“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman
The other day I was in Nirmala’s, a local grocery store, holding a piece of paper on which I had written my grocery list, including phonetic Hindi translations for each item. I thought I was clever for having figured out everything in advance. Shopping would be a breeze. “Bring it on,” I thought, rather confidently. Then once I stepped into the store, that all changed. The smug smile wiped from my face, I realised that despite my presumably well-reasoned preparation, I was screwed. As I tepidly peered down each isle before me, devoid of any signage or evident organisation, I quickly realised I would have to adopt a different strategy and somehow employ assistance.
In this sense, Indian grocery stores here are much like jungles; you have to familiarise yourself with each one individually or, employing your beginner Hindi and Marathi linguistic skills, together with a bit of improvisation, ask one of the employees to fetch your items for you. Out of a perceived sense of increased convenience, I opted for the latter.
Given that store’s particular stock and factoring in whatever else I was inspired to add to the list, I had to resort to using body language to describe whatever it was I needed, item by item. So, I found myself engaged in a game of charades with several employees, attempting to describe “salt.” Let me tell you, it’s not easy. For example, in order to find “salt,” one of my overlooked grocery items, I ended up having to repeat “sagar,” which is the phonetic Hindi word for “ocean” while rubbing my fingers together and licking them, adopting a slightly wincing expression. Winner.
Over the ensuing 20 minutes, I proceeded in this fashion with each new item, dramatically interpreting qualitative properties of food. In the end, the experience was entirely worth it, and I learned a great deal, as the employees taught me the Hindi word for each item, which I quickly jotted down as helpful reminders for my next grocery store adventure.
In a similarly haphazard fashion, I have slowly been adapting to life and building upon my daily interactions with the locals. I’m certain I become the butt of a few good jokes here and there, but hey, if that’s the price for learning, I’m a buyer. Hakuna matata! Whoops, wrong country – but you get the point!
Anyway, my simultaneously awkward and humorous experiences have proven wholly entertaining and enjoyable, and though a trite expression, I would not exchange them for anything in the world. I do not ask what others desire or expect from me or what I want of myself, for I would become either a fraud or overly-idealistic and lacking in realism, respectively. I ascertain what it is that inspires me, and wherever it may lead, I resign to follow. Having a history of desiring and exercising precise control over every aspect of my life, many times I have found this “let it be” mantra, if you will, very difficult to follow. I feared letting go because I feared some form of ensuing chaos, but the more I realised that this fear was irrational, I gradually learned to lighten my grasp, loosening the chokehold I had slung around my life. I began to experience life, untethered, true to myself.
In this same sense, I find myself here in India, a foreign person in a strange land, and I do not bemoan the experiences. In every environment, they come in surplus, positive and negative alike, but everywhere I go, I choose to let go and to experience the positive, to let the good prevail. In this state of lessened constraint, I feel more alive, inspired by my environment and the work and research that I so willingly undertake. Through my perception of myself and the world around me, I rediscover daily what it is that inspires me, bringing my passions to life.
Though, in any sense, this isn’t to say that I have become reckless. It’s true that in a foreign environment, or heck, any environment for that matter, one must take extra precautions. Throwing caution to the wind is never a good idea, but a certain degree of risk must be taken for life to be liveable – so that one doesn’t constantly reside in a state of self-consuming fear. If your locally based colleagues tell you that a particular road is safe, go head – take a stroll down its length in the daylight. Go shopping. Check out the bazaars and produce markets. Savour the kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, and smells. Sure, be wary and watch your back, but immerse yourself in the local environment, the culture, or you’ll never feel at home.
This is what I have learned from experience. When on your journey of international research and fieldwork (and also life in general), go out and find what you want. Learn to live in your new environment. Likewise, with your research and/or work, don’t be afraid to find your unique niche that resonates with your passions. Ask questions and seek answers. Take a few risks. Embrace the inevitable changes. Carpe diem.