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.

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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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