Alexandra Card, a sophomore at U-M studying History and Political Science, grew up in St. Clair—a picturesque small town in rural Michigan. Alexandra’s family has lived and farmed in St. Clair for more than one hundred years. They rarely traveled, and when they did talk about going somewhere, India never crossed their minds. “My dad travelled to Germany once on a work trip, and we went on a family vacation to a resort in Mexico when I was six,” Alexandra says. Growing up in rural Michigan, Alexandra’s parents never imagined their daughter would work in India one day.
Card’s hometown has a total population of around 5,000 people. In New Delhi, where Alexandra traveled last summer on the CSAS Summer in South Asia fellowship, it is common to see that many people walking in your direction at any given time.
“My childhood did not prepare me for the newness that I experienced in India. I had a pretty ordinary Midwestern life, relatively sheltered but comfortable. I spent most of my time reading, practicing my violin, and spending time with my friends, people who I had known for almost all of my life,” Alexandra says.
Alexandra was at her work-study job at the U-M International Institute, helping to coordinate other students' study abroad trips for the Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS), when she began to get interested in India. She was fascinated by the stories she heard from students who had spent time in India, and the idea that she would travel there herself began to take shape in her mind. She didn’t want to broach the topic of going to India to her parents immediately, because she knew well that they wouldn’t be entirely comfortable with the idea. But that didn’t stop her from wanting to travel.
Her parents were still living in St. Clair, but she was now going to school at U-M in Ann Arbor. This was already a stride into a whole different world. Card made up her mind to take the next step and travel to India – a country totally different from what she was used to.
“My parents were taken aback when I told them that I was going to be living in India for the summer. The opportunity to travel to India was an opportunity to open the world and a chance to break out of the sights and experiences I had grown used to my entire life,” she says.
Card landed in New Delhi last May and immediately realized she wasn’t in Michigan anymore. The temperature was in the 100s rather than the 70s. The sky was a blanket of haze rather than the beautiful Michigan blue. Rather than stopping for pedestrians, people were trying to run them over, or so it seemed. To make everything a little more challenging, the language she heard on the streets wasn’t North-American English.
“The culture shock I experienced upon my arrival to New Delhi hit me harder than I expected. The constant sound of horns blaring, the high concentration of people all in one place, and learning how to navigate new cultural spaces overwhelmed me. For the first two weeks or so I was in a constant state of discomfort and experienced a great deal of anxiety.”
It took the Michigander some time to get the hang of things in India. Fortunately, Alexandra had come to volunteer at the Safai Karamchari Andolan – an NGO dedicated to the elimination of manual scavenging.
“There was a something of a language barrier at the Andolan, which made it difficult for me to communicate clearly with my coworkers. However, the people I encountered during this time were extremely attentive and caring, always helping to ensure that my transition to India was as smooth as possible. I remember being struck by how accommodating people were, especially since I was a complete stranger to them.”
Card was accustomed to the formal ways of work culture in the United States, but working in an office at the NGO in Delhi, she noticed that the ethics were different and navigating the hierarchy at work wasn’t quite the same as back home.
“I am very used to having to ask for permission to enter someone’s office space, so it felt very odd to be able to walk in and sit without being invited. Instead of everyone sitting at their own computer station and cubicle to do work, people often sat together and were relatively social.”
After some time, Delhi began to feel familiar. India and its culture, the heat, the constant hustle and bustle began to change Alexandra Card in subtle ways.
“I gained more confidence in my ability to exist in new places and navigate unfamiliar experiences. I learned how to ask for help from strangers and how to live in a new culture.”
After spending six weeks investigating the level of awareness, among law students, about manual scavenging in New Delhi, Card returned to Ann Arbor, wishing she had more time in India. Growing up in the “great lake state,” Michigan was her world; but after a summer abroad in South Asia, Alexandra says, “The trip changed how I view the world now.”
On asking Alexandra’s mother, Mrs. Card, what she thought of her daughter’s trip to India, she said, “We were excited that she wanted to go to India, and also scared at the same time. We had a lot of trust in the University of Michigan and its summer abroad program and we knew our daughter was in good hands.”