In the countdown towards the 1st August and my flight out of India, it’s easy to speculate as to where all the time is gone, how a year is over so fast and is it really possible I’m going home in a mere matter of weeks? However I look back to September 11th 2012 and my naive thoughts and ideas of what the world was, how I would be able to make a difference and everything I would do during my Gap Year at Vidya Vanam. When I realise what has changed and the things I have achieved during my year, it’s easy to see what has happened to the time.
We were thrust into the stereotype of India in our first few weeks: a mix up with PT meant that our school actually had a half term holiday about 5 days after we were meant to arrive so we were traveling all the way down to Anaikatti, just to return to Hyderabad shortly after. A frantic few days at the police station in Coimbatore, hoping to get our residential permit quickly but falling pray to the copious amounts of tedious paperwork and ridiculous regulations. On our return of one of these many journeys the car jolted to a swift halt, yes, it was our first sighting of an elephant.
This introduction to India just confirmed my deeply rooted stereotypes of wild animals, arranged marriage, corruption and poverty. It’s not until now, when I talk with friends from home, or think back to the early days of life here, that I realise how much I have learnt. Yes, our children see elephants on a daily basis, but it’s not the magical sight that we Westerners imagine. These animals destroy crops, ruin buildings and are a source of fear. Yes, lots of people have arranged marriage. However the thinking behind it is not the same as is portrayed in Western news channels. Parents don’t just match their sons with whichever potential wife has the biggest dowry and children agree to arranged marriage because they want the ongoing support of their family when they have difficulties, which they may not necessarily receive in a love marriage. And yes of course there is corruption, of course there is poverty, but after a year living somewhere you learn that these things are not unbeatable barriers, simply something which must be changed for India to progress and they certainly don’t affect everyone.
Working at Vidya Vanam was not what I expected. In the typical overly confident way of a cocky teenager, I imagined I would be instantly accepted by everyone, have great relationships with my colleagues, be constantly busy with visits to friends houses and school work and be adored by all the children as well as also being fluent in Tamil, an expert at applying mehindi (henna) and a wonderful dancer and cook within a few weeks. Surprise surprise, this wasn’t the case. Little children took one look at my white skin, their eyes widened and they began to cry, instead of jumping into my welcoming arms they ran off in the opposite direction. As an unqualified 17 year old, management were not quick to give me any responsibility. Days of sitting in the library, pestering people to give me work and always looking for something to do to prove myself, finally led to being allowed to take control of a class alone. Colleagues who had limited English and came from insular backgrounds were happy to have a polite chat with me in the staff room, but I wasn’t inundated with their constant conversation let alone invites to their homes/marriages/house warming parties. As for the Tamil, mehindi, cooking and dancing, well, anybody who knows me will realise I’m likely not a professional.
In one way, I can look at this and say, ‘damn, I didn’t achieve any of my goals,’ but in another, more positive light I actually believe I have achieved more. I may not have made an impact on anyone here, that’s intangible and probably can only be proved in the years to come, but everyone here has impacted my own life and way of thinking.
I think about the little boy with big ears who now knows the difference between morning and afternoon because I have corrected him when he says ‘good morning’ to me at 4pm, every single day. The other boy who is now convinced Scotland is under a dictatorship from England and who is desperate for us to get independence. Or the girls who were giggling at me the other day, as they remembered ceilidh practice for Annual Day and how much I had to shout to make them behave and dance properly. I think about all my children and how they affect me, and I realise that even if it is just in some small way, I hope I’ve had an impact on all the children at Vidya Vanam.