Before beginning my degree at Tufts I spent seven months in India and Southeast Asia. I returned with looming questions about the cultural and economic differences that exist between the East and the West. However, through my UEP courses such as Economics, Food Justice, and Cities I was equipped with tools to process and cope with some of my traveling experiences. For example, terms such as the Gini Coefficient and Purchasing Power helped me to understand the contrast between the value of a rupee and a dollar, without feeling guilty for everything that I bought in the United States.
While studying at Tufts, I remained in contact with the management of the farm where I had volunteered (WWOOFed) on my travels. In January I returned to India to pursue an internship with their organization, TGGFCT, and conduct field work for my thesis research topic (A Sustainable Livelihood Assessment), in which I was able to put to practical use some of the tangible skills and concepts I have gained since starting my degree.
During my internship, I lived on a beautiful organic permaculture farm learning and participating in the harvest of ginger, black pepper, arecanut, and coffee. I was also able to work in their office location, helping to strategize the future charitable activities and economic development initiatives they were planning, particularly aimed to support women entrepreneurship. Some challenges I faced while working with the organization were mainly related to cultural differences. Due to heavily steeped cultural practices that stem from the caste system, it could often feel like there was a divide between members of the farm and the organization management. It is very common in India for those who fall lower on the hierarchical spectrum to eat after those above. Working with the TGGFCT, most of the time this took the form of agricultural workers, particularly the women, eating after everyone else. Women are also the only ones who do the dishes, as men will almost never do their own. This often times upset me, and I was motivated to question my supervisor about some of the everyday customs related to daily life on the farm and in the office. Before approaching him regarding some of these topics, I often thought of the negotiations course I took at UEP, knowing that I did not want to shy away from asking difficult questions while upholding a positive and respectful discourse. He always encouraged me to “push the boundaries” and ask workers to join our meals, however they almost always indicated that they felt uncomfortable with doing this.
I was struggling with the boundary between cultural differences and injustice in many instances, until I was joined by Varnika, a Natural Resource Management masters student from Delhi. Interning with Varnika was probably the most valuable and rewarding part of my experience with TGGFCT. Throughout the month we became quite close sharing a room and hundreds of stories about our strikingly different backgrounds and cultures and bonding over our similar values and interests. I was able to ask her some of the questions about India’s customs, their historical origins, and current repercussions for women in particular, from someone of a native (albeit still privileged) perspective – rather than my American influenced and biased opinions. While many of the practices that seem to be impractical from my perspective still exist on the farm, they far exceed what I know to be some of the harsh realities and lived experiences of many within India. It is changing bit by bit, and I have full faith that some of the questions and discussion that took place on the farm during my time there had an effect, and am even more convinced of the power and importance of cultural exchanges.