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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Like most development concepts, I think this one is pretty impractical in the "field." Im an outsider in the traditional sense (not from here) but its more complicated than that.

    I think to be an outsider, you have to be unwilling to appreciate the experiences of others. Those people, the ones with minds bolted shut, spouting generalizations and preconceptions, they are on the outside.

    But its not just outside a culture, religion, race, gender, orientation, its outside any experience that isnt your own. To be "inside" is a challenge, and its sad to see people here who think they're "in" bc its their city, country, culture, but it just isnt that easy..

  3. Insiders are anyone who not only "pass" physically, but "pass" culturally. For instance, an Irish aid worker, married to a Liberian, with Liberian children, is an insider. But he smokes cigarettes, and is a pale shade of pink most of the time, so thus his attitudes and physical appearance create an artificial division. He lives as an insider but is not inside the cultural traditions. And it's a fact, no one can be inside the cultural traditions without first deciding for themselves that that's where they want to be and second being accepted by the wider community.

    As far as being stared at, don't worry about it. You're funny looking. I'm an alien here too. Just be happy you can't be proposed to, I've been asked for my hand in marriage more times than I can count.

    I think the only problem is the outsider trap. I see many Peacecorps volunteers fall into this trap, where they are all to aware that they are on the outside, thus when they actually participate in community or cultural gatherings, they have no local insiders to support them. Thus you see, teams of Americans, or other westerners, traveling. I avoid these groups because while I know I'm different, I don't have to be around other people who are also different here to understand my own self in this context. In fact, it's easier for me to be around Liberians because I can ask them questions when I don't understand. And I feel at home, even though I know I'm not.

    That could be Liberians though, or Africans (however much you're willing to generalize).