The Sky is Yours

“He sent O'Hare a postcard at Christmastime, and here is what it said:

'I wish you and your family also as to your friend Merry Christmas and a happy New
Year and I hope that we'll meet again in a world of peace and freedom in the taxi cab if
the accident will.'

I like that very much: 'If the accident will.” –Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

I bring home the stars above Ahmedabad. Clouded by the air pollution of millions, the hazy sky above the Environmental Sanitation Institute tucks us into our temporary home. Suresh Bhai reminds us in our final gathering that ESI is a space, not a place, and that although we physically leave our space behind, we bring it with us in our hearts and spirits. I bring home the stars to convince myself this is true.

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Love, truth and seva

Dear Mami,

With my three weeks in India nearly over, I have learned to identify three core values of my experience here: love, truth, and seva. When I think of my story, these are the three words will always resonate with me.

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Would you take responsibility?

I wonder in what ways our lives are similar and our lives are different.  Is it possible to try to step into someone else’s shoes?  How do I attempt to wrap my head around the lives and daily struggles of the women we met at Gramshree, or those of the mothers in Dharavi?

As I try to understand the lives of others, I know that I am a kid trying to feel my way around in a dark cave.  But I can bring it back to myself in order to make more sense of what I’m trying to do.  As an international student and dual citizen, I recognize many similarities between the Korean and American ways of life, but also differences that are not compatible at all – only understandable when you understand those ideas and concepts as they are, without comparison and without the lens of another culture.

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Parallel universes

Yesterday we visited Dharavi, the largest slum community in Mumbai. Our group was divided into four teams, each assigned to a guide. Alongside our guide, we entered into Dharavi, a really hectic place that was difficult for me to digest as a stranger. “Here we achieve every day of our lives.”  People riding and honking their motorcycles in a frenzy to get to their daily races, carrying loads of plastic material on their shoulders—sometimes boxes full of different things—in order to earn their days. Dharavi is a place where one couldn’t be sure whether chaos was the order or the order was chaos. But there was a sense of order, no question about it.

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What even is a leader?

Girls Leadership Project. Leadership positions. "Do you consider yourself a leader?" survey questions. Leadership camps. Leadership awards. Leader, leader, leader, leader.

What is this obsession with leadership? And what even is a leader?

 For as long as I can remember, I've always been told to aspire to be a leader. Even in the days of early elementary school, I would always want to be chosen to be the "line leader," so that my twenty-one other classmates would walk obediently behind me as I confidently lead them and forged the daunting path through the intimidating, florescent hallways to the cafeteria. But is this image, of one person superiorly standing at the front of a line of people, a true representation of leadership?

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My madhouse. My city of dreams.

From the roof Dharavi blends into one entity, one shimmering expanse of metal rooftops and bright blue tarps. Plastics teeter on the edge of each roof: bright yellows, pinks, greens, and purples drying in the sun. Workers occasionally walk by, turning the plastic over and exposing it to the blazing sun of a monsoon season with no rain. These workers treat the experience casually, as if seeing their world from above is simply something they have done before and will do again.

I have never seen Andover from anything higher than the top floor of our science building. Imagine what it would be like to know your world as intimately as the people of Dharavi understand theirs.

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Going into Dharavi yesterday felt very intrusive and I couldn’t help but feel like a tourist. The ignorant one who looks around and unintentionally invades people’s privacy. I felt like the people living in Dharavi didn’t want me there in my clean white shirt and floral pants. With my closed toed shoes and sturdy backpack. With my 1 liter water bottle filled with filtered water. With my digital watch and antibacterial wipes. If they did want me there, I felt like they would’ve wanted it for entertainment, to see these stupid Americans stumbling around. Although there was one woman who was very proud of her life and made sure the tour guide told us she had a terrace and a chicken, my feelings still remain.

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Little Squares

The minute I walked in, I lost myself in Dharavi. The smells came in waves of punches. The stores lined with pastries, chicken, woven clothes, the barber shops, the living areas, the leather and plastic factories all filled my once slumbering nostrils. The tour had led me through toxic workplaces and wet darkness in passageways to the housing. I saw too much and not enough. I saw children sitting by doorsteps braiding each others hair. I saw people and people’s lives. In a way, I was expecting to see slums and masses of people, but not the people in the slums.

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The Educational Key

We’ve been in Bombay for several days now. Before landing, we were in Ahmedabad, where we partnered with the Riverside school and worked both at the Gandhi Ashram and the Chandlodiya School, both government primary educational schools. There, we teamed up with Design for Change, and examined different aspects of the school systems. We looked at “bright spots” which were areas that the school generally did well. We also looked at “hot spots”, areas of the school that are in need of change. Different groups at their respected schools tackled hot spots such as sanitation in the bathrooms, low attendance, or a lackadaisical library. Over a four-day period we worked on these issues and tried to implement some aspect of change.

Throughout this project, I kept thinking, what will be the product of this? Will the children just look at their newly painted library and not read the books? Will they sing the sanitation songs they learned and not actually wash their hands?

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The Puzzle of Phillips Academy

Familiarity can be found in the most unexpected places. But as a drifting nomad, I never thought I would find a sense of myself in one of the largest slums in Asia.

Home to about one million people, Dharavi is about the size of Andover campus. Except the streets are filled with winding alleyways and busy traffic lanes, metal roofs and chipping blue houses, goats and cattle and children peaking their heads behind small windows, and a bright green sewage stream running through it all, like some sort of surreal jungle river. As our tour guide explains over the honking cars and working machines, this is what they call “organized chaos”.

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Mumbai seems to be a city of contradiction. As the union of so many cultures, it exists between the old and the new. While some residents walk the streets in traditional clothing and speak the local language, they do so in the shadow of enormous buildings and well-groomed streets. During our time with Karan Khemka yesterday evening, he shared some fascinating insight about the nature of Mumbai. He told us that Mumbai is not an Indian city, and that it would be a mistake for us to assume that it was. He then explained that the city was both geographically and culturally distinct from the remainder of India. It had been its own city since its inception. While I first resisted the notion that Mumbai was not an Indian city, I now understand what that might mean. It is not that the city does not exist within India, but that culture makes it unique.

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I can’t see the district names painted on the rear windows of taxis. I can’t make out the expressions on people’s faces as they bargain relentlessly with the shopkeepers. I have no idea where I am in the city, or how to get back to where we’re staying. I am in an air-conditioned bus ten feet off the ground, physically above the citizens of a city I call myself familiar with. I’m seeing and doing things I’ve never come close to seeing and doing before. I am a foreigner.

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