The question of “home”
Sarah: To get some basic info out of the way, you can just introduce yourself, what you're studying, and where you're from.
Diksha: Yeah. So right now the question of where you're from in particular is a really confusing one and every time someone asks me, “What’s your hometown? Where are you from?” I really don't know what to write. So to try to make a very long story pretty short, I was born New York City. I lived there until I was six years old. Then, my family moved to Savannah, Georgia. I was there for the second half of third grade and then I went moved back to New York to another city and I was there for half of third grade and then fourth. And then we moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and I was there for fifth and sixth grade—scary years of my life—and then we moved back to another neighborhood in New York for [grades] seven, eight, and nine. So I did a year of high school there and then I moved to St. Augustine, Florida. It's like the northeast near where Jacksonville is… like no one really knows where it is, so it's fine [laughs].
I was there [St. Augustine] for the rest of high school and then was here at Yale. And then my senior year of Yale, my parents moved to Hamden, so literally three miles away from here. And so this year, I live with them in Hamden. So now I don’t really know how to answer this question of where you’re from because I’ve literally lived in way too many places. But I guess of all places, I've lived most in New York, so I’m going to say I’m a New Yorker.
Right now, I'm studying public health [in the five-year BA–BS/MPH degree program] and my concentration is Chronic Disease Epidemiology. And the reason I'm really excited about public health and medicine is because I think one of the most necessary questions to ask and one of the most complex ones is: “Why do some people get more sick than others? But then also, what do we do about it?” So I think that's kind of where all my interests are right now and figuring out the problems. Finding out what the disparities are, why they happen, and then what do we do about it? So, yeah, that's a little bit about me.
S: What was the reason for the many moves for all those years?
D: Yeah, there's like a whole bunch of reasons. This is funny because I went back and read my Common App essay recently because I was helping someone else edit their essay…. I wrote about like, you know, being someone who just moved all the time. And most of it was because of some sort of economic reason. Like my dad trying a new business or getting a new job or something. And then, once when we were in Georgia, my mom, my sister, and I got into a really bad car crash and my mom injured her spine and she couldn't drive anymore and still doesn't drive to this day. So we had to move back to New York where she could feel comfortable just walking places or public transportation because we couldn't do that in Georgia. Yeah, and so I guess that's sort of why we've been pulled back to New York so much but I bet we'll move back there.
S: Wow, can we talk more about your mom and dad? Let’s start off with occupations, and maybe since you've been in multiple areas that seem to be very different—like city versus suburb—maybe how your conceptions of health were shaped by these different places?
D: Yeah. Absolutely. These are really really good questions and I think things that I've been thinking about for a long time because I've realized that a lot of my conception of identity and things that are important to me are shaped directly by my parents and their stories. And I know that American culture can be very individualistic and we're really kind of pressed to think of our own goals and our own identities and sense of self. But I've realized and become more comfortable with the fact that my parents’ experiences—even before my time—just define me in ways that I'm hoping I can grow out of too, but in ways that I hope I can also hold onto.
So my parents are both from the state of Gujarat in India. It's like in the western part of India and it has a border with Pakistan. And neither of them knew each other then. My dad is from a very very rural town, mostly farmland. He lost his father when he was like two years old and had a few siblings but basically saw that there was no opportunity. Like he didn't have his first pair of pants until he was in the tenth grade, didn't have his first pair of shoes, had to wear flip-flops to school until he was in the tenth grade.
So he finished high school and then moved to Kenya. One of his uncles or someone he knew had some sort of business there. So he was just like, “There's nothing for me in this small town.” So he was adventurous enough to take the risk at like 18 or 20 years old. He really likes to talk about that time in his life. So he was like in Kenya for eight years or something and didn't ever end up going to college and then moved to New York.
And then my mom's story. My mom grew up in a very wealthy family. Like her father was a doctor. My mom worked in a cancer hospital as an accountant. She went to law school for a bit but didn't finish. There was just a lot more going for her and she was the oldest of her siblings and in India, like once you're 20, or at that time, once you're like 18 or 20, they get you married off, especially in the 60s or 70s. Maybe now that age has been pushed to 25, but that pressure is still there. But I think she just had a good relationship with her dad. And my mom was a mountain-climber actually.
D: Wild. Yeah, she was the first woman from her state in India to go to Everest. Even today, she just walks really fast and it's a remnant of that time of being the active hiker and climber. And I'm just like, “Mom, slow down,” and she’s just, “Keep up with me, kids!” There's like little news clippings about her and stuff that like she's kept in a file, so I really like looking at those. She was basically a woman far ahead of the times and then ended up coming to Colorado for like a mountain climbing expedition and basically decided like, “You know what, like fuck it. I don't wanna get married. I don't want to go back to India. I'm just gonna stay here.” So she moved to New York City and that's kind of where her life started.
S: How old was she around then?
D: She must have been like 27 or 28, around there. And yeah, obviously a problem that she hadn't gotten married by then because all her sisters were married and stuff and it was just the whole thing. It was stressful, I think, for her, but that's how my parents met.
They were both working in New York City. My dad was working in a convenience store near the World Trade Center and my mom—I don’t know exactly what she was doing at that time—she might have been like babysitting or something to try and get a visa. But they used to work near each other and went to this café-type place and I think my mom heard my dad speaking in Gujarati. And at the time, there weren’t that many, so like her ears went up here all alert like “oh my God!” And then they started talking to each other and fast forward, they move in together for like seven months and then get married—which again, is not traditional for their time and culture. So yeah, that's how that ended up happening.
Their stories of being go-getters or transcending the boundaries that are set for you were so important. For both of them, if they could go back, education would have been the one thing they had followed through with and continued on. So no matter where we've moved, their main priority has always been moving to a neighborhood that is in a good school district or even if it's not, like how to get us to those schools—me and my sister who is a year younger.
So I think their story of, you know, sticking with your family no matter what and not putting your dreams ahead of other people's dreams has just been something that’s shaped me. I know now I've rambled on for so long and I don't remember what the original question was, but yes, keep going with this.
S: Your parents are just so cool! Did you hear all of this consistently while growing up or was it kind of as you grew older, they trusted you with these personal details about their story?
D: So I mean when I was younger, there were the classic stories of, like, “Oh you kids are so spoiled and privileged like when we had to go to school, we would hike up these five hills and like blah blah blah blah.” So I used to get bits and pieces of their upbringing then. I think some of the struggles not conforming or not getting along with their families even—I think those details came a little bit later on.
But I think from a young age, my parents just treated me as an adult. I think sometimes they joke and say I just grew up too quickly. Like at seven or eight years old, they thought of me as a full adult. And I don't know, I guess I've just always been a mature kid, but I think they shared things with me so early on—even things that kids maybe wouldn't be interested in or shouldn't be involved in.
Like my parents used to own a gas station in Georgia. And sometimes they would like take me there on weekends or something because we couldn't stay at home alone. So they would take us with them, and let me like run the cash register and put in all the money and the change and my dad would teach me math that way. So yeah, I think they just entrusted a lot of stuff on me and I was just exposed to more of the world more quickly.
S: Like more of the realities…
D: Yeah, absolutely and when your parents have occupations that are directly kind of tied with a community or something like that. At the gas station, locals just came all the time, right? Either that one person always comes for their morning coffee or that one person always comes midday for like a Little Debbie Snack or a cookie or something or play the lottery.
I think that was one thing I was exposed to so early on is the lottery as signifying the sense of hope or a sense of something more that gets turned into an activity or a hobby that keeps you busy in a sense or distracts your mind from the reasons you're playing a lottery in the first place. So yeah that exposure to just, I don't know, like my parents would always teach me, “Don't play the lottery, spend your money on better things. Don't blow $50 on it.”
But still, part of the way they earned money and fed us was when people bought lottery tickets. It was like this always weird juxtaposition of now, I'm a public health person and I don't want people to sell cigarettes. I don't want people to sell candy or sodas or anything like that that, but that's how my parents earn their living and put us through school.
S: Yeah, that's legitimate and you lived it and you appreciate it.
D: Yeah, so it's complicated. That's what I figured out. It's complicated. You can't just tell people to stop selling cigarettes, you know?
Finding community at Yale
S: Different people I've talked to have had different moments at Yale where they felt especially close to home or times when they felt really distant. Are there times when memories of home felt predominant while you were studying?
D: That's such a good question. And I think a couple of things have kind of come together. One is just a general observation I've realized that the people who've become my best friends… I know Yale’s a place where you're supposed to interact with people who are truly so different from you.
There's this—not a melting pot at all—but the sort of butting of heads of different realities and that despite coming from super different backgrounds, you're supposed to be suitemates with someone and be best friends with them and live a different reality together—almost while leaving your old realities at the door. It's supposed to be a shared experience that's enriched by all these different perspectives. But it's sometimes hard to figure out how you're going to navigate this new experience or shared reality that you're creating together without acknowledging who can participate in what way because of those externalities.
So what I've realized now is that so many of my friends—yes, we come from different cities or your parents do different things—but there's just so many undeniable common threads. Like one is a preoccupation with money, for example. And that's, I think, the line of difference that's easiest to notice at Yale because Yale does a good job of like ethnic and racial diversity and educational background on the surface. It's like, “Okay we can vibe with this… people look different,” you know, but I think money is something that sticks out the most.
Like my first-year suitemates, all of them had gone to private schools that probably cost more than what my parents made in a year. So I think that it was most jarring when our parents met, you know, and I almost felt embarrassed and I feel so ashamed now that that’s how I felt at the time. Because now I feel like the four years at school have given me the comfort in talking about my background and also recognizing its strengths and not its weaknesses—to be able to talk about it comfortably.
But at the time, I was just embarrassed. “Why are my parents not lawyers? Why are my parents not big business people?” One of my suitemates, her parents are like scientists and researchers at Yale and then, when they asked my mom what she does. Like she's a housewife, but she doesn't work anymore. Or what does my dad do? Oh, he like works in a gas station. You know, it's just like that.
Yeah, it was… it was just so jarring that I knew I was in a different place. And then even in terms of things that people do, like go out to dinners to celebrate birthdays at nice restaurants whereas I grew up going out to Taco Bell or Pizza Hut or things that I think some people here look down on, like “ugh, fast food” or whatever, but it’s, no, like that’s how I grew up.
So I think that was kind of hard to navigate, initially, of just saying: “No, I'm okay. I don't want to come because I can't spend that kind of money,” but I think more and more, I found the people who are worried about the same things and who you can kind of make a joke out of [a situation]. Like now I'm in grad school, people are all just like, “We're broke grad students. Where are we going to find the free food?”
It's like you try to infuse humor into this reality where you're not in a position where you can partake in some of the activities that other people at Yale might. But that's kind of a surface level thing of that moment of hitting you when things are different here, but let's see. I was going to make another point.
A “tug-of-war”: independence and family
D: But I'm now forgetting… I kind of forgot our original question?
S: When does your experience here remind you of home?
D: Oh, yeah. And so what I've realized also with the friends I have now is a lot of their home backgrounds and family backgrounds are similar in terms of stressors that strain the relationship between your parents, for example. Or like you just come from similar cultures even. Like I haven't had that many South Asian friends in my closest circle, but you know, people [who] have similar traditions or expectations at home—whether it's, you know, expectations from your family or like the expectation that you're going to go home instead of going to Cancún for spring break.
But I guess it's weird for me now because my parents lived here my senior year and I live with them now this year. But truthfully, after crying October of freshman year after like stalking myself on Facebook and seeing my family pictures, after sobbing then because I missed my parents so much, I never missed them again.
I'm not going to lie to you, Sarah. I actually think Yale and being away from college was so good for me because I have a really tight-knit family, like the four of us are very close. Like my sister, we don't think we're ever gonna see her again.
S: Why is that?
D: She’s in international relations and stuff and she's been like to 13 countries in the past two years or something. We just never know where she is. So I don't think we're going to see her a lot.
But my parents and I are just really close. They lean on me for so much support and they know so much about my life, too, that I think being away from home was the best thing that could have happened to me.
And this is like the balancing act of like general cultural values, where my friends will say, “Oh, don't worry about anybody else. Do your thing!” “Take care of yourself!”
And my mom is like: “Never forget your parents. We will always be here for you. You have to always be here for us. There's plenty of kids in India who sacrifice everything for their parents.” And I'm like, “Okay. I got the message.”
But it's like this tug-of-war sort of thing where I think I would have been too comfortable being on my parents’ side of the equation had I not come to college and realized how great life can be. Even if they're not living with you, I actually think I did not miss home at all while I was here. Like I just really really enjoyed the freedom and making decisions for myself without always thinking about other people.
S: It sounds like you didn't need them.
D: Oh, absolutely. I'm way better on my own. I mean, my parents do my laundry for me now, like, I won't complain but I really like taking the responsibility for myself and… I think I only made real friends at college because at home, the only ways we were allowed to go outside was for crew practice or extracurriculars or like maybe once in a month to see a movie with a friend, but I did not spend time with anyone from school substantially outside of school.
With the moving, I feel like I just never made friends and I think part of the reason was that my parents were my friends and then they didn't really allow me to have other friends, you know in the way that you need to spend time with people. And Yale is the first time ever where like people know stuff about my life beyond just what they can see on the surface and I know things about their life. And I've hung out with them past the hours of 7 PM, you know?
S: And way later. [laughs]
D: Oh, way into the night. But yeah, so I think that was just the biggest blessing I could have had is being away from home even though I love it so much.
S: That sounds like a good place honestly.
D: I don’t know. I felt bad about it first. I felt selfish, because I'm like, “I should be supporting my family like when they go through hard times, too.”
S: It sounds like you did that, though. Like you did support them. It's just you found your place here, too.
D: Yeah. Yeah, now I'm scared, so I feel selfish. I want to go out and explore the world and do things on my own but my mom's like, “We're gonna live together forever.”
S: Do you think you'll have a conversation about that in the future with your parents? Do you see that happening as like a structured thing or is it just going to be things left unsaid but understood, perhaps?
D: Yeah, I guess it'll have to be gradual. Okay, seeing as though my parents are never going to read this transcript, I'll just tell you the real truth about it. It'll just have to be really gradual and sensitive because I've tried to bring it up a little bit in terms of what I'm going to do next year. And they were like, “You should find something in New Haven or New York City somewhere really close by,” and I'm like, “I want to go to Seattle, bye!”
It's difficult because part of me wants to be the rebel. I want to be like my sister who just does her thing and doesn’t wait around for someone's response or permission and part of me has a deep sense of obligation and responsibility.
I don't know who I really am. Like what would Diksha do? And my gut feeling is that I'm going to end up staying near my parents so I can help them out and be a source of support when things are really tough. But then part of me wants to leave so badly and just go somewhere else and yeah bringing that up with my mom would be like self-inflicted harm. [laughs] She's very very opinionated and strict and equally as loving but she’s just intense about—everything. She intensely loves people but then also intensely controls them and grabs onto them and never lets you like leave her stronghold.
S: What about your dad?
D: Oh, he's the chillest man ever. He's so chill. He's just unbelievably chill. He's the one who would rather just retire early, go to a beach or something, chill out, eat some good food. Yeah, like that's kind of his conception of what living means.
And from my mom—even if she wasn't able to do with her life what she originally had envisioned, she sees for me and my sister to be president of the United States or something crazy like that where she very much sees that as a reality and within grasp and is like, “Forget all your friends, focus on your career, do big things and that's the only way you will be able to say that you've lived your life.”
So they have completely conflicting views and approaches [to life].
S: Which approach do you think you have? And also related to that, you're the older sister by a year. Why do you think it's that you have so much more responsibility? Is it the age or are there other reasons? Because your mom was also like the eldest, so I was wondering maybe there's some transference there.
D: Yeah. No, that's definitely a good observation. Yeah, because my mom clearly kind of said “peace!” to her family and just kind of left, right? And my sister, I think she's kind of like a no-nonsense kind of person. I think she's just fiercely independent in the way that my mom was. I don't know what it is. I don't even know if it's necessarily about being older because I'm not much older and my sister is taller than me, she looks older than me. It's fine. We're not going to discuss it. [laughs]
I think it's just also part of my personality. I am very empathetic and no, I just can't see people hurt. I just really can't. I don't care what happens to me, necessarily, but I can't see other people hurt and if I can do something to assuage that in any way, I will a hundred percent do it. Whereas my sister doesn't feel as comfortable approaching emotions and feelings and when they are fights in the family, she doesn't really want to handle that.
Whereas, I'm kind of a mediator. I guess I fall in the middle with my parents in terms of: I definitely like to take life in a laid-back manner in the way that my dad does in terms of, “Don't get into arguments with people,” “Listen to all sides of an argument.”
But then, also I have this sort of drive of my mom of “I want to do something”—maybe not in the way that she envisions it at all but if I'm given the resources and the privilege to do something for people, then I need to make the most of that.
There's a pressure either way, but yeah, I kind of have a tough family home situation, which is also difficult. At school, because you don't know how much someone can relate to that or not—everybody has their own stories. But I think at this point in my life, no matter how much my sort of individualistic sense pulls me, I'm never going to prioritize myself over my parents even if people tell me I should. Maybe I should, but I just I don't see that as an option right now.
I guess so many things are unpredictable to a certain degree, but I think I've always sort of sought out structure in my academic career and professional career just because there's not that much structure in the rest of my life. So if I know that in this next year, I'll be doing some sort of community-based healthcare work on the front lines in an underserved community. I know that's going to happen and then I know I'm going to go to med school for the next four years after that and I know I'll do residency. So there's like some sort of linear track there where I don't necessarily have to worry about that...
You know—this career in health and medicine—is this what I actually wanted for myself or am I doing it because my mom told me I have to do it? Like she tells me, “You have to go to medical school or else you’ve failed life,” and I'm like, “Okay, all right.” And like the biggest insult to me ever, is like if she's mad at me or something or she wants to get on my nerves or whatever, she would just be like, “You know, you're never going to be a doctor,” and you're like, “Who are you to say I never will. Of course I will. I'll show you.”
But then sometimes, it gets muddy because will I be on my deathbed and think, “Oh, wow, I only pursued this life path because of what was what I thought was laid out for me or expected from me?” Maybe if you'd asked me six years ago, I would say, “Oh, I want to be an architect.” I would have loved to do that. But also that profession has its own kind of ups and downs…
I think the mindset I need to have in these next few years as just life gets difficult or uncertain is like a grounding principle of: “Am I doing all that I can to make someone else's life easier?” and I think in that way when you step out of your own kind of issues or struggles and just invest yourself in someone else's, it just puts things into more perspective.
S: Do you know who you want to work with for your Masters of Public Health internship?
D: So I already did my summer internship. And now I'm looking for a job. I will be graduating this May, I'll have my degree. I'll have my MPH… I think I've been in my comfort zone a lot lately. Like I've worked summers in India working on mental health, so that was cool. I've worked like in New York City, in New Haven, but all populations where I could bring something to the table in terms of shared knowledge or cultural knowledge—site-specific, whatever that be. So while it was a challenge, it wasn't totally out of my comfort zone.
This next coming year, what I'm hoping to do is serve in a community that I don't know much about. That would really be a learning curve for me because I think I need that kind of experience going into careers in health and medicine where at some point you're going to be making decisions for people's lives without truly knowing them. So the most experience I can get and even attempting to get to know a life that is not my own.
Right now, I'm looking at different positions with the Indian Health Service, like in New Mexico or South Dakota or the Navajo Nation. So I think that would be an opportunity for showing humility, showing that I don't know anything really, and that what I need to do is focus on learning and asking the right questions and knowing when to not ask questions. Yeah, so that's where I'm hoping to be or maybe a more rural community. Like you said I have lived in cities, I lived in more suburban areas, but I don't really know what it's like at all to live in a rural area. Even though I've worked in like rural India, that's so different from places around here.
S: Can you talk a little bit more about the mental health work you're doing in India?
D: So I initially was really interested in it because I saw a TED talk by someone named Dr. Vikram Patel. And then later that week, I saw him in like TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. I was like, “Oh, fascinating,” and he was talking about redefining mental health care and I was like, “Okay, I can get on board with this. This is so cool!” So I emailed him. I was like, “It's just a shot in the dark, but whatever, because I wanted to ask mostly because I'm interested in this, what should I do with this summer?”
And lo and behold, this man answered in like nine minutes [laughs] like no wonder you're so successful. So I was like, “Damn, this all came from running on a treadmill watching a TED talk,” and then he was like, “Yeah, go and intern in my organization in India.” and I'm like, “Oh, great, okay. See you there! Bye!”
So yeah, Yale gave me money to go do that. So I was in a place called Goa in India for one summer working at kind of a mental health research organization. Their whole thing is, “We know that there aren't enough mental health professionals in India, let alone the stigma that people face in the first place.”
Even recognizing mental illness—like figuring out what it is, what to call it, to even seek out professional care—like all that is a major barrier, but also once people get to that place past the other barriers, there's just not enough personnel. There's one psychiatrist for three billion population, which is insane. And even then, only in like urban settings like Delhi and Mumbai, so given that the infrastructure isn’t here, what do you do when there's still plenty of people who need care even for things like mild depression and anxiety that could get worse if not worked out sooner.
So they test out the model of having lay mental health workers. So like normal people, either like someone who's an elder respected in a community or someone who's a schoolteacher or counselor, or even a young person in a neighborhood—and how do you train those people particularly to deliver counseling or problem-solving techniques? You know different types of community-based counseling. So that's what they do.
They run trials on different programs where you employ these people and see: “Does it have an effect on lowering rates of different types of mental health disorders?” And if you teach them to recognize symptoms of schizophrenia or psychosis, and have that direct line to refer them to that one psychiatrist who lives in the whole structure, can you improve services that way?
So I was fascinated by that and so I went and worked there over a summer on like an adolescent mental health project and that was awesome because they were people close to my age. I was able to do different focus group discussions and visit schools and help figure out the protocol for this program of training guidance counselors to give mental health counseling.
And then the summer after that, I went to a rural place in Gujarat, India, which is where my parents are from and I speak Gujarati. So I was able to do research there for my thesis as well in a place where this kind of program was being implemented and scaled up. So I interviewed and shadowed a whole bunch of community health workers and volunteers and really tried to get a sense of what people think of when they think of, you know, mental illness. it was really awesome and eye-opening and that's an area that I might want to work with in the future. But what I've realized essentially to have credibility in the field of global health, you need those letters, you need that PhD or that MD, so I need to go do that.
S: Are there particular moments you have from those two summers that you're proud of or stick out in your memory?
D: Yeah, there're definitely moments where I was proud and also moments I’m not so proud of. Yeah, so one. I remember when I was in Gujarat. It was just really awesome to feel so accepted in the place that wasn't even my own.
I didn't even have to try. Almost just by essence of being Gujarati and speaking Gujarati, people invited me into their literal homes all the time for lunch. Even people who were on the team shared with me their own struggles and things that they were going through. So I think that was like a moment where I was proud of the way in which I was able to carry myself and despite being in a new environment, being open or signaling to people that I was open to learning, listening, and treating people like family. And I got treated like family in return. Yeah, so that's why I just realized: “Wow, I'm a people person. I like talking to people and connecting with them.”
It was just incredible. People even invited me to stay over with them, and like, “Don’t travel, it's getting later. You could stay with us,” and I was like, “Wow, this is nice!” Yeah, and it was a different environment where I had to wear clothes that are so different from what I normally wear, tie my hair up all the time. Like, you know, it was just a different way of living and it was a rural area. There was no Internet. It was really hot all the time. It got over 100 degrees, like it was not good. I was used to eating all these kinds of things where there's so many things we take for granted, but I was just… I was just surprised and also very glad that I was able to adjust to a setting and not demand but rather just adapt and work with what I had without making people feel like you're uncomfortable. You know, like when someone comes to your place and you know that you have fewer resources than they do, like you try to give your all to make that person comfortable.
But I think there's a special art of making the person in front of you comfortable with your being uncomfortable always. I don't know that's like an abstract way to put it but you know if you get invited to someone's home and they know that you come from a background where you have more, how do you assuage their kind of anxieties about making you feel welcome and comfortable and establishing, “No, treat me as one of your family members. I don't need the special filtered water. Don't go out of your way to do things for me in a way that you wouldn't for like someone in your home.” So how do you do that? Without making a big deal out of it as well? Right? While still respecting that they think of you as a guest in that moment. Yeah, and they want to do things for you, but knowing the boundary between that and placing an undue burden on people.
Yeah, that was a long way saying that but that's something I learned.
S: Yeah, I think a lot of people struggle with that when they’re doing Global Health projects or anything that has to do with going to a different country.
D: Yeah, and it's like hard to know what to say. But I think also growing up in Gujarati household and culture, I had a better sense of what was within acceptable boundaries. So yeah, so that was quite the experience and I would totally move to India.
S: Oh, really?
D: Yeah, like maybe once I'm like 40-ish and like have the MD and have work experience, I would absolutely love to just move there.
S: Wow, the circular pattern or the fact that you're going back to where your parents left…
D: Yeah, they would be like, “What are you doing? Like, what are you doing? We came to this country.”
School before Yale
S: So there was a point where you talked about how you often went to live in school districts that had good schools and then there were ways that your parent made things happen so that you are able to go to schools that were maybe a little farther away…
So I was just interested in like early schooling experiences. And yeah, like for example, I would bus to my high school that was like really far away and then like the school bus would break down on the freeway or like we never get picked up at all.
So I'm like, yeah, everyone's school experiences are very different including transportation and the quality of the schooling and who was at the school….
D: Yeah, absolutely. I was just thinking about this after coming from teaching this fourth grade class today where the whole class identifies as a minority or by ethnicity or like socio-economic background in some way and it just made me think of kind of a stark contrast between some of the schooling that I had like when I was in New York City. There was so much more diversity.
I went to a special kind of gifted program sort of thing in middle school, but it wasn't close to me at all. So that was a time where I had a newfound independence because my parents were working at the time. My dad was living in Florida and we were in New York. And that's when I had to take the public bus to school, you know, like in ways that I don't know... Some of my friends would be like, “My parents would never let me take the bus somewhere in seventh grade.” I was like, “Yeah, I was fine.”
It was so whatever, but I'd like take two buses to school because it was kind of out of my district and the school bus wouldn't pick you up. But that's the kind of thing where like no one saw that as an inconvenience. That’s something you gotta do, you know.
But such a contrast between that [riding the public bus to school] and like all my white friends in like Pennsylvania, you know. It was different and when I was in elementary school in New York, I could take Indian food to class or to lunch.
But then after I moved to Pennsylvania, I was like, “Oh my God, like everybody's going to say it smells weird or whatever.” So I like started buying school lunch then and so it's just like. I don't know now. I'm much more excited about the prospect of having more friends who are South Asian just from the fact of you know, knowing what's up—like having similar experiences not just because of the culture that you are living in but also other people's reactions to the way you present yourself or that you look.
I would say my dad, especially, is very resourceful. Even though he never went to college…. Ever since we were young, he's had binders for me and my sister with all the awards that we've gotten or certificates. When we moved to Florida, he was trying to get us into like an IB program, but one of the deadlines had passed, so it basically looks like we were not going to get into this program. We're just going to go to the local high school.
But he literally took those binders, he marched into like the guidance counselor office or whatever at this IB program, and he was like, “Look, you're going to let my girls into this program, like they're going to be here.”
He finessed that so hard and part of it, I think, comes from the way my parents grew up in India. There's so many people that if you don't push for yourself, you're always gonna get left behind. Whereas, I think in America, there's a little bit of respectability politics and you have to be civil and have to wait your turn in line.
Like rules are rules whereas my parents are like: “Yeah, no. Fuck that.” Like rules are not really rules. They're just guidelines. So I think I've kind of learned that from them more and more now of, sometimes you just gotta stick up for what you think you deserve and believe in, so I’m very grateful. Yeah, so they've always stuck their foot down.
I think school was just my favorite time ever. It was where I found what I was good at, where I found praise and comfort and room to grow and explore and no one told me that I couldn't do something.
S: What do you think you are good at like intellectually? What are your strengths? It sounds like an interview question. [laughs] Oh, I have a question for you. Okay. So what do you think are your strengths when you see yourself? And what do you think other people perceive to be yours?
D: Oh my gosh. I should ask you this question back.
S: It's really interesting how people answer this.
D: Oh, it's so fascinating. Okay, well. One strength I think people see is they think I'm put together or that I’m just like I'm on top of my shit. I don't know, maybe I give off that impression but it's absolutely not true in ways that like yes, everybody procrastinates. We have our fair share, but I truly… I don't know what it is, but I'm kind of addicted to working under pressure.
I like to take my time with things. I'm very slow. But that means that they get pushed to the last minute or even if I'm thinking about something for a while, it doesn't happen until like three hours before the deadline. So actually that's absolutely untrue. I do not have my shit together. I'm always like flailing around on the inside like, “Oh my God, I have to do this,” but I guess on the outside I just look calm. Yeah, so that's a misconception. I don't think that's my strength at all. I'm a lot more all over the place than I let on.
But something I do think is my strength and it's something I've been insecure about is that I don't necessarily see myself being an ultra expert in something. Like there's a bunch of people at the school who are like really good at that one thing and you can kind of pinpoint them as that person. Like: “Oh that person's really good at gymnastics. Oh, that person's really good at violin or like wow, math whiz who literally wrote his own math textbook!” True story, had a friend. I literally found his book in the library.
I don't think I have this one thing that I'm really good at. I like to dabble in all kinds of history and I like politics and I like science and podcasts. I listen to 50 podcasts at once. So I just really like figuring out how people think. Like that's the reason I like different classes.
Like I even enjoy physics because every discipline is trying to answer some question about the world, right? What are those questions? What do they think is important to answer or worthwhile answering? But not just that. How do they even go about answering? What's the methodology? What are the important details that they pick out? What's the process? So I just like comparing different disciplines and then figuring out, “Okay, well that makes sense why people don't see eye-to-eye because they're coming at a problem from different foundations and different assumptions.” So I like to think of myself at the middle. I just I hope that my career leads me in that path to where I can be that person kind of translating between the research scientists and the practitioners and the anthropologists.
S: Have you ever a class in a department here that changed how you thought about things?
D: For me, I think that was anthropology, which is why I decided to major in it. So I'm definitely not a traditional pre-med and I kind of jumped all over but after I think it's the depth with which it approaches the human experience and connections that people have in their embedded context.
And kind of drawing from very individual experiences, common threads that expand across entire groups of people. I think that's been fascinating but my question always is then, okay, we know in-depth about lived experiences and themes that emerge from and why people behave the way they do in the context of the values and expectations of a culture, for example…
And this isn't just different cultures that we’re not familiar with but even something like Wall Street. I read like a study that an anthropologist did on the culture of Wall Street and the ways that people interact with each other. So in terms of having low job security, for example, like people think of themselves as replaceable and disposable—you never know when you won't be needed. Someone else can take your place and there's that sense of hyper-competitiveness in the day-to-day interactions that people have. How something that's on that individual lived-experience level then trickles up to the full culture of Wall Street.
For example, how firms are okay with making decisions of laying off people or advise a business that’s their client, “Okay, shut down this factory.” Because this sentiment or value of always keeping up with your skills because you never know when you'll need to beat the other person or because you're so disposable that it's okay to think of everyone else is disposable the same way.
That’s the way of thinking where I'm like, “Okay, like this is getting somewhere.” Yeah, understanding things but on the flip side of that is, “Well, we know that. What are we going to do about it?” Now, some anthropologists are not really on the implementation side or like the applied side.
S: Yeah, so and that's something you like. Yeah, you like both theory and implementation.
D: So it's like we know this, that's fascinating. Now we know, but also what do we do about this to correct inequities?
S: What’s the book called?
D: It’s called Liquidated. Like “liquidated” as in being kind of this term to suggest disposability, but it's by an anthropologist named Karen Ho.
S: I'll definitely read it.
D: She went to Princeton and was like fascinated by people who were going into finance and consulting, all that kind of stuff and was like, “I want to know more about this,” and did it herself. She went to Wall Street and interviewed people, observed things, wrote notes—truly lived experiences that translated into a book.
S: What’s a creative project you had? You mentioned you like art and art history. Yeah, and you probably did other stuff too that are less strictly academic.
D: I think one thing that’s been a common thread of my life and I guess it's sort of a creative project is interior design. So it's kind of weird because I grew up not watching cartoons or like Disney Channel stuff. I watched HGTV (The Home and Garden Television) religiously, kind of like Food Network but like the home version of it.
I religiously watched interior design shows like House Hunters like property remodeling shows and stuff like that. I had this weird fascination with real estate and everything like architecture, home design-related. I remember when we were younger just for fun, sometimes we would drive into like new neighborhoods where they had a model home where people would go to like buy homes. We would just go see model homes for fun because I just loved doing that like as a ten-year-old. Walking through the house looking at all the floor plans and I would ask the real estate agent all these questions of like, “What's the price per square foot? Is it granite?” or “What's the heating system like?” and they would just be like, “Back off kid, like what are you doing?” And some of them would just be fascinated or surprised that someone this small… I like learned it from all these shows, obviously.
I used to have like a notebook of my dream city project where I have this vision that I would win the lottery someday and I would open up a new city in India and like invite people to live there who didn't have enough money to live on their own or had been abandoned by their kids—like elderly people. It was sort of like a socialist dream, but I would drop the floor plans and the landscaping, all that kind of stuff. I had this huge book of just drawing out plans for this entire city.
Even to this day, I just love really pretty, functional things. I like low-key still have a dream of being an interior designer, but I think I've brought that to life through all my suites and rooms at Yale. Like I go hardcore.
S: I think YDN [Yale Daily News] TV has series that highlight beautiful suites.
D: Mine should have been in it all four years. I had a beautiful suite. I used to watch a show called Design on a Dime because like renovating is a lot of money. Yeah, but this was like, “How do you repurpose things?” And also that’s why my suites were designs on a dime.
S: Tell me about tell me about your favorite podcast at the moment.
D: Oh, oh my god. This is actually arguably a harder question because I'm obsessed with all, right? I'll just like list three big ones and then just go into one.
So I love this one called Hidden Brain. It’s basically hosted by a psychologist who goes through different topics and presents the research behind it too. It just spans everything. There’s one episode about the opioid epidemic, this one about when did marriages become so hard, and like kind of going and analyzing the historical and kind of ecological and psychological reasons behind that.
Then I like one by Malcolm Gladwell called Revisionist History and he like goes back to different historical events or current events or something that we thought we knew about and like kind of digs deeper into the story and presents kind of a shocking view. He does it from like a critical race kind of avenue, like yeah, it's hard to describe because he's like a historian at heart. But one thing I remember, he did this podcast on like privilege and stuff.
He was talking about this singular golf course in California and how it was just absolutely beautiful, well-manicured, and they never pay taxes because of how historical it was. How it came about how it’s treated as public land, how it went through courts, and then how people with power sort of maneuvered that. So that contrast from this amazing beautiful golf course and country club to you walk a couple blocks down, and people don't even have safe parks to live in.
And like he kind of radically presents this idea of you should open up that golf course. It's public space technically that you're not paying taxes on it. It should be opened up to the entire community even on a Sunday or something. So he goes into the history of how these structural barriers came about. It’s just fascinating, like I don't even know how to explain it.
But the third one that I'm currently obsessed with is called How I Built This and this guy basically interviews entrepreneurs. So people who did like Stitch Fix, Instagram, Whole Foods, like the whole gamut. They share their story of how they started this and it's so hopeful, you know, because I don't think of myself as a risk-taker at all. I don't know, I kind of like when things are comfortable sometimes but these are entrepreneurs who legit threw the rest of their lives away for two years and struggled. People who when they were 40 had a new idea and totally went off on a limb into something else.
So I really like listening to their stories so I can live vicariously through them. And maybe, who knows, one day that'll be me.