When I first arrived in Jagiri, I didn’t expect much. I knew I wouldn’t have any cell phone service or WiFi for two weeks. I knew there were no local shops I could walk to when bored. 99% of the people there don’t speak English. My hosts would only be around for a short while on the weekends. I was essentially on my own, save for one or two people around me who could communicate with me in my language, English. May I just add here that a strong linguistic barrier is the experience for the majority of new immigrants in the U.S.? This was going to be one of the few times I would ever experience this. The old Gabby would’ve been excited by this new challenge! She would’ve delved into studying Dangi and Hindi to be able to communicate with the locals and show that she cared about them and their culture.
That was what Gabby in 2015 would’ve done. That’s what I did in Kolkata, with joy! But, I was a different person then. I was more open, less cynical, more trusting of God and of life. 2018 Gabby is much more careful. I’m wary of everyone and every situation, always deciding what my plan is in case something bad happens. Always formulating an escape plan in my head. Constantly aware of what could go wrong. That’s me. So when the truck first arrived in Jagiri, I was already tired of the heat (Gujarat gets HOT HOT HOT) and I was annoyed with the prospect of two weeks with no WiFi. I felt that I would get cabin fever in this village and hate every moment of it. A part of me wanted to hate it, for some reason. I didn’t want to connect. It’s easier that way.
As I climbed out of the truck, I just wanted a cold drink, an air-conditioned room, and time alone to stew and complain about my lack of comfort in my circumstances. Instead I was greeted with an orange and yellow flower garland around my neck, tons of small children throwing orange flowers at me (blessing me and welcoming me), and older boys playing Indian drums. I walked between two rows of little Indian children and Indian teenagers. At this point, my heart was still hard toward this place, for reasons unknown to my spirit (which later turned out to be a Satanic attack), so I couldn’t fully embrace the moment. But I felt my heart softening a little bit and I began to feel guilty for feeling a dislike for a place I hadn’t even seen yet. After that, an older woman sat me down and washed my feet. If she and I were alone, I would’ve burst into tears. As she washed my dirty, worn out, scarred, bug-bitten feet, I felt my eyes fill with tears. I felt loved but also immensely guilty at the same time. “Who am I?” I thought. “I don’t deserve this treatment. I’m nobody. They all work so much harder than me. I’m just a complainer. I don’t deserve this. They do.”
I walked up the hill to my room, led by the hand by my hosts’ adorable five-year old son and began to feel more connected to this place I had only first seen ten minutes prior. I unpacked my things to a certain extent and came out to the dining room to my first Indian meal in India this year. I was in Goa for a week before this but I couldn’t find any Indian food there. I appreciated this meal. But, my lunch companions enjoyed conversations only in Hindi, stopping once every ten minutes to give me a hint of what they were saying. I felt left out. I didn’t expect everyone to speak English all the time, but my mother taught me that if you’re with someone who doesn’t speak a certain language, you don’t speak it in front of them because it’s rude. My mother always scolded me about speaking Spanish with her in front of my white American friends who didn’t speak the language. I never understood why until I sat at that table, only hearing Hindi around me, distinguishing a few words here and there, but being thoroughly excluded.
The next night, they had a graduation ceremony for the 8th graders, the kids I would be giving extra English classes to. They had me on stage, handing out certificates to a few of the kids and I again felt that this was so undeserved. I didn’t do anything to contribute to these kids’ success. I just got there the day before! It was so hard for me to receive any of this honor or hospitality. I felt it was so unwarranted. Before this, I sat with the little girls and watched as all of the schoolchildren performed various tribal dances and sang songs in a few languages. It was all so beautiful. The purity of the culture being celebrated by these children was just too powerful for me to explain. It was something you had to see and feel if you wanted to truly experience it.
As the next few days passed, I started teaching English to these 8th graders. In my limited understanding, I assumed I’d be teaching 14- and 15-year olds. Nope. Here in the village, you start school when you start school. One of my students was 24, my exact age. Many of them were 14 or 15, but I had a few in their early 20s. It felt odd to be teaching to girls and guys around my age. We should’ve been peers, but because of my privileged education, I was their teacher. One of my students, we’ll call her J., is a 20-year old woman in 8th grade. She’s wicked smart. She speaks Dangi, Hindi, and Gujarati. She’s currently learning English. She makes the best chai. She has an adorable laugh. She has baby feet compared to my monstrous American feet. Yes, we actually compared our feet because the size difference was so astonishing! But, in the shower one day, I thought about her as I washed my hair and reflected on my time in Jagiri at that point. She is 20 years old and in the 8th grade. When I was 20, I was preparing to finish my junior year of college. I was well on my way to finishing my Cum Laude Bachelor’s degree from a prestigious New York university. Because of where I was born, I was able to achieve this with absolutely no one stopping me and nothing limiting me. It was easy and natural for me to go to college and finish in 4 years. Because of where J. was born, she could not so easily receive an education. I began to feel pity for her, but then God reminded me, “She’s getting an education now. It’s never too late to get an education. Be happy for her.” I am. I’m so happy for J. I hope she goes far in life. What I want for her, for all of my girls, and for my boys, is simply the chance to choose what they want for their respective lives.
I was told by a man in Jagiri that it’s common in the village for kids to get married around 15 or 16 years old. This man and I lamented together about how marriage derails their lives, is unnatural for their maturity level, and is harmful to their bodies. Young girls should not be giving birth. I immediately thought of Kajol and I told him about her, tearing up a little. I’m happy that my students aren’t married yet. There’s nothing wrong with them choosing to get married at some point, even if it’s at a young age like 18 or 19, but I want them to be able to choose. I don’t want marriage to be their only option. I want my students to one day tell me, “Ma’am, I got accepted to college!” or “Ma’am, I was offered an incredible job opportuntiy!” I yearn to hear those words and see the joy on their faces.
Throughout my two weeks here, I’ve had a few good conversations with these kids. I’ve prayed for some, listened to their stories about their Hindu families pressuring them to become Hindu again, hearing the passion and urgency they have in sharing the Gospel, and seeing how deeply grateful they are to God for revealing Himself to them. I’ve gotten the shyest girls in my class to speak up, even if that’s just whispering the answer to me. But, I definitely shout out that answer and let everyone know who said it! I’ve had fun acting out prepositions with my students (there’s really no other way to do it), creating murder mystery games, reading their stories, watching Tarzan with them, playing Badminton with them, painting their nails, drinking chai with them, and just being with them.
The night of the graduation ceremony, I tried to sleep but felt that God wasn’t letting me. He had things He wanted to address with me! As I prayed, I felt the Holy Spirit prompt me to pray for something I didn’t want to pray for. I asked God to help me, “If not love this place, then at least appreciate Jagiri for what it is. Help me learn something here. It’s going to be hard, but I want to at least learn one thing. Clearly You don’t want me in India. So just let me learn something here before I leave.” Well, God answered that prayer. In my ignorance and arrogance, I thought that because I wasn’t “feeling it”, then God must not want me in India. My attitude completely shifted the next day. I went from hating this place to absolutely loving it and not wanting to leave. I’ve come to a place where I want my life to be woven into the lives of my students. I want to follow their success and root for them from the sidelines, inserting myself into their personal narratives whenever they need a shoulder to cry on, a person to vent to, or an advocate to fight for them.
Today was our second to last class and we sat in a circle sharing our hearts. I encouraged them to ask me any questions about myself or life. I received a few good questions about my educational background and life in New York, but what I wanted more was to answer their questions about life. I wanted to advise them. Before sending them off for lunch, I told them that if anyone wanted to talk with me privately, I’d stay after class and they could talk to me. Three students stayed back, two girls and a boy. The first girl asked me what to do regarding her problems with a friend who was lying to her. I felt honored to give her advice about her situation. She chose me! She trusted me enough to come to me. But, the second girl brought me to tears and left an indelible mark on my heart. She, close to tears herself, said this, “I feel very alone in my house, so can you stay? Can you stay for a few more days?” As she asked this, she looked down at her notebook where she had written my name “Gabi ma’am” and she began tracing it over and over again with her pen. When she first asked me that, I hardly knew what to say. I wanted to hold her, cry with her, and promise her that I’d stay. But, I didn’t know then that my hosts would allow me to stay here and teach. So I asked a few questions, got a bit more information from her about her home life, and gave her advice. I cried with her, telling her that I grew up in a difficult home as well and that I understand one-hundred percent what she is feeling and suffering. Then we prayed together and I held her hand. I told her that I wished I could have my own house and she could live with me, in freedom. I encouraged her to keep studying so she can break free from her oppressive home and live however she wishes! Education is the best way for her to break free. When she asked me to stay and began crying, I knew for certain that God wants me here. I have no doubt that the vacant teacher position is for me. Those teenagers are God’s and He wants me to steward their little hormonal hearts and guide them throughout the next few years. I’m praying and asking God to let me stay in Jagiri and keep working with these teenagers. I know that God has called me to work with teenagers regarding education, child marriage, and depression/anxiety/and suicide. I know that He will use me in all of these ways here in Jagiri. I pray that He lets me stay.
God used this time not only to allow me to love on my students, but to receive love and revelation from them and from Himself. The other day, I sat on a couch in my hosts’ home during a particularly hot afternoon and began writing in my journal. Throughout these two weeks, I read three books on marriage, sexuality, and Jesus. After all of this knowledge intake, I felt the words pour out of me onto my paper. I’ll write separately about this in more detail, but God revealed to me that He doesn’t want me to live a vagabond life, especially not out of fear. He wants me to be open to the idea of a husband, of a home, of a family. He showed me that not all men are abusive. Not all homes are stifling and trampling. Many homes and families are encouraging. They are places of peace. What I want is not a sense of false freedom by roaming about here and there under the guise of “Biblical mission work”, but I want a peaceful home where I can become part of whatever community I settle in. I want “Un hogar de paz”, a peaceful home. I praise God for revealing this to me and ask Him to provide me with this blessing.