The Story I Can’t Tell

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.

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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? Continue reading “The Story I Can’t Tell”

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White People Problems (American Tourist Edition)

Let’s face it: I have a problem with being a white American traveling in India. Chalk it up to white guilt or simply a recognition of (historical and present) privilege, but my whiteness preceded me everywhere I went and reminded me of echoes of the past—the white, British colonizers who oppressed and dehumanized Indians for years, who demolished their culture and devalued their lives.

Admission: I am not an expert on either Indian history or British colonialism. But I couldn’t help but be aware of the damage wrought by people who looked like me, worshipped in the kinds of churches I attend, and spoke my language.

I guess it was a good thing to be aware of. But beyond awareness of privilege, I’ve wondered what I could do. Colonization is over, but the real inequalities are still there—because of nationality, class, place of birth, first language—all of those things.

Boyeon and I had some interesting conversations about this. How she, as someone from a country that had been colonized (by the Japanese, for those of you who missed out on East Asian history), felt a certain kind of empathy for (and to her, perhaps from) the Indian people. How walking down the street, she felt a kinship—both as someone from Asia and from a formerly colonized country.

For us, this sometimes played out in how we interacted with people on the street. For example, Boyeon frequently was ready to ask questions, get directions, and get answers for other basic travel information. I, however, was not. Granted, this is partly because she’s more extroverted than I am, and I’m self-reliant to a fault. But one of my major hangups, as I told her, was really my lack of knowing the local language and how imperialistic (and particularly American) it felt to expect everyone to know English. (And our cramming of Hindi did not help us at all in the Bengali-dominated Northeast or Malayalam-speaking South.)

And while I didn’t feel the Indian people holding me accountable for British failings, I did realize that I wanted to find a way to acknowledge those failings, to recognize my positionality within that space, to work to counteract any ways in which power and privilege became barriers between me, the place, and the people. Continue reading “White People Problems (American Tourist Edition)”