Turning the ‘them’ into ‘us’

My time here has been pretty well spent so far and it’s allowed me an insight into a pretty interesting thing about how we interact with people – more often than not, we operate on quite a communal instinct and see people who are similar to us as ‘us’ and people who are a little different as ‘them’. My way of speaking, yellowish complexion and slitty oriental eyes mark me as fairly different from most people I meet here and that caused me a little discomfort for a start but that soon faded away with my continual integration with the teachers and students around me.

What continues to strike me is the fact that we often label people the moment we meet them – pigeon-holing them as this or that before even getting to know more about them. Could be our normal human way of making sense of the world – Kant wrote about categories with which we can understand the world around us, that every little experience we have can be dropped into a little box in our brain to help in our sense making. In a similar way, we construct categories around things that we experience and see and make use of these to classify and construct links between things and people that we encounter. The problem with this is as we go on in life, these categories tend to get pretty entrenched, whether through experience, upbringing or tradition and that starts determining one’s world view. I think that’s when prejudice and biasness begins.

Which brings me to my main point – we often work with people and honestly want to help them to make things better. The problem is that we see those that we want to help as ‘others’ who need us to step in to change things for them. Even as teachers, we see students as an ‘other’ who require us to step in to mentally (and sometimes physically) drag them to a higher state of learning. While the otherness may be useful in allowing us to make sense of things, true service should not be a case of ‘us’ trying to help ‘them’ but integrating oneself into the community so that there’s a feeling of ‘us’ helping ‘ourselves’.

Not only would this give a sense of ownership to the help that’s rendered, the relationship becomes a much more egalitarian one where those who have had aid rendered are on par with those rendering it. It also removes the proto-colonial feel that a more top-down I-have-the-means-so-I-am-helping-you kind of feeling that many social service or service projects tend to have. It’s always better to have those who receive aid to feel that they’re being helped by someone who is part of their community and who cares for them rather than a nameless faceless entity that throws money or resources at them.

I’ve seen a fair amount of the latter happening around here – teachers referring to the students in the village as ‘those village students’ and others saying that there’s a need to help ‘them’. I’m a little uncomfortable with talk like this as it creates an unnecessary barrier between the helper and the helpee and that can be unhealthy if drawn out too long. One has to be able to sit down and think about one’s motives for the service and to realise that we’re not that different after all and that what we do for others is not me helping them but me helping people who are very much like me and who are part of a wider human community that I belong to.

I’ll end on a slightly self indulgent mode – a bit on how creating a community in whatever we do can help in this end. In class, I try to break down the barrier that I’m a teacher telling students that they need to learn something but that we’re in it together and that I learn as they do to. While my long-windedness can sometimes get the better of me and I do sometimes start telling stuff, the main thing about the classroom is that it’s a community where everyone is more or less equal and that learning from each other can be as beneifical as learning from the teacher. Even here, I remind the students that while they learn stuff that we teach, I too am learning Kannada and local culture from them and that it’s their responsibility to make sure I leave here being able to speak basic Kannada. That helped immensely and the classroom benefits greatly from this. I feel the class is much more ‘us’ now. That I like.

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6 Responses to “Turning the ‘them’ into ‘us’”


  1. 1 jess 19 June 2008 at 9:43 09

    interesting. prob for this week is abt role of interaction and past few weeks we discussed abt making sense and today , pam ned and myself talked abt the idea of them and us in an unknown envt. All found in ur post!

  2. 2 gymstan 20 June 2008 at 6:48 06

    Whoo! But was the post useful? What other issues were you concerned with and are there other ways of lessening the gap between the us and them? Discussion!

  3. 3 wa'hpn 27 June 2008 at 3:43 03

    Well, when you get a bunch of ‘no-big-no-small’ kiddies, as I’ve got in one of my classes this year, the sense of “hello, you’re encroaching on my personal space” really DOES have to be enforced. It really depends on the behavioural characteristics of the student (i.e. how emotionally and socially mature the teenager is!).

    When they start hovering behind you just to see what’s on your laptop, when they start asking you weird questions like “O you like anime! You watch Hentai rite?), when they cross the proverbial LINE!!! GGGGRRRRR… that’s when the “hello? I’m not your FRIEND; i’m the person who will GRADE you – don’t you have any sense of boundaries?” really does come in.

    No such problems with mature students who one can really learn from – students who see that the classroom is for learning – these are the ones I would treat and respect as peers.

  4. 4 gymstan 27 June 2008 at 5:34 05

    Respect has to be earned I guess. I do remember a number of the ‘no-big-no-small’ students who are just crying out for a good telling off. Once in a while we do get some who we can really either connect with or are very earnest about learning. Those I do treasure.

    Like the students here – what thrilled me was the fact that they too were thrilled that I wanted to learn from them. They were more than enthusiastic about it and I had to tone that down to get them to concentrate on classes.

  5. 5 jess 28 June 2008 at 10:07 10

    Yes, it is not about wanting to turn them into us but how to close the gap between “them” and “us”.
    ;p

  6. 6 gymstan 28 June 2008 at 1:22 01

    Bit of that but I guess sometimes, a little part of us wants to turn the good ones into ‘us’ as well. Problem is that as we grow older, the gap that our students perceive will grow. We don’t necessarily see that but we sometimes have to show our students that their perceptions might not be the most accurate. But we try no?


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had a head like a brush (it's more like an egg now). seeks to sweep through thought and faith with that brush. tries to wax philosophical but often forgets to wax off. trying to be good brush to all, while discerning what kind of brush he's meant to be.

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