Philosophy, action and reflection
After dropping off two of our classmates at their homestay, Niko and I made way to ours. As our driver’s car weaved through the narrow alleys of Varanasi, dodging people and cows alike, I was filled with excitement and anxious to see what our living situation would be like. I remember Niko and I dreaming that we’ve lucked out, anticipating that we’d be staying in a place with AC, hot showers and room to roam. Those predictions quickly vanished as we were dropped off by side of the road and lead through a series of dark ally ways that eventually lead to the doorsteps of the home of our host family. Upon entering a narrow hallway, we were invited to set our bags down in a small living room with two arm chairs and a couch. We were greeted by the family’s son, who’s nickname is Golu, which means circle. He was around the same age as Niko and I and spoke very enthusiastically, especially when it came to the Tabla, a famous Indian instrument that consist of two drums. Golu’s father, Mr. Mishras is a renowned Tabla player in Varanasi, teaching at a local university called BHU. Golu was a also an aspiring Tabla player and a student at Banaras Hindu University, working towards a masters in Tabla. After our introductions, Golu asked if we would like to hear him play the Tabla, which Niko and I excitedly said yes to. The sound was nothing like I’ve ever heard before and it was evident that years of practice has gone into the level and skill that Golu was playing at.
I was starting to feel at ease in my new home when something started to catch my attention. It was very subtle at first, but eventually became something that I could no longer overlook. During our conversations with Golu, I noticed that he was making very little eye contact with me and much more eye contact with my classmate Niko, who was a white male. I thought to myself that maybe I was being too shy and needed to exert myself a little bit more. Occasionally, I would make a comment or ask a question and Golu would look at me but quickly returned his attention back to Niko. As the night went on I started to noticed that Golu seemed to only ask Niko questions, which lead me to wonder if he simply forgot my name. When it came time for us to go to bed, Golu got up from behind his Tabla and said “Niko, let me show you to your room”. He lead Niko to a room across the hall as I stayed a little further behind wondering if my room was to be somewhere else in the house. I peeked my head into the room, which consisted of a computer desk, a cabinet and a twin sized matt on the floor. Niko and I exchanged glances, waiting for Golu to show me to my room, but that moment never came. We both set our belongings down reluctantly as Golu asked if the room was ok. Not wanting to come off ungrateful, we both said the room was fine and asked for another mat for us to sleep on. Golu and his mother returned shortly later with a thin matt and laid it next to the one that was already there. As Golu was about to head upstairs to bed, he poked his head through the door and said “Niko, if you need anything at all, anything, let me know”. That night, as I was laying 4 inches away from Niko sideways on a twin sized mat, I was so perplexed at what I had just experienced. My mind was ruminating, trying to find some logical explanation of this foreign feeling I was experiencing. Was it some cultural formality to address someone first? Did I come off rude and unwelcoming? Did he simply not know my name? I was trying to find a reason, any reason that would make sense of what I had just experienced. As I started to rule out each explanation one by one, I had to ask myself the question I was reluctant to ask, was I experiencing racism?
The next morning, I had a talk with Kara and she suggested that I have a talk with Irfana ma’am, the director at the school we were working with. The conversation was unproductive as I danced around the issue, as inquiring if my host were racist is well…a very awkward conversation. The only issue fixed by that conversation was that by the time Niko and I returned home that night, there was a much more comfortable mat next to the old one. It wasn’t until my homestay experience was over that we all had a conversation about the issue, as another non-white student experienced something similar during her home stay. Although I wouldn’t want anyone to go through such an uncomfortable experience, a part of me was glad that someone else had the same experience. Her confession validated my feelings, I wasn’t crazy. Nita ma’am and Irfana ma’am as well as the rest of the group had a really good discussion about the issue. Nita ma’am explained that the concept of racism doesn’t even exist in India, that the possible reason that our host family treated our white classmates differently is because they viewed us, people of color, very similar to themselves. She reassured us that what we experienced is in fact not racism and not a common occurrence. We also discussed casts in India and how wealth fits into that system, and the associations of Caucasians with wealth. Although the explanations did make sense, a part of me still feels like I haven’t found a satisfactory answer. This experience has definitely given me plenty to think about and has made me more aware of how my identity plays different roles in different cultures. This experience made me realize how “racism” is subjective and can mean different things to different people. This experience also makes me wonder that if someone doesn’t view something as racist in their culture, does that invalidate the feelings of the individual who experiences it as such?
Written By Tam Hoang
The photo above was taken the morning after our first night at the homestay. I'm sitting on our bed, drinking chai and reflecting on the previous night .
Photo by: Niko Serpanos