November 18, 2016

Reflections from India: Surmounting my Expectations

India. What are some images that come to mind when thinking of this particular country? The Taj Mahal? Colorful clothing? Perhaps crowded streets and bustling markets? I know those images were exactly the ones that came to my mind when I found out that I would be participating in ACE India.

However, what I failed to comprehend was exactly how different the lifestyle in India is from my own and what exactly I would be experiencing during my time there.

Everyday on the way to my volunteer site called Vidya – a school for underprivileged children without access to education – presented the perfect opportunity to observe everyday life. From the very first car ride, I realized just how different the Indian lifestyle was. First of all, no one uses traffic lane lines. Every car is unevenly staggered, aggressively accelerating even if only 5 feet of space is available ahead. There are motorbikes weaving in and out just mere centimeters away from other vehicles. People cross the street, slowly meandering throughout the traffic, but confident they won’t get hit amidst the chaos. Horns honk every 3 seconds and the occasional cow or elephant can be spotted lazily making its way through traffic as well. I’m convinced that street life in India is an art.

At the school, from grades pre-k to 11th, students rise up out of their seats to acknowledge us when we enter the classrooms. When we walk by them, each student says, “Good morning ma’am,” or “Hello Didi,” with a gentle wave and a shy smile. The more I toured the school grounds, the more confident and excited I became to start working. That is, until one of the teachers threw me in an 11th grade class and said, “OK you can start teaching them,” and then walked out.

I was left in the classroom with a fellow volunteer feeling extremely unprepared as all the student’s eyes fixed upon us in anticipation of what we had to offer. The students told us that they had chosen business as their area of concentration. In my head I was thinking “how in the world am I supposed to teach business to these students?!” I hadn’t taken a single business class in my life. I’ve also never taught in a classroom setting, especially to students only a couple years younger than me. So there I was, half a world away in India, standing in front of a class with no prior experience whatsoever, to teach English to Indian students whose English was already fairly advanced, and to also infuse some principles of business, which I knew nothing about. At that moment, I realized how underrated being a teacher was.

After that initial experience, my volunteer partner and I began brainstorming class activities and lesson plans. I had to adopt this aura of authority and wisdom for the students who were eager to learn, but in reality on the inside, I was terrified and doubtful of my ability to teach. However over time, each day of teaching became better than the one before. I’ve learned so much about India, my students, the way life goes on here, and so much about myself. I would have never imagined myself in a situation that I described above, but it has been nothing short of phenomenal.

In the classroom I was out of my comfort zone, but on the playground I was more in my element. Kids pulled at our sleeves begging us to play games with them. A group of little girls taught me how to play Kabuddi, the oldest game in India’s history. They squealed with laughter as I attempted to play, not knowing the rules.

I also had the opportunity to play some basketball. I remember doing a simple right handed lay up and everyone stopped and clapped in awe as if were some acrobatic feat. It was such a surreal experience. It’s hard teaching specific skills to the students because they’ve been playing basketball in their own style and rules their entire life, but I played along because basketball is basketball nonetheless.

Sometimes on the playground, I just talked to students who weren’t playing sports and just learned about their life. I’d ask about their plans after school and hear about the way they thought or the desires and dreams they had. What I heard was sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes amazing, but always interesting. Once I asked a girl about her henna on her hand. It wasn’t an intricate pattern at all and I asked why because usually hennas are elaborate. Her response was, “I am a simple girl, and only want simple things.” I loved that.

So whether I was observing from a car window, standing in front of classroom, playing my own sport in a foreign country, or simply just asking questions to younger children, I was constantly being introduced to new things. Processing all the information and flinging myself into situations where I have no clue how to respond left me utterly exhausted but also brought me to many new insights and discoveries about myself and about life beyond anything I’ve ever known.

-- Alexa