Functional Anarchy

Rajahstan: The land of Large Moustaches

“Welcome to India. The country of functional anarchy.” I don’t know a term that better defines my experience in India. From the insane traffic to the lack of queuing to the last-minute travel plans, I not only survived the functional anarchy in India, but embraced it. (Yes, I showed up to a flight 20 minutes before departure and was still able to check my bag, go through security, grab a snack and land safely at my destination. I’ll admit, on the outside I was calm, but internally I was freaking out). The beauty of India is that things always find a way of working out even when it seems impossible.

When I first applied for the India Summer School program, my expectations were solely set out on professional development. If you asked me what I was doing for the summer, I’d tell you that I would be taking classes on development and management and applying what I learned during field visits. This only scratches the surface of what my summer involved. From a birds-eye view, you would mostly see 101 things happening at once with no obvious patterns. But some way, somehow, it all works. There are no accidents or missed connections. That’s what my summer was (and what India is). I had many things thrown at me at once from culture shock to racial and gender dynamics to anti-Islamic sentiment to illness. There were many times I felt like I was heading for disaster unable to steer back on course. Yet, more than two months later, I am leaving India with so many lessons that I am truly grateful to have learned (and I’m also intact! No injuries here).

Despite working in many cross-cultural contexts, my experience in India has been the most challenging both on an individual and group level. From gender dynamics to definitions of timeliness to individual priorities, as a group, everyone had to be in tune with their group members and learn how to best work with one another and leverage each other’s strengths. Despite the many frustrations I had over the summer, I learned a lot from working with my Indian colleagues. One thing I admired most about my Indian colleagues was how calm they remained in all situations. On many occasions, I’d worry about something not getting done or think up the worst-case scenario, but my Indian colleagues always grounded me. They knew that everything was going to get done (even if at the very last moment), and urged me to go with the flow and believe that I was in the clear. I also admired my Indian colleague’s sense of confidence. In and outside of class and field visits, the Indian students were never shy to share their experiences and opinions. It always struck me how knowledgeable they were about history and current events in India, and the work that the government and other organizations were doing in their fields of work. They enhanced the classroom discussions with lively debates and knowledge-sharing. I truly admire their passion for their work.

Ending the last field visit on a high note.

In the field, I reflected on the work of an international development professional. The purpose of development work is to work yourself out of a job, and getting to that point means amplifying voices that have been long and systemically ignored. The work is emotionally-demanding and requires you to have strong internal motivation to carry on despite the many injustices that people routinely face. Being in the field served as a reminder of the reality of lifestyles I choose to be a part of and then leave because of the privileges I am afforded.

Therefore, I was quite humbled by this experience. Although I have worked extensively in West Africa and visit family there, each time, I am able to return to my comfortable life back in the States (relatively speaking). The more time that passes in between my visits, the further removed I become to the international issues that I am passionate about. I read news articles or academic papers to keep up. When not in the field, you tend to be disconnected from the issues. You learn that, “X country’s government institutions are weak. Y country has more people living in rural areas than in urban areas. Z country has more girls out of school than boys.” However, it’s hard to actually understand what these facts mean and how they manifest on a daily basis. Therefore, you have to remain humble because you will never know all of the important details and must continuously learn.

Another important lesson for me is the idea of sharing and vulnerability. While in the field, I attempted to build rapport with the villagers to learn more about their lives and the issues that they face. The premise of my assignment was to gather information from the villagers and get them to open up about intimate details of their lives.  Yet there was not the expectation that my team and I share details about our lives. This is an imbalance of power that I had not mused in my past experiences. Generally, I am a private person and am not forthcoming with personal aspects of my life. However, if I am expecting people to openly share with me, shouldn’t I also be vulnerable and give them a part of me?

Informally meeting with villagers.

Overall, I have had an “Indian head nod” of an experience in India (look it up!). I can’t wait to share my many stories when I return to the States.

Namaste for the last time!

P.S. Thank you to the Sanford School of Public Policy, Indian Institute of Management – Udaipur, and the Nicholas School of the Environment for providing me with this exceptional opportunity!