27, 26, 25, 24 and on the days go. No matter how hard I try to not think about the amount of time I have left, I find myself running the numbers in my head, getting excited when I shorten the time to when I get back. I have 23 long and hot days, or 3 weeks that will flyby with work. In three days, I’ll be 20 days away from lying in my bed, or 2 ten day periods to countdown till I’m walking my dog through the woods. I’ve even downloaded an app to do the countdown for me. No matter how I look at the weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds of my time left, it still feels like an eternity away.
It’s the worst in the mornings. I wake up, confused with my whereabouts and the first thing I do is check to see how many days I have left. It’s depressing every time I see the numbers and process the length of time between now and the second I get to hug my family hello. But, I take a deep breathe. “Everything is going to be okay” I tell myself. Slowly I am learning to look at the day ahead of me, not tomorrow or the day after that. When I focus on the challenges of today, I can look forward to coming back in the evenings and resting up for the next day. With this mentality, the days are sure to flyby and before I know it, I’ll be waking up getting ready to go to class.
Coming up on two weeks being in India, I’ve finally found a routine to follow and it makes my time more enjoyable. Wake up, eat breakfast, go to work, eat dinner and go to bed. Yup, the routine that gets me through the day is that simple. Perhaps that’s the reason I am lonely. Maybe it’s not the time I have left, but instead it’s how I’m spending my time that’s making me unhappy. I’m so tied up with being comfortable, that I’ve created a routine based on the standard American workday. I need to spice it up a little (I mean that figuratively and literally).
Since I’ve been at the hotel, I’ve been having cereal with Nutella toast for breakfast and I order the most western dishes for dinner. At work, I sit at my computer, not communicating with others around me, leaving only small talk for lunch break. This isn’t a healthy routine and it’s only going to make my time here longer and not enjoyable.
By Wednesday the 12th, I had come to accept that I would have to put on a happy face and deal with my depression when I got back to the hotel. However, that night, the university was hosting an event to celebrate the internship program commencing in Chennai. Since I am the only intern currently in the city, it was only fair that I show up and who knew, maybe I’ll make some connections. Well, I wasn’t wrong.
Upon entering the room, I was greeted by the Michigan staff, welcoming me to the meeting and asking how my week was going. Finally, almost 7 days in India and I could once again hear that familiar Michigan accent in person. I was quickly introduced to the several alum of Michigan who were interested in how I was adjusting to the culture and what I was doing at my Internship. I felt so business like. Explaining what I was working on took my mind off the loneliness and made me feel more confident that I could make it through the entirety of my internship.
Towards the end of the meeting, we all played some Michigan trivia. Since I was the only one who currently attends Michigan, I carried my team in each round and it seemed the answers impressed the others as they reminisced about their time at Michigan. In the end, I had several people approach me, informing me that if I needed anything while staying in Chennai to reach out to them. Some even wanted my help to setup an internship for their company. And the nicest offer yet, a place to stay once I left my hotel.
I still wasn’t sure where I would be going once checking out and I only had a couple days left in the hotel. Airbnb was too expensive and most apartments wanted a longer rent then 5 weeks. I was thrilled to have been offered a place to stay and I did not pass it up.
I could not be happier with my new host family. A mother and son were so kind to open their doors to me, it was like a message from above. The mother, a grad from Michigan keeps me company when we talk about our favorite spots in Ann Arbor and I tell her what’s new and different about the university since she was last there. Her son is 14 and rows at the local boat club. Since I used to row, he offered to take me one morning and introduce me to some of his friends. Ask me days before departing for India, I would never have guessed I’d meet a family that I fit right into and never in a million years would be blessed to stay with them.
As the days went on, I got to know the other interns better. Where in India they are from, what year in university they are and what activities they enjoy. We all share a passion for architecture and they offered to take me to Pondicherry, the old French Colonial city just south of Chennai, which harbors some of the most elegant 17th century architecture and a unique blend of French and Indian cuisine that you can’t find else where in the world. Simply put, I can’t wait!
They were excited to learn about America and what life was like at the University of Michigan. I was so thrilled to share my passion for my home state and school, that I talked for nearly 10 minutes without giving them a chance to ask questions or speak slowly so they could process what I was saying. They were so interested about Michigan that I had to show them the “hand map.” I held up both hands to form the state of Michigan and at first, they were confused and looked at me like I was insane. To prove it to them, I pulled out my phone and showed them what Michigan really looked like. As soon as they saw the map, their faces brightened and they began to laugh. They couldn’t believe how much the state looked like a hand. I showed them where I was from, the major cities and they top spots in the state. They were fascinated with Michigan and all agreed that one day they want to visit the Great Lake State and see all the marvels I had talked about. It made me happy to hear that my home was a place that others wanted to go and I can’t wait to open my doors to them like they have for me.
Sunday is my only day off. We work 6 days a week, pushing to finish the work for an exhibition in Kochi which opens in three weeks. Everyone has the pedal to the floor and from my first day, I was thrown into the drivers seat not knowing exactly my way around the project but quickly learning and taking part in the process to complete the task on time.
Likewise, my first Sunday off was relaxing. I caught up on sleep, did some laundry and even explored the city a bit. Chennai is filled with Hindu temples. It seems every street has a small shrine to one of the million plus gods. They worship everything. Trees, animals and even people are viewed as works of the universe and that we must take the time to acknowledge their existence. In the middle of all the hustle and bustle, you’ll find an elaborate temple dating back to the 7th century, well preserved and still used as a place of worship. The Kapaleeshwarar Temple is dedicated to Shiva, the god of destruction. The temple is large with a tower extending over 40 meters into the sky, covered with ornate figures painted in vibrant colors. Inside, there are several shrines to Shiva, in which Hindus from all over the city flock to. People gather at the shrines, look into the rooms in silence, then lie flat on the floor as if they are telling the gods that they know one day, they will be destroyed and become apart of the universe.
After discussing what I saw with my host and her friends, they informed me that Hinduism is different than other religions. In fact, it isn’t considered a religion. It’s a philosophy, a way of life. Moreover, the idea of religion didn’t exist in India until the British colonized the country, forcing Christianity onto the people, telling them that they needed to follow a god for well being in the end. Growing up as a Christian, I was taught that I was born a sinner and I need to prove to God that I acknowledge my sins and I will seek forgiveness from others and myself in order to make it to heaven. To Hindus, heaven is everywhere. The idea of heaven is what you make of your life. It is up to you to find the meaning of life, the purpose of your existence and only then will you be happy and content with what comes after.
So, what is the purpose of my internship? Is it to grow my grasp on the works of architecture and urban planning? Is it to make me more independent and ready to join the workforce? Is the overall goal to benefit me and only me? No. I learned something beautiful, a hindu proverb that I will take everywhere I go. It goes: “How should you treat others?” Of course, we have all heard this saying and the answer has been pumped into our heads as young children. “The way you want to be treated.” Makes sense. But wrong. “How should you treat others?” The real answer–there are no others.
I thought about that for a long time. “There are no others.” What does that mean? The Hindu philosophy preaches unity. We are all from the same being. We all have the same destiny. Treating others differently is treating yourself poorly. When we consider our friends, family, strangers, foes and all of the above as others, we place ourselves higher than the rest. We are all one. Together, we make up this world and everything in it.
So, what is the purpose of my internship? It is to make a difference for us all. The work I am doing will affect the lives of every person in the world, not just those in here in India. It’s the snowball effect. The work I do here changes the lives of others, who in turn will do something that impacts another group of people, and they follow suit until it spreads far and wide. The work I do, you do and all of us combined gives meaning to why we are here. Our role in every project and passion defines our existence. It all gives way to the meaning of life.