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An Encounter with a Child in India

By Allie D'Amanda

Coming down the dirt road in a rickety old van toward our home-stay accommodations in India, I looked out the yellowish foggy window preparing myself for what I imagined would be a broken-down, mud caked house like the ones I had seen on the way.  Yet, as we rolled past two large gates entangled with bright magenta flowers and pulled into the driveway, I was shocked to see a large, beautiful home with a well-kept garden, a large porch, a guest house, and diligent workers waiting our arrival ready to help us with our bags. 

The man and women who owned the house greeted us along with their daughter-in-law and two young granddaughters.  They were the wealthiest family in Erode and clearly part of the highest caste.  Purni, the daughter-in-law introduced her two daughters to all of us, and I could see right away that Vedhika, the 10 year old, was instantly intrigued by my bright blonde hair.  I walked over to her and introduced myself, and the first thing she said to me was, “why is your hair so yellow and your skin so light compared to mine?”  It struck me as such a bold and aggressive comment, since we had literally just met, and I blurted back to her, “Well, why is your hair so black and your skin so much darker than mine?”  She looked up at me with a puzzled look on her face and simply said, “I don’t know.” 

Children are the most uninhibited, inquisitive, and open-eyed people in this world.  They are like sponges, so impressionable, and the judgments they make come primarily from their parents and the society they live in; they are never born with prejudices or preconceived notions about the world and the people who live in it, they learn them.      

Especially on this trip, I have made many conscious efforts to try to say the right thing that sometimes I forget how liberating it feels to spend time with a child.  With a child, I can set aside my worries of offending those who are different from me, and create a situation where anything is possible.  Most children do not fear humiliation in their investigation of the world around them, and in doing so, their unconscious naiveté dissipates as they allow others to teach them.  Gerry Tierney talks about this in her essay on “becoming a participant observer” when she says,

As I reflect on my field experiences, I realize that another important aspect of fieldwork for me was that I was somewhat naïve. Some anthropologists go so far as to advocate cultivating naiveté. I am not sure one can consciously do so; perhaps it is sufficient simply to use the naiveté with which most of us come equipped and not try to overcome it or overcompensate for it. A certain degree of humility is required to do so. It is not, afterall, easy to be in a position of one who appears to be constantly in the dark about even the simplest situations. Putting yourself in the position of the student, letting insiders teach you about the intricacies of their culture, is sometimes difficult, but in the end it pays off (13).

Here, Tierney’s suggestions make me think about children, and specifically, how my encounter with Vedhika relates to how I want to continue my “voyage of discovery.”  I need to realize that sometimes I have to embrace humility, just as Vedhika allowed me to do, soak things up like a sponge, and allow people in different cultures to teach me, instead of simply trying to compare everything I experience to what I know already. 

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