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.

Interacting with teachers and students have exposed many problems that exist in Indian society today, especially in education. Attending the teachers’ training classes in my first three weeks of internship exposed the problems of inequality that the teachers have experienced personally. Being at a school like Vidyashram where boys and girls learn next to each other (as opposed to “boys in front and girls in back” model used in some private schools) makes me forget the reality that some girls are still discouraged from pursuing the same level of education as their male counterparts, and some may even be beaten or punished for wanting to learn. As someone whose educational opportunities were never questioned or denied, this reality is difficult to grasp and process.

One of the biggest questions that I was attempting to answer is how the history of British colonization has affected the Indian society today, which has been facilitated by many experiences during my stay. The portion of Indian history that I taught to eighth grades has shown the effects of unjust British rule acting solely on entitlement and self-indulgence, which makes me furious just to read about them. I have spent most of my life in Japan and the United States, both of which have histories of colonizing others. Also, I have the privilege of having enough funds to travel to different parts of the world, while many others do not. I try to be as aware as possible about the impact that my presence has in a country that has been highly exploited by colonizers. The last thing I want is to be another “tourist” and “colonizer” that disrespects intelligence and wisdom that the local people have, and imposes my own way of thinking. However, I cannot speak the local language and understand the local culture fully, and have the choice of going back to a very privileged country with some of the harshest immigration policies. The past seven weeks consisted of constant questioning within myself about how to cope with my “foreign” status and privilege.

Ruins of the First War of Independence in 1857.

Ruins of the First War of Independence in 1857.

Learning Indian classical music and teaching music to eighth and ninth graders helped me grow as a musician. As a music major that plays Western classical music for the most part, learning the intricacies of Indian classical music was quite a challenging task. Most of the music repertoire written for my instrument (oboe) do not carry the same emotional and moral values carried by the music I learned here. Indian classical music is usually not performed in concert halls – it is part of people’s daily life, especially their spiritual life. A walk to the ghats (sacred bathing sites) by Ganga River easily proves this fact; music can be heard from each and every small temple along the local roads, and music is offered to the gods every morning at sunrise and sunset. To be invited to learn this whole new world of music as a foreigner is an enormous privilege, and I want to show my appreciation by continuing my pursuit of Indian classical music. On the other hand, I am glad that I was able to share the music that I love – “Lean On Me” sung by Bill Withers, “Smile” sung by Nat King Cole, and Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” composed by by Antonin Dvorak – with eighth and ninth grade students that have never seen music staffs or heard of orchestras before. It was quite challenging to prepare them for a final performance in front of their parents, but my hope is that students took away something from eight sessions I had with them over the course of a month.

Farewell cards from Class 9 (left) and Class 8 (right) students.

Farewell cards from Class 9 (left) and Class 8 (right) students.

I am grateful for the opportunity to visit Varanasi, India, and work with some of the most dedicated people in the realm of Indian education reform. My heartfelt thanks goes to everyone at NIRMAN who supported me throughout my stay, and Summer in South Asia Fellowship for making this a reality (despite some major unforeseen changes in plans!).

P.S. Now that I have a more reliable wifi access, I added a few photos to my past posts. Please check them out! Thank you for reading.

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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.

One thought on “Tsukumo’s Week 8: Reflections

  1. Tsukumo, that is wonderful. Your ability to throw yourself into the culture and learn so much, while showing sincere respect, is great. There’s such a difference between being shown a culture, and trying to understand what something means to the people in that culture. Music is such a strong bond, similar to sharing food and holidays, but music allows you to delve deeper into that culture and see how it really affects people. It’s really fun to read about!

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