I have been quite busy with fieldwork lately. I left Kathmandu in early June to continue my work with the Langtang Valley community and a few other projects. This time in the field has been extremely beneficial for me on many fronts and there is much to share from my recent experiences. I am learning every day; I am learning about myself, the people around me, ethnography, my research interests. In this state of learning, I find myself in deep self-reflection—a reflexive endeavor of listening to the people around me and evaluating my place in these situations. This is an important practice that connects my personal journey to my ethnographic work, allowing me to constantly locate and relocate myself in my surroundings. Examination of myself in relation to others yields an awareness of the ways in which my identity—the ways in which I perceive and represent myself in addition to the ways others perceive me—limits and grants me access in each situation.
Listening to others and evaluating the self. This is the reflexive approach that I continually focus on developing in my work. Listening is more than just hearing the words that a person is speaking; listening is a slow endeavor. This slowness allows stories to unfold; it allows people to be heard and voices to emerge. Evaluation of my self allows me to understand my place in these interactions—how I influence the people around me, the ways that stories are told, the comfort within these interactions. This two-fold approach—a constant work in progress—leads me to an acute awareness of my ‘difference’, locating myself in each changing context, and informing me of how these pieces of my identity influence my interactions.
While in Nepal, my decisions have placed me in somewhat of a state of constant ‘fieldwork’. While in Kathmandu, I live with a Nepalese family, which means that even when I am not ‘in the field’ working on my various projects, (i.e. Langtang, the Tarai, outside of Kathmandu), I still spend my days in a constant state of ‘difference’, speaking in a language that is not my native language and abiding by cultural expectations that come along with living inside of a Nepalese household. My previous experiences in Nepal informed me that this decision is sometimes accompanied by difficulties; however, it is a decision that allows for constant learning. This is the way in which I learned the Nepali language, the way that I slowly have gained, and am still gaining, a more nuanced understanding of the pressures that Nepalese social structure enforces. I am confronted with the ‘difference’ that I represent here on a daily basis and each day I learn more about the ways in which this difference is manifested in my interactions.
Why am I here? What am I doing so far from home? And, especially, as a single woman? These are questions that I must answer every day—a constant examination of my motivations. My physical appearance—a young white woman seemingly from the Western world and far from home—invokes a certain curiosity in the people I encounter. Each of these ‘pieces’ of my identity must be understood in the ways that they interact with each other, not ever neatly separated, yet each combining to present those around me with an impression of who I am and the appropriate ways to interact with me. Reflection on these interactions then informs me of appropriate ways to conduct myself in each situation, clarifying the points of access that are available to me.
Nepal’s society, while unique and multi-faceted, overall can be described as ‘patriarchal’. My identification as a woman, therefore, influences my interactions on a daily basis and has great impact on my work. Men often are not as forthcoming to speak to me as they are with my male colleagues. However, my gender allows me access into conversations and more personal settings with women that my male colleagues are often not allowed to enter. My reflections regarding the ways in which my gender limits me and grants me access is constantly influencing the lens in which I view my interactions and the ways in which I approach my observations. This gendered lens allows me to see unevenness manifesting in power relations; a focus that I am slowly narrowing in on.
As a young and unmarried woman, the topic of marriage is brought up in many conversations that often result in older people trying to convince me of the merit of their younger male relatives. My gender also influences my interactions with males in power positions. I have found that before establishing a working relationship, men will often go through complicated channels to get messages across to me, rather than speaking directly to me. On the other hand, my gender grants me invitations to sit with groups of women, sipping tea and discussing personal matters. This sameness of gender seems to offer a sense of comfort that is manifested in my ability to be in a room of women crying, whereas my male colleagues do not find themselves in situations such as this. Although my gender places certain limits on me, I also realize that my status as a ‘foreigner’ from the ‘Western world’ grants me certain power and access that other females of my age usually do not have.
My ‘foreignness’ here is represented in my appearance, the color of my skin, my hair, the way that I dress, my accent. It is apparent as soon as one looks at me. My status as a foreigner from America leads people to assume certain things about my life. I have become aware of this in my interactions. Learning that I am often charged a higher price than the local people, I become aware of the assumption that all Westerners have a lot of money. My life is often conceived of in ‘privileged’ terms, and how could I dispute this when I have traveled half way across the world to a country of individuals who are largely not given access to my home country? These assumptions are at times difficult to get around, and therefore, I often find myself in conversations revolving around the comparisons between my life at home and life here in Nepal.
Through careful observation and situational evaluation, I am learning the appropriate ways to conduct myself in order to create positive interactions. I have learned that if I have not established a relationship with someone, it is important for me to bring a ‘local’ person with me to facilitate these conversations. When entering into an area, I have realized that it is not appropriate to immediately bring up matters of work; rather, an easing into these more focused matters is appreciated. This approach leads me to often drink a few cups of tea and chat about daily life and family matters upon entering a home or into a conversation. Time is also understood in different terms here and meeting times are often viewed as flexible. Understanding this informs my interactions and allows me to avoid frustration in missed meetings. I have learned that while it is important to have a vision, I know that my plans will always change. Acceptance of this has allowed me to enter into more organic situations of observation, learning from each situation, rather than trying to enforce a strict regimen.
This self-reflective state continually provides me with a clarity into myself and my interactions with others. I will bring this practice of attentive listening and constant evaluation of myself with me as I prepare to leave Kathmandu once again on Tuesday to follow up on my previous work. My work here has become quite exciting, and I am grateful for these opportunities of constant learning and steady growth in my personal and professional endeavors. I will return to Kathmandu at the end of this month with more stories and more insight than I have at the time of writing this. I look forward to sharing with you what I learn as I continue to participate in this practice of self-reflection.
Thank you for reading.