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I’m very close with my family; it’s safe to say they are my best friends. Having been away for my first full year so far in college, I found myself embracing every single minute with my family once I returned home after the Spring semester. Although I was excited for the opportunity to do community service in India, I spent a lot more time reconnecting with my family during my few weeks at home than mentally preparing myself for my upcoming two-month internship halfway across the world.

I’ve been away from home for longer periods of time, but this felt different. I was going to be staying with a host family whom I had never met before and living with traditions that were different from my own, not to mention the physical distance and 9.5 hour time change. During my 22-hour journey to Ahmedabad, my thoughts were focused on the upcoming host family experience. Do they have the same rules as my family? Can I wear my pajamas to dinner? Can I confide in them if I’m feeling upset?

Thankfully, my nerves were soon eased as I was greeted by the biggest hug from my host mother at my 4:30am arrival, along with multiple cups of homemade chai. After raising three boys, she was ecstatic that my roommate Kathy and I were her new “daughters.” She immediately instructed us to call her “auntie.” We are greeted every morning with the soothing voice of “children, breakfast is ready!” and exposed to new Indian or Parsi dishes every night. Auntie (and Uncle) have even foregone their prized green chilies for our two-month stay so that the food wouldn’t be too spicy for us (trust me, I love spicy food, but the chilies are next level). We sit around the table each night and talk about our day, just like I would at home. My homestay started to feel like a family.

I’m from Georgia, so I’ve grown up with loads of southern hospitality. I soon realized that the same if not greater level of hospitality is here in India, and it extends outside of the four walls of a home. Around the city, many people use familial, casual terms to converse with each other, such as adding the suffix – bhai or behen to a colleague’s name to mean brother or sister. This tradition creates community in which everyone feels “at home.”

During one of my site visits to a local family home with the microfinance team, the hosts insisted we have something to drink. Even though we respectfully declined their offer several times, they insisted, saying it was their honor to treat us. The father went out and bought us bottles of soft drink, which cost them almost as much as their monthly savings deposit. It was not unusual for the same kindness to be offered to us at other homes we visited. I’ve never felt so welcomed by complete strangers.

This kindness transcends across language barriers. We have learned quite a bit in our Hindi classes, but often it is still difficult to communicate, especially since some local people only speak Gujarati, the state language. Despite this, the warmth and smiles from our connections go beyond words. We laugh with our daily cab driver as we try to communicate in a half-English, half-Hindi mix (he knows we really like peacocks and will always point them out on the road, even stopping the car to let us take pictures sometimes). His laugh is contagious and brightens even the more difficult days. At the microfinance office, we sit in a circle on the floor eating lunch and each day the staff insists on sharing their food with us. They chuckle as I brokenly sputter “Dhanyavaad, mein Hindi sikh rahi hun (thank you, I am learning to speak Hindi)” and flip through my Hindi notes to find a few conversational phrases. We smile and laugh – that is communicative in itself. Although we can’t say much to each other, they want us to feel welcomed and comfortable.

Finally, I’ve also felt fully welcomed by the members of my own DukeEngage cohort. Whether we are trying our best to create sentences in Hindi class with new vocabulary or sharing fun memories during our group meals, I’ve felt completely comfortable to be my authentic, genuine self. None of us even knew each other before this program.

During one of our free weekends, our group began talking about our relationships with religion. Although typically a debated and uncomfortable topic, we went into the night opening up about our experiences and learning from each other. It was an honest, open, and safe conversation despite our diverse religious experiences; it has been one of the most salient moments on this trip for me thus far. I trust each person in this group, and I’m honored that the others felt the same about me. While I hope we all reunite at Duke, I will miss our times together here.

Saath, the NGO we are working with, means “together” in Hindi. Whomever it may be, I feel indebted to those here I’ve been “together” with. Despite the differences from my home, this community radiates warmth and positivity. The traditions and shared communication are the moments that make me feel the most at home, even when I’m far from it.

To be completely honest, I miss my family. I really do. But the openness and hospitality of the people I’ve met here and came along with make me feel part of a family. And for that I am eternally grateful.

 Kathy and I spending time with our host brother, Zaar.