Moving

I hate it. In fact, I don’t think I know a single person who likes to move. It is an unsettling, expensive, and sweaty endeavor that is always such a hassle and usually ends up burdening other people (friends help friends move, right?).

Our lease ended at the end of June and rather than switch to a month-to-month rental agreement with our current complex until my job is over July 31st, we decided to just bite the bullet and move. My current roommate, Maddie, will be in the Bethesda area for another two years, so she would have to move anyways and this way I wouldn’t have to deal with all of this hassle at the very end of my time in D.C.

I’m not sure what exactly happened, but the total move took about 13 hours. We left the apartment at 8am to pick up the u-haul and finally locked the doors of our empty and clean(ish) old home shortly after 9pm. Nothing had gone egregiously wrong, but small things kept piling up and I think we all underestimated the amount of work it was going to be. Our couch is still stuck in the entry hall-way (trying to get that thing in and out of elevators and into our living room was very reminiscent of this scene) and I may have had a slight mental breakdown while ordering take-out at the very end of the evening. But we bought Ben & Jerry’s (which makes everything better, even though the combination of ice-cream and Chinese food didn’t make me feel very good) and decided to suck it up and unpack everything that night. So we went to bed at 1:30, but when I woke up in the morning, my clothes werefolded, the Christmas lights were hanging, and it quickly felt like home.

The fact that I hate moving is not to say that I don’t love change. I love new places and getting rid of old things. Both present the opportunity to start fresh, which I think everyone craves. In three weeks I have to move again. My job at Carnegie will be over and Justin and I will be packing up my bags and hitting the road back to Texas (seems like just yesterday my dad and I were making the trip to D.C.). I will be there for one week and then am moving once again, this time a little farther away….

After months of searching, interviewing, and life-changing decisions….I am going to India.

My parents got this for me for Christmas. I guess they knew before I did.

My parents got this for me for Christmas. I guess they knew before I did.

But I should start at the beginning, which for this particular story starts in 2012. I wanted to study abroad my junior year of college and was accepted to go to Guatemala for an anthropology program. I would live with a local host family and complete an independent research project of my choice (I was thinking something about cosmological myths. They’re pretty cool.).

Something inside, however, made me hesitate. There was another Carleton program that year in Washington, D.C. and I knew the moment I sat down to talk to the professor in charge of the program that it was where I had to go. So I bought a briefcase (yes, I was THAT over-eager intern) and moved to D.C. in the Spring of 2012. I must have applied for over 20 internships before I landed one: working as a research intern at the National Defense University (NDU). 

At NDU, an intern’s work area depended on both your academic interest and the availability of professors who needed research assistance. My very first day I was introduced to Capt. Chan Swallow–director of the Afpak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) Fellows Program at NDU–and he needed help developing the syllabus for one of his courses. He handed me a book called Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military and told me to read it, summarize it, and tell him which chapters he should teach his Master’s students. I told him I wasn’t sure if I was qualified to make that kind of decision (since I knew nothing about Pakistan) and he told me that if I could read and think, then I was.

That was the first time I had ever read anything about Pakistan that wasn’t in the news. This was also my first internship and the first work experience I had ever had that didn’t involve taking care of tiny humans. I was just so excited to be doing something professional related to my International Relations major, completely unbeknownst to me that it had changed the trajectory of the next several years of my life.  

This exchange (book for summary and selections) repeated itself 6 times throughout my 2 months at NDU. Not only did I feel like I was learning 10 times as much as my classmates who had other internships, I felt like I had come across a topic that was more exciting to me than anything I had ever studied before. I poured over each book I was given and found myself buying books on Afghanistan and Pakistan to read in my spare time.

That summer I landed an internship with the Department of Defense doing intelligence work and after a few weeks of training, we got to select our summer projects. Since I had enjoyed doing South Asia related work at NDU, I selected a project about the region and continued learning both inside and outside of work (with my stack of books) for the next three months. In the end, I knew that DOD wasn’t for me, but I wasn’t done with South Asia yet. 

Going back to Carleton for my senior year–knew-found intellectual curiosity in hand–I was disappointed that the Political Science department wasn’t offering any courses on South Asian politics. The pickings were also rather slim in the history department, so I ended up registered for “Religions of South Asia”. And I had a blast. Not only was my professor phenomenal, but I was finally approaching this region from a cultural perspective (instead of an American-centered-military one) and it was the first time I had ever read anything about India outside of a security context in relation to Pakistan and Afghanistan. I attended religious services, watched documentaries on social movements, inhaled ancient texts, and found myself entranced by a completely new face of these places. 

I knew I wanted to keep South Asia in mind when applying for jobs after college, but my professional pursuits weren’t single-minded. In fact, my job search was split down the middle: teaching vs. research. As excited as I was to have found a topic that I could read about for hours on end without tiring, I was passionate about working with kids. And working an office job at DOD made me realize how badly I needed to work with people–not computers. 

So at the end of March (2013), exactly a year after I read my first book about Pakistan, I was faced with a choice: be a research assistant for the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C. or an Elementary School teacher in Dallas with Teach For America. Ironically, these were the only two jobs offered I received (looking for employment is the worst) and they could not have better represented my dilemma. 

I was torn. It wasn’t quite as divided as “do I follow my brain or my heart?” because my heart was also in my work and my head was also telling me that I should teach. Ultimately, I chose to go to D.C. because of time sensitivity. The research fellowship was only open to people within one year of graduation, so I would have been unable to return to Carnegie after doing TFA. I also chose not to defer TFA for a year because it would have required me to start the following June when Carnegie went until August and–even if leaving early were possible–the prospect of planning out three years of my life all at once terrified me. I spent a wonderful four years at Carleton, but–in my mind–graduation was a liberation from any commitment lasting longer than a year. 

And so I moved to the nation’s capital and dove head-first into Indian politics. All day, every day. From historical research to headlines, my days were consumed by India and–as much as a country can from a computer-screen–India came alive to me. Of course I knew that there was more to a country than its many religions, but I knew next to nothing about anything else before I walked through Carnegie’s door. Quite a drastic change from knowing nothing about India to spending twelve months thinking primarily about the political corruption there (read: social issues, political history, economics, etc. You can’t study one aspect of a country in a vacuum without touching on everything else that has shaped it).

My year in D.C. has been one of the best in my life. It has been a year of professional and personal challenges, constant growth, and self-reflection. To think about where I was a year ago–emotionally, intellectually–is just astounding. Of course, the difference is mostly only visible to me, but many of the people closest to me have noted that I am happier. Those changes are their own story, though. 

One thing I definitely learned about myself (which I should have already known after DOD) is that office jobs are not for me. I am so grateful for this year–to learn what I’ve learned, to have made the friends I’ve made, to have had the most supportive boss I could have ever asked for–but sitting behind a computer for 8 hours a day makes me go mad.

Though I used to think that ‘learning’ was enough fulfillment in a job, I’ve slowly come to realize that I would much rather have a job that was minimally cerebral, but required me to be active (quite a difficult concept to grasp for someone who has always loved school and being a student); required me to be with people. More specifically, a job that allows me to help people and have a direct impact that I can measure on a day-to-day basis. It doesn’t have to be a big impact, just something I can see. 

And, I need to work with kids. I miss them so badly and every opportunity I have had to be with children (see: tutoring and adopted family) has reinforced this notion that my future job must be to work with–or at the very least, directly on the behalf of–children. 

The problem with one year jobs is that you have to start thinking about what you want to do next pretty soon after you start. So shortly after I started at Carnegie, I had to make some decisions about what I wanted the next few years of my life to look like. I realized–with great excitement and trepidation–that there was no where in the world that I had to be at this time in my life. I have no car, no mortgage, no children, no pets. Not even a fish. So I took a class on how to teach English to non-native speakers, thinking that I could a) travel, b) work with kids, c) probably find a job more easily than I could in the United States. At least jobs that I would qualify for with no advanced degree. And since I had no idea what I actually wanted to do with my life, why not? For the first time I could control where I went and how long I was there. And it was terrifying and liberating all at the same time. Which, I thought, meant I should probably run at it with open arms. 

 

But where to go?

 

To India? It seemed like the obvious choice. I knew that–even if not right away–I had to go to India. I couldn’t think about this country every single day for a year and not go. Even if I went and hated it there, at least I would have seen it for myself (and that would also be a pretty good sign that I should study something else).

Before I moved to D.C., my dad introduced me to a woman who worked at this small school in Southern India. He knew I was going to be working on India and that I liked to teach, so he thought she and I might have a few things to talk about (thanks, dad). I had lunch with her a year ago and she told me about this place called the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project. This school was a private institution created by  a man named Dr. Abraham George, who has devoted his life to alleviating poverty in rural India. He had an idea, an idea that the children of India’s lowest caste (children who are more often than not banned from attending school with other children because they are considered ‘dirty’) can achieve the same success as other students if afforded the same access to educational opportunities. 

My primary interest was in poor children, and I had learned that the main problem facing them was lack of access to anything resembling quality education. I felt that Indian society had long given up on these children, and there was no real hope for them to rise beyond their meager beginnings. Many people probably believe these children are simply incapable of doing anything better. Hence, the initial idea was to start a primary school in a rural village. It would be a world-class boarding institution for children from the poorest homes and for those belonging mostly to the lowest caste, mainly the ‘untouchables’.

The school could not just be a holding pen designed to keep the kids in place until they assumed their life long roles as servants and workers to the rich. Instead, I was determined that it would be one of the best in India, a school that normally only the children of the richest families could afford. I would give these children the same opportunities as the children of the wealthy and powerful. As far as I knew, it was a model no one else had embarked upon in India. It was to be named Shanti Bhavan, Haven of Peace.

And so he created a home and school for children who have never had clean water, much less received a K-12 education. Children who would have otherwise had no way out of the cycle that is poverty and social discrimination in India. 

I applied to work there with an open and eager heart and, on August 17th, I am packing my bags and leaving for India. For Shanti Bhavan.

You know what else is pretty cool? That Justin guy I always gush about is coming too. We met in that English teaching class I was talking about and–after deciding that we wanted to travel together–I introduced him to this place.

In every regard, things have converged in a way I didn’t think possible and, though I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it, I could not be more excited. I can’t think of a better way to learn about India than through this place, through these children. When I told a man I met from Mumbai that I was moving to India, he clasped my hand and told me: 

“You must have an open mind in India, because it is corny. Embrace the corny. India is love. India is life.”

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Comments:

  1. Danielle, this is beautiful! And the Indian man is right. I may need to start using that to describe India. You will love it, and it is corny. But I trust you more than anyone to fall in love and make the best of it!

  2. So happy and excited for you (and jealous too)! Unfortunately we’ll just miss each other in Dallas 🙁
    But it will be such an amazing adventure and I can’t wait to follow along!! Miss ya lots! Xoxo

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