The Social Studies Store: Sharing Stories of Southeast Asian Families
by Sofia Encarnación
The Social Studies Store is a unique shop located in Cumberland, Maryland. Though the store is located in an American city, the items found inside hail from countries across the world: the store sells items purchased from small startup businesses, people suffering from HIV, land mine victims, and others at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder in Southeast Asia.
Owners of the shop, Ernest Gusella and Tomiyo Sasaki, are photographers and artists that travel frequently to purchase these items, both to help those in need economically and to shed light on what’s occurring in some of these developing countries. Ernest Gusella was born in 1941 and graduated high school at 16. He had a lot of experience as a lecturer in many colleges before becoming a photographer and artist. His wife Tomiyo Sasaki is of Japanese descent and also an artist. Together, the pair produces abstract video tapes and travel around the world exhibiting their work. The store was created after they had collected these items in their travels. A screen near the back of the store shows a slideshow of their travels together.
Walking into the shop, my family and I were greeted by a tall man and his wife. He proceeded to discuss the origins of some of the items in his store, which included India, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. These products ranged from handmade tribal arts to housewares and fashion accessories, and each item included a description of the people who made them. For example, there was a coin purse made in Delhi, India from recycled sarees and/or dupattas labeled “reincarnations”. The description was as follows:
“… Made by a young mother, her husband, and their extended family members-- all socio-economically disadvantaged by circumstances of birth [i.e. excluded from the ancient system of the caste]. Earnings accrued from the making of these recycled projects have sustained her family [husband and 3 sons] and have enabled them to attend day school for a formal education. Thus far, the sons have excelled in their studies and have brought hope to the family. They each want a career in technology!”
Though the purse came from nearly 8,000 miles away, the story on the tag created an incredibly personal connection. My family and I stayed talking to the owners for over half an hour as they spoke on topics ranging from the gender inequality they’ve seen to buildings made of recycled shipping crates.
A 2011 statistic shows India has over 200 million people living off of $2 a day. The poverty rates of these nations have been decreasing in the past 10 years, but they still need aid, especially those suffering from gender discrimination. Many of the items in the Social Studies Store were made by young disadvantaged women who aren’t given an equal opportunity in education or economics.
The symbol of a frog used for the store logo is from an East Indian tribe. According to Gusella, the symbol is used because frogs are considered “early warning systems,” of pollution and other problems presented in the environment and society. Likewise, the Social Studies Store serves as a reminder to Cumberland residents of the issues facing numerous Southeast Asian families, and gives them an opportunity-- however small-- to help.