Being a foreigner

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January 21st 2010
Published: January 21st 2010
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This post is directed to all of the aspiring anthropologists in my audience; the following are a few experiences/observations about living as a foreigner here in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Before I even get started, it’s important to realize that everybody can tell just by looking that I’m a foreigner. This is much different from living in the US where citizens may have any color skin, and where we’re working toward the ideal of treating everybody equally regardless of how they look. Nepali people all have certain key features of appearance, and people lacking those features will always be foreigners. So, immediately upon looking, I’m assessed to be a foreigner, and I’m treated that way. This treatment varies by situation and by the character of the person I’m interacting with, but my foreignness is always an influential presence in the interaction—even when interacting with other foreigners.

When I first arrived I had the idea that there were certain ways I could behave to decrease my appearance of foreignness and fit in with local people and culture in a more significant way than a normal tourist would. I wore subdued clothing, I avoided the tourist areas, I started learning Nepali language and common gestures, and I very soon realized that none of these things do very much to change people’s initial reactions toward me. Rather than make me come across more like a Nepali local, these behaviors only move me from one foreigner stereotype to another, and only when dictated by my surroundings. When I’m in the tourist district, I’m a tourist; when I’m in a local place, I’m an NGO or aid-worker or interested volunteer. To be sure, if I walk around with dredlocks, in a hemp shirt, and with baggy rainbow pants, I can make myself look more like a tourist than a volunteer or aid-worker, but I can never break out of that group of interested foreigners and approach local status, no matter how well I can speak Nepali or perform the local gestures.

There are some general characteristics about foreigners in Nepal that lead to widely held stereotypes, some accurate and some misguided. The first is that foreigners have money. This is generally true in Nepal—it takes a certain amount of money for western foreigners to get here in the first place, and even more for tourists to take advantage of the country’s recreational offerings during time off from work. Volunteers don’t get paid for their work, so they must have a large stash of money somewhere to draw from. Those foreigners who work for NGOs, Embassies, and aid organizations get paid much more than an average Nepali worker. The problem with the idea that foreigners have money is that it leads to the conclusion that the place where foreigners are from is also full of money. This is false in the sense that it implies that all people from a certain place have money, and that by simply going to that place anybody can get its money. The US is home to many many poor people, but Nepalis never see them because they generally don’t come to Nepal. So, foreigners here generally live fairly comfortably, even if they don’t consider themselves terribly well-off, and Nepali merchants see them as easy sources of money. This is compounded by the fact that many foreigners really are tourists and don’t stay very long—setting up a situation where enduring Nepali merchants don’t need to worry about lasting negative consequences resulting from aggressive sales techniques (annoyance, avoidance, bad local press, etc.)—and also by the fact that many foreigners are ignorant about things like acceptable Nepali prices, handicraft authenticity, and other things that might prevent them from being economically taken advantage of. As a result, the streets of Thamel, the tourist district, are full of aggressive merchants looking for the next ill-informed, temporary, wealthy foreign tourist to buy their handicrafts and hippie clothes and trekking guides for outrageous prices. I would too, really, if I were a Nepali salesman looking to make some money. The problem for me as a foreigner is that I’m generally regarded and targeted as one of those easy-money tourists.

Another observation about foreigners is that they have mobility. They can go to many countries easily and without all of the visa hassle that Nepalis have to deal with. This is accurate as an observation, but it gets skewed when people think the privilege can be transferred from people of one nationality to people of another nationality. The thought becomes, ‘you are an American, so you can go to America, and you can also help me go to America.’ Unfortunately there’s not much I or any other foreigner can do to help individual Nepali people gain the same transnational mobility that we enjoy. I think it’s a despicable system, that citizens of this world are artificially limited to certain regions based solely on their place of birth, but at this moment I can’t ease the hassle for a Nepali potential traveler just because I’m his friend. Even if I wanted to I couldn’t do it; Nepalis have to do a personal interview at the US Embassy before a visa is approved, and the interviewer has the power to accept or decline the visa as a matter of personal judgment. No amount of friends or correctly completed paperwork can get a doomed traveler through the interview. Whether or not these potential travelers know the sad details about their chances for a visa and the complete inability of the average foreigner to help them, the idea of having a foreign friend inspires hope and poorly (look for the word for ‘not formed yet’) conceived notions about how the foreigner can magically make the problems go away and get the traveler moving. This acts as a strong incentive for motivated Nepalis to go out of their way to make foreign friends.

Another observation is that foreigners generally have fewer problems with the police about small matters. A foreigner riding on the back of a Nepali’s motorbike, then, just by his presence, gives the bike driver license to drive a lot faster and ignore even the few traffic rules that are enforced—a decidedly self-serving yet perfectly valid incentive for having a foreigner around.

Another observation that goes along with money is that foreigners must be successful to have all that money, and to be successful they must also be smart, and they must have access to knowledge and answers that I, an average Nepali, can only dream of. I’ll discuss this one in detail a little bit later, but the many specific instances in which I’ve experienced this attitude have been incredibly discouraging, evidence of a larger problem of foreigner-inspired inferior self-image. This, in turn, I’ve seen leads (or has the capability of leading) to an even more discouraging lack of self-motivation.

Another observation about foreigners, especially long-term foreigners, is that there seem to be many of them here working on aid projects, or working for large help-oriented organizations. Unfortunately, little changes for the average Nepali worker from day to day. What are they to make of all these rich, ineffective, ‘we’re-here-to-help’ foreign people? I wouldn’t blame a Nepali for considering these foreigners to be lazy, worthless, corrupt system-exploiters, not worth the time or decency from a respectable, hard-working, patriotic Nepali citizen.

Finally, foreigners always speak English. Some foreigners are from France, so they speak English with a French accent; some are from Germany, so they speak English with a German accent; all, however, speak English. When I’m approached by Nepali strangers, they speak with me in English. Even if I respond in Nepali, they keep going in English because they know I speak it. When I approach a Nepali stranger, he expects me to speak English. If he doesn’t speak English, it seems to me that he blames himself for the inconvenience—it’s somehow his fault that he can’t speak my language in his own country. When I approach a Nepali stranger and begin the conversation in Nepali, one of two things will happen—I’ll either receive a blank, uncomprehending, and slightly frightened-looking stare in response, or the person will be delighted and we’ll strike up a quick friendship. The stares are common and very frustrating—I know I’m speaking clearly and correctly (I won’t start a conversation with a phrase I’m unsure about), but I get nothing in response. It seems to me that the person doesn’t understand his own language, and there’s nothing I can do. In this case I usually give up quickly and do my business somewhere else. The point, then, is that foreign appearance strongly correlates with English language usage, and that the responsibility for accommodating language differences seems to rest with Nepalis. Sometimes Nepali people come up and talk to me with the expressed purpose of practicing their English.

When I walk around in Thamel, the tourist district, my foreigner appearance automatically makes me a tourist in the eyes of any Nepali. Every time I walk down the street I’m accosted by various merchants, rickshaw pullers, drug dealers, and beggars who see me and want a piece of my ignorant foreign tourist wealth of money. Merchants will sidle up to me and start asking questions in English: ‘Where are you from?’ ‘First time in Nepal?’ ‘You want to go trekking? Rafting?’. Sometimes they want to chat benignly for a long time before giving their sales pitch, but there’s always a sales pitch. Nepali strangers in Thamel don’t come up to talk to me just because I might be interesting to talk to. When during conversation I switch to Nepali language, or tell them I’ve been here 5 months, they assume I’m a volunteer. Volunteers in their minds are nothing more than long-term tourists. What I really have to do to change my appearance is tell them in Nepali language that I’m a music teacher. It’s at this point that I change from being a foreign tourist to a foreign novelty, and these strangers who have approached me originally to sell me something now view me as somebody to make friends with—I might be able to help them with official things sometime in the future. They now want to exchange phone numbers, invite me to their homes, take me to their villages, give me fliers and business cards so that I can spread their business to my other foreign friends, etc. This is the standard progression of the interaction—tourist, volunteer, novelty, fast friend, resource for the future. I’m not describing just one isolated experience here; I have about 20 numbers stored in my phone of people with whom I’ve only spoken once and gone through this exact sequence.

When I meet strangers in places where only locals go—small bakeries, tea shops, street-food carts—the interaction skips the ‘tourist’ step and starts from ‘novelty.’ In these places people approach me from the beginning with the idea of making a fast friend and potential future resource out of me. Despite the self-serving initial motivation, these guys usually really do want to be friends—they want to take me around the city, show me interesting things, get good prices for me at the markets, answer any questions that I might have, etc. A lot of times they don’t want anything specific in return except a foreigner friend who may or may not come in handy in the future.

The generalized conclusion coming from these experiences is that given a choice between approaching and talking to a Nepali stranger or a foreign stranger, Nepali people will generally go for the foreign stranger. Not only that, the decision to approach someone at all is dictated in part by their foreign status; a Nepali guy may approach and start talking to a foreign stranger in a tea shop, whereas he would keep his peace if it were a Nepali stranger. Again, the initial judgment comes completely and reliably from appearance.

When I walk down the street outside of the tourist area, or when I ride my bike on the main roads, I get a lot of stares. I hear it’s much worse for foreign girls.

So far this has been a fairly callous description. I in no way mean to say that all Nepalis act this way or consider these factors when making friends. To be sure, there are many friendly, outgoing, generous Nepali people who enjoy making friends with anybody—strangers, foreigners, Indians, Nepalis, whatever. I’m only discussing interactions that seem to be strikingly based on foreign appearance, and I would imagine that these situations are similar between locals and foreigners in other countries as well.

The above description deals with situations in which Nepali strangers approach me. It’s a completely different interaction when I’m the one doing the approaching. If I need to buy something and approach a merchant about it (a merchant with whom I have no connections), they will generally react in one of three ways:

First, and most rarely, they might respond with hostility—especially if I’m not in a tourist area, or if I need an uninteresting thing for living like a light-bulb or a pad of paper. I think this goes back to the ‘what are they doing in this country’ attitude, but I’ve never spoken with a hostile merchant long enough to find out. The exchange will be very short, they won’t volunteer any information, and they may say they don’t have something when it’s very obvious that they do. These guys avoid eye contact, and they quote absurd prices. I usually just walk away.

Second, and much more commonly, the merchant will be extremely friendly and really go out of his way to be helpful. These guys will start up extended conversations about an assortment of topics in and around the business at hand, and if there are different qualities of the product I’m looking for (blankets, sweaters, bike tires, etc.), they will immediately get me the nicest line. This is in their interest, also, as they charge more for better quality, but these guys are usually open to a hearty round of friendly bargaining. I’ve found that in many cases, these friendly merchants will value my business enough to give me a fair price—especially if during the conversation they learn that I’ll be in Nepal for a while and that I speak Nepali. One time I bought a wool hat and a pair of wool socks, and after the business was done the merchant invited me to sit down and have a drink with him. Another time I went to a photocopy shop for a single photocopy, and by the time I left (30 minutes later or so) the lady who ran the shop insisted that I refer to her as older sister. I owe the initial success of my Fulbright project here in Nepal to a friendly instrument shop owner—I stepped into his store to ask if he knew any music teachers, and I ended up spending 2 hours and drinking 2 cups of tea talking with him and playing the instruments in the shop. He did know a teacher—a really good teacher—and I didn’t buy a single thing from him until my third visit. When I did buy, he went out of his way to get me the best instrument in the shop for an excellent price. It’s with merchants like this that good ‘connections’ come from.

Third, and least interestingly, I’ll get a standard line. “Step right in, sir. Special price for you, sir. Good discount.” These guys are all business, and I’m no more special than any other wealthy-looking foreigner. I tried talking with one of these guys once, and he interpreted it as interest in his product. I wasn’t really interested in the product, but I did want to talk to the guy—he was selling and playing flutes on the street. When I moved to say goodbye and leave, he followed me and tried to guilt me into buying his flute. When, exasperated, I turned around to leave for good, he tried to grab my arm and keep me there, mistakenly thinking that a move like that would change my mind. This is an extreme case—most won’t try to keep me around by force—but they will general try anything verbal, rude or otherwise, to keep me from leaving their business without buying anything. These guys are no fun to do business with, but I’m sure they have good qualities when they’re not on the clock. Some people are born into situations that make earning a living really difficult, and these guys are doing what they can to support themselves and maybe a family. Average merchants like this make me value the really friendly ones all the more.

These categories aren’t essential—one vendor may be rude to some foreigners and extremely friendly to others—and I’ve found that some pleasant small chat in Nepali at the outset greatly increases my chances of having a good market experience.

Interactions are again different when I, the foreigner, approach Nepalis related to my work—musicians, music teachers, school principals, etc. These experiences are nearly overwhelmingly positive, and this is the main reason why fieldwork is such a joy here. There are a few reasons why it would be this way, and the first is that most of my contacts are part of the global community of musicians. I’m not just a foreigner; I’m a musician foreigner, and we immediately have a common interest to discuss. Second, it’s an amazing affirmation of what they do to have somebody come all the way from the US with a serious interest in their work. For politicians and businessmen it might be matter-of-course, but for music teachers it’s a rare thing. Third, I can be called upon as a resource to help their own learning and teaching. I was brought up in a different education system, and I know different kinds of music and different things about music than what they know. They can help me with my project and can teach me about Eastern music, and I can in turn teach them about Western music. Knowledge of Western music is especially prized here because resources for serious Western music study (beyond ‘Hotel California’ and ‘Smoke on the Water’) are scarce. It’s impossible to go to the market and buy a book about Western notation or European music history. For these reasons and more I’m always well-received when I approach people about my project. Sometimes teachers don’t want to sit down and answer my questions, preferring instead to just have me watch a class or listen to their students or discuss some particular part of music teaching. Sometimes they just want to go have tea and talk about politics instead of music. All, however, like to interact, and many of these guys become real friends after a few meetings.

As well as I’m received initially, however, it’s with these work contacts that I encounter the attitude discussed above about the inferior self-image, not only about themselves but about Nepalis in general. I’ve heard, “You’re from the US, so you have more and better education than us,” from successful experienced music teachers. Whether or not this is true (and it certainly isn’t when taken only from the fact that I’m from the US) is irrelevant; they just look at me to see I’m a foreigner, and listen to me to find out a music teacher, and the immediate assumption is that I’m indefinably better. These guys are great friends, and I never let this attitude go unchallenged—I tell them that my education stressed different subjects (different instruments, methods of planning, etc.), and that I can help them in those subjects, but they can also teach me quite a bit about Nepali music education and Eastern music. From another teacher I heard, “We need to keep having foreigners like you come to help us get things done.” He went on to talk about how little they can do as individual teachers, and I immediately argued fiercely that they didn’t have to be individual teachers, that they could work together as a unified group of Nepali teachers. He dismissed the idea, and went on to argue ridiculous reasons why he and other Nepali teachers can’t work together. I’ve heard this opinion explicitly expressed more than once, “I’ll work with you because you’re a foreigner, but I won’t work with other Nepalis.” And, similarly, “Nepali teachers get comfortable in their jobs and then don’t want to improve.” Aside from being blatantly generalized and borderline racist statements, they reflect a huge attitude barrier that I’m going to have to overcome in my pursuit to get Nepali music teachers to work with each other as a group. It really irritates me that a seemingly acceptable attitude is to just wait and have foreigners come in and fix problems. This isn’t a flattering description, and it certainly doesn’t reflect the attitudes of everybody, but I’ve encountered it with enough frequency to be reluctantly compelled to include it in this article.

And now the fun part: when I’m with friends! It’s with friends that I get the furthest from the foreigner feeling. With friends I do Nepali things, eat Nepali daal bhat, ride on the back of motorcycles, get good deals at the market, play with Nepali kids, go to Nepali weddings, concerts, and functions where many times I’m the only foreigner. Overwhelmingly, my Nepali friends treat me in the same ways that my American friends treat me: according to my personality. We talk about music, girlfriends, movies, pop culture, funny stories, travels, work, family, and anything else that friends discuss. It’s a great feeling, but then it’s always a great feeling to be with friends, here or anywhere. Only a few times does being a foreigner cause some strange behavior with my Nepali friends. Sometimes it’s assumed that I can’t do much for myself, and that I’ll need help in even the most mundane activities (taking my bike to a shop, getting on the right bus, finding the supermarket, etc.). To be sure, this was absolutely true during my first couple of weeks, but I’ve since gotten the hang of living. Sometimes—and this is really funny—my Nepali friends hesitate to tell me the things I’m eating, probably thinking I might get grossed out and cause a scene. I have to eat the thing first and make it clear that I like it before they’ll tell me what it is. Sometimes it seems that my Nepali friends are just a little bit possessive about having me as a foreigner friend, and are just slightly put off when I discuss things that I’m doing with other Nepali friends. This is just a momentary thing, and goes away when they realize that of course I’ll have other friends. These behaviors will obviously vary by personality and by the amount of experience they have had with foreigners in the past. My friends who have interacted extensively with foreigners tend to be more accommodating of my ‘other-culture’ behavior than those who haven’t.

One of the great things about Nepali friends is that they help me make more Nepali friends. When a Nepali friend introduces me to one of their other friends, I am immediately ‘potential friend material,’ skipping the usual ‘tourist, novelty, resource’ sequence. When I’m already with a Nepali friend, I’ve proven myself worthy of being a friend, so it’s more likely that I’ll be treated seriously as a potential friend. In these situations also my foreignness is downplayed, and my personality and behavior become the things that are noticed. If anything, the initial friend I’m with is judged for having a foreigner with him. Even though I’m that foreigner, I’m mostly just treated as a regular person. Again, it’s a great feeling.

To conclude, I want to stress that ‘foreignness’ is never the only characteristic about foreigners that is perceived and acted upon, but that it is always present in some way or another. Going back to the beginning, foreignness can be immediately and accurately assessed from appearance alone. Interactions vary immensely by situation and personality, and so does the effect that the foreign appearance produces within different interactions. In a single day I can go through many shades of foreignness: I might start at a friend’s house for a jam session as musician and a friend, and then on my way back to my apartment I might have to stop at a shop and buy something as a foreign expat, and then upon leaving the store I might be approached by a street merchant as a wealthy foreign tourist. Later in the day I might visit a music school and be treated like an interesting foreign resource. The other long-term foreigners and I are so used to reactions to our foreignness that its absence becomes really noteworthy. Only two days ago I had a casual conversation with another Fulbrighter, and he told me about his experiences last year playing chess with old Nepalis in the park. “And the best thing was,” he said, “the old guys treated me like any other Nepali. I didn’t get any special treatment for being a foreigner—I asked questions in Nepali but they didn’t really acknowledge. I had to just watch them for a couple of days before they invited me to play, and they beat me like they would beat anybody else.”


5th February 2010

Foreignness and Dredlocks
Great insights, Robert. You had me thinking about places I've been and how I was received as an American--New Guinea as a child, South Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean on the sailboat, Egypt in the army and in Germany when you were little. I love your analysis and your stubborn--who, you, stubborn?--refusal to automatically slip into whatever role others have decided to assign you. But, the dredlocks would be awfully cute.
10th March 2010

Hey bud. I really enjoyed your nuanced description of Nepali-foreigner interactions in the city. As you are well aware, I am very interested in cultural tourism and its influence on music making . I would be interested to hear about your interactions with Nepalis (and other foreigners) in locations less "touristy" than Kathmandu.

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