I can’t imagine a place to end my winter adventure which is more opposite Nepal than Germany. I was bronzed from the Nepali sun and still picking lice out of my hair when I arrived in Munich. A cold dreary place in winter, like most of Europe. Rather than milling livestock and clouds of dust wrapped early industrialism there was silence, grey stone and the low humming of the U-Bahn subway system. Rather than a motorcycle pickup there was a company car.
I often thought when I was in Nepal that it was like a Bizarro World version of Switzerland. Two isolated countries studded with some of the most breathtaking mountain scenery available this side of Mars. Were Nepal to do all the banking for South Asia they might not be so different. But they don’t and they are.
On the streets of Munich there was no curiosity directed me as had been done so intently for many months in Kathmandu. I was another anonymous white face amidst unfriendly westerners. The west will never be the same to me. The realization of the fact that it could all be left behind is one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. Everything from McDonalds to the Judeo-Christian Hierarchy could be forgotten. To be allowed to exist in a place where they have never heard of the Jews or of George Lucas.
Moreover, as a white person, a westerner, you can exist without expectation. You can’t be expected to fit in, or to know the way to behave. The only expectation they might have is that you’re rich. An assumption which makes perfect sense when you see westerners walking out of Tribhuvan Airport with top-of-the-line backpacking gear, glittering spectacles, leather shoes, brand name handbags, smartphones, etc. Like all the westerners who insisted on wearing hiking boots constantly they look like astronauts in space suits where oxygen is abundant.
Even with my meager summer savings, I probably seemed rich because I could afford to buy as much fruit and dumplings as I wanted. I was asked many times what my caste name was. I sure did have fun trying to explain that the United States does not have a class system but actually does. “How do you know who to marry?” I would be asked. In Nepal people marry within their own castes, a way of creating ethnic groups, really. Of which Nepal has hundreds. I was asked all the time whether or not I was married and whether I had kids. I guess it’s as difficult for the Nepali to guess my age as it was for me to guess theirs.
I was told by more than a few people, children included, that they wished they had white skin like mine. “You’re skin is soo white, e-Scott Uncle. I wish mine was white like yours.” As a 21st Century white American it’s difficult to know what to say to a comment like that. All I said was “Why?” In Nepal fair skin has what in the west would probably be described as an antiquated stigma, that if you have dark skin you work the fields and if you have light skin you can afford not to. Something which is fairly practical there. I noticed that most of the hard labor was being done by the very dark skinned men, who look quite African, and that the ones fortunate enough to be driving cars were almost invariably fair-skinned and dressed like westerners. Of the counterpart stigma, the skinny-fat dynamic where fatsos are rich and skinny people can’t afford to eat, there was little evidence. I saw maybe half a dozen Nepali I would have considered fat and they were rich and old.
The swankiest party I ever saw was not ten minutes from the orphanage where I lived. A “corrupt policeman” was throwing a birthday party for his daughter. The entire three mile road was blocked off with the most expensive cars I saw in Nepal. There were Suzukis, a land rover and even a Ford there. Everyone was dressed to the nines. Men in black suits with scarfs and women in ornate traditional Saris. The house was set back from the road, outfitted with panoramic windows and solar panels and was well guarded behind a high concrete wall with forked metal spikes. A guardhouse was placed by the road which was always attended. They would wave as I walked by.Everything of value in Kathmandu was locked down and barred. Even the orphanage where I lived had a concrete wall around it topped with forked metal bar and sliding gate.
One of the nicest plots of land I saw was a German-run kindergarten next door to what had been the Crown Prince’s palace before the royal family was gunned down in 2001. The grass at this kindergarten was trimmed to 1950’s suburbia standards and boasted some of the finest outdoor feng shui I saw in the city. This place too was high-walled and tucked away from the main streets in a beehive of wealthy elites.
It seemed pretty obvious to me that western and especially European things were high brow. The word “European” was used all the time in advertising in hopes of boosting the item’s class. One bottled water brand read “Distilled using brand new EUROPEAN technology.” The Nepali would define their status on their familiarity with western excess and the Europeans on their understanding of third-world deprivation. I use the term “third world” here even though it’s outmoded. I don’t want to get into dicey geopolitical terms so I use it to describe the fact that it’s a different world. In my opinion, a more lively one.
In many ways the Nepali attempted all the same status statements that Americans do but in an extremely shameless manner. Many a hoodie was worn proudly displaying the monicker “iPhone 4.” One young man I befriended told me how his aunt lived in NYC and that when she returned to Nepal she would bring for him an Apple iPhone 4 and a macbook. He was clearly looking for me to respond with commercial validation. I don’t remember what I said, but I felt conflicted.
I walked into the main shopping district of Munich in search of what my uncle referred to as “Retail therapy.” Along the way I spotted a shop bearing Sanskrit letters. “Himalayan Handicrafts,” it was called. My brain near exploded. There was no escape. How many times I had been walking in Thamel, which is essentially an outdoor mall of cheaply made pseudo-ethnic kitch for westerners, and knew that I could find it anywhere in the US from North Carolina to NYC. I would have liked to have the “German Bakery” from Kathmandu next to the Himalayan store in Munich.
What I have described are all commercial indicators. Commerce is often how class is defined. And cross-continental commerce only serves to deepen the plasticity of it. I saw NYC plastered across anything and everything in Kathmandu from hoodies to motorbikes. I brought nothing back from Nepal as a souvenir save for the Nepali Topi which was given me as a gift of my time there. While I find it depressing that there is almost nowhere in the world that the influence of Europe and America don’t exist I found a place where those things are simply silly commercial items and not a way of life. These days though, it’s hard to tell the difference between commercial statement and lifestyle when those items have revolutionized our lives. “An age of the casually miraculous” Alan Moore called it in 1985.
I hope I don’t live to see a world where that place, which defeated the British in 1816 during the Anglo-Nepali War, becomes more than just enamored with blue jeans and baseball caps. A cultural empire is now an all together different threat. It’s still easier to eat Dahl Bhat than KFC. I hope that never changes.