As our GROW internship comes to a close, we are eagerly trying to finish the last of our to do list! We have started gathering footage for a MINDS promotion video and a general video for our GlobeMed chapter at home. We have been able to go into the field to visit with patients in the village to get success stories and some footage of the beautiful scenery of rural Gujarat. On Tuesday we went to Ranchhodpura to visit a few of MINDS’ old patients. Both patients, one with schizophrenia and the other with major depression no longer recieve funds from MINDS but they were willing to share their experience and so far have been doing very well. We interviewed the mother and father of the schizophrenic patient. I always radiate in awkwardness as these interactions occur. As we pulled up, Amul’s car got literally stuck in the mud, thanks to the monsoon. Don’t worry, I got footage of Lara and Sarah attempting to push Amul’s car as he revved the engine, attracting lots of attention in the village. In the end, one of the villagers took charge and saved the day. After the muddy excitement, we walked to the patients home, only to find out he was not there (a common occurrence for MINDS, because there isn’t a way to warn them of our arrival). The parents agreed to talk with us, so minding our heads, all five of us entered their home.
As we got seated and got ready for the interview the patient’s mother pointed to Lara and Sarah and asked Amul if these were the two people who were providing treatment for their son. Now my awkwardness was full fledged. Ishani and I both just sat there and did not say anything, but I could not help but be distracted by this assumption. It was clear that Lara and Sarah were taken aback by this comment and tried to navigate the situation, but when a language barrier is so large the rebuttal may have been lost in translation, not appeasing their discomfort. Although it’s unclear whether the mother thought that Sarah and Lara were psychiatrists or just the only funders of MINDS in the room, I see me and the rest of the interns as equals in our experience with health in villages and as equal fundraisers for GlobeMed and MINDS. Yet, I still feel vulnerable to the misperceptions of people who seem to innocently not know any better. I do not think that this woman is to blame by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a perfect example of how strong and long lasting imperialism is on the mindset of individuals. This expands past villages or the uneducated, but even to the urban areas. Walking through stores in Vadodara, whitening cream for your face is no uncommon sight, and some of the most famous actors and actresses are light-skinned Indians which has a huge influence on all of India’s population. The lingering remnants of the caste system only reinforce these ideologies, with lighter skin being associated with higher caste. Just to clarify, Ishani is a Punjabi Indian and I am Moroccan and African-American. All four of us walked into the same home, we came prepared to do the same thing, Ishani was the one doing most of the talking in Hindi, and yet they only pointed out Lara and Sarah who are both caucasian and of European descent.
It is hard to think that we might never get the same acknowledgement that they did, and I wonder what my future career in global health will be like? I do have faith that my skills and personality will speak far greater than my skin color in the Western world, especially when public health is such an important topic and I plan to be as qualified as I possibly can. Still, I can’t help but wonder that when I am placed in the same position I was in, if that mindset will ever change. On the other hand I am conscious of Lara and Sarah’s feelings because in GlobeMed and in general conversation we talk a lot about what it means to come into another country as an American, so they were fully prepared to try their hardest to not do anything to try and recreate “Western idealism”, but they don’t have any control over comments like these.
It’s not that I need to be rewarded for what volunteering or what ever form of work I may be doing in the future. When white Americans go into the field to visit their beneficiaries they will be welcomed with huge thanks and may receive special treatment. While I might experience the same thing on occasion, I fear the level of genuineness. There is no way of knowing this for sure, but it will linger in my mind. Even at sixteen when I stayed with a host family in Botswana, the most favored members of my village were the three other Caucasians in the group, even though all of us were doing the volunteering. I was never unappreciated, but I was most definitely not put on a pedestal either.
However, I do not want to be put on a pedestal, or treated as a “typical rich white volunteer” – which is not at all true of the many Americans I have worked abroad with. I think that I would prefer to be ignored than put on a pedestal. I say so because there are many more aspects of a culture that I get insight of when I go unnoticed. I have the ability to observe as a by stander and not as an active participant. This does not occur all the time, but even walking around in a kurti (traditional indian women’s tunic) through Mangal Bazaar with just Ishani, we blend right in. If the stares are there at all, they are shorter than when we’re with Lara and Sarah. There is a level of appreciation for moments like these, where I can blend in and do as the locals do, which a Caucasian can’t really do when living in a homogenous city like Vadodara.
At the end of the day, I do not mind accepting and working among people who might have the wrong perception of Caucasians or of my role as a person of color, because it gives me genuine pleasure to help ensure their health and livelihood. If we can still manage to give resources and empowerment to communities, and can still work toward grassroots change, then so be it. I do not care even the slightest if I am being recognized on the ground, because if the structural changes come from the bottom-up, its not about me it’s about us.