Why I spent 11 months in India

This was originally published as an article for Uni High‘s Online Gargoyle on May 26th, 2010, two months before the exchange began.

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I’M SITTING ON the sofa in my family room. It’s Jan. 17, and it is very cold outside. It may be snowing.

The phone rings.

“I have your assignment for the country you’ll be going to next year,” says my Rotary Youth Exchange district outbound coordinator. “Do you want to hear?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Your assignment is …”

He pauses.

“India.”

What I’m doing for 11 months

Next year, I will be spending 11 months in central India through Rotary Youth Exchange, or RYE. Four other Uni students are also doing RYE: seniors Maria Gao (France), Hadley Hauser (Japan), Tianna Pittenger (Brazil), and junior Claire Billingsley (Denmark).

RYE, first and foremost, is a cultural exchange. In short, students live the life of other students their age in their country. We live with host families — usually about three.

Although we attend classes, the focus of the exchange is not on grades. It’s about learning — not so much the course material as the cultural practices. As I was told by Ethan Stone (Uni ’08), a RYE alum of Belgium, the real learning occurs during the passing periods.

My introduction to RYE came in November. My mother had attended a meeting at the Illinois Terminal that explained what the program was. At that point, my mind was fixated solely on applying to college.

Yet the more I heard about the opportunity, the more interested I became. I heard about Stone’s exchange from his father, biology teacher Dave Stone. Pittenger told me about her sister Larissa’s (Class of ’08) exchange to India. Countless accounts kept coming in from people affiliated with Rotary, offering me their endorsement of the program.

I decided to apply.

The application process was mind-numbing. Not only was the application 18 pages long, but it had to be copied five times.

Not only did I need my doctor and dentist to sign forms, but I needed them to sign in blue ink. Not only did I need to provide five photos, but they needed to be attached with double-sided tape.

The most fun part of the application was the country preference sheet. I ranked 42 countries from each continent except Antarctica, most having no language requirements. Save for a small minority of countries, I would have been happy to go to any of them.

I submitted my application on Friday, Nov. 20, 2009. Two months and seven college applications later, on Jan. 17, I got the call.

Where I’m going for 11 months

When I tell people about my plans to go to India next year, their reactions vary widely. Some have cautioned me about water contamination, and others have excitedly prepared me for camel rides.

Some have responded with a simple “Interesting,” and others have spoken with me at length about their travels there. Some have told me I’m sure to die of a tropical disease, and others have told me I’ll have the time of my life.

I’ve been told about the cricket, the cows, the malaria, the monsoons, the technology, the Taj Mahal, the summer heat, the slums, the traffic, the temples, the caste system, the crowds, the water, the weather, the people, the pickpocket monkeys, and the fact that anyone who doesn’t have black hair — for example, me — is about as rare as snowfall south of the Ganges River.

Generalizing, therefore, won’t get you very far in India. Its variety, I think, is why the people I’ve talked to have had such a wide range of opinions.

India doesn’t get the credit it deserves for its extreme diversity. Twenty-nine languages have at least 1 million speakers. Millions of Indians each represent Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Beaches, deserts, mountains, plains, rivers, forests and marshes make up the country’s 1.2 million square miles. In every city, the people range from extremely rich to extremely poor. The caste system certainly still prevails.

In April, I got an e-mail telling me I’d be going to Rotary International District 3030 in northeastern Maharashtra. Two and a half weeks later, I got another e-mail. Destination: Nagpur. Although it is the 13th-largest city in India, Nagpur is almost as large as Chicago. The precise geographical center of India, in fact, lies in Nagpur.

For more than 17 years, I’ve lived in the Midwest. Ninety-nine percent of my memories have been made in a region of a few square miles.

For 11 months, I will be almost as far away from all that as I can get. My life will be centered around India.

Literally.

Why I’m spending 11 months there

None of this would be possible without RYE. All I have to pay for is a plane ticket (albeit a very expensive one) and other travel expenses. My host family and the local Rotary club cover the cost of food, housing, and schooling. I’m also given a weekly allowance.

But it isn’t the low cost that makes the program special.

In March, I spent the weekend with the other exchange students in Rotary District 6490. Both “inbounds” (the students from other countries spending the year in central Illinois) and “outbounds” (the students from the district who will be spending the year abroad) spent the weekend with host families, in Pontiac and Chicago.

In two days, I mingled and met with a couple dozen students. I had never met most of them before. Our backgrounds were all different. Some were from Taiwan or Paraguay. Others were from Mattoon or Normal. But they had more in common than the fact they were collecting stamps on their passports. They all smiled.

The smile-to-frown ratio on the trip was perhaps the highest I had ever seen. I instantly became friends with them, despite the fact they had trouble speaking English. They had their cultural dos and don’ts, but those didn’t matter. The smile, in any situation, always persevered.

I was also struck by their maturity. Legally, these were kids, but they were all grown up. They were either in or about to embark on journeys that took them far out of their comfort zones.

“Mature” is a word I would use to describe many Uni students, especially with respect to other area students. But coming back to school the next Monday, I was in shock. The kids from RYE simply didn’t compare to any other people I’d ever met.

A couple weeks after our trip, we received T-shirts with the countries everyone from the district was either going to or from. Below the district number and the list of countries was a word, written in all-caps: FRIENDS.

The choice of word, when I thought about it, was more appropriate than corny. United merely by the number 6490 and two short meetings a month and a half apart, we all became friends. The connections were instant. They were fundamental. They were, and remain, friendships.

The world, when you think about it, is quite small. There are nearly 7 billion people in the world, and of those, you might meet only a thousandth of a percent of them.

What RYE does is to take that world and shrink it down. It enables us to meet people from a variety of backgrounds — people we would otherwise never have met — and make a positive impact on their lives. It is because of people, people like those from that weekend in March, that I am excited to be spending 11 months in India next year.

And in a country with more than a billion people, I certainly won’t have trouble finding any.

🙂


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