There is a story I want to tell, but no matter how many times I try, I can’t get it right.
There is a writer. They go to Bhaktapur, Nepal. It’s October. A young girl approaches them as they enter the city. Says “hello.” Starts chatting. Asks if she can show the writer around to practice her English.
The writer is a white American. The young girl—a teenager, really, though she looks like she could be in middle school—is Newari, an ethnic minority in Nepal.
Let’s call the girl Matina. Let’s say she shows the writer around. There are buildings that are hundreds of years old. There are intricate wood carvings on the doors, in the eaves, above the windows, making windows themselves. This is what people come to Bhaktapur to see.
Let’s say the writer takes her to a café, but mostly because the writer is hungry and hasn’t had coffee. Let’s say they watch Nepali music videos on the writer’s cell phone. Let’s say Matina loves Nepali singers, but her favorite band is One Direction.
What if even in that moment, the writer realizes the complexity of what’s happening? Wonders when Matina might make an ask. Wonders if her parents put her up to snagging tourists off the streets and showing them around, telling them things like how much she likes chemistry. Wonders about the economics that would lead a family to do a thing like that. Wonders if Matina will be able to finish school. Wonders how many other foreigners have taken her to this café.
Still, the writer goes along. Eventually, Matina invites them to her home. The writer meets Matina’s parents. Matina shows the writer her homework—pages and pages, reciting chemistry facts and asking if she got the answers right on her English test. Her mom asks the writer to buy the family groceries.
The writer has been ripped off before with a similar ask—once in Delhi and once in Kathmandu—but they buy the groceries anyway—rice, oil, milk. Matina’s mom invites them back to the house to drink Fanta, their one splurge. Matina cleans off a metal cup with cloudy water from an old 7Up bottle and pours the soda in.
Matina calls the writer “sister” and “friend.” The writer thinks it might all be an act but is tempted to think that Matina might be lonely, too. Maybe in that way, they’re the same. When asked about her best friend, Matina says she had one before, but not now.
It is tempting for the writer to think in terms of these well-worn narratives. Because it easy, and there are clean lines to follow. Lines that could make the writer feel more comfortable.
But they’re not comfortable. And when Matina takes them back to the bus stop, and tells the writer to come back to visit, and asks them to send her post cards, and makes sure they get on the right bus to Kathmandu, the writer can’t help but thinking. And thinking. And thinking.
Did I do the right thing? Did I just make things worse? Will she become a tour guide, nurse, or singer like she dreams? What if my life had been like this? Where would I be? Why do I get to go back to an air-conditioned hotel with wifi when her home has dirt floors and no running water? Why do I keep talking to strangers? How did her house still stand in the earthquake? Did she lose anyone she knew? How do I tell this story? Can I?
Option 1: Don’t. It’s not yours to tell, and you can’t do it without disempowering Matina.
Option 2: Do, but gloss over the poverty, because otherwise it’s like you’re Othering her.
Option 3: Do, but be sure to mention the economic disparity, because a lot of your readers in the United States probably haven’t seen this—don’t understand the economic and infrastructural needs of developing countries. If people could see, maybe they could help.
Option 4: Do, but know that your whiteness and economic privilege will get in the way, whether you want it to or not. So turn it into an intersectional analysis. Analyze your positionality as a white, middle class American traveler. Discuss the first time you realized your economic privilege. Talk about how your privilege affects you every time you go through an airport. Race, economics, ethnicity, nationality—all of these things are at play and are important. Start there.
Option 5: Do, but don’t dwell too much on your positionality, because then you’re centering whiteness and your privilege. Make sure you focus on Matina, who is really at the heart of the story you want to tell.
Option 6: Try to tell it, again and again. Open yourself up to complexity. Be aware of positionality and intersectionality. Conjure up all the feminist theory you’ve read and discussed that might help with this—Said, Mohanty, Spivak, etc. Show it to friends. Scrap it each time. Tell yourself you can’t do it. Start over again.
I tried to discuss it with one of my feminist friends—how to talk about Bhaktapur—and they told me to always remember agency and to recognize the spaces in which Matina had power.
I laughed. To me, Matina felt like a force of nature from the moment she ran up to me and said “hello.” I wanted that space between us to be equitable from the beginning, in whatever way it could be, and though I was the tourist, she was the one who was showing me where to go, who guided our conversations, who gave me a virtual tour of Nepali music videos, who, in the end, ensured that her family had food.
But even that reading feels misguided. Because I would always have more power in that situation (due to money, race, age, nationality, etc.), it couldn’t be equitable, no matter how much space for agency she carved out for herself.
And as my friend and I talked about the ways that white people have so often hijacked the stories of brown people to make them into their own, I asked them—and myself—“Is even my telling of this story disempowering?”
I think the answer is yes.
So why try so hard to do it?
I didn’t know, at first, why Matina and her family and Bhaktapur remained stuck like a shard in my chest when I left. I was only there a few hours, but still, there was something I couldn’t get at.
A lot of things. Power. Privilege.
The discomfort of facing poverty, as someone with economic privilege. The discomfort of getting back on that bus and going to have a big dinner when I didn’t know what Matina and her family would be eating. The discomfort of not knowing what to do to make it better. Not knowing if I, in fact, made it worse. Guilt about my own privilege. Thinking about how luck played into that. How changing the way those dice roll seemed impossible. How big the problems of global poverty and development are. How slow the wheels of change turn. How quickly I wanted to turn them.
And so I write one draft, and then another.
In the meantime, questions circle my head, leaving me with half-finished essays and incomplete story ideas—questions about why I can’t write this story and why I should:
What is the place of intersectionality in travel writing? How can I employ it not only in my writing but also in my travel itself? How must my position as a feminist and an advocate for social justice inform my travel and writing?
As a traveler, should I even visit countries that have been deemed “developing” (by criteria largely created by so-called “developed” countries)? Do I do more harm than good?
How can I visit such countries without attempting to “consume” them, as has long been the tradition of white European and American writers, artists, historians, travelers, colonizers, imperialists, etc.?
I tried to write a story about Matina five times, starting over each time. In the end, I gave up.
The story I offered at the beginning is just a sketch of what that day could’ve been. In some ways, was. There are so many other ways to tell it. Most of them only hint at some kind of truth.
Because the story of Matina and my paths crossing one warm October day—and what it meant to her and what it meant to me—is always going to be a fiction. Whatever angle I take, I’ll never have enough context and understanding to offer more than conjecture.
And if Matina were to tell this story, it would be something different entirely. Perhaps I wouldn’t be there at all.
In the film 1989 film Surname Viet, Given Name Nam, Trinh T. Minh-ha creates an experimental documentary about gender, colonialism, orientalism, and nationalism, with a focus on Vietnam. The film begins–and is carried–by a series of Vietnamese women telling stories to Trinh’s camera. But you find out perhaps halfway through the film that everything you’ve been hearing, listening to, furiously taking notes on (as I was in my Feminist Theory class) is staged. The women, who are actually Vietnamese-American actors, have been performing translations of interviews of women who lived in post-war Viet Nam. The story you thought you were watching breaks down. Things have been mis-translated. Bodies appropriated. Expectations denied. It is a different story altogether.
Because of the narrative conventions of documentary storytelling, in the beginning, we expect Trinh to shepherd us through the narrative process–we grant her that power. Indeed, as many filmmakers do, Trinh sets us up for that, establishing her credibility and authority by acting as interviewer and translator, by providing clips of historical footage and overlays of Vietnamese folk songs, and by the very act of calling the work a “documentary.” She taps into the stylistic devices often used in ethnographic documentary films (usually created by white people about non-white people for white people)—stylistic devices that automatically “Other” those whose stories they’re trying to convey. A frame is built for us to watch and listen to these women speak, to consume and digest their stories from our side of the screen, and it’s easy to fall for it.
But in the end, Trinh resists telling us this easily-consumable story–fracturing it and breaking it. Instead, she uses the medium of the documentary to show the fiction of such “non-fiction.”
Our vision is clouded. Surname Viet, Given Name Nam shows us how readily our assumptions are confirmed. How much we want stories and histories to confirm them. How much our own lenses get in the way.
How messy the “real” stories actually are.
Matina has a name (it’s not Matina). She lives in Bhaktapur. She’s a teenager. She has an actual life. Her path crossed with mine. Her path continues. She is not a thought experiment.
She told me she loves chemistry and English. She told me she wants to be a nurse, a guide, or a singer one day. She was funny, and kind, and smart.
Perhaps her parents send her out to go on walkabouts with tourists. Perhaps she was just bored and wanted to wander. Perhaps she decided to help out her family herself. There’s no telling.
But I want you to understand that she’s a real person.
It’s because of that that I can’t draw lines around her.
The poverty I saw in Nepal was real, too. As it was in El Salvador, and in rural India. As it can be even in the rural South of the United States, where I’m from.
When I was in South India, I asked my friend Roshan, who works in Tamil Nadu with an international development organization, what the answer was: How do we deal with poverty? People stuck in food insecurity. People without clean water. People with unjust systems bearing down on them. People whose lives are made harder by isolationist or aggressive international policies advanced by so-called developed countries.
There are a lot of answers, to that question but Roshan’s was education. That only by making education affordable and accessible will we be able to change the face of poverty. And that those efforts need to be grassroots—no program or project will take hold or make change happen if some other country or religious group comes in to “save” the locals.
In Roshan’s home in Tamil Nadu, we met some kids whose parents were tribal leaders. Roshan’s organization helps sponsor these kids’ educations. One girl we met had to stay with her aunt who lived several hours away to be able to go to high school. She came home to her parents on weekends.
Roshan said his organization is slated to help build a high school nearby, which is one step closer to solving the education problems in his hometown. But that is just one town, and the reach of Roshan’s organization in Tamil Nadu is small. What about the high schoolers in the next town over—or the one beside that?
And in Nepal, what of Matina? What if her parents, who she said were between jobs, take her out of school because they need someone to help sustain their household? What happens to her chance at an education then? Her dreams?
And what if she can go to school but doesn’t have clean water? Or continues to be food insecure?
When I travel, perhaps I end up talking to strangers because I long to connect, and I long to understand. But as much as I want to understand Matina’s life, I won’t be able to. Just as I won’t be able to overcome the power dynamic that exists between a white, American tourist in their 30s and a young Newari girl.
I realize that Matina’s interactions with me—her stories, her ask—could be simultaneously genuine and part of the economic reality of her life and mine. That it might be harder than I think to draw the lines I want to—making one box for “scammers” who are “bad” and another for honest folks who are “good.” That perhaps there’s always a both/and. That we’re all stuck in this system of intersecting privileges and oppressions, and we’re tasked to survive however we can. That sometimes those facing the most layers of oppression have to carve out nodes of power and resistance in a system that makes life harder for them. That those of us who are most privileged must use that privilege to resist—not by buying bags of groceries but by challenging the system itself, even if that means losing some of our privilege.
That so often, we will fail.
I’ve failed to tell Matina’s story, but it was never mine to tell. And the more I’ve dug down into these questions about my role as a traveler and storyteller—and power, and privilege, and oppression—the more questions I’ve uncovered.
I don’t think I’ll ever reach the bottom.
Note: Matina’s name has been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.