from the village to the world

“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.

Passport Photos

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.

Sarita and Kumkum all strapped in.

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.

Sartia and Kumkum love pizza!

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!”

all this is detergent?

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.

First boat ride

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.

First supermarket

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.

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17 responses to “from the village to the world

  1. excellent. This fellow new yorker in delhi salutes you and your work here. Great post, great posts in general, I have you as one of the blogs I follow on my blog. Keep it up? Are you guys in south delhi? Were you in chokola or ashoka for the V party?? I live in safdarjung enclave, if you are around we should have a good little american get together sometime. Peace

  2. Kudos to you for giving such an experience to the girls! The exposure must have transformed them and for sure will bring out their potential that even they themselves were unaware of!
    I saw all the pictures, amazing and beautiful!

  3. I am awestruck by the similarities between my dreams and PPGVS. It is a realisation and a revelation. Ever since I started paying attention to the chaos that is inherent in India and the lack of concern towards it by “us Indians”. I sort of new, to curb this “macho madness” we need to empower women, we have to create a society where a women can move freely at night without being ogled at or shot at if they survive “honour killings”. Women counter this weird “macho madness” which is sooo typical of north Indian especially in my beloved Delhi. Educated and empowered women will not let her son loiter around at night stalking women. Women should be our priority if we want to build INDIA as a “Civilised Nation”.
    I used to draw architectural designs for the school I wanted to build, research the best methodology I should take. Sam’s ideas blew me away. If it wasn’t for my 12th standard board my parents might have taken me seriously. I am flabbergasted and humbled at the same time. Humbled because people from US of A are doing what I should have done. One reason I decided to study abroad was to break the then incomprehensible secret of living in a society that has “social security”, “secular law enforcement” and an educational system that creates “civilised” humans and not “parrots” like many of my teachers in India.
    I know this is my calling and I am coming home as soon as my studies are over. Thanks Dave and Jenny, I came to your blog for news from home but I found my path to “moksha”. I am coming home hurrah!

  4. How nice!

    In this crazy world we watch and hear of so many horrible happenings – so you can imagine how wonderful and uplifting it was to read about these 2 girls and their adventures in America.

  5. That smile is infectious. It felt good reading about these 2 girls and the amazing experience they had.
    Many thanks and Keep up the good work

  6. I have been following PPES’ success story for two years now. Have visited their campus also. The work Sam Dada and his team are doing is phenomenal. I wish them all the best and hope I can be of help in the future.

    Another amazing story, about a street kid who will make it to NYC in Feb 2009 for a very major residency program in photography, do check out
    http://www.vickyroyphotography.com

  7. Its an amazing journey of life, one can see the transformation of the youngsters in the chronology of events and their pictures. The poise itself has changed and more energetic, the duo are.

    Do more wonders like this …..

  8. Excellent!

  9. A beautiful story about 2 beautiful girls getting a chance of a lifetime. I was moved beyond words. Thank You!!

  10. Inspiring to see local people being taken to see the wider world and hopefully to bring a new perspective back to the village. I recently spent two weeks in rural Nepali villages and I think I know a bit of how they felt in reverse! I donated and installed solar lighting systems in schools off the grid and left thinking there was so much more to do there. PPES is a wonderful way to inject some inspiration and more self confidence to two local girls that will spread throughout. You are to be lauded for your work! Thank you.

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  12. Beautiful Jenny! Made me choke up. I am awed by your hard work for such a good cause, and I am so happy for you that you have obviously found work in a field you love and are passionate about. The world needs more people like you (and women especially need more people like you!). I thoroughly enjoy your blog, I hope you have plans for turning it into a book one day.

    Love,

    Xenia

  13. Good work ! Keep it up.

  14. good i like you

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  16. Hello friends, how is all, and what you desire to say regarding this piece of writing,
    in my view its genuinely amazing in favor of me.

  17. George Varghese

    These kids represent the new India. You see them everywhere today, kudos to you Jenny for taking them under your wing and opening up their world view. Hoping they came back and were better people for the experience.

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