Living with Fewer Things and More Love

A few months before I graduated from college, I found out that I was one of three recipients for the Bonderman Fellowship, a $20,000 grant to travel the world. I know, it sounds straight out of a movie, but somehow I was lucky enough to get the part. When I first started traveling, I knew that this year would bring many adventures, challenges, and life lessons. But, as with most things we learn, the ways in which I’ve changed and grown have often been unexpected. A few months into my trip, I wanted to make a change in how I was traveling. Rather than see a lot of a country, moving from hostel to hostel, I decided to spend most of my time in one place. I wanted to learn how to make one place a home and truly get to know it before I left. I searched through volunteer websites and found a family in Sri Lanka who would be willing to host me while I helped out around the house and with their five children.

I arrived in Sri Lanka, spending a few days in Colombo before heading south to the small town my host family lived in. Colombo had been a nice break after five weeks in India, as it was one of the most westernized cities I had visited on my travels. Except for the fact that everyone around me had brown skin like mine, I felt like I had been thrown back to a small beach town in the States. Coffee shops and cafes perched on each corner, malls and boutiques every few blocks, and the humidity hung overhead while everyone waited for an afternoon rain shower.

When the time came, I boarded my train from Colombo Fort Station, barely making the last one before rush hour, which I had been warned several times to avoid at all costs. I breathed a sigh of relief as the train slowly chugged alongside the water away from the station. I watched as the scenery changed from tall buildings to clusters of shanty houses with stretches of beach in between. Two hours or so later, I arrived, and I got off the train to find the oldest child in my host family waiting for me with a tuk tuk driver. We loaded my backpack into the back and were on our way.

The driver weaved through narrow streets and potholes, massive puddles created by daily downpours, and the occasional chicken or cow. I felt the stares of passerby, and started to wonder what I had gotten myself into. As someone who looked somewhat local, but also entirely foreign, Sri Lanka had already proven to be an interesting environment. I realized that bringing myself to a more rural area would only exacerbate that.

We arrived at the house, and my host mom welcomed me in with a cup of tea and some conversation. As I looked around their house, which one could essentially do from the front room, I saw markings on the walls and a few toys and papers strewn in a few corners. She pointed me to one of the few side rooms, saying that I would be sleeping in there. I dropped my bag inside, seeing a bed, a mosquito net, and a fan.

I was given a tour and I quickly settled into a routine along with the family. As they went off to school each day, I would stay at home taking care of the youngest, their three-year-old daughter. Our first few days were interesting, as we both adjusted to spending our mornings with a stranger who spoke an entirely different language. The kids would come home at various times, usually youngest to oldest, as their exams would finish up. We spent afternoons playing cards and I would often break away to help their mom cook or clean when she returned from grading exams, usually an hour after the kids.

Although my schedule day-to-day was incredibly relaxed and mostly spent playing with the kids, occasionally taking them to the beach, and catching up on reading, I started to realize that I was more exhausted than I had been in weeks.

My mind was buzzing with all that was around me and what I was experiencing. From the moment—my first night—when I realized my host family was sleeping on the floor in the common area outside my room. My own cultural background, being the daughter of Indian immigrants, came to the fore, as I told them several times that I did not need the bed and would be happy to sleep on the floor outside. They, of course, refused, and also insisted that this was their normal routine. I believed them, but I also don’t think I got a single good night of rest, knowing that I was in a queen bed on my own while my host family slept on the floor outside my door.

The other strong memory that comes back to me is meal times. Again, as South Asian culture requires, guests are treated like royalty. The kids always asked me to eat first, serving me food first, ensuring that I always sat down first and got first helpings. But, as the days went on, the food supply dwindled because my host dad had not been able to come back from the city and buy groceries. For the first time in my life, I was incredibly conscious of how much I was consuming, how much space I was taking up, and not because of self-image issues. I wondered whether my contributions to this family were truly worth the extra food I was taking away from their stomachs. I felt immense guilt.

But, there were good moments. So many of them. Getting caught in a Sri Lankan downpour on the beach while the kids refused to leave because “they were wet from the ocean anyway,” laughing and screaming as we ran for the last tuk tuk so we wouldn’t get stranded. Playing game after game of Crazy Nines and Go Fish and other weird games we made up with cards. Early evenings sitting at the front door sipping tea, nights going over math homework and listening to them recite their Tamil reading or verses from the Qur’an. I felt so at home.

And so, naturally, leaving was challenging. The day crept up slowly and then quickly, and finally it was the morning that I had to wake up at 3 AM in order to get back to Colombo in time to catch my onward journey. I looked at the sleeping kids’ faces one last time, incredibly thankful for all the love they had shown me over the last couple of weeks. I quickly hugged my host mom, thanking her for everything and us both hoping our paths would cross again. My host dad and the oldest son would be joining me, ensuring that I made my train.

As with all transportation in South Asia, we were late. With just five minutes to spare, I sprinted into the train station and found my seat. As I caught my breath, I looked out the window and saw the father and son, smiling and waving. I wanted to say thank you, but, again, there was so little I could do or say for all they had given me. In the United States, we’re taught and shown that you must physically give to show your love. Presents and money are how we develop relationships. Yet, here was a family who had given me more than I can express, and that was something I will never forget. Focusing less on all the extra “stuff,” and more on love and kindness, I saw that we can have truly meaningful experiences after all.

I’ve always felt that my role in living sustainably could start and end with recycling and conserving water, but to truly have a stake in sustainability and living consciously, we must go beyond those basic steps. Through consciously examining how much we actually need to consume and obtain, we can minimize our footprint and live more sustainably. Living such a simple way of life also showed me how materialistic we can be, but also how that leads to a constant cycle of unhappiness. The more we focus on having things, the less easy it will be for us to find an inner calm because there will always be more things we can have. Focusing on how to make ourselves happy and healthy through relationships, as well as self-reflection and self-dependency, can build a more healthy way of life—physically and mentally.

Originally written for Earth Heir

Great Expectations, Greater Lessons

Expectations can be a dangerous thing. The school I attended for a good portion of my time in Wisconsin, The Prairie School (the land it was built on used to be a prairie—terrible, I know), was a “college preparatory school.” As part of its philosophy, Prairie prided itself on unique approaches to primary and secondary education. One such method was that we didn’t receive real grades, well, until high school. Rather than traditional letter grades based on a numeric system, we were placed into one of three categories: exceeds expectations, meets expectations, fails to meet expectations.

In many ways, this system was great. Although one could argue that it is subjective, one could say the same about a numeric grading system for particular subjects. With the expectation-based system, the goals could be clearly laid out and a student would simply have to try to achieve those goals. Perhaps this is where my goal-oriented nature came from, but, as a student, I found it easy to understand what my teachers wanted of me and what would allow me to be an excellent student. I still learned a lot, but I also felt the reward of “exceeding.”

However, expectations can also be very bad. Setting up an image in our head before we are even exposed to what we are judging, we often create a situation for ourselves to be let down or disappointed. Many times, though, it is not that the subject did not meet expectations, but that the expectations we selected were not an appropriate method to measure success or achievement. I’m sure this happened with many students at Prairie, as it happens in many other aspects of life.

Kuala Lumpur skyline representing some LGBTQ  equality.

Kuala Lumpur skyline representing some LGBTQ  equality.

When I was planning my time in Kuala Lumpur, I worried about my high expectations. I had decided a few weeks ahead that I wanted to spend a good amount of time there, rather than the couple of days that I had been spending in cities. Throughout my Asia travels, I had met dozens of other travelers who all raved about Kuala Lumpur, many exclaiming that it was their favorite city in Asia. Thus, upon the statements of others and the expectations I had created as a result, I found a WorkAway job in the city so I could spend a longer period of time there, while also keeping myself busy and having a different experience.

It would be a lie if I said I did not have expectations. I knew that the largest Sikh community in Southeast Asia was in Kuala Lumpur, and that the city boasted a diverse community overall. Because of this, I anticipated increased awareness of other identities and communities, beautiful examples of unity and diversity, and an insight into how to successfully create a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. I certainly saw a lot of this, but I also learned about many problems which taught me even more. (I’ll talk about these more in my next blog post.)

I also had many expectations of what my WorkAway experience would be like. As a side note, WorkAway is a cool website that allows travelers like me to work with organizations, communities, or other entities in exchange for room and board. Thus, it allows travelers to save on the necessities while providing much-needed groundwork to the hosts. I found a social enterprise to work with, Earth Heir, and I anticipated doing a lot of blogging and writing for them. Although I did some of this, I also did a lot of things I didn't expect. Like going to a live taping of a Malaysian morning show, meeting with women from an indigenous tribe outside of Kuala Lumpur, and going to a regional conference on micro-finance. Certainly well outside my usual experiences, but it’s been a fascinating experience that I’ve really enjoyed (largely because of my super cool & inspiring boss).

But, the one thing that I’ve had, by far, the most expectations for has been my Bonderman Fellowship. I remember the shock when I initially found out I was a recipient, and the disbelief that followed for many days after. Next came the terror and fear. Would I be able to do this? Could I, of all people, really travel all by myself for eight months? I doubted it. And yet, here I am, almost five months in, and doing completely fine.

Founder of Earth Heir, Sasi, looking over some products with a woman from the Mah Meri indigenous tribe.

Founder of Earth Heir, Sasi, looking over some products with a woman from the Mah Meri indigenous tribe.

The trip has been essentially nothing like what I expected. It’s been a lot easier in some ways and a lot harder in others. There have been days where I wanted to go home and many days where I wished I could make these months last forever. Luckily the latter has largely outnumbered the former.

In many ways, the trip is much calmer than what I expected. I haven’t had to outrun violent riots or bargain for my life in back alleys, I haven’t lost all my belongings with no idea where the nearest embassy is located, and I haven’t met anyone who wants to do me any harm. Basically, it’s everything Western media doesn’t tell you about the rest of the world (surprise, surprise). I’ve met good-hearted, kind, and giving people. I’ve fallen in love with cities and then been heartbroken when I had to move on, only to fall in love again.

That’s the problem with expectations, though. We often think that things need to be a lot grander and outrageous than they are for it to impress us, but it’s been the simplicity of everything that has been the most unexpected and the most beautiful.

Through everything, I’ve been reminded that, a lot of the time, expectations aren’t that great. They may set clear outlines, but they also create a box, limiting what I, what we, can expect of the world around us. Through our expectations, we say that this is what we want and all that we can see happening. Our vision becomes narrower and smaller, allowing for less surprises and learning. So even though these last few months have been nothing like my expectations, they have exceeded anything I could have imagined, and that has been the greatest gift of all. I’m feeling incredibly thankful for all that I’ve learned and even more excited for all that I have yet to see. Most of all, I’m trying to do it with an open mind and no expectations.

Social Entrepreneurship and Earth Heir

Something that should come as a surprise to no one who knows me well is that I'm a bit of a workaholic. (That may also be a bit of an understatement.) One of the hardest parts of this fellowship has actually been the lack of a routine, the lack of work, and not being sure of what exactly I'm moving towards. As time went on, I was able to realize the incredible growth and knowledge that is occurring for me everyday, something that I'm very grateful for. But it was still difficult to continue on this journey that doesn't really have a set destination or path.

I started to love the surprises and the moving and became more comfortable with carrying my entire existence on my back in smelly busses and hot trains and dark taxis. But then—all of a sudden—I was half-way done. The crazy, scary, mysterious 8 months that I'd be spending abroad were already slipping away. From now on, each day would be moving closer to the U.S., a place that now seems a bit scary from afar, and further away from this wonderful journey and these beautiful places and people.

Maybe to find some reassurance or to find something familiar, I reverted back to workaholic Harleen. I found a job.

For the last two weeks, I've been working with Earth Heir, a social enterprise based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Earth Heir focuses on sustainability and ethical fashion, bridging the gap between artisans and those who want to appreciate the art and fashion they're creating. The organization works with artisans in five different countries, designing products that draw from traditional craftsmanship of that culture. Then—the cool part—they help the artisans sell these products and ensure that they receive the price they truly deserve for their work.

Beautiful, woven document cases by Earth Heir. My hand also makes its debut!

Beautiful, woven document cases by Earth Heir. My hand also makes its debut!

The last few weeks have flown by (as the rest of the trip), but it's been a blur of meetings and writing and photography and learning. Sustainability and ethical consumerism is, unfortunately, one aspect of public policy I never really experienced, and it's been really fascinating to slow down start that process now. Seeing how much ethical consumerism ties in to race, culture, social class, government, and so many other factors is just another reminder that, if we truly want to be socially conscious beings on this planet, we cannot pick and choose which issues and which people we want to stand up for. It's all interconnected.

One moment that still sticks out is when I was able to meet one of the artisans, Uncle Kl Ng, who crafts beautiful baskets, chairs, tables, and so many other things out of rattan. Below, you can check out a video of him working on the Earth Heir Nelly Bag. The way his hands moved so quickly and effortlessly captured my attention for minutes on end and I was in awe of how much he could make from so little. The way he intertwined pieces of rattan reminded me of all the thoughts and ideas in my head from the last few months, starting from strands and weaving together, one by one, to form this larger, beautiful idea. I think my process still needs a bit more work, however, before it looks as good as Uncle's rattan pieces.

Working with Earth Heir has been a fascinating journey, and I'm excited for all that I'll learn as I continue to work with them over the next couple weeks. Also, keep an eye on the Earth Heir blog, as I'll be writing some fun things for them, as well!

Diaspora, Nostalgia, & Becoming Something

Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.
— Salman Rushdie

Out of all the questions I get about the Bonderman Fellowship—from “how did you convince your school to give you $20,000?” to “how does your husband feel about you traveling the world alone?”—there’s one that I, somewhat surprisingly, have barely been asked. Why did you even want to do this fellowship?

The only time I remember someone asking me is actually during the interview for the fellowship. I recall the anecdotes I shared of being first-generation American, wanting to work with immigrant populations in my future career, and hoping to understand these identities before I begin my work. I talked about past internships on Capitol Hill and with advocacy organizations, future hopes of a career in policy and education, and a desire to bring together communities who have been separated by their individual and collective struggles in finding new homes. I thought that, through these months of traveling, I could start to string together an idea of what these identities mean and how they are translated across oceans and miles of earth. But, as it often is, even this has proven to be much more difficult and complicated than I expected.

you broke the ocean in

half to be here

only to meet nothing that wants you

— Nayyirah Waheed

In my trip to Sri Lanka, I decided to make a small change in how I had been traveling. Rather than try to travel throughout the country and visit a variety of places, I wanted to simply get to know one place, one community, very well. I was lucky to find an incredible host family in the south, in an area called Dharga Town. Part of the Tamil Muslim population of Sri Lanka, they also knew the notion of being a minority in your own home. I also resonated with their ideas of many homes, of being part of the diasporic identities that define so many generations today. Although from Sri Lanka, the husband and wife had spent many years in Malaysia, while the wife pursued higher education. Four of their five children were born there before they returned to Sri Lanka, and the oldest ones have fond memories of their early childhood in Kuala Lumpur.

One night, after dinner, I was speaking with the wife as the five kids slowly nodded off after a long day of school and play. She shared stories of her time in Kuala Lumpur, of her classmates, and all the outings and adventures they would have. She talked about how much she loved the diversity of her school, and all the different cultures she was able to learn about. This, in part, is what inspired her and her husband to start hosting travelers. They wanted their children to continue to learn about the world, even after leaving the melting pot of KL. As she talked, she paused on a story of one of her friends who had moved to the States. “You know, she got married and left, and I never really heard from her again….I guess that’s what happens when people leave.”

Just a few weeks later, my dad was sent to India for a business trip, specifically to his childhood city of New Delhi. I called him a day or so after his arrival to ask how he was enjoying it, particularly because it was also his first time back in 16 years. All he said was, “Everything is different. It’s all changed.” It was enough for me to understand. Even in all my moving around in the States, I’ve never been able to move past my anxiety of change. Because it’s inevitable. As much as our prior hometowns and friends and families change, so do we. And when we “come home” or try to “go back,” there’s only hints of what we used to know.

The formation of a diaspora could be articulated as the quintessential journey into becoming; a process marked by incessant regroupings, recreations, and reiteration. Together these stressed actions strive to open up new spaces of discursive and performative postcolonial consciousness.
— Okwui Enwezor

The struggle of diaspora, of immigrants, is not only the struggle to have others understand your identity, but even to figure out how to identify yourself. We are constantly changing through our experiences, defined by the communities around us and the labels attached to us. When someone asks, “where are you from?” they hope to create an image of you based on notions of a country that you simply reside in, whose own history often does not reflect your own.

Above photos: Although not much physical difference in the famous Taj Mahal hotel over the 30+ years since my dad last saw it, the history of it has changed. In 2008, the Taj experienced a terrorist attack in which hundreds were taken hostage and killed inside this hotel, and many others, in Mumbai. Events change things as much as appearance.

As I’ve tried to gain an understanding of the immigrant experience, I’ve seen how varied and intricate identities can be, whether it is that of one community or even an individual. Even a person who has lived in one town their entire life is impacted by the separate parts of their collective identity, and it is all these parts together that shape the way they view their world. Through traveling, I’ve become more realistic about how much I can truly learn about the countries I’m visiting and the cultures that I’m experiencing. Although I can gain small bits of knowledge and broaden my awareness to become more accepting, in reality, I still won’t know that much more about these communities than when I began.

So, then, how can I work towards my goal of creating a better environment for immigrants and their children in the US, particularly given today’s political climate? I think it comes through aiding this journey of “becoming,” and creating an environment that allows an immigrant to fully delve in and start their process of consciousness in a new home. Ensuring that basic measures are taken for the health, safety, and happiness of these communities will allow them to focus on creating their own notion of self and family in a new nation. As we all try to open our minds and hearts to these communities, even though they may be much different than our own, we must understand that it is a mutual process of learning. Diaspora is not just about the country that a people left behind, but also the place that they’ve landed, and the people who embrace you and ask, “how can we make you feel at home?”—rather than turn their backs—make all the difference.