A letter from YAV Cynthia Anderson-Bauer in India
Email: Cynthia Anderson-Bauer
Until the school year recently ended (the academic year in India runs from June until March), I was supposed to be a teacher at Nicholson School in Kerala, India. Instead, I have constantly been the student. In Kerala I am always learning, and all the people around me are the real teachers. During the past seven months, I have learned how to eat with my hands and how to wear a sari. I now know enough of the local language, Malayalam, to take the bus and to read most of the signs in town. I’ve figured out the time when the mosquitoes are worst, and I’ve come to appreciate the indispensable nature of ceiling fans in 100ºF humid weather. But these are only the small things that I’ve learned.
I have been learning about Kerala culture and society in both exciting and troubling ways. I am constantly aware of the still-present caste system in India and the disturbingly deep social and economic discrimination it continues to foster. Those born into the lowest castes are denied the opportunities available to those in the upper castes, and so many low caste families are caught in a cycle of poverty that neither they nor their society can break.; Moreover, I have witnessed equally troubling gender discrimination in India society, manifested in the number of girls who do not attend school, in the presence of female abortions and infanticides, in gender discrimination in the work place, and in the small ways that men speak for women and women allow them to do so. Seeing these social injustices has made me more aware of the degree of inequality in our global society and has refueled my desire to work for social justice in the world.
Although I have been frustrated and angry about the many social injustices I’ve witnessed in Kerala, I have also experienced some deeply beautiful aspects of Kerala culture. Over the past seven months, I have learned about the nature of real hospitality and true communication. In this, everyone I meet is my teacher. I learn about hospitality when I visit a friend’s house, where I am invariably overwhelmed by the amount of food placed before me, or when I attend a different church, where everyone individually welcomes me. My friends have welcomed me into their homes and family circles as though I was their daughter or sister, rather than a strange foreign visitor who is only staying in their country for one year. Through this kind of hospitality that holds nothing back, that welcomes me even before I ask to be welcomed, I have been learning what it truly means to love your neighbor, to love and care for the strangers around you as though they were your brothers and your sisters.
One of the first people to really welcome me in Kerala was one of the other teachers at Nicholson School, Saumya. When I came to morning assembly and didn’t know where to stand or sit, Saumya gently took my hand and led me to the seat beside hers. She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to. The welcome was present in the pressure of her hand and in her kindness. This is something I have also learned from my time in Kerala. True communication does not always require words. So I have learned to sit in silence with an old woman, holding her hand, and offering, through my simple presence, what love and comfort I have to give. I have learned to run and play with children who do not speak my language and how to swing a two-year-old into my arms while she babbles gleeful sentences that I do not understand. I have learned how to communicate love by touch and by presence instead of by words.
In the time that remains for me in Kerala, I hope I continue to learn. I hope that I continue to see both the social divisions and discrimination and the channels of loving communication and hospitality. I pray that I never stop learning and that my teachers, from the old women at the nursing home to the young girls at school, never tire of teaching me.