I grew up eating rice and daal, palak paneer and pani poori. I grew up celebrating Diwali and Janmashtami and going to the temple in Hillsboro, Oregon for pujas and auspicious events. Going to an American public school, I also grew up taking history classes that focused on aspects of India like its demographics, colonial history and poverty. There were things I had learned from these classes and from summer visits to see family every few years, but after studying abroad in Bangalore for a month last summer, I realized there are some things that no number of textbooks could have taught me.
Even in just a month working with Swasti Health Resource Center, I was exposed to issues in India that I had never seen and never seemed to be talked about. Perhaps one of the most impactful experiences for me was visiting Swathi Mahila Sangha, where women in sex work are empowered and supported through a variety of services. As sex work is illegal in India, many women are often left hiding their jobs from their children and even spouses, subject to abuse and unsafe conditions, and lacking a reliable support system. Staff members taught us about the 13,000 women they are able to help by providing financial support, mental health counseling, nutritious meal packets, child support, education, resources like condoms, and even fun events like talent shows. Rather than being treated like “clients,” however, these women have created lasting bonds with staff and other women, some even calling the head of SMS “amma,” or mother.
Experiences in Bangalore like visiting SMS have completely changed my mindset and perspective on the world, proving to me that to learn about, see, and immerse yourself in something are three different things. Studying abroad in a country I thought I was so familiar with has deepened my understanding of the complexity of people’s lives and the many factors that influence and impact them. Ultimately, I have learned that there is always more to something than what meets the eye– something I will remind myself here and across the world.
Nidhi Pai, 2018