Arriving in India was unlike any other experience I have had in my lifetime. After a dizzying cab ride that saw us momentarily lost in the streets of New Delhi, we arrived at our accommodations and began to settle in. The days prior to our arrival in Dharamsala saw us travel from Delhi to Amritsar to spend time at the Golden Temple, from there we made the drive to Dharamsala.
In Dharamsala I have spent now two days at my placement with Students For a Free Tibet. An event that was in the process of being organized before we arrived was a benefit concert to support disaster relief work and provide aid to those affected by the earthquake in Nepal. Mackenzie and I were tasked with the job of collecting donations and informing the public of the concert that was to take place in the evening. Throughout the day I spoke with many people, Indian, Tibetan, European about the possibility of them attending our event or contributing a small donation, three interactions stood apart from the rest.
The first involved a family of three from Punjab who came to Dharamsala to visit the temple of the Dalai Lama, Mackenzie and I spent some time talking with them and we shared our experience of visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar just two days prior, they shared with us that they are planning to go in the near future. As the conversation was winding down they asked for a “selfie” and requested that I hold their infant daughter for the picture, I have never been asked to hold a strangers child before but nonetheless I obliged.
The second experience involved a youth soccer team visiting from Northern India, all the boys donated there own money to the cause and were very friendly, shaking my hand as they past, as most of the group had already passed by me, one asked for a picture, then all at once 25 smiling faces came running back and all posed for the picture.
The third experience involved a boy who looked to be about seventeen or eighteen, also visiting from Punjab, after saying hello and sharing information about our event he asked if I would mind posing for a picture, while turning to face the camera he reached down and held my hand. At first I was taken aback as I had not been expecting it but I held his hand in return. I have since learned it is a common practice in India for friends to hold each other’s hand. Someone I had just met was offering me this sign of friendship.
During our preparation for our time in India our class discussed power, privilege and authenticity. We had also discussed the possibility of being photographed. I had prepared myself to have my picture taken but I had done so in a negative way, I thought it would be odd of someone to take my picture, and even more odd to have them get in the picture with me. Having time to reflect on the day’s events and writing about them here has allowed me to think deeply on the topic. My skin colour may have played a role in the photographs but for me it goes so much deeper than that. The individuals I had the pleasure of interacting with all shared parts of their time, their day, and their story with me, we were able to share time together, regardless of how small. As international volunteers isn’t that something we strive for? To build these connections across cultures, to have conversation, to share, to experience life together?
As a class we have been critical of international volunteer programs and identified how they can perpetuate harm. Being photographed because we were white was one of those criticisms. But now that I have had time to reflect and experience the situation first hand, the connections I felt today with people I had not met before were genuine, they were real, and I wont likely forget them. Today I did not feel like I was photographed because I was white, I feel as was photographed because I met new people who were interested in what I was doing and why. I feel like I was photographed because we shared time together and in the case of the third situation I discussed earlier, I feel like I was photographed because I made a new friend.