Strait of Malacca - February 2, 2008
02.02.2008 - 02.02.2008
Tonight the students involved in the Social Justice group put on a "Hunger Banquet" with materials from Oxfam. I was recruited to be one of the four "military police." I didn't really want to participate, but I figured of all the things I've been asked to do and of all the things I will be asked to do, this would be fairly innocuous. I was right and wrong.
The students hosting the event were tremendously excited. The dressed formally, they practiced reading their scripts, and they genuinely believe(d) their actions on that night would change the world. Most of the participants were equally motivated but there are always the usual suspects.... The idea is that the diners are handed cards that the door, dictating what class they belong to and thus determining where they will be seated - lower class on the floor, middle class in chairs and upper class at tables with table clothes, fine crystal etc. Then when it's time to be served food, the middle class are ordered to line up in single file. They are given rice and beans and silverware. Next the upper class are served - a nice three-course meal, serenaded by a musician, etc. and while they are eating the lower class are given rice in a bowl and forced to eat w/ their hands.
Part of the idea is about watching people's behavior. For instance, when the middle class received their portion first, many of them believed that their bretheren in the lower class weren't being fed at all, so many of them begin giving their food to the others. But as a military presence, I was supposed to help force them into the actual lower class zone and many people didn't want to cross that line though they were willing to pass their plates over the line. Meanwhile very few of the upper class felt compelled to share anything with anyone until a middle class person began berating them.
When I made mention of "the usual suspects," some people cheated from the getgo and hid their lower class or middle class tickets in order to worm their way into the upper class. One student who is always a trouble maker, not only cheated his way into the upperclass, but he stole a bag of rolls from the buffet and then unfurled a hastily made sign that said, "UN Food Assistance" and threw the bread into the crowd. This was all for attention. However, it's ironic that his behavior was quite fitting if you view it as metaphorical. Midway through the meal, some scenarios were read and people were shifted around at random. For example, three upperclass people "lost their jobs" and were forced into the middle class area - they had to leave their meals half-finished.
Nonetheless, I had problems with the whole affair. First of all the name offends me. Second, those who cheated angered me; I felt like if they couldn't commit to doing this thing properly then they shouldn't do it all. However, I realized a contradiction in my own thoughts because I thought nothing wrong of the middle class people who shared their food with the lower class people. It was tremendously difficult to watch the Ghanaian students draw the lower class tickets and then watching the spoiled rich kids sneak into the upperclass when they were the ones who of anybody present had the most to learn. But what I found most distasteful is that nobody starved. Everybody not only ate, but they all raced down to the cafeteria when all was said and done so that they could eat more.
So while the idea works on some levels, on others it just doesn't. During the Q&A afterward, several of the students were moved nearly to the point of tears by the experience, but I think it's pathetic, to be frank, that some of them had to psuedo-starve for an hour in order to think about the plight of other people in the world and then to come away so changed. Yes, this is the glass half empty point of view. I don't care. It pissed me off. Yet, like I said, I know some people were really changed. So, I guess in the end it was worthwhile, but I rued the night.
It will be interesting to see how my next big involvement goes when I co-lead one of the groups in India. The Learning Circle to which I belong - Global Cultures and Social Change - is going to be studying Indian rituals, the role of women in religion, and ecology and philosphy. Our itinerary in Chennai is being finalized as I type this. I know on the first day we'll have a lecture at the University of Madras. The following two days will be spent visiting a temple and a dance school founded by Rukmini Arundale, a freedom fighter and theosophist who passed about in the mid-1980s. It sounds like a good program. That will leave me three days to explore India on my own - an impossible task. I'd love to see the Taj Mahal, but it's at the opposite end of the country and there's no direct route. A lot of students are flying to Delhi and then taking a train to Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located, but I've heard horror stories about Indian train schedules. I've also heard a few naive and/or ignorant students talk about Sri Lanka. Even when you say, "there's a war there right now," they respond as if you've said "there's a bird on the railing." I suspect this is going to be the port where we lose students - seriously. I predict that some will get left behind and will have to buy plane tickets to the Seychelles or S. Africa to catch up with us.
I think I might be content to stay in southern India; I just have to settle on a place. Suggestions are welcome!