Unseen Children are ‘Familiar Strangers’

Contributed by: Franziska Litwinski
Dated: 24th December 2012

Sometimes when my mind is free I have this little game I play. When I’m in public transport, wherever it might be, or a public space, or am walking along the street, I pick a person who is seemingly absorbed in his or her thoughts, and I wonder who that person is. Where are they heading? What are they thinking, right in this moment? Are they content? What kind of person are they?

This makes me realize how, quite often, we go around, we see people, people who pass us, who sit with us in a Rickshaw, a bus, at the next table – but we don’t SEE them.

And this same thought struck me one day, when going through photographs of earlier KHEL sessions. It struck me because I noticed how many MORE children there are, than those I perceived. This observation led to a lot of other questions: Why do we perceive some and don’t perceive other children? Are they not as present as the rest? Is this really just because our brain is overwhelmed with too much information, so it has to filter out in order to cope with the amount of stimuli? Can’t one change anything about that?

When I shared those thoughts with Akshai, the phenomenon of the “familiar stranger” was pointed out to me. Googling it, I learnt it is a social phenomenon of urban life, which was first addressed in an essay in 1972 by the psychologist Stanley Milgram, defining “familiar strangers” as people whom we regularly see, but do not interact with. When reading this, it seemed to me that this describes quite well what I was noticing about the children in our KHEL sessions. And it did not make me happy, because I realized that I did not even take NOTICE of many of the children.

Franziska conducting ‘heading’ practice
For me, here, I feel recognizing the children is a bit more difficult, because honestly speaking, I identify only about 10% of children, but generally I am overwhelmed by trying to differentiate the children. It’s not like I don’t want to, but I know that it takes a while until one can differentiate people who have different face features than “one’s own people” and this recognition is made even harder if confronted with a big group.

One of the girls at our sessions, Mohini, was recently interviewed for a case study, that is we had a small talk with her, a teacher and a friend of hers, about whether the participation in the KHEL program had an influence on her. Even though I had not been involved in the small conversation, I read the portrait text about Mohini which was developed from that talk. It was then that I realized something else: we meet these children only in the KHEL context, and similarly, they, too, only see us in the sessions. But neither side knows more about the other. The additional information we got turned Mohini into a rounder character for me. As if her figure had been on a photograph, which showed her a bit blurred, but had now been more focused. I realized that still, I only saw her from far away, and, just as on a photograph, she is still a flat character for me, even now. But Mohini has stepped out of this crowd of children, I now perceive her as an INDIVIDUAL. That is, I crossed the border of familiar strangers.

So then, I was left with the questions of whether and how, I would want to improve this more generally. I knew I wanted to try to see more “individuals”. Seeing it now, I unconsciously started following two steps, the first being to notice. I have started to consciously SEE the children, intentionally those who do NOT speak, who do NOT volunteer, who do NOT participate actively, and this includes: NAMES. I generally think my name memory is okay. But here…one reason I’m struggling to remember the children’s names here, is that the groups are comparatively big. Moreover, it is because the names are so different from the names I know. Even though I really like the sounds in Hindi (I think the language is very melodious), I have troubles hearing them rightly, because the sounds are produced differently. For example, I thought for a long time the name of a nearby crossing is HusaRiya, not HusaDiya. So, obviously, this as well becomes a reason why I pronounce them wrongly.

Secondly, I try to interact, in which ever way possible for me. A first basic task, then, is to improve my Hindi. Also in order to be more helpful during the sessions, I have begun to memorize and know more words in Hindi. And simply me (trying to :) ) pronounce Hindi words made it click. A more individual approach becomes possible when even basic “conversations” take place. For e.g., during one session we practiced football. That day, we were only two coordinators, so when we divided the group, I was without a translating KHELer. I asked the girls to form two lines, and there was counting involved, so when I said “aath” they started smiling, sometimes giggled, but it seemed to do the trick: I felt there was more of a connection. Besides, informally, for example on our way to the field or after the session, I started asking some of the children their names, how they liked today’s session etc. And this one boy, Mujeeb, was quite diffident, that is not just shy, but I also noticed that he hardly ever smiled, even during playing. So I had picked him, once, and as usual it took me a while to understand his name. When we reached the gate, I waved good bye – and I caught him smiling, even though he turned away quickly, and this made me smile.

Perhaps, I’m all wrong with my views, but I felt I might have seen this first smile on Mujeeb’s face, because I had chosen to see him. And this made me wonder: how often do we NOT see who is around us? Don’t we all want to be SEEN? Is it so, that it’s only because our brain is overwhelmed, so it filters out?

After this experience, I have changed my mind on this. Partly because I know we use a very small percentage of our brain’s capacity, but also I think it is about making a choice. A choice to turn those who should not stay familiar strangers, into Individuals. As far as I am concerned, one can chose to be attentive, to see the details. And for me, this now has become a crucial part of my work for KHEL: Don’t just see, Perceive, Notice, and Interact.