Becoming American Again, Five Months After Leaving Nepal

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time" -T.S. Eliot

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This quotation has never felt so true. I am back in the US. Five months ago today I was softly weeping as my plane departed Nepal's verdant land. A year ago today I was preparing to summit Thorung La Pass, at 17,769 feet, by dawn from Thorung High Camp, where I spent a short night sleeping at 16,010 feet. I was the kind of body tired that is also, paradoxically, invigorating. When I think back it feels fresh and recent, but also far away, as if in a dream or some other life; a parallel world (but doesn’t travel always feel like another life?) that I want to be able to move into mentally with more ease than I can on most days.

 

I’m back in Seattle and, on most days my elevation gains are around 100s, not 1000s, of feet. I am deep in the folds of my academic life and the rhythms of campus. I am finishing my dissertation (which allows me to regularly revisit Nepal and my memories and my data in a way that is comforting), I am on the academic job market, and I have a job on campus where I help students navigate college and bureaucracy and sometimes, their lives. It all makes me feel a different kind of exhausted at the end of every day, the kind that doesn’t quite invigorate you, but instead leaves you needing quiet weekends and other outlets like sewing or hiking or a cooking project to remain in balance. And while that is the American reality and it’s comfortable because its familiar, it feels discordant with this other life I lived, so readily and joyously, not that long ago. But this feeling of increasing distance from Nepal is scary too, because I don’t know when I will get back there again. It is both a relief (because I never found a good answer) and a little sad that I no longer have to face the “how was Nepal?! Tell me about it!” questions when I first see someone. It’s old news now. I get questions about the job market now. And when I am going to finish my dissertation (Answers: it’s fine but strange to go on the market and by June 2018).

The part of me that felt so much a part of life in Nepal is shrinking into a stand-alone column within me, rather than all of me. But it wasn’t that way when I got back here. When I first returned, it was the opposite. I was all Nepal and I had to work to access the “normal” American parts of myself to get along as before. I felt like I stood out and it was obvious to the strangers I’d see or interact with that I felt so out of place. These past 5 months since my return have been spent slowly learning to become American again. I never had to consciously learn to be American before, since I am a citizen by birth and this was the only socialization I had, since my parents were also born citizens.

This relearning is as good an illustration of social construction as I can imagine. What seems “natural” and “normal” here are really just a series of learned behaviors, perspectives, attitudes, and reactions that one can lose and may have to relearn. I knew this was coming, of course. And I felt worried about how I was going to preserve what I loved about my life in Nepal with an American life. That there is an adjustment has not been a surprise, I knew it was coming. Fulbright had a whole thing about it for us. But what was a surprise was the specific things that were adjustments. I knew that places of commerce, like supermarkets, would be triggering since there is so much here and so little in Nepal.  But things I never expected caught me off guard. What I adapted to quickly and what took relearning were not necessarily the parts of life I expected.

Here is a non-comprehensive list of 14 things that took time to adjust to or surprised me as issues at all:

First days back: driving, cleanliness and dirtiness

1.     In the car coming back from the airport I felt overwhelmed by how fast we were going (at 55 mph) as we merged onto the highway. It felt too fast. In Nepal you can’t get up to those speeds because of the road quality, volume of cars, and number of obstacles (in the form of pedestrians, bikes, animals, or other cars).

2.     I nearly waded out into traffic to jaywalk my way through a series of oncoming cars, Nepali style, one too many times. Seattle drivers simply would not be able to handle this (they’re not known for being the gutsiest of drivers and tend to panic and do the wrong thing when something confusing is happening). When I was driving I felt the impulse to do the same, just sort of Boston-nudge my way into traffic to take a left.

My wonderful Dolpo sisters making a feast for us, partly in celebration of my birthday

3.     On my first day home, I was overwhelmed by how clean and empty the sidewalks were. The day I arrived I was walking with two friends down The Ave, which is the main drag of restaurants and shops adjacent to the University of Washington’s campus in Seattle. As you can imagine, it’s not a particularly clean area. The sidewalks are stained with litter, gum, spilled food, vomit, urine, and sometimes worse. I said, in a dreamlike state typical of a jetlagged person who hasn’t slept in 36 hours and went immediately from the airport to a departmental function to recoup an award, “Wow, the sidewalks are so… clean. And empty.” My friends stared at with a faint look of concern and confusion as we stepped onto a crowded and dirty sidewalk.

4.     When I showered, I was overwhelmed by the volume of (delightfully) hot water coming at me. I kept turning the water off during my shower because of anxiety about wasting water. I think it took about a month to return to my usual American-water-hog self. As a habitual daily shower-er who uses my morning shower to get my day started, I have returned to that habit, which I did not keep in Nepal. This is one of my more shameful returns to American culture that I wish I had maintained better (and yes, it’s not too late).

5.     Whenever my hands were wet and I was handling food (such as chopping vegetables) I would panic for a moment about getting sick before remembering it was ok to eat wet food (and raw food). That lasted only about a week or more but still sometimes if I eat with wet hands I feel faintly like I’m doing something wrong.

He sells these baskets for $3 and they take him 6 hours to make

6.     It took a while to get past sticker shock at everything. But most poignantly was a fancy camping stove and counter on display at REI, where I waited to get a repair on my bag that broke in transit. As I stood in the crowded line looking at this chrome and wood stove on a table with multiple sides and all the bells and whistles, I was thinking, “That is for camping. Who needs that camping? How often would they use it? It probably is $800 and people would use it once a year. It’s nicer than any kitchen I ever saw anywhere in Nepal.” And that last realization slowly reduced my jetlagged self to tears as I felt overwhelmed by capitalism and inequality and feeling out of place in a culture I supposedly belong to (and in a store I usually love visiting). In an act of masochistic curiosity I looked at the price, thinking my estimation of $800 was an exaggeration and curious how out of touch I was with pricing. It was $1750. I have been thinking about American excess differently ever since. I hope that I never get normalized fully into thinking this is an appropriate use of $1750.

Longer term changes in interactions, habits, and perspectives

7.     I was surprised how much I would speak or respond in Nepali to people, mostly little phrases. Now they’re much less fresh on my tongue and they don’t just bubble out. Unless I want to say “See you tomorrow” as I am departing a social gathering, in which case my first instinct is always to say “Bholi Bhetaula” before saying it in English.

8.     Soon after arrival back to the US I had the opportunity to go to Sweden and I kept calling Swedes “Nepalis,” as I realized “Nepali” became the word in my head for “natives of the place that I am living/visiting.” So I would say things like, “All the Nepalis here have really awesome jackets, I wonder where they get them.” But I was talking about Swedes in Sweden. I also thanked a Dutch server in Nepali, which was likely very confusing for them.

9.     In general, the reliance on modern conveniences has taken me a while to start to fully return to. I am using the apps on my phone (like the one that tells me when the bus is coming) less than before, I have become more analog.

10.  It took a long time for me to feel ok in shorts, tight pants, or a tank top without feeling I was being offensive or immodest. I kept feeling strange for passing or accepting receipts, money, or coffee with my left hand (a rude gesture in Nepal).

11.  I felt deeply aware and uncomfortable with how many white people were everywhere. I kept thinking “there are so many Westerners here” as I looked around my very white city. I felt a sort of outsiderness that I, as a white woman, have never felt so sharply among other white people in my own country before. This feeling slowly faded, but I hold on to a small feeling of “otherness” as I try and navigate my way forward, still.

12.   Seattle has been changing really fast and being away for a year and returning, it was striking to see the number of buildings knocked down and replaced with condos. There is a homelessness crisis and it’s been shocking to see how many more people are unhoused on the streets than before. I am quite certain that the Nepalis who describe America as a dream country of opportunity to me would not believe how many people go without here. Without their basic, human needs met along side apartments filled with tech workers who get paid so handsomely that they price long-time residents out of their own homes every single day. The gentrification and displacement was palpable and alienating. Seattle has not fully felt like my home city anymore. It’s been a long process of remembering and reacquainting.

They were laughing because, after asking if I could take their photo, they said "but we're not in our nice clothes!"

13.  My focus on the clock and timeliness and feeling rushed to be places on time has shifted. While I still value being on time, I tend to lose myself in time and not have a good sense of how much of the day has passed. I enjoyed this about Nepali life while I was there and I am happy I’ve been able to adapt and hold onto this in the US in a way that feels compatible and genuine. I think I’ve been able to keep a distance from my self-consciousness. Not get fully wrapped up in the optics of how I look to others and how they see me. It’s easier to just be sometimes. Nepalis spend a lot less time worried about what other people are thinking about them than Americans do.

14.  Relatedly, I think at least part of this is tied up in sexual harassment. I felt much safer in Nepal than I do here. I did not feel carved up and looked at as individual aspects of my body. I was certainly looked at a lot, but for more nationality, not the way my clothes fit my body. The first instance of harassment I experienced was in June, stepping off a train in Amsterdam from the airport. Three men were sitting on a bench just staring in a threatening way and making what I can only surmise were lewd comments in Dutch. It was unnerving and reminded me of how I walk around the Western world with a sort of internal armor against sexual harassment that I slowly let go of when I was in Nepal. My feelings of distrust of others around me have only increased in the wake of the election of Trump. I caught myself walking home at 9pm from my dance class with my keys spread between my fingers. I never did such things before, but the US has changed and I have changed and I don’t occupy the same sense of ease I had before, even at the edges of my own neighborhood.

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I have been told it takes about six months to really adjust, to find a way to feel normal again after this sort of life changing reorientation to yourself and the worlds you live in. I am five months out and realize I am mostly back to my usual self. My American habits are back in swing; the things that aren’t quite there yet might be the things that don’t go back to the way they were. I feel more settled than before, it took about four months to see that. And starting the school year again really helped create the routine and structure I needed to feel more socially embedded back in the US. But still, there is a part of me that I think remains in Nepal and maybe it always will. The trial of being back is figuring out how to keep my little column of Nepali life alive and from becoming an empty space, or worse, an American space.

 

 

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