Ever since I can remember, I’ve had to describe my birthplace in the form of a mini-geography lesson.
“I’m from Nepal. It’s a small country in between India and China,” I say. If that doesn’t do it, I add, “It’s where Mt. Everest is.”
That changed a little over six months ago, when an earthquake killed over 9,000 people — a disaster that, for a little while anyway, put the country on the map for everyone else. As aid organizations ramped up quake relief campaigns and governments readied pledges of new loans, Nepal briefly took center stage in a world media that often overlooks it.
For me, it also set a long-simmering internal conflict aflame.
The experiences I had growing up as a Nepali girl in the United States had led left me feeling deeply ambivalent about the politics of aid. With a form of “disaster capitalism” potentially unfolding in my birthplace, old questions about my place in my Nepali-American community — and fresh ones about my work as an activist — surfaced anew.
Growing Up Nepali in America
I’ve become accustomed to being the only Nepali in my town, school, or workplace.
People recognize me as nonwhite, but thanks to the low visibility of Nepalis in the United States, they often don’t have a clue where to box me in. Instead, I’ve gotten a strange tour through some of the toxic stereotypes and slurs that are inflicted across a range of minority communities here.
Other kids in elementary and middle school would tell me to “mow their lawn,“ among other things, because they thought I was Mexican. A seller once yelled that “all Chinese are cheap anyways” when I declined to stop for his services as I was rushing to catch a bus at Penn Station. As recently as this summer, a stranger approached me because he thought I was Indian. At other times I’ve been confused for Japanese, Hawaiian, Filipino — you name it.
Growing up, meanwhile, I was a regular confidant to people expressing anti-black racism, who assumed I wouldn’t challenge them because of my lightness. It was confusing and offensive — to me and, especially, to every group people felt comfortable slurring. I started feeling reluctant to call myself an American.
But I also had my doubts about whether I fit in with the New York Nepali community I grew up in.
The Nepali community and the culture it protects have always been close to my heart. But as I became more active in progressive politics, I often found myself alienated from more conservative members of the community when it came to issues of race, gender, sexuality, and mental health, among a host of other issues. Other Nepali people also perceived me as different — as an “Americanized” Nepali girl who spoke Nepali like a foreigner.
Looking back, it was this sense of displacement that helped launch my later work as an organizer and human rights activist.
Identity and Global Advocacy
In high school, while these identity questions were still gnawing at me, I started digging into deeper questions about why countries like Nepal and the United States were so different. Why were some rich and others poor?
I learned about neo-colonialism, development politics, and how even to this day powerful nations exploit countries like Nepal for resources.
According to the debt relief group Jubilee, Nepal shells out around $600,000 in debt payments every single day. “To put that in perspective,” writes pastor and economist Stan Duncan, “the U.S. typically gives Nepal about $15 million a year in foreign aid. Since the earthquake, we have increased that up to $25 million. That’s a lot of money. However, Nepal pays back, out of the country (to the World Bank, the U.S., etc.), over $27 million every six weeks.”
I started getting more interested in advocacy work. But restructuring an entire country’s debt system — let alone global inequality — seemed like too much to tackle right away. So, inspired by some of the women I knew growing up, I set out to find an organization that would help women and girls in developing nations access a sound education, something that I knew I was privileged to have in the United States.
I got involved with a United Nations foundation program called Girl Up, which builds schools for girls in the hardest to reach nations. I fundraised for the organization and eventually started my own local chapter.
Even with Girl Up, I still had to navigate a world that likes to divide complex identities into neat boxes. Despite some attempts at assimilation, I couldn’t erase my love for my birthplace just to be accepted by white culture. I simply felt more joyful embracing Nepal. My political work, though, made me feel ever more alienated from the more conservative aspects of Nepali culture.
Still, it felt like my advocacy was helping me bridge the gap on my own. I could be at peace with unanswered questions.
And then the earthquake hit.
I remember getting frantic calls and texts from my parents the Saturday morning of the earthquake.
My aunt’s house was completely destroyed, along with all of her belongings. Twenty-seven people, including family friends of ours, died in the collapse of another. I was thankful that everyone in my immediate family was alive, but it hurt to think of everyone I knew living in tent cities and mourning in Nepal.
After the initial quake, many smaller tremors and aftershocks followed. In my own life, little aftershocks started piling up as well.
Most jarring of all was the relative indifference of friends and acquaintances. I felt like a part of myself was erased when people assumed that because I’d colonized my tongue with English and grown up in the U.S, the Nepal earthquake somehow had no impact on me. I remember getting off the phone multiple times with my relatives, worried sick about their safety and well-being, and returning to the company of fellow students who had no idea about any of it. Didn’t it occur to any of them to ask if my family was okay?
Old questions that I used to ask myself now resurfaced, along with new ones. Why was I fortunate enough to be attending a private college with the comforts of the U.S? Why wasn’t I in a tent in Nepal right then? Did people see me as too “Americanized” to even ask if my relatives had survived?
The Personal vs. the Political
I couldn’t sit around pondering these questions while the death toll kept rising. I wanted to mobilize and fundraise immediately.
Yet even as I tabled for donations for aid relief, old doubts crept in. Would this money even get to the people in need? One of the main things that drew me to Girl Up was that over 80 percent of the proceeds raised would benefit the girls. But with the country where I was born on the line, I couldn’t quiet the part of my conscience that whispered warnings against “neo-colonialism.”
In fact, powerful nations commonly use natural and man-made disasters to stream revenue in their own direction, in part by “donating” money or making loans with devastating strings attached. Nepal’s poverty makes it particularly vulnerable to exploitation for the benefit of more powerful countries.
Naomi Klein calls this phenomenon “disaster capitalism.”
In The Shock Doctrine, she describes disaster capitalism as “waiting for a major crisis, then selling off pieces of the state to private players while citizens [are] still reeling from the shock, then quickly making the ‘reforms’ permanent.” She observes that “using moments of collective trauma to engage in radical social and economic engineering” has become a “preferred method of advancing corporate goals.”
In Nepal’s case, the country was reeling from a debilitating debt burden even before the quake. And “under a heightened financial stress scenario,” the IMF noted as far back as 2012, “the debt burden rises notably, with external debt breaching thresholds for prolonged periods.” Sitting at that table collecting donations, even before the extent of the damage became clear, it was likely that the earthquake could be just such a scenario.
The exploitation of natural disasters isn’t just about grand restructuring — it can embody a range of abuses.
Reports of abuse are still pouring out of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, including allegations of UN “peacekeepers” trading aid for sex with women and young girls. The Clinton Foundation has also received backlash for its distribution of aid in Haiti, and the Red Cross notoriously built just 6 homes in Haiti after raising half a billion dollars — in part because it relied on an affluent expatriate “NGO class” for local expertise instead of local Haitians. It’s distressing to imagine non-Nepali NGO workers pouring into the nation, failing to account for the complex divisions of gender, age, caste, and class in the country, and racking up a similar tally.
Five years from now, will reports still be surfacing of exploitation and disaster capitalism in Nepal? I don’t want my homeland to be taken over and its resources raped, or its people continually exploited by an affluent NGO and philanthropist class, opportunistic corporations, or world governments. And yet, when I talk to family about the struggle to rebuild, I can’t help but want to raise money for relief.
Does funneling money into these organizations betray my progressive beliefs, or the activism that’s helped me come to terms with my conflicting identities as a first-generation immigrant? What else can be done?
Short of an answer to that, I’m using my privilege in the U.S. to give readers information about global inequality, identity crisis and all.