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May 24, 2014

My Overseas Experience — Discovering India’s Gifts to the World


From Dharamsala, India

Does living and working abroad make you smarter?  

I’m here in northern India on the front lines of this very question.  I’ve come to volunteer, to live in supported communal, cross-cultural settings, teaching English and basic computer skills to young women at an “empowerment center” in this largely rural (though fast-growing) village in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh.

I’m also here to find out first-hand what can be learned by altering my own cultural lens to a “foreign” living and working environment, one that’s far beyond the comforts of my own.

Here in India, I’m finding out a lot about how a different experience can reshape my attitude, and what that can end up teaching me about the rest of the world, and myself.

A recent Time Magazine article investigated research of study-abroad students that reveal their enhanced skills in creative problem solving and superior insights that help them draw connections between disparate ideas as a result of their multicultural experiences.

So far, my experience in India has taught me that connecting the dots is about putting aside expectations.  It’s about confrontations with difficult circumstances and surprises around limited resources — frequent electrical outages, unreliable Internet services, students going without enough pens, paper, computers, or even white boards.

I’m learning how dealing with difficult circumstances is the catalyst for innovation — and also the genesis for deeper understanding, patience, compassion and essential lessons learned.  It’s about how to drop ones own limiting assumptions and doing what can be done with what you have (versus what you don’t).

Indian Innovation — Adapting to life’s challenges 

Here in India, there’s a simple word that sums up the spirit and culture of innovation in the face of enormous challenges:

Jugaad (sometimes referred to as jugar)  — the challenges and difficulties of ones circumstances become the motivation to innovate; to respond to constraints with creative, practical workarounds; to make the most of limited resources by improvising and through creative adaptation.

As one of India’s gifts to the world, jugaad is a certain kind of inventiveness or innovation, particularly born out of difficult circumstances.  If you have a huge load of goods to take to the market and all you have is a bullock cart, no problem!  You invoke jugaad to creatively hinge a motorcycle engine to your bullock cart, adapting with limited resources to build a solution that fits your needs.

For India, a country filled with exciting opportunity but hugely constrained, with a teeming population of 1.2 billion, deep poverty and limited resources, jugaad is a necessity.  Jugaad seems  to come naturally for many Indians, like a good habit.  Jugaad seems built-in, for the challenges here are everywhere, all-pervasive, daily, and inescapable, impacting rich and poor alike.

In India, one must often learn to cope.  And armed with jugaad, coping can mean innovating, adapting, and overcoming– in creative, often surprising ways.  Jugaad is good practice for India, but it’s implications extend to benefit the rest of the world as well.

Teaching English as Cross-Cultural Immersion

My work here involves teaching English and basic computer skills to women who live in this small (though fast-growing) village in Himachal Pradesh state, a largely rural region of northern India.

My day begins much as you’d expect a teacher’s to unfold — planning lessons over breakfast with field workers and fellow volunteers, coming up with creative ways to help make learning an unfamiliar language more fun and engaging, and less like a visit to the dentist.  (The students love word games like hangman and Apples-to-Apples!)

As a novice teacher with no particular training (except for the fact that I know something about the difficulties of studying a foreign language — French in my case),  I’m picking up a trick or two about the art of effective teaching.  I’m learning to use more visuals and  images and do less talking, to do more showing and less explaining.  I’ve become reacquainted with that wonderful proverb:

Tell me and I forget.  Show me and I remember.  Engage me and I understand.”

The setting here also involves going on excursions — to museums, attractions, cultural festivals, temples, and the like — and hearing lectures on anything from the basics of Hindi to marriage and religious customs.

We take yoga in the mornings (yoga being yet another one of India’s gifts to the world!).  And I’m even learning a few dance steps to Hindi pop songs courtesy of my always lively students!

All of this I try to simultaneously digest and integrate within my teaching in a kind of cross-cultural immersion.  In a two-way loop, we are learning as much about another culture as we are trying to offer our own culture through teaching to our hosts.  Giving and taking, sharing and learning — all of it taking place in a country far from my own.

In so doing, it is I who ends up learning — as much, if not more, than my students and the staff that so graciously support me here.

My experience also serves to alter the lens though which I view India — and the world!  This is direct experience, the kind that is real-world and all-encompassing.  It can be about meals and cuisine.  It can touch on daily needs in a country such as India, including healthcare issues, sanitation, and family planning education — all within a context that is profoundly different from my own cultural “norms.”  It’s life outside the box on all levels.

Is India a Superpower?  

India is a superpower, not for its military or even economic prowess.  Although fast-growing, India is a superpower because of her people and their brainpower.  India derives its strength from its diversity (the world’s largest democracy).  India gets its power from jugaad, with its ingrained, innate ability to creatively innovate and adapt to — and achieve through — difficult and challenging circumstances, crippling poverty, and limited infrastructure.

As embodied by the life of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, and through its long history of strife, enormous struggle, and sometimes violent conflict, India’s gifts to the world stand as a shinning example, a beacon lighting the way toward hope for peace, genuine prosperity, and happiness, for all of us.


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