Throughout the duration of the India Field School I will be volunteering with an organization called Tong-Len as an assistant teacher. They work within a slum, Charan Khad, by offering the people water, a medical centre, and education. The organization has two tent schools for the kids in the slum – this is where we are placed. They also offer to send one child from each family to a hostel (sort of like a boarding school), where they receive more formal education. Four of them are going to university this year!
I had prepared myself mentally to work in the slum, but what I saw when I got there was poverty like I had never witnessed before. Barely visible from the road, Charan Khad has around 400 families and is comprised of informal housing in what seems to be a dry riverbed in lower Dharamshala. The path through the slum to the Tent School we are working at is rocky and winds through the make-shift shelters, pieced together by bits of tarps.
On the second day, as we were looking for the teacher after lunch, our translator started speaking with an older woman who then invited us to wait in her home. Her house was right off the path and comprising of around three makeshift shelters. The bed was made of a rough metal frame with cardboard and some blankets on top. She offered us chai and got one of the children to go get us cookies. While we profusely refused, she insisted. Sitting on the bed and listening to the woman and our translator speaking, I was extremely conscious of our privilege and the perception we were giving this woman of ourselves. While I didn’t feel like drinking the possibly unsafe chai, I could not reject this offer of hospitality. Who was I, a privileged Westerner, to go into their homes and turn my nose up at their reality? Rejecting the gesture felt like I was saying I was better than them – that even though I had paid to come experience India and was so fascinated by their reality, I would not take part in it.
The experience was quite humbling and spoke to the culture of hospitality in India – even though the woman had so little, she still offered us chai and cookies. A similar thing happened today during lunch; I was offered a steaming hot cup of chai. One of the girls who has warmed up to me quite quickly showed me how to cool down the burning hot metal by pouring the liquid between two cups.
These were meaningful exchanges, and I have had others as well. However, I feel as if they were largely catalyzed by our privilege, skin tone, and foreignness. Would we have been invited into the woman’s home were we not white foreigners? Would the children run up to us and touch our hair, skin, and clothes if we looked the same as them? Perhaps, but perhaps not. These questions definitely make me uncomfortable and I do not have answers to them, but I feel as if they need to be asked in light of the volunteer work we are doing. I will still enjoy the privilege of the intercultural exchanges I am granted access to, but I will try to react critically when the kids pay attention to us, not our translator.