Why I Pressed The Reset Button

Friends and family have hounded me with questions for the past months and I have to admit that I have deliberately avoided people so I won’t have to narrate the darker stories I kept in my trunk about India and everything else related to it. It was tiring to repeat everything I went through, both good and bad, at a time when wounds are still being licked and blows obviously still felt as harsh as the first time it was thrown my way. I needed time and a good excuse.

After wallowing in self-pity  and rubbing all my negative energy on good people for weeks (I am sorry by the way), I decided to pack all my belongings and just let my feet take me to where ever it took me. I couldn’t afford to continue acting like a discarded lap dog. I was not ready to move forward but I knew that I had to get started soon since I have deadlines to consider. Four countries after, I am back where I was. I ended up choosing Bangkok again for reasons that I will not argue with.

BKK

“So what happened?” you asked. Like  what usually happens when you’re busy making other plans – Life. Life happened. My life happened and not the fabricated one that I insisted on claiming as mine.

Six months ago, I geared up to finally make my volunteering dream come true. I have been entertaining the thought for ten years so you could just imagine how excited I was to finally make a difference. I went all out in my fundraising project and went an extra mile to balance my work in Thailand then and my trainings in the Philippines – flying to and back for compliance. Although I was physically tired, I didn’t care. I was going to make it happen and I did. At last, I was first sent to India to work with a relatively new organization that helped in advocating for free education. It was perfect—perfect until things started unraveling.

Good intentions, sadly, were not enough.

Fighting It

My desire to help was sincere but no amount of sincerity have really prepared me for the truth – the truth about being in the community, the truth about working with development work advocates, and the truth or untruth about what the media wants us to believe. What started out to be a spirited fight for getting into the system and making change happen ebbed into clawing my way out of it due to frustration. I waged war without the right ammunition. Despite of undergoing a series of trainings and self-paced learning, I realized that my knowledge of development work was quite limited and my idea of India was even more limited. The ‘out-of-cycle’ circumstance that I was in made my already limited knowledge a lot more constrained.

I was a fish out of water in a community that I knew so little about. Except for the familiar poverty that they were attached to, I knew almost close to nothing about the people I wanted to help. I remember struggling to communicate with Bengali locals who were displaced. I could barely speak Hindi and to interact with people whose native tongue were Bengali made the whole experience even more frustrating. I was speaking English and desperately tried to make the message clear through body expressions but they would still not understand me. I remember sitting through hours of a consultation where I listened to Hindi the whole time and feeling like a wallflower. I remember gathering data and listening to respondents talk in Hindi, then waiting for the translator to finish explaining what was said in English with a nagging thought that a lot of things were intentionally left out or were lost during the translation. I remember addressing this language barrier by getting Hindi lessons only to be told to set this aside because I had other priorities to take care of – priorities that I could have efficiently finished without bothering other people if I had a basic grasp of the language at least. The frustration grew everyday because I wanted to help but the help I can offer was quite confined.

unraveling truth

As days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, I stumbled upon things about India which broke my heart a thousand times over. These things, in most days, overwhelmed the beauty of India. I saw how the caste system still controlled people’s way of living, even the people I was working with who were supposed to have been more aware. I listened to self-righteous social workers who still discriminate upon those who they categorized as belonging to the lowest varna – the ‘Shudras’ and who placed the ‘Brahmins’ in a pedestal without even realizing it. I became a silent spectator of workers being slave-driven by those who held higher positions – the same people who preached about equality and claimed to eradicate poverty – and were forced to accept everything because they needed their jobs to survive. I quote them saying, “We are lucky to have this job. It’s hard but it provides for our families.” I watched a grown man cry silently because his pride was stripped off of him when his own desperation was used against him. I gossiped with co-workers who say that the boss has been asking in secret if they have been talking to me about their predicament and threatening them not to tell me anything. I met young people who were convinced to march in the streets, lay out their problems in public, and do ‘visitor performances’ for a cause that did not entirely ensure their safety.  I worked with people in an organization that refused to understand the concept of cultural difference and viewed every honest comment as an attack or as a hidden agenda. I read accounts of money wasted on extravagant but less important things. I listened to stories of women brutally abused while the patriarchal society turned a blind eye so as not to shake the centuries-old foundation that has kept women in the dark.

I don’t expect people to understand but when you know where your breaking point is, you stop. There is more sense to stop than continue when you have imagined yourself hanging on your accursed ceiling fan. It shouldn’t be a dilemma most especially when you have gone beyond trying. I didn’t come to India to commit suicide, nor did I come to India to lose my sense of self-worth. I came because I wanted to help and although it hurts me to admit the truth, my heart was not ready. Other people may be able to do more than what I can offer, bless their souls, but then I am not like other people. There are other ways, other means that I can do to contribute to change. I learned that there is no such label as ‘small’ in volunteering. Any kind of help – whichever part in the world you are in, whatever organization you belonged to (or do not belong to), however you do it – is always appreciated.

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I am still a volunteer. Although I do not do it full time anymore and I have gone back to teaching professionally, I still take part in small projects during the weekends or during my free time. I help in any way I can without the bureaucracy of an organization nor the pressure of a job title. I help to still be part of a movement because I continue to believe that people should give change a chance.  I help not to get paid, nor to uphold an organization. I help because I want to and not because I was required to.


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