Burlington-New Delhi, face to face
Published: Friday, April 13, 2007
By Tim Johnson
Free Press Staff Writer
Surprises are inevitable in any cross-cultural encounter. So it was Thursday at UVM, where students had a protracted, face-to-face conversation with young men in India who had grown up as "street children."
The discussion, facilitated by an interpreter, touched on many topics, from school coursework to runaway survival skills, from violence (household and gang) and action movies to President Bush and America’s image in India.
What percentage of American children were runaways? asked one of the Indians, some of whom had been runaways. What about street children in the United States? they wanted to know. And did American parents expect financial support from children who have left home?
One of the surprises for the event’s chief organizer, assistant professor of anthropology Jonah Steinberg, was that the long-distance conversation could really happen as planned. Steinberg, who teaches a course that focuses on street children around the world, had been dubious that the videoconferencing technology — which required a relay through the U.S. State Department in Washington — would be equal to the task, in Vermont and New Delhi.
It was; and a little after 8:30 a.m. — 6 p.m., New Delhi time — about 100 people in an amphitheater-like classroom at the UVM College of Medicine found themselves staring at, and listening to, a roomful of people at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.
The Vermont throng included Steinberg and his students; invited guests; a five-member panel (three UVM students and two middle- school students) to do most of the talking; and Saleem H. Ali, an associate professor of environmental studies who served as interpreter when the Indians spoke in Hindi or Urdu.
The New Delhi contingent included embassy staff members, representatives of the Salaam Baalak Trust, an Indian organization that provides services to street children; and eight young men, ages 14 to 21, who had benefited extensively from the trust’s care. Some spoke in English (a common medium of instruction in Indian schools); most were casually dressed and appeared at ease in what was, for everybody in both countries, an unnatural setting.
"The notion of ‘street children’ is a complex one," Steinberg wrote in a handout, "and the term can be defined in multiple ways. However, for our purposes, ‘street children’ can refer to young people who either live or work primarily in public urban areas." These can include children who work on the streets and return to stable homes at night; children who have been sent to cities from the countryside to make money for their families; runaways; and children who have been orphaned or abandoned. The United Nations’ estimates of the worldwide "street children" population have ranged from "tens of millions" to more than 100 million, Steinberg said.
The first two Indian speakers described themselves as runaways who came under the trust’s care after a few weeks of living on the Delhi streets. One, who wore a T-shirt with a Superman logo, said he was an independent freelance photographer. He said as a runaway he had started out living in a train station — a common hangout for street children, who carry luggage for money.
As the young men spoke briefly about themselves and their experiences, photography seemed to be a recurrent interest. Why was that, the American side wanted to know.
One of the trust’s beneficiaries had put on a photo exhibit, a speaker explained, inspiring others. Before photography, acting had been the popular choice.
All the youths affiliated with the trust who appeared for the teleconference were male. What about girls? they were asked.
Yes, came the response, there are many girls among the street children, and for them life can be even rougher because of the gender discrimination common in India. No one explained why girls were not included in this session.
The Indian side was asked about violence and seemed interested to learn that, in the United States, corporal punishment is outlawed in schools and police do not routinely beat street children. Among the other differences they noted was the longer U.S. school day (the school day in India typically ends by noon or 1 p.m.) Don’t you get bored being in school so long? they asked the middle-schoolers, who replied that they had various after-school diversions.
"How do you like George Bush?" someone on the Indian side asked in English.
The Vermont side tittered. None of the panelists had anything favorable to say about Bush.
Well, if no one likes him, why did he win the election? was the next question, drawing more Vermont laughter.
Ali then intervened to explain that the United States is a diverse country, that Vermont tends to be a liberal state, and that if the videoconference had been held elsewhere, perhaps more support for Bush would have surfaced.
Toward the end, the Indians were asked for their opinion of the United States and its government.
We think of America as a great world power, one said, citing the good relations with India.
America is a great power, agreed the man wearing the Superman T-shirt, but he felt America displayed a certain degree of arrogance — for example, in criticizing countries that test nuclear weapons while doing the same thing itself.
We see America as pugnacious and provocative, another said.
All of which, coming through a simulcast originating in the U.S. Embassy, prompted Steinberg to say in a congratulatory way, "This is free speech at its best."
When it was all over, shortly after 10 a.m., Steinberg still seemed amazed that the event had come off. Never mind the technology — entities with agendas as diverse as the U.S. State Department, UVM and the Salaam Baalak Trust had had to buy into the idea.
"There were so many levels of acceptance that I didn’t expect," he said.
Then he added, speaking more as a teacher than an organizer: "It’s incumbent on us to learn about people who are different from us."