The Privilege of Time and Living In-Between

Chantal Tonnessen Smeland


July 12, 2016

Little is known about this special place, but I for one have developed a
love-hate relationship to it. It is like my personal observatory, where
the only thing separating me from the universe is the thick glass dome.
I can lie here comfortably, merely observing and dreaming myself away
into the stars, or I can pace the floor nervously, hushing the beating
claustrophobia.

Although my safe haven, I am stuck here. I alone cannot break the glass ceiling.

My life in India flew by like the promises of politicians- pretty quick.
The only thing really confirming it’s legitimacy are the snaps of
memories flashing by whenever I close my eyes. The kids I worked with,
who helped me more than I helped them, the organisation who gave me
unique access to their world, the families who accepted me as their own,
and whom I appreciate dearly. Given this provided structure I chose, I
did not fall into this stereotypical white European female voluntourist
category- but there were times the fine line separating those two worlds
was nothing but time. I had the time, arguably still not enough, to BE
something here. Develop some kind of role within the communities I
interacted with, create an everyday life, and take part in other
people’s lives. Yet again, the chapter of me returning to Norway was an
inevitable truth that casted its shadow onto our perception of my stay. I
was there to integrate, yet I was bound to leave in less than a year. I
was here to stay and help, be a didi (big sister) for my students, yet I
would leave before the end of the school year.

We all knew I was leaving, and that created both this limitation of integration, and this tiny hidden observatory.

‘Didi, are everyone in Norway pink like you?’. ‘Didi, why aren’t you
teaching us anymore?’. ‘Didi, don’t leave.’. Looking back, I did very
little for these kids, but they did so much for me. I was allowed,
undoubtedly not always by choice, to observe the intricate universe of
their lives and interactions. To see the sacrifices and grit of Teach
For India, the students and their families, my host families, my team. I
was lying there, watching snippets of lives that altogether make Pune
what Pune is. The magician of Koregaon Park, students from Symbiosis,
fruit juice sellers, rickshaw drivers, waste pickers roaming around at
the brink of dawn in their sarees, picking up the never-ending flow of
waste in the chilly fog. The hijras, the Osho ashram dwellers, the
business men and women, the tourists, the kids, the exchange students.
The list is endless, which is what makes Pune Pune. And I was allowed to
peak into most of it, staring at the stars forming this beautiful night
sky from my observatory.

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But my glass dome of a safe haven and privilege was also a reminder of
my limitations. I was a white Norwegian female who had self-nominated
myself to live as a temporarily-integrating foreigner in India. I was
there to try to learn the beautiful language of Hindi, to try to
learn about the cultures and traditions, views and opinions, to do my best to fit in in India- but only for 8 months. 8
months and I would be far gone, and my failure to integrate would only
manifest itself in me having a bit less experience and insight than what
I had wished for. That’s it, bas. Now, wouldn’t people
usually look down at people who fail to integrate? Yes. But I was a
white girl in India, so apart from a heavy wallet and a muddy liver (and
perhaps justifiably so), the general population didn’t expect much from
me. I was a gori in kurta, and so it seemed like most things were
automatically excused. Terrible in Hindi even after an 8 month stay?
People were so positively shocked by the fact that I knew the alphabet, or that a friend, who had lived in India for years, had taken the
liberty to become fluent. I frequently received questions about
why on earth I was wearing Indian attire, instead of my Western clothes
that are pretty immodest as compared to the standard expectation of
general modesty. So at the same time as my attempts of immersion were excused,
it almost felt like the general expectation to parts of my identity limited me
just as much. And so my temporary integration was over.

I returned to Norway, a year older and a bit wiser than when I left. The
refugee crisis was apparent by a more beautifully diverse city- but
there was an interesting turmoil behind it all. Comments like ‘they
don’t deserve to be here, they are not trying at all to integrate and
learn our ways’, ‘they speak in their language to each other, they want
mosques, they only hang out with “their kind”.’ ‘They are only here for a
better life. They are abusing our system and disrespecting our culture.
They should just go back to where they came from!’. They, they, they.
Not only did all these sentiments completely ignore certain realities some of ‘them’
live in, both abroad and in Norway; the sentiments tar everyone with
the same brush, hence devaluing the grit of those really trying to
integrate, and contributing to what we see slowly becoming parallel
societies.

How can we expect people to fully integrate when they are by default limited by our explicit and implicit biases? We have to break the glass ceiling together.

I lived in India for 8 months, far from enough, but it provided me with
some interesting opportunities of insight and introspection. Parts of my identity and course of action gave me
unequivocally undeserved privileges, but the nature of my stay gave me
the biggest of them all:

The unfathomable privilege of living in-between shared laughs, tears,
and experiences, and this hidden observatory. Having the time to
observe, question, learn, appreciate, reflect and introspect as the
beautifully intricate night sky unfolded, and how it ultimately left me
with even more questions than answers.

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Chantal Tonnessen Smeland