An Ode to Friendship, Courage and Inspiration
By: Maggie Morris and Lama El-Hanan
Prior to our departure to India, we sat down and formulated a set of expectations of what this two month experience in India would look and feel like. We discussed our common fears and anxieties (will the food be too spicy? Will we miss home? Will the students like us?) and our strategies we had mapped out for mediating these.
Yet, within just moments at CREST, we knew that our expectations were far from the journey we were about to embark upon. On our first day, overwhelmed and thrust into a vibrant, colourful and new culture, we found ourselves standing awkwardly in front of 40 students whom we had never seen or interacted with. Kindly, a staff member introduced us as “friends” who would be at CREST for the next two months. It was this discursive categorization of our role as friends, rather than staff, interns or academics in this most formative moment, which really set the stage for the wonderful relationships and experiences we would come to form and have with “Crestians.”
Through laughing, crying and spending nearly every waking moment with these remarkable students, we quickly came to realize how we would come to depend on these students as a backbone to our experience: people we could call on in times of stress, anxiety and turmoil; people we could look toward for strength and guidance (indeed, they were our seniors), or people who could bring us joy by simply being with us in presence.
Of the many things these students showed us, was the true meaning of friendship. On our first day at CREST, without so much as a single grumble, all of the 25 female students divvied up their lunches so that we could have something to eat, as we hadn’t brought a packed lunch. It was in this very first hour of our time at CREST that we realised that the students genuinely cared for our interests without knowing more than our names. Missing home, shocked by this new culture we were immersed in and overtly fumbling to eat with our hands, the friendship these students embraced us with was not only reassuring , but also a true testament to their kindness and whole hearted acceptance of those around them.
CREST students support each other too. Every morning, individual students are invited to come up in front of the class and sing. Not a small feat, many students were nervous to come up and take the “stage” on their own. The rest of the students provided words of encouragement, applause and kind support. On one of our first days in India, several of the boys had food poisoning and all the boys skipped CREST for the day. Together, all of us girls walked to the boy’s hostel at the end of the day to see how they were doing and to share our sympathies. It is certainly these “small-big-things” which underlie the unique Crestian relationship; or the small acts of kindness, integrity and support which have a big impact. They are present within nearly every relation between students and those around them.
We were inspired by the necessity of friendship, mutual respect and belief in the intrinsic value of one another in the process of overcoming one’s boundaries in the CREST world. Without the support and positive energy that students provide to one another every single day, it is unlikely that CREST programs would have the same appeal and benefit that it provides. Nor would the programs be so effective providing “marketability” and “employability” skills to Kerala’s socially excluded . Mutual support among students enables them to move through this new journey, which is filled with uncertainty and emotions, as a family.
These remarkable students also taught us what it means to take hold of one’s future. All of these students were at CREST through their own choosing, taking time out of their busy lives to seek their own self improvement. They would be up until the early morning preparing and rehearsing their many presentations, seeking to do better and better . Indeed, these students’ will to improve was one of the most inspirational aspects of this internship, as we came to understand that students passionately desired to break their boundaries and overcome socio-structural barriers. To watch this play out in action, and to see them improve every single week was but one of the many humbling things that have stuck with us after the completion of our internship.
Prior to this trip, both of us considered ourselves to be rather closed off and introverted. Yet, after opening ourselves up to these wonderful students– putting our trust and faith in them, being inspired by them and learning to see the world through their eyes – it is an understatement to say that we both left with our hearts and minds full. From listening to the trials many of these students suffered, laughing into the middle of the night, falling asleep with 5 people in a single bed, fitting 6 people into one autorickshaw, late nights spent at the beach or at small tea shops, long bus trips or simply walking home together at the end of a long day, it seems justifiable to conclude that we – the researcher, the intern, the anthropologist – likely learned far more lasting life lessons from our “subjects” than we ever could have provided them. For this, we are extremely grateful.
Reflections on Social Inequality
By A. Aarthi
As a fourth generation Singaporean Indian girl with a keen interest and roving fascination with learning more about my roots, for the most part of my life I have stuck to digging deep into the more ‘typical’ or visible aspects of my identity – namely, food, language and art forms. Through weekly dance classes, involvement in Tamil language activities like literary drama competitions, and of course poring over numerous Tamil movies as I grew up, I thought I was well informed about my ‘culture’ and my identity. Were these the only things that informed me of where my ancestors had come from? What was it that made us seem so different and almost distant from the more recent economic migrants from India? These newer migrants tend to be more economically stable and thus tend to come from middle to upper middle-income parts of Singapore’s population. Most of them are professionals who worked hard to settle comfortably in Singapore. The Singaporean Indians from the first few waves of migration however vary between low to upper middle-income portions of the country’s population but have been performing significantly poorer than the newer waves of Indians. As a result, there have been growing antagonisms between the two groups. The more I questioned these seeming differences and read more deeply into the type of rituals and festivals that we have been practicing for the past two hundred years, the more I realized that one of the main issues to be addressed, in trying to bridge understandings between both groups, was that of caste.
A personal anecdote will aid in further explaining this issue. As both my parents were well educated, I managed to do well in my primary years of schooling and eventually went to a ‘good’ secondary school. In my Tamil language class, only a fifth of us were the ‘original’ Singaporeans. The rest of the girls had parents who had recently moved from India and also tended to be from high caste backgrounds- Brahmins, Naidus. It was when we started spending more time together that I began to first learn about caste. It started out from discussing the types of food we had during recess times. My ‘Indian’ friends would typically eat yummy vegetarian food out of their lunchboxes and I would buy local favourites from the canteen stalls. We used to compare the type of Indian food we ate at home and slowly moved on to discussing they types of religious and cultural rituals and ceremonies. Many of these Singaporean Indian traditions were unheard of to my friends – examples include the types of folk Hindu gods we prayed to and practicing animal sacrifice during important prayers. Most of the time, the nature of the response I had gotten when I shared these experiences was a disdain towards these practices and an assertion that these were ‘impure’. When it came to more general, frivolous discussions on Singaporean Indians, these friends seemed to have almost unanimously accepted that we were of ‘lower class’ or ‘lower socio-economic standing’ purely because we failed to strive hard enough. On the other hand, my other Singaporean Indians from various other socio-economic backgrounds unanimously agreed that the newer migrants were ‘stuck up’ and were very condescending towards them. When I tried to open up these conversations to include opinions on caste, it was almost always abrupt with most people declaring that caste was not applicable in the Singaporean Indian context because we are more ‘modern’ and that we do not espouse such ‘backward’ aspects of our ancestral heritage.
These assumptions and opinions around which I have grown up have urged me to re-evaluate the role that caste and class play in creating and sustaining social inequality. My own experience in Singapore has shown me that caste is till very much alive in everyday life but ideas surrounding what it means differ accordingly.
In Kerala, following the discussions we have had on the readings and from the research papers written by past interns at CREST, we see some similarities in terms how the students themselves understand what caste means for them today. On one hand, there is almost a refusal to acknowledge that the caste system is still well and alive in terms of self-identification, for example, On the other hand, there lived realities demand for caste based identifications to be acknowledged in order to be able to access certain jobs and higher educational opportunities. The CREST centre almost stand for an oxymoronic symbol of caste based discrimination as on one hand it works to ‘empower’ these Dalit youth by aiding them in embracing their identity. On the other hand however there is a outright acceptance of the need to ‘work within’ the broader oppressive structures that limit life opportunities for these Dalit youth.
In the following weeks, Alice and I will be working more closely with the younger generation of students in the Wayanad region. We will primarily be involved in getting them ready for university – applications, career guidance, confidence building and improving English language skills, amongst others. I hope to learn more from these youth about how they understand their ‘tribal identity’ and what connotations ‘tribal’ has in the larger Indian knowledge universe. Is curbing social inequality all about increasing access to equal education and jobs? How do ensure that we do not arrive at a situation where these youth potentially do have better life opportunities but still feel inferior because of the type of background that they are from or because of the type of ‘work’ their parents do? How do we inculcate the understanding of valuing work – whatever ‘level of education’ it might need- based on the honesty and integrity of it?
I hope to be able to think more critically about these ideas and see how applicable it is even in the diasporic context of Singapore. I am also keen on learning more about the history of communism in Kerala and how that has impacted casteism in the region.
Reflections on Inequality (After the internship)
By A. Aarthi
Overall, I had an exceptionally enlightening experience at CREST. I took away much from my experience at both a personal level and in the capacity of a student from UofT. On reflecting specifically upon inequality, I am reminded of one of the biggest takeaways from this opportunity – the need to constantly engage in fieldwork with the conscious effort to situate my positionality. We were engaged in the Model Residential School Programs run by CREST, a space that was ridden with different types inequalities within and without. Entering such as space in the capacity of a student researcher from the ‘West’, though still bearing(merely) the face, colour and tongue of the ‘South’, as an upper-middle class and caste diasporic Indian, I was sometimes perturbed if this contributed to another level of inequality in the current context. There are indeed a couple of instances that have been etched in my memory that speak directly to the notion of inequality. Possibly some of the most important conversations and interactions that destabilized my understanding of myself.
One night just before we were going to bed, I noticed how one of the girls was quite carefully watching me put my belongings into my bag. She eventually remarked, ‘Akka, you are very rich right?’. My first reaction was to ‘defend’ myself by explaining to her that my parents had started from almost nothing and had built their lives up and everything I own now, as a young person from an upper middle class family background, was the result of their hardwork. It was not because I had earned the money. She was not convinced. A while later, just as we were all trying to fall asleep, she asked me about the countries that I had travelled to. I listed some of the places that I had gone to on family holidays when I was younger. She then replied, ‘See Akka, I told you. You are rich.’ This clearly was a lesson for me in terms of coming to terms with the level of inequality in a very intimate manner – in a raw exchange of words.
Another dimension of inequality would be that of the reality of being a girl in a context where one is already implicated by other forms of oppression. During the camp, most of the student were almost left to their own devices to decide on entrance examinations, college admissions and hostel accommodation. Of these, they were of course most concerned with picking a degree that would land them a job with a substantial salary. However, the factors that the male and female students had to prioritize were very different. Males students, especially those who were the eldest child in the family, had to prioritize whether they were going to be able to take care of their parents with the income that they would earn in the future or whether they could put a younger sibling through school. The boys were left to make their own choices, with minimal interference from parents. In the case of the girls however, parents played a key role in deciding which degree or college that she would go to. They had to endure stresses and expectations placed on them by mothers and fathers alike, to pick a course that was ‘acceptable’ for girls. The duration of the course could not be too long as it would affect marriage prospect. The colleges they had chosen had to be closer to home for ‘safety’ reasons. This was indeed ironic as most of the girls had grown up in the MRS hostels for most of their lives. There were many instances where some of the girls would be so excited to share the news of having gained admission into the course/ college of their choice but soon after a phone call to their parents, their spirits were dampened at the possibility of their dream not materializing. Of course there were exceptions to this. Two of the girls had fathers who encouraged them to pursue whatever they wanted to.
 Sister in Tamil.
Bonding with Students
By Alice Tsibulsky
The arrival of students at CREST has been postponed, so Aarthi and I have been sent to Wayanad where there is an alternate program going on. The difference is that the participants of this program are all teenagers finishing school and preparing for university entrance exams through full time study, every day of the week. We have time with them in the mornings and evenings, as well as during breaks for tea, lunch, and dinner. In the mornings we usually prepare some games that encourage them to speak English or generate discussion in groups. In the evenings we usually spend time with them more informally just by talking with them about anything and everything, and this gives them an opportunity to ask us questions as well.
There are approximately 30 students in this program, and they are divided into either the arts or sciences group, which take up two separate classrooms on the ground floor. The girls’ dormitory is on the top floor, and it is in this space that conversation feels more natural and comfortable. The girls flow into our room in the evenings, at first with curiosity and even anxiety, but now out of desire to spend more time with us, look at our pictures, and ask us questions about life in Canada. The boys live in a separate building across the street and so we do not have this kind of time with them, although it seems that they are more open with us and not as reserved or shy during mealtimes when they have a chance to approach us.
All of the students seem to have very close relationships with each other, but there is a clear tendency for boys and girls to sit separately in more formal or public settings, such as during class time. Yet on the other hand, it was surprising to see the nature of some of the relationships between the girls and boys. In trying to bring up the topic of friendship between members of the opposite sex, most students say that everyone is like their brother or sister and there are no more feelings than this (aside from the one or two couples who are known for having deeper feelings for each other). Many of the students, however, are constantly touching each other in a playful way or even holding hands. It was unexpected to see these types of interactions, as they seem to contradict the ways in which males and females are culturally expected to behave with one another. This observation was shocking for those members of staff who spoke with us about it as well.
The relationship between students and staff seems to be a mixture of formal and playful depending on the setting. Upon first meeting them with Vinod, the students all stood from their chairs as a sign of respect and they do this with other members of staff as well. However, during meal times the students can be very informal, especially with the younger members of the staff, and they are often laughing or joking together. It seems that many students have a sense of gratefulness and obligation towards the staff members for providing them with the opportunity to excel academically, which is expressed through their explanations of why they respectfully try to follow all set rules and regulations.
Over a relatively short period of time the students have definitely become more comfortable in speaking and interacting with me, but at first it was difficult because of their fear of English (which still limits some interactions with the very shy students). All of the students apologize for their English despite the fact that everyone can speak, and about half of them speak with minimal errors. There is a constant sense that the students do not value themselves enough, as exemplified through their fear of speaking English but also in the games and activities that Aarthi and I have created, or asking us if we are bored in speaking with them. Many students have difficulties talking about themselves or expressing their own opinions, which is where CREST’s mission to promote confidence is very relevant.
Many of the students also express the fact that they have never spoken to a foreigner before. The girls in particular like to discuss my “whiteness”, touch my skin and hair, and compare themselves to me. If at first our relationship was more formal and restricted, it has over time become much more open and relaxed. Many students are eager to speak about their families, childhoods, and futures, and have shared many personal details and events in their lives in a very open and honest way. Because I am married, many girls want to speak with me about marriage and are interested in my opinion and advice on arranged and love marriage. Therefore, for me personally, marriage has been a particularly frequent topic of conversation, and I have been very touched at how open the girls have been with me in sharing personal events and even attitudes towards caste, which inevitably goes hand in hand with the discussion of marriage.
Aarthi and I have a unique situation because our time with the students is limited and also short-term. Nevertheless, I am surprised and appreciative of our informal relationship with the students, which makes our interactions more fun and open.