Knowing what is appropriate when navigating interactions at my placement has been a constant struggle. The teachers give me a lot of leeway with my lesson plans and the games we play with the kids. However, I also don’t want to overstep my boundaries and impose on their routine and structure. I try to always ask the teacher what we will be teaching that day so as to not overstep, as the teacher knows the students much better than I do.
Over the past two weeks the children, teachers, and moms who hang out around the school have warmed up to me. They’ve shared personal details about their lives with me and asked personal questions about mine in return. All of these were positive cultural exchanges. However, one of these exchanges turned into an uncomfortable and disorienting experience today. As I was sitting with one of the mothers, she took off her bindi and put it between my eyebrows. The other moms, the teacher, and the children all started to laugh. The kids were pointing to their foreheads, nodding at the bindi between my eyes. The teacher came up to me and said “bindi”, assuming I didn’t know what it was. I knew the name, but I had to ask more questions to find out it is a Hindu religious symbol meaning that the woman who’s wearing it is married (most of the time – sometimes women who aren’t married wear them, they are just smaller).
After lunch, we were helping children with the alphabet when three white Germans walked into the school with huge cameras. The classroom turned into utter chaos – the kids were running around all over the desks, trying to be in the pictures, and the white adults were kissing the kids and hugging them. Carly talked to them for a while and learnt that they had considered that their visit might be too disruptive and inappropriate, but in the end came anyways. I did not learn this until later – at the time I was fuming because the children were all very distracted by the visit, and everything we had read about perpetuating problematic exchanges was going on before my eyes.
Both of these experiences got me thinking: do my good intentions matter? Even though I am having these positive cultural exchanges and being welcomed into these people’s lives and culture, how different am I from those adults that wandered in and completely Othered, perpetuated power imbalances, and abused their privilege? I still create a disturbance when I enter the school; the children still run up and shake my hand, testing there English on me by saying “Hello, hello, hello!”.
However, over time there have been fewer ruckuses. I have made a conscious effort to learn as many of the children’s names as possible, and I haven’t pulled out my camera to take pictures yet. These are not a measure of how problematic (or not) our interactions have been. But I would like to try to look at the outcomes, not the intentions, when thinking about the work I’ve done at the Tong-Len Tent School.