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.