Slums and Ethics

On that same Saturday of the screening, I went up to the roof top of the church and met a couple of boys from the slum. We could only communicate in gestures and scattered English (the only thing I know in Tamil is “Hello” and “Let’s go”), but they took me around their home community in a trip that ended up with me in their house, surrounded by curious relatives and neighbors eager to take pictures and shake my hand.

I left a good half-hour later with a few phone numbers and a promise to return. That promise was fulfilled three days later, as I came back bringing a friend. This friend came for two main reasons: first because she was curious to see a slum in Chennai, and second because she was a teammate on a case study project assigned by our program. After some wandering, one of the boys I had met ran out and pulled us back into the house, where this time the family showed us their marriage photos and talked about their lives.

There are two layers of ambivalence that tear at me regarding these visits. The first is the question of power. To be able to walk into a community and be suddenly surrounded by strangers, to be welcomed into their homes and treated with respect even by those older than me…that’s possible only because I am an American. Traditional systems of respect, of forming relationships, had been immediately upturned due to no accomplishment of mine. And it’s always difficult to completely distinguish whether I was excited for the opportunity to glimpse into a foreign lifestyle, or simply excited to be worshipped. The second is the question of research. I’d be lying if I said that my second trip was for visiting purposes alone. I wanted to learn about the role of nutrition in a low-income family. There was no formal informed consent form, simply questions about food interspersed within talk about other topics of everyday life. And yet, ignoring for a moment the multitude of issues associated with transplanting notions of informed consent, I felt highly uncomfortable with having a research motive in the first place, a feeling similar to the one I get when witnessing fellow students grill “locals” about their perception of the healthcare system.

One final point. On the auto-ride here, my friend had remarked, “Sometimes I find that I underestimate the people I meet in developing countries.” Later, I would look around at the pristine kitchen, the organized schedules of classes posted on the walls marked clearly with official-sounding names of different classes, and realize that I had done just that. I had gone in expecting rice gruel and obedient wives. Instead I found a housewife-by-day, teacher-by-night and an aversion to beef for fear of high cholesterol.

PS. On the topic of ethics…I did ask for permission to post the photo above.

(Original post written 2/14/11)

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