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Burra Dharani Dhar interviews camp dwellers outside of Delhi, India. Dhar is a final year student at the Rai Foundation in Faridabad, India.
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I became so comfortable in India that I began to feel as if I had been there for a long time. In reality, my time sped by. I became close to both the Indian and MIT students in the group and loved our conversations. Besides documenting the students’ work, I had the opportunity to help them with theirs, eventually becoming a part of the community and project. The other MIT students and I really got a chance to immerse ourselves completely in the Indian culture.

Trying to stay safe with food, the MIT students (all female) and I often ate at the canteen, the university’s dining hall. We became friends with a large group of adorable Indian girls who were always excited to see us. They took delight in my attempts to sing and dance to some Hindi songs. They were also fascinated to learn that being skinny and tall is considered gorgeous in the United States. For many of them, going to a university in Delhi was the first time they had ever left their homes — with or without their parents. Most of them were studying to be airline hostesses.

Their whole situation was surprising to us as Americans. To leave home for the first time to attend a university seemed like a dramatic change. A degree specific to flight attendants was also a curiosity, since we were accustomed to a more generic degree program for the hospitality and service industries. It seemed out of place to be studying in a dusty, underdeveloped area near the camps of Delhi for a career on a technologically advanced plane.

I interviewed project members from both MIT and India. They were surveying the community members about their education and health for a local non-governmental organization, Deepalaya, and using the information they learned to create their own project on waste disposal. Interviewing Musheer and Dharani, the two male Indian students in the groups, it came to light that the biggest problem they had encountered working on this project was the gender differences. They thought that any conflict of opinion within the group was caused by gender differences, not cultural differences (India vs. America).

The MIT students, on the other hand, thought that the varying opinions were caused by cultural differences. I brought this up while we were eating a delicious lunch of vegetable noodles, and the group came to the consensus that it must be both gender and cultural differences combined. The cultural difference of the genders is a big part, as neither of the boys had ever worked in the same group as a girl. The whole idea was new to them. The cultural differences between India and the United States were quite astounding and frustrating at times for the MIT students.

Our interviews were fairly informal because I had gotten to know all the group members well. I spent a lot of time with them and was on hand to experience much of what they talked about. For some of the MIT women, this summer experience convinced them they do not want to be a physician and some became certain that they do not want to work in a developing country. Others became even more sure they wanted to work in a developing country as a career. I was one of the latter. My naive desires solidified with experience. I’m even more certain that my “calling,” if you will, involves working in developing countries. It was not what I expected, and it is far from all fun and games, but the rewards I felt and the degree to which I could make an impact are worth much more than any of the dangerous situations, pollution, odors, or cultural gaps I will have to bear.