Overall my experience in India so far has been a positive one. I am excited to see what the next couple weeks hold as we all dive more heavily into our placements. For my placement, I am working with an NGO called Tong-Len. A Tibetan monk started the organization to give back to the Indian community by helping provide education and healthcare options for people living in a slum settlement called Charan Khad. My task is to work within the slum at the tent schools that have been started so that children that cannot afford to attend publicly funded schools can receive an education.
I have only been at my placement for a day and half so far but it has been personally challenging and emotionally taxing for me. The poverty in the slum is like nothing I have witnessed before and being so directly immersed in it has opened up a lot of sensitive questions I have been forced to ask myself, many of which draw on the concepts of power and privilege we have talked so much about.
On our second day there, we returned to the slum after going for lunch to find that the school was closed and the teacher was nowhere to be found. We met an elderly woman who invited us to her home while we waited for the teacher to come back. She made space for us to sit on her bed’s cardboard mattress, made us chai and sent her grandson to buy us cookies. She began talking to us through our translator and told us about her life. She began crying as she approached the more sensitive topics and outlined her current struggles and how she wasn’t prepared to take them on.
Her story was so moving and I felt so thankful for the genuine cross-cultural interaction we had shared. As I was leaving I was reminded of my power and privilege. I was compelled to help this woman after she had given me so much fulfillment by sharing this glimpse into her life and treating me with such respect. My privilege as a white student puts me in a position where I have extra money that I would be pleased to know was helping a woman like this who had come to be such a prominent figure in my early memories of India. However, this same privilege burdens me with the power of perpetuating the “white saviour complex” by doing so. It runs the risk of raising me to a higher level rather than us exchanging stories and sharing cookies as equals. In addition, this is also one woman and while my first instinct is to want to help her, it is so important to recognize that there are much deeper structural problems that need to be addressed. It is not nearly as simple as just doing what is often recognized in the West as a “good deed”.
I think at times the compassion we feel as a natural human instinct can work to help drive us forward but can also stunt our movement when we are not sure how to express and spread it. I can certainly say that I will learn as much if not more from the locals I am interacting with in this placement than I could ever teach them and for that I am thankful. My time in the slum so far has been a warming example that we are all human with the same makeup inside. We all desire to seek relationships, comfort, meaningful exchange, to feel compassion and spread love in whatever way we are capable. I look forward to exploring how I fit into this puzzle more as I spend full days at my placement this week.