As William Gansa spends his last weeks in Pacific Palisades before entering Princeton University as a freshman, he looks back at his recently completed bridge year in India.
Last September, after graduating from Crossroads High School, Gansa boarded a plane to Varanasi, a town in Northern India that is considered the spiritual capital of that country. It is also holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism.
Gansa’s life radically changed after leaving an affluent, coastal community in Los Angeles and arriving in India to live in an ancient town steeped in religion and tradition.
“It was normal to see people carrying a dead body out to be burned and then have the ashes scattered in the Ganges River,” says Gansa, who was placed with an Indian family who spoke English.
“English is what the rich speak,” said Gansa, who is also fluent in Spanish and had the choice of living in Peru, China, Brazil or Senegal through Princeton’s Bridge Year Program. He chose India because, “I wanted a really different culture,” and he wanted to learn Hindi.
“Hindi’s the common language and was really challenging to learn,” Gansa says. “The alphabet and the grammar are really different. In Hindi the verb is always at the end of the sentence.”
Placed at a literacy center that was a 30-minute bike ride away, Gansa set up computer programs and went to different schools to tutor English and get the students interested in the library.
He kept a blog and wrote about his experiences learning Hindi. “Each day I go on a rollercoaster ride of emotions—sad, happy, frustrated, jubilant, angry—as I struggle with Hindi and complete my second week at my worksite. My days are long and I do my best to be present for every second of them. But initially, working at the World Literacy Center was an exercise in extreme frustration.
“The organization serves a largely Hindi-speaking community and many employees don’t speak a word of English. Thus, there were very few things I was capable of doing,” Gansa wrote. “Even the tutoring didn’t go so well; I was demoted from a group of 16-year-olds because my Hindi was too bad to teach them and I struggled to convey even basic concepts to younger students.”
Later he wrote, “The first few times, several women I had seen around the office dictated to me the family that the specific child came from, his or her grades, his or her likes and dislikes, a particularly good moment from the last year, and hopes for the future. It was then my job to work it into an intelligible paragraph.
“One day, which will remain in my memory for a long, long time, I sat down with Mamta-ji, the second in command, to perform the same task. She spoke in English and I prompted her with simple questions in Hindi. About three hours later, I realized that at some point the conversation had simply moved into Hindi, and I hadn’t even noticed. Mamta-ji was quite impressed and I was quite shocked. Shitanshu-ji came over to talk to us and I understood when Mamta-ji told him what had happened in Hindi.”
Gansa observed other cultural differences, such as complete respect for elders. “There is no back talking,” he says. “There is a word for each family member; mami is the word for the maternal aunt, while cachi is the word for the paternal younger aunt and tayi is the word for the paternal elder aunt. People live with their extended family in the same complex. Indians were shocked that my grandma lives in New York City, 3,000 miles from my parents.”
Gansa also observed his Hindu host family’s dietary vegetarianism. Meat was only available in the Muslim section of the city, and then only chicken was allowed. On his several trips to the different sights around India, like the Taj Mahal, Gansa admits that he enjoyed being able to eat some chicken.
In June, Gansa returned to the Palisades with the idea of enrolling in the Peace Corps after finishing college.
“Ten years from now I think I will remember the relationships I built in my home stay and at my work, but hopefully I won’t have to remember because I plan to go back to India,” Gansa says. “It definitely changed the way I look at the world. It’s a cliché to say that I’m re-examining the things I took for granted before, but I have a newfound appreciation for 24-hour electricity and Western toilets, to say the least.”
Gansa is the son of Alex Gansa, creator and executive producer of “Homeland,” and singer Lauren White.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.