Rosie: Teaching Assistant in Jammu, India

Rosie spent 5 months as a teaching assistant in Jammu, the capital city of Jammu and Kashmir. 

Why did you decide to apply to work in India?

Sitting in my university library late one night in my final year, I stumbled across an advert for British Council’s Generation UK-India scheme, a brand new programme that aimed to encourage British students and graduates to experience life in India working as a teaching assistant. I had never been away for home for a long amount of time before or even been to India or Asia before. I knew little about the country or culture other than what I had gleaned from a second-year module on Indian independence taken as part of my History degree. I racked my brain for other associations and came up with Bollywood films, spicy Indian food, and crazy driving. As I contemplated the application form, the advice of my two older brothers who had both gone through the process of finding employment after graduation, came into my mind: “say yes to every opportunity”. There’s no harm in filling in the form, I thought, and quickly answered the application questions, detailing my motivations for wanting to live and work in India, my experience of teaching and my ability to overcome such difficulties as homesickness and adjusting to a new culture. Soon after, I found myself invited to an assessment centre, which consisted of a short group activity and an interview with two staff from British Council. With that over, I sunk back into my university life and put all things India out of my mind. 

It was during the Easter break of my final year that I opened my emails to find one from Generation UK-India, informing me that I had been successful in my application and had been offered a place to live and work in India for 5 months. At that stage, I did not know where in the sub-continent of India I would be placed or who I would be placed with. Although I felt nervous every time I imagined myself living in India, I knew that if I turned it down I would spend the rest of my life wondering what would have happened if I had gone. I felt that I really and truly had no choice but to accept. This gave me a few short months to finish my degree, graduate with my friends and manically pack before leaving the UK in August 2015 to fly to Delhi for a three-day induction before travelling on to the city I would call home for the next 5 months.

What was it like living and working in India?

I was placed in the city of Jammu in the northern-most state of Jammu and Kashmir, with a girl who lived half an hour away from me in the UK (it’s a small world after all). The school we both worked at was a private school catering for children aged 3 to 18. We were mostly involved in teaching English language and literature, although the school was happy for us to use our own interests and knowledge to teach other subjects as we desired. We also designed activities based around the theme of British culture and even managed to pull off a Nativity performance in December. This caused much confusion among the students who struggled to see how the birth of Jesus was related to Santa Claus (another memorable moment was trying to explain why Halloween is celebrated). Working at the school could be hugely rewarding and very fun, but also extremely challenging. We were often asked to teach classes of 30-plus children on our own at the last minute with no preparation, and constantly battled the language barrier that existed between us and the students. While most students, especially the older ones, did speak English, we found they often struggled to understand our accents and weren’t used to the vocabulary we used. Much like American English, Indian English exists in its own right with its own accent and vocabulary, and we sometimes came across phrases that left us completely baffled, such as “they are eating my brain” - used to describe when someone is nagging you about something! Overall though, my teaching experience was very positive, the children were (mostly) very well-behaved and myself and my British flatmate were very well looked after. 

What were some challenges you faced in India?

We also found living in Jammu challenging at times, but I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we left India in December feeling glad that we had been placed in perhaps one of the least touristy cities in the country. We shared an apartment that was owned by our host-parents, the principal of the school and his wife, who worked as senior coordinator at the same school. Their apartment was directly below ours, and our evening ritual of a cup of chai together in their apartment became firmly established within the first week of us living there. It soon became one of our favourite parts of the day. Our apartment was basic: no way of contacting home (as we had no internet & no phone signal for international phones), no running hot water, a bucket rather than a shower, and intermittent electricity! The city was also basic in terms of infrastructure - no real waste disposal system, no postal system and a phone network that was frequently shut off - but had pretty much everything you could want in terms of amenities - supermarkets, medical stores, clothes stores selling both Indian and Western clothes and restaurants. Walking down the street could be an experience however, and not just because of the crazy traffic! As I mentioned, there were literally no other tourists in Jammu and we did not see a single other Westerner during all our time there. This meant that you could be treated as a bit of a celebrity in the city, something that I thought I would get used to, but never did. The celeb treatment included being asked for autographs, having people come up and start a conversation with you and having people pose for photos with you (or just take them of you, thinking you wouldn’t notice.) However, I can honestly say that it was the most character-building experience of my life and really demonstrated to me how much I am capable of and how independent and resilient I can be. I would not have had this experience had I been placed in a city that was more used to seeing Westerners. Since returning home, I have been asked by several friends how I “got through” the experience. There really is no secret, other than the ability to laugh in the face of stressful or annoying situations - whether its feeling homesick, being discreetly followed around the supermarket by curious onlookers or being unable to boil the kettle to get hot water for your shower as there is no power!

What were some of the highlights of living in India?

As well as challenges, there were many, many highlights, and I will only list a few here so as not to bore you too much. Seeing the world’s most famous monument to love, the Taj Mahal, at dawn; visiting the Golden Temple at night; swimming off a boat in the warm Arabian sea and eating fresh sea food on the beaches in Goa; mastering wearing a sari; being able to eat spicy food without our eyes watering; zooming around cities in rickshaws, travelling on sleeper trains (and being befriended by various Indian families on the way!), successfully beating down taxi drivers’ prices - I could go on! I remember being at Heathrow in August 2015, about to get on my one-way flight to Delhi and my future flatmate’s parents telling us we would be regaling our grandchildren with stories of our experiences in India. I can honestly say that I will remember these things and more for the rest of my life, and while every day may not have been easy, in some ways that made the experience more worthwhile. I learnt so much about myself and my ability to cope in difficult situations. The biggest highlight for me was definitely successfully adapting to a completely different way of life and fitting in to a culture with different norms and values to your own. By the time we left, we felt at ease navigating around cities on our own and had our own circle of friends in Jammu.

HOW HAS LIVING AND WORKING IN INDIA IMPACTED YOU?

Since returning to the UK, I have found the experience has had a lasting impact on me, both professionally and personally. I still find myself marvelling at the availability of wifi in my house or the ease of public transport in the UK! Professionally, as someone interested in a career in international development it is hugely beneficial to have overseas experience in developing countries, and I have been told several times in interviews that my time in India makes my CV stand out. It is also an excellent example of key criteria that employers look for in candidates, such as flexibility, adaptability, independence and leadership. Aside from this, I have an entirely new circle of friends that I am still in close contact with. 

DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR OTHER YOUNG PEOPLE LOOKING TO GO ABROAD?

If I were to give advice to other students or graduates considering an overseas placement, it would be to not deliberate too much about whether to do it or not - the only way to find out is to go! You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain, whether this is new skills, added employability, new friends or new experiences. Either way, if your experience is anything like mine, it will have a deep and lasting impact on you and will be something you can look back on with pride. 

Learn more about the Britsih Council Generation UK India programme, and find out how you could study, work, or intern in India.