Listen with the Ear of Your Heart
For many of my college friends, home is a sunny island in the Bahamas or Trinidad, a bustling neighborhood in Los Angeles or New Jersey, a megacity in Asia, a charming town in Bosnia, or a vibrant city in Latin America. Surviving four years in the Nordic climes and small town atmosphere of Central Minnesota is no easy undertaking for many students at CSB|SJU. The food is bland, the wait for the bus too cold, and the desire to return to more familiar surroundings and one’s “normal” is never far away.
A question that was often brought up on my college campus was why do all of the international students sit together in the dining center? On Tuesday I gained an entirely new understanding of the international (or out of state) student experience (Tiffany, you were right). As I walked around campus, melting in the humid heat, I hoped to see familiar faces, craved familiar food in the canteen, and yearned to hear the sort of Midwestern English that my brain can process without trying. Instead I was greeted by perplexed and questioning stares, an unfamiliar language, and more red tape between me and a set class schedule. In many moments I wanted to give up and go home. The international student experience, which I always understood on a philosophical level, is now a “duh” that I can feel in my gut.
When you are an outsider there are a few of you and a whole lot of “them”. I have found comfort in the company of the other international students I have met. Whether from the U.S., Australia, Germany, France, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh, we are equally outsiders, not part of the 1.2 billion Indians inhabiting this country we will call home for one or more years. However I know from my experience studying abroad in Chile that I would miss out on an incredible opportunity if I confine myself to this comfortable circle of foreigners for the entire year. I am excited to meet my Indian classmates once I settle into a course schedule, and learning Hindi will no doubt increase my ability and comfort level to interact with other students.
My day took a turn for the better when we decided to hit up one of the huge malls for curtains. We arrived by auto to DLF Emporio, a gaudy complex complete with landscaping and fountains. I was surprised, and questioned whether I should be appalled, by the instant comfort created in the luxurious capitalist surroundings. I think Anna four years ago would have balked at the tragedy of globalization and overindulgence of the world’s economic elite at the expense of the poor and the world’s unique cultures. But today was no day for judging. I was looking for reprieve and the first thing I saw was an enormous Forever 21 billboard calling my name. We enjoyed an hour or so of air-conditioned retail therapy, though it was mostly window shopping. The familiar surroundings of the shopping complex gave me the energy to tackle an afternoon of furniture shopping in Munirka.
As we drove back from DLF to the sunny and dusty furniture market to buy desks and living room furniture we passed one of Delhi’s slums. The economic contrast less than one mile from the mall is overwhelming and indescribable.
Even though it is right in front of me, I find it impossible to understand the harsh poverty of the slums or discern an appropriate response to the street children who beg at every corner. I was told not to give money to beggars, as it condemns them to a life of poverty, but every time I brush past a needy person on the street I feel hardened and helpless. The conflict I cannot resolve inside me is the fact that I did not choose to be born a Caucasian female in the United States or adopted by two college educated parents in an upper middle class income bracket. I did not choose my place and privilege in this world any more than those children chose to grow up in an urban slum in India. Sure, I’ve worked to get where I am. I spent long hours studying in college and practiced my public speaking skills to gain the chance to study for one year in India. I love my life and would be hard pressed to change anything about it, but why was I, Anna Schumacher, born at a starting place more economically advantaged than so many people in this world?
The same Anna who would have been disgusted by the extravagance of the mall also felt extremely guilty that postion of privilege. My white privilege, Christian privilege, American privilege, economic privilege, educated privilege, were burdens that I carried with me and often tried to conceal. It has been an inner journey to accept these privileges as gifts and tools that can provide an advantage not only to me, but to those around me in the human family. Once I stopped trying to hide or negate my privilege I found incredible new stores of energy from which to draw in my work for the world. I started taking care of myself, suddenly feeling deserving of such care, and found renewed energy to take care of and stand alongside friends, family, or strangers.
I was reminded in a letter from home recently that this year in India is an experience to be lived through the HEART, not the mind. The answer to my question of privilege and place is not a logical one that I can uncover with rational thought. It is an answer I must seek in my heart. If you ask yourself the same question you will discern a different answer and the feeling that comes with it will reside not necessarily make sense in your brain, but it will resonate in your innermost self. It makes me think of the first line in the Rule of Saint Benedict in which we are invited to :
Listen with the ear of your heart.
There are certain realities in life which we cannot understand cerebrally; certain things that must be felt. These experiences are the subjects of paintings, dance, theater and spoken word, the experiences only sound and movement can convey. The reason National Geographic has so many pictures is because the most powerful parts of the human experience are impossible to convey in words. Each day I am offered a multitude of such realities. Each is a blessing. I am listening, with the ear of my heart.