It was brought to my attention recently that I say the word “wild” a whole lot.
“How is your homestay, Lyza?” “It’s truly wild.”
“How is your ISP going, Lyza? “Oh let me tell you, it is one WILD ride.”
But I’ve realized recently that many of the things I label as “wild” are maybe not as wild as I initially thought. Because when it comes down to it, we might be eating dal bhat with our fingers, but my Nepali father asks about how my day was just the way my American father does, my host siblings do just as much homework as I did in high school, and going to sleep at 9PM almost every night is just as refreshing on my hard, heavy-blanketed bed. And sure, stepping off of tempo number five and realizing that I simultaneously have three motorbikes and an insistent flute salesman at my heels is not something I’ve experienced in New York, but is it really that different than stepping off the 1 train in Times Square? The wildness I feel is maybe not a result of the physical experiences I am having as much as it is a result of the assumptions I have been conditioned to have about physical experiences I may or may not actually have. Which brings me to the real subject I have been reflecting on most recently: development, and more specifically, assumptions and ambiguities related to development.
As we discussed in our brief introduction to Development Studies class, the way we define “development” and “developing country” is in need of a critical rethinking. As we were discussing the inherent issues in the language we most widely use to describe- very broadly- our so-called “categories” of countries (First/Third World, developed-underdeveloped, Westernized/Non-Westernized, MEDC/LEDC, Global North/South), I kept asking myself, How have I been conditioned to view development, what assumptions do I make about countries I really know nothing about, and why is it that Dragons even exists to bring us to these so-labelled “developing” places? What is it exactly that draws this demographic of privileged, most-often-white teenagers to places like Nepal under the pretense of “self-reflection/discovery,” “exploration,” and “getting-as-far-away-as-I-possibly-can-from-my-life-and-comfort-spaces”? There must be a reason why we are here in Kathmandu and not, say, Switzerland. We might be an 18-hour plane ride away, but the streets are just as busy, bookstores sell just as many English books, and taxis are still far too expensive. So why did it seem so natural, to myself as well as the people around me, for me to come here of all places as a response to a difficult personal experience at home? And I’ll give you a hint- it’s not really about the geographical difference. What I’ve learned, and what I’ve realized, is that it’s really about assumptions about development.
When we categorize a country as “less developed,” whether that be “strictly economically speaking” or not, we impose a vast number of assumptions that somehow in our heads are justifiably implied by the “objectivity” of our label. Even when we use terms that are “geographical” and try to set up an unbiased categorization, there are always exceptions to the rules and ways found to turn the “objectivity” into a value judgment based on a binary created by and for the benefit of the countries of greater “value,” i.e., the “developed” world. Even without explicitly trying to, we create these standards and binaries that are truly just fallacies of decolonization; the fact is, the history of colonization as being a massive part of how we categorize “developed” versus “developing” is still very active in the way people are perceived in spaces and the privileges inherent to this perception. We claim to no longer be trying to colonize the world, but Western- and more specifically, American- Imperialism takes on so many more forms than just the literal. Whether that be the shining-clean malls filled with American clothing brands, the prevalence of hamburgers and milkshakes in local cafes, or the teaching of English to students in American schools, the colonization of minds and bodies by the so-called “developed” world is more than evident. This is one of the reasons why we must not ignore the history and context of where our assumptions come from because we have made much less “progress” away from colonialism than what we are comfortable convincing ourselves of, and we will not be able to critically examine our perception of development without acknowledging the poignancy of issues that have often become normalized. One such issue is the construct that America=rich=developed, and thus, malls in Nepal sell American brands of clothing with labels that are often much more expensive than one can find in local shops on the street. Why should America be the aspiration, still reserved for only the wealthy, halfway around the world? This just illustrates the perpetuation of the false linearity of “development” and the simplistic idea that all countries should be following a particular “upward” trend, regardless of cultural diversity and what is actually happening in people’s lives in a country. Which brings me back to my question of why Nepal, why Dragons, and why seek self-discovery in the “developing world”? It has somehow been imposed on our minds by capitalist society that there is something for us, as visitors/travelers/voyeurs/seekers, to take and experience simply because of the state of the so-called “development” of a country.
I suppose all of this is just to say that to question, critique, and altogether destabilize the assumptions that we have been conditioned to have about development is what must be done during our time in Nepal. In no way do I expect us to find answers to any of the questions I have posed here, but the point is that questions are being asked. The truly WILD experience here is that we are in- if you will, please excuse my metaphor- a sort of wholly mental wilderness, within which we must wander and explore and challenge ourselves with the understanding that sometimes no matter how far we walk, we may never be able to find the exact tree we are looking for, but maybe that doesn’t matter, because we have already discovered new ways of looking at trees in the process.