Monthly Archives: September 2011

We Shall Overcome

I was soberly mindful of the upcoming ten year anniversary of September 11th last week.  When I studied in Chile during the fall of 2008, September 11th gained a double significance, as it also marks the date of the coup d’etat in 1973 that brought military dictator Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile for the next seventeen years.

On September 11, 2001 I was a student in Mrs. Townley’s 8th grade class at Holy Spirit Elementary.  That morning I arrived early to homeroom and walked in to see a few of my classmates watching television.  I saw the image of the first tower burning on the screen and asked my friend Mike, “what movie is this?”  It is reported in the history books that the natives of the Canary Islands did not see Columbus’ ships approaching on the horizon because the idea of a ship did not yet exist within their realm of consciousness.  I don’t know if that story is true, but I know that what I saw on the screen that morning did not yet fit into my perception of reality.

I knew I wanted to share that memory and what it has meant to me since with my classmates at JNU.  I wanted to observe the tenth anniversary not with prayer or silence, but with conversation.  I wanted to know what my classmates remember about that day, what they felt, and what the world has been like for them since.  On Sunday the International Student Association (ISA) held a general body meeting to transition leadership from the current executive committee to the advisory committee leading up to the elections that will take place at the end of the month.  I spoke with my friend Reza, ISA’s vice president, and he agreed that we could hold the discussion following the meeting.

When the meeting ended I moved to the front of the room and invited anyone who wanted to stay to join in a brief and informal conversation.  It was already very late but most everyone stayed.  I shared my memory of that day.  I told my classmates that the feelings of that day – which were full of sorrow but also full of unity and compassion – had quickly turned into feelings of fear.  I said it is it is hard for me to remember “what the world was like” before September 11, 2001 – before a time of Us and Them.  Other students shared their experiences.  For me the most poignant were the reflections of two students from Afghanistan.  Reza was on a train when he received a call from his mother saying, “there is fire in America”.  He shared that Afghans so keenly felt the pain of Americans on that day because they had been fighting the Taliban in their homeland for more than four years and they knew the horrors of terrorism.  That day, the world woke up to a threat that so many people had already been living with for years.  My Afghan classmates expressed their solidarity and prayers for us that day and on this anniversary.

I was very moved to hear my classmates share their memories of that day and feel their sentiments for the people of the United States.  For my friends the attacks were not only on my country and our way of life, but that they were felt deeply around the world.  The World Trade Centers were a symbol of many countries coming together.  Not only the U.S. was attacked and shaken that day.

The conversation ended with the whole room singing “We Shall Overcome” in English and Hindi, a suggestion from President Tawheed.  As I looked around the room at the bright and resolute faces of my classmates I felt so hopeful about the future of our world and the possibility of peace.  This must be what my parents, aunts, uncles, etc. feel when they tell me “your generation will make this world a better place”.  I know we can and I believe we will.  Sunday marked the beginning of a conversation that will stay alive throughout this year and beyond.  It is a conversation that reaches far behind and far beyond the events of that fateful day in September.

We shall overcome

We shall overcome

We shall overcome some day

Oh, deep in my heart

I do believe

We shall overcome

some day


Open Up. Invest Yourself.

[Important Note: By now I’m guessing many of you have heard about the bomb blast that took place in central Delhi this morning.  It is a very sad event.  Twelve people have died and many are injured.  My campus is far from the city center.  The location (High Court) is a government, not civilian, target so I do not feel like I’m in danger.  I heard the news from Daniel this morning, but didn’t hear much talk about it today in class or on campus.  I want you all to know that I am safe.]

My birthday definitely marked a turning point in my time here in India.  The post before that caught me at the low point of my experience adjusting to a culture and surroundings so different from those to which I am accustomed.  Since my birthday I have begun to embrace India and each day I am feeling more comfortable in this new place.

In addition to my birthday celebration, a small miracle occurred on Tuesday and I am glad to report that we now have wifi in our apartment! This change allows me to connect more regularly with everyone at home and has made all the difference in the world.  One such connection was an early morning conversation with my dear friend Mike Johnson who called me on a whim from his apartment in Washington, D.C. where he is attending law school.  We have known each other since 7th grade, traveled to Spain together on a high school trip, and both attended College of Saint Benedict|Saint John’s University.  He is one of the people who knows me best so it was really great to share with him my experiences so far and the recent turnaround.

We reflected on our study abroad experiences – his in London and mine in Viña del Mar, Chile.  We both recollected when the “honeymoon period” in our new surroundings ended and we started becoming frustrated or feeling stagnant.  Looking back on my Chile experience I think it happened at about the same time, six weeks in.  We talked about the few painful days or weeks when we questioned why we had left home, what were we doing here, should we stay?  And we discussed the internal change of perspective that took place as we adjusted and became more familiar. There is a theory behind this, the W-Curve of Culture Shock and Re-Entry.  The study abroad office explained this diagram to all of us during pre-departure orientation:

I would say two weeks ago I was sitting at #3.  Mike made the great observation that learning to live in a new place requires you to “Open up, and invest yourself”.  First you must open up, approach the new experiences with an open mind and open arms.  Next, find something that gives meaning to the experience.  Find something that you care about, somewhere to invest your talents.  The week before my birthday I was not very open or invested but rather frustrated and discouraged, about to call it quits.

My birthday and the following weekend changed my perspective.  My birthday celebration brought together many of the great people I have met here, including my Rotary hosts, classmates, and friends from Rotaract (the university-age version of Rotary).  Last week I was asked to anchor (emcee) the 25th anniversary celebration of the International Students Association (ISA).  That took place on Sunday and was followed by an outdoor Freshers Welcome dance (in the rain!)  I am planning to run for one of the officer positions in ISA during the October elections.  ISA is a great group and the interactions with my new friends there remind me a lot of the amazing time I had as a member of Cultural Affairs Board at CSB|SJU.  Here are some photos from Sunday’s event, which was attended by the Vice Chancellor of JNU, Dean of Students, and Faculty Advisor, and also featured some great student performances.

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So each day I seem to find another little piece of my purpose here in India.  I’ve started to think of my experience here like a camping trip during which it rains 80% of the time – the experience itself is full of ups and downs but you look back on it as one of the best times of your life.  And after all, smooth sailing rarely makes for a good story right?  I’ll close with a wise quote from Steve Jobs’ at the Stanford University commencement ceremony in 2005.  He says:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.  So you have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.  This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Living and always learning,


If Every Day Were Your Birthday…

Yesterday I celebrated my 23rd birthday New Delhi-style!  This was the second time I’ve spent my birthday abroad – I turned 20 in Viña del Mar, Chile.  The festivities started at midnight on Wednesday with a bouquet of flowers and a note from Charmagne, who somehow coordinated the effort with my roommate Lena (she still won’t tell me how you did it!).  I went to bed with a big smile on my face and woke up to a cake, candles, and happy birthday song from Lena and a call from Lesly who is traveling with a friend visiting from France.  I sat on the floor in the living room with Lena and opened presents and cards – books & school supplies, a JNU T-shirt, a butterfly-shaped kitchen scrubbie, and macaroni and cheese!

I wrote a birthday To Do List and set out to mail some letters at the post office and run some errands at the market before lunch and my 2pm French class – yes I’ve decided to take French this year!  After my French class I planned to go get a haircut and have a coffee at Gloria Jean’s, my New Delhi happy place.  I ran into a girl from my French class on the walk home from school and struck up a conversation because she had mentioned that she also lives in Munirka when we were practicing the use of “j’habite a…” in class.  Not only are we neighbors (a few blocks away) but it turns out her mom runs a hair salon.  I took this coincidence as a sign and went for a haircut.  Her mom had arrived home just as we arrived so Deepali (my new French class friend) and I chatted about our shared love of languages and travel as her mom gave me a great birthday haircut.  Don’t worry, Tiff, it’s still long.

After my haircut I took an auto to Priya Market for the coffee and my annual ritual of writing in my “birthday journal”.  Seven years ago my aunt Paula brought me a lovely leather journal from Florence, Italy as a Christmas gift.  My aunt Wanda had the idea that I write in it once a year on my birthday which I have been doing since September 1, 2004.  Each year I reread the previous entries and document the joys, successes, highlights, challenges, and travails of the past year and set an intention for the year ahead.  I spent a good two hours at the cafe reading through the past seven years of my life and writing about my opportunities last year for professional development, leadership, introspection, growth, and fun.  The year ahead is all about ADVENTURE.  Like a bird taking flight I have left my cozy Minnesota perch to check out the branches and vistas of new places!

Rotarian Shahani hosted Lena and me for a lovely dinner at his home, organized by my Indian host brother Rohan who is a stellar party planner.  We had homemade hors d’ouerves and a lovely Indian meal and two cakes!  We were joined also by Preeti, a PhD student at JNU and another Rotarian from the district.  It was a lovely celebration.  There is some video of me blowing out the candles which I will post as soon as possible.  After dinner we met up with Daniel and friends from Hindi class, Rotaract, and JNU to go dancing at a club in South Delhi.  It was ex-pat night so the club was full of more Westerners than I have seen since July.  I had a blast!  When I got home I got online and chatted with some friends in MN – I decided I wanted to take advantage of the full 34.5 hour birthday (24 + 10.5 hour time difference) and I stayed up way too late and did.

I learned an important lesson from my birthday which is that experience is all about attitude.  I think my new M.O. is to pretend like every day is my birthday here in India.  Birthdays are a special day to celebrate that you are alive in this world and do so in a fun way with friends and/or family (or strangers if that’s who you can find!)  So I say why not use every day to celebrate being alive in this world?  Celebrate yourself!  Celebrate the beautiful people around you!  Do it every day, you don’t need the excuse of your birthday to do so.  The joy of one’s birthday is also something to be shared.  I gave in and had a great time buying chicken chow mein and a Pepsi for one of the sweet and feisty little street kids who hangs out in Priya asking for money and food.  He looked stunned and then overjoyed when I nodded and started walking toward a food stand, it was priceless.  I tried to explain to the guy at the register that it was my birthday today so this was my gift to the little kid, but I think he thought I was a naive tourist who had somehow been led to believe today was the kid’s birthday haha.  The “today is my birthday!” attitude is the perfect one to carry here in India.  This way when things go awry just shrug and say “Oh well, I’m not going to let this ruin my birthday”, I’m not going to let this ruin this precious new day I get to spend on the planet.  Experience = Attitude.

Thanks to everyone for the lovely birthday wishes, cards, gifts, and most of all the present of your presence (physical and virtual) in my life.

Make a wish and live every day like it’s your birthday!