Standing at the Crossroads

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NEPAL FACES EXTENSIVE POVERTY, and because the topic of our research involved impoverished children, I also saw many disturbing sights during my trip: the elderly man sleeping on the street outside of our hotel and begging for food during the day; young men carrying loads of stone in large canvas bags tied around their foreheads; the frail and emaciated children who would tug on my shirt and hold out their hands for food or money; children searching through piles of trash for food. It was particularly challenging to accept the locals’ negative view of street people, due in part to the caste system, which remains culturally pervasive. Still, I was careful not to develop a self-righteous attitude. It’s too easy to impose our Western biases and assumptions on another country, decrying the suffering there but remaining blind to similar problems that exist, if to a lesser degree, in our own country.

The stone stairway leading to the Swayambhunath Stupsa, or "Monkey Temple," in KathmanduConducting our research involved visiting several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), interviewing NGO administrative staff, visiting transition homes and drop-in centers for street children, and interacting with children both on the streets and at the NGOs. Despite the dire circumstances facing many of these children, they often have a surprisingly good attitude. Perhaps the most inspiring example of this occurred during a music lesson at one of the NGOs. Accompanied by their music teacher, who played a small keyboard, several children sang traditional Nepalese folk songs. After a few minutes, one of the little girls stood in the middle of the circle and began dancing, a broad smile on her face. Many of the other children followed suit, and before long the children had successfully pulled the entire research group, including me, into the mix. I was uplifted by the optimism, the attitude and the downright glee of these children who have faced such hardship.

MY EXPERIENCES in Nepal and Turkey changed my perception of the world and continue to influence my thinking about poverty, Islam, Western privilege, power and the pressure to speak English. Being able to associate real experiences and people with world affairs drastically alters the way one considers a particular issue, and I have found this to be enriching to my worldview. Growing up in the United States, for example, I had little exposure to Islam, and was even taught by many to fear and distrust it. But having lived and studied in a Muslim country, I have realized how problematic and inaccurate this mentality is, especially as I came to know Turks. Although many women in Istanbul wear headscarves, the custom is not pervasive and did not match what I had been conditioned to feel about such symbols of religious affiliation. During my first week in Istanbul, I must have seen 100 different women simultaneously donning the headscarf and talking on their iPhones. Immediately, the inaccurate view that had been ingrained in me—that all Muslim women are somehow inherently oppressed, controlled, subjugated and ultraconservative—was dismantled.

Moreover, my experiences deepened my awareness of Western privilege, especially as it relates to language. The world invests extraordinary power in the ability to speak English and to have access to good education. This was particularly obvious when I realized that knowing English was enough to get me by nearly everywhere I went. I came to understand that the fortunate circumstance in which I was raised—knowing the English language as a native speaker—has made my life so much easier than the lives of people who do not have the same fortune. English speakers travel the world and largely expect to have no problems, and for the most part, they don’t. I cannot imagine the same would be true for a speaker of Nepalese or Turkish in the United States. Reaching an awareness of this privilege is profoundly humbling. These realizations continue to influence my day-to-day thinking, whether I’m in class or reading the newspaper.

In traveling to Turkey and Nepal, I was afforded the unique opportunity to live at a crossroads, constantly observing the ebb and flow of culture, language and human interaction, and providing the invaluable experience of juggling cultural expectations and norms. In doing so, I learned to straddle cultural boundaries and, in that process, to break some of them down. As my perspectives continue to evolve, I am eager to learn more about the bustling, expansive and enriching world around me. And what a world it is.

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