Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Epiphany: Are They Really the Ones that Need Help? Or Are We.

Ever since I was little, I dreamed of growing up to be a real-live superman. Except a woman, and a physician saving the world from illness rather than a man in a red cape rescuing the world from Lex Luther. As I grew older, my desire to help others grew, and I find that I am the most content and enjoy life the most when I can help others. Volunteering in hospitals, nursing homes, shelters, and more, I always found a great satisfaction in being able to bring a smile to someone else's face, in enhancing their lives with my own. In a sense, it gives me a purpose for my own life, makes everything worth while. Despite the small acts of service I was able to give in my own community, I always dreamed of going out into the world to the developing countries where I heard and read of people suffering and in need, and really making a difference in their lives. I always dreamed that I could make the biggest difference by reaching out to these poor communities. However, my experiences today have showed me that perhaps the best way to make a difference isn't to focus so much on helping those that are in these developing countries, but learning from them, and bringing it back to my own communities. (The first picture is one that the chlidren took of me and some other students at Deepalaya. Its out of focus, but I was happy to see the picture.)

Granted I am not visiting the poor of the poor. There are many Indian citizens that live in shacks or lean-tos or even just under a tarp on the side of the road. And there are those that live in isolation on an island in the road, naked and deranged, unable to do much of anything at all. However, I have been visiting the slums where filthy, greenish water trickles through the narrow alleyways between the stone structures where people live. There are no bathrooms, people defecate on the side of the road and in the immense heat, the smell can get quite pungent. Children run around mostly in worn out clothing, often torn, or with barely any clothing at all. The photograph to the bottom left shows their playground, barren land with broken shards of brick and trash. Many are barefoot, and the interiors of their abodes are barren with little to no electricity. Despite these living conditions which would put many Americans in a depressed state, the people are so happy! They do not seem to "realize" that they are "in the slums," making me question if they really need any help at all. NGOs, caring volunteers, and myself go in with this concept that we're going to help these poor people living in these dirty places and not getting a good education. Yes, their quality of life may be enhanced significantly should they live in a cleaner area and get a better education, but then again, maybe not. We put so much emphasis on education. Perhaps this is because our society has turned into one where you can't be truly happy unless you have a good job and have a significant amount of money.. and you can't get to this position generally unless you have a good education. But really, the wide, authentic smiles from the adults, the children, and the elderly were smiles with sparkles in their eyes.. much more than most of the smiles I have seen in my entire life. How is it possible, I began to wonder, that these people who in our standards are poor and need of help, seem happier and more content with their lives than people with so much more possessions and opportunities in the United States?

At Deepalaya, a school walking distance of these slums, I wandered through some of the classrooms by myself while waiting for the project groups to finish their group meetings before starting off to the slums to talk to the community members. In one of the open spaces between classrooms, there were children of all ages crouching on the ground. One of the older ones spoke a little English and explained to me that it was a game. It seemed a lot like freeze tag to me. Sadly I only captured a couple pictures of these excited children as they soon became intrigued by my camera (I was able to get the photograph to the left, motioning for them to group together so that I could capture them in thanks for having captured me!). Carefully holding onto the camera to make sure it didn't get damaged, I started teaching the children how the camera worked through body signals. Due to the language barrier, it was a little difficult, but body signals work magic! Soon I had a crowd of children around me, both older and younger, wanting to get a turn taking a picture and looking at it. They took great delight in taking my photograph, and flattered me continuously with one English word they did know, "pretty." The older ones also knew, "How do you do?" and to shake my hand, doing so several times. The little ones brought me candy in appreciation and though I tried to deny it, they insisted and so I later shared my gifts with the project members. An older boy knew how to speak English fairly well, and was able to inform the children that I had to return to my friends for a project but that I would return the next day. The children followed me all the way to the door, waving goodbye, and repeating, "tomorrow?" over and over again, as I nodded yes in assurance. As I was leaving the school for the slums, I saw several of the children, and we had made that connection through the camera. They waved to me and through eye contact, gave me a huge smile with big sparkling eyes that I could read said, "Thank you, and please come back tomorrow." I can't explain the feeling enough... it was an amazing experience that I would never have dreamed would make me feel that way. The power of the camera to connect me to the children... and the way that with a look, I could understand some of the things they were trying to say (though of course, it was only a few things, and of course it is possible that I was incorrect..... but I highly doubt it, it was like instinct). One child lived in the slums we visited, and upon seeing me by his home, followed me around for a bit and then back to Deepalaya when we returned after talking to the community members.

In the slums, children and adults alike followed me with their eyes and their bodies, saying "photo," an English word they knew. Many of them would tap on my shoulder and point to themselves, asking me to take a photograph of them. I would comply and then show them the photograph, bringing a huge smile to their faces and giving them something to boast about to their friends. Some would push their friends in, indicating they wanted me to take a picture of their friend. Some held up their hand in front of themselves, laughing and being a bit bashful about being a subject. Again, I felt the similarities of just being human. I may as well have been back in the U.S. The willingness of the community members to speak to us and to welcome us into their homes was astounding. How many people in the U.S. do you know that would gladly welcome a stranger into their home and let them take photographs of them and their family? Not many.... How many would smile beemingly and make jokes (though i couldn't understand them, the Indian students were able to translate for us) with strangers?

I took a photograph an elderly woman who was sitting gracefully outside. She responded (via Dharani, one of the Indian students) that I should have come when she was in her teens when she was more beautiful to take her photograph. I responded that she was still very beautiful and thanked her for letting me capture her in my photograph. A man was selling popsicles off a cart, and teased me when I tried to take a picture by covering up the tin containers with the popsicles as I raised my camera, then quickly uncovering them with a mischevious smile as I began to lower the camera, and then covering them again as I was about to take the shot. He finally laughed and gave me a twinkling smile, pulling back the fabric so that I could get a picture. Later as I was leaving, he ran up and handed me a popsicle. I tried to refuse because I knew I could not eat it anyway, but he insisted, and so I accepted. None of my project members felt comfortable eating it either, so I gave it to one of the children on the streets once we had walked out of sight of the ice cream man. His ice cream cart was complete with a hand-bell that he rang to indicate to the children that he had arrived. I was told that it was about 1 rupee, but I saw him giving away the popsicles to the children without charge. Perhaps there was a tab, or perhaps he was just being Santa for a day.... but he definitely was bringing smiles to the childrens faces (or intense looks of concentration as they devoured the popsicles before they melted in the heat).

I also scared some children by accident. I stooped down to the level of some children that were scrounched down on the ground playing some sort of card game. They were so absorbed in the game that they must not have noticed me, for when one of them peeked over his shoulder and saw me, he jumped up immediately in shock, making the other kids jump up, grabbing their cards that had been on the ground, and running into the alleyway behind them. Slowly they began to peek out at me, and seeing that I was harmless, came out curiously. An older man pushed the children together, telling them to pose for a photograph. I took the hint and captured the beaming faces with my camera.

In a matter of a few minutes, I was able to bond with these children. I taught some of the older ones more detail about how to use my camera, not able to communicate via speech as the students that were able to translate were busy talking about their projects, but with body signals. I held the camera up for them and pointed to certain things and let them see how the photograph changed when I pressed a certain button. They were fascinated, and I was fascinated at our ability to communicate and to bond.

After today, I have to ask myself, are they really the ones that need help - Or are we. Our society has become so wrapped up in individual "success" where success means getting a high powered job, making a lot of money, having a steady income, having good food to eat, teaching your kids every instrument and every sport on the planet..... but more and more, the basic human lessons, those of respect, happiness of just being alive and being with those you love... those seem to be more and more forgotten. It ties in with our "work like there is no tomorrow" attitude I was speaking of earlier. As a whole, our society is very much get-everything-done-now-as-quickly-as-you-can, make-as-much-money-as-you-can, and more... but what happened to (forgive the cliche) stopping and smelling the roses along the way. We have to remind ourselves to stop and smell the roses.... but so many of these people that I've met recently smell the roses every step of the way. Despite their roses not being as clean or as abundant as ours. Perhaps that's the problem. Perhaps we have too much, and can only see what we don't have.... can only see what others have that we want and must work hard to get. I've always prided myself in not wanting too many material posessions or wanting a lot of money. I would be content if I was able to eat, be healthy, have shelter, and have a camera and a piano (ok, so the last 2 are not essentials and are pricey.... but that's all i'd need!) But then I think about all the things that I have so much beyond that... and about all the times I've been down about different aspects of my life. I definitely have not appreciated what I do have every day... often getting sidetracked by things that are going wrong in my life. But now I stop and think about all the good things that I have. And how good they really are. It is above and beyond what I absolutely need. It is above and beyond what these bubbly, happy people have... I hope I can bring back some of the carefree happiness despite hard conditions to MIT and other people around me. We have so much to learn.


Danielle said...

christina, christina. i'm blown away. i can't wait to read all your other posts. when you get back in the states let's have lunch and you can show me all of your pictures.

even though i've said it before -- i'm ridiculously jealous, amazed, & inspired.

Vijay said...

Hey Christina,
That post just made my day! I'm glad to see you're learning life lessons in India...its an awesome place to visit. I myself am a huge fan of getting to know people without words...who needs em? Keep on capturing those faces and those memories, and I hope you have a blast!