Gardening In India
I never thought gardening could be so meaningful. Not just because of the usual stuff people hear about the Great Outdoors, how it connects people to their roots (pun intended) and makes them feel small and insignificant compared to the majestic mountains in the distance, or the tiny ants underfoot. No, my experiences gardening did not make me feel any of those things. What I did feel, however, was how important this kind of work can be, both to myself, and to others.
I spent a semester in India studying justice, peace, and sustainable communities in a program designed specifically for Concordia College and Gustavus Adolphus College students. This was the twentieth year of the program, but the first year they implemented an internship.
The goal was for students to interact more with the community while also learning about nonprofits and service. We were able to rank our preferences for location, but ultimately,
what we did while we volunteered was up to the people running the organizations.
I did not choose to garden at a nonprofit focusing on HIV/AIDS hospice care and treatment center in Bangalore, a city of over nine million people. I chose to intern there, yes, but I expected to sit and talk with patients, do general office work, or do something—anything—meaningful. If I wanted to do garden work, I should have chosen the horticultural center down the road. Other classmates were redesigning websites or teaching English to nuns. Instead, I was disappointed on my very first day by the lack of important work I would be doing through gardening. It took me several more weeks, however, to become more open-minded and realize how wrong I was about thinking of my work as meaningless, both to myself and to the nonprofit.
I interned at the organization three days a week on and off throughout the semester, making exceptions for when I was traveling. I had two other classmates work with me. Initially, we all had similar opinions about the internship: it felt like it was wasting our time. Other classmates were teaching Indian students English or designing websites—things that felt important. Instead, we were pulling weeds and trimming hedges. Every few days, all the vegetation would grow back, and we would do a lap around the building to see which area needed the most work. The ground and the bushes would be considerably shaggier, and we would sigh
on our way to the tool shed to grab the dull pairs of shears.
Little by little, my opinion changed, along with the other two friends I worked with. The first aspect contributing to our change in heart was the realization that the work we were doing was just as important as what other classmates were doing. There is no magical hierarchy of which kinds of labor are more important than others. From a Western standpoint, we had all been taught to value office jobs, as they are generally associated with work that is difficult and requires higher education and greater intellect. Gardening is considered manual labor, the kind of job generally left for poorer, less educated or less skilled workers. It took conversations in class and during the internship itself for the three of us to realize we had been socialized to value this kind of work over another. We were wrong to think we were “worthier” of other kinds of work simply because we were educated or had expected some kind of academic internship. Looking back, this idea was especially wrong, as everyone working at the nonprofit had some sort of medical training, so the staff was all probably much smarter than we were, anyway. Regardless, we were mistaken to initially believe gardening was beneath us, that we had come to India to do “bigger and better things.”
We were here to break that stereotype, both for ourselves, and for Indians. My teacher once said our internship was the most anti-racist, and it took me awhile to realize what he meant: because we, three white Americans, were doing manual labor, we were implying we were more than pretentious Westerners who were only fit for certain jobs. The three of us may have admittedly come in with that mindset, but that was just a way of our privilege allowing us to buy into the concept of being more important than people doing manual labor. This subtle racism may be something most Westerners may believe, but realizing the privileges we had also let us improve our relationships with others. We realized we, as upper middle-class Westerners, did not need to think about doing manual labor, and this allowed us to value one kind of profession over another, simply because intelligence is viewed as more important than physical labor in the United States.
The gardening is also very significant to the people at the organization. Staff and patients alike benefit from the beauty of a clean, well-kept atmosphere. It may not have seemed like much to us, but the work we were doing contributed to a greater mental stability for the people around us. It is important for new patients to have a positive first impression of the grounds, especially as the organization faces an average of one patient death every week. This nonprofit may be the last place they see before dying. As insignificant as it may seem to me, creating a peaceful, aesthetically pleasing place is very important.
Lastly, this internship was beneficial to me, simply for the selfish reason of being able to spend time with two of my classmates. The gardening was relaxing, despite the heat or the rain and mud we experienced. The three of us were able to converse with each other about a wide range of topics. Some of them were continued discussions from that morning, conversations about things like war or food sovereignty or sexism. Some of the discussions were more casual and informal, covering topics like our favorite classes in college or our favorite Christmas memories. This time was important, as it helped me not only grow closer to two great students I previously had never met, but it also allowed us to unwind. Even while discussing more serious issues, the laidback atmosphere and casual setting was important in perpetuating more effective small-group discussions.
We have only a week left of the semester and I often think back to the first few weeks in India. While this time was very stressful, I can’t imagine choosing any other internship. It helped me redefine what kind of work is important, and it allowed me to bond with some great people over a variety of issues. I may not have taught English to a group of Indian nuns, but I did allow someone else to be authoritative over me, the oh-so-powerful American. And that’s what matters. I probably learned more for myself than others did, and I grew through each internship visit. My growth may not have been as fast as the weeds developed, but I am still better off than I was at the beginning of the semester. And the growth never stops.