Shanty Towns and First World Problems

Photo: Paul Ryan

I’m honestly not sure how I ended up in Nepal. I speak Arabic, I specialize in the Middle East. But thanks to the LBJ internship requirement, I found myself off on a 14-hour plane ride to Kathmandu. And like every good LBJer, I was going off to make the world a better place, to make my first mark in the field of Aid and Development. And now every morning before I go off to make that contribution, I eat my breakfast facing a Nepalese shanty town. Not directly, of course, but if you’re tall enough, and angle your eyes down in just the right way, you can’t miss it.   I was oblivious to this for weeks. I was too invested in trying to get my iPad to connect to the inconstant Internet. I have news articles to read, Facebook arguments to laugh at, a sister to console… “There is no fate worse than shoddy Internet” I say to myself as the live-in maid brings me my breakfast. Two eggs, toast with jam and tea. Cooked to perfection, every morning. She was up far before me, quite literally working in the fields; I have yet to see her take a break.  After work, I go to what is quickly becoming my favorite restaurant. An Indian boy around 17 takes my order. We talk briefly while my food is prepared. He wants to be an astronomer. I show him the apps I have on my phone that light up the night sky, pinpoint constellations, or alert me when the ISS is flying overhead. He’s enamored. I ask him if he’s thought of going to school to study astronomy and he replies “No, my father was a laborer. That cannot happen for me.”

Even when privilege looks me directly in the eye, I sometimes have trouble seeing all of the benefits I grew up with. I was born with a car and a college degree in hand. I may not have known which car, or what my degree would be in, but I was always going to have both. The fact that such an experience is rare, even in the States, still boggles my mind. I think traveling opened my eyes to my own privilege to a degree, but I worry that I don’t “look down” enough. Either for convenience or through simple ignorance, it’s very easy for even the most well traveled person to not see what’s right in front of them. Every day I walk past earthquake-damaged homes, hungry people in the streets, children working as laborers; each gives evidence to an underfunded reconstruction, an absence of food security, and a lack of child labor laws. As students of policy, simply being in the presence of poverty will not make us better people; we need to do something. We need to help and if we can’t do that, we need to learn.

I suppose the best answer for keeping ourselves accountable to learning and doing good works is by practicing self-reflection and humility.  We will make mistakes, we will irritate people, we will make cultural faux pas and assumptions entirely based in fantasy, but hopefully we’ll also learn a little bit too. Policy students need to uncover their own predispositions and do our best to prevent them from interfering with how we interact with this new place and these new people. We need to move past the point of “Oh aren’t these prayer wheels cool?” and understand their meaning and their place in this unfamiliar culture.  We are not here for the sake of our Instagram accounts. It’s a process that will take a lot of effort and even more time. Hopefully, we’ll make some progress and become a little bit more world-wise in the process. And in the meantime, we’ll just have to figure out how to do our homework between power outages.

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