To the editor:
Fresh air. This was an unexpected surprise during my commute through the village of Janauri, Punjab, India on this particular morning. Instead of thick and suffocating, the air was crisp and fresh.
Continuing into the commercial epicenter, I passed the recent efforts of my rural development project. Empty, white cement sacks, fastened around trees, identified in Punjabi as recyclable waste bags, served as part of the projects initiative to prevent the community from burning their waste and polluting the air.
For weeks, efforts to persuade shopkeepers to dispose their waste in recycle bags were met with little success. Disinterest, stubbornness and apathy hampered attempts to reach out to the community. Worse, cultural norms say dealing with trash is work for the lower class. Reluctance was psychologically embedded. Weeks of persistence met only skeptical glances, mocking smiles and arms folded in discontent.
But this morning, I noticed a limping village elder dumping a sack into an overflowing recycle bag. An unmarked, white cement sack was tied to its marked counterpart and filled to the brim with paper and plastics. It was a sight I had not expected to see. These shopkeepers decided to dispose their waste in the bag; one had even taken the initiative to construct another bag after the first had been filled.
The shopkeepers emptied from their shops to approach me. Wanting to shout in praise and shake their hands, I refrained to nodding my head to the side and giving a slight smile. They did the same. It was the Punjabi way of saying, Thank you.
This story is pertinent because of the cultural encounters that our world is experiencing more on a daily basis. Cooperation between cultures is not always obtained through persuasion by one side. It is also obtained by winning trust. Trust sustains cooperation in ways where persuasion falls short. Trust bolstered the shopkeepers to use the recycle bags instead of burning their waste. Trust broke down cultural barriers. And it was trust that allowed me to take a deep breath of fresh air that morning.