Let’s catch up…

Greetings from Los Angeles! We are en route to sweet ol’ Richmond, Virginia and will be back to blogging regularly soon. From cultural notes on China to the places we visited and the things we saw, there is so much we want to share with you!

This week, we’re also kicking off a new week-long series of blog posts that we figure will be just perfect for our fellow college students gearing up for a new school year (where did summer go?!) We’re calling it the “What We’ve Learned” (WWL) series. In these posts we’ll dish on the things—simple and not so simple—that we learned our first year in college. Getting adjusted your first semester can be difficult so we hope these posts will give you some ideas of what to do as you make a new home away from home  :)

And with that, I thought I’d just leave you with a pictorial recap of some of my favorite moments from Beijing… we’ll be back soon, I promise! (P.s. You can click on the image to make it bigger!)

Advertisements

The Wall.

As I write this we are preparing to leave Beijing. It is 5 am in the morning here and our bags are packed, we have said our last goodbyes. This whole saying goodbye thing never gets any easier but this go-around we’re lucky enough to say that we’ll at least see our fellow classmates walking the streets of Cambridge, MA soon. Until then, it’s off to Shanghai for some sightseeing!

We promise to be back soon with more updates and a full-on reflection of just what we’ve been doing here—forgive us in the delay, China has a firewall that is quite hard to get through sometimes. For now at least, I’ll leave you with some pics from our AMAZING trip up the very real Great Wall of China. I have been trying to articulate all day how cool it is to trek up this piece of history that I remember learning about way back in kindergarden, this piece of China that has become in many way’s this country’s symbol to the world. But the truth is I can’t fashion a statement out of words, so I’d thought I’d try with some pictures… Enjoy!!

Trammin’ our way to the top: We took a tram up to the Great Wall, climbed for a good 2 or 3 hours and then took a toboggan (so.much.FUN!) all the way down!

The whole gang– gonna miss this lot! We were so blessed to have such an eclectic, diverse, FUN group of students to accompany us on our journeys throughout all of China :)

It was a long day… but it was SO worth it!!

Lily’s Change

You might say that change comes in small alloy drops, and newly minted monies whirring down the pipeline before they become a veritable measure of a country’s  economic prowess.

“I want to do change.”–Lily

I slowly ambled into the room last night, flipped the light switch and took a seat in one of the nearby chairs.

It would take far more than coffee to wake me up for the next hour, I thought to myself as enervation seeped through my bones. Like every day thus far at the Harvard Summit for Youth Leadership Conference (HSYLC) in Beijing, my day had been spent teaching my students, leading extracurricular activities, engaging in discussions about every nuance of culture and country, and just generally, being busy. And despite my enjoying every minute of that time, there is no denying that myself and most of the other seminar leaders are suffering from a considerable lack of sleep.

Placing my Nescafe can on the desk in front of me, I stared at the flimsy aluminum and tried to will an energy boost from its sweet, caffeinated contents. But alas, it became clear that the need for energy could not be siphoned by a mere force of will.

It was time for my office hours.

Little did I know that what would follow would be among the most enlightening and refreshing conversations I have had during my time here—a conversation that took me away from my duties as a seminar instructor and mentor, and reminded me of the joy of pure Curiosity and how a little navigation and ingenuity can take you anywhere you want to go.

Lily wanted advice. Simple enough, I thought.

I soon found myself recounting tales of U.S. history that have been impressed upon me for the past eleven years. But here these oft-repeated accounts of history were bringing wonder and amazement to young Lily’s eyes and I could see her contemplating with intention the meaning this could have for her country.

“My mom said to never come back to China once I leave, but I know I will.” Such a young girl to be making such pronouncements. But I knew that it didn’t make them any less true. Though her English was imperfect and her hands gestured wildly to buoy her speech, she spoke with conviction and hope: “I want to do change.”

I haven’t heard that much from my Chinese students–that is I have noticed how quiet they often are, and the great energy it takes to procure answers to my questions or opinions from them in class. Why? was my question to Lily. Why are you so silent?

Here I must note that Lily is the exception. She is eager to participate in class when her classmates are far more accustomed to staring at me with an immutable expression. “We were all very outgoing once—in primary school,” Lily said, “but soon that changed.”

Coming from an American school system, the cultural shock in this regard is substantial, considering that eliciting speech in an American classroom is not so much a problem as curtailing it is. Though there are exceptions, we are generally taught to form our own opinions and share them, and so the shy among us must learn to adapt, or risk being left behind.

I came to office hours slightly bleary-eyed and bracing myself for an assault of college application and SAT prep questions. Instead, I was visited by a girl who had a very simple request of me: that I, as the teacher of a ‘Negotiation and International Conflict Resolution’ seminar, give her and her country advice. In retrospect, I cannot help but smile as I think about the tiny can of coffee sitting on my desk. How terribly inadequate. I figure the amount of caffeine that would be required to transform me into a decent foreign policy adviser would be of astronomical proportions. Luckily though, Lily’s passion gave me the kind of jolt that no amount of caffeine could have. I was reminded to be cautious as I talked with her about how a government could hire administrators to beat destitute vendors selling illegal wares, or commission textbooks that share only one side of history with its children.

I was reminded to be open-minded as I thought critically about a government system that is significantly different from the American one that I am used to and to be considerate of its good aspects despite that difference. “I like our government,” one of my students said during a class. “It is incredibly efficient and makes us proud–look at what was accomplished for the 2008 Olympics.” With that, I couldn’t argue. The Chinese government is certainly a beacon of efficiency in many respects, and I too have loved hearing the diverse perspectives that my students bring with regard to it.

But still–there is Lily. And sitting with her during office hours, I was reminded that there is always potential for an individual to take action if they are unhappy with the system that governs them, and a fire to be lit under a million more who could join her.

For me what is most significant though is that Lily is determined to stay here. She will stay in the country in which she was raised rather than go abroad and seek a different life. At a time when Angela Merkel and much of the world have a very different type of change on their mind, I found it unbelievably refreshing to think about Lily’s variety. She will stay here and do things that no stream of newly minted coins could ever accomplish—she will do change with a passion and love for the country that she calls her home, and in doing so, she will change history.

 

The Parent Sister

Today, on her fourteenth birthday, my little sister has grown up—or rightly, she has been growing up for the last 14 years without my noticing a thing.

I suppose there must be a reason that so many friends, upon seeing a picture of Reshini, exclaim, “oh, she’s old! We thought she was about seven…”

Though I know I am inwardly feeling a gulp of satisfaction at these observations, the rush of tangy sweetness inevitably comes with an unsettling realization: the glass will soon be empty, and the sweet juice of parent-sisterhood gone. Reshini has grown up and it is time that my role in her life grow too.

With my constant insistence that “it is because I care,” I am the one whom she quietly slips by on the way to school just on the off-chance that I should find her clothing objectionable and demand a change. I am the one whom she once expected to wake her up in the morning before school started and to tell her a million things she didn’t care to know. I am the one who bothered her to do her homework and insisted that if she focused just an inch of her talent, she could go further than Inesha and I ever could. I am the one who in all of my “tough love,” insisted that there was no need for her to make mistakes. But I’ve seen the movies too, and they’re not wrong–mistakes are how you learn in life. And, you have to make them in the distinctly one-of-a-kind, you variety.

After fourteen years of being a parent sister, I’ve decided that the irrefutable truth conveyed to us by the stars of the silver screen really ought to be refined a bit.

Yes, everyone should make their own mistakes. But in the case of my little sister, even as she goes about making hers, I don’t believe in a need for her to make the same ones that I did.

Reshini is my younger sister, and I realize that I’ve probably been her parent a bit too long. Growing up, Inesha and I were blessed with one of the aspects of our childhood that I credit with any accomplishments or successes that we may claim to our name today: and that is the hands-off guardianship of my parents. For us, they were there to love, watch over, care for, and advise us, but I will always vividly remember how much freedom we were given to make choices that friends’ parents would agonize over at the kitchen table for hours with their little ones. In my childhood, perhaps the best thing that my parents did for me and Inesha was to step back—and as a result, I made many a mistake. I happily continue to learn from them today.

Though the family structure is a societal construct that may don varying appearances in diverse parts of the world, I have always believed that the sister-sister bond is innate. But yet, I’ve let my desire to protect overtake my role as friend, confidant, and guide. A sister is not after all a parent, no matter how much I see myself start to slip into that role. While I don’t think that the days when Reshini groans as I say “wait, let’s talk about this” will fade, I will make a more concerted effort to make our relationship a conversation and not an interrogation—a give and take rather than a give and worry.

One day, I hope I will have the chance to be a parent, but until then, I have to remind myself of the value of the relationship I already have, and give Reshini  her second sister back.

Happy 14th birthday, my little-big one!

Love,

Your sister,

Ishani

Never grow up, Happy Birthday baby sis!

Dear Baby Resh,

You are a special one. You care about people, really care. You take the time, you put in the effort, and you show up. We are proud of you, in awe of everything you do, and we love you more than we say. We know you’ll stumble and fall but we also know you’ll pick yourself up all over again. It’s what you do. And all the while we’ll be there watching you, supporting you, and cheering you on. We love you baby girl… HAPPY BIRTHDAY! 

xo inesha & ishani

I won’t let nobody hurt you
Won’t let no one break your heart
No, no one will desert you
Just try to never grow up, never grow up
 
You’re in the car on the way to the movies
And you’re mortified your mom’s dropping you off
At 14, there’s just so much you can’t do
And you can’t wait to move out someday and call your own shots

But don’t make her drop you off around the block
Remember that she’s getting older, too
And don’t lose the way that you dance around
In your PJs getting ready for school

Oh, darling, don’t you ever grow up, don’t you ever grow up
Just stay this little
Oh, darling, don’t you ever grow up, don’t you ever grow up

Intern Spotlight: Joy Ming, Nonprofit Raxa EMR in India

Global health, technology and India—three things I am passionate about.

Starting my freshman year at Harvard, I went in with experiences both working with autistic children in Kunming, China and learning to program with Google Computer Science Summer Institute. I wanted to reconcile my interests and harness the ever-growing power and influence of technology to improve and save lives.

I first heard about Raxa EMR on a Harvard email list. It is a healthcare technology nonprofit that is working to create an electronic medical record (EMR) system for Jan Swasthya Sahyog (JSS), a private hospital in rural India. Over winter break I volunteered for the organization and as I was getting a Skype tour of the hospital, the supervisor casually mentioned it would be cool if I could join them. There. In India.

As awesome as it seemed, I still had to deal with logistics and apply for a grant from school to pursue an independent internship. I was lucky to receive enough money to fund transportation and living expenses for ten weeks in India. Though I still applied for internships at software companies in the states and nonprofits abroad, few were able to combine my interests so well. With some encouragement form my friends, family, and mentors, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and into the real world.

Incredible India

The experience was really different—living in my own apartment and commuting to work every day gave me a glimpse into independence. Doing so in a country so different from my own gave a dose of reality.

It’s not to say I didn’t fall in love with India. In love with autorickshaws that honked their way through the crazy, lane-free traffic. In love with the cows and monkeys that strolled through the roads next to people selling pretty much everything. In love with the sights, sounds, and smells that make India so alive. 

My Project

 The work itself was extremely rewarding. I was presented with a module, or a part, of the EMR system. This would be a mobile application to help community health workers (CHWs) affiliated with the hospital do their job more efficiently, bridging the gap of communication between the villager and the necessary medical care and knowledge.

Community health workers are members elected by the village to serve as a liaison between the 500-700 villagers and the hospital. They check up on each of the villagers four times a month, taking note of the patients with illnesses and giving necessary basic medical care. In the case of an emergency, the CHW will refer the patients to the village sub center or hospital.

Right now it is a purely paper-based system, as it is with much of the hospital. However, this presents inefficiency in record keeping and communication. An electronic system can help organize patients, schedule and structure visits, keep an inventory, and provide resources to educate both the CHW and the villagers. A well-designed user interface can take into account low literacy rates and offline-syncing capacity can alleviate intermittent connectivity. Better communication could also mean better understanding of the demographics of disease in the village.

This summer, I did research into the work of the CHW to design a system that will make the current process more efficient. Here are some pictures from the visit I made to the hospital. I also helped create a basic framework of an application that will server as a basis for the frontend and mapped out the necessary backend for development.

Doing the work itself could be tedious at times, but each bump in the road was another lesson learned. There were times where the dependent software we were trying to modify turned out not to work or debugging the code became a weeklong project. But above all, remember the impact of the work we were doing, the difference we were making, kept me coding every day.

The Workplace

Being in the office environment of Raxa made the experience more exciting. It is a small office with a “start-up feel”. Ten to fifteen interns and full time employees sit together on an eclectic array of chairs, each of which may or may not have enough wheels to properly balance. Yet the creative energy in the room was enough to make things happen.

My coworkers are some of the most amazing people I know. They are exceptionally bright, with illustrious educational backgrounds, but also extremely fun. Connecting to people over tiffin lunches and spontaneous samosa parties and watching Bollywood movies outside work helped me connect to people who inspired me, who helped me learn more about myself and the world. 

Meditations

 Overall, this summer was an amazing experience and probably one of the best experiences I have ever had. I am happy I made the choice to try something new and glad it all worked out. If time permits, I would like to continue to contribute to Raxa’s goal.

Hearing stories from my friends, I realize that I am lucky to have such experiences, but I am not the only one. I feel that stepping outside of my comfort zone a bit helped me learn, helped me experience. And if you decide to take that step, no matter how small, you might be able to have the best culinary, occupational, social, and cultural experience ever :)

The Internet Cleanse

Maybe it’s the pained, persistent calls for “my baby” (and subsequent consternation from my mother). Maybe it’s the constant anthropomorphizing. Maybe it’s the rapt attention to three blinking bars in the top right hand corner of my screen. Maybe it’s the fact that a power outage that left an entire building without light left our faces glowing in LED halos.

Whatever it is, there is no denying that I (and dare I venture to say we) have an unhealthy obsession with the computers, iPhones, and internet-enabled devices in our lives. The instance I reference above was one in which—though I am ashamed to admit it—I was a co-conspirator. Sitting in a hotel room in Moshi, Tanzania, two friends and me were completely unfazed after the electricity suddenly switched off. Why? Because we all had our happily humming laptops sitting before us, as faithful as a pack of friendly puppies. Is this a sign of the times or a sign of impending doom?

But I’m not one to dwell on the problem—after all, maybe this in itself presents an opportunity.

It’s time to end the rapture induced by an internet signal and the ensuing groans when connection is lost. Otherwise we might soon find that we’re losing connection with something far larger and more important—the physical world we inhabit. Now, I didn’t come to this realization after spending a little too much quality time with my Macbook. In fact, the opposite is true. As they say, distance makes the heart grow fonder.

After spending two months traipsing around Tanzania without my Macbook (to be fair, I had a faithful though comparatively underwhelming netbook in its place), I came home excited to see “my baby” once again.

But alas, the time apart had proven too much for my laptop to handle. It’s hard to truly understand the devastation of a crashed hardrive until one has felt the loss for oneself. But during the time that my laptop was undergoing resuscitation at the Apple Store Genius Bar, I was granted an enlightening moment of clarity—I didn’t need it. Any of it.

I had just spent two of the most liberating, exploratory months of my life in a country that has a tenuous relationship with far more than electricity. Often finding myself sans-Wifi and window-to-the-world-less, I decided to walk outside. That’s right, I marched into the open air and explored the city that was bustling around me. I realized that the online world could wait—and whatever I missed in the hours or days during which we were disconnected could easily be dredged up with a quick google search anyway.

And so, the moment of clarity I felt as I sat at an Apple store Genius Bar was really something that had been two months in the making. Sometimes, the best thing we can do for ourselves and the online world floating above our heads, is to leave it be.

When I think about some of the happiest moments that I spent in Tanzania, I remember the ones when we were camping in the wilderness with nothing but a card pack and our minds to fuel conversation and laughter. I remember  the moments when our battery life hit 0% and we gave ourselves a reboot instead. Those are the moments that I will share with my kids and grandkids—not the ones when our faces were bathed in fluorescent light while the world was shrouded in darkness around us.

So, if I could offer just a grain of advice—turn off your computer and disconnect yourself from the internet. For a day, for a weekend, or for longer—whatever the time span, use it to cleanse yourself of an unhealthy attraction that has left so many of us imagining a human touch in the rectangular machine that sits on our desks and bedside tables. Shut everything down and go outside—take a walk, talk to a stranger, and live in the real world. It’s one of the most liberating feelings I have ever felt.