An Afternoon in Kareri Village

This past weekend, my peers and I were lucky enough to take part in a camping trip to Kareri village. On Friday, we set out on the 4 hour trek that brought us to our campsite. We were all floored by the natural beauty of our surroundings; there was lush greenery, a river, and spectacular views of the mountains. The next day, some members of our group opted to do a 26KM trek up to Kareri lake. The rest of our group stayed behind, relaxed at our campsite and then set out to explore Kareri village with the help of our formidable guide, Sachen. I opted for the latter option.
Kareri village was very rural. Our walk took us through countless terrace farms, where we saw adults, children, and animals alike working hard to maintain their land. We continued wandering and visited a small Hindu temple and the village school. On our way back, we heard an excited chorus of “Hi! Hello! Bye!” from nearly every group of children we passed. All in all, it was a lovely afternoon exploring a stunning place. However, as Sachen told us about the village and chatted with locals as we passed them by, I couldn’t help but feel distanced from the experience.
As a white person travelling in the Global South, observation and sightseeing can quickly take on a ‘voyeuristic’ feel. The privilege and power that my skin colour codifies, as well as the fact that it demarcates me as belonging to a foreign cultural group, can sometimes put up a barrier to cultural interaction. Colonial notions of the Global South as ‘backwards’ or ‘old-fashioned’ compound this to further complicate tourism in certain localities. As I walked through the village, I felt slightly queasy as I realized how the tableau might look to an observer: the white Westerner who wanted to get a glimpse of the ‘traditional’ life of a rural Indian community.
One of the readings we studied in our preparatory course, “Communities as more than Other” discusses some concepts that allowed me ground these feelings in theory. The author speaks about how Western tourists tend to ‘other’ foreign communities, that is, to see them as entirely separate from or inferior to oneself, and how this creates huge barriers to authentic, equal cultural exchange. I felt this acutely on our afternoon in Kareri village.
As we walked by and observed the farms, I felt that my gaze alone implicitly ‘othered’ those who we saw. I felt uncomfortable in the moment, and thought to myself that these feelings could be mitigated if only I had some Indian language skills. Unfortunately, since I have been more immersed in the Tibetan community during my time in Dharamshala, I have chosen to prioritize learning Tibetan over Hindi. As I watched Sachen speak to the local families and farmers, I felt even more distanced from meaningful cultural exchange, as I couldn’t even speak to members of the community to ask them questions or tell them about myself. In the “Communities as more than Other” reading, the author speaks about how important language skills are for reducing the likelihood of othering and increasing opportunities for equal cultural exchange. This is something I have taken to heart after our walk through Kareri village.


Global Citizenship: A Journey Rather Than A Destination

Since my last blog post things have gotten very busy for me at my placement with Students for a Free Tibet and I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities that lie ahead. As a class we have grappled with the idea of Global Citizenship, the term is often used in International Development circles, but when broken down what does it actually mean? How does one become a global citizen? And to take it a step further, how does one become an effective global citizen?

While working at SFT I have been involved in numerous campaigns involving the disappearance of the Panchen Lama, the second most important leader in Tibetan Buddhism, the Tibetan River campaign that seeks to stop China from damning and diverting fresh water river sources in the Tibetan Plateau, weekly film screenings that are designed to spark discussion about various social issues and most recently I have been asked to facilitate a discussion on what it means to be an effective volunteer, and potential ways in which one can achieve this. But as time continues on one thing is becoming clearer, the horizon that brings the end of this program is approaching. Where does this leave me when the clocks run out on our time in India?

This is where the notion of being an effective global citizen can be actualized. If an individual truly has the goal of becoming a global citizen the work they are involved in should not end when the placement ends. Effective global citizenship is seen when the individual involved takes steps to better the lives of all individuals, especially at risk communities through both positive and negative actions. Positive meaning to do something and “Negative” meaning to not benefit from another persons hardship or reap benefits from their exploitation on a global stage. If we want to become effective global citizens we must actively work to remedy systems that are inherently more beneficial to one societal group over another.

Today I was involved in a very productive planning session that would help me work towards being an effective global citizen. In collaboration with Dr. Paras and Jyotsna George, the campaigns director for SFT India, we would work on putting together a resource that would help guide first time volunteers on how to be the most effective versions of themselves in terms of going beyond the typical manifestations of being a volunteer. This project would need extensive research and careful consideration. I am unbelievably excited to be part of a project that allows me to continue my involvement with the SFT community after my time in India has concluded.

My volunteer placement at Students for a Free Tibet has provided me with the ideal springboard to advance my global citizenship goals and aspirations; it is through continued work and involvement in the cause that I can seek to broaden my understanding of global citizenship. The work should never end if one seeks to become a global citizen because there is no true final destination; rather it’s a journey through one experience to the next, challenge-to-challenge with peaks and valleys along the way.

Self care in Dharemsala

Throughout this course my classmates and myself have learned and reflected on notions of power, privelege and spaces we occupy. My classmates have previously addressed these issues in relation to our work placements and the tourist attractions where we most definitely take up space as a large group of mainly white Westerners. Something which is certainly not new to me in the course of my travels nor my studies in International Development, are the challenges to maintaining health while in the Global South. Foreigners and locals alike struggle with avoiding the local water, eat properly cleaned and cooked foods and ensure all fruits and veggies are peeled, that is just the beginning of course. When we travel from Canada we are advised by special travel doctors of all the precautions we should take to avoid sickness then provided with all kinds of various medications, preventative and therapeudic for all of the various maladies we may encounter. When our students at our work placement become sick I am sure that they don’t have a Baggie full of medicines they can choose from, they must go to a hospital in order to see a doctor, costing both time and money. While I have been sick here I have all of the medications I need, a bunch of people offering to bring me soup and the ability to opt out of work for the day to rest, not to mention the wealth that may be required in the event that I need to go to the hospital. This alone speaks to my privelege, I have all of the tools to cope with illness before I even became sick, I have a way out. Much like the documentary I have discussed with classmates “One Dollar a Day”, shows a couple of well-intentioned guys travelling to a country in the Global South, trying to survive on a dollar a day for a month. When one of them becomes sick he pulls out the medications he brought with him and is worried that they may not last him through the whole month. Many locals from the Global South of course do not have this luxury, they don’t have a way out at the end of the month and missing even one day of work due to sickness can be a huge economic hindrance.

Bringing it Back Home

Since our Field School group has arrived in India at the end of April, we have done so much in such a short amount of time. Together we have gone to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, listened to many guest lectures, went hiking, toured around Dharamsala, visited the Masroor Rock Temples, and many more activities.  Individually we have all been doing our best to adjust to a new culture, reflect on our actions, evaluate and increase our intercultural competence, and learn how we can be useful and productive at our volunteer placements.  Overall, it has been a constant amount of activity, learning, and reflection.  As the end of our trip draws nearer, however, I find that I am grappling with the question of how can I continue to learn from my experiences and time that I spent in India once I have arrived back in Canada?

Of course we will have the souvenirs that we bought, our pictures, and in my specific case the puppy that I adopted to remind us of our trip.  These are the easy things to show and display to our friends and family at home.  What will be more difficult is to demonstrate what we have learned and the lessons that we have taken away from India.  In our pre-departure course we read about examples of young adults that had participated in volunteer trips in that past, that without reflecting on their trip after they got home, had gone on to forgot much of what they had learned.  Some of these volunteers even described their past trips as a dream like experience, or break from reality.  Many even said that they didn’t bother to describe their trip to others, and didn’t reflect or think about it much after they returned home.  But I don’t want this to be the case for myself when I return home to Canada.  I feel like I have learned so much about myself and the reality of short-term volunteer placements that it would be such a shame to ignore or forget this knowledge.  That is why I think that it will be important to continue reflecting even after the trip is over.

Post-trip reflection is also important because I do not feel that all of what we have seen or done while in India will sink in until weeks, or maybe even months after it is all over.  Only after we have all returned home and adjusted back to our regular routines, is when I think that personally for myself, I will really be able to evaluate everything that I have learned in India.  As a result of this I feel that the reflection that I do when we get home will be equally, if not more important than those that I do here.  It will also be important after India to visit past reflections and see if my attitudes and feelings have changed since leaving India, and why this might be the case.  Thus, through continued reflection, and the way that I describe and discuss my experiences in India with my family and friends at home, I hope that even though the travel portion of my India adventure is over, the learning will not be.



Class Act: (De)colonizing the Classroom and Confronting My Privilege

The formal education system is not something in which I am professionally certified. However, I have had eighteen years of experience in it as a student, and now, I have moved into the role of teaching in my time here at Gu-Chu-Sum in Dharamsala. This has exposed to me how my positionality and biases, as well as those of other volunteer English teachers, have become entrenched in the classroom. More broadly, I am being challenged to consider how education continues to be situated in worldwide colonial systems.

Although our Tibetan students have diverse socio-political histories and realities, I believe that sometimes I am not aware of how the manner in which I am teaching is also informed by my own socio-political history and reality. For instance, as white women, Jess and I maintain privilege in classrooms in the Global South, sometimes hindering our students’ learning processes because they rarely challenge our biases and take our word as “truth”— this also may be because of the “guru” teaching culture, but is further exaggerated with my light skin. In this way, Jess and I not only hold the power and privilege to teach material of our own choice, but we are given power to teach it using pedagogical methods that we consider to be valid. This means that our biases are ingrained in the content and (re)inforce ideas of white colonial elitism.

Jess and I have also discovered that our students are quite well-versed in conversing about the Tibetan political situation in English. I really should not have been so surprised—this topic reflects the students’ lived experiences and therefore sparks a relevant way for them to learn English. That being said, it is volunteer English teachers who repeatedly bring this conversation topic into the classroom, so I also wonder why other topics are getting swept to the side? What about Tibet’s environmental sustainability, institutional capacity, and other dimensions of its livelihood? How might we balance the dialogue of everyday Tibetan national identity and pride with conversational English language skill-building? How can these equally significant aspects of Tibet’s future be transmitted if they are not being talked about? I do believe that these Western, short-term teachers have good intentions in their desire to broadcast Tibetan students’ testimonies, but at the same time, the explosion of the Free Tibet movement has steered me to ask different questions: Do Westerners perceive Tibet as an oasis of tradition—tradition that they wish to preserve since it comforts them in an increasingly globalized world? How does this reproduce colonial binaries and Orientalist narratives of the “traditional” Global South and the “modernized” Global North?

As I am learning to teach, I am also teaching to better learn the ways in which the formal education system actively participates in colonialism. I arrived in Dharamsala with the goal of using my unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage that make their way into the classroom. However, I have come to realize that I too cannot insulate myself from outside forces. Instead of pretending that education exists in an apolitical bubble, we need to recognize that everything that we as teachers bring into the classroom could possibly privilege or silence certain individuals’ or groups’ voices.


To Heck With Good Intentions

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.

Teaching, Gender and Colonial Pasts

White skin is associated with a great deal of power and privilege that is hard to understand from our perspective. While travelling outside of a predominately Caucasian country this is even more predominate in day to day activities. With being an educated, white, heterosexual female there is a great deal of this power that I can actively work to diminish but never fully be free from. I am able to be an ally, speaking up for people that are silenced but never fully understand the true hardships that others face on a daily basis. This is not the first discussion we have had on this blog about our presence being unavoidably acknowledged while walking down the streets but I would like to take a different approach to this dilemma that many of us have all faced.

I spoke before about how my placement is teaching english to Tibetans and monks from other countries. Teaching a lot of monks there are certain ways to act to make them feel more comfortable such as never having your feet pointing toward them and wearing a scarf if your shirt is too low. These minimize the issues that happen with gender dynamics but they do not totally eliminate them. While facilitating a conversation class one of my students brought up the point that if I was not a teacher he would not be sitting so close to me or speaking to me so much because I am a woman. I have mulled this comment around my brain for about a week now. Am I breaking down gender barriers, or am I further cementing the colonial white saviour complex?

As spoken about in previous blog posts we are not trained teachers so the power and authority we are given through teaching English overseas is understood to be relational to our colonial past. The idea that we are experts and therefore able to break through gender dynamics within India creates a power surge. It seems as though we are getting authentic access to culture but this cannot be true if we are getting conversations that would not regularly occur to women. This makes me wonder if males being taught by women are actually changing their opinions of women or rather there is a solidification of colonial power dynamics.

Colonial powers are run strong within Indian society. Being a previous colony there are still strong connections and sentiment to how white people are treated within the social organization. With being a white woman I have access to many privileged that women within the community do not. I am able to go outside after dark, and be respected for my education and work. Teaching is no different and is possibly worse because it is a strong correlation to the colonial powers knowing best. How Western ideals are strongly encouraged within a classroom and what that means for breaking through the power of our skin colour. I am given respect because I am a teacher but I don’t know how to distinguish if it is also because of my ethnicity.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to come to terms with the power that teaching English gives me. We spoke last night about how there will always be discomfort in front of a classroom and a far that you will mess up and let down the people relying on you. I’ve been told that acknowledging that there are these power dynamics give space for there to be a change in them but I don’t think that this change can come solely from me. Every person has multiple identities, these identities become more or less prevent depending on what situation you are in but they all influence your reactions. Here I have faced characteristics that I cannot minimize, I cannot become less white or less female, unlike many other mannerisms that I can change, but I can acknowledge how these influence my own understanding of the interactions that I encounter.