At the age of 15, I spent the summer of 1998 with my relatives in New Delhi. My twin sister and I hadn’t been to India in 10 years and didn’t remember much from our childhood visit. We were excited to kindle relationships with our cousins and travel to the Taj Mahal. We both envisioned long days of bustling through the crowds at local bazaars and eating kulfi—ice cream—during shopping breaks. We were excited to stay up all night laughing with our cousins and dancing to Bollywood tunes. I imagined leaning against the cold stone wall of the kitchen, watching in wonder and awe as my aunts moved with grace and stealth around the kitchen, rolling rotis and mixing masalas.
All of those things came true. And they were great.
But something else happened, which I didn’t expect. I became consumed by the overwhelming poverty that was staring at me in the face everywhere I turned. Especially the kids. Some were my age, many were younger. They tugged at my shirt sleeve and pleaded “Madam, please help” with their cupped hands held out in front of me. My uncle would shoo them away from me as if they were flies buzzing around me in a small, closed room.
I believe that trip to India changed me forever. I lost some innocence that summer but also learned to put things in perspective. At the age of 15, as a teenage girl, it’s easy to think that you have the worst life in the world because the boy you liked—Mikey—didn’t ask you to the sophomore dance or your class didn’t elect you to be homeroom rep even though they knew that you really, really wanted it.
But there were kids—who looked like me, who ate the same food, spoke the same native language—yet would never know what a high school dance was or what it meant to be a child, a teenager. They worked in sweat shops and cleaned homes and were yelled at and abused all day, everyday.
But sometimes, at the end of the day, while I rode in the backseat of an air-conditioned taxi with the trunk full of bags filled with saris, lenghas, bangles, and bhindis—I would see some of the child laborers congregating in small groups on sidewalks. The circles with older kids had boys and girls. Amongst the younger kids, the girls stuck together and so did the boys. They were laughing and talking and making jokes about each other. They looked like me and my friends when we were just “hanging out.”
Up until that moment, I felt sad, even depressed, for those children. But watching them together, it occurred to me that they don’t feel sorry for themselves. They knew they have a rough life. But they knew that it could be a lot worse for them too.
I learned a lot that day about human nature and my own nature. The biggest lesson? People—every kind of person wants to be happy and finds a way to create happiness even when it seems like none can exist. This I believe.