I remember telling my parents that I had just won a Shansi fellowship to India. There was a silence. Then my father said, carefully, “If that’s what you want to do, Anne, then we are very happy for you.” Later my parents came around to the idea of their eldest venturing far away to a country they did not know. In fact, they visited and made me proud. But this illustrates the distance I had to travel, and it was more than miles.
The journey that is Shansi lifted me out of the very foundation of my life and set me on a course of change. I was in India for Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the tragedy of Bhopal, and the beginnings of the civil war in Sri Lanka. But these momentous events are not what have stayed with me, and they are not what most moves me when I remember my two years with Shansi. It is the personal transformation, the relationships, the lessons I learned from the people I met that have shaped my life. Being a Shansi Rep in Madurai gave me three great gifts, among many others: the experience of profound generosity and self-respect; a new understanding of race and culture; and a passion for community organizing.
I had many assumptions when I went to Madurai, not all of them accurate. I was a well-intentioned, white, middle-class, liberal college graduate -- open and eager but also naive and patronizing in a subtle way. I thought I (and the United States) had many of the answers to the deep social problems confronting India. Very early on, I learned how little I knew. And the more I learned, the more complex my questions became, and the fewer answers I had. My Shansi experience in Madurai opened me up to seeing the world in new ways. I expected poverty and hardship. What I didn’t expect was the self-respect and deep generosity among even the very poorest of those I knew. Friends invited me to their humble huts and served me goat curry or store-bought biscuits, things they could ill afford to buy. I can see today those scrubbed and smiling children, clean clothes held together by safety pins, dirt floors swept until they shone. Among my more middle and upper class friends, there was a similar generosity. People welcomed me, brought me home and took care of me even when they barely knew me. Strangers rescued me at the airport when I arrived in India three days late (due to mechanical problems and the growing civil war in Sri Lanka) and the family that was supposed to meet me was not there. Friends took care of me when I was sick and kept me safe when mobs of drunken young men roamed the streets looking for targets after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. This level of generosity was very different than the generosity I had experienced in the United States, and it changed me.
I grew up in a white, middle-class neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. Segregation in my neighborhood, my high school and later at Oberlin (where, despite the moderate diversity on campus, I lived in a mostly white world), made it easy for me not to see issues of race and culture. I didn’t have to think very hard or very often about my race or cultural identity and I assumed that all of the advantages my family and I had were a result of hard work and talent. In India I was clearly a white, privileged American. I stood out everywhere -- the calls of “veli kari!"(white person) and openly curious stares following me wherever I went. Over time, I began to experience and understand the vast privileges my white skin afforded me. I was instantly important and respected. Strangers would invite me to their weddings and insist that I sit at the head table. I played my flute in concerts at which no ordinary beginning karnatak flute student would otherwise have been allowed to perform. At Lady Doak College, I was trusted to do things that teachers my senior did not do. In my friendships and personal life, I could move easily across caste and class differences.
Before I lived in Madurai I did not see myself as a cultural being. There is nothing like being immersed in another culture -- no longer being the majority -- to force one to recognize what profoundly cultural beings we really are. In Madurai, I was American and Western through and through: I peeled my bananas the wrong way; I valued personal space and craved time alone; I thought “no” meant no; I believed it was rude to share matters of salary and job status with strangers; I did not question “love marriage"; I couldn’t even spell English correctly. I was a bird trying to swim in water. It was exhausting.
Over time, I became more comfortable with Indian culture and better able to negotiate cultural differences. This experience of learning cross-culturally became an important tool once I returned home. Upon returning to the States from India, I looked at myself and my world differently. I actually saw the deep racial and class divides in this country for the first time, and I began to see the ways that I, as a white person, benefited from them. It was like pulling back a veil, and once I caught a glimpse of reality I could not turn back. Over the course of many years, I sought out experiences and relationships that would challenge me to learn about racism and white privilege. This has become my life’s work. And, in the process, I have returned full circle to the cultural bedrock that makes me who I am. I have come to know and appreciate my own culture -- with its great riches and deep problems.
In Madurai I also learned about organizing. Initially I was overcome by despair as I witnessed both vast poverty and great wealth and saw the boxes of tradition and violence that trapped so many women. Thankfully, with time I also got tastes of the powerful organizing for justice and equality happening all over India. What I learned inspired me, and turned my career path on its head. I had left Oberlin oriented toward teaching and academia. I now began to see solutions at the grassroots: street theater, community economic development, grassroots organizing, cooperative development, participatory education. By the time my two years as a Shansi Rep were ending, I realized that I needed to go home and do this work there. I needed to confront race and class privilege in the United States, and to take on the challenge of organizing within my own community. After traveling so far, my journey finally led me home.