Hitting Pause: What I learned in DC

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During these first few days in 2013, I’ve found myself mulling over the last few days and months of 2012, months that had Ishani back at Cambridge struggle-busing her way through a full load of classes and plenty of other things and had me a good 12-hour car ride away in Washington, D.C., taking on my first stateside internship at the White House. All in all, the year had us traveling… a lot. And oh the stories we will have to share when we look back on this year: the chorus of Holocaust survivors I encountered in Argentina, the dala-dala ride Ishani took with a roost of chickens, the time we sat in on conversations or speaker series with Aun San Suu Kyi or Samantha Power or the First Lady.

The point is, 2012 had the two of us crossing the globe a lot, whether with our words or feet or hearts. It meant trying new things. There were tough days, hurried days, and days when we didn’t quite know what we were doing and missed home more than we could say. But those days too flew by. And somehow we made it.

And so as I flip through the posts we’ve shared and as we look to blog more in 2013– starting with right here from Sri Lanka– I can’t help but want to push the pause button just once. The truth is that as much as we’ve documented the last few months on this blog, we’ve fallen off the radar a few times. Granted, Ishani’s organic chemistry isn’t exaclty bloggable material ;) And with the election and Christmas and the fiscal cliff happening right outside my window, I can’t say that I was always the best at keeping you sweet readers updated on the things I was learning and the events and history I was watching unfold. And so take this blog post as a last minute pause. It’s a little late but it’s a reflection on what exactly D.C. taught me. Be sure to check back soon to learn about more of the hard lessons I learned this past semester. Here’s to 2013!

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When I was in DC this past semester,  there was this one day— 9/11 to be exact— that I was running late to work. I remember thinking to myself that when I was little I always wanted to ‘make it big’—make it big meaning I wanted to become a ballerina or the next Mother Teresa or just someone who made the world hurt just a little bit less. When I got to Harvard, it was about making it happen. Because school can be a strugglebus (maybe that’s just a Harvard expression?! can’t be sure) and sometimes producing those papers really is the best I can do. But on that morning on that struggle(late)bus to work, it was just about making it. And I remember looking around me and realizing that in college, in school, we get to do so much more than just make it. We get to build things and dream up things and create stories with our words and open doors in our minds. But in the real world…

Everyday I boarded the late bus home, angry and frustrated that all of my friends would waltz away to their Capitol Hill apartments while I had to make the long (2+ hour) trek home. It just wasn’t fair I would think. I left at 9 and got home at 11 and had to be up by 6 the next morning. Those were days when I didn’t talk much to anyone. They were hard. I was working in the glorious White House but each day was a strugglebus of work, work, bus, bus, bus, sleep. I felt for a while that I fell off the planet, outside the real world and I was for the first time not running away from its harsh realities but struggling just to keep up with it.

But then there was that moment, sitting at the bus stop in Vienna, Virginia when I realized so acutely what economic inequality means in our country– how 2 hours is a big deal to a working mom, a waitressing dad, a community college student trying to get out of that neighborhood the rest of us call ‘the ghetto.’ Time is so very precious and wasting it like that killed me. But those moments gave my mind time to wander, to stick my headphones in and to observe. The people I encountered at 6 am and 6 pm and 10 pm were all different. There was I’m-too-busy-for-you, smartphone talking professionals and busy working moms and kids who were glued to their iPhones.

And then there was this one Korean lady. Every night I would board the second bus home from the Vienna Metro Station to my house. At the second stop on the route would hop on this one elderly, frail South Korean woman. Everyday without fail she would smile this toothless smile and tell the bus driver a hearty and innocent hello.  She was always so happy. One night she sat next to me. Naturally, we started talking. She told me that she worked Tuesday-Sunday from 6 am to 9 pm and then walked to the bus stop, got home, fed her kids, and went to bed. She said it was tough running a Korean restaurant because she never quite knew if enough customers would come in.

And yet, she never ever stopped smiling.

She, arguably, taught me the most about grace and happiness in this world that doesn’t always do the best job of telling you that it actually does care about you and will take care of you. I went whole days with supervisors and fellow interns who were struggling to figure out their new jobs and roles; any one of them could’ve smiled, reassured, affirmed the struggling sophomore that I was and still very much am. Not out of obligation but out of oneness, commonness. And yet it was this Korean woman, this complete stranger who I did not know that did that each and every night, smiling her signature toothless smile and waving me over when she boarded the bus a little after 9. For her, I could not be more grateful.

In this way, D.C. taught me a lot. I can’t say I picked up much of the facts or philosophies or intellectual knowledge I’ve been filling my brain with these past few years.  On the job, I learned that more than anything I require a sense of autonomy and substance from the work I do, a capacity to have impact, to change and meld and create. And my job, quite frankly, taught me how to not suck so bad at something I’m not automatically the best at. It taught me patience and reminded me once more of the value of believing the best in people even when you know their motives are more than just political and their actions not entirely genuine. I realize I am sounding a bit vague here without meaning to be. There are stories behind these lessons that I can’t entirely share. Still, I hope you understand that these lessons were more often than not the products of moments I couldn’t quite capture– gradual and yet sudden realizations, fruits of my labor that were realized not with effort but with time.  And yet taken together these moments and stories had me doing one thing towards the end of my internship: plastering on the wall perhaps the one single quote that rang the most true for me throughout the internship: “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” — Plato

I learned the importance of this quote on my first job, volunteering in a hospital. But it’s one that transcends environment and timing. You should never stop smiling. In our world there are few gestures that are so effortless and yet so telling and comforting. The White House is and was for me a pressure cooker, a place where things have to be done precisely and perfectly and efficiently. It’s not alway the easiest ask. But a comforting smile, a knowing nod– they are sometimes the only means we have to acknowledge the struggles and challenges and triumphs we all face.

A smile, you see, is more than just the parting of the lips, the widening of the jaw, the slight gritting of your teeth. It is a gesture that repeated and doled out with care is perhaps our only surest way of letting those we work with know that we really do have their back and that in this crazy world that spins oh so fast, when they need us most, we will be there.

“The White House, with all its pressures, intrigues, triumphs, betrayals, joys and disappointments, is the most special place you ever will work. Look out the gates at the people who slow their gait as they pass, trying to get a glimpse of someone—anyone. They know what you’re likely to forget. You’re blessed… Leave no room for regrets—for someday, in the not-so-distant future, you will be back where you started: On the sidewalk with the other folks, gawking at that grand, glorious, mysterious place—where Lincoln walks at night, and our highest hopes and dreams reside.”

– Tony Snow, White House Press Secretary and Assistant to President George W. Bush

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me and my mommy ;)

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