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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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.

2 thoughts on “Tsukumo’s Week 3: Let’s (not) talk about money

  1. I think sharing your stories helps others gain perspective and knowledge about justice, immigration, etc. You will come back with so many stories that taught you a lot — and no, you can’t change their fate but you are helping by being there!

  2. The questions you’re asking yourself are really good, and it’s important that you are asking them. Being aware of privilege is a big step, and unfortunately one that not everyone is able to take. But your point of sincerity and respect are two of the biggest steps a person can make, especially when they are in the situation you are in of trying to help and do right by them. If there is ever doubt, just look around at all the smiling faces you get to share music with.

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