India / Other / Southeast Asia

Giving Meaning to the Going Forth

“In a sense it’s the coming back, the return, which gives meaning to the going forth. We really don’t know where we’ve been until we come back to where we were. Only where we were may not be as it was because of who we’ve become, which, after all, is why we left…” –Bernard Stevens, Northern Exposure

A couple of weeks ago I was presented with this challenge: to reread my posts from India and take some time to reflect on them. And then, hopefully, out of that reflection would come some sort of understanding of how that experience shapes my life today.

Well, I did it. Despite the pop-up spring break plans, and the delays caused by mountains of school work, I was able to go back through my earlier posts and jot down some notes to myself. I’ve been thinking a lot about India this week and what I’ve held onto from that semester, and I think I’m ready to begin making sense of it.

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One of the first things I had to adjust to in India was the way women were perceived. As a result, I determined early on that the way I experienced feminism would have to change in order for me to live in that space for almost 4 months. Before leaving for India, defining myself as a feminist meant that I wouldn’t stand for behavior that made me feel marginalized. I held myself accountable for critically evaluating the ways gender was presented to me in the media and by my peers. Before India, I valued sharing my critiques of gender inequality and of pointing out places where I thought equality was lacking. I felt a responsibility for educating people about the way I have been made to feel different and subordinate as a woman. In India, I learned quickly that the way I embodied my feminism would have to change. I will never forget the first week of class, when our gender professor got up in front of our group of 17 American students and explained how India and Pune could be an unsafe place for women. I remember a feeling of elation when she said she considered herself a feminist. And I remember how quickly that elation was torn down by the advice that followed:

  • don’t walk alone at night
  • cover up your body, wear conservative Indian clothing
  • try not to make too much eye contact with strangers

It sounded like victim shaming. She called herself a feminist, but all her advice to us suggested that if something bad happened to us it would be our fault for not following the guidelines. At first I didn’t understand. Throughout the weeks we learned a lot about Anu, her life, and her experiences. I began to see that the way she lived her feminism was different than the way I had lived mine in America. She used her awareness of gender inequality to draw power within her “societal place” as an Indian woman (of her caste and upbringing). She knew how to pick her battles and although she could hear the victim shaming–that I had initially heard–in her own statements, she appreciated that by following societal norms she had greater respect from the community to express herself and more agency to do the things she wanted. Gender is the easiest example for me to draw from, but one of the things I noticed looking back at my posts was how all of my values and identifications of myself had to shift in India. Something about the country and the length of time we were there, made me realize for the first time in a big way that values are fluid. And while the core may remain, the way we experience those same values can look very different. While I was in India I found myself redefining a lot of things that I consider part of my identity as:

  • a woman
  • an American
  • a white person
  • a middle-class college student
  • and a daughter

And in that reevaluation of my identity and what all of those words mean to me, I realized I am not a representative of a single one of them. Although I consider myself an American, a middle-class college student, and a woman I can only speak to my individual experiences. I see commonalities and feel camaraderie with groups that identify themselves in the same way as me, but ultimately I can only speak about my identity and values as they have related to my own experience. And as a representative of white, middle-class American college women I had to be very deliberate about making that fact clear to people I spoke to. I am just one person, from one part of the country, from one economic background and this is my experience and it does not speak for anyone else’s.

That’s another lesson I’ve taken back to the states with me since India. And although I no longer feel the same burden of being a representative for all white, middle-class, American college women, I do feel a responsibility for continuing to deliberately only reflect my own experiences.

I could go on and on about all of the things I now realize I’ve taken back from my semester in India but the biggest two changes have been these:

(1) I now appreciate that values and identities within myself and for others can be fluid, and

(2) I make an effort to deliberately speak only to my experiences as an individual without trying to speak for an entire group I may belong to.

Taking the time to think about these changes almost 5 months after my return gives me a fresh perspective to understand my semester in India. Even with a shorter trip, I think this practice of reflecting on how your experiences apply to you now is a good one.

Where was the last place you went? Are there still parts of that trip you carry around with you? Are there things you learned there that you wish you incorporated into your daily life? I’d love to hear what you all have to say.

 

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