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“Service,” Part 1 – It’s the Relationships

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A scene from Gonpa Village, northwest of Leh city. By mid-May, the vegetation returns to the mountains with a flourish, attempting to take advantage of the very short growing season.

I returned to Ladakh in early May. (For some background on why I was away from Leh in the first place, see this post.) I did not know what to expect at the time, but I was awash with strong feelings for a few days thereafter. I wish I could say that it “felt like coming home,” but that is not the case. Yes, I was delighted with the familiarity of the place. I loved going on my evening walks through the mountains again, and seeing all the people who have been hospitable and welcoming to me before. Coming back to Ladakh was literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air. But it wasn’t the same thing as returning home.

From conversations I’ve had with some of my co-Fellows, I know that our experiences have varied widely in terms of how “at-home” we have felt at our various placements. I’m not the only one to feel a bit out of place. While I love Ladakh and will advocate for the region any chance I get, it has been clear to me from the beginning that it would never feel like “home.” I have continually felt like a guest here. That’s neither good nor bad, it simply is the case.

However, I suspect that I made a conceptual mistake early-on. Prior to ever setting foot in the region, I got wrapped up in the idea that the only way for me to be successful as a Fellow was to “integrate” into Ladakhi community. When it became clear after a few months that I was flubbing that integration, it sent me all awry. I’ve spent a lot of time being confused.

An interesting feeling that I’ll share is this: I’ve felt guilty about feeling like a guest here. The guilt came from the idea that I was failing in my duty to “become a part” of Ladakhi community. In hindsight, that failure was inevitable. I was approaching integration from the wrong place, conceptually and emotionally.

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A float from the recent procession in Leh, celebrating the birth of the Buddha.

Before I point out where I went wrong, I would like to point out that the language of “integration” is ubiquitous in the “service” narrative. I’m not convinced that’s the right approach. I believe it’s a potentially dangerous kind of conceit that envisions “becoming a part of the community” for anybody in a situation similar to my own. I am white, American, middle-class, male, and highly educated. In other words, I have very little in common with my host communities. Integration isn’t simply a matter of showing up with good intentions.

I believe I have gone to far greater lengths than most visitors to understand life in Ladakh, but the more I learned, the more I realized I would need far more time to understand the nuance of the place. How could I possibly learn everything I needed to learn in a mere ten months, especially struggling with Ladakhi language the way I was? I can’t even remember the correct way to greet monks when I meet them.

I’ve spent a lot of my time here wondering when it was appropriate for me to do something out of step with how my hosts have been doing things for years, or even to suggest changes. This cautious approach has often resulted in a kind of “polite paralysis” – unsure how or when to assert my own experience and education. I have held my tongue a lot, not wanting to upset anyone, unsure how to even open the doors to good communication. Once or twice, when I let my tongue loose, it flapped like a pent-up bird, and I did upset others. It was mildly unpleasant for all of us.

Rather than this walking on eggshells, then, wouldn’t it be better to conceptualize myself as an advisor? As, perhaps, a consultant? As the outsider I necessarily am?

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A friendly donkey who greets me on my evening walks in Leh city.

Epistemically speaking, I come from the up-most echelons of privilege. While I’ve never pretended otherwise, I try not to abuse my status or overwhelm anyone with my education. Sometimes that means that merely opening my mouth is like going on a jog through a minefield. I do occasionally slip up, despite my better efforts. What I have come to see recently is that being hyper-sensitive to my own differentness is too high a hurdle to clear – it’s like sabotaging myself from a misplaced sense of correctness and courtesy. Here’s the important part: It’s the “being hyper-sensitive” part that is the problem, not the “being different.”

Nonetheless, this is a recent revelation. Prior to this, I had grown weary. I don’t belong here, not as a Ladakhi does, and that’s not something I can change through hard work or any amount of wishing. I have even begun to suspect that “attempting to belong here” may be a demeaning exercise – demeaning to the depth of the history and culture of this place. Even ignoring the epistemic issues (which are insurmountable – my Americanness, for example), it would take years to begin to find an appropriate balance of otherness and connection. Ten months just isn’t enough time.

What is important for my particular situation is that much of the work I have been trying to do is literally fundamental – I have been researching and writing a strategic plan for the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (complete with an analysis of SLC-IT’s portfolio of programs and projects). Such a project necessarily puts me in conflict with the organization’s inertia. The response has been good overall, but my own sensation that I am out of my league is sometimes really strong.

I guess the moral of my story lately is this: self-denial is no better a path to service than is uncritical domination. And I wish I had realized earlier that it was not necessary to “integrate” to be of service.

I have come to believe that the best conceptual basis for service is not “assimilation” but “friendship.” It would have been better for me to frame my involvement here as a “good neighbor” rather than an “adopted son.” The former respects the fence (respects the differentness), the latter pretends it isn’t there. Coming from my epistemic standpoint, with all the (sometimes unfortunate) baggage that carries, I believe the “friendship” route is the only honest way to approach service with.

All of this thinking has underscored the importance of relationship-building for me. In that realm, I’m not a natural – it takes serious effort for me. And it is in that realm that my host organization has taught me quite a lot. In my next post, I’ll be writing about how SLC-IT has forged crucial relationships within their community, and the (very small) part I played in that process.

1 Comment
  1. Janan Dave
    Janan Dave

    Tim – thanks for your thoughtfulness and honesty. While Bangalore has come to feel like home, the unique experience of being a fellow for a limited period of time has made me succumb to “polite paralysis” as well. I’m glad that you’ve worked through a lot of this and seem to have found a happy balance. Excited to see you soon!

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