I hugged each member of my family so tightly we couldn’t breathe, sobbing anew with each embrace. None of us could believe this day had actually come. In a few hours I would again board a plane, this time taking me back to my small, upstate New York town. I was struck by the irony that I had cried almost this hard only a few months ago upon learning that my summer would be spent in India.
“India? No way! It has to be a mistake!” were my exact words when my brain processed what my eyes read.
Dear Julie, April 12, 1982
Congratulations! You have been selected to represent the United States as a summer exchange student through the American Field Service (AFS). You will depart from: C.W. Post Campus, Long Island, New York , on: June 23rd for your host country : INDIA, and return on: August 26th. Please read the enclosed materials thoroughly…..
The rest of the letter was lost in a blur of tears. India? I had requested France! Sweden was my second choice, and Spain a comfortable third. But India? My only knowledge of this country was from another AFS returnee whose experience there was utterly miserable. My mind raced--the lengthy application process, months of waiting, all of it had led to this?
Now here I stood at summer’s end, barely able to withstand these good-byes, barely able to comprehend how utterly in love I had fallen with both the people and the beautiful country of India. I felt much older than my seventeen years at this moment.
Far from the capital of New Delhi, my host family resided in the more southern city of Hyderabad, in the state of Andhra Pradesh. In a nation where eighty percent of the population practicing the Hindu religion, the Corea family was among the approximately two percent minorty who were… Christian! Henri, the father, was like a grandfather to me. Aruni, his daughter, was my host mother, and her sister Ilona, quickly became my aunt, placing treats under my pillow during the day that I found at nighttime. Their beloved Rhodesian Ridgeback, Tikiri was by my side constantly. He especially appreciated my removing ticks from between his toes each afternoon.
Homesickness was my best friend for the first week or so, but in time I adjusted fairly well. Although terrified inside, I walked into my classroom on a school campus double the size of my entire hometown. Six-thousand girls, and not only was I the only American, I was the one and only caucasion. Seated next to a wonderful girl --Pushpika Rajapaska-I made a lifelong friend. In college I received a letter from her, pleading for help. Happy to comply, one of my friends (now my husband!) wrote her a letter, and she was able to avoid an arranged marriage by convincing her family that the love of her life was in the United States!
I became accustomed to being stared at every time I set foot out of the house, realizing quickly people weren’t being rude, I was simply a curiosity. My light skin, short hair, and clothing were all strange to them.
Their foods were strange to me! Most, I came to enjoy, but never adapted to the various flavors of curries, a staple of the country, along with rice. Each new person I met was sure that THEY had the one recipe I would just love!
I did love the afternoon tropical rain showers. They descended every afternoon out of a gorgeous blue sky, with such amazing force, lasting about twenty minutes, just long enough to nourish the exotic foliage that surrounded me.
Henri loved to take me to the sea, where we “bathed”. We were in the Indian Ocean, but they called it the “sea” and I came to call it that too. Our excursions became a weekly event. Swimming in the ocean, bathing in the sea, who cared what it was called? When we arrived home, it was time to “sit for tea“. We enjoyed hot tea and cookies or pastries, something sweet to tide us over until dinner.
This wonderful family--this wonderful country--how could I leave? We all knew that this would be the last time we would see one another in this lifetime. How incredibly amazing the summer had been. How amazing that God placed in on an Indian family’s heart to care for a young American girl for Him, until He brought me safely back home.
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