I’ve noticed that I consistently get things wrong in India – cultural cues are pretty much over my head. People are nice about it, understanding my foreign-ness and helping me muddle through social situations. I always thought of this as being an issue of intercultural communications, but recently I’ve recognized that there is a privilege being afforded me during this process of “getting it wrong”.
Recently I went to dinner around 6:40pm, the lights were dim and there was no one inside, but I took little notice of it when I entered the restaurant. Most places in Chandigarh keep their lights low in order to conserve energy and inhibit the production of heat. I went inside, and the staff rushed to turn lights and music on, seat me, and bring me a menu. I ordered and had a nice meal and was well taken care of.
About half way through dinner, a couple came in and sat down close to me. They had a lengthy discussion with the waiter before leaving in what I would consider a bad mood. Again, my cross-cultural understandings are limited so I assumed this was just another thing I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until I left the restaurant that I realized I had been eating at the restaurant during a time they were closed between lunch and dinner. One more error culturally – darn! But it was more than that. I had been afforded a certain privilege of eating during closed times, one which the Indian couple was not afforded. Whether based on social, cultural, or economic capital I had been given something I wanted when other people were denied.
I get that this is just a dinner, but I wonder how far this extends – will some of my results be impacted by this privilege? Will people tell me what I want to hear – give me the data I want – at the expense of honesty? Something to consider…
I know that even within my research context I have been provided to opportunities that not all scholars will/would have. Recently I was invited to attend a meeting in the city of Bernala within the state of Punjab on water issues and organic farming. Not only was I given a seat at the table (both literal and figurative), but I was also provided with a translator and time to ask my questions of the group there. This included Rajendra Singh (a Stockholm water prize winner, commonly known as the “Water Man of India”), as well as community leaders and organic farmers. I was basically allowed and encouraged to turn their meeting into a focus groups to ask my questions for my research – what an opportunity! There were other Indian Ph.D. and MA students there who did not have the same opportunity as myself.
I have also just recently returned from some rural villages in Punjab to interview more farmers on their water consumption both domestically and agriculturally. Although it is paddy planting season, I will still given a privilege of interviewing the farmers (for 30minutes up to an hour), and was allowed to go see the fields and different water management practices.
I think as commonwealth scholars we need to go into the field knowing that we are being given an incredible opportunity, and this opportunity needs to be really well considered within our own reflexivity and research more generally. We are getting so much out of this – are we giving back enough?