experiences to throw us off kilter, to reframe ourselves and how we view and judge the world. It is also an important reminder that our inherent worth, our human dignity is not derived from what we have accomplished or what we are capable of doing. Beyond that, our worth and the worth of those around us come from merely being.