COLUMN: Treat everything as a learning experience

Stephani Stacy

I don’t know anything. If there’s one definite thing I have learned from my three and half months with Semester at Sea, it would be that.

All I can do is learn and learn and learn again by making stupid blunders and applying what I’ve learned from those mistakes so I can do better next time.

It’s very simple, really. And sometimes it takes multiple mistakes to let something sink in through the fog of cultural ignorance in my brain.

Classroom education and scholarly literature can help, but they don’t compare to the transformative experiences of showing a rural Ghanaian child what she actually looks like through a digital camera. Or, in a less pleasant case, spending 12 hours in an Indian sleeper train filled with grimy floors, snoring men and the stench of human waste instead of air-conditioning.

One of the mistakes I made during this journey that I’m still embarrassed about was when I was in a haveli (a large mansion) in a desert city in Rajasthan, India.

A veiled woman was sweeping the floor in an upstairs room, and she was silhouetted in a window by the afternoon light.

Normally I ask people whether I can take their photo by smiling and using body language. I get a variety of responses, but most of the time they are positive. But this time I didn’t want to lose the moment by distracting the woman, so I obeyed my photographer instincts and quickly snapped a photo.

The woman glared at me and said something angrily in Hindi. Realizing I had probably just made a serious faux pas in some way (it happens to me a lot), I apologized the best I could with body language and left the room with my head hanging.

Later, I told my friend Ross about it, and he said the woman had most likely been an Untouchable, a member of the lowest class in the Indian caste system.

He said it was socially unacceptable to take pictures of the Untouchables, or Dalits as they are also known.

I felt like an idiot. I tried to make up for my own ignorance by reading an autobiography of a Dalit woman called “Viramma: Life of an Untouchable” to educate myself. The entire situation looked different once I had vicariously grasped a sense of what it is like to grow up as an Untouchable.

This woman whose photo I had taken, though I never knew her, became three- rather than one-dimensional. Although I am probably speaking too generally, she could have been the narrator of the book, who was forced to marry an elderly man at the age of eleven. Now I wish I had that woman’s personal story instead of her photo, a tangible reminder of my thoughtlessness.

I feel that something many American travelers – maybe Americans in general – are guilty of is viewing people of what we call the “Third World” as simplistic, passive, helpless, in need of Western aid.

By deepening a superficial knowledge of these persons, whether through personal conversation or independent research, you can see them as flesh-and-blood people with more in common with you than not, rather than stock characters in a foreign film. I say persons to turn a group of people into individuals, to dodge the incriminating word “them,” the “other,” an attitude that is more destructive than not.

This is my last column as a voyager on Semester at Sea. All I’ve realized is that most of us on the ship are babies, including me. But I’m OK with that. It just means I have a lot more to see. This is just a stepping stone to the world.

I just have to move my classroom back to Bowling Green, a city that might seem a little foreign to me now.

I have learned by now to drop all expectations because I will probably be wrong. And I’m OK with that. Be liberated by the knowledge that you are free to make mistakes and gain something from them (if they are not too serious). Never stop learning.