As our time left on this program has begun to dwindle, the sentimentality of our group has reached and all time high. At lunch we sometimes discuss the things we will miss the most about Varanasi, about India, and about this program in particular. One afternoon my friend stated that the thing she will miss the most, as simple as it may seem, was being surrounded by the unfamiliar.
The phrasing of this resonated with me deeply, as I often reflect on how much Varanasi continues to surprise me, inspire me, and amaze me. When I first arrived, I had assumed that I would become numb to the city, hardened even, and while I certainly have learned to navigate it with more ease, I’ve actually found that in Banaras, the more you look, the more you see. While I assume that this could be the case in any city, the startling contrast visible in Varanasi heightens this experience. Sure, I’m no longer shocked by the draping power lines that seemed so precarious to me on my first week, and the traffic and animals aren’t quite as novel. That being said, however, there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t notice a new sign, shrine, kind of person. Because of the foreignness of this city, I have been infinitely more engaged and aware of my surroundings and myself. I will miss this being my natural state of existence. When I return home, I worry that I will again mindlessly wander through the world, unaware to my surroundings. It has become an active mission to remind myself that regardless of where I am, I can choose to look closely and think critically and approach the world with this kind of open and engaged attitude. As I reflected upon this sentiment earlier in to program–– the importance of foreignness–– I found that it felt rather selfish. After considering it more closely, however, I’ve decided that while, yes, exposing one’s self to the foreign and strange is wholly selfish, it is also precious and a useful tool with which we can mold both our world view and the world its self.
As I’ve begun to cultivate my own sentimentality, I’ve also started to reflect on what I’d like to share with students who may be considering coming on this program in the future. So, here it goes, my advice likely won’t quell nervousness––it isn’t meant to–– but rather cultivate excitement and openness. What it really comes down to, though, is that it’s important to be foreign, as it is important to be earnest.
Be prepared for what could be one of the most meaningful experiences of your life. When I was applying, I was really tired of the banal platitudes about visiting other cultures, changing your world view, and finding yourself in India. That’s not what I will share with you now, although you may come to find that there is, in fact, a reason why some of these cheesy clichés exist (hint: it’s cause they’re largely true). My biggest piece of advice I will give to you instead is the one my step father gave me: “Stick with it.” Varanasi is a challenging place. The day we moved in I experienced sadness and anxiety. I just kept thinking “what have I done?” After thinking that, I was quickly infuriated with myself for thinking this. But it’s okay to be uncomfortable and aghast by some of what you see here. In fact, that’s what you wanted, remember? You wanted to be uncomfortable and amazed and escape the over glorification or condemnation of other cultures. Because you are the kind of person that is engaged with the world–– who never wants to stop learning about that world and your own humanity. And, let me tell you, you’re on the precipice of doing just that. My advice for you? Don’t be so hard on yourself. Stick with it. Pay attention. And ask the program staff about the word “Aaramse” on the first day. It’s going to wonderful and unlike anything you’ll be able to articulate in just a few months.