Work and Play: Month two in Chennai

Myself and some of the other interns on a day trip to the Dakshina Chitra Cultural center in Chennai
Myself and some of the other interns on a day trip to the Dakshina Chitra Cultural center in Chennai

So phew, I can safely say that since I hit the midpoint things have gotten very busy here at Transparent Chennai. Just as I hit week five, my team (Public Toilets and Sanitation) held a “Process Mapping and Work Plan” meeting. Over the course of two afternoons, we used various participatory activities to help us step back and look at the larger picture which was super helpful for me. Since I have almost no prior experience with this sort of work, the first month I spent here included a lot of quick learning, secondary research, and scrambling to get a hold on all of the work I was doing. A meeting like that right at my midpoint was great timing.

This also resulted in a discussion of how the rest of my internship would play out, and rather than simply assisting in the work on Public School Toilets, I would now be leading it. This means making sure the kinks get worked out of the survey tool (including running pilot surveys) organizing and leading mapping exercises, and preparing and holding some kind of community meeting before my internship ends (among other things.)

I’m feeling pretty on track with my goals for this summer. I am gaining research skills and learning a lot about data analysis, and, while I’m learning about urban planning from sort of an inverted perspective, I think that’s actually incredibly useful. I’m learning a lot about what not to do! As far as cultural immersion and my other personal goals go, I don’t think one can get more immersed than this:

Wearing my new 'salwar kurta' in front of my apartment in Chennai
Wearing my newsalwar kurta in front of my apartment in Chennai

I have been having a fabulous time adjusting to life in Chennai, figuring out what grocery stores to go to, how to have water delivered to my apartment before I run out, and – by far my favorite activity – bargaining with auto (rickshaw) drivers. This is a big deal here for everyone, even the locals, because drivers in Chennai NEVER turn their meters on, are super aggressive, and always try to jack up the price. Learning how to deal with them was pretty essential because taking an auto is my main mode of transport, and initially the whole process terrified me.

It was really difficult for me to push back when the drivers would start telling me how “very far” somewhere was and how I should pay thirty extra rupees and so on. I had no sense of whether a location was far or not! One of my friends (another intern at Transparent Chennai) taught me a few words in tamil to use with the drivers and by the fifth or sixth auto ride, something changed. Suddenly I was enjoying these interactions! If I’m not tired (hungry… in a hurry… etc…) it can be fun, and I’ve become proud of my ability to talk a driver down to a fair price. I’m really enjoying this newfound assertiveness and it’s definitely helping me feel more outgoing, although I think I could still work on being more assertive.

For example, one goal that I didn’t include in my initial projection for the summer was learning how to collaborate with other people. I’ve been doing a lot of this at Transparent Chennai, and sometimes it’s an honest struggle. Being a student can be such a solo operation, and at the end of the day, it usually comes down to making decisions that only impact me.  I’ve realized that this process is very different from most of the work I’m doing at Transparent Chennai. Through self-reflection, I’ve learned that making compromises is often difficult for me, particularly when I feel that I should better advocate for me ideas.  This is something that I hope to continue to work on throughout my internship experience.

A public toilet on the outskirts of Chennai
A public toilet on the outskirts of Chennai

I’m also simultaneously having to learn how to be a leader in a situation where I am very new to the world of work. I’ve been in leadership positions before, but the difference was that I had three years of experience under my belt. I felt confident in my decisions because I had prior evidence that I made them well, and I knew everything there was to know about the place where I was working at the time. At Transparent Chennai, I’m still figuring things out and while it’s more of a collaboration than anything, I still have to make decisions about what I should be doing and what work I should be asking other people to help me with. I feel that this is an ongoing learning process, and probably the most important thing I’m learning through my internship outside of the work itself. 

This is where I go to work every day!
This is where I go to work every day!
The main building at IFMR
The main building at IFMR

In my experience, you’re never really alone in India, and I’ve grown to appreciate that part of my living here.  Whether you are on the bus and someone’s two year old falls asleep on your arm or someone passes you their bus fare to pass to the conductor, there are always people interacting with you. Sometimes this can be really difficult for me, but it’s also something I’ve really come to love and inspires me.

Sophy Burns ’14 

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