Angela in India

Angela W. is a senior studying biochemistry and human rights. She was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Fellowship for summer 2017 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU. She is spending the summer volunteering in Chennai, India, with Unite for Sight, an NGO that supports eye clinics.

On Being Back “Home”

I remember during a study abroad information session my freshman year where the presenter created a metaphorical chart of happiness post time abroad. Right upon return, happiness is at an all-time high because you get to reunite with family and friends, and then it dips to an ultimate low because you realize that all the things you had tried to escape from (for me, graduate school applications and impending graduation) comes catching up to you. After that dip, happiness comes slowly back to your “base” happiness before you left in the first place.

I have gone abroad twice now: the first to Thailand, and the second to India. When I returned from Thailand, the transition perfectly followed the sequence I was told. I had an initial honeymoon period, an existential crisis, and a subsequent recovery period. But following my time in India, my chart of happiness has looked more like this:

When I returned from Thailand, I was at a loss because I had gotten so comfortable in Asia. I loved the prices, food, language, culture and people. I had honestly invested a ton of time into establishing a physical home in Thailand, one that I could comfortably live in for years if I had the chance. Dallas became the place I was stuck in, the back-up plan. But post India, I have really had to confront the idea that for now, I am in transit. Sure I will be on campus for the next year to finish out undergraduate studies, but I have already been traveling for interviews, trying to decide where exactly I want to spend the next couple years of my life in, and planning out next trips abroad. I became decently comfortable in India, but Dallas does not feel as much as a home to me as India did. There’s a new air of impermanence to SMU.

I must say, having an interim home is not a bad thing at all. As you can see from my chart, my happiness is at a greater level than it was when I left. I still have the same stressors, but the thing that has changed is that I feel much more comfortable with the fact that “home” is transplantable. Home can be in Thailand where I got by as a fake Thai person (someone who looked Thai but definitely could not speak the language well), or India where I stuck out like a sore thumb, or America where I have spent 97.8 percent of my life in. It’s almost like a serenity with wherever I may end up for graduate school or otherwise. If I end up in Alaska or Armenia, at least I know now that I can probably find that setting comfortable—and eventually enjoyable—over time.

Home, as best as I can put it, is the anticipating future. It’s something to look forward to because I haven’t quite discovered it. And I don’t think I could have ever come to look at the future so optimistically without having been able to go abroad as much as I can. To all those trying to get themselves out there in the world, just do it. I promise you’ll get hooked on the feeling of searching for more.

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No, you probably won’t die in *insert developing country’s name*

Of course, the title is substantiated on what you’re getting yourself into. I can’t guarantee your chances of camping out on the Siberian tundra, but your chances of surviving a study abroad or an international service trip is pretty dang high.

When I told my Chinese mother that I wanted to go to Thailand for a semester, she panicked hard. She worried that I would be forced onto a rice farm, and that the spicy diet would render me malnourished. To my mother’s surprise (but nobody else’s), I was not forced onto a collective tenement, and in fact was able to eat very clean during my four months in Thailand.

When I told her I wanted to spend about 2 months in India, my mother got herself worried sick. But this time, I also gave into her fears. I bought a whole bag of medications—anti-diarrheal Imodium, Pepto-Bismol, Alka-Seltzer, Tums, even Dramamine, though I had zero intention to go on a boat at all during my time in India—worried that I would die from some mysterious infectious disease or from an intense bout of food poisoning. Even my Indian-American friends all warned me about the dangers of India, and were frankly mystified as to why I would go in the first place.

I realize now that this kind of fear is inherently elitist. India houses over 1.3 billion people, while Thailand has over 68 million living in the country. To frame yourself staying in a developing country as a question of survival is absurd. Of course people can survive there. People have been living there for millennia to boot. Admittedly you may not have all the luxuries as you enjoyed in America, but you most certainly can thrive in this alternative setting. India, for example, had Uber in addition to seriously the best food delivery service that I have ever experienced. True, I infrequently had wi-fi or power, but I went on quite fine even while trying to complete graduate school applications.

Uber

In this, I do NOT want to minimize the importance of preparing for your time abroad. Going to a developing country regardless takes a lot of effort to prepare, and can be emotionally/physically taxing once you get there. You can’t just plop yourself down and expect all the friends to run to you and for the experience to be amazing. You will most likely live through the process, but whether you enjoy it is to your own volition.

From my experience in Thailand and now India, I do have some tips in how to make your experience more enjoyable, not just survivable. Your situation is surely to be different, but here are some general pointers.

  1. LEARN THE LANGUAGE. Above everything else in your preparation, learn as much of the spoken language as you can. There’s nothing more pivotal to how enjoyable your time will be compared to whether or not you can order food, ask for the bathroom, or just say hi to the nice landlady.
  2. Eat what everyone else eats in exactly the way they eat it. Your chances that you’ll eat something that’ll give you food poisoning is greatly reduced with this method, and food is a great gateway to a different culture! Even if you don’t like the local cuisine, keep eating it. You don’t want to be a burden on your hosts, and food often will come around as an acquired taste. When I say eat the food how the locals eat it, I mean take the time to learn how to eat with your right hand only, or how to use chopsticks, or otherwise. It’s worth the effort, trust me.
  3. Learn how to be comfortable by yourself. Even when I was in Thailand with a large group of Western students, I spent quite a bit of time alone because everyone needs time to recharge. I recommend a ton of self-reflection and reading during those hours. If you must, you can always busy yourself with applications and other ambitious tasks. But honestly, your time abroad is perfect for some good ole reflection on where you are in life.
  4. For every complaint you have, try to find two positive compliments. When I first landed in India, I was pretty overwhelmed by the pollution, honking, and intense heat. Not going to lie, it was a pretty hard adjustment, my first week there. But honestly this tip really helped me mentally to keep going. Sure there’s tons of mosquitoes, but the food was incredibly different and delicious, while the sunsets in India looked really red and beautiful. That may have been because of the pollution, but still.

Good luck on your own adventures, and don’t let others scare you too much before you go!

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Thoughts from India

My name is Angela, and to justify my recent absence from most forms of social communication, here is what I’ve been up to:
For the past six weeks, I have been volunteering and conducting independent research in Chennai, India.

I landed in this opportunity through an organization called Unite for Sight (UFS for short). UFS helps fundraise money to support local eye clinics in India, Ghana, and Honduras to provide free services to their low-income clientele, but the NGO also allows western individuals to volunteer on site of these clinics. I actually discovered UFS through Google after looking for international medical service opportunities. I’m personally very interested in global public health, and the opportunity meshed perfectly with my interests. So I put in some hefty work to get accepted and have the trip sponsored by SMU grants (shout out to the Maguire Ethics Center, the Mayer Fellowship, and the Dedman Internship Porgram!). I departed on the first of July for a month and then some.

So what exactly did I do there? I worked Mondays through Saturdays for about 5-6 hours a day helping out at public outreach camps predominantly. These public outreaches took place at various locations across the city. They were organized by local businesses, schools, or random clinics, and me and a team of optometrists would show up with reading glasses, optometry lens kits, and empty prescriptions. As a volunteer, I did three main tasks: I helped conduct visual acuity tests (where patients would try and read a chart with decreasing letter size), I helped grind glasses, and I read prescriptions to distribute reading glasses.

Here is a demonstration of how I grinded the glasses. You literally had to pop out the glass from the frame and then mold the prescription glass to the original shape. It’s not difficult at all thanks to modern machinery.

My roommates demonstrate how an autorefractor test is done. Autorefractors are used to get an estimate of a patient’s visual defect for writing a prescription.

In addition to my volunteer work, I also am conducting research on perceptions and awareness of cataracts in Chennai. During the public outreaches, I would interview patients with the help of a translator in hopes that the results from my questions would illustrate places that public health education could target. Cataracts are hands down the leading cause of blindness in India, and it’s a condition that can actually be corrected for free with subsidized surgery [1]. For being the leading causes of blindness, I was surprised by how many of the people I interviewed had never heard of cataracts before. I became curious about whether this trend carries to areas where cataracts aren’t the leading cause of blindness, such as in America.

But from all my time in India, here are some pointers that might be helpful for those pursuing international volunteer work or research:

  1. Apply to all the grants. SMU has a plethora available, and your chances of getting a couple increase exponentially with the amount of effort you put into developing your project proposal. Look into possible places/NGOs you want to do work with as soon as you can, and get cranking on the literature review to make yourself competitive for those grants.
  2. Make sure your volunteer work is substantial. I looked at a ton of medical-related service opportunities, and I personally was incredibly off-put by any “volun-tourism” sounding efforts. Look critically into the NGO you may work with and see if they are just trying to make the experience great, or if they have long-term plans for their efforts with foreign volunteers.
  3. Get IRB approval done early. Oh my god. I wasn’t IRB approved until the second week that I was in India. This was pretty stressful, and I highly recommend you contact research compliance directly (Dr. Austin Baldwin) if you’re having delays in communication.
  4. Align your priorities. By this, I mean ask yourself honestly whether you want this opportunity for the right reasons. If you’re there for a vacation, there’s plenty of other places to do so while “boosting” your resume. I feel like it is critical that if you decide to spend time in a developing country, you both immerse yourself into the culture and work, as well as live a simple life.

For now, that’s my reflection of my time in India for the past 2 months. I have been incredibly lucky to have been able to go, and I have been on the move since.

[1] Angra, S.K., Murthy, G.V., Gupta, S.K., & Angra, V. (1997, October) Cataract related blindness in India & its social implications.

 

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