About Tsukumo Niwa

Tsukumo is a junior with a double major in Oboe Performance and International Studies. After graduation, she is interested in finding a career that would allow her to combine her passions for social justice, the arts and multicultural understanding. Tsukumo has engaged in a wide variety of projects dealing with social justice, including the Prison Creative Arts Project, Diversity Peer Educator program at the University Housing, and IGR CommonGround.

Tsukumo’s Week 8: Reflections

My internship with NIRMAN and my seven-week stay in India as a whole challenged the way I think about equity and diversity in society. I have engaged in many conversations surrounding diversity in the U.S. American context, with identities including race, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. These categories play out very differently in Indian society, where the aftermath of now-abolished caste system is still very prevalent and sexism affects everyone like no other countries I had been in. Wealth distribution is far from perfect, and many workers barely make enough to live day by day, and thus look for every possibility to earn more money. It is difficult to process such inequality, especially as a foreigner that has never struggled financially.

Material wealth does not equal intellectual or spiritual wealth.

Material wealth does not equal intellectual or spiritual wealth.

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Tsukumo’s Week 7: Going home, going home 

Going home, going home, I’m just going home
Quiet-like, some still light, I’m just going home…

These are some of the lyrics from the song “Going Home”, version by Annie Haslam. And how fitting it is for my final week at NIRMAN and Varanasi. I taught this song to 8th and 9th grade students as I was introducing them to solfège (singing the melody in Do-Re-Mi) and Western orchestra (the melody comes from Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”). In Dvorak’s composition, the “big brother” of oboe called English horn plays this melody as a solo, which was why it was nice to teach this song to demonstrate my oboe. And apparently, as proven by the fact that all these students sung this song for me at the farewell party today, they really enjoyed this song.

Today was my last day of internship at NIRMAN. It felt like this day would never come at the beginning of this internship, but I have taught my last classes, students and teachers have said goodbye to me, and my bags are entirely full with some precious gifts and memories.

My last week of internship was full of opportunities left and right. I finished up teaching the syllabus for first trimester of 8th grade history, as well as music class for 8th and 9th grades. They were challenging groups of kids to work with — they were middle schoolers, after all, who were not always willing to listen to teachers and behave in class. However, they are eager to learn the music I am teaching, even if it is very different from what they know. They performed these songs to their parents that attended the monthly Parents’ Workshop at NIRMAN, which was a wonderful showcase of what we have learned this month. I am so proud of how far they have come, learning the melody and English lyrics in just a few weeks.

This morning, 8th and 9th grade students prepared a farewell party for me. Students shared what they enjoyed about my teaching, and I shared my appreciation and gratitude for the students and teachers. They also prepared thank you cards for me, which had some sweet messages about my classes. As naughty as they sometimes were, they are some of the most genuine and intelligent students I have ever worked with. This week was also special because another SiSA fellow, Hanna Pfershy, was visiting me for a couple of days. We explored some different attractions in Varanasi as well as nearby towns of Sarnath (one of the most important Buddhist sites in India) and Ramnagar (residence of former maharaja, or king, of Varanasi). She also served as my personal photographer, which I will share here shortly. (Thank you, Hanna!) She left with me today to begin her internship in Kerala; you will see her stories on this blog also.

It was certainly a bittersweet week, as I said goodbyes to people that have been so kind and supportive throughout my stay. No words can express my appreciation for these people that have made my experience memorable and full of learning. But I’m also excited to go home and see my family and friends again. I will probably also need some time to process everything that happened in India to appreciate them even more.

Going home, going home, I’m just going home…

Till next time, India.

Class 8 and 9 students and me at the farewell party.

Class 8 and 9 students and me at the farewell party.

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Tsukumo’s Week 6: Musician’s Delight

I am a musician, and I always will be, no matter where I am in the world. This week was loaded with musical opportunities left and right, and my musician self could not have asked for any better.

This week, I started one of the most exciting parts of my internship: taking lessons in Indian classical music. In my first two lessons, I became a little bit more comfortable with Sargam, or Indian solfège. Learning to sing using syllables Sa-Ri-Ga-Ma-Pa-Dha-Ni-Sa is like learning a new language. This “language” coupled with Hindi lyrics to raga makes this music very challenging to learn for a foreigner like myself. Raga is a mode or melody associated with different Hindu gods, times of day, season, or other natural and spiritual factors. The first few raga that I learned are associated with Brahma, Vishnu, Krishna, and Ganga, all of whom are gods and goddesses. The teacher even taught me a raga about rain season as we tried to overpower the sound of pouring rain and kept shifting in the room to avoid rain leaking in from the ceiling. Needless to say, this was quite an experience.

For Indian musicians, performing music is an act of meditation and devotion to gods. Music here is so intricate that I would be a complete fool to call myself an expert on it after a few weeks. However, it means a lot to me that I am invited into this spiritual and mystic world in a belief system outside my own.

With the help of some local people, I have expanded my circle of musician friends. I visited the Faculty of Performing Arts at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), one of the largest universities in South Asia, and met some wonderful vocal performers (both students and professors). I was actually able to make some music with a PhD student, who taught me a simple song that I learned by ear and played on my oboe. It’s the moments like this that makes me love being a musician — working across cultural differences through music.

I have also been teaching some English songs to 8th and 9th grade students, which is going rather well. Students in 8th grade are learning “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers, and 9th grade students are learning “Smile” by Nat King Cole. I chose these songs because of their strong message for hope and support for one another, in somewhat simple English; they also happen to be some of my most favorite songs. Many students have expressed that they love the melody and poem of these songs, which makes me delighted.

All of these experiences remind me that “music is music” — as one of the students from BHU has told me when I said, “I study music, but it’s Western music.” Regardless of what kind of music we may specialize in, all of us musicians contribute to the artistry and intricacy of music as a whole. When different traditions of music cross paths, eye-opening interactions and learning moments happen. I am eternally grateful for the privilege of having received musical training for more than a decade now.

Learning some songs from guru (masters).

Learning some songs from guru (masters).

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Tsukumo’s Week 5: A Short Excursion to Lucknow

The past week had two holidays in a row, from both Hindu and Muslim traditions. This past Wednesday was Rath Yatra, in which the chariot strolls around the city to celebrate Lord Krishna and his brothers; then, on Thursday, Muslims celebrated Eid al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan. Since school was closed to observe these holidays, I was invited to visit a nearby city of Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh state.

Lucknow is a hidden gem for tourists. Many tourists bypass this historical city because there are just so many places to see in North India, but this city also claims some impressive architectures and important historical sites especially surrounding the first battle for independence against Britain in 1857. I visited the Residency, one of the biggest battlefields of this war, and Bara Imambara, a Muslim holy site commemorating the past local Muslim leader (Nawab) Asaf Ud Daulah.

The Residency was established by Nawab Asaf Ud Daulah in 1780 for British residents occupying Lucknow. Houses, schools, and churches were built on this ground for them — most of which are now ruined because of the aftermath of the war in 1857. The park itself makes me forget that I am still in India because there is a lot of greenery and no traffic at all (and thus, no honking!). There are palm trees slowly swaying in the wind, and the grass is well kept. At the museum inside the Residency, we could read about the battle that took place on that very ground. There are bullets and cannon marks left in the houses where British resided. It is interesting how this history is being recounted in the museum. Although the British ended up winning this battle, the Indian history marks this battleas their major stepping stone for independence instead of their loss. The museum commemorates many Nawabsand other significant leaders from this area that would never be celebrated in British textbooks.

As I teach modern Indian history to 8th grades, I have been reading up on the events leading up to this first war for independence. Local leaders saw their powers taken away by the British using force and cunning lawmaking, and peasants and artists were highly exploited by being forced to cultivate cotton, indigo, and silk for less-than-adequate fee and high taxes. To think that the Indians revolted in this place made me shiver — the injustice they went through is more than I can ever imagine, and many innocent lives were taken as a result of some rich men’s greed and entitlement over foreign land. It’s a sobering place that reminds me of the brutal effects that British rule had on India.

Bara Imambara was such a beautiful site. It exemplified the best of the Islamic architecthre — pointed arch, domes, a stepped well, and a large hall (15 meters high and 50 meters long) built without any pillars. There is also a “labyrinth” surrounding this large hall, consisting of some complicated and narrow steps that lead to secret passages and to the top of the building. The view of the entire city of Lucknow from the top was spectacular, and the sunny weather in the middle of monsoon season definitely helped with the view.

Overall, this was a nice excursion and rejuvenation from the busy days in school. Now that I am down to just over two weeks at this place, I am looking forward to finishing up my research project on educational practices at NIRMAN, takingsome Indian music lessons, teaching English songs for students to perform at the end of the month, and exploring the city a little more. It’s a bummer that the ghats are now entirely under water, though.

From the top of the banquet hall at Bara Imambara.

From the top of the banquet hall at Bara Imambara.

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Tsukumo’s Week 4: Back-to-School

Month-long summer vacation for students is now over, and Vidyashram-The Southpoint School is back in session for a new school year. There are about 150 students at this school, from Preschool to 12th grade, studying on the same campus. The campus that I had known to be pretty quiet is now full of children’s laughters, which is quite exciting.

Administration of Vidyashram-The Southpoint School is one of the key components of NIRMAN’s work. This private school serves as a model of education system in the new age by bringing in students from diverse backgrounds. Instruction is in English, with the exception of some classes in younger grades and Hindi/Sanskrit classes.

There are a few ways that Southpoint differs from the traditional Indian education system. First, Southpoint provides scholarships for students that require financial assistance to attend, as well as free nutritious lunch every day. In India (and many other parts of the world I’m sure), education has been only available for those that can afford it. In offer for children to attend school, they need to come from families that are willing to support them financially and morally; however, this support is difficult to gain for girls, Muslims, and children from lower income families, just to mention a few. Southpoint strives for a diverse group of students, with different religions, genders, and social classes represented.

Second, Southpoint puts emphasis on cultural activities including theatre and visual art. Students engage in one large theatre production every year, and take classes in various art forms regularly. Southpoint students are trained in Indian vocal and instrumental classical music, as well as some visual arts.

Finally, Southpoint engages students from nearby villages by having a separate campus in Betwar, in the outskirts of Varanasi about 15 km away from the main campus. This campus houses 60 students, from Preschool to 5th grade; after 5th grade, students are bussed to the main campus where they can complete 6th grade and above. I had a chance to visit this campus on Sunday, and it was very nice and serene — in the middle of the fields where they grow food crops such as rice and lentils, right by Ganga river, surrounded by birds, flowers, and plants of all kinds.

At Southpoint, I am teaching music to 8th and 9th grades, as well as history to 8th grade. Working with these students is both fun and difficult. I am very happy that they are excited about learning music with me for this month; all of their music classes have been on Indian traditional music, so what I am teaching (basic Western music theory and English songs) is new to them. However, teaching music has been made very easy because they have good ears and tonal memory, most likely because they are taught music by ear from younger age. On the other hand, teaching history has been challenging. Some students are more interested in history than others, and some students don’t behave. Some students don’t have the books necessary for the course, while the others have all the homework completed. I’m learning how to manage a classroom full of naughty 13-year-olds for the first time, and hopefully this won’t take too long.

I am working with another intern, a master’s student from Bangalore, to conduct a research on how these differences affect the experiences of students, families, and staff members. It is still in the early stages of planning, but we will be collecting data from students, teachers, and staff to examine the impact Southpoint has on various people. More on this later.

I am now halfway done with my 7-week internship now. I’m hoping to make the second half an enriching experience with full of learning and meaningful connections.

Class 9 students in music class.

Class 9 students in music class.

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Tsukumo’s Week 3: Let’s (not) talk about money

The teachers at the Southpoint School are busy preparing for the new school year to start on June 27, but they also don’t forget to enjoy themselves before the busyness of long school days starts to hit them hard. I am assigned to teach music to Class 8 and 9 (8th and 9th grades), and planning to teach basic music reading and some English songs. I’m excited to finally meet these students, and teach the subject I love most.

I appreciate that the teachers take time to talk with me and get to know me, a stranger from abroad. During their downtime, they often teach me Hindi, talk about their food, and ask me what I look for in my husband. (Although I’m not quite ready for marriage yet…)

Another thing they are interested in talking about is how much things cost in the U.S. How much did your iPhone cost? How much do you pay for school? How much does a shirt like ours cost? How much is a typical lunch? To each of these questions, I give out numbers that are unbelievably high for them. A typical kurti (cotton shirt) costs around 300 rupees ($4.50). For 100 rupees ($1.50), you can get yourself a nice lunch. Local “fast food” stands sell finger food starting at 5 rupees (7 cents). Compare that with iPhones that cost $400 (26,800 rupees), a dress from H&M for $15 (1,000 rupees), or my out-of-state tuition for U-M.

Talking about money makes me uncomfortable. Saying that I can afford all of those things is like flaunting my privilege in their faces, which is something I’d rather not do. But of course, my discomfort is not comparable to that of people that constantly face financial difficulty.

A young teacher, just a year older than me, explained the pressure she has on making a choice between marriage and career because of money. She receives no financial support from her parents, and teaching job barely pays enough for her to live. Her parents suggest that the easiest way to support herself is to marry a person that can earn some good money, but she wants to be financially independent and defies marrying against her will. “What do I do?” She asks, but how can I say anything in response? It has never been my reality.

I also had a brief conversation with a young woman I met at Assi Ghat, on the wide steps facing Ganga river. She told me, “I have a brother with an engineering degree who got a job in the U.S. but his visa was denied and he couldn’t take the job. Can you help him find a job in Michigan? Also, is there any jobs available for me there?” Realistically, I know I can’t help with finding jobs, especially for those who need work visas. But she believed that I can make their immigration happen. I am saddened to crush their hopes, but also realize that I’m not the one that’s hurt the most by this news.

I am very privileged, and I am still struggling to approach my privilege with the locals. I may have a lot more material wealth than they do, but I’d rather not take a part in the colonialist, capitalist narrative that defines me as superior because of it — but am I already doing so by coming here? As clueless as I am, I try to do the best thing I can do right now — to tell these stories that I have the privilege of learning about, with respect and sincerity to do them justice.

Indian currency, rupees

Indian currency, rupees. One US Dollar is about 67 rupees.

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Tsukumo’s Week 2: Modernity and Post-colonialism

My first full week at NIRMAN was full of learning, as I continued attending teachers’ training workshops. From Monday to Thursday, we had a professor from an U.S. American college lead intensive workshops on theater design. Since NIRMAN schoolchildren produce at least one major performance each year, it is important for teachers to learn about costume, set, and light design. On Friday and Saturday, teachers presented their research projects on topics they chose, and we engaged in discussions afterwards. During my free time, I have been reading textbooks on modern Indian history (from British rule to independence), preparing to teach on this subject once school opens in a week. I’ve been kept busy.

All of these experiences have been stimulating my thoughts around what it means to be ‘modern’ and ‘post-colonial’. Here are some anecdotes.

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Tsukumo’s Week 1: Work, Heat, and Faith

It’s been a few days since I arrived in India. Everyone I’ve met has been very warm and welcoming. I’m slowly getting used to the brutal heat, and waiting for the monsoon to bring some much-needed rain and cooler air!

I started my work here at NIRMAN last Friday. One of the key components of my internship here is teaching. They have a school for elementary school to high school students, called Vidyashram-Southpoint School, which reopens on June 27 after a long vacation. I will be teaching some classes at this school — I’m not sure exactly what yet, but it will include some English, music, and history. Until the school opens, I’m participating in teachers’ training workshops with a dozen or so teachers, which have been really eye-opening. One of the workshops was a very interesting discussion on interaction between home and school, and how these two environments can work for and against each other in an Indian cultural context. It made me realize how gender-based and age-based discrimination can really affect the students, and how school teachers need to be critical about not recreating that bias in their classrooms. We just started another series of workshop in theater set design, led by an US American professor, since the school produces a show at the end of each school year.

Besides these workshops, I have been exploring Varanasi’s rich traditions by visiting ghats by Ganges river and some historic temples in the area, including the most famous Vishwanath Temple near Dashashwamedh Ghat. It was quite a sight. Dozens, or perhaps hundreds of Hindu visitors in their colorful traditional clothes line up to go into the temple in narrow streets that sell millions of goods including sculptures of holy figures and flowers. I wish I could appreciate all of these better, but I was barely catching up with the person guiding me through the streets. The temple houses various Hindu gods, and visitors pay their respect by putting their hands together, rubbing the statues’ feet, dedicating flowers and leaves, and so on. I don’t know how to describe the emotions I felt watching these and doing some myself, but I can say that I’m grateful for this opportunity and invitation to be a part of some bigger spiritual journey.

I will be participating in more teachers’ training next week, as well as learning more Hindi (I’m trying!). I’m making quite a few new friends through these. So far, I have been doing very well in Varanasi.

Assi Ghat at six in the morning.

Assi Ghat at six in the morning.

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Tsukumo’s Week 0: Preparing for the Un-prepareable

Namaste! My name is Tsukumo, and I’d like to welcome you to my first post on the Summer in South Asia 2016 blog.

It still hasn’t really hit me that I’m about to leave my home next Monday to Varanasi, India, where I will be working with an NGO called NIRMAN. Partially, it’s because I had just come back from a three-week trip to Brazil. (I was part of the PCAP/GCC Brazil program with Professor Ashley Lucas, where I was making and seeing a lot of theater with various local groups.) But mostly, it’s because I can’t believe I’ve finally made all of my plans to leave for India after all the hoops I needed to go through.

Coming to this point took A LOT of patience and flexibility. I applied to the Summer in South Asia (SiSA) program knowing that I wanted to work with a project that combined my interests in arts and social justice, and I prepared an application with such project in mind. I was working on my research question, homestays, and other logistics for months, before and after acceptance to SiSA. However, this plan fell through for unforeseen reasons just a few weeks before I was about to depart. As heartbreaking as it was, I knew that I had to find another plan as soon as possible to stay a SiSA fellow.

Janelle Fosler, our wonderful and hard-working advisor for SiSA, was quick to connect me with Nick Pilarski, a SiSA alumnus from 2012 who has done a project involving theater and political action. Nick helped me get in touch with NIRMAN, an NGO that works with the community to provide education to students of all ages, from English classes to various arts-related workshops. As a music major trained in Western classical music, as well as experience in teaching English as a Foreign Language and leading improv theater workshops as a Prison Creative Arts Project volunteer, I thought perhaps I could offer something for the program and learn how arts can be used to talk about social justice. I feel very lucky that they have offered me an internship position that I will be starting next week!

Located in northern India, Varanasi (a.k.a. Benares, Kashi) is one of the most spiritual cities in the world. Hindus consider this city an important pilgrimage site, abode of Lord Shiva and home to River Ganges that can wash away all sins. I am very excited to get to know this beautiful city over seven weeks, and I know I’ll have a lot more to say about this place after my time there.

I don’t really know what this trip will be like. I try not to have too many expectations going in, except that it will be an experience of a lifetime no matter what happens. (I still have nightmares about my plans falling apart, though. Hopefully, that will stop soon.) With a few cotton clothes, some toiletries, a brand new journal, and my oboe, I hope I am ready for my next adventure.

Trying to learn how to write in Devanagari, script for Hindi and a few other languages. Reminds me of having to learn hundreds of kanji letters in Japanese!

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