The Foreigner Mystique
I am on the side of the road in rural Andhra Pradesh with nothing but twenty rupees in my hand (the equivalent of 50 U.S. cents). I am surrounded by palm trees, small shops, and photoshop-brightened-green grass. The smell of salt water and fish wafts toward me, reminding me how close I am to the Indian Ocean. Never mind how I got here by myself or why I wasn’t clever enough to bring a phone—it’s a long story. The important part is what happens next.
I stare in the direction of oncoming traffic, and sure enough, an auto pulls up within a minute. “Chirala center?” I ask. The driver, huddled between two other men sitting precariously on either side, shakes his head. This means yes. I get into the back seat and settle absentmindedly while the familiar route rushes by.
Five minutes later, a young girl clad in a worn but beautiful olive-green dress, her hair in two oiled braids, enters with an elderly woman and sits across from me. She gasps in shock as she sees me, then breaks into a big smile and covers her mouth with her hands. Is my bindi off-center again? I wonder. I hope it hasn’t moved to my eyebrow like yesterday. I check. It hasn’t. Later, as more people crowd in, she squishes in next to me. She keeps looking up at me, sneaking a grin every now and then, and looking away. I am confused, but I smile a benevolent smile. Unable to hold it in any longer, she blurts out,
“You’re Archana akka, right?!”
It’s my turn to be shocked. “…yes, how do you know?!” I wonder.
“You came to our school that time, didn’t you?!” she exclaims.
Honestly, I don’t remember. I’ve visited a lot of schools, and I don’t even know where this girl is from. But I learn that her name is Lakshmi, that she is in sixth standard in Vijayanagar colony, that she wants me to come back as soon as possible, and that she and her friends talk about me all the time. Apparently, I’m famous.
This happens a lot. Perhaps not always in an auto from the middle of nowhere, but on roads, in schools, and at village wells. The children know me, they remember me, and they exclaim with excitement every time I arrive or speed past in some vehicle. It’s a little unsettling, but it’s also wonderful, and it’s what keeps me alive through the sluggish pace of rural Indian life. But do I deserve it? Do they really love me or do they just love the idea of me—the mysterious foreigner who looks like them but has an odd accent when she speaks Telugu?
What have I really done so far to justify such outbursts of love? My project as an Indicorps fellow is to improve the quality of education at my NGO’s supplementary education centers—essentially after-school programs to fill the gaps left by government schooling and mainstream dropout children, to put it shortly. Two months in, I’m starting to really dive into the project. Though I aim to make a difference, I don’t think I’ve done it yet. I’ve learned so much more from these children than I’ve given them, a reality that will probably be amplified by the end of the year.
These are the children who are really left behind. Their teachers are absent an intolerable amount. They are crowded into classrooms of up to one hundred while being talked at and ignored. Their parents have neither the time nor ability to help them with school. Many of them, like Lakshmi, belong to a scheduled caste, prejudiced against and devalued by society. And they work. They are farmers, fishermen, weavers and shopkeepers. On top of this, they are forced to memorize paragraph upon paragraph of languages they don’t understand, and when they can’t, they are labeled ‘stupid.’ But when they see me at the end of the day, they have smiles on their faces and welcome me into their lives.
How can I validate what these children give me and teach me? If they love me—if I have to be their celebrity, I want it to be because of what I do for them, not my funny accent or my shiny steel water bottle. It is not enough to simply be the amusing foreigner who entertains them and gives them something to giggle about—that doesn’t do justice to them. The challenge ahead of me is to effect real change for them—the change that they desperately need and deserve. They need a better learning environment, that’s for sure; but they also need encouragement and inspiration—they need people to believe in them, and invest in them. By working towards this lofty vision, I hope I can at least begin to balance out our unequal exchange.
The next time I find myself celebrity sighted in an auto, bus, or amidst the towering palm trees and swampy rice fields of a remote village, I do not intend it to be for nothing. At Indicorps we talk a lot about earning our food—making sure we add value to the homes and communities that take care of us. By the end of this fellowship year, I want to earn my food. And I want to earn the love of these children.
Archana Reddy, 2010 Indicorps Fellow