India Showed Me How Toxic American Independence Is
As an Indian American, I used to once love the American lifestyle that vehemently promotes independence, hard work, and an equal starting ground for all: all elements of the so-called American Dream. As I got older and became more aware of the world around me, I realized that the U.S. is not as amazing as I’ve been conditioned to believe. Just like any other country, the U.S. also has its own flaws – flaws that have been constantly nagging at me since I’ve returned from my month long trip to India recently.
I have grown to love the sense of community and belonging in India. Unlike the U.S., India imbibes more of a collectivist culture. Majority of an Indian’s priority revolves around their families. For example, in the U.S., we’re taught and made to believe that we need to leave our home and be independent by the time we’re 17. In India, on other hand, it’s common to live with your family for the majority, if not all, of your life. Thus, interdependence rather than independence is emphasized in India.
As a result of this interdependent lifestyle, India creates a warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart every time because it feels like the entire nation is kinda rooting for me. It’s no longer the idea of ‘you’re on your own and only your hard work can get you to the top of the tier.’ It’s more-so an idea of ‘we are all here to support you.” Note: I recognize that this may be the experience of someone who is extremely privileged in India; the same experience may not be true for others.
An excerpt from “What Italy Taught Me About America’s Toxic Independence Culture” perfectly encapsulates my thoughts:
“The first time I stayed with my boyfriend’s Italian family, I discovered privacy isn’t an Italian priority. His mother snatched our dirty clothes from our bedroom to wash, iron, and fold the first night. The following day, I found my underwear arranged neatly in squares waiting on the bed.
I swear I appreciated it, but I didn’t expect it. I quickly learned the words “mine” and “yours” don’t exist in an Italian family. Everything is “ours.”
As another example, my boyfriend’s extended family — aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends — are also given unlimited access to his time and services. My boyfriend’s cousin needs him to drive 4 hours to pick him up — done! His aunt has a friend who wants him to book her train tickets — No problem!
In an Italian family, boundaries don’t exist, even when it comes to finances. I can’t imagine my boyfriend declaring to a family member or close friend, “you’re asking too much.” or, “I’m sorry, I’m not available.”
At the risk of sounding evil, I have to admit my boyfriend’s can-do attitude initially infuriated me. I grew up in a family that didn’t ask for special favors since, in America, to be a “real adult,” you must take care of yourself alone.”
During my prior visits to India, I hated this idea of having someone do everything for me. Need my clothes washed – give it to the maid. Finished eating and want to wash the dishes – don’t, the maid got it covered. Need to go to the store to pick something up – don’t worry, the driver will go scoop it for you. Need to get a wax, but are too lazy to leave your house – all good, the salon employee will come straight to your home. I’m so used to washing & folding my own clothes, washing my own dishes, cleaning my own house, driving my own car, and literally sometimes even waxing my own legs; so experiencing all of these ‘luxuries’ or amenities was initially frustrating and uncomfortable. It made me feel like I wasn’t in control because America taught me that I must be in control of my own life and I must do everything on my own in order to succeed.
Now that I’m back in the U.S. after a month of immersing myself in the Indian way of life, I feel a disconnect. In fact, I feel a sense of deep loneliness that I believe stems from America’s promotion of toxic independence. I realized that this isn’t just me.
Even before the pandemic, more than 3 in 5 Americans have reported feeling lonely and the percentages have only increased since the pandemic. The remedy or cure that is often offered for such feelings is meditation, exercise, reducing social media usage, get out in nature, etc.
Why is no one understanding that maybe the real cure is to shift from independence to interdependence? Maybe we won’t feel so lonely and disconnected if, as a culture, we promote the idea that living with your parents for the rest of your life is okay; not being financially independent from the age of 16 is okay; taking a break from your job and not always running around to ‘work hard’ is okay. We do not have to do it all on our own.
India taught me that living in harmony with others and using the help & love from others is where the true beauty to life exists.
“If you’re successful in achieving independence, you may fulfill the American ideal. Regrettably, in the process, you’ll extinguish the beauty of life: to live in communion and collaboration with others. Moving to Italy taught me that navigating the world on your own isn’t an accomplishment. It’s a tragedy.” – Isabella Martin
Phir Milenge // See You Soon
This post was originally published on https://eshainbalashram.blogspot.com/.
I truly cannot believe that I’m back in my Jersey home and have completed my 15 days at Bal Ashram. I remember when I sat in the car for 2 hours, driving from the Jaipur airport to Bal Ashram, I was riddled with anxiety. Will the kids like me? How will the kids be? Will they be angry or will they ignore me? What is my purpose? Who am I and why am I even worthy of visiting the Ashram? Will the staff and faculty feel awkward about my arrival? So many questions and thoughts that were instantly hushed by the warm welcome of the staff, faculty, and most importantly, the children.
I went to bed that first day realizing that this had been a dream of mine since my childhood days. I’ve always wanted to help children in any way I can and protect them as well as I can. It took me more than a decade to live out my dream and now I am filled with so many different emotions as I reflect on my time at the Ashram.
I want to take note of some things/moments I will forever hold in my heart:
- Sunrises & Sunsets. I now have a weird obsession with the sun. Almost every day at the Ashram I had the incredible ability to witness both the sunrise and the sunset. Breathtaking. I hope I can continue to witness the sun’s glory here at home because it has been such a huge constant at Bal Ashram that I’ve grown to cherish.
- The ‘Esha Didi’s. I will most definitely miss hearing all of the ‘Esha Didi’s. I’ll miss the suffocatingly pure and soul-filling effects of the children huddling around me and yelling my name in my face to get my attention.
- Chai & Biscuits. Masala chai is a fan favorite at Bal Ashram. They drink it every morning and around 4:00pm every day. I’ve grown to LOVE the taste of chai in combination with the Ashram’s Tiger Biscuits. The process of dipping the biscuit in the chai and then letting it melt in your mouth followed by a sip of the warm chai has been something I’ve grown to love. It’s also one of the most amazing ways to socialize at Bal Ashram. The staff and faculty sit on the stairs or inside the dining hall and take a few minutes to mingle with each other before they have to get back to their duties of teaching and supervision.
- Nature and music heal. Bal Ashram is located at a very scenic area, surrounded by mountains, occupied by plants and trees, and covered in a sand floor. All your senses are activated from the time you wake up: the chilling breeze coming down from the mountains, the clear view of the sunrises and sunsets, the feel of the cool tiles against your barefoot in the halls, the smell of the flowers growing on the trees. Bal Ashram has deepened my already existing love for nature. Music also plays a large role in the therapeutic atmosphere of Bal Ashram. Their daily prayers, slogans, chants, and meditations are so spiritually activating.
- Never be afraid to party! These boys know how to party it up. They dance with so much passion and ‘kushi’ that you can’t help but groove with them. They taught me the dance to one of their Rajasthani songs and they even had a choreographed dance for ‘Jai Ho.’ IT WAS AMAZING! I taught them how to shake their hips (i.e. ‘thumka’) and give each other the hip hits because obviously that’s the classic Bollywood move everyone must know 🙂
- The Squiggle Technique. What a godly technique that left me in awe. This technique truly shows how much of our outer selves we hide/mask to fit our societal roles. It brings out our true inner feelings and subconscious thoughts that we often may try to suppress.
- Ladoos. While I was teaching a class on emotions one day, one of the boys started laughing hysterically. When I asked him what he was laughing at, he pointed at my cheeks and said ‘ladoo.’ I couldn’t help but crack a smile as I realized that he was referring to my chubby little cheeks that make an appearance every time I laugh wholeheartedly. I have now grown to love my cheeks thanks to that boy 🙂
- Education is not a privilege – it’s a right. As of right now, education is a privilege for many of us when it really should be a right for ALL of us. One of the boys came up to me one day and said ‘You’re rich people and we’re poor people.’ I tried to explain to him that that is not true and money and living in the U.S. does not mean you’re better or ‘richer’ than anyone else in the world. However, he defined ‘richness’ as ‘being able to do and study whatever you want’ and that rocked me to my core. It’s true – I have the privilege to decide what education I want to receive and what future profession I want to enter. The boy told me that he doesn’t have that same option because he needs to study something specific that will make sure he gets a good job and enough money to then help his family come out of poverty. What an enormous burden to bear at such a young age. Going to school for me felt and looked so very different from what it looks and feels like for all of these children.
- Feminism in rural parts of the world. I already wrote about this previously, but I wanted to bring it up again to talk more about the gender divide. Opposite the Bal Ashram is a place called the Ballika Ashram, where teen girls come to learn sewing and beautician-related courses in an effort to get a job and become financially independent. During one of the celebrations, the Ballika Ashram girls came to the Bal Ashram to partake in the dances. I noticed that the boys and the girls would take turns dancing – they would never mix. The DJ would play some high-beat songs for the boys to dance to for 10 minutes and then he would switch to some low-beat and more elegant songs for the girls to dance to. When the girls arrived on the dance floor, the boys would move away and watch the girls, and vice versa. When I asked one of the boys why everyone isn’t dancing together (like I did with all of the boys and male staff/faculty the night before), the boy very confidently said “because when all boys and girls dance together, the boys dance with so much power that they might hit the girls and hurt them by accident.” I couldn’t help but to laugh at the internalized cultural sexism that still exists to this day.
- The 3 Musketeers. These three boys – V, L, and K – played a pretty large role at my time at the Ashram. They were older boys, around the age of 16-18, who are best friends with each other. I’ve heard and have been told directly by them that they don’t really interact with any of the staff, faculty, or even volunteers who visit the Ashram. However, they somehow felt comfortable enough with me and became a constant during my time there. These 3 best friends even collectively drew me a painting and gave me a tie-dye bracelet that says “Friend Forever” that I plan on wearing until it breaks open. I think the reason why I became so emotionally attached to these boys was because they made me feel like me being myself was enough. They gave me the space to open up and be completely myself and they accepted that part of me with so much love.
- The U.S. is seen as this almighty country. I agree that there are countries, like the U.S., with more resources and privileges compared to other countries. However, that does not make the people of that country better than anyone else. A lot of the boys have this internalized idea that Americans or even foreigners are superior to Indians. I don’t blame them because this has a lot to do with the centuries of the British oppression of India that may cause many to still believe that ‘white people’ or those who live in lands largely occupied by ‘white people’ are superior to others.
- The food! The cook, Ganesh Ji, is so insanely talented. Literally every single meal was stupendous, amazing, and incredibly filling. His paneer and puri combination was out of this freaking world!
- The ‘Namaste Didi’s. The norm at the Ashram is to greet everyone, including the boys, with ‘Namaste’s instead of ‘Good Morning’ or ‘Hello.’ I will truly miss those early morning ‘Namaste Didi’s, where the boys would fold their hands around their chai cups and greet me with such kind smiles and eyes as they would walk me to their daily morning meet-up spots.
The boys taught me a lot about life – too many to count, but I’ll attempt to list the main lessons.
- Love & presence is enough. Throughout my time at Bal Ashram, I was continuously riddled with self-doubt and guilt. Well-accomplished and distinguished leaders & talents from across the world visit Bal Ashram and then here I am, a super normal 20-year-old college gal who came from the U.S. I didn’t even have a degree to back me up! Who was I and why was I here? I wanted to just help in any way I can and I found that the ‘help’ that the boys wanted was a sense of belonging and love, so I tried my absolute best to give each and every one of them just that. I let myself open up and created a space where the boys saw me as an equal. During all their meditations and meetings, I would sit beside them instead of on a chair alongside the teachers. During their play time, I would play with them. During their movie times, I would sit for the entirety of the 2 hours and watch the whole film with them (and allowed for some to even use me as a human pillow). I gave them the space to feel comfortable enough to open up about their worries whenever they wanted to. Thus, I later realized that they didn’t need to know (or even cared about) whether or not I had a degree or if I conquered the world in some way or the other. They just wanted a companion and someone who could help them see themselves for who they are and remind them that they are all extremely talented & worthy boys.
- Trauma looks different for everyone. I knew that this was a fact, but I got to actually see it at the Ashram. One boy imagines a lot of things from his past due to his traumatic background. Another kid refuses to feel anger or recall his past, suppressing all of his feelings and festering up anger. Another kid feels so extremely lonely and has told me that he feels like his younger siblings have forgotten about him because he hasn’t seen them in years. Trauma is not comparable. Everyone’s trauma is trauma and thus, therapy & the healing process must also be tailored according to the needs of each individual child.
- What home is for some is an unknown place for others. Many of the boys remember where their homes are, but do not recall their homes being a safe space. Others reminisce about their past moments with their siblings and parents and feel lost as to why they ended up at the Ashram. Some are excited to be heading back to their homes and seeing their families after months. Home: it’s more-so a feeling than it is a place.
- Keep your inner child alive. Always. The children of Bal Ashram taught me to keep my inner child alive at all costs. I haven’t been that carefree & happy in so long! Keeping my inner child alive helped me become more spontaneous, ‘forgive & forget’ more easily, and made me enjoy life and its little offerings with much more ease.
Coming back to my house in Jersey now feels a bit disorienting. I miss the ambience of the Ashram and the love from the boys. I know for a fact that I will see them again in the near future, so this isn’t a goodbye, just a ta-ta for now. Phir milenge boys 🥺
Life Lesson From a Maid
Note: I wrote this years ago 😂 But I thought it was such a nice, little reflective piece when I found it again, so I wanted to share it with ya’ll. This post can also be found on https://happy2thrive.org/life-lesson-from-a-maid/
I stay with my mom’s older sister whenever I visit India.
She lives in a two-story house with a continuous supply of clean water, air conditioning, and healthy food.
Behind her house is a small, man-made neighborhood consisting of back-to-back huts all enclosed under one unsteady, tin roof.
I would always see kids with no shoes on, sometimes wearing torn clothes, walk out of that neighborhood and run down the mainroad, seeming to ignore their safety and health.
One day, my aunt came up to me and requested, “Come with me to see where Mary went.”
Mary was my aunt’s maid. She cleaned the house, washed clothes, and rinsed dishes every day. Mary lived in the neighborhood behind my aunt’s house.
“She always tells me if she can’t come, but didn’t today. I just want to make sure everything is okay,” my aunt explained.
I understood and accompanied her on her search.
We walked to the back of her house and crossed the street. We stood at the entrance of the neighborhood and stared at the flimsy door that we had to push open to enter.
My aunt used her sari to push it. We walked in and I was suddenly hit with the most repulsive smell. I couldn’t pinpoint what exactly caused it until I turned to my right and saw two buffaloes covered in mud, sitting in their own defecation.
On one hand, I was disgusted by the smell; on the other, I was terrified of those unguarded buffaloes.
My aunt noticed my newly formed fear and assured me, “Oh, don’t worry. That’s pretty normal around here. You’re safe.”
She dragged me away from the buffaloes and kept walking me down the unkempt, dirt pathway.
Both my aunt and I used the long end of her sari to cover our noses and mouths as we made our way through the neighborhood.
People living there stared, with big, bold eyes, at the both of us, without even blinking until we were out of their vision.
“These people never see the higher-class walk into their neighborhood. That’s why they’re so appalled. Don’t mind them,” my aunt said bluntly.
As we continued walking in search of Mary’s home, I saw many moms bathing their children with filthy water in the open area of the neighborhood. I saw shirtless, old men using twig branches to brush their teeth. I saw kids eagerly shoving pieces of candy down their throats and throwing the wrappers onto the dirt floor.
After what seemed like a lifetime, we found Mary’s hut. My aunt tried knocking, but the door was flimsy enough to swing open with one touch.
I saw Mary sitting against the cement wall, holding her 10-year-old boy’s head in her lap as she smoothed a damp cloth over his forehead.
Her eyes bulged when she saw us standing at her “doorstep.”
She stammered, “Wh-what are you do-doing here Mad’am?” as she gently placed her son’s head on the dirt floor.
Before allowing us to answer, Mary said, “Oh, my God. I never told you that I wouldn’t be coming to work today. Saleem had a high fever, and I had to stay back. I’ll come back tomorrow, Mad’am. Please don’t fire me, Mad’am. I really need the money. I’m so sorry, Mad’am.”
I was shocked by how much Mary valued her simple cleaning job. It was then that I realized it is that money she earns for performing those tasks that she uses to provide for her three sons and herself.
“Mary, you’re not losing your job. I just came to check on you,” my aunt explained. “Go take Saleem to the medicine shop around the block and get a prescription for his medicine. I’ll pay for it.”
“No, Mad’am. I can’t let you pay for his medicine. He’ll be fine without it. He’s just red and hot. He’s fine,” Mary replied stubbornly.
My aunt, being the fierce lady she is, replied, “Mary, he has a fever and it looks pretty bad. Take him to the shop or you really will lose your job.”
Mary didn’t reply, but I knew she was grateful.
That day, I watched families beam with joy for the smallest things in life. I watched parents work to their limit to care for their families. I watched children treat education like it was a piece of valuable treasure as they hoped to one day bring their families out of poverty.
As a future healthcare professional, this experience motivated me to be able to provide the same services and aid to those who cannot afford healthcare, along with my regular patients. More importantly, as an individual, this experience fuelled me to always push further every time I want to quit because I knew that Mary would never give up.