Last summer, I was selected as a volunteer by Learning Enterprises, a student-run, non-profit organization that focuses on teaching English in rural villages worldwide. My posting was in Hungary. After two days of “teacher training” (read: sightseeing) in Budapest, I found myself completely unprepared for what I would go on to learn that summer.
Don’t get me wrong; the teaching bit didn’t actually prove to be very difficult. Although teaching (or, I should say, trying to teach) English to children ranging from three to eight years of age is a somewhat moot venture, considering that they don’t even have a good grasp of their own language yet. I found, however, that teaching adolescents and adults is an absolute joy; my older students were fascinated by and interested in learning. I learned a lot about my own teaching abilities and was challenged to approach the English language in new and creative ways each day. What I was most unprepared for was actually the culture shock that I received while living in, and then returning home from, rural Central Europe.
During my two-month stay in the villages of Alsónemesapáti and Tázlár (don’t worry if you stumble over those names; it took me three days to learn how to pronounce them correctly), I never encountered an unhappy person. Granted, both villages have populations of mere hundreds of people, so maybe my sample size wasn’t big enough. But you would think that in rural villages—characterized by poverty, and relatively isolated from all the creature comforts of the industrialized world—you could find some discontented people. Instead, I found that the two very different villages were full of hard-working, unstressed, happy people. I couldn’t understand why I, too, felt like a five-year-old in Disneyland until I came back home to San Jose, Calif.
Coming home from Hungary was surprisingly depressing for this home loving Californian, because every day I spent at home was a reminder of how vastly different our American measure of success is from “success” in other parts of the world. In the Bay Area, you could be the head of your own company and still feel insignificant compared to your tech-giant neighbors. In the Hungary I experienced, if you have a family or children, a job, food, and a bed to sleep in, you are the poster-child of success. There may be something we can learn from the rural villagers of Hungary: how to live without want. But the main difference between us Americans and Hungarians is not money; it is mindset. While living and working abroad, I never felt the ever-present sense of competition that I feel in my community. In our society, it seems that you can never be truly happy when your friends or peers have more, or have achieved more, than you.
The Indian-American community is a textbook victim of the American mindset: frighteningly desperate to secure its place in the social hierarchy. We’ll do anything and everything it takes to creep up that ladder of success. It feels like every young Indian my age is slaving away on one of a few paths towards a high salary job (be it investment banking, corporate law, consulting, or a medical practice). The vast majority of students in expensive private elementary and high schools are of Asian or South Asian descent. I have even met Aunties and Uncles who are ashamed to be seen by their circles of Indian friends when their children don’t get into a top-10 university.
I’m not suggesting that as a community we abandon our goals of familial, educational, and financial success. On the contrary, I take great pride in the fact that we Indian Americans are doing fabulously well for ourselves (going to top schools and making heaps of money). Many of us (or at least our parents) came to this country with close to nothing to their names, and are now living in what many people would consider opulent splendor—the envy of everyone. I’m merely suggesting that we change our mindset about how to achieve those goals.
In Hungary, the people I encountered didn’t place the same importance that we do on “getting rich quick.” One anecdote illustrates this point well. During my stay in Alsónemesapáti, I had a conversation with my host father that will stick with me forever (the vast majority of our conversations were desperate gesticulations and enthusiastic grunts to signal our approval or lack thereof). When he asked me why I came to Hungary to teach English, I honestly replied that I thought it would ultimately look good on my resume. I would use that resume to try and distinguish myself from fellow applicants so that I could get into a good law school and thereby land a lucrative job at a top firm. When I explained to my host father how much money I might one day make at one of those top law firms, he initially became excited but soon grew quiet. My host-brother translated that his father was confused about how my teaching English had anything to do with my legal aspirations. It seemed to him that I had little interest in Hungary or actually teaching English. I was sheepish about how simple and scheming I suddenly appeared. Never in my life have I been so embarrassed.
Since coming home from Hungary, I continue to hear my host-father’s question: “Why are you trying to get rich so quickly?” I realize now that if you work in i-banking from ages 25-45, you’ll be fantastically wealthy, but also fantastically haggard. And probably pretty unfulfilled.
“In India,” my grandmother often says, “people have time to do what they really want. They’re not living mechanical lives like you Americans.” In Hungary as well, people have ample time to devote to their families and communities, and they do so because they want to, not because it is the thing to do. Perhaps we, too, need to create some time to do what we want, instead of what we think is best for us in the future.
There will always be someone two years younger than you making twice the salary that you make. We have to learn to accept that, and we must realize that our hard work justifies our ability to better ourselves in constructive ways. There is no such thing as a useless endeavor. Anything that you pursue in the name of bettering yourself, assisting others, or learning will be advantageous.
While I may have had one set of goals when I signed up to teach in Hungary, what I gained was an educational and personally challenging experience that transcends “resume potential.” Once I resolved to approach my teaching responsibilities with dedication to the present—and without focusing on the assumed end goal—the result was the most fulfilling summer of my life.
Ananth Tharoor Srinivasan is a junior at Duke University, majoring in political science and sociology.