Since returning from India a little more than two weeks ago, Iʼve been asked a common question, "Was your experience life changing?"
The simple answer is yes. How could a person travel halfway around the world, live and work in a completely different culture and not be profoundly affected?
Returning home wasnʼt easy. Itʼs probably one of the reasons Iʼve waited so long to write a final blog about my experience. That, and I was violently ill for almost a week after my trip. Iʼll spare everyone the unpleasant details, but it wasn't pretty.
It may be difficult for most people to understand, but when I came home there was a surprising disconnect to the people and places I had left a mere three weeks prior. Something was just off. I remember driving to my apartment in my parentʼs car on the evening I returned and feeling like a stranger in my own hometown.
Iʼve spent a large part of the last few weeks trying to process what I saw, whom I met, and the experiences I had in an effort to figure out exactly what in me has changed.
I know this -- after spending three weeks teaching some of the poorest children I had ever met, I realize the power of patience, understanding and compassion. I also saw how easy it is to write people off, even if they are only nine years old.
Admittedly, I am not a very patient person. And Iʼm usually far more understanding after I realize the err of my ways, rather than in the heat of the moment. But when you are one person trying to help two dozen, finding those hidden traits is a necessity.
I had two students in particular who tested and taught me the most. Akash and Abinash were difficult in class and often started fights with other students. They both talked out of turn and copied otherʼs work trying to pass it off as their own on almost a daily basis.
These two boys were not only frustrating, but they worried me. The area in which I taught, Oklha Phase Two, was a predominately Muslim neighborhood filled with families who had come to Delhi with the hopes of finding more work than in their native villages. Illiteracy, poverty, and a feeling of helplessness are a breeding ground for religious extremism and terrorism. Iʼm slightly afraid to admit this, but I had visions of these two boys strapped with explosives in two years. They were just so angry.
At first I met their anger with my own irritation. Itʼs much easier to yell at a kid "Chup Raho!" ("be quiet") and threaten to send them home, than to try and get to the bottom of their behavior.
Lucky for me, the universe apparently does give what you need the most in that moment.
During my last week at the Hope Foundation, India celebrated Republic Day, a national holiday. The day prior to the holiday, all of the kids were rambunctious, scattered, and not really in the mood for learning English. Except for a few kids, including Akash and Abinash.
That particular day I happened to bring a book with me, "The Giving Tree" by Shel Silverstein. I had the boys who were in class take turns reading a few pages. (Between the simple sentence structure, rhymes, and pictures reading was one of the best ways to teach conversational English.)
Many of the other students would read their four or five pages then run outside to burn off energy. Akash and Abinash were not those students. The boys sat with me for nearly two and a half hours reading the book. It took each one nearly an hour to read through the entire story, but neither would leave until he had finished.
When the final page had been turned, Abinash turned to me and said in his minimal, broken English, "Thank you. One book."
What he meant--that was the first time he had ever read a book. Ever. In any language.
(Iʼm sitting in Alterra crying as I write this. That moment may have been one of my proudest as an adult.)
From that day forward, both Abinash and Akash showed me a completely different side. Yes, they still goofed around with the other boys, but they both showed me, and learning, an entirely new respect.
It seems their anger was actually frustration. They wanted to read and write like some of their other classmates. They wanted to understand at least a few words of the strange language I was speaking.
It took nearly the entire three weeks, but I finally found the patience it took to see past my perceptions. There is no other way to describe that feeling than life changing. And then it was time for me to return home.
You have no idea how difficult it is to practice those same moments of patience and tolerance with someone drinking a latte, driving a new car, and talking on their iPhone 4.
Instead of coming home a changed, centered person I was immediately filled with the judgments and annoyances I truly thought I had exorcised in India. My first week back home, I was short tempered, quick to judge, and slow to understand. I found myself feeling completely separate from those who have never experienced something like I did in India.
I also felt (feel?) extremely guilty for my newish car, daily latte and iPhone 4. Is it really necessary for me to have 60+ sweaters in my closet, when the kids I just finished working with wear the same shirt every single day?
No, I donʼt need all of the material things I possess, but feeling guilty about what I am able to afford doesnʼt help the less fortunate. But remembering the lessons I learned in India is good for everyone.
Thatʼs why I chose the title "Life Changing or Time to Change Your Life?" Of course India changed my life. This wasnʼt just a vacation, it was an immersion into an entirely different culture. But in order for change to be permanent, the transformation has to continue long after the three weeks are just a distant memory. And that is easier said than done. Which is why itʼs a good thing I discovered some patience on the Indian sub-continent.
For those of you wondering if I would ever do this type of trip again, the answer is a resounding yes. If possible, Iʼd like to volunteer for a greater amount of time. Three weeks was not enough time in any regard. There is so much more I want to see and do in India, especially with the kids. Ideally, Iʼd love to volunteer abroad for a year, but Iʼm not sure that is possible at this juncture of my life. Plus, as I indicated in a previous blog, I tend to get homesick and 365 days is A LOT longer than the 24 days I traveled in January.
Despite its obvious problems with pollution, poverty, and an enduring caste system that keeps these injustices going, India is an amazing place. And there are no words to describe just how much I fell in love with the kids I taught. I hope I somehow captured the color and warmth of India for those of you who have not yet had the chance to visit. Thanks for putting up with my long posts!
Trenni Kusnierek is a sports reporter and radio host who has worked for networks such as ABC, Big Ten, MLB, and NFL. She is currently on 540 ESPN in Milwaukee on both the D-List and Broad Side. Kusnierek is also freelance writing and reporting until January, when she will leave on a service trip to India.
A graduate of Marquette University, she holds a degree in Broadcast and Electronic Journalism. An avid marathon runner, Kusnierek qualified for the 2010 Boston Marathon by running a 3:37:02 at the Lakefront Marathon in Milwaukee.