Saturday, July 3, 2010

No Money For Tea

Although this small incident occurred in the same village interview mentioned one post before, I was not able to process and understand the greater meaning of the situation until several hours later.

When my friend and I were approximately half way through interviewing an elderly couple in the village about the issues mentioned earlier, some of the villagers began to disperse back to their respective places in order to continue the day’s work. As people began to go their separate way, there was somewhat of a communal agreement that it was time for a short break. Although I did not understand the conversation in its entirety due to the language barrier and the fact that this conversational incident was not part of our interview and thus did not need to be translated, I still grew curious enough to ask. While the other villagers were going back to their houses to grab a short minute of shade, a small but very important discussion broke out. The husband of the couple we had been interviewing began to put his shoes on as if he was going out for a mid-day stroll. When his wife wondered where he was going, he said he was going to get some tea. Before she could say another word, he asked his wife for a few rupees so that he could leave and return in time for the rest of our questions. A few second later, his wife informed him that they did not have any money for tea and the man immediately removed his shoes. While the possibility still exists that this man’s wife did not want two American students working with two Indian organizations to waste away her money on two small cups of tea, I am more than slightly inclined to believe otherwise.

The reason this small discussion influenced me so greatly was because it sent a strong message about the family’s real priorities. While we were busy taking up this couple’s precious time asking them a million different questions none of to which answers were going to make their family or the village’s problems magically disappear, they were somehow still focused on serving us tea, making us feel comfortable in their home. The second part of this conversation that affected me with such great intensity was that, throughout our entire interview, despite all of the difficult questions we were asking and problems we were essentially reiterating, this was the first time I encountered a sense of real sadness on their faces. The two of them never seemed so sad or bothered by the fact that they had often experienced times in which they were not able to feed their family. The very thought though, that they could not “properly host” two people who had possibly taken a genuine in their struggles, that was close to unbearable. This heightened sense of sorrow most observably demonstrated by the embarrassment and social withdrawal that took place just seconds after the peak of the conversation between this man and his wife.

While it is most obviously difficult to read, to hear about, or even to witness the many struggles of third-world poverty from afar, there are no words strong enough to explain the feelings one is flooded when interacting with poverty face-to-face. I use poverty as a noun not to displace a village from its surroundings or take a word from its people, but to convey the extreme differentiation between the two realities. One is a reality in which a word and its people exist independently, where we first-world citizens enjoy access to the life of developing-world citizens only through books, politically-biased news media, and a few pictures of famished children when are pockets are full for the “giving season”. The second of these actualities is the type in which people must confront the first reality, where they must live in those places mentioned in our books, see with their own eyes those villages shown on our news, and converse and attempt to understand the lives of those families seen in our photos. When we have consciously and honestly chosen the latter, we have only just begun down the road to understanding the meaning of poverty and all its various conjugations.

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