I was supposed to stay with my friend in Ahemedabad but two days before getting there he told me he couldn’t host me. Family was coming in from out of town and there was no space.
Though not ideal, I took a couple hours and searched for a couch in couchsurfing. In the end, a wonderful American girl named Amy agreed to host me. She teaches at IIT Gandhinagar, located just a bit north of Ahmedabad.
IIT, short for Indian Institute of Technology, is the country’s premier institution for technology and engineering studies. There are campuses throughout the country, and the students there are among the best and brightest in India. The entrance exam is notoriously brutal.
Amy studied epidemiology, so I didn’t really understand her role there. But this IIT has a pretty good selection of electives. She told a colleague of hers I was coming. He teaches world civilization and saw a good fit between my trip and his class, with the side benefit that I advocate something he thinks these students need to hear – pursuing a life and career that makes you happy.
I’ll write more about this in the future, but India is a very complicated place. There is so much social pressure here. Many young people are pressured into majors and careers they don’t care for, studying engineering or medicine because it brings honor to the family and incomes to their bank accounts rather than studying something they actually have a passion for.
I went into the class with almost no preparation. I quickly prepared a video with pictures from my trip that could loop in the background as I spoke, but otherwise I had nothing prepared.
I got up in front of the class and I wasn’t nervous. I talked for 10 to 15 minutes about my story, the transformation I went through from corporate tool to nomadic fool, and the Happy Nomad Tour. I then addressed some uniquely Indian things like the social pressure I mentioned above.
I realized speaking to a non-Western audience entailed different challenges. I as the speaker and they as the audience come from completely different realities and it’s my responsibility to bridge that gap. Although I had been in India for several months, I realized I was still woefully unprepared.
One student asked why I have a website and share my stories, why it wasn’t enough just to be happy and volunteer and do my own thing. It was a valid question and I related it to the concept of ego inherent in Buddhism. But I basically said that I hoped that sharing my story would help others question their own lives and inspire a search within themselves to figure out a more ideal life to live. I hoped that sharing the stories of the amazing people I meet along the way inspires others. I hoped that sharing my experiences traveling makes the world smaller and reduces ignorance and stereotypes. Finally, I hoped that sharing my story provides the straw that breaks the reader’s back to finally get off the fence and take action to live a happier and more fulfilling life.
But the next question left me mired in thought for days. It wasn’t because it was a hard question to answer; it was because the source of the question revealed how big the gap is between my life and the lives of the students in my audience.
The student asked why I didn’t want to have a CIVILIZED life, one where I come home every day after working at a “good” job, feeling proud for providing for my kids and enjoying their love.
The first part of the question surely was rooted in the sense that my life is quite crazy in their eyes. The second part about family probably came about because I made a joke that I’m 30, unmarried, and have no physical or psychological impairments. For context, t’s nearly impossible to get married in India after age 30.
I guess I felt a bit defensive, though I still restrained myself. I merely asked if that model of living, which has produced an unsustainable population of 1.2 billion and growing is really all that civilized. Attacking the caste system, arranged marriage, complete craziness on the roads, rampant superstition, and other uncivilized-from-my-point-of-view things all crossed my mind at the same time. But no need to pile on. I had already made a mistake by being defensive.
I answered his question indirectly, making points that made sense to me but it’s hard to say if the points made sense to him. Mostly I talked about how the idea of “civilized” is all relative, and what is considered civilized in one place is not in another. I assume most if not all of these students had never been outside India and I probably assumed more global awareness than a class of 20-year-olds anywhere in the world has. My mistake.
Lastly, I spoke how I think I obtain the same satisfaction he mentioned regarding the family via pursuing my passions and doing the things I do on The Happy Nomad Tour – in other words, there is more than one path to happiness.
Many students wrote me later thanking me for my inspiring talk. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. But it was a fantastic lesson that should have been more obvious to me. It’s ironic actually. As I travel I do my best to walk a mile in local shoes to understand what life is all over the world. I need to apply this empathy to the audiences I speak to in the future, really getting in the frame of mind their background and culture prescribes and doing my best to build bridges between my ideas and their reality. It is only in this way that I’ll really engage them and challenge them to think beyond their reality – which is my goal.
Lesson learned. Thank you wonderful students at IIT. You taught me a lesson that will stay with me the rest of my life as each passing day I find myself relating less and less to even my own country/culture. Finding relatable common ground with people I meet and talk to will be a fact of life going forward since I’ve decided to live my life in a very different way.