From ‘Helping Out’ to Humbled

**Chenxi Yu is a remarkable young woman from the University of North Carolina who invited me to speak at TEDxUNC this past January.  She is the first of what I hope will be many new voices on Everyday Ambassador in 2012, reporting on personal experiences in public service where Everyday Ambassador principles and themes come into play.  Please reach out to Chex in the comment section below, and e-mail me if you are interested in contributing an article, or nominating a contributor! (kate(at)everydayambassador(dot)org).**

I had grand plans for my freshman year summer break.

I set out to completely immerse myself in a different culture, to learn about public health, and to “help out” in a developing country.  These hopes led me to carry out a public health research project in rural India, in a place called Jamkhed, in Maharashtra.  It was a project that I designed with the help from Professor Thomas Konrad from UNC, and as my grand plans were carried out day by day, I was increasingly baffled by what I found.

Nothing was at all what I expected it to be. For a long period of time, my inability to reconcile some of my thoughts and observations frustrated me. But after having a wonderful opportunity to meet Kate and learning about “Everyday Ambassadorship”, I saw that there was a space for me to share some of these unforgettable stories with this community.

Aaloka* was a woman born into a tribal group in rural Maharashtra, and I got to know her in our daily interactions at the research site. She belongs to a caste called Pardhi, which is branded as the caste of “thieves”.  From what I learned, Pardhi are labeled as untrustworthy from the moment they are born. And the fact that Aaloka is a girl made things worse. In her caste, girls are seen as enemy of the family. During delivery, pregnant women are forced to go into the field, far away from the house, because they are seen as impure and dirty. If there is a difficult delivery, women are oftentimes left in the field to die. Aaloka was forced to marry at 10 and became a playmate for her husband, who was 12. A week after menstruating for the first time at age 12 she became pregnant, and domestic violence was as normal as daily meals. Aaloka attempted suicide three times.

After her husband passed away, she could not find any job since she is a Pardhi.  But through her aunt, she came to Jamkhed and joined the Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP), where I conducted my research, to be trained as a Village Health Worker.  Although during training sessions nobody wanted to touch her or talk to her, she told me that she felt like a human being for the first time when Dr. Mabelle Arole (Founder of CRHP) asked her what her name was. She did a great job during the training and eventually rose from the lowest caste in society to a reputable community leader. Now, she is the President of Welfare for thirteen tribal groups in Maharashtra.

How would I have ever known she had such a story to tell?

There was Rashmi* was well, a woman I spoke with on my way to work everyday who told me she was married at 13. A few years after her marriage, her husband was diagnosed HIV positive. The doctors checked Rashmi and her son, who both turned out to be positive too. Her mother-in-law immediately kicked them out of the house and Rashmi returned to her mother’s home, but only to find that she was even more unwelcome by her own family. She moved to a slum, treated as plague by neighbors and for many years only weighed 55 pounds.

But who would have ever guessed that Rashmi is now a respected farm manager? She manages a team of 15 people who work on innovative water harvesting and farming techniques.

Aaloka and Rashmi challenged me to rethink what it meant to do public service in a foreign place.  Not foreign necessarily because it was a different country, but because these women’s life circumstances were so different than mine.  In Jamkhed my goal was to “help out” but instead I felt continually humbled, in awe of these women who achieved things so incredible that they were nearly unbelievable.

And so after the summer, I thought constantly about what it means to do meaningful public service.  How could I say I was serving others, when it felt much more like service to myself?

I came to ‘help’ these rural women yet they needed nothing from me.

I came thinking I brought skills and knowledge yet I had so much to learn from them.

After nearly half a year of reflection on these questions, I have come to realize that my experience can actually be called meaningful public service in two ways:

(1) My experience is undoubtedly more of service to me, because Aaloka and Rashmi had so much more to offer me in the short run. But it can qualify as service to others in the long run if I utilize their perspectives in my decision-making throughout my life and career.

(2) If I acted responsibly and maintained a humble attitude to learn and share, then I made a successful ‘Ambassadorial’ move to show them the true nature of people from a foreign country that they may have misconceptions of.  (All part of the EA philosophy!)

In the end, living out of my backpack for two months in rural India was not at all what I expected it to be.  It was so much more.  It was bed bugs, stinky train rides, 116 degree desert winds and three bouts of food poisoning.  And it was pure magic as well, seeing the sunrise over the Himalayas, admiring the beauty of the Taj Mahal, eating mangoes with rickshaw drivers, constantly being surprised by the most unexpected observations and feeling the heartbeat of an ancient land.

I know when I recall this summer years from now, remembering the grandiose travel moments that I had hoped for in my grand plans will keep a smile on my face.

But the interactions that have more fundamentally shaped and shed a light on my own path are those I shared with women like Aaloka and Rashmi.  Their perseverance will always push me to strive harder, and reminds me that service is always a two way street.

*name changed

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