Thank you: eye to eye

Junior Stephanie Robichaux, a double major in journalism and anthropology, is spending the spring semester studying with the Semester at Sea program. A few times this semester she, along with other students spread out across the globe, will share her experiences and observations abroad as one of The Hatchet’s “GW expats.”

Earlier in the voyage, on a trip to a market in Brazil with my anthropology professor Gloria, we encountered dozens of begging children. Gloria would look at them, deny their requests for money, and we continued on our way.

“I learned that you can’t give in to every child that begs,” she said. “But I also learned to look them square in the eye when I tell them no. I want to make that connection with them. I want them to know that I recognize their humanity.”

Gloria’s lesson is one that I have come to understand more clearly since leaving India only a week ago. Eye contact is powerful, and not only when dealing with begging, starving children. Looking someone in the eye, regardless of their age, race, income, religion, is to acknowledge their value as a human being. And I have come to believe that it touches both people in a way that no words or physical gesture could.

On my three-day visit to a rural village in southern India, I discovered that looking at someone and smiling was sometimes all I could give them. Unlike the city dwellers I encountered in Chennai, the villagers here did not all speak or understand English. Since I only knew a few words in their language of Tamil, verbal communication was limited. Jayaramapuram is not a tourist destination. It is a farming community, and the 20 of us American students who were staying with a local family were the only white people around.

During our tour of the village, we visited factories – sugarcane and coconut – as well as the village school and a traditional home. Upon entering each place, work slowed down as locals greeted us. They smiled and so did we. I snapped pictures of some of them, attempted to communicate with gestures and pointing, and afterwards placed my hands together, looked them in the eye and said “nandri,” the Tamil word for “thank you.” They usually replied in the same manner. Although it wasn’t much, it was comforting to know that I made a connection with each of them, even if only for a second.

Right before bed on the last night of our home stay in that small Indian village, our host mother Purni summoned us to the front of the house to tell us that a group of local men had come to play their drums for us. We grabbed our white plastic chairs from inside and took them to the dirt driveway in front of the house.

Half a dozen dark Indian men in tattered clothes stood barefooted on a concrete slab. The condition of their drums was not much better than that of their clothes. The leather was worn, a couple of the skins had holes and the jingle bells they wore around their ankles were rusted. I guessed that their instruments were one of the few valuable items that the men owned, some of them probably passed down from their fathers and so on.

They immediately began to pound on their drums, moving in a circle, stomping the ground as the bells on their ankles jingled. After the first number, we applauded and Purni encouraged us to join them in dancing. Some of us did, awkwardly moving in the circle, clearly not blessed with the same rhythm that they had mastered. We watched their feet, trying to imitate their movements; they seemed to be dancing on air. We looked like we were trying to kill scurrying cockroaches.

The men’s eyes were on our feet the whole time. Occasionally they glanced at one another and their drums to assure that they were in sync. During a brief intermission, the villagers left to tighten the leather on their drums. Some of the guys on our trip tried to convince Purni to join us in the circle. She said she couldn’t dance. They said they had yet to meet an Indian woman who wasn’t a beautiful dancer. She may have been flattered, but she didn’t budge.

Eventually, Purni grew tired of them hassling her and calmly explained that it would not be appropriate for her to join us.

“These men are part of what was originally the Dalits, the Untouchables,” Purni said. “A woman in a higher caste would not be respected if she was seen dancing with Untouchables.”

Part of me wanted to question her beliefs and tell her that the drummers were not less human because of their nearly black skin. I realized that the caste system may be illegal, but it is still alive and well in parts of rural India. A law simply cannot erase ideas entrenched in people’s minds, but I was an outsider and not in the position to judge.

A few minutes later the drummers returned. The students all joined the circle. The men tried to slow down, gradually adding on to their steps in hopes that we would perform a little better. We were grateful, but the technique was not successful. They continued to watch our lead feet.

The whole night I had been watching the men’s faces. I wanted one of them to look at me, to see my smile and know that I appreciated their talent. I was honored to have them welcome us so openly into their community and then give up time with their families to perform for us. But not one of them ever did.

For the past three days, eye contact had been enough; it wasn’t ideal, but it was fulfilling. In that moment, as I walked back into the house and they left down the dirt driveway, I wondered if the simple act of joining them in dance, our applause, our cheers were enough. For me, it wasn’t.

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