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A Fly In a Foreign Land

I want to share a short meditation on my thoughts with respect to managing expectations during my placement at Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA). I have been jostling intellectually as to which path I ought to take in explaining my internship given that I have passed the halfway point of my time here in India. In short, there is no easy explanation. The past three months have been full of high points and low points, moments of epiphany, inspiring anecdotal stories, and perhaps most importantly, profound levels of personal growth. Out of all these experiences one axiom holds true—be willing to expect the unexpected on a daily basis.

I have felt that laying out a few of my own perspectives on what this internship has meant for me on a personal level is an important step in identifying the programmatic and academic aspects involved in the thematic work that I am engaging in. It has been a challenge for me to wrap my head around my program work in the area of water and sanitation until I have highlighted what I consider to be a few non-negotiable truisms that constitute my daily role as an intern. Personally, it has only made sense to first document some personal observations of my experience before, secondly, engaging in the research questions that I have identified. For me, this constitutes a necessary logical progression towards a comprehensive understanding of my time in India.

From the outset of my placement, I had identified learning some basic Hindi as a goal. To a certain extent, this has been the case but not to the degree that I had envisioned. I have always had a narrow perception of language, and of rationalizing a need to pick up a second language. Most of the world speaks English? Most of the world wants to speak English? I guess this underscores a certain amount of my own undiagnosed predisposition to privilege—that term again! Anyways, my point is that throughout my internship, perhaps the single greatest skill—call it an intangible skill—has been the development of a greater sense of my own intuition; and in turn, having the confidence to trust that intuition. Here, I don’t mean understanding something immediately but rather, considering something through the combination of instinct and conscious reasoning in the absence of knowing the dominant language spoken. I hope this makes sense as I have had a hard time articulating this point. I think intuition is the correct term to use.

Many times throughout my placement I have thought to myself why can’t these people speak English, don’t they see me? Don’t they know that I know nothing of Hindi, much less the countless regional dialects throughout Chhattisgarh alone? This mental thought process constitutes a certain level of cognitive dissonance on my part. I know that the expectation on those that I may be listening to should not be to facilitate my language needs, but at the same time I expect it, however irrational it may be. Perhaps this will come off sounding selfish, and granted, it is; but it also comes from a desire to understand what my colleagues at PRIA are articulating in a workshop beyond body language; the concerns and criticisms leveled by community members I have met on field visits; and ordinary Indians that I have engaged with in broken conversation on the merits of this week’s religious merrymaking.

As many extremely welcoming Indians have explained to me, “You are most welcome here in India.” Regardless, I recognize that I am an outsider trying to gather some semblance of an ‘insiders’ perspective on all things India (yes the country of 1.2 billion humans!) in six months or less. This is undoubtedly an unreasonable perspective to have given the timeframe. However, I am untroubled at the prospect of attempting to extrapolate my sponge-like brain from a university setting—where I have sometimes felt like a number on a page—to being a humble cog in a civil society organization like PRIA. PRIA has given me a new outlook on what the NGO development sector is all about. Discussing the various social programs and interventions that PRIA staff members are engaging in across the country has undoubtedly left a personal, and human impression on me in a way that no academic paper can.

I am not the center of the universe; I am more like a fly on the wall trying to absorb as much as possible about global South development as a fly…er…human is possible of.

I hope this meditation is well received. I strongly believe that sitting down and capturing these long-thought ideas act as a form of catharsis for me. Outside of my own research on the intersectional elements of water and sanitation, the cathartic aspect that my placement has afforded me has left plenty of time to unpack many of the philosophical and intellectual assumptions that I have held in my geography and political science studies. Furthermore, the experiential learning element associated with my stay here in India—including my work with PRIA and negotiating daily life in India—have acted as a kind of laboratory for assessing my previously held beliefs in many domains. More than that, these perspectives have given me a rich context from which to assess much of the previous academic work that led me to this internship and will continue to inform my own paradigm in the future.

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