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India Did Not Change My Life

Courtney Backen

I’m going to tell you one lie: India changed my life.

Having been back in the United States for a couple months now, I’ve realized I’m not a different person. I’m not a “better” person. I’m not a “social justice warrior” by any means. India is a place. It’s a country. India, the noun, cannot and did not change my life. I changed my own. I think there’s a misconception that we have the ability to empower other people. We often talk about empowering marginalized communities or being empowered by a global experience, but my time in India really taught me that you can only really empower yourself. I was excited to go to India because I thought the “exotic” experience would empower me. Of course my experiences there changed my life and my worldview on many different issues, but the most important thing I have learned is that the only source of empowerment came from within myself.

Four months ago, I thought I would go into the Social Justice, Peace, and Development program (SJPD) in India and leave a completely different person, ready to take on all of the world’s injustices. I thought being in a different country in and of itself would simply change my life and that somehow I would become more worldly, more sophisticated, and more knowledgeable. I figured that just by coming home and saying “I studied in India,” I would elevate my status as a student and feel good about myself. I definitely better understand how to cross a street full of traffic now and how to eat without utensils, but ultimately, I am still very much myself. I don’t feel sophisticated or worldly, I just feel like me.

Before doing the SJPD program, I was extremely defensive about issues of social justice and thought that anyone who didn’t automatically agree with me on the same issues was just plain stupid and obviously couldn’t see the facts or didn’t have a heart. But I was defensive because I didn’t understand how to talk about issues, and I didn’t feel I could really articulate what I thought and logically think through my ideas. One of the first conversations I had in India was with Roshen, our mentor for SJPD. He asked me how I had experienced racism in the United States, and I automatically felt defensive. I didn’t fully understand the issue and hadn’t really felt like I had experienced racism. But after two hours of talking, I knew that was the beginning of my progress of understanding myself and my place in the world.

Last semester I was deeply challenged on many issues and pushed into thinking very extensively about many topics like race, gender, and environmental justice. Honestly, I had very little awareness on almost all of these topics. But for the sake of my pride, I felt I needed to prove everyone wrong and seem like I knew all the answers. However, thanks to that first conversation with Roshen, and the many more that have followed, I’ve learned that I can talk through issues and start a dialogue without “winning.” I’ve cried, I’ve yelled, I’ve been hurt by being challenged by other people in my group, but it’s those conversations that have helped to shape the person I am becoming and the person I want to be. After my first conversation with Roshen about racism, I started to think more and more about what racism looked like in America and how it affected me. One day, after having lunch in Koppal, Roshen and I sat on the tile floor of the outdoor dining hall at an all-girls school while he told me stories of the experiences of another young Asian woman he knew in America. This intimate and personal conversation suddenly opened something in my mind, and I finally began to let the emotions and stories flow out.

Because of this, I understand that I have the confidence, the openness, the compassion, and the power within myself to connect with others in the world and begin to understand peoples’ viewpoints and frameworks, including my own. But I don’t know if I could have done it without Roshen and other students in the SJPD group that were there to support me and listen to what I had to say. The stories I told and exchanged with Roshen finally made me realize that my place in the world was much more interconnected than I had originally thought the first night we talked.

Conversations with Roshen made me realize that my life is not about me. Fifty, Sevetny, a hundred years down the road when I’m dead, my individual actions will not have changed the world. I am not just Courtney, but I am a human being, a global citizen, a friend, a daughter, a granddaughter, a niece, a student, and so many more things. My life is defined by the meaningful connections I have with people, not just about what I personally choose to do with my life. Only focusing on what I choose to do is the selfish way to live my life and at the end of the day won’t improve my or anyone else’s life.

So, India did not change my life. My friendships, my experiences, and my own challenging of my ideas and beliefs changed my life. Empowerment is all about challenging yourself and making meaningful relationships with those around you and allowing others around you to challenge you and push you further. I could have given up that first night talking with Roshen and closed myself off to talking about issues that were hard for me. But because I didn’t and because he was always there for me, I began to empower myself. It’s not about other people telling you you’re pretty or smart or wonderful. There are so many more things I’d rather do other than be affirmed by others of my worth. I would much rather be with my family sharing a meal or baking something with my grandmas. I would much rather have a cup of coffee and a meaningful conversation with a friend. The relationships and connections in my life are what empower me to feel connected to the world I live in and to want to strive for a better world.

Yesterday morning I Skyped with Roshen. Every time we video chat, I always tear up because I remember that first conversation we had in the dining hall in India. Skype is just never the same though. Often our internet connection is too poor, so we have to shut off the video and just talk via audio, but we still get to have the same meaningful conversations we had just a couple months ago during tea time or after lunch. There are some days when I think I will never have another friend like Roshen and I’ll never be able to continue to grow as a person as I did with him. But then I remind myself that India didn’t change my life, and with every experience I have here in the United States and with every person I meet, I am changing my own.

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