Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Who Speaks for Yourself

I now understand American society a lot better upon getting away from it. After going to India, I feel that I have arrived at new insights regarding Americans’ struggle for upward mobility and the way this effort differs from the endeavors of those living in third-world countries. I feel that Americans strive upwards and aim to enter the professional middle-class because this ambition is perceived as a necessity. However, for people in third-world countries, it is a want, a desire; it is more personal. And this realization came about in a conversation I had with one of the past boarders of the Gandhi Ashram School, Viraj, who now attends college in Darjeeling and came back to the School for winter vacation.

The conversation between Viraj and me took place one night, when I went to visit the room where the male boarders lived. Upon climbing the stairs up to their room, I saw one of the most spectacular views of India. I saw mountain ranges, decorated by the lights that originated from the other residents on the hills of Kalimpong. Standing together at the top of the stairs with the lights of Kalimpong reaching out to us, we began to discuss the divisions within my culture and the corresponding unity within his. Viraj and I first started to chat lightheartedly about how certain situations at Gandhi Ashram (GA) would rarely happen in American schools—like the brotherly and sisterly love that the older kids provide for their younger classmates. From this, we progressed on to question why this is the case. Why is this familial love between upperclassmen and lowerclassmen so rare in American elementary and junior high schools? This may be pessimistic of me, but I cannot imagine a school in America that would operate as efficiently as GA, if grades kindergarten through the eighth grade were all housed in one building. And Viraj interestingly suggested that, “They [students at GA] just want to learn,” and that, “…they lose nothing from it.”

From Viraj’s response, I began to see how all the students at GA were closely connected. They all held common aspirations, which became more apparent when the seventh and eight graders gave their “I Have a Dream” speeches during the closing assembly. Their common aspiration to educate themselves is obvious, but the commonality that truly bonds these students together is their need to improve their socio-economic status. But such efforts are driven by a more personal desire because, as Viraj said, “they lose nothing from it.” Their pressure to become future engineers, professors, or lawyers originates from their individual want to live a good life and to provide for their families. They improve themselves in order to improve their status, but in America, the situation is unfortunately reversed. Americans tend to care about the status and then concern themselves with how to get there. I see this a lot as a senior in college. Many of my friends are distraught over not knowing what they will do after graduation, and I cannot help but wonder why: why are they so hung up on the idea that they need to have plans? They all want to become a member of the professional middle-class without really knowing if this is something they personally want. They are not “speaking” for themselves, which is a problem that Dipesh Chakrabarty discusses in his essay. When detailing the education of women and the portrayal of women in Bengali literature, he exposes how much of this content revolves around a European context, which directly speaks to his thesis on Eurocentrism. Chakrabarty, however, does this not only to expose the way the European sense of modernity or standard is often imposed onto Indian or other cultures in a position of subalternity, but the way this practice happens unknowingly. Therefore, if Indian history is lost through this process of imposition from Europe, then are Americans subjected to the same fate as subaltern cultures?

My answer would be yes, unless Americans learn from the students at GA and start to speak for themselves.

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