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Why Coming To Work In India From USA Was One Of The Best Decisions I Made

By Pinki Thakker:

Life Of An Indian American in India
Representation only

Recently I returned home from what was notably the most life-changing, humbling experience of my life. I spent the first portion of my post-college life living in the country where I was born, but never before had the chance to truly experience.

I’m a 25-year-old Indian-born American. I’ve spent almost my entire life in the suburbs of Kansas City. Upon graduating from college I applied for various jobs around the country. Following months of no response, I decided I needed to try something different. Ultimately, there’s only so long you can watch your classmates find jobs and settle down before you start to wonder ‘what’s wrong with me!’ And so I thought of trying my luck in India, choosing to pursue my love for travelling. I applied for an OCI (overseas citizens of India) visa to be able to work in India – a tenacious process that lasted all of eight months.

Bags packed and a one-way ticket in hand, I set off for the Motherland for the first time in 10 years. At the layover in Germany, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was making a huge mistake. After all, I barely knew anyone there and I had no idea when I would see my family again. It all seemed so surreal.

I reached my grandparents’ ancestral home, in a small town in Gujarat where I was born. Looking back, I realise how selfish I must have been then – audaciously hoping to be taken in for an indeterminate amount of time. In the end, though, I also realise that family really are the only ones who would do such a thing.

In Gujarat, I slowly fell into a routine, helping out with household chores and occasionally travelling to visit extended family. For a short time, I experienced what my life would have been like had my family never immigrated to the U.S. 22 years ago.

As I was new to India and wasn’t aware of the prospects, a college friend of mine who was in Sri Lanka at the time sent me links to opportunities where I might fit. I began sending out applications, and many exchanges later, one of those organisations took a chance on me. I was offered a position with a global non-profit organization in Bombay working to promote cultural understanding and to strengthen partnerships between Asia and the rest of the world.

Three months after my arrival in Gujarat, I was finally moving to Bombay. Not only did it turn out to be my dream job, it also helped in forming a solid foundation on which I now aspire to build my future career. The position allowed me the opportunity to look past the diaspora and educate myself about contemporary challenges facing the region. It also gave this small town girl the opportunity to meet incredible thinkers, diplomats, business leaders, filmmakers and artists from around the world, whom I never would have had the chance to meet otherwise.

As for the city itself, well, Bombay is a beast. The city will do everything it can to ensure that your life is complicated. If there are two things that will get any Mumbaiker riled up, it is space and transportation. Finding housing in the island city of 21 million people is cut-throat, as supply cannot keep up with demand. To add, real estate in Mumbai is amongst the most expensive in the world, even while more than half of its residents live in slums.

After a brief period in the heart of town, Colaba, which was walking distance from my office, I also made the choice to live in a Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) in Worli to cut down on expenses. Eight months later, my roommate and I grudgingly decided to move to the ‘suburbs’ of Santa Cruz. While we did get an apartment in a proper housing society, this also meant an hour’s commute, each way, on the city’s notorious lifeline, the local train. During rush hours, you’re lucky if nobody is actually stepping on your toes, forget having room to breathe. Sab jugaad hai.

But the thing about Bombay is that it has this magnificent, charming pull to it even as it tries to push you out. The more the city pushes, the more you want to fight back. And, if you play by the rules, learn to love things just as they are and persist, the city accepts you as one of its own. It’s there in your heart forever.

As are all of the people I was lucky to meet. It’s the city where I found my first love and experienced my first heartbreak. Where I learned the importance of relationships in life and how easy it is to form deep, meaningful connections with people over something as simple as a cup of chai. In the U.S., friendships feel superficial, especially as you grow older. Mumbaikars taught me that anything that we think are more important are incomparable to the time spent with the people who make you happy.

Learning to live life independently for the first time is a challenge for anybody. It’s even more so when you’re living abroad. Alone in Bombay, I was able to relate to the struggles that my parents went through when they were learning how to assimilate into American society. While my parents taught me how to be self-sufficient, no amount of preparation can ready you for the life of an immigrant. All the things that you once thought you knew are challenged by your new surroundings.

I did not know how to speak Hindi. I had to teach myself new skills like how to cook using raw, local ingredients – because the ‘ready-to-eat’ foods I knew how to cook were luxury imports in India, and therefore too expensive. After my first grocery shopping in Bombay I was so overwhelmed that I left with only a carton of milk and a 6-pack of Maggi. I had never before felt so helpless. Still, I don’t have any regrets or complaints. Everything that happened was a result of my own choices, and I wouldn’t have learned all that I did if I hadn’t taken those steps.

My experiences in India allowed me to find a sense of home and self in the megalopolis. Because the truth is, Bombay felt more like home to me than America ever did. There is chaos and passion and emotion, and it’s in your face every moment, in every aspect of life. It’s in such stark contrast to the perfectly manicured type of society that is the norm in the U.S. In Bombay at least, I felt free.

Thanks to the love from my mosquito friends, two stints in the hospital compelled me to return home earlier than planned. Since I’ve been back I’ve received nothing but praise for my bravery. But while I was there, I faced endless criticism and skepticism. Well-meaning family in Gujarat chided me for living alone in a big city so far away from home – because ‘good’ Indian girls don’t do that. A friend sarcastically asked me, when we first met, if I was there to see the famous slums of Bombay. Hardly anyone I met could understand why I wanted to settle in India, especially when there is a potential for higher earning in the U.S.

But honestly, is success considered valuable only if you’re settled in a Western, so-called ‘developed’ country? Is it such a radical notion for young Indians abroad to willingly choose to go back? India is by no means an easy country to live in, and it has its own set of very real challenges that it’s working to overcome. But change is happening – rapidly – and India is still a young country.

I hope that more of us feel can feel empowered to spend some real time there, beyond the occasional family vacation, and look past the 1970’s idea of what India used to be – the vision that we were given by our parents. Because while I was raised to believe I was Indian, India itself never missed an opportunity to remind me that I wasn’t. Perhaps we would have a more nuanced understanding of the country as it is today – politically, economically and culturally. And, hopefully, it would no longer remain a taboo for those of us choosing to go back.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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