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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Nepal's Future: Who gets to decide?

The first time I went to Nepal was before I turned two. My parents met in Nepal and when they decided that have kids, they decided that they wanted to do so in the US, as doing so would greatly increase their capacity to show their children both of the places that make us up.

They were right. For the most part my life has been punctuated by the annual (or so) trips we would take throughout my childhood to Nepal. I remember the treks, the family love and the food, what Kathamndu was like 20 years ago and the things that were the same in Nepal and the US as well as what was different.

But one of the things that I got the most out of these pilgrimages was that Nepal was a place full of wonder – not the mystical magical kind that was sold by Hollywood in the 50’s – but the kind made up of a whole other way of thinking about the value and process of life.

The bifurcation of my internal culture became a subtext of my personality and stayed just below the surface until recently. In 2010 an old friend and mentor of mine and I decided that it was time to join forces. She is a Professor of South Asian History and I was figuring out was new programs ATC would be very good at. Together we created a 6-class that has been offered at the University of Vermont since.

The class spends 2 weeks on campus every summer followed by a little bit under a month in Nepal. The class focuses on the idea what happens to the culture, environment and society in Upper Mustang (an extremely remote corner of the Himalaya), with the sudden burst and rapid invasion of Western culture they are currently experiencing.

One of the most rewarding aspects of sharing Nepal with students in this way is that I get to see their eyes open and their ideas shift as they explore the area. One of the biggest things that surprises the students every year is the multiple ways to view the idea of preservation.

Limbu Ladies at the Taplejung Haat Bazaar

Growing up in the west we have an idea that preserving is good. Keeping historical pieces of our heritage should be valued and prioritized as our culture pushed the idea of progress and self-directed evolution. However, the linear quality that western ideology pushes, has a different shape in much of the rest of the world.

In Nepal, as in many south Asian nations where both Hinduism and Buddhism are the dominant religions, the view of life is much more cyclical. Everything exists within the idea that destruction and rebirth are a part of life. Things need not physically exist forever for their spirit and virtue to live on. The idea of preservation is not a part of the way in which the culture experiences its own history nor future.

Preservation in South Asia is an introduced idea. One that does not reflect the indigenous lifestyle, belief system nor a culturally aware sense of these areas’ need to design their own paths forward.

I’m not suggesting that Nepal leave it’s many beautiful historical sights to rot, nor do I think that preservationists are intentionally harming the way of life in Nepal; however, what I am suggesting is that there must be an awareness of the way in which local mentality and beliefs need to be respected.

Sherpinis at Mewa Khola

Western mentality comes to Nepal and tells them what parts of their culture are not worth preserving (treatment of women, education systems, local languages, monarchy etc...) and the ones that are (architecture and history). While the intentions are positive, there needs to be some awareness of the ownership that Nepalis' need to have about their future direction and evolution as a nation.

If Nepal has any chance to survive in the rapidly modernizing global economy and atmosphere, it has to take charge and decide for itself which parts of it defines it own culture and what they as a nation want to preserve and what they find they are ready to grow away from. Self guided growth is extremely important, without it Nepal is just floating in the wind, an NGO state being propped up from the outside and defined externally.

I know the richness of Nepal. I know the value and the beauty that exists in its people, culture, landscape and history. I know that the way that Nepali culture sees life as a cycle is beautiful, that this mentality offers so much patience, forgiveness and potential for communal care that it shouldn't be shunned or left to the side. It's important that we as a global society begin to truly value the way in which the rest of the world thinks. It might not always be something we agree with, it might not be something that we want to live by - but the awareness of it is what is important. To steamroll over these ideas and beliefs is a shortcoming that we, as a global society, need to be more aware of and more careful with. There's a lot the world has to offer us all.

~Lisa Kumari Conlon

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Two Young Nepali Girls, All Smiles.