I wish to tell you about my time as a voluntary social worker and my inter-cultural experiences in India. First of all I would like to tell about myself.
My name is Simon Bering (19 years old) from Cologne, in West Germany. My idea to spend a year in India was based on an experience with the help of AFS Germany in Paraguay. As a young boy of fifteen years, I had the pleasure to spend one year in the heart of South America on high-school student program. I enjoyed getting in touch with foreign culture and people. Different mentality, behaviour, language, habits and traditions, in short the culture of the country was something new for me. It stood in a big contrast to my life back home in Germany. I did not understand all of what I experienced at the time but it left a lasting impression on me.
Back in Germany I finished my school and all my attention focused on my vocational plans for the future. I wanted to gain practical experience to raise new issues after a long school period. My intention to spend a year abroad as a social worker was driving ne to make a life experience, in a country that offers me an inter-cultural challenge. To become active in social projects on the one hand and to support the inter-cultural exchange on the other hand attracted me a lot. So I decided to spend a gap year in India through FSL India as an English Teacher in a tribal school.
Now I am already ten-month in this beautiful country. It has impressed me a lot with its incomparable places and people. A peninsula with large borders from the Himalaya till the cost of Sri Lanka! Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jains and Jews are all part of the same society. It is the biggest “democracy” in the world. Paradoxically caste, gender and religion still have a huge influence in the everyday lives of the people. Furthermore India’s rapid economic growth has brought increased wealth to India’s expending middle classes. This stands in stark contrast with the fact that huge numbers of children suffer from malnutrition and poor people in India than in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. These points illustrate the fact that India is a county of opposites and that makes it a compelling and unique part of the world.
The cultural differences between the Western World and India are enormous. To get in contact with Indian cultures was probably my main aim in the last months of my stay. Especially with regards to the behaviour of people, the differences are very visible. To give you an impression, I would like to illustrate it with some examples: It starts with very small behavioural-rules like the apology you offer if you touch someone with your feet. Respect plays an important role, in how people interact with each other. Mainly in interactions between younger and elder people, the norms and conventions of communication are extremely visible. The respect for elders is essential.
To gain a deeper insight into thoughts and actions of the Indian people depends on both, personal self-reflection and my continuing experiences of India. Firstly, I noticed that the norms and conventions are only the superficial part of the culture. To understand the people’s behaviour one needs to understand their ways of thinking and what influences the thinking. Only with this understanding one can expect go deeper into the Indian cultures. The key for this aim is communication.
Two parts of my daily life have especially brought me into constant contact with Indian cultures. On the one side there is my host-family and of cause the project work. First I would like to give you an impression about the relationship with my host-family. When I came to this family in the August of the last year, I was the first volunteer to stay with them. That made it quite difficult in the beginning. They had no experience with foreigners from the Western Word, and I had no experience of Indian cultures. I am very lucky that their English is good enough so that we could talk with each other. That obviously made communication much easier. Our relationship is growing constantly. Of course there were difference of opinion, but paradoxically I always saw the good side of it.
The daily life with my host-family offered me a deep insight into the Indian cultures. Through conversation and observation I was able to gain access to many different cultures, subcultures, metaphysical philosophises and how they impacted on this family which manifested itself when the family totally reconstructed with the principle of the “Saral Vaastu” philosophy. This made me to appreciate that the reality is largely socially constructed and therefore a subjective term.
I am well-accepted member of the host-family. But I still kept my autonomy. Through them I had the chance to take part in traditional functions, ceremonies and marriages. Consequently this reinforced me the important role the extended family plays in Indian life. My host-family belongs to the Coorg cast, which is a very small and inclusive community. The family has its own traditions, which consist of attributes like the special food, music, festivals, language traditional dress and strong patriotism. This patriotism is represented by the fact that many Coorgis serve in armed forces and the police service. Therefore I got the unique chance to study one of the Indians lesser known subcultures. I guess that my host-family was the biggest support, which enabled me to get in touch with certain Indian cultures.
Being a teacher in an Indian school helped me become a part of the local community. The communication in school was not as easy as it was in my host-family. As was the case in my host-family, I was also the first long term volunteer in the Basavanahalli Ashram School. It was much more difficult to cope with the communication problem in the school than in my host-family. The teachers’ English-knowledge was so limited that it was impossible for me to communicate with them clearly. Today the situation has improved and we converse without hesitation fluently. I never felt that the language barrier was a reason to avoid contact with them. I could realise that we were pursuing the same goal. It was a very nice experience to be part of this working community. My relationship with them developed on both the professional and the personal level. This in turn created a comfortable atmosphere. We often spoke about our families, biographical backgrounds, interests and the common work we shared. These exchanges were pleasant and interesting. Unfortunately my time at this school is almost past. The summer-holidays made me to think that I have only two more weeks left in my project after which I will go back to Germany. Overall the collaboration has been wonderful.
In conclusion I have gained a lot from my cultural experience, in my time as a volunteer thanks to FSL-India. I have learned a lot about the Indian cultures, which stand in such a big contrast to my own. Therefore I also found out some aspects about my own culture that I would never have seen without this contrast. For example my point of view changed, in the sense that I now judge more carefully. To see situations through the eyes of another culture can often change the way we think and behave. I do not see India any more from an ethnocentric point of view, like I did when first arrived. During my time in India I feel like I have become more open minded. These contrasting points of views have enabled me to deal with problems in a more flexible manner. This has resulted due to the expansion of my own personal philosophy which has expended, so that it now incorporates aspects of the many cultures and philosophises I have been exposed to, during my stay in India.
I can highly recommend spending a year as a voluntary social worker in India to everyone who is interested in foreign cultures. It is a wonderful challenge that gives one and the people you come in contact with a fantastic chance to share in each other’s culture.
FSL-India Volunteer from Germany