Nearly two weeks ago now I had the opportunity to spend some time in the city of Jodhpur, not too far from the Pakistani border in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Why it has taken me two weeks to put my thoughts on the experience to paper (or to keyboard, really) should become apparent as you read on. The reason behind the hefty degree of contemplation and emotional processing that went into this is simple. During my time in Jodhpur, I was staying here, at what was possibly the nicest hotel I have ever been to in my entire life:
Meanwhile, the subject of my research and study, a community of Pakistani refugees, were living here:
For them, there was no pool (Complete with waterfall. I am not kidding.) surrounded by gardens where they could relax after an emotionally taxing day of research. There was no indoor plumbing, much less one of those fancy showerheads that simulates an actual rain shower. There was no veranda outside their room, no rickshaw to take them into the old city at night to peruse the markets or view the clocktower. Now, granted, this standard of living far exceeds that which I typically experience in the U.S., and it is important to note that I was only in this hotel in the first place because it happens to be owned by the niece of Ramaji, one of the wonderful staff at the institute where I am studying. My real questions, though, are bigger than why I was in a fancy hotel.
What other than sheer dumb luck, allowed me to be born in a country where practicing a “rival” religion, in this case Hinduism, is never grounds for me to be excluded from the rights of citizenship? What made me so lucky as to be born with a skin tone that opens me up to privilege the world over, which so many darker-skinned women use harmful skin whitening creams to achieve? The answer is, quite frankly, nothing that I deserved. And thus, my friends, the haphazard solution that I have concocted to help me confront the enormous feeling of injustice and privilege that visiting the refugee settlement has roused within me is this: a letter. Here goes.
This letter is addressed to every American who has ever ventured into the developing world in order to “broaden their own horizons.” This letter is addressed to every American who has ever taken a photo with a nameless brown-skinned child and then made it their Facebook profile picture in some vain effort to proclaim to their friends back home how worldly a traveler they are. To every American who has ever visited a refugee camp, or a slum, or an impoverished village and spent most of the time walking around with a camera hanging from their neck, only to reference the experience later as “life-changing.” To every American who has ever sought out the perfect National Geographic-esque photo of a human being both darker and poorer than they are without taking the time to learn their name or even ask their permission first. To every American who has had the gall, after witnessing extreme destitution, to call the experience “fun.” To every American who has ever vacationed in a 5-star resort in a country where $1 per day is the average income without taking even a moment to learn what life is really like outside of the resort’s plush rooms and air-conditioned tour buses.
My intent with this letter is not to point my finger at every other American world traveler while implying that I am above such behaviors. I am writing this letter for exactly the opposite reason. I have been that person at the 5-star resort. I have carried around my camera when it wasn’t appropriate, and I have had fun while doing it. Rather, I am writing this letter because it took a single visit to a settlement of Pakistani refugees to reveal to me just how wrong my approach had been. Taking pictures of these people wouldn’t help them, only myself. Plastering a small child’s face, however adorable it may be, on my Facebook wall would be entirely self-serving. But taking a step back and realizing how much privilege there is in being able to visit for a few hours a place that these people, who have every reason to hate me but instead welcome me with open arms, have called home for years. I can leave on a nice comfortable bus, but they don’t even have electricity or water. I can’t fix these problems in one visit, and trying to call attention to them by taking photos or filling out a petition to a government I don’t fully understand won’t fix them either. But what I can do is put down the camera and really see these people – not through a lens, but with my soul. I can see and absorb and watch and learn and hope desperately that one day something I will do will make a difference to someone somewhere, even though realistically it probably won’t be them.
For those of you who might be interested in a more scathing yet eloquent enunciation of these same sentiments, I highly recommend checking out Ivan Illich’s essay “To Hell with Good Intentions.” He says it far better than a ranting and disgruntled white girl ever could. In fact, I will conclude this letter with his words:
“If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell. It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you. And it is profoundly damaging to yourselves when you define something that you want to do as “good,” a “sacrifice” and “help.”
I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on [the developing world]. I am here to challenge you to recognize your inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the “good” which you intended to do.
I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status and your education to travel… Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.”