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Ever since I was little, I’ve dreamed of becoming Superman, minus his wardrobe and enemies, of course. As I grew older, I felt most content when I could help others. In a sense, volunteering is one of the most selfish things a person can do. Volunteering gives me a purpose for my own life and makes everything worth while. Though it is satisfying to serve in my own community, I had always dreamed of helping those suffering in developing countries around the world. I always thought that this would make the biggest difference.

However, my summer experiences have showed me that perhaps the best way to make a difference isn’t to focus so much on helping developing countries, but rather learning from them and bringing those lessons back to our own communities. Helping blindly can be worse than not helping at all. There are so many factors to consider, so much to learn, before you can really figure out how best to help and if help is even needed at all. Who’s to say that they are the ones that need help, and not us?

In the camps in India, children and adults alike followed me with their eyes and their bodies, saying “photo,” one of the few English words they knew. Many of them would tap on my shoulder and point to themselves or their friends, asking me to take a photograph of them. I would comply and then show them the photograph, bringing a huge smile to their faces that sent them running excitedly to their friends. Some were bashful and others were natural models. I felt the bond of being human, of having the same reaction to being photographed as the Indians did. I may as well have been back home.

I was astounded by how willing the community members were to speak to our group and welcome us into their homes. Do you know many people in the United States who would accept a stranger into their home and let them take photographs of their family? And I doubt many American would give a stranger a beaming smile and joke with him or her.

I did not visit the poorest of the poor. There are many Indian citizens that live in shacks and lean-tos or even just under a tarp on the side of the road. And there are those that live in isolation on an island in the road, naked and deranged, unable to do much at all. However, I visited the camps (a less demeaning term the locals use for the slums) where filthy, greenish water trickles through the narrow alleyways between the stone structures where people live. There are no bathrooms, people defecate on the side of the road and in the immense heat, the smell can get quite pungent. Children run around mostly in worn out clothing, often torn, or with barely any clothing on at all. Their playground is a barren land littered with broken shards of brick and trash. Many are barefoot, and the interiors of their abodes are bare with little to no electricity. The meager living conditions and infestation of disease were shocking, but what surprised me the most was the laughter in their eyes.

Despite the living conditions which would put many Americans in a depressed state, the people in the camps of India were so happy! They did not seem to “realize” that they are “in the slums,” making me question if they really need any help at all. Non-governmental organizations or NGOs, caring volunteers, and I go in with this concept that we’re going to help these poor people with short life expectancies who are not getting a good education. Yes, their quality and quantity of life may be enhanced significantly should they live in a cleaner area and get a better education, but then again, maybe not. We put so much emphasis on education and living long and healthily.

Perhaps this is because our society has turned into one where you can’t be truly happy unless you have a good job and have a significant amount of money. Of course, you can’t usually get to this position unless you have a good education. We are near obsessed with finding a fountain of youth and being disease free. But really, isn’t that the natural course of life? How much do money and education mean? I can sense you getting defensive because I don’t even buy my own argument. However, it is something we need to consider. Maybe we aren’t right. The wide, authentic smiles from the adults, the children, and the elderly were genuine, much more so than most of the smiles I have seen in my life, not to mention while walking down the halls of MIT.

How is it possible, I began to wonder, that these people seem happier and more content with their lives than people who have so many opportunities and possessions? Perhaps they aren’t actually happy but are dealing with the situation they are in because they have to. Perhaps they are just ignorant of what they could have. But maybe ignorance is bliss? If we succeed in bringing them a good education (often defined on our standards) and change their ways of life, will they really be happier?

I took a photograph of a graceful elderly woman who was sitting outside. She told me that I should have come to take her photograph when she was in her teens and was more beautiful. I responded that she was still very beautiful and my skills did not do her justice. A man was selling popsicles off a cart and teased me when I tried to take a picture by covering up the tin containers with the popsicles as I raised my camera, then quickly uncovering them with a mischievous smile as I began to lower the camera, and then covering them again as I was about to take the shot. He finally laughed and gave me a twinkling smile, pulling back the fabric so that I could get a picture.

As I was leaving, he ran up and handed me a popsicle. I tried to refuse because I knew I could not eat it anyway, but he insisted, so I accepted. None of the other project members felt comfortable eating it either, so I gave it to one of the children on the street once we had walked out of sight. I was told that a popsicle costs about one rupee, but I saw him giving them away to the children without charge. Perhaps there was a tab, or perhaps he was just being Santa for a day … but he was definitely bringing smiles to the children’s faces (or intense looks of concentration as each devoured a popsicle before it could melt in the heat).

In a fast-paced society such as ours, and especially at a high-stress and ambitious school like MIT, it is easy to get sidetracked and focus solely on our classes for the sake of our futures and our goals. But perhaps we should think more about the bigger picture. What really matters in the end? What matters the most to you? Perhaps the amazing people I met in India care the most about each other and what they have because they don’t know what it is like to have more. Perhaps it is because they have no hope. Or perhaps because they’re doing something right and we’re doing it wrong? Regardless of what is right or wrong, I hope I can bring back some of that carefree happiness to MIT and other people around me. Bring back some of the honesty and hospitality. The true caring and friendship that goes beyond friendship. Becoming family. We have so much to learn …