This year, my Thanksgiving went a little differently than usual. Whereas Thanksgiving is a national holiday in the United States, it is not celebrated in India. This was the first major American holiday I got a chance to share with my host family.
The first step to celebrating Thanksgiving is to make sure you don't have other plans to interfere with preparation of the Thanksgiving meal. Since, like I just mentioned, Thanksgiving is not celebrated in India that often, this meant I had to take a day off from school (yay!).
In the morning, I woke up at a reasonable time with no 5 km race to run, and everyone in the family hugged and wished each other a Happy Thanksgiving. The rest of the morning proceeded pretty normally, with a few messages exchanged between my school coordinator and I about the definition of Thanksgiving as a 'festival'. I also prepared a Thanksgiving lesson plan and Powerpoint for my Amitasha class though I won't be able to use it until next Friday. I took a shower and then headed with my host mom Le Marche to pick up all the ingredients we would need for the day. We were able to get everything, only forgetting to buy the Brussels Sprouts (which is pretty good since I usually forget what I need as soon as I leave the house). We came home and the rest of the day - from 12pm-7pm was spent as a mixture of cooking and relaxing in the house with a couple of miscellaneous trips to the market. We faced surprisingly little difficulty in preparing the Thanksgiving Dinner (which, by the way, consisted of hash brown potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, chicken and pies) considering my lack of cooking experience. Some of the dishes, like the chicken, had a little Indian masala added in to make it extra special. Let me tell you, that chicken tasted better than any Thanksgiving turkey I've had in the past! In the evening, two of my host massi's (aunts) came over for the meal. They very kindly and unexpectedly gifted me some chocolates and we also exchanged wishes of 'happy thanksgiving'. Soon enough, my dad arrived home and we put all the food onto the table. Everyone filled their plates, but before eating I said a prayer and everyone held hands and went around saying what we were thankful for. After that, everyone chowed down on one of the most delicious Thanksgiving meals I have had. All of our hard work had paid off in the end. One of the highlights of the meal was the dessert during which we took out our homemade pumpkin pie and not-so-homemade apple pie. The pumpkin pie was absolutely amazing! All the credit goes to my host mom who made this pie without really following a recipe - she is actually an amazing chef. One thing I did learn from watching her cook was that following the recipe to a 'T' isn't really the most important thing about preparing food. I think every dish we served had some sort of improvisation by my host mom, and they all turned out amazing. By the end of the meal, I was feeling as stuffed as a Thanksgiving turkey and was ready to go to bed. I had a very very memorable Thanksgiving spent with the people I love most.
Remember how I told you I had to take a day off from school to make all this work? Well, my school coordinator didn't let me get off the hook that easily. I had to prepare a speech to give about Thanksgiving and to give thanks to everyone who has helped me during my exchange. This request was fair enough since speeches are one thing I feel comfortable enough doing; plus, it was a great opportunity to share American culture with my host school. Besides being a little bit lengthy, everyone liked my speech and told me I spoke well. Giving thanks did not end there for me since I followed my host mom's request to bring in some pumpkin and apple pie to give to principal ma'am and a couple other VIPs in my exchange. The pies were a huge success at school. Many people did not come to school the day after Thanksgiving because GTSE (Global Talent Search Examination) was taking place in the school and bunking school is the way to get out of taking it. But, as my class teacher told the exam invigilator, "she is not registered for the test but is here for one year and is taking part in every single activity we have to offer". The exam was not so bad, it was an English test. If you ask me, some of the questions were too hard for someone (me) who speaks English as their mother tongue. Getting to the point, I was able to share some leftover stuffing with my classmates who all agreed that it was very nice.
This Thanksgiving is one I will never forget. It has been the very best thanks to the efforts of my host family. It was our first Thanksgiving together as a family, and definitely not the last. I am incredibly thankful to everyone around the world who has been supporting me throughout this exchange and to everyone who is making this possible. An especially big thank you goes to my host family for making this day so special and memorable for me.
A very happy Thanksgiving from me to everyone around the globe!
Before I came to India, I had little idea of what the three letters - MUN - stood for. Five months later, halfway through my exchange, I have participated in two Model United Nations, one even being an internationally acclaimed event. The recognition is never the part that matters though, and I can say that, without a doubt, AIMUN (Amity International Model United Nations) 2017 played a large role in helping me see not only myself, but the role of exchange through different lenses.
For the actual MUN sessions, I must admit I was slightly unprepared as my countries were swapped - from Ethiopia and Estonia - just two days before the conference commenced. Nonetheless, the agenda for my committee was 'the elimination of racism and racial discrimination' as well as 'racial discrimination within the US judicial system'. I found this to be quite an interesting topic as solving it would be within the same realm of the goal of my exchange - to bring peace through understanding.
Though I walked away with a Special Recognition Award from the General Assembly, most of my time at AIMUN was spent interacting with exchange students from 10 different countries! It was the perfect way to embrace the immense benefits of International Education during IEW. Some of us exchange students were meeting each other for the first time since we had landed 4.5 months earlier, so it was enriching to be able to share stories of success and overcoming our challenges. To me, the most amazing thing was to hear how different our exchanges have been despite residing in the same country. On the same token, we also shared many laughs due to some common sticky points in adjustment.
Furthermore, this MUN was a chance for me to step out of my comfort zone - something I have learned is key to making the most out of an exchange, or really any situation in life. On the Monday before the conference, I was called into school to start preparing a dance for the cultural gala that would happen on Friday of the same week, following the second day of the MUN. Aside from a few ballet lessons as a little girl, I had never put on a dance performance, let alone a solo performance in front of an audience. To be honest, I was seriously doubting my ability to prepare the dance well. Before I knew it, I was putting on my Indian clothes, picking up my dandiyas and heading out onto stage. Considering my dancing ability (or lack thereof) I put on a performance everyone enjoyed. Sharing what I had learned so far in India was a way for me to give back to those who have helped me grow as a person and a way for me to reflect. The happiness I brought to those around me made me feel amazing even if my dance was not so. I gained an immensely valuable life experience.
MUN, Model United Nations, three words that have come to mean so much more to me than just a platform of debate. It helped me to embrace what it means to be a cultural exchange student and reminded me of my role as a cultural ambassador here in India. As I head into the next half of my exchange, I will keep what I have learned in mind in order to make the most of my exchange both for myself and those I interact with.
International Education Week (IEW), is the one week out of my exchange year where I got to take a step back and realize the true importance of international education. IEW is an amazing opportunity for exchange students and students across the world to celebrate and share the countless benefits international education and cultural exchange. This annual celebration of cultural sharing is a joint initiative by the US Department of State and the US Department of Education. It acts as a way to promote programs such as YES Abroad which prepares American students for an increasingly diverse and global environment and programs such as the YES (inbound) program which aims to attract future leaders from abroad to study, learn and exchange experiences with people they meet.
In 2017, IEW is celebrated from November 13-17. As a YES Abroad exchange student, I had a very enjoyable week not only sharing my own culture, but also gaining new experiences through connecting with others. My week started slowly with the weekend being extended into Monday as school was canceled due to high levels of smog. However, I have come to realize that there is no such thing as an uneventful day in the life of an exchange student and Monday was no exception. As soon as I started thinking about preparing for the AIMUN conference occurring later in the week, I got a call from my school coordinator telling me that I needed to come into school to prepare a performance for a cultural performance on Wednesday. Once I reached the school, I met with Shivani ma'am, my dance teacher and she started to teach me a dance performance. Even though she made sure to use the easiest dance poses she knew, I still felt extremely nervous as I am definitely not the most graceful dancer (that is putting it lightly). Being IEW, it was an excellent opportunity for me to learn something about the Indian culture even if it may not be the most easy thing to do. For me this was another time to reflect, I realized that intercultural learning is only as challenging as you make it. In other words, it is extremely easy to come together and share ideas and traditions if both sides have an open mind and a willing attitude.
On the second day of IEW, it was my turn to share American culture. From what I have witnessed and experienced from participating in different activities such as Amitasha is that children are more often than not the most receptive to new cultures; they truly embrace whatever you teach them. That being said, with the help of my host family, I organized an evening session to teach the neighborhood kids how to play a couple American games: "duck-duck-goose" and "capture the flag". It is amazing to me to see how everyone, regardless of culture or background, can bond in an instant and forget all differences in such as short period of time. By the end, I started to realize that most of the kids are better than me at these games! To add to that, I now know that I have a group of people who would be up for an intense round of capture the flag at any point of time.
One of the challenges I was having with IEW was the fact that I also had an MUN conference for the last half of it, from the 16-18 of November. I soon realized that it was not really so much a challenge as much as it was an opportunity. During the MUN conference, I spent little time actually participating in the sessions. For more than half of the time, I was hanging out with other exchange students who were equally confused with the proceedings of an MUN session. There were delegates from 10 different countries at the MUN, some who I had met before at the arrival orientation and some completely new to me. Countries included India, the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, Slovakia, Japan, Canada, Thailand and a couple others. It was amazing to be able to speak with people from so many different backgrounds. We all have one thing in common which is being an exchange student, yet we share so much more than that. We all share a passion for learning about the world around us which is what made this IEW have such a tremendous impact on me.
On Friday, the last official day of IEW, the MUN conference sessions were proceeded by a cultural gala. If you're wondering what happened to the dance performance I mentioned earlier, this is the time it came into play. During the gala, I enjoyed seeing the performances of every delegation from abroad. It was so nice to see so many cultures come together in one location. I watched regional performances such as a South Indian Dance and international performances in the form of various instrumental compositions, cultural dances and traditional songs in many languages. I contributed by sharing not only the American style of dance - through non other than the Cha Cha Slide, but also sharing what I have learned in the past 5 months abroad through the Indian dance I mentioned earlier. Though I may not have given a flawless performance, I was proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort zone and it felt amazing to be congratulated by so many people.
The combination of this performance and all the other events I took part in proved to me that International Education is not confined to a classroom or even a country, it is a worldwide celebration that occurs on every level and platform whether it be a planned performance or a simple talk with those of a different background. Everyone has something to share. After participating in IEW, I am definitely more conscious about the opportunities I am given as an exchange student and have been reminded what my exchange year is really all about: promoting intercultural learning and peace through making connections with people I may otherwise have never met.
International Education week passed by more quickly than I ever imagined possible, but through it I have come to realize that international education does not need its own time to be celebrated. It is something that happens through the everyday interactions of life and quite often occurs without thinking. As the midway mark of my exchange approaches, I cannot think of a better way to have prepared myself to make the most of the rest of my time here. IEW may have just ended, but there is no limit to where it will take me.
This past weekend, the last weekend of October, I went to Jodhpur with the other YES Abroad India students. It was largely filled with orientation sessions as it is nearing the midpoint of our stay in India. It was a time of reflection and goal setting, but also a weekend of my exchange that I will not soon forget. I saw amazing sights and shared many memories with my fellow exchange students -Colin, Olivia, Alexander and Mckenna.
As someone wise once said, its’s not just about the destination, but also about the journey. To get to Jodhpur, we took an overnight ride on a train. On 27 October, I came home from school to find my bag already packed (courtesy of Muskaan). We all ate lunch together and then I put my shoes on and was pretty much ready to go. I said goodbye to my host mom first since she was not well, so she stayed home while I went with Muskaan and my host dad to be dropped at McKenna’s house. When we got to McKenna’s house, we rang the doorbell but to no avail. We had to call McKenna’s host mom. A little comedy was added to the day when McKenna’s host mom answered the phone as if my host dad was the pizza delivery guy (they were also waiting for a pizza to arrive). Nevertheless, we were let inside, and I met McKenna’s host mom, grandma, sister and their two dogs. My host dad soon had to leave to go to the office and with him went Muskaan. We exchanged a hug and said our goodbyes.
I was quickly consumed with the attention of a hyper German Shepherd and sweet old black Labrador. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what my favorite animal is. Anyways, the pizza soon came but we saved it for the train ride. Instead, we had garlic bread and chocolate lava pies with ice cream. I don’t know why Pizza Hut in the US doesn’t have the latter because they are delicious. McKenna, her sister Dipannita and I chatted for a while and then it was time for us to go. We loaded our bags into the car and went with McKenna’s host mom to the airport where her host dad works as an ATC. From there, we switched cars and headed to the Old Delhi Station. It was a good thing we left so early because we got lost along the way. The positive aspect of that was finding a street vendor who sold amazing masala chai.
We finally found the station, and decided to walk around Chandni Chowk market for a while since we still were a bit early. I didn’t buy anything, but just walking around such a bustling market was quite the experience.
At around 8:15, we met up with Roshan (an AFS Staff Member) and waited for everyone else to show up. Colin and Olivia came first followed by Alex who got caught up in traffic. We entered the train station and walked straight to McDonald’s to satisfy Alexander’s undying hunger (he will NEVER say no to food haha). I got an iced tea and we all ate the pizza McKenna ordered earlier.
The train was supposed to leave at 9:15, but it was closer to 10pm when we finally started rolling down the tracks. All of us talked for at least an hour and a half before going to bed because it was the first time we had all been together since the AFS party in August. We talked about anything and everything and Colin demonstrated his skill in a completely made up language. He sounds fluent in that language which was hilarious to me.
I slept on the top bunk and slept well considering I did not notice that my pillow fell into the aisle at some point during the night. By the time I woke up, we were nearing Jodhpur. Colin and Olivia unfortunately did not have such an amazing experience since they both got sick overnight.
We were met up by an AFS volunteer from Jodhpur and took a small bus back to where our orientation would be, at the Rajmata Krishna Kumari Girl’s Public School. This school is a boarding school owned by the royal family of Jodhpur, so the campus was stunning. We were greeted in the traditional Indian manner with a marigold garland and tika. We were shown to our rooms and allowed to relax before the first orientation session started between 11:30 and noon. We all took showers and then had an abundant amount of food and chai brought to our room for breakfast.
We met with the principal of the school and (of course) got a group photo with the flags in front of the principal’s office. She was very nice and welcoming and hoped we would all have a great time in Jodhpur.
Soon after, we were given a tour of the grounds and saw everything the school had to offer: the sports facilities, the junior wing and even the boarding houses. It seemed like no students were there but that was just because all the senior students were writing exams.
The first day’s sessions came and went like any other orientation. We had to draw our mood curves (which we already knew we would have to) and talked about the Cultural Iceberg (another AFS staple). It was nice to reflect on what we had experienced as exchange students because there’s no one that can relate more to the types of experiences we have.
For lunch and dinner, we ate in the mess. We were expecting to eat just like any other students there would, but when we walked upstairs to our table, we were surprised to see a table draped with a white table cloth and nice dishes set up for everyone. From that point on, we came to expect to be treated like guests. What was the most surprising was that the food was not spicy at all. It was catered to a stereotypical American palate which can tolerate no spice. It seemed like every dish was a variation of some sort of Indian dish except in place of the spicy sauce, tomato sauce was given. Even the green chilies they served were not spicy – just ask McKenna who generally almost dies when she encounters spice.
The first evening’s activity was watching a movie. We watched English Vinglish which is a hindi/English movie (we watched with subtitles). It is a very nice movie but of course, as with anything that’s a part of the orientation we couldn’t just watch the movie for entertainment. In fact, they had to pause the movie when someone (*cough cough McKenna*) fell asleep just 20 minutes into it. It was then that they revealed that the entire next day of sessions would revolve around this single movie. Even I sat up and started critically assessing the movie.
We all went to bed on time (or even early) that night because it had been a long day. We had gone straight from the train ride into a day of sessions.
The next day was a day of orientation sessions for us. It was kind of annoying to be staying in Jodhpur but not being able to experience everything it had to offer. I kid you not, the Umaid Bhawan Palace was visible from the terrace outside the orientation classroom. Nevertheless, it was still a fruitful orientation. We discussed intercultural conflict styles, generalizations and stereotypes, high and low context communication, our experiences in the past 4 months and what we hope to accomplish in the coming 6. After filling out a reflection about the orientation and doing a 5-minute private counselling session, we were all done with the mid-stay orientation. It feels so unreal to me that I have been in India for nearly half of my exchange year. The longer I am here, the more I want to continue to be here for as long as possible.
The second night’s activity was going shopping at the National Handloom Corporation. It was just a 5-10-minute walk from the school, so we all went together. I bought quite a few small things for friends and family. There, I also bought kulfi and ice cream (which are very similar to each other, but I couldn’t help myself). While trying to order kulfi for my friend and I (she was too nervous to ask for something in Hindi), I noticed for the first time that some random people were taking pictures of us. It was amusing to me because I don’t really feel that different than those around me, but it confirmed that I definitely do stick out. The second night was much more interesting even once we returned to the school. McKenna still had a chocolate cake that her host dad bought, so we (Olivia, McKenna and I) brought it down to the park and sat on a bench each having a small piece. Before I knew what was going on, we were surrounded by 25+ kids from the boarding school. We had so much fun together and almost forgot to save a piece of the cake for Alex. We got interviewed by the girls and amongst the chaos, McKenna was renamed Macaroni. Soon enough, they broke into song and dance. Before they had to leave due to curfew, we all got pictures together.
The same night, all five of us exchange students stayed up talking and giving each other shoulder massages until 2am. Again, we talked about anything and everything. All in all, it was a great time though I won’t go into depth since this post is long enough.
The next and final day we were in Jodhpur was the one day we could leave the campus and go sightseeing. We woke up and followed the usual routine of eating breakfast and drinking chai. We went and spoke with the principal ma’am who listened to all of us recount what we learned during the orientation sessions. We then got another picture beneath the flags and wished one of the students a happy birthday when she came to pass around the candy.
We met with a volunteer who had hosted a student through AFS in the past. She is from Jodhpur so she acted as our guide for the day.
The first place we went was the Umaid Bhawan Palace. It was only about a 5-minute drive from the school, so we didn’t even have time to fill out the survey about our stay at the school. Going up the driveway to the palace was amazing because in the rear window, we could see the fort in the distance. At the palace, we walked inside and were greeted by a guide wearing traditional Rajasthani clothes. He was very helpful in explaining everything about the royal family and the palace. For example, I learned that the Umaid Bhawan Palace is the only palace you can visit other than Buckingham Palace in which the Royal Family still resides.
After touring the inside of the palace, we headed out to the garage where countless vintage cars were kept in pristine condition. McKenna, using the philosophy of ‘it never hurts to ask’, got permission for us to go in the non-tourist zone to take pictures of the palace and of us as a group. In the direct sunlight, it was still quite hot despite it being end-of-October, so we went to buy chilled water at the entrance only to find that they had already set up a corner for us with chilled water, cold drinks and kulfi on demand. It was all complimentary because we were staying at the boarding school which is owned by the royal family. It was an unexpected but very pleasant surprise.
After refreshing ourselves, we boarded the bus to go to the Mehrangarh Fort. Along the way, we stopped to drop off one of the AFS volunteers because he had a plane to catch and then we stopped another time, so the bus driver could pick up something. But the second time, we didn’t really stop moving because the bus was put in neutral and not park, so it immediately started rolling backwards when the driver left the front seat. When he saw his bus moving, he tried to turn back but the poor guy slipped on gravel and fell over. Luckily, the AFS volunteer on the bus was smart enough to pull the emergency brake.
Finally rolling forwards, we made it up the hill and to Mehrangarh. The fort is massive and unlike anything I had seen before. It’s crazy to think that this one building is older than the entire United States!
We got a tour guide for the fort who was very monotonous (including the built in humor) but he still was able to give a lot of information. The famous view of the ‘blue city’ of Jodhpur was incredible. No picture of mine really does it justice. The fort seemed to go on forever. It took 2 hours just to walk through it. My favorite part was the courtyards which had a view of the city but also were surrounded by walls which had windows which the women traditionally looked down from since the coronation ceremony is traditionally viewed by males only. I was able to see the spot where the current king was crowned at the young age of 4 years old. From the fort, I bought a spice for my host mom since I know how much she enjoys spices. Plus, I had not tasted any really spicy food which is what Rajasthani food is famous for. The meal at the fort was also complimentary courtesy of the royal family.
After exiting the fort, we walked down to the ‘blue city’ to do some more shopping. Along the way, we saw a camel and Colin and I were asked to take photos with some Indian men. For me, it was the first time being asked to take a photo with a stranger, but I had been told that it does happen (since I obviously don’t share the Indian complexion). Walking down the roads of the old city was an amazing experience. The roads were very narrow and didn’t make much sense to me, but being surrounded by all the old blue buildings amazed me. It made me stop and think about how small I am in this endless maze of a world; it was a moment of realization.
Nonetheless, we made it to the clocktower and the marketplace. We were able to find an ATM that worked for McKenna and then we made it to the shopping destination. I didn’t buy much because it was just another branch of the National Handloom Corporation. After everyone got what they wanted, we walked back to the bus. Walking back to the bus was another extremely tough moment for me. The entire way back, I was being tapped and pleaded for money by the poor women and children on the streets. As someone who is fortunate enough to have more than I could ever need, experiencing this makes me feel extremely sad. The children in those positions may never be able to get out of it. It’s one problem that I, and probably most other people, hope will be solved soon.
When we reached back to the school, we had just under 2 hours until we had to leave for the railway station. For almost the entire 2 hours, we talked with the exchange students hosted at the school – Elena from Italy and Alice from Thailand. It was not nearly enough time to talk about all we wanted to. Before we knew it, we were leaving Jodhpur. It was a bittersweet time for everyone. It marked an accomplishment (the midpoint of our stay) and we were all happy to go back to our host families (4ish days away is much too long). On the other hand, we were leaving Elena and Alice whom we won’t see again until May and it marks the almost halfway point. At least for me, I feel the time is going by too fast.
The train ride back was much less eventful. We were all tired and fell asleep within an hour of boarding the train – though admittedly this train did not roll as smoothly as the last one. We were supposed to reach Old Delhi Station by 6am, but that of course became close to 8am. When we got off the train, Alex’s host parents were right there to meet him, so we wished him well since he had just moved in with that family less than 1 week prior.
The rest of us exited the station but then figured out that all of our host families/drivers were on the other side of the railway station. After waiting for 5 minutes (not sure for what reason), we reentered the station and started walking to the other side of the station.
While walking down the overpass, I was slightly surprised and very happy when I saw Muskaan coming to greet me. We interlocked our hands; we were reunited after a long weekend and I honestly couldn’t be happier. McKenna also came with us since she lives in Gurgaon as well.
I (surprisingly) did not fall asleep in the car on the way back. I felt happy to be back at home. I couldn’t help but smile while thinking about how fortunate I am. I am exactly where I want to be, and I try to savor every moment. If anything, this weekend I learned to be proud of my accomplishments thus far and hope to continue creating memories just like the ones I have made.
Namaste! Mera naam Anna hai! Hi! my name is Anna. Please enjoy reading about my experience as a high school junior in India and ask any questions you may have!