A YEAR IN ASIA
Last year, on September 13th, I boarded a one-way flight to Cambodia.
As of today, I’ve been in Asia for a full year. It has been exhilarating and turbulent, messy and beautiful, unbelievable and ordinary. Most importantly, I’ve learned a lot, 0.0001% (unscientific estimation) of which is captured below.
#1 — You must be your own leader.
When I told people I was leaving my job at Facebook to pursue a career in international development, I usually got one of two responses: (1) Wow, that’s so inspiring!, or (2) You’re making a naive mistake.
I had no idea what would come after my four month-long Kiva fellowship. But I knew I wanted to stay abroad and continue to work in the social sector.
With my goals in mind, I did the only thing I knew how to do — I put myself out there. I applied to several full-time positions and accepted an offer with IDinsight in New Delhi.
I actively chose my path. The opportunities that “serendipitously” showed up during my search would not have showed up, had I continued to wallow and daydream at my desk in the US. This was not luck or a miracle — it was a result of months of action and conviction.
We often tell ourselves stories and get handcuffed by the status quo because we forget our power to actively choose. This happens in job searches, romantic relationships, friendships, and even in day-to-day situations.
People tell me I am brave. I respectfully disagree.
I am brutally honest with myself.
I am not bound to what people expect of me.
I set high expectations for myself and that is enough.
#2 — I am fortunate.
In the early 1980s, my dad moved from India to the US to pursue a better life. In 1990, my mom joined him.
They were younger than I am now when they each first moved. That is humbling. If my parents could take on so much at age 21, it’s high time we all grew up.
They built a life from scratch in a foreign country with a rusty grasp of English and no support system to fall back on. I have seen them work their butts off to give my sisters and me the educational and personal opportunities of their wildest dreams.
When I complain about the day-to-day challenges of living in India, my dad endearingly (and sometimes, sternly) reminds me, “So now you understand why we moved to America? Come back!”
I see tremendous signs of poverty and ineffective institutions around me. Frankly, it’s hard to not feel guilty about the cards I’ve been dealt. I am now more cognizant of not taking my upbringing and comforts in the US for granted.
I feel ridiculously lucky and grateful that I get to choose the life I have chosen. My parents’ hard work to ensure I get a high quality education has granted me the freedom to be where I am now.
It’s a work in progress…
to recognize my privilege,
to embrace my identity,
and to never forget where I come from.
#3 — Most people have no idea what I’m doing.
Some people think I’m traveling, others think I’m teaching English, and I’m sure some think I just take pretty pictures to post on Instagram. For the record, those are all admirable but are not my primary occupations. In fact, I’m most surprised by how ordinary my job is.
Just as I would if I were working a corporate job in the US, I make Powerpoint decks and Excel tables, I send emails and Slack messages, I use Dropbox and Google Drive. I work a day job in an office.
More specifically, I work on an Operations team at a quickly growing social enterprise that is committed to changing how the social sector innovates, learns, and improves. Since I joined just eight months ago, my organization has nearly doubled in size. It still feels like a startup, in many ways, and that’s what I love about it.
I get tons of ownership and am learning what goes into properly growing and scaling a promising social venture. Because we are a nonprofit, we don’t have the luxuries (or, to look at it in another way, the oft-frivolous waste) of a large for-profit corporation. Scrappiness is valued and necessary.
It is thrilling.
It is also hard.
Being in a resource-constrained, developing country, nonprofit context is a test of resilience and grit.
#4 — Life really sucks sometimes.
In mid-June, there was a huge fire in my apartment. My roommate’s air conditioner blew up (luckily, we all got out in time) and the place became unlivable.
By some grace of God, I had a month-long trip to the US booked for the day after the incident. The entire apartment situation, due to personality conflicts, weak institutions, and a certain senile homeowner, became even more messy while I was in the US. I can’t get into details for legal and personal reasons; this whole debacle deserves a post of its own.
I drowned my trauma and debilitating anxiety in pints of kombucha in the comforts of my parents’ home in New York. I laid on the floor and bawled my eyes out on more than one occasion. When I told people in America I would be going back to Delhi and be there for another 1.5–2 years, they were confused.
I’ve now been back for two months and I’m doing pretty okay. The first few weeks after the trip were rough. Not having things sorted on the home-front was unsettling. I had a few (okay, maybe daily) breakdowns. (Seriously, thank you to the people that listened to my irrational thoughts and ugly cries.) I’m still processing a lot of things.
But such is life and this is what I knowingly signed up for. Challenges are a prerequisite for growth.
Learned resilience and grit come in handy while life seems to suck.
Gratitude is also powerful.
The good times don’t last but neither do the bad times.
#5 — There are problems everywhere.
While in rural Cambodia, I met many of Kiva’s borrowers. While I was inspired by their stories and hard work, I became frustrated with faulty public, private, and social institutions that require such significant outside interventions.
And the problems are not only abroad. November 9th, 2016, the day after the last US presidential election, was one of the hardest days of the past year. I had long imagined my career to be international. For the first time, I reexamined my beliefs and goals in a critical way. I felt awful for not being in the US.
I eventually came to terms with the idea that problems are universal. It’s not worthwhile to assign competing values to these battles; while I am glad to be working internationally right now, I can always shift my focus back to the US when the time is right.
I was idealistic and wide-eyed a year ago; I now have a more realistic view of and appreciation for the complex problems our world faces. I also have a lot more questions than I do answers.
I will continue…