Uncomfortable learning

September 16, 2015 by Rehaan Vij

“Calō,” he cried.

Although I didn’t speak a word of Bengali, I knew exactly what Jumrati Ahmed meant. His stiff posture with the trademark fist pump was the only clue I needed to figure it out.

“Come on.”

These two simple words hold so much power and meaning. They motivate the user and intimidate the opponent simultaneously.

It was the second day of my fortnight-long trip to rural India in 2013. In an orphanage home to 600 street children, it was the first time I found myself in a culture so unlike my own. Life was different there, and I had not yet acclimatized to my surroundings. Nothing was familiar, not even the language, even though I too am Indian. Needless to say, I was still very uncomfortable there.

But, here I was, focused only on the game. It was past midnight and we had been playing for more than four hours, but neither our intensity nor our passion had diminished. Table tennis is not a sport I have practiced, or even one I am particularly good at, but in the last few hours, it was the only thing that mattered.

Jumrati stared back into my eyes. His brown skin was the only thing that reminded me that he too was of the same race. Apart from that, the differences were startling. His sun-hardened skin, furrowed brow and strong, yet gentle face revealed the different lives we lived. We were of different backgrounds, different cultures and even of a different language.

The game began again, and neither of us hesitated. It was tight. As a tennis player, my swing and strokes were sound, but I was only now adapting to the decrease in size of the court, racquet and ball. My defensive strategy had proved effective against my opponent’s aggressive match play, but occasionally I still made the mistake of overdoing it.

My opponent took a step back and muttered to himself “Śānta thākuna, Śānta thākuna!” I may as well have been fluent in the language, for yet again I knew exactly what he was saying: “Stay calm.”

One more point down, and only one more to go. As I glanced up before serving, I caught his eye and we both knew exactly what the other was thinking. There was an immediate sense of connection. It was an important point and an intense moment. With a low hard serve to the top right corner, I took control of the point and in moments it was over. A smile spread across both of our faces, as we knew it could have been anyone’s game. When we shook hands, we were friends. No boundaries, no barriers, no miscommunications.

It turns out that sports are my first language. Whether it be on the tennis court, cricket pitch or golfing green, sports give me the ability to connect to people, to the world, to life. A friendship that transcended the diversity between us was made over a simple game of ping-pong.

I brought this idea of a need for a universal language with me when I came to the College, as I knew that here, I would encounter diversity just as I did at the orphanage in India. I came to the College with the ambition of revising how we speak about diversity as a result of my transformative experience at the orphanage.

Diversity, at least right now, is spoken of in terms of complex differences in backgrounds, perspectives and identities of people in any given community. Coming to the College, then, each and every one of us adds to this diversity by definition. Whether an international, first generation, or out-of-state student, or even just a student with a unique perspective on life, each of us contributes to the diversity of our campus.

However, to truly engage with diversity, it is necessary to find a common language, one that transcends differences in backgrounds, cultures and identities. This is something that I feel still requires attention here at the College. This year, my friend, Danielle Grier ’18, and I are starting a group known as Global Initiatives Group (GIG) to address these issues directly. We have so much to learn from each other, and so much to share. For the first year, as a group, we will focus on the orphanage for street children I stayed at in 2013. During Winter Study, we hope to visit the orphanage to engage with these children in order to gain a deeper understanding of their culture. In this way, we hope to begin revising what it means to interact with diversity.

On a final note, I strongly encourage every student to engage with diversity at the College: It is through this uncomfortable learning process that I have found I grow the most as a person. It is much easier to interact solely with those who share the greatest commonalities with us. However, taking the harder path – challenging ourselves to meet new people, to learn about their stories and to relate to them – will undoubtedly lead to the most rewarding of relationships.

It may be difficult, but it is necessary to find a universal language that knows no boundaries.

Rehaan Vij ’18 is from Singapore. He lives in Mark Hopkins.

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