The sun set with beautiful orange hues that shone on the Punakha horizon as we got ready for dinner. As I made my way down the rocky and uneven steps to the “mess”, as the students would call it, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of students clustered together with their shoulders touching, faces smiling, and hands waving for me to come and sit with them. Keep in mind, this was no ordinary cafeteria, or at least it wasn’t exactly similar to the one at Havergal College.
“Mess” staff waited patiently by extremely large pots of rice, daal, potatoes, tea, and vegetables, using a massive shovel-like spoon to feed the students of Uygen Academy. As I lined up for dinner alongside one of the many friends I had made at the school, Karma, she asked me if I had brought a spoon. Curiously and confused, I answered “no”, wondering why she would even ask me that question. Doesn’t the cafeteria have spoons? Why would I have to bring one? As I answered her question I saw her face fill with a mixture of fear, embarrassment, and concern.
A little bit of a background on me: I’m Indian, so eating with my hands isn’t a foreign concept to me. Karma let me know that students have to bring their own spoons or eat with their hands. Without even batting an eye, she took the red plastic spoon off her plate and gave it to me, insisting that I use it. She refused to listen to me as I told her the familiarity I had to eating with my hands.
The generosity didn’t stop there. She would constantly ask me if I had enough to eat, or if I liked the food; I regularly assured her that the school cafeteria food was the best food of the trip. Nothing compares to the masala chai of Uygen Academy. Towards the end of the meal, the students were tasked with washing their dishes and returning them to the kitchen, and as I lined up to follow suit, Karma snatched the plate from me and refused to let me wash it. I knew in that moment that I was witnessing something special. It’s difficult to find the words to describe how I felt in that cafeteria. I was surprised to see how much kindness was shown to me, I was overwhelmed by how much gratitude they had for me even being there, and I was so grateful for the respect they demonstrated during my stay at the school.
I came to realize that this notion of extreme respect transcends the cafeteria where we ate our meals. Everywhere in the school, students were offering to hold my water bottle and backpack, constantly waved at me while I walked through the courtyard, gave up their own seats so I could sit beside my friends, and even offered to give up their pillows and blankets when we didn’t have any. The way in which the students and teachers welcomed me with open arms made me reflect on how I treat people at home. It really did feel like I was a student at Uygen Academy, like I was one of their own.
If I learned one thing from Uygen Academy, it’s that small acts of kindness go a long way. These interactions have completely altered my perspective on empathy and generosity, and I hope to bring that back home to share with others. I know it sounds cliche, but a simple compliment has the power to change the course of someone’s day. Who knew so much could be learned from a little red plastic spoon and dinner time at the “mess