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I began learning Hindi yesterday. I’ve learned a few new alphabets in my time, but it’s hard to make the leap from memorizing unfamiliar lines to intuitively synthesizing them into words. Letter by letter (or syllable by syllable), anyone can do it. To make the sounds second nature is not quite so easy.
Why am I learning Hindi, you might ask? The simple answer: I couldn’t find resources to study Santhali or Mundari, tribal languages in Partharhuri. From what I can understand, the Munda tribe is Hindu and therefore would have at least rudimentary knowledge of Hindi. I learned a bit of Bengali a few years ago (and have forgotten all but the most basic words) when I took care of a child whose parents spoke Bengali as their native language, but I never learned the written form. I only learned words to use with her. So far, I’ve only found one word that is the same. “Ah-cha” means “good” in both languages. Imitating the child’s mother, I’d say Ahcha when the little girl sat down to eat or attempted something new. Or for no reason at all but to express my pleasure in her company.
But why are you really learning Hindi, you might ask a second time. The answer is not quite so easy.
Last week, I received some devastating news. The effects will ripple for months, and there’s not much I can do about it. I spent much of the day in tears and unable to focus on anything. I dried my eyes and sketched out plans to conquer the next few months as best as I could, cutting down on extraneous details.
The next day, I received worse news. The one-two punch knocked me out for the count, and my world has been uncertain since then. I have survived difficult times, I have come out victorious despite the odds, and I have found strength I didn’t know I had. I’ve done all this…but I’m weary. It’s been the most difficult year I’ve had in a long time, and I had just celebrated pulling through.
I hate to admit it, but at one point last week life did not seem worth it. What is the point of struggling so hard to survive when life kicks me in the teeth the second I think I’m safe? Why do I spend so much time and energy for others when it can often lead to mistreatment, people taking advantage of me, and inappropriate attitudes?
I haven’t even decorated my tree yet this year.
Yes, Ana who starts singing Christmas carols after Labor Day has not pulled out her boxes of ornaments, garlands, and icicles. First I was consumed by Something Good preparations…nonstop daily rush for six solid weeks. It was a great project with great results, but I needed time and space to recover. The project took a lot out of me and still has. (I hate politics, and they inevitably get wrapped into any philanthropic endeavor.) I planned to decorate my tree after returning home. I hadn’t been home for 48 hours before I got the news.
I worked on Something Good, even though I’d intended to focus on solving the new issues, because it was something I could do and the results were tangible. I felt a little better at making the final arrangements for the shipment to Trinity Place Shelter. I’ll mail the Kindles as soon as I receive the protective cases.
I tried to write, but the only words I could get down were the Something Good posts. (You may see a theme here…) I tried to work, I tried to resume my daily life, and I tried to move on. I took the temporary measure of binge-watching The Good Wife reruns. (Whatever Julianna Margulies might have against Archie Panjabi, I wish she’d get over it already so Alicia and Kalinda can resume the most fulfilling, nuanced, and loving female friendship of the show. The Alicia-Kalinda relationship was the heart of the show, and everything suffers now that they haven’t shared screen time for 30 episodes.)
Then, last weekend I heard about an exhibit depicting the experience of children in poverty. A friend from church praised it as remarkable and moving. She isn’t the type to rave, usually, so I was intrigued. I investigated, and I thought…what the heck, why not? It was free, even if a bit far away.
Ana’s not so good with geography and directions, so a 25-minute trip turned into a 1-hour wild goose chase. Because it took longer, that meant hitting rush hour traffic. I arrived at the exhibit (set up in an enormous trailer enlarged with awning) and received a headset and ipod tuned to the show.
“Do you want to see the story about a little girl or a little boy?” asked the volunteer, and of course I said the little girl, Julian. After a wait, I was told to enter. I regarded with skepticism the recreation of a humble bed, chair propping a door closed, and some trash on the floor. Okay, everyone has seen poverty. The little girl’s narration on my headset, paired with a sound effects track, was supposed to seem realistic but instead felt odd.
I heard the same sad story white Western women love to cry over, that girls of color are devalued as marital property and need to be saved by gracious white Western women with money. (Ana has issues with the savior mentality, if you can’t tell.) I rolled my eyes and went into the next room. The sad story continued, until I heard that Julian was sponsored by a couple and she could now enroll in school.
I stepped into a recreated room of the child education center. A birthday card lay on the desk, the actual card the real Julian received as a child.
“It was the first time anyone thought I was important enough to celebrate my birthday,” said Julian, and I looked through the letters and photos sent by her sponsors. The cheerful classroom, the blackboard, and the bright lighting made me smile.
Next, thunder and lightning paired with sounds of a drunken brawl as I should have stepped into a dark, dank alley littered with broken beer bottles and trash.
Ana is a scaredy cat. I can’t watch most movies or television because they give me nightmares. (Curses on my vivid writer’s imagination.) I sleep with the lights on. I won’t even watch some Disney movies because they’re too scary. (Don’t laugh. The Princess and the Frog is scary!)
I could not step into the room. Instead, I stayed in the bright-lit classroom and held the curtain aside so I could peer into the darkness. The visceral aversion to that dark room took me by surprise. I have reservations about the marketing of child poverty as a fundraising stunt. I have reservations about fundraising organizations that spend a great deal of money assuaging white Western guilt and playing on egos rather than making sustained, large-scale change. I have reservations about blind good intentions that often result in far more harm than neglect and indifference. When outsiders try to step in and rescue, they usually screw it up.
I went into the next room and heard that Julian had graduated from college and moved to the US to attend graduate school for social work. Her video came onto the ipod screen, and she spoke about her hope for the future. She was well-spoken, personable, and engaging. I stared around the tiny room, touching the items that had belonged to her.
And then walked smack-dab into the lobby afterward, where dozens of child packages (photos on information cards, wrapped in plastic envelopes) waited on display shelves.
I had no intention of sponsoring a child. Child sponsorship programs are fraught with issues, particularly raising issues of jealousy, inequality, and vulnerability for children who receive sponsorship versus those who do not. When one child in a family receives a sponsor and the siblings do not, or when one sponsored child receives lavish gifts from sponsors and others do not…let’s just say that I have been on the other end (managing volunteers, donors, and sponsors) and understand very well how donor “good” intentions waste everyone’s time at best and inflict serious harm at worst. The number one worst thing to do is make promises that can’t be kept.
When I spearheaded efforts at an orphanage, I wanted to drop-kick “volunteers” who received paid time off work to come in, play with their cell phones, gossip with each other, interrupt the real work, get in everyone’s way, and say devastating things to the children like, “You’re so cute. You love Mommy/Daddy, don’t you? Call me Mommy/Daddy!” They’d feed the children junk food and candy, not considering that they were ruining the children’s appetites for real food and endangering their teeth for cavities. (Do you think an orphanage can afford to pay for twice-yearly dental cleanings for one hundred children?) Then the “volunteers” left while congratulating themselves on doing their good deed for poor orphaned children.
I’ve managed fundraising efforts in the past, trying to negotiate the divide between donors’ needs to give something tangible and organizations’ typical demands for cash. I had that same experience with Something Good, in that our contributions were devalued as they were not cash given directly to the center.
Despite all of my misgivings, I looked at the child packets. It made me uncomfortable. Children for sale, essentially. And yet…some of the packets said “Priority” because the child had been waiting for a sponsor. Sometimes as long as six or nine months.
Ana doesn’t have a lot of money, especially not after the news of last week. It would be irresponsible to make a commitment I couldn’t keep.
And yet…I looked for the older children, ones that would mean a shorter commitment. (Sponsorship typically lasts through the 18th birthday and may include an additional 1-2 years for higher education.) I chose the oldest girl I could find, asked a lot of questions, and took her packet with me as I went through the little boy’s exhibit. This time, I could recognize the formula for the story, except with some gender and cultural differences.
I don’t know any of the languages of Indonesia, I thought to myself. The girl in the packet was from Indonesia. I wish I did. I know a teeny-tiny bit of Bengali. Maybe a child in India…
There was a boy in India, one year older (and one less year of a commitment, so one year less chance I couldn’t fulfill it). Maybe he speaks Bengali, I thought. I don’t know any Hindi, but maybe there are some similarities.
I understand all the problematic issues of individual child sponsorship, and I understand the colonialist impulse of “saving” a child. And yet…
While the organization has its critics, it is consistently rated for transparency in finances and empirical evidence showing its methods work (keeping children in school, securing employment, and preventing medical issues or even death).
And, when it comes right down to it, it’s a choice.
Collecting Kindles and ebooks will not end homelessness or homophobia. It will not get Heidi out of her wheelchair, and it will not transform mistreated youth into loved and secure adults.
Sending money each month will not eradicate poverty or class-based injustices. There are issues with the program, as there are issues with every program.
Cynicism is easy. Anyone can choose flippancy and casual dismissal of earnest, sincere beliefs. Mocking belief or tearing it down as ignorant or wishful thinking has become fashionable lately, especially for those who mock religion as imaginary friends of the weak-minded.
It’s easy to tear down beliefs.
It’s a lot harder to build up a belief and to hold onto it despite difficulties. When I see my favorite quilting grannies at church, they have built marriages that have lasted 40, 50, 60, and even 70 years. The kind of dedication, love, and self-sacrifice that takes….it blows me away.
My generation is the skeptical generation, the one that has chosen not to submit to authority or to believe in an overarching, hierarchical structure. We want to be independent thinkers. We cheer for the rogue, the rebel, and the one who refuses to submit.
But when bad news strikes home, we need something to believe in.
When everything I’ve held dear has been threatened and my life as I have known it may no longer exist, I need to believe in a higher power and a greater good.
I may be a sucker. I may be someone easily manipulated into sending money I can’t afford in exchange for a child’s photo and the belief I am making change.
It may not be true, any of it. Or all of it. Or it might be.
I only know that two days ago, when I walked out of the exhibit holding the child sponsorship packet, I cried as I got into my car.
For the first time since bad news hit, I could believe.
That’s what my dear quilting granny friend did for me. She believed in me, so simply and transparently that she made me believe, too. With her unexpected death a few months ago, my world changed. The hardest part about being an adult is no longer having someone I can believe in implicitly. Adult relationships are always fraught, no matter how strong. With my friend, I believed in her with abandon, because she believed in me first. She made me feel secure, loved, and that I could trust the world to be good. Ever since she died, I’ve been trying to find that same reassurance and failing. Last week was the final nail in that coffin. It truly did not seem as if things were worth it anymore.
I may not make any change, and I don’t tell this story to receive plaudits or elicit praise. Please, do not tell me I’ve done a good thing. It’s a selfish thing, needing to feel hope. Selfish, but acceptable if I understand my motivations.
I will learn Hindi so I can write a few words of greetings to my child, even if that’s not his native language. I will ask him to teach me some Santhali or Mundari, but for now (until I get his first letter, which may take up to 3-4 months), I will practice Hindi.
Acha. It is good.
- Day 1: Welcome and Introductions
- Day 2: Giving Tuesday
- Day 3: 2nd Annual Holiday Recipe Exchange
- Day 4: Hating the Elf on the Shelf
- Day 5: Blue Christmas
- Day 6: St. Knickerless Day
- Day 7: Beyond Fairytales
- Day 8: Beginner’s Guide to Lesfic
- Day 9: Holiday Carol Sing-a-long
- Day 10: Creating Something Good, Part 1
- Day 11: Healing and Emotional Responsibility
- Day 12: Creating Something Good, Part 2
- Day 13: 3rd Annual White Elephant Gift Exchange
- Day 14: Creating Something Good, Part 3
- Day 15: Holiday Memories
- Day 16: Chag Chanuka Sameach!