Political science major Emma van Emmerik ’14  (Amherst, Mass.) spent spring semester in Pune, India. There she took part in the Alliance for Global Education’s Contemporary India program, which includes an internship as a core part of its requirements.

Van Emmerik’s research focused on determining what information married adolescent women are given about sexual and reproductive health. She took classes at Fergusson College, where the program is based, and lived nearby in the home of a middle-aged single woman named Didi. 

During her time in India, despite many classes and much research, she managed to fit in visits to Mumbai, Goa, Jaipur, Agra, and Darjeeling, among other spots. Following are several excerpts from the blog she kept during her semester abroad. 

The People: February 3 

This has been an incredible first weekend in Pune. I am shocked at how positive my feelings are toward this place, and by my ability to appreciate the stress, traffic, pollution, language barrier, etc., as part of the challenge I wanted when deciding to spend four months in India.

After a workout at the gym on Friday evening, I headed to a rickshaw stand to catch a ride home. I asked rickshaw driver after rickshaw driver if they could take me to Prahbat Road, but they all just shook their head at me. It wasn’t that late, but no one seemed to want to head in that direction.  

An older man dressed in business clothes approached me and asked me where I needed to go. When I told him he said he also lived on Prahbat Road and would drop me off if we took the same rickshaw (Don’t worry, Mom). He was a former dean of a dentistry school and knew my public health professor. He finally got us a rickshaw, we hopped in together, and he asked me about my studies and what I liked and didn’t like about India. I told him that my favorite part of India has been the welcoming people—kind, honest, helpful, and welcoming.  

The next morning I headed out to join a Minnesota acquaintance on a visit to ASHA, a small Pune organization she supports that works with slum girls to help them stay in school.  

We headed off to the slums by the Parvati Temple. This visit was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. We went to the homes of three girls who have passed the 10th standard to meet them and their parents. The walk through the slums up to the homes was steep, the houses building off one another.  

We entered the first home and I was barely able to hide my shock at the size of the living space. It was about as big as one of my bathrooms back home—and four people live there. It was extremely tidy. The mother, brother, and the girl stood against the kitchen wall, while we visitors us sat on the one bed two feet away. One of the ASHA directors began by asking the girl how old she was, what grade she was in, what her favorite subjects were, and what she wants to be when she grows up. She answered: Sixteen, loves English, and wants to become a doctor.  

Then she asked the translator to thank the girl’s mother for supporting the girl in her studies. It was a powerful moment to see the pride on the mother’s and girl’s faces when they saw that we understood the significance of her determination and success in pursuing her education. I could not believe that I was witnessing such an important moment in her life.

While we walked among the girls’ homes we developed quite a following of children. Girls approached me, sticking out their hands for a handshake and asking me my name. Young boys yelled out, “How are you?” and an elderly woman asked me in English how I liked India. At times I felt as if I was intruding on their lives and homes, but my curiosity and pure enjoyment from these interactions surpassed those feelings.

We made our way back to the temple where the girls meet weekly, and there they were, playing and laughing. Once we entered they sat down at our feet and started asking me my name and smiling at me. Did I mention that they are gorgeous? They wear beautiful colors, have glossy hair, bright eyes, and smiles that I can’t stop thinking about.  

The girls sat in a circle, with individuals standing up to do small performances for us. One girl began with singing—she had a lovely voice and was so brave to sing in front of strangers. Then a small 11-year-old girl stood up and began twisting her hands and hips in a beautiful dance. Many others followed, beaming with pride as we applauded them, amazed at their talents. 

Afterwards they asked me to sign their notebooks, each in turn learning to pronounce my surname. My Minnesota friend asked me if I’d be interested in volunteering with the girls’ group as an English tutor. After meeting them I can’t imagine not going back. 

Life in India: March 15 

This morning while walking to school I thought about the many everyday sights in India that I haven’t shared yet. For example, it is quite the trend among elderly men to henna their hair bright orange. I kid you not. Everywhere I go I see men with carrot orange hair. The worst is when they also henna their facial hair, or when you see five or six carrot-tops standing together.  

Another sight I no longer find strange is the street sweepers who every morning sweep trash and dirt off the street, creating large clouds of dust. Then there are the constant small fires on the side of the road in which people are attempting to burn their leaves and trash.  

Or how about all the middle-aged Indian women at the gym who work out in their kurtas? Also, it’s not uncommon to see five-day-old puppies crawl out from under cars. I don’t think twice now about adding yogurt to my rice and scooping it up with my fingers, and it feels as if something is missing from dinner when there is no dal. And everyday when I come home I take off my shoes, leave them outside the door, and immediately wash all the dirt and grime off my feet.  

Research: April 30 

At Vadu [where van Emmerik was conducting her field research] on Monday I held my second focus group with five married adolescent women, all under the age of 22, none of whom is planning to have children in the next six months. I’m shocked by how little they know about sexual and reproductive health. None of them uses any form of contraception, knows what a gynecologist is, or knows what a sexually transmitted disease is. No one speaks to them about abortion or family planning.  

I finished up my interviews by talking with a teacher. I asked her what she told the married adolescent women about contraception, abortion, and sexually transmitted diseases, and she said she told them nothing. It was hard to understand what kind of information she does give them. She seems to tell pregnant women not to lift too much and not to bend over. There is so much more these women need to know.

May 15, 2013: Goodbye India

Today is my last day in Pune. It has been four months since I came to India. It is now over 100 degrees, I bob my head like an Indian, and I have returned all my kurtas to the program center. It’s hard for me to reflect on my time in India right now. Will I have reverse culture shock? Will I miss India? Will it be difficult to return to my life in the U.S.?

Because I am so excited to come home, it’s hard for me to imagine that re-entry will be difficult. But I know there are many aspects of India I will miss. Like the Bollywood dance numbers I can now sing along to (butchering the words, of course); chai tea, chapattis, and rickshaws; the vibrancy of women’s saris; the small shops selling crackers, mangos, and ice cream; the orange-haired men; exclaiming “ko baba!” to complain about the heat; hanging out the side of commuter trains; talking to Buddhist monks; and most of all my host-mother, Didi.

I am so grateful I got to spend time in this incredible, overwhelming, complicated, frustrating, vibrant, diverse country. There really are not enough adjectives to describe India. I remember the moment I first saw the shoreline of Mumbai—the slums and the smog and the fear I felt about spending four months here. I know that tonight as I watch that same shoreline recede, I will leave something important behind.

September 19 2013

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