ETA Alumni Spotlight: David Hamburger, Kolkata

Every month, Fulbridge interviews an ETA from around the world to get a glimpse of life in different placements. This month, Fulbridge editor Samantha Steiner talked with David Hamburger, a 2017 ETA in Kolkata. 

1. Why Kolkata?

In 2002, when I was nine years old, my family lived in Kolkata for five months while my Dad taught at Calcutta University on a Senior Fulbright fellowship. Those months in India were paradigm-shifting for me. I think it’s around that age that children start building a lasting understanding of the world they live in and are able to create memories that stay with them. To have my world turned upside down, to go to school with different classmates, to try new and interesting foods, and to be exposed to other religions set the stage for how I would engage with the world in the years to come. When I returned home, I built a Saraswati temple in my bedroom and covered my walls with masks and paintings from my time in Kolkata. I had become an India-phile, but more importantly, I had my eyes opened to how diverse and amazing the world is.  This was the beginning of an abiding interest in experiencing other cultures. I would go on to spend my high school and college years living in Chile, China, The Dominican Republic, Laos, and the Netherlands for extended periods of time. Each experience was fundamental in shaping who I am today, but I’m not sure any of that would have happened without that first trip to India. When I was contemplating what I wanted to do after college, I kept coming back to the idea of returning to India. I wanted to contribute to a country that had been so important in my personal growth. I actually didn’t ask specifically to be placed in Kolkata, but I couldn’t have been happier to return to the city that changed my life fifteen years ago.

2. How is Kolkata different from the U.S.?  

Kolkata is not only different from the U.S, but also very different from most other Indian cities. While Mumbai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad have transformed rapidly over the last 20 years into new, cosmopolitan tech-hubs, Kolkata has been more resistant to transformative change. People in Kolkata still do their shopping in open-air markets where vendors have stalls that have been passed down through their families for generations. The taxis of Kolkata are iconic, yellow Ambassador cars, whose design has been largely consistent for the last 60 years. While new malls and buildings have been built, the city retains much of its colonial architecture and certain neighborhoods have seen almost no new construction.

It’s hard to generalize about the differences between Kolkata and the U.S., as both are extremely diverse. However, one notable difference is people’s relationship with time. I grew up in New York, perhaps the fastest-paced city in the U.S.  In New York, time is a rare commodity that people never seem to have enough of. In Kolkata, things move slowly and people always have time to chat with friends. There’s even a word in Bengali, “adda,” which is means a spontaneous conversation in which friends (or strangers) spend time debating and discussing a topic together. Just thinking of the image of Kolkatans sipping chai on the street while bantering with each other makes me smile.

3. Could you describe your experience navigating issues of race, gender, or sexuality in Kolkata?

Obviously, when you enter a new culture there’s going to be a fair amount you have to get accustomed to. For me one of the challenges I had was adjusting to how privileged I was financially. I went from living in a dorm room in college to a few months later having two women who cleaned my house and cooked for me daily. In addition, as a 24 year old I was earning more money than teachers at my school who were twice my age.

I also needed time to adjust to gender roles in India. For example, more than once I went to dinners where the women in the family were in the kitchen the whole time and the men sat at the table with me and ate. It was hard to feel comfortable with this configuration, yet as a guest and foreigner making an objection felt dubious.

4. What did a typical weekday look like for you?

I would wake up and review my lesson plans for the day. Next I would take a peaceful fifteen minute walk through my neighborhood, stopping along the way at a food stall where my friend Soshama would make me eggs and toast accompanied by a cup of chai (best fifteen cent meal ever). I would then take a ten-minute auto rickshaw ride which would drop me off at the entrance to my school, Kailash Vidyamandir. The school day would start at 10 and would usually end at around 3. On most days I taught four classes (grades six through nine). Towards the end of my time in Kolkata, I started to eat lunch with my students on the floor of the school’s hostel. My students really appreciated the extra time with me outside of a classroom setting. After school I sometimes played soccer with my students in a nearby park. Otherwise I would head to the market to do shopping for dinner or a café where I was sure to run into friends.

5. How did you connect with your community outside of your formal responsibilities?

My life in Kolkata included both formal and informal attempts to connect with my community. One community I really enjoyed was the food vendors at the Gariahat market. During my months in India, I befriended a number of the vendors whose stalls I regularly frequented.  Bapi, who loved football and Micheal Phelps, sold me potatoes. Tapan and Tapas sold me vegetables and helped coach me through how to cook the strange, new things I had bought. Debashi sold me fish and proudly introduced me to whomever was nearby.

I also became part of weekly arts gatherings. Each Wednesday night, I attended a classical Indian music performance that took place at a renowned music school. I also attended a weekly meeting of Kolkata artists that took place on Saturdays in which attendees celebrated the works of great poets, writers, visual artists, and filmmakers.

Finally, I attended as many events as possible. This ranged from going to an EDM concert, to historical neighborhood walks, to religious events, to lectures at Universities. Through all of these efforts I was able to enjoy a wonderful group of friends from India and from other countries.

6. What were some of the challenges you’ve encountered as an ETA?

I think the biggest challenge for any ETA is dealing with the instances in which your expectation does not meet reality. I had applied to Fulbright with the expectation that I would be teaching “conversational English” and I arrived at my first meeting with the school’s principal carrying an outline for a debate club I hoped to initiate. Yet in that meeting I learned that teaching at Kailash Vidyamandir was going to be different from what I anticipated. I was informed that the school had not had an English teacher in five years and that I could expect some students, but not all of them, to know the alphabet. Conversational English was out of the question. Beyond my students’ limited grasp of English, Kailash presented other challenges. The student body was comprised of first-generation learners mostly from Chetla, one of Kolkata’s poorest neighborhoods. Nearly half of the 250 students lived in a makeshift dormitory—what was once the school’s assembly area. The school had no library, no extracurricular activities, and working fans in only some of the classrooms. Other than the principal and two teachers, no one in the school spoke English. Needless to say I had to adjust to the reality on the ground.   While the school’s lack of resources was an obstacle, it also provided me with an opportunity to have a greater impact and to help fill some of the gaps.

7. What were some of the highlights?

The great thing about teaching is that any day can become a highlight because kids are such creative, wonderful beings. One class that stands out was when I did a presentation (at my students bequest) on “American trees.” I showed a picture of a California Redwood, “It is 100 meters tall,” I exclaimed. There was head nodding but little enthusiasm. However, when I showed a photo of a maple tree the room took a collective gasp: “Real tree, sir?” I looked at the photo, and it hit me that my students had never seen a tree with autumn foliage—the red and yellow leaves must have looked outrageous to them. We ended up spending the last twenty minutes of class looking at videos and photos of autumn trees. For some time my students had taken to saying that they would visit me in New York, but after that class it was clarified, “I will visit you in New York IN AUTUMN, sir.”

8. Why should prospective grantees apply to work in Kolkata?

While you aren’t able to select your city for the India Fulbright program I think you can have a successful grant in any of the ETA locations in India. India has something for everyone. If you like dance, India’s dance culture goes back thousands of years. If you like food, India has an incredibly diverse (and delicious) food culture (vegetarian, meat, seafood, you name it). If you are interested in religion, India has major Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist communities (all with various subsects). If you like history, India has a fascinating, rich history and is home to some of the great dynasties, sites, and thinkers. The diversity of India is unparalleled, which I think is one of the reasons why it is a rewarding place to spend 10 months.

9. How have your experiences in Kolkata changed you?

Wow, in so many ways. For one, I’ve realized how resilient I can be. Whether it was fighting through monsoon season, stomach illness, or my students’ sporadic attendance, I had some hard challenges that I was able to overcome. My experience in India gave me the confidence to take on other, potentially tough opportunities. In addition, living in Kolkata made me appreciate what it felt like to live in a tight knit community. I was friendly with the guards at the gym, the man who ironed my shirts, the vendors at the market. It’s something I have really missed, as my interactions in New York have lacked the intimacy I found in Kolkata.

10. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I would encourage ETAs to get involved with their schools outside of the classroom. Towards the end of my grant I started to think of ways I could leave a lasting impact at my school. After talking with my principal I settled on trying to raise some money to build a library. I started a fundraiser with the goal of raising $5,000, but by the time the fundraiser ended we had $10,000 from 116 donors. In many ways, this would be the easy part, as the construction of the library would take a ton of work and wouldn’t have been possible without many people coming together. I had a friend design the library for me, other teachers traveled with me to buy construction materials, and a bookstore owner contributed some of the library’s books. My friend, and fellow Fulbrighter, Conor Coleman, came after his grant ended to paint fantastical murals at the library’s entrance. Kailash had stood for 167 years, but until April 24th it had never had its own library. Since the library’s opening, it has become a central part of the school, a place for students to continue learning after classes let out. There are English books, Bengali books, but the coolest book of all is a book of poetry written by one of my students. In 2018, 40 events are planned to take place in the library (everything from creative writing contests to career days to yoga!).

David Sunshine Hamburger graduated from Columbia University in 2016 with a B.A. in Political Science. David is currently serving as a 2018 Fulbright Ambassador and is an upcoming 2018 Work First Foundation Fellow.

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