“Why are you taking this common girl, this girl who hardly speaks English, to America?” spat the jealous Indian Continental Airlines official, looking Sarita up and down. She scowled disdainfully at her simple salwar suit, standing out in stark contrast to the background of wealthy Indians travelers dripping in designer treads and jewelry. Those were the people who should have the expensive and coveted opportunity to go to America. NOT these two girls from the village.
I watched the official make calculations in her head. She really was considering finding a way to deny their ticket. And this was just one of many roadblocks placed in front of Kumkum Chauhan and Sarita Chaudhary, two young students at the Pardada Pardadi Educational Society in Bulandshahar, Uttar Pradesh, as they embarked on an incredible journey 8,000 miles west of their dusty villages to visit the top private schools in America.
Every year, several girls from the school are selected to spend time at sister schools in the US. The goal is to help prepare them for leadership and teaching positions within Pardada Pardadi when they return. Kumkum and Sarita were selected for this trip because of their leadership skills, their excellent grades and attendance.
Kumkum has been struggling to make this trip for over a year ago – ever since her fourteen-year-old brother, who is the man of her household since their father died eleven years ago, told her she couldn’t accept the opportunity to visit the states. You can’t blame his thinking – he left his village at the earliest possible age to work as a houseboy for the good of the family; saying “no” to Kumkum was his chance to feel some power in a life in which he’s ordered around like a slave.
Fortunately, Kumkum’s mother prevailed on her behalf. Now, facing petty and jealous officials, I think I was more nervous than the girls were. As a Senior Project Manager at Pardada Pardadi, I was chosen to accompany the two girls on their trip; but their limited English is far better than my rudimentary Hindi (I know the word for “eggplant” and “cucumber” but not much else). They were shy and I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to explain to them everything they were seeing.
They followed me around like two new shadows, sticking to me in crowds and unwilling to venture on their own even in a calm Delhi market. I worried how they would react to the sights and sounds and smells of America. But their shyness melted away when we stepped onto the plane. “Oh, wow,” said Kumkum, taking in the rows of seats and the clean, modern interior. They murmured in excitement to one another as the plane lifted them into the sky.
This was their first plane trip. But that’s not all. Over three weeks, they would encounter more and more experiences they’d never before imagined: escalators. Moving walkways. The ocean. Sand. Seaweed. Boardwalk carnivals. Airshows. Rollercoasters. Boat rides. The Segway. And, of course, Disneyland.
I was wrong to be nervous about them. Kumkum and Sarita approached America with open arms, embracing everything that was new and different. They were outgoing and curious, plunging head-first into trying new foods and meeting new people. They boasted with pride about how far their home was – as excited as they were to be here, they were proud to be representing northern India.
They charmed and delighted everyone they met. After a conversation with an older cashier at a grocery store (you should have seen their eyes light up at the endless aisles of food and sundries!), the woman exclaimed to her coworkers, “Those girls from India were so sweet!”
The purpose of their visit was to understand the US’s education system, and what they saw was a shock to them. They weren’t used to seeing students and teachers converse as equals in a very open environment, discussing and debating rather than listening without question. Their eyes widened at the short skirts on the girls and the shaggy haircuts on the boys (not to mention this billboard). But they adapted and thrived — before long, they were participating like naturals, solving math problems and chatting loudly with students during lunchtime.
Over the three weeks, I watched Kumkum and Sarita transform. They stood up taller, spoke with more confidence, handled new situations with grace and poise – whether they were answering questions from a room full of second graders or getting interviewed on camera by the local news. And I believe they transformed on the inside, too: from their exposure to people of different races, religions, and beliefs; from seeing the technology and environment of a world far different from their own; and especially from meeting people who opened their hearts and homes to them.
I had been worried about spending three weeks as a babysitter who couldn’t speak to her charges. Instead, I spent three weeks experiencing the joy of seeing America through their eyes. I know this is an experience that will enrich their lives; and I feel nothing but joy for having the fortune to have been a part of it.
There are a lot more photos.
About Pardada Pardadi Educational Society
Since 2000, Pardada Pardadi Educational Society has been at the improving the lives of girls in rural India. Its mission is to uplift and empower girls from the poorest sections of society by providing free education and vocational training—creating a new generation of self-reliant and educated girls who will break the cycle of poverty in the region. Learn more at their website.