My Trip to India: A Journey Back Home

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Until I was seven years old, the only home I knew was an orphanage called Bal Asha,
which means “Children’s Hope” located in Mumbai, India, not far from Bollywood. One day, I
was adopted and came to live with my new family in a home far out in the country about twentyfive
miles northwest of San Francisco. Nothing could have been more different from the hot,
crowded noisy world I had come from! My new life in the cool wooded hills of Marin County
was like a wonderful dream, but I often missed the sounds and sights and smells of my
homeland: the impatient honking of cars; the mouth-watering smells of street food I loved --
spicy pakoras, corncobs on a stick with hot pepper and lime juice; the clinking of cowbells as
these sacred animals wandered through traffic; the vivid colors and intricate designs of fabrics
which even the poorest people wore; and always, always being surrounded by people every
second of the day. As time passed, these memories faded, just as English began to replace my
native language, until I could no longer speak or understand one word of Hindi. I often felt that
India was slipping away from me forever.
When I turned sixteen last year, my parents thought it would be a good time for me to
visit India to reconnect with my roots. I was very excited by this idea, but also a little scared. I
could only remember the first seven years of my life in India in fragmented pieces, even though I
had kept in touch with people from my orphanage by email. I was no longer the same little
Indian girl who came to the US nine years ago. Something that happened when we applied for
my visa made me realize this even more. Last year, the Indian consulate made a new rule that
Indian nationals who are US citizens must renounce their Indian nationality if they plan to visit
India. This seemed like a huge slap in the face to me since I still proudly identify myself as
Indian. When I turned in my Indian passport and signed away my Indian citizenship, I felt that I
had lost my homeland completely, but I had no choice. Every teen struggles with questions of
identity at some point, and this summer I confronted questions I had not given much thought to
before. I began to realize how important connections to places are in defining who a person is.
My parents found a community service program where I could go to India with a group of
teenagers, in Dharamsala, which is north of New Delhi and is where the Dalai Lama lives. I was
so excited, since I loved the Tibetan people I have met in here Marin County, and Buddhist
philosophy appeals to me. I was part of a group of twelve students from around the United
States, who were going to teach English to Indians and Tibetans, do various community service
projects, experience the Tibetan culture, and learn about Buddhism from monks. This trip could
not have been more perfect because it allowed me to reconnect with my childhood memories of
India as well as gain a deeper appreciation and understanding of Buddhism.
As soon as I stepped off the plane in New Delhi, the hot smoggy air that dried my throat
and stung my eyes was instantly familiar to me, and took me back in time. I was sick with an
upset stomach the next day, and even in the early morning the heat was very intense. I had to
ride in a van for twelve hours with a no air conditioning, and four complaining people. This was
probably the lowest point of the trip, and it was absolutely the scariest ride of my life. After
surviving three or four hours of dodging cars, motorcycles, trucks, people (and babies), and
incessant honking, I prayed to just be on solid ground again. We stopped to get lunch at a small
restaurant where we ordered some of my favorite dishes such as aloo gobi, daal with basmati
rice, and light puffy poories. Everything tasted and smelled so authentic and amazing, although
in California we often eat Indian food. Here, in India, the smells and tastes of these foods
brought me back to my orphanage, where we would prepare and eat our meals on banana
leaves while sitting cross-legged on the cold smooth cement floors. For a split second I felt just
a little closer to that Indian girl I used to be. I saw Indian people in the restaurant eating with
their fingers as I used to, and I was just about to do the same when someone handed me a fork!
I felt confused. Who was I right then…the little Indian girl from Bal Asha, or the teen from
California? In the end, I chose to eat with the fork, just like my peers.
After eating, we got back into the vans for seven hours of constant stomach-lurching
stops to avoid hitting herds of cows, carts, and cars. My hands sweated at every near-miss of a
collision, and every fast turn that brought us way too close to the edge of a cliff. Dharamsala is
located on a steep mountain so our vans had to navigate thirty minutes of terrifying hairpin
turns. The roads were lined with shops on both sides, and were extremely narrow. Amazingly,
we arrived safely without crashing into anything or falling down any ravines. I waited patiently in
the dark next to my luggage as we were assigned to our Tibetan host families. These families all
lined up next to each other holding two long pieces of white cloth. I could tell by their wide
smiles, which crinkled their skin with soft lines, that they were just as excited as we were. For
them, this experience was an opportunity to get to know American culture. I and another girl,
Catri Brown, a senior from Boston, were assigned to a nice family with a mother and father and
two daughters, Tenzin Namdol (19) and Tenzin Lecky (23). The two sisters greeted us by
placing white silk scarves around our necks, as they placed their hands over their hearts, saying
“Tashi Delek,” which is Tibetan for “hello.”
I felt extremely out of place dragging my heavy suitcase through the crumbling, uneven
streets as we walked home with this family. Unfortunately, their home was located at the bottom
of a very long steep stair case which seemed to blend into the night. But I did not care. I was in
India! I loved it! Their home was small, simple, and cozy. We were to share a room with
Namdol and Lecky which had two blocks covered with matching rugs that were their beds. In
the middle of the room, there was a decorated shrine lit up with Christmas lights with a large
framed picture of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The parents, Amala and Pala, brought us chai,
and I greeted them by saying “Tashi Delek.” We all sat down in the small room, and begin to
chat. As soon as I told them I was from San Francisco, all their faces lit up because they had
heard a lot about it. I learned more about their family, and their two other sisters who were away
for the summer, and their seven-year-old son who was away at boarding school. Throughout the
week our family shared so much about their culture and religion. One of many things that
fascinated me was that each member of the family had a name which was given to them by the
Dalai Lama, that included the current Dalai Lama’s name. My endless questions about
Buddhism were all answered by the father, Pala. Pala, a very considerate and intelligent man,
spoke English with great ease and confidence. He clearly loved to share his religion with those
who wanted to learn. I had already known a significant amount about the philosophy of
Buddhism, but hearing it from Pala’s enthusiastic voice made everything so much more
meaningful. Every time he spoke to me, I felt as though I was being taught a valuable lesson
about life, people, and myself.
Dharamsala was not the typical Indian town I had imagined. The town offered a mix of
architecture, foods, music, and people of both Indian and Tibetan cultures. One minute, I would
see an Indian man herding goats along the street, and the next, I was watching a group of
Tibetan monks dressed in bright orange robes pass by. Experiencing these two cultures—
Indian, that was a part of me, and Tibetan, which I admired—thriving together so well made me
proud of being Indian because if it had not been for India, the Dalai Lama and his people would
not have found a safe refuge from intolerance and persecution.
Every morning we would walk along a stone covered path to a community center for
elderly Tibetan monks where we repainted green railings and bright red walls. While we worked
under the intense heat of the sun, Tibetan monks would step out to watch us.. When I met a
monk I would clasp my hands together and say “Tashi Delek.” Some would enthusiastically
respond, while others just shyly bowed. Even though I could not communicate with the monks
except for a few words in Hindi (which I have been relearning with a tutor), I could tell they were
fascinated by what we were doing, and were grateful for our company. Once, when I was
smoothing out green paint on a railing, I felt light tap on my shoulders. I turned around to see a
small monk with fuzzy white hair, draped in a bright cherry red covered robe, with his hands
clasped near his mouth. He pointed to my paint and then my brush, and made a painting motion
with his hands. He turned around and gestured to follow him. I was confused. I did not know
what he wanted, and I had no way of asking him. I decided to follow him with my brush and
bucket full of green paint. I entered his room, and saw him kneeling on the ground by the
entrance, pointing to a tiny spot on the wall close to the ground. The wall was grey, but there
was a small spot of white plaster where the paint had chipped away. The monk pointed to my
brush and then to the spot on the wall. He wanted me to paint the spot with the green just to
cover up the white spot! After I finished and returned to paint the railings, he brought me a glass
of warm chai, and said “Tu-je-che” meaning “thank you.” I was constantly impressed by
kindness of these people who live so simply and with such contentment and grace.
The two weeks I spent in India were more wonderful than I ever could have imagined.
So many little things I had forgotten came back to me so vividly, like the time when my host
sister Lecky made me my favorite dish with okra which is called “bhindi,“ (the same word for the
decorations I put on my forehead). I had not eaten this since I left India nine years ago, and
every bite of it was so delicious and brought back such intense feelings and memories. Before
my trip to India, I think I had been afraid that I had lost the Indian part of myself, just as I had
lost my Indian citizenship. But now I see that this is not true. After nine years of living as an
America, it only took seconds to reconnect to my past, and I know my Indian heritage will
always be a strong part of my personal identity. I have experienced life through two different
lenses: one, as an orphan in India living in deprived circumstances, and the other, as a
fortunate young woman in America. I will never forget the harsh realities of suffering and poverty
I knew as a young child and which I saw everywhere when I returned to India last summer.
There was one poor little boy trying to sell old magazines on the street, and it made me angry to
see tourists taking his photo. I wished so much that I could help him and so many others like
him. I feel so lucky that I had the chance to return to India, not as a tourist, but as a guest in a
wonderful community where I could learn so much about myself and the role I hope to play in
the world.





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Ray--yoThis teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Feb. 12, 2015 at 6:12 am
Your writing is really heart-warming. :)
 
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