Monday, July 27, 2009

Reply to Linda

July 26th

So if you happened to catch Linda’s blog (if you’re one of the lucky few invited to do so ;-) you’ve probably seen her comments about the Insider / Outsider dilemma and her reference to my post (see “the Observer” below). No offense taken, by the way, Linda. Linda has been fortunate enough to “pass.” Like a diligent transexual at prom, she can pull off the sequin ball gown in dim light without arousing suspicion (no offense Linda). I, on the other hand, am the Nepali equivalent of a low-rent pre-op street-walker who hasn’t shaved in three days (which I confess is a poor metaphor, because those actually exist in Thamel and, for the record, I shaved this morning).

I’m an outsider here and will be everywhere I do "development work" (in the States or abroad). This is a pretty simple anthropological fact: I am white, male, from a Western (“developed”) country, upper-middle class (and of much higher socioeconomic status compared to global standards), an English speaker (not much else), and did I mention white (it bears repeating). I’m pretty sure it’s my eyes that really make me stand out. They hypnotize people. Once I’m noticed I’m often stared at unapologetically (see Bunny above). But here’s the funny thing about that: it’s a huge privilege (stop looking at the Bunny now).

Case in point: When I travelled to the West Bank most of the Palestinian women I met covered their heads with Hijab. Women weren’t even allowed to sit in the same room with men while they discussed important village issues and drank tea… or discussed sports and drank tea… or discussed women… or just drank tea. Heck, Palestinian women couldn’t even enter the room to serve tea! But American women were perfectly welcome. Palestinian men referred to these (white) women as the “third gender” (which in South Asia has a TOTALLY different connotation -- see paragraph 1). I recognize that saying my privileges are equivalent to those of a women in the States, generally, would be inaccurate and unfair; however, in this particular context it is an apt comparison. My outsider status actually allows me to observe things that many Nepalis would be excluded from experiencing. The caste system is still alive and well in Nepal, even in many parts of Kathmandu. Technically I am of no caste, which would in some contexts label me “Untouchable.” But compare my experience of Nepal to that of a rural Madhesi. If given the opportunity, who do you think could learn more about the lives of Brahmin, Chhetri, and (in KTM) Newar people? (see if you’re not sure).

That said, would I like to be an “insider–outsider both and neither”? To be honest, I think that is a totally overused band-aid of an identity. It is claimed in order to heighten the perceived authority and prestige of the researcher. Nanda Shrestha, who I’ve referred to many times on this blog, is not much of an academic in my opinion. His insider / outsider status biases his perception as much as it brings him particular insight (I’ll write a full review of his book in a few weeks). My point is that the expat or semi-passible researcher can trick herself into assuming false nativism. Often these researchers are as detached from their informants as I would be in the same context. Most development dilemmas reticulate every subject-position. There is no superior–inferior status dichotomy when it comes to epistemology. There is difference. Vital difference. There is overrepresentation / underrepresentation, but there is no superior identity, not in the sense of Truth or Morality. And I believe understanding that is far more vital to anthropology, development, and life generally than anything my eyes, sex or skin might say about me.

I continually struggle with the justification of my presence in Nepal (especially as someone “doing” “development work”). To be clear, I don’t struggle to justify my presence, that I will never fully take on, I struggle with the broader reasons for being here. There are so many white people doing what I’m doing. Development tourism maybe? And I start many conversations with Nepalis by saying, “I’d love to stay in Nepal, but what business do I have being here when there are so many well qualified locals who could do the same job.” But when does a local stop being a local? Most of the best qualified Nepalis are abroad, in the United States if they got what they dreamed of. Are those people more prepared to tell you about Nepal’s culture than I am? Mostly no. They are abroad and educated in Western schools now because they were rich, of high caste and deeply separated from the (thousands) of cultures surrounding them to begin with. I met a Newar man, a PhD candidate in biology at the University of Michigan, here doing research for the Summer. He hardly spoke Nepali. He told me if he had a chance he’d teach his kids Newari, but never Nepali. Consider inter-caste chauvinism. Consider nostalgia for a mythologized childhood. Consider the struggle of an identity seeking to lay claim to one culture (Nepal’s, which is actually many) in order to achieve prestige in another (Western -- if that can really be lumped together as such).

In my opinion, if you came here from the outside, you’re an outsider, regardless of where you might have come from first. And if you lived here before you came to my home, you were probably an outsider before you left.


P.S. - you're silly for following that picture and expecting something else.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Look what we built!

the observer

July 15, 2009 -- Khaudena VDC, Sarlahi district, field observation of a survey interview.

Bauvnath, the field director, told me he would translate the survey interview. Not every word. That would be too distracting. Just key pieces of information. 

It was hot.

Actually, that doesn't begin to capture the sensation. Imagine a wet cut of leather, dusted with lye, then submerged in a bucket of canola oil before being stuck inside an oven to dry. Now image that's your skin.

This time of year it’s always hot in the Terai. But it’s also usually raining. The monsoon is so late now that people are beginning to wonder if it will come at all. To plant rice you need rain. And once you’ve got a small lot of paddy, you have to transplant it to a much larger field. You have to flood that field when you transplant the paddy. You have to do this without a system of irrigation. You have to flood your field with rain water. But the monsoon is late.

Where there would normally be giant stork-like birds tip-toeing through tall reeds, searching for tilapia among the paddy, empty fields stretched out for hectares, absorbing the heat, drying, and with the confluence of wind, kicking dust into our eyes.

We followed the survey interviewer to a cluster of homely dwellings at the edge of a pond. She walked through the open front room of one mud and dung brick hut, so direct in her approach (it seemed to me), but she was clearly welcomed without hesitation. Then the interviewed-to-be disappeared around the corner, to emerge moments later with two wooden chairs.

[They speak Maithil and Bhojpuri, and a combination of the two in Khaudena. My twenty or so words of Nepali were worthless. I was relieved when we were not offered tea (Ma dudh chiyaa pudina).]

The next thing I knew we were following this woman back to the shared courtyard of the community's dusty cul-de-sac. “Bosnus” (please sit), one word of Nepali. And I realized what was going to happen. The guest would be treated in proper fashion, shown courtesy with the greatest humility, elevated above the host. And I was the guest. She stepped around piles of mud and dung, turned over some insignificant piece of weight (the precise image has escaped my memory) and dragged out a large woven mat. I would sit with my male counterpart above the subject of research, observing the operation, and at once being observed.

By the time the interviewer and our host took their places on the mat, a crowd had gathered to watch the exhibition unfold. Not knowing the words spoken, I still know what was said next. “How old are you?” “How long have you been married?” … it would have eventually come to “What methods of contraception have you heard of?” “Are you using one presently?” “Why did you choose this method?” “Who in your household makes decisions about family planning?”

But it didn't come to that, not in front of me anyway. The field director stopped the interview after the first question. The survey interviewer had not properly introduced herself or read the preamble explaining confidentiality. And who could blame her? She was nervous. And confidentiality would have sounded like a joke. “We’ll keep the personal details between you and me, and also this white man and my boss, all of your neighbor’s children, your mother-in-law, your daughters and this buffalo.”

Having taken the same read of the situation, I turned to Bauvnath and said, “This isn’t going to work.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “Everyone is coming, so curious.”

“They want to know what this white man is doing in their village. We can’t achieve confidentiality when the observer is such a spectacle.”

“Yes,” he agreed.

The interviewer and the soon-to-be interviewed retreated into the privacy of a thatch-roof hut. And I... I simply retreated.

[This is the only photo I took in Kaudena. It's not generally appropriate to take pictures of people without their permission, in fact it's rather culturally insensitive if the subject of the photo is a woman. Women are often even discouraged from showing their faces to a man. Most little girls ran away if they caught sight of me pointing a camera in their direction, this one included. Photos are one thing, but if a woman is experiencing menstruation she’s not even supposed to stand on the same ground as a man. This fear of photography extends from that same patriarchal tradition, one meant to maintain the purity of men. Thus, I don’t feel bad about ignoring it. And before you chastise me, insisting that I didn’t consider how their community would react (I did) and saying that I may have put these girls in a vulnerable social position, allow me to reassure you that I got permission from the parents of many, and that nearly everyone else (see facebook) welcomed photos without hesitation. This young girl is an exception, but I strongly doubt anyone saw me take this picture through the window of our Jeep.]

Monday, July 13, 2009

The streets belong to the dogs

July 13th 2009

At night in Thamel, the streets belong to the dogs. The pushers, the pimps, the transsexual whores, the children and the prostitutes (all the same), and the wayward tourists (in body and mind). They stalk the streets for meat. Gangs and loners suckling at the hemlock of modernity; dying in the refuse of the Holy Bagmati. Sweeping their ashes into the air and the water, so that in death they can join wholly the pollution that surrounded them in life.

At night in DC, the streets belong to the dogs. The belligerent white bar hoppers, the bastards of diplomats, the lawyers suckling on mellifluous smoke, plucking oral pyres from their cedar cigar boxes... on the West side. And the pushers, the pimps, the gangster and welfare mothers (all the same), the crack heads, the deaf kids (from concert and school), the transsexual whores and the white kids wondering what compelled them to move here... on the East side. And to the Southwest, whiteness and a river for drowning. And to the Southeast, blackness drowning in a white river.

At night in Lalitpur, the streets belong to the dogs. But lets leave the metaphor for a moment. Should you find yourself walking through the low lit corridors of this ancient kingdom at night, you will be alone and at once accompanied by a choir. I don’t know how the kids here sneak out at night. Every corner is claimed by our 10,000-year-old watchmen -- the dogs, who have secured our hearth since we named it. You don’t need to be quiet to hear the moment. The warnings undulate and refract around every slab of cement. Stop. Go back. Turn away for your life.

And as I find myself stepping through these dog-filled streets, I’m reminded that their inhabitants smell fear. So I turn the corner brazen, solemn, sincere, saying in a language understood throughout animality, “I am going to cross and you are not going to fuck with me.”

You want to survive? Pick a street, how about Wall Street? How about Willow Creek? How about Haight? How about H? How about Pennsylvania?

At night, in your city, the streets belong to the dogs.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

laundry day

July 11, 2009

Today is the first day in many weeks that I made a conscious decision to not go on any adventures. There are those of you who no doubt question the wisdom of such apparent lethargy. Indeed, what greater folly than to discard opportunities for excitement in an exotic land?

Yeah, there’s that. And then again, I did finally get my laundry done, and let’s not minimize that pithy accomplishment. I mean, just look at my laundry room:

You got it right. My washing machine is a combination of that bucket, and these guns:

Oh yeah.

Your Nepali lesson for the day is the word “Didi.” It literally means older sister, but it’s also commonly used to refer to a domestic helper. Now, when I first learned the word it was in reference to Vishnu, my “land lord.” Moreover, it’s a common sign of respect to refer to anyone you meet here as Didi, Bahini, Daai or Bhaai (Sister: older, younger; Brother: older, younger respectively). It didn’t occur to me until weeks after I learned the term that it could also be used, somewhat informally, as an occupational title. Westerners will often refer to “my didi” as the person who cooks, cleans and cares for their general domestic needs. That is not the way Vishnu rolls. Matter of fact, I’m coming to get the impression that this family is pretty well off by Nepali standards and it would hardly be appropriate (or imaginable if you knew her) for Vishnudidi to work as a domestic. Don’t get me wrong, she feeds me occasionally (mostly Raksi and Chang), but she ain’t about to be doing my laundry.

I could fold this into some social commentary––domestic labor is a legit source of income and to withhold such employment when you have the means to afford it would be regarded as greedy––but I know you’re already getting bored. Point is this, I may not have gone out today, I may not have seen the temple at Swayambhu, ventured to the royal palace museum, played tennis in Fort Durbar or braved the streets of Thamel, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t accomplish anything.

Boo Ya!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Jelu at load shedding

Load shedding is what they call a brown out here. It happens daily. I'm told that during the winter they got down to only 4 hours a days with power.

It's an inconvenience one adapts to quickly. It honestly has almost no negative impact on my life, except for occasionally interrupting an online chat. It also affords particular opportunities. For example, I never would have thought to take these pictures if the power hadn't gone out.

This is my dear friend Jelu, during load shedding, at dusk, during monsoon.

catching up very slowly

June 30, 2009

There is a spiral shaped burn on the floor of my bedroom. It is beautiful. The way the coil rounds: black dug into the oceanic green of the carpet, like a thin serpent chasing its tail in still water. But when I rub my fingers against it, they find a sculpture in relief. Not a snake, but a crevasse. Then I imagine myself a millimeter tall, staring out across this beautiful, mysterious cannon. “What is this?” my miniature American mind ponders. “A ritual marking? An artistic branding?” What, you may wonder, might this mean?

I did something stupid.

Months ago, back in DC, my roommate Gorky informed me of this magical incense they have in India (and so much about India was magical or seemed to be when Gorky spoke of it). This incense, he said, has the power to force mosquitoes to ascend mindlessly to the ceiling, where they flutter about and die, their poisoned bodies tumbling lightly to the floor like discarded miniature parachutes. And I hardly believed him––I’m ashamed of my faithlessness. They exist here in Nepal! But they’re not as good at offending mosquitoes as they are at offending landlords… the type of people who prefer not to see cannons left by spring shaped incense / insect repellent.

That’s why I haven’t shown it to them yet.

I figure we can build report over the next few weeks and then, once I’m universally beloved, I’ll tell them the hilarious story of how I left the fan on high and it knocked the incense over, onto the floor, and I didn’t notice it burning until it had exhausted every micron of fiber, extinguishing itself, in natural unemployment, on their carpet.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Nick and his lady friend Casey just left for India today and he won't be back will late july / early august. So I'm flying solo now. But I'm making friends and staying plenty busy. I've also learned just enough Nepali to buy food now, so at least I won't starve. I have a new co-worker, another intern from the States (Montana). She's a Brown graduate in Sociology, so a kindred spirit. And since I'm basically the only person she knows, we're cool to hang. Yay for friends by default! Other than that, I'm going on a rafting trip this weekend with a bunch of volunteers from Mennonite Central Commttee, plus my AU pal Eka. Should be a good time (great pictures of that forthcoming).

For now, look at this one, it was taken at a party we went to at the home of a French ex-pat cheese maker:
He's preparing to pack a pipe with an herb thought to have been smoked in great quantities by the god Shiva. Yep, it's exactly what you're thinking. You can't make this stuff up.