The lessons of India.

I’m now back in the UK having finished my placement, and my time in India. It feels slightly surreal to be home after all these months, and saying goodbye was tougher than I had anticipated, but I think it’s worth reflecting on a couple of things before I close this blog, or get completely absorbed in Christmas here!

In India I was a teaching assistant, but through the experience, I learnt far more than I taught. For the first time in three years I was writing (this blog, my diaries, emails to friends and family) at least as much as I was reading. This was significant as I was constantly reflecting on everything that I did, and deliberately storing up events in my memory so that I could tell people all about it. At university, I had virtually no time for this, and simply read a pile of books and produced an essay or two per week, before moving on to the next assignment. Writing is great because it teaches us to be more articulate (this is why students who have trouble reading a language, or even people who don’t read books in their own language, have such a small vocabulary and sometimes find it harder to put their feelings into words). Not to mention the fact that the more I read over this blog, and my diaries, the more I learn about myself, and my perception of others.

India taught me to try and let go of expectations and prejudices about things that I wasn’t even aware that I held. The experience revealed some of the irrational things that I hold onto without even realising; why do I not want to put new shoes on the table, why am I surprised when students call me by my first name (“Nikita Ma’am”) and no one knows my surname. I enjoyed myself the most in the moments that I was able to let go of these inhibitions, and realise that the time and place we are in can define us as much as our upbringing, our traditions, and our native culture. I was able to overcome a lot of anxiety that I had in the first few months, and adjusted to my surroundings to the extent that even as I sit at home in my old childhood bedroom, I now feel oddly out of place.

Ultimately though, it is the people that make a place, and an experience. I started to feel at home in India, not because I became anywhere near fluent in Hindi, nor that I started eating spicy food for every meal (not at all!) but because I made connections with the people that I lived and worked with. As I became more familiar with them, I minded less that I was so far from home. People have so much to offer, as long as you take that initial step and start your first conversation with them, or tell them something interesting about your family, or where you live.

The world is yours as long as you are open to it, which means trusting people, and trusting yourself. The biggest personal lesson that I’ll take away from this experience is that it’s just not worth getting anxious in anticipation of things which might not even happen, or which will probably turn out to be far less of a problem than you had imagined! Trust that you can adapt to living virtually anywhere, without this underlying fear and nervousness holding you back, making you hide away from people and cut yourself off from the vibrancy of your new environment. Change is not a bad thing, and people are only strangers until you speak to them (obviously not advisable in all cases…).

Looking around at my HAPPY JOURNEY/ Merry Christmas cards made by some of the students at school, against a backdrop of wrapped presents and a lit Christmas tree in my conservatory, I am finally able to start appreciating everything that has happened over the past five months. It’s incredibly overwhelming and this blog could only ever capture a fraction of my entire experience. Even so, I hope that everyone has enjoyed reading it, and that those who were connected with me in India, can look back on parts of it and smile ūüôā

Merry Christmas!




“A is for aam”. The Indian Education System – a few stats (and why I’m here.)

As most of you already know, the entire purpose of my time in India has been to work as a Teaching Assistant as part of the newly-launched Generation UK-India programme, run by the British Council. Consequently, I’ve spent the majority of the last 2.5 months working in a fee-paying school in Greater Noida (there are many, and this area is well known for its numerous new colleges). Most of the teaching assistants on my programme have been placed in what in the UK we would refer to as ‘private’ schools (and confusingly, in the U.S, are called ‘public’ schools). However, many of the schools in India are at least partly government-funded.

The following statistics are taken from Indian School Education System, An Overview (Dec. 2014), a British Council publication, written by Arijit Ghosh and compiled by Sasha Sheppard. It can be accessed at:

The Indian Education system is expanding at a massive rate. Perhaps the most significant piece of legislation in enforcing this has been the 2009 Right to Education Act (effective from April 2010) the Act granted the right to free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of six to fourteen, ‘in a neighbourhood [local] school’. [1]

Between 1999 and 2009, the average spending on education by both rural and urban families in India has quadrupled their expenditure on food. [2] Meanwhile, if we look at India as a whole, the Indian allocation of existing spending on education surpasses that of China, Russia and Brazil, though they are closely followed by Indonesia.[3]

India accounts for almost 18% of the world’s total population, with 1.23 billion people (behind only China’s 1.35 billion). It is also one of the ‘youngest’ countries in the world, with a median age of 27 years [4]. This provides both great scope for opportunity, but also an increasing crisis – what can be done with such a large population, if education is not provided to a decent standard, and so the Indian students of today are not ready for the job market of tomorrow? With population growth showing no sign of slowing, the race continues to educate India’s youth.

I fit into all of this in Greater Noida, which, although technically part of the National Capital Region (NCR) actually belongs to the state of Uttar Pradesh, not Delhi. Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populated state, accounting for 16% of the total Indian population [5]. Uttar Pradesh experienced one of the highest jumps in state literacy rates between 2001 and 2011, with an increase of around 15% [6]. Closely following were the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar and Dadra and Nagar Haveli, which also saw a significant rise in literacy. A gender gap between male and female literacy rates remains, but this gap has declined considerably over the last decade, and is now below 20%. [7]

So where do I fit into this grand-scale?

Ok, so I don’t wake up every work-day morning and think of my role as some sort of educational mission (especially not with the colonial connotations of¬†missionary) nor do I see myself as a symbol of knowledge in a place of ignorance (a.k.a, ‘white saviour complex’). Instead I just like to think that maybe some of the students I help know me as the funny little British lady who tries to make English lessons fun. I’m the ‘teacher ma’am’ not in a saree at school, who clutches her own water-bottle and cartoon animal pencil case tightly as she walks around school, looking slightly dazed.

Yet I am part of something bigger, and so is every slightly botched game of hangman, every failed attempt to teach ‘Old MacDonald had a farm’. I’m trying to show my students (the lucky few whose parents can afford to pay for their education from the age of three or four) something different and exciting, so that they engage with learning, enjoy their education, and want to share this privilege with others. It’s too much to ask that they’ll remember me specifically when they grow up (most of my students are only just five!) or that this experience will directly motivate them to enact change in their communities and society. But learning English will help a lot of my students reach university-level education in India at a good college, in about fifteen years, and there, these kind of ideas might be more accessible to them.

When I was having a bad day (and a pretty disastrous lesson) last week I was struck by a single sentence, uttered in Hindi and initially completely incomprehensible to me. A small boy who was normally called out for speaking in Hindi (not technically permitted in the school) and other bad behaviour, came up to me and asked me something. “Speak in English”, was my curt reply, but I turned to the class teacher to ask what he wanted. The student in question is the first in his family to attend school, and is from a local village. “He wants to know your name”, explained the class teacher. “He says that he wants to know your name so that he can tell his mother about you”.


[1] Indian School Education System, An Overview (2014) pg. 37. For more information see

[2] Ibid, pg. 32. Estimates from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) India.

[3] Ibid. Credit Suisse Emerging Market Consumer Survey (2011).

[4] Ibid, pg. 8.

[5] Ibid. See

[6] Ibid, pg. 9. Data from the Census of India 2011.

[7] Ibid. See

The best and worst of working abroad – some thoughts.

The Good

  1. You’ll actually be motivated to learn another language.¬†Although I tried pretty hard to learn French in school, this has absolutely nothing on the determination that I’ve had, since being in India, to pick up Hindi words and phrases. Necessity is a massively motivating factor. Beyond the “I need to know how to ask for water” type stuff, there’s also the desire to understand a society which can only come with learning the language. For example, I teach in a lot of primary classes and was surprised by the prevalence of the name “Harsh”. In English, this word means severe or strict, like a “harsh punishment”. In Hindi however, Harsh means ‘glad’. Mind = blown.
  2. You *might* get the chance to travel (but see below on this as well).¬†Travelling as a tourist can offer a lot, you’ll see the highlights of a place, you might have some of your travel arrangements sorted by your travel company, and you might be able to organise things through a hotel so that you can skip the queues at major attractions. Travelling whilst working obviously has the advantage of the fact that you’re earning money as you travel, and you don’t feel as though you’re constantly eating up your savings. Plus, travelling whilst working in a country might mean that you have access to more local knowledge, and so you can find places that those on the tourist-trail might miss out on.
  3. You’ll gain a new perspective (and often appreciation) of your ‘normal’ life at home.¬†I don’t ever think that I really appreciated always having access to clean, hot water until I lived here. On a deeper level, I really didn’t understand how much liberty I had to be able to wander around the streets where I live alone,or to walk to the nearest shop unaccompanied to buy food.
  4. You’ll be immersed in a new culture.This is great because it really does show how relative most aspects of human life and society are. Gender roles, educational methods, family structures, these all vary so much by time and place. Things you thought were¬†the¬†norm are actually merely¬†your¬†norm.
  5. You’ll grow so much as a person as a result of the above.Not only do you have to learn to drop the whole “well, in MY country we do this…” attitude, but after coming away from your native country and culture, you’ll be in a much better position to assess your own strengths and weaknesses. Taking myself as an example – since working in India I’ve found that my resourcefulness can be boundless given the right conditions, but I need to work on my overall pessimistic outlook which can often lead me to presume the worst, or to think of problems which never materialise.

The Bad, and sometimes Ugly

  1. The food.So you thought that because you have Indian/Chinese/American food where you come from, it’d be roughly similar to what you’d find when living abroad. Nice springrolls, Chow Mein, Chicken Tikka Masala, maybe the odd Korma, or at least a McDonald’s cheeseburger if all else fails…wrong. The reason that this is a real issue when working vs. travelling/holiday-ing/tourist-ing is that if you’re working in a specific location you may be unlikely to have the time to really seek out food from your own country (probably only found in the nearest large multi-national supermarket or big city). You need to adjust to local food, but sometimes, having no choice over the meals in your work-provided accommodation or work canteen, can feel restrictive.
  2. Accommodation.Again, having work provide accommodation for you can bring its own problems. Work might be able to intervene if there are any problems, but it might not be exactly the kind of place that you were expecting.When I was told that I would be living in a ‘hostel’ with a shop and a gym I expected some sort of walled city, or miniature town in this compound. Instead, there’s really not a lot here, and most residents, including me, have to turn to their laptops for entertainment instead.
  3. The work ethic.This applies especially to Asia. Whereas I’m only contracted to work Mon-Fri, basically everyone else at my school works Saturdays too. Schools functions (PTMs, Sports Day, Annual Day) mean working weekends, even for me. I arrive at work by 7:50am and leave at around 3:15pm. However, that’s another arrangement which is tailor-made for me. The other staff must remain in the school until at least 3:30pm – an hour after school ends. There’s a 20 minute lunch break at school, but most teachers don’t sit down, or even eat during this time. They don’t sit together, or talk, and tend to either supervise their class eating in their classroom, or get on with yet more work. I’ve never seen anything like it.
  4. Adjusting expectations.¬†When you signed up for this job you saw yourself becoming practically fluent in another language (well, near enough fluent, after about 6 months) and you’d have travelled all over the country, beyond the big landmarks. Yet when you arrive, you realise that everyone is going to insist on speaking to you in English, and you don’t have quite as much time or logistical ability to travel beyond the locality in which you’ve been allocated.
  5. Differing cultural norms.¬†Cultural exchange is fun, right? Maybe, until you realise that in this country, people don’t say bye, they just walk away when they feel that your conversation is/ should be over. As for work, you’d better stand every time your boss enters or leaves the room, and ask for permission to sit down. You’re not in Europe anymore, so there’ll be no ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ when someone wants you to do something. You’re welcome.

Somehow though, all of the everyday annoyances are worth it. You empower yourself by overcoming the little challenges that you face everyday, and realise that some of the things that you saw as obstacles a month ago, just aren’t as formidable any more. You will learn some of the language, and see some new sights, even if they aren’t those that your¬†Lonely Planet¬†or¬†Rough Guide recommended. You start building bridges around yourself instead of walls – you’ll change a little bit and so will those around you, as a result of having you there. After all, does it really matter that there’s no toilet paper, when you can use the same word for ‘tomorrow’ as ‘yesterday’, and buy a king-sized meal for under 50p?

So what exactly is the meaning of this blog’s title?

noun: saree, or sari

  1. a garment consisting of a length of cotton or silk elaborately draped around the body, traditionally worn by women from South Asia.

You know that everyone at the school will have a smartphone in their hand?

– My mentor, during our first meeting

She was commenting after catching sight of this little beauty during orientation;

It'll always have a place in my heart...or a museum.
It’ll always have a place in my heart…or a museum.

Say hello to its Indian successor (kindly loaned by work :P);

This one is in colour and everything. Sadly it hates being flipped though, silly touch screen!
This one is in colour and everything. Sadly it hates being flipped though, silly touch screen!

One of the things that has really struck me about India is its technological advancement and its pride in integrating technology into all aspects of everyday life. Or rather, everyday middle and upper class life. In the school that I’m working at, the students each have their own tablet, which can be wirelessly connected to the teacher’s tablet at the front, to make sure that everyone is literally reading from the same page. Most textbooks are stored electronically, “on tab”, which certainly saves paper (another major contrast between UK/ USA and Indian schooling – the school I’m working at uses hardly any physical worksheets, and I’ve only seen two printers for a school which runs from nursery to Class XI/11).

Continue reading

Day #49 – yesterday.

“No King Cobra!” I said firmly, reprimanding a very disappointed group of boys. Luckily they were placated with some plastic Indian Air Force style toy helicopters being sold by a nearby vendour, and although these looked pretty lethal, a few test-flights on the bus home proved that they weren’t capable of much.

Today¬†Yesterday (sorry, I’ve been working on this blog quite slowly for a while…) was my 49th day in India. I accompanied a Class III (aged 8/9?) class on a trip to Delhi where we saw Raj Ghat (memorial to Mahatma Gandhi) and the Red Fort.

Most memorable moments;

  1. [a Class III student speaking about me, talking to their normal class teacher, who doesn’t like junk food] “See, Nikita Ma’am is a good Ma’am, she eats whatever sweets I give her”. I’m always happy to help. Anything for the children really.
  2. [arriving at Raj Ghat, memorial to Gandhi]. Teacher, “Ok everyone, shoes off, out of respect. Just leave your shoes on the bus”. Me: “but there will be a closer place for me to leave my shoes right, like at a security gate or something? It’s just that there’s a car park and a road and stuff to cross…” Teacher, “It’s completely your choice…” *I attempt to leave the bus with my shoes on* Teacher, “Of course, Gandhi-ji is the father of this nation and -” I leave my shoes on the bus, and join the children desperately hoping around moving buses and along concrete walkways, whilst my soles turn to ash.


Seeing a snake-charmer with a king cobra just outside the gates of Raj Ghat. As the man played his pipe for a tourist, the snake rose up out of a little wicker basket, swaying, and revealing a white diamond- patch pattern on its black, funnel-shaped back. I almost walked into the road because I was actually quite mesmerized by the fact that there was a cobra in a public place, basically a tourist attraction. Some of the boys who were walking close to me watched it longingly, and leaned towards it like they did the soft drinks and toy stands.

Verdict; 10/10 Would definitely accompany again, sign me up for the next trip.