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A young mother watches over her children at a construction site. The children glance longingly at the bright McDonald’s restaurant next to them as people eat behind the large, sparkling windows.
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Though my summer was extraordinary, it was also heartrendingly eye-opening. It was more than the suffocating heat, nauseating odor, and hordes of flies. Our group was welcomed by most people, but sometimes I’d find older women gazing scornfully at me, a foreigner marching in with an expensive-looking camera, here to take pictures of their pitiful living conditions.

Have you ever wanted to help but not known how? It seems unfair that I was born into a life with parents who will most likely live to see their great-grandchildren. I have always had plenty to eat and have slept under a roof that doesn’t leak green toxic water. Most of the people in these poor areas don’t live to be too old. Children crowd the streets since there seem to be about four to seven children per family. Women my age have children, and women only slightly older have grandchildren. The legal marrying age is 18, so many have children before marriage.

It didn’t feel right to drink bottled water as the kids around me ran barefoot through slimy water. Their ill-fitting hand-me-downs made my fairly new clothing feel hypocritical. I wished I could switch lives with them and give them everything I have. But the truth is that I didn’t want to live there either. Would I trade places with one of these children? What if I could exchange myself for two or three of them? I’d like to think that I would do it, but I’m not sure. If I couldn’t, what does that say about me?

Some say that since I’ll become a doctor, it is better that I stay healthy and get a good education. I’ll be able to help more people that way. But perhaps one of these children would have cured cancer or helped bring about peace. I’m ashamed to say that I’m still not sure I could have made the switch. I’d like to think I would, but if I was actually put in the situation, would I do it?

Many of the camps I went to had sincere smiles and sparkling eyes. But some in particular seemed to be suffering more from their position. These particular camps still had cute children, but their eyes sparkled with tears instead of laughter. They tugged at my clothing, endearingly calling me “dede,” which is “big sister” in Hindi. In one of these camps, there were two children, a girl and a boy, who kept following me around but didn’t want their picture taken. The girl was probably about eight years old and the boy was perhaps three years old. Their eyes seemed to beg me to take them away to where I came from, to let them get a taste of my life.

I only saw a fraction of the pain. There is still a lot of pain that I will not see. Behind the smiles, behind the closed doors, who knows what happens? They acknowledge their problems, many even work to solve them. One man, for example, studied in these horrible conditions for several years. Now, he only has one exam left to become a certified M.D.

The difference between most of us and these people is that they seem to accept their fate and work to live the best they can, but at the same time appreciate what they do have. This ability to look at the bright side of things despite darkness in every direction is what astounds me.

It’s easy enough to say that you want to help, but when it comes down to it, what really matters is what you actually do. What happens when you feel there’s nothing you can do? When you have no idea of a solution or when you can’t be sure whether what you do helps or hurts? I was told by one of the Indian students that a common Indian belief is that the rich are rich because they were good people in their previous lives while the poor are poor as punishment for their bad past lives.

This train of thought makes the poor settle into their lives, thinking they deserve to be “punished,” and makes the rich unwilling to help the poor. A foreigner can only do so much for a country; the country itself must step up to make a widespread and sustaining difference. But how can this happen? As a foreigner, you don’t want to change the culture or the people, but if the culture is preventing necessary change (though even this is questionable), what do you do?