Immersion Stories: Andrea Lin
It has almost been a month since I came back from India, but I can still see the vibrant rural landscape and hospitable villagers of Sonoshi, a small tribal village nestled within the high plateaus of Maharashtran mountains. These vivid memories have been flickering in the back of my mind and impacting my every thought and action on a daily basis. This experience has changed me into a better human being; able to feel and be more alive. In hindsight, it is surprising how numb I had become living a fast-paced lifestyle in Sydney, consistently bombarded with information overload. I recall frequent periods of anxiety, without ever knowing the source. Pushing for a change it became obvious to me that something was not right, a sense of bewilderment. This was before I participated in the incredible Drishtee Immersion program.
In the first instance, my original intention to participate was to find inner peace through empathy. However, I gained so much more. My worldview was completely overturned, opening the door to review the fundamental values, which I considered to be normal from the past, such as relationship building, the definition of happiness and personal legacy. It gave me a sense of lacking in humanity due to past experiences, parental influence and being a third cultured kid growing up in three different countries. Furthermore, aspiring towards a career in nursing, it seems difficult to imagine caring for other humans within being aware of the boundaries of my own humanity.
I’ve always considered myself to be rigid and timid when engaging with people; probably just my nature and personality. However, what I didn’t realise was that I was subconsciously setting invisible bastions to resist anyone in. And it seems abnormal in Sydney’s Western culture, which I now call home. Perhaps, this was why I invested so much time to westernise myself. All I was trying to do was to embrace the norm in Australia. I was allowing the influence in. Learnt to live and think like an Australian, just like living like a villager in India. Learning the norm and learning to be human.
I still remember the negative perceptions I had on India before I went on this trip. The first reaction after telling my parents was to ‘stay safe’. Similar responses were also received some friends, saying India was a dangerous place especially for women who have lower societal status, hence more likely to be objectified by men. Undeniably, these statements apply to some circumstances in India, however, the negative perception is unfairly intensified by media and embedded in people’s minds, despite knowing little about the country. It feels ironic that these shallow thoughts of mine, inherited from others, severely affected my first interpretations after arrival in India. Every man whom I had eye contacts with, I calculated ill intentions, meanwhile every woman I encountered I considered them to be miserable. With real experience in India it is clear how ignorant and intolerable these thoughts were! I now see how it is possible to be evil when perceiving another human being, especially when we don’t even know each other. This realisation shocked me, gaining access to a source of perceptual bias that I did not know existed.
My grandma has a reputation of thinking the very worst of people, regardless of the nature of their actions, even in good deeds. Her excessive defence mechanism is partially due to her upbringing during the Cultural Revolution in China, when societal classes were violently overturned and her family was adversely affected. Subsequently, she would question people’s intention behind every action to prepare for the worst scenario. It was the only way to ensure safety and survival for her and family. By constantly doubting every aspect of life, she failed to perceive the beauty of life and didn’t know how to trust. Reflecting now, I sense that it was this experience of Cultural Revolution that disabled empathy inside of her, stripping away her ability to feel warmth from other humans; her humanity. It seems that some of these characteristics passed to my father, with these genetics echoing through my upbringing. My dad probably did not know what love was when he was growing up due to grandma’s inability to love. Hence, they love me in a way that cannot be felt.
Ramdas Kaka was the first person that made me feel warmth in the village of Sonoshi. Looking at Kaka walking joyfully towards his farmland in the burning February sun. Lights radiating off him from the beams of sweats dripping down his face. He stopped occasionally to pick fresh chic peas from the sidewalk and eat them raw, saying how proud he is of his farmland. It truly was beautiful and simple at the same time. We followed him and I looked down to see the ground to not step on any of his crops. I saw dry land, cracked because of the powerful, relentless summer heat. However, beyond the superficial dryness I could see wild flowers emerging from within, vigorous and vibrant, simple but significant in splendour. From this moment onwards I felt a new ability to be aware of and appreciate little things, otherwise overlooked in daily life.
Later during my time in Sonoshi, meeting Mohini further enhanced my understanding of life, joys and humanity. Looking at her daily routine, it’s unimaginable to spend 3 hours to prepare for a meal in Sydney, except perhaps for a special occasion. However, this is the norm in villages like Sonoshi. Every time I went visit Mohini it seemed she was either picking peas or slicing beans, as if food is the centre of her world. Three meals a day, which accumulates to nine hours per day, spent preparing food. At first, it seemed absurd, as I believed food to be merely a source of energy to fulfil more important daily tasks. Therefore, at first I did not understand such an action. On reflection, this reminds me of my mum who spent a significant amount of time, far less than Mohini, in cooking and maintaining the tidiness of the house. She did not work so it was like a job for her, which never ends. However, her dedication didn’t result in a happy marriage, with divorce the ultimate closure. Perhaps, this is the reason why I undervalue such a daily activity and subconsciously perceived it to be useless.
Mohini taught me that in the village women take on a selfless role when it comes to family. They are involved in cooking from a very young age; It is their main household responsibility. During interactions with several other families I observed similar patterns. Why would anyone doubt this purpose when everyone around you is doing exactly the same thing? That was the norm in Sonoshi, caring for and supporting family nourishment and wellbeing. Thinking to my own perceptions, I can see that my mum grew up in a similar landscape in rural China. Even though she moved to the city when quite young, she definitely carried deeply embedded traditions with her. Those originating in ensuring the family were full with enough energy for laborious farm work under a scorching sun. This approach to life perhaps represents love from mum’s upbringing. It made me realise that perhaps I was the odd one.
Similar disruptions to my worldview came from time I spent with Vandana. When I first sat with her, I thought she was numb as there appeared to be little passion in her descriptions of her life. With these initial perceptions my mind jumped to a fundamental assumption; what was this village life without freedom and complete self-centred choice? However, I later realised it was I that had failed to perceive life in a meaningful way. I was the one who was numb. As I got to know Vandana, I learnt that she comes from a family that values education, which enabled her to choose college before starting a family. While she had an arranged marriage, as is the convention in India and large parts of Asia, she adores her husband profoundly. It is amazing to me that during her engagement day she first met the man she would marry. At that time, she did not have the confidence to talk to him. Since their marriage their happiness has flourished. With my background, I find it difficult to fathom the enormous amount of trust Vandana placed with her parents. To me, arranged marriage is essentially handing one’s destiny into the hand of others, believing that they will make the best choice. It is deeply inspiring to see that such trust has lead to a happy life filled with much love.
Being exposed to new ways of viewing the world during my time in India, it occurred to me that I see the world in a generally pessimistic way. Only now can I see that deep down I probably thought a normal life was one full of suffering. This might be the source of the frequent bouts of anxiety and a failure to see beauty in life. It was the only world I knew of. I thought everyone was like me, until I got to know women in Sonoshi, a world away though essentially the same humans just like me. This is a fundamental realisation that prepares me for a career in nursing; taking care of people from all walks of life.
It is amazing the extent that intangible factors of everyday life like culture, society and history have an enormous impact on each and every person. This makes each human from the same genetic descendant at one level the same, but on the surface so diverse from each other. Such differentiation is a gradual segregation of people with imagined orders, social hierarchy and skin-level differences. It is as though our mind is deceiving. It now seems that, once a person’s intention behind an action is understood and justified, at the very core there is little difference.
What is normal? It is only a concept which people use to describe what they are used to. Anything out of their comfort zone is considered abnormal, however, deep down there is insecurity and fear. And our minds hold on to the familiar concepts which we experienced and learnt from our past. However, every individual has dramatically different experiences, together with the lack of first-hand knowledge, it leads to ignorance. When one is ignorant, every action taken cannot be rational. Hence, hatred and dehumanisation, perceiving individuals who are exactly like us as something else. Without full awareness of empathy, it is possible to be inhumane. We are what we perceive.
Andrea Lin is currently studying a Bachelor of Nursing at University of Technology Sydney.