Kan Yan

Kan Yan (Backward Society Education – BASE): Kan graduated with a BA in Plan II from the University of Texas at Austin in 2006. During this time, Kan conducted research on the education of Turkish students in Berlin, interned for the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former-Yugoslavia, interned for the Texas Speaker of the House on state education, and worked part-time for an anti-private prison campaign. After he graduated, Kan undertook a year of exploring, teaching, traveling, and learning languages. He then enrolled in Harvard Law School where he studying for a joint degree (with the Fletcher School) when he undertook his AP fellowship. In 2008, Kan advised a Karen NGO working on land issues within Burma. After his fellowship, Kan wrote: “It was really nourishing in a way I can't quite put into words.”



Sleuthing Out Liars, Steinbeck, Motorcycle Reality, and The Tarai

09 Jul

The Work

Today I interviewed Sabita’s owner, an attorney in town. I had yet to fully interview the children for their stories because they’ve always been too shy to speak so this was my first chance to hear about what happened to her first hand.

“It’s all a big misunderstanding.” Apparently, a client of his who also rents a room with him has land in Sabita’s family’s village. One time, she encountered Sabita’s mother, felt sorry for her, and offered to take Sabita to give her a better life. She took him back to the house where Sabita helped her out—not the attorney. The attorney had no idea until she showed up in the house. Sabita was enrolled in an education program for child laborers because it was too late to enroll her for school. And when her hands developed the red spots and were bleeding, they took her to a clinic where the doctor said she had an allergic reaction to soap. Later the mother wanted to come and live with them too. The attorney agreed but before she could show up, BASE staff showed up and wanted to talk to him. When they arrived, he said of course they should take her if they can give her a better life. “I fully support the work of BASE, and I’ve been telling everyone in my community they should not bring child laborers into the neighborhood because it is bad.”

Wow, what a huge misunderstanding. After Kushal bought some Fanta for us and we began to chit chat, this guy even then offered to help us with any legal advocacy work we needed.

Well, if law school has taught me anything it’s to always be suspicious of a lawyer. I brought in Sabita and this time she was more forthcoming.

This guy came to the village with the woman. They made an arrangement with her aunt who pretended to be her mother. She was taken to his house where she cleaned his clothes, cooked his food, did his dishes, cleaned his floor, and ran the thermostat, he had just upgraded thanks to the knowledge he got about the Thermostat Wiring Color Codes. No clinic for her hands. She got yelled at by both of them for any mistakes she made—like not cleaning the dishes well enough (again, Sabita is eight years old). She did this for three months before the mother showed up with BASE.

So how do I know who’s lying? Well Sabita told a pretty detailed story with lots of unnecessary detail—like forgetting the key to this door and having to wait here on a couch, etc. Also, the aunt’s story corroborates Sabita’s about the contracting. And tomorrow I have a feeling the staff will confirm that Sabita’s mother was there. If the attorney lied about two parts of the story, I’m going to go ahead and presume that he made it all up so that he wouldn’t have to look bad in this small town.

If the staff confirm that mom was there, the viewers will get to exercise their compassion for the guy. As for me, it’s not like he interpreted events differently. He knew he would look bad so he lied to me. That means he felt shame, knew it was wrong, and did it anyway.

Musings

The books I read enrich my understanding of life here to a great degree. Having finished almost all of Steinbeck’s East of Eden before losing it at the Kathmandu Airport, I felt addicted and, when I could find it in the local bookstores, I picked up a copy of Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s writing about the American West in the early twentieth century describes the Tarai to a remarkable degree.

When I landed in Nepalganj for the second time, I hailed a rickshaw and began the 30-minute journey to the transit house. As this vehicular human being pedaled without rush or laziness across fields tended by the hand of man, I realized there’s a richness in Steinbeck’s descriptions of turn-of-the-century California that most people I know can no longer access. The intimacy and importance of the well, the annual obsession with rain that hammers out the human calendar of activity, the singular importance of land, the thinness of livestock, the saturating transition from agrarian life to city life. These issues seep into one’s skin here; they’re everywhere, in everything. As a result, there’s a richness of human characters here. Something homogenizing has reached a critical mass back home (at least where I live) hiding characters in unseen corners, but here the stories are abundant and sharply in focus without need of embellishment.

The Oklahoman Dust Bowl resembles the monsoon season afflicted with drought we’re undergoing. Last year farmers had already harvested their crop by now. This year, no one has even planted. Even with my helmet visor down, riding the motorcycle necessitates constantly wiping big mounds of dust from my eyes. Everywhere people ride a bike or a motorbike or a truck, plumes of dust rise in accordance to the size of the object in motion.

When calling to a friend in The Grapes of Wrath, Tom yells, “Casy. Oh, Casy.” Having not seen this “oh” phrase in any films, I can’t even imagine how it would sound. But, surprisingly, this is how folks call each other down here when they’re yellin’ at somebody across the way. The “Oh” is elongated and rises in pitch. Imagine someone calling me and yelling, “Kan-ji, ooooooooooh, Kan-ji!” It’s kind of awesome. I plan to re-introduce this phrase into American parlance.

The preacher in Grapes of Wrath, discussing his decision to quit his profession and wander the earth to learn about religion experientially, mumbles Taoist realizations about the oneness of existence in a trance-like state. Steinbeck published the book in 1939, years before Eastern religion and spirituality would begin to take root in American culture. The man must have been a mystic as well as a genius of a writer.

Riding the motorbike out into the field a few days ago, I got to thinking about what I loved so much about riding the bike. There’s a kind of immediate reality on the motorcycle that doesn’t exist in the jeep. Somehow I knew I was moving in a way that wasn’t quite as real while inside the “cage” last time. (My friend Ben Amel, who I motorcycled from Guatemala to Texas with, told me motorcyclists refer to cars as “cages.”)

In Shop Class as Soulcraft, the other book that’s inside my mosquito net (the equivalent of bed stand), Matthew Crawford, the motorcycle mechanic / philosopher / author, points out that our physical reality is retreating farther and farther away from our immediate perception. After watching a TED movie on a social scientist’s perspective on happiness, I’m happy to hypothesize that this retreating of physical reality to farther distances correlates with the continuing increase of anxiety, depression, and suicide around the world. So what does that mean? It means that in Steinbeck’s novels, the physical world around people—what it looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like, tastes like—is a direct result of what you or close-by individuals do. You see it done. You understand from whence physical reality cropped up.

In our world, especially in the wealthier countries, there’s a trend to hide this immediacy. Sherman points out that car engines—especially German ones—try to cover the engine with a smooth metal outer shell to hide what’s going on. Decisions nowadays about what things exist, how they’ll look, taste, sound, and feel are decided by invisible conglomerations of decision-making—Frankensteined together from disparate and disconnected pieces of human consciousness. I think that answers partly why I sometimes find myself laughing to myself walking down the dirt road from the office to the internet café. I pass by buffalos and hogs, slip on a cow paddy if I’m not mindful, and I laugh as the sun falls and the clouds turn golden. I feel happy and I can’t put my finger on why. Maybe it has something to do with how much more like Steinbeck’s world this one is than the one I’ve spent most of my time in. The well, the dust, the transparency of devices intended to assist in our endeavors, the honesty.

Inspired by Steinbeck and Crawford, I’ve put aside my vegetarianism for my time in the Tarai (you’re welcome, mom). Going to the butcher is an amazing experience. The smells, the carcasses hung up, the butcher who holds a knife between his toes and pulls the meet across the blade toward him, the flies, the children of butchers who speak English well. The taste in my mouth at the end of the evening is a result of Kalika or Komala combining seasoning in oil and water in a pot with this meat that was sliced by this man’s foot and came from in front of his stall where the rest of its body still hangs. The goat was likely one of the many goats that passes me each day eating the same grass I walk on. How can this possibly compare with going to a grocery store and looking in a glass case at some polygon of flesh?

The taste of food is an epiphany here. For several weeks I’ve eaten the national dish, Dahl Bhat, for every meal. It consists of rice, lentils, and a curried vegetable. I hear from expats living here that they quickly tire of it. A while back I went to the fanciest hotel in town a couple times to eat some Indian food. It tasted good but it didn’t taste nourishing. This is a little hard to explain. I can say only that I realized I love Dal Bhat. Not necessarily the dish, but my experience of it. I love it because I sit down on mats in the kitchen with the children and aunties and, even if I don’t particularly care for the vegetable of the day, it’s a spiritual experience. Eating next to these people I’ve come to care about, smelling the smells, hearing the banter, seeing the smiles, I always feel grounded to life, to being human. The food that my hand brings to my mouth sustains my body but it also travels down deeper and, there, it nourishes the soul.

Posted By Kan Yan

Posted Jul 9th, 2009

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