Independence Day. Another year of America. But this year Barak Obama’s America. This past year of America I read for the first time both Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States and Barak Obama’s Stories from my Father. One made me feel ashamed of my nationalism. The other validated it. It still seems bizarre that meritocracy could work after eight years of W. A President with a broad range of human experiences and a mind sharp enough to process it all with scrutiny and an eye for beauty.
And how to fit rural Nepal into the picture? Sometimes I’m waiting to hear someone ask me what the hell I’m doing here since I don’t speak the language and thus my work requires double labor—myself and the translator.
Volunteer adventurism? Prodigal son attempting to validate extreme vacationing?
In Stories from my Father one of the women Obama works with community organizing in Chicago asks him why he does it since he doesn’t have to and he could be making more money. She says she does it out of religion. Not religious at the time, Obama responds that he doesn’t think their motivations are all that different. One gets the feeling there are two answers. One is just an intuitive sense that he needs to be there, something about the notion of community draws him. Not entirely overlapping is a moral impulse, which his answer hints at.
A moral impulse. The humanitarian endeavor. The international development endeavor. Somewhere between geopolitics and morality, individuals from around the world meet and work together on relieving suffering, improving livelihoods—sometimes with less than impressive outcomes.
So part of me is seeking meaning out here by anchoring to the moral weight of the issues: bonded labor, child abuse on a mass scale—it’s easy to find the moral high ground and look down. Solutions are more complex.
Children suffering. The auntie here tells of all the children arriving in physical and psychological shells. They can’t be close to people, express themselves. They have internalized a submissive self out of necessity. Laxmi, my interpreter, tells me that she used to have a child domestic laborer. She let her go after the child kept making simple requests like whether she could go across the street to the store. She realized the child thought she was in a cage. And the beatings and the neglect of obvious physical harm.
Should I be anything less than morally indignant that people with college degrees would behave in these ways? Is there some moral relativism I should be aware of? There’s certainly a degree of cognitive dissonance in meeting the employers since, to me, they are always cordial and inviting. The former owners of bonded laborers have degrees from American universities (following in the footsteps of our slave-owning forefathers) and they can converse with me in English about the issues of the day, offer me tea and cookies. It’s all very strange, the lack of clarity. They have dehumanized swathes of people to mistreat them, yet to fully attack the perpetrators requires a similar dehumanization—a need to paint their rationalization, their normalcy, with a kind of malice that may exist outside their perception. If I can refrain from giving beggar children food on the streets of Kathmandu, maybe they can see their child laborer’s bloody hands and feet and refrain from intervening. Maybe they don’t feel responsible.
I suppose if I can forgive Thomas Jefferson, I might as well take a more compassionate approach toward the offenders here. I wonder if one day soon this place will have an Obaman equivalent—a person who acts as a lens to look back and say, “Really? How far we’ve come. How proud I am of the present incarnation of a history so ugly.”
Happy Birthday America. Thanks for this past year.
P.S. On a non-Independence Day note, I kept on being waken by mosquito bites last night despite ensuring the mosquito net was tightly pressed under my bed pad. Realizing there must be a perforation and that I would not get a good night’s sleep henceforth without a resolving the problem, I borrowed some insight from the HBO documentary, Hookers at the Point. (If you’ll recall, I’m spending my leisure time watching docs to get ideas for shots.) So I’m going to “double bag” with two mosquito nets. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Posted By Kan Yan
Posted Jul 5th, 2009