Diary of a Field Fellow: Ups and downs in the first few months of a fellowship abroad

Angel groupIt’s February 18, and so with that I have officially been in Wayanad for four months, or nearly half of my total fellowship. If I could go back to the day before I left for India and tell myself one thing, I’d probably choose to quote, of all things, MTV — specifically, that early 2000s classic “Diary”. “Diary” was a show where a featured celebrity would talk about the supposed truth of their day-to-day lives, and every episode would famously open with the same quote: “You think you know, but you have no idea.”

I don’t know how true it actually all was — it was a heavily edited TV special, after all — but I think the spirit of it applies. Kind of fitting, too, since I’ve often felt like a (very reluctant) celebrity here, especially during the first couple of months. I’m pretty sure there are selfies with me on at least 15 random phones across Kerala, and who knows how many more photos that I’m unaware of. It’s not that I’m particularly interesting-looking, I don’t think; I’m Indian myself so I don’t always stand out here if I’m not talking and I’m dressed in a kurti. It tends to happen more once people find out or realize that I’m American, since this area doesn’t get too many foreign visitors.

Anyway, this post is a chance to be honest about some of the highs and lows of the Field Fellow experience. You think you know…but you have no idea.

HIGH:  People are friendly, welcoming and interested in you…

Maybe the concept of southern hospitality applies to the southern part of every country, because the people in Kerala are some of the kindest and most welcoming people I’ve ever met. In every household I’ve visited, I’ve been offered a seemingly endless parade of sweets, snacks, tea and juice, and people are always eager to get get to know me and ask me questions about my life and about the United States. I love the fact that as I walk to and from work I can wave at the different houses or people I pass by on the way and always get a smile and wave of recognition in return; having lived in a few big cities in the U.S. I can confidently say that this is not always a guaranteed response there. It’s refreshing and encouraging to live and work in a place that feels like such a bonded community but is still so happy to welcome you into it.

LOW: …but there will still be times when you feel incredibly lonely.

People’s interest in you as a new, foreign face can turn out to be a double-edged sword.  Even though the former Field Fellows I spoke to before starting on my own journey warned me about this, I’m still surprised at how isolated I can feel here, and in the first few months when I was feeling particularly lonely I felt more sensitive to being stared at constantly.

You will have a desire to have conversations with people about what you’re going through in terms of culture shock, but there are not really any other foreigners in this area to share that experience with. And while the internet has revolutionized communication in a way that makes it possible to stay in touch with friends and family back home even in the most remote of areas, it’s difficult to relate your experience to people who haven’t been through it. I’ve found that concentrating on my work and latching onto a sense of purpose in the lower moments helped me get through them, and though I still have days when I feel lonely here and there, I’ve found that time has helped that feeling to fade.

LOW:  Some projects will move slowly; others won’t happen at all.

Holding onto that sense of purpose can prove difficult when you have projects that aren’t moving at the pace that you’d hoped or are traditionally used to. Business culture feels different here to that of the United States; there are more holidays and days off, people don’t respond to emails as quickly (or sometimes at all) and staying on a timeline feels near impossible. Initiatives disappear from the drawing board for reasons outside of anyone’s immediate control, and partnerships fall through at the last second. Navigating these differences as a professional can prove frustrating at times. I’ve had projects that I had high hopes for never make their way off the ground or out of the planning stages, and others that I’d planned to take one month to complete have ended up taking three. I’m personally used to a fast-paced work environment, so this has been a big adjustment for me.

HIGH:  You will discover innovative and alternative ways to make a difference.

Like any professional challenge, though, this obstacle has also been an opportunity for growth and flexibility.  These experiences have pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and find new ways to communicate and innovate. When one project doesn’t work out, I have the new challenge of figuring out what went wrong and how to improve my approach to suit the partners we are trying to work with or, alternatively, how to find an entirely new partnership or approach to better serve the community’s needs. My favorite experiences of this fellowship so far have involved this discovery process, especially visiting the homes of community members and local stakeholders to get their input and viewpoint on the work that we are doing and could be doing. After all, no one is a bigger expert on the community than the people who live here. Such meetings have led to new programming such as a career guidance workshop this month for older students and a young women’s empowerment initiative starting next month. I always look forward to these kinds of interactions with the community and hope they can continue to play a larger role in my work for the remainder of my fellowship.

LOW:  The communication barrier can feel pretty steep.

Ah! Malayalam sans?rikkunnu!” (Ah! She speaks Malayalam!) I’m often met with this delighted phrase upon meeting a new person and busting out my go-to Malayalam dialogue starters: “Namask?ra?! Ente pere Angele. Ningaluude perenthanu? Kandathil santosham.” (Greetings! My name is Angele. What’s your name? Nice to meet you.) Unfortunately, since that’s about all I’ve managed to master fluently in the time I’ve been here, the illusion falls apart soon after that. But I’ve found people tend to be appreciative of my attempt, anyway.

Still, Malayalam is not an easy language to learn, and a few basic phrases will only get you so far. Trying to have deeper conversations with people can be taxing and confusing for both parties with such a limited shared language. Sometimes the results are funny, like the time my host mother accidentally told someone that I was having a “Caesarean” over the weekend (she meant “operation,” referring to a tonsillectomy I had scheduled, and luckily I was there to correct the misunderstanding). Other times, though, it can create awkwardness or contribute to that sense of isolation that I was talking about earlier.

HIGH:  You will pick up on a new language and develop creative ways to communicate.

The difficulty of Malayalam aside, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to learn a new language in a totally immersive environment. I think it’s safe to say that if I had not participated in this fellowship, I probably would not have learned anything of this rich and interesting language. Attempting to learn the language is a way to show my investment in connecting with the community here, and I am surrounded by expert teachers to help me with my vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. Struggling with a new language is also helpful for my perspective as a teacher; when my own students struggle with English, I am more sensitive to their frustrations with learning a new and challenging language.

I’ve also found creative ways of expressing myself despite the language barrier. My host mother speaks and understands only a few words of English. When I arrived, I’d venture that she knew as much English as I knew Malayalam…and yet, we’ve lived in relative harmony since then. Through a combination of language exchange and creative charades (as well as a little assistance here and there from her more English-fluent son), we’ve been able to pass on information, tell stories and share laughs.

HIGH/LOW:  This experience will constantly surprise, challenge and change you for the better.

Well, I’m only halfway through this fellowship, but I can confidently say that I’ve already been plenty surprised, challenged and changed. However, I’m still experiencing highs and lows every day, and I worry that this sometimes gives me a “can’t see the forest for the trees” perspective. I’ll be sure to update you on my reflections post-fellowship. Until then, I’ll leave with with the veteran viewpoint of former Field Fellow Emily Davies:

“Being a Profugo Field Fellow is about forming human connections that will forever alter the course of your life, open your eyes and leave you with a lifetime of memories. “

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