The Other Side of Democracy

Today women all over the U.S. – and the globe – are marching again on the 1-year anniversary of the 2017 Women’s March that overshadowed the inauguration of our current celebrity President.

I had half-written this post last January, and then my spring semester of graduate school took over.  I almost completed the entry in June, and then my summer in Nepal took over, followed by my fall semester.  So today, as women walk by on the other side of this glass café window wearing their pink hats for a second time, seems like a good time to finally post it.

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The day that Bishnu arrived in the US for the first time was January 18, 2009. We flew in to JFK and took a cab to my apartment on the Upper West Side. The next morning we got up to find snowflakes drifting past my fifth floor windows, and ran outside with our palms open. Bishnu had never touched snow. We got bagels at Lenny’s and took the train to Washington DC. When we got out in Union Station, the place was exuberantly decked out for President Obama’s inauguration.

“Union Station doesn’t always look like this,” I said. “This is an incredible moment in our history.”

President Obama’s Inauguration

We woke up to President Obama’s inauguration a few days later. While Bishnu went to register for her first college classes in the United States, my mom and I got in the subway and went down to the National Mall.  We’d been able to get seats at the Inauguration through a family friend who is a former member of Congress, which allowed us special access to a maze of hallways under the capitol building itself. Wearing our winter coats and hats, we ran through mysterious marbled corridors, dragging our gloved fingers along the polished walls, and then emerged dizzy in to an ecstatic crowd of tens thousands. It was only a week after Bishnu arrived in this country, and everything seemed enchanted.

 

Almost a decade later, on Jan 21, 2017, my family woke up in Bethesda and once again put on our warm clothes to go down to the capitol. This time, to protest. For women’s rights, immigrant rights, tolerance and celebration of diversity and equal opportunity. The previous day had felt…how can I describe it?  The somberness of President Trump’s Inauguration had been additionally weighted down the tug of that marvelous day eight years ago, which, in addition to the pain and sadness we all felt, created a kind of suction, a vacuum of joy.

It seems like Bishnu and I live our lives at bookends. Here we are again. The other side of democracy, the other side of celebration, the other side of the freedom to gather in America.  Outrage.

Under my winter jacket I put on my #6 Red Hots jersey, which I wore from age 12 to 17 on my youth soccer team. A group of us started playing together as girls, made up the core of the varsity soccer team at our high school, and won my high school’s first ever Independent School League championship in women’s soccer. Our Red Hots coach Chris was on the Jamaican National Team and he was also God.  When we were on the road to tournaments in Virginia Beach or wherever, he passed the time by testing us on our ability to understand pidgin Jamaican English. We adored him and he taught us that “anybody can teach a donkey to kick a ball,” but we were going to be “brilliant.” In my Red Hots jersey, I had superpowers.

Bishnu, my mom, and my two of my friends and I crammed in to the Metro at Bethesda station just as we had eight years prior. We came up above ground near Pennsylvania Avenue. As we rounded the top of a hill, a sea of people came in to view ahead of us. Immediately, our anger and resentment rose up on a tidal wave of protesters marching toward the capitol. Thousands and thousands and thousands pulling us in with a thrill of momentum.  Bishnu and I floated in to the river like two leaves.The events of these past weeks have forced my mind in to new contortions. I have had an easy life. It is easy for me to go to Nepal on a grand adventure, with no idea what I am doing, take my time figuring it out, and be falsely credited with kindness or courage. I can indulge in experiments of curiosity and empathy and generosity, and it doesn’t cost me anything except for the pain, later, of confronting that as a luxury. This is something I have recognized for a good while now. But in the climate of our recent election, the sting is fresh and hot. What kind of world do we live in where empathy is a privilege assumed only after survival? As long as my survival remains easy, what is my responsibility? I waffle between rage at the outpouring of ignorance and bigotry happening here in the United States, and shame at the helium balloon I live on. From up there, it is easy to take the high road.

The Women’s March provokes this disquiet, luring it back in from around the edges to the center of my attention. With my mom and our friends, Bishnu and I drift through currents and eddies of elation, passion, and indignation – not all that different from the torrent that welcomed the nation’s first black president, right here where I now stand. But this river swells with anger rather than euphoria. When the speeches start, I climb a tree (for the record, some ladies ahead of me try but can’t scale the long trunk to reach a perch higher up; thanks for help with tree-climbing, Nepal). Bishnu sits on a ledge at the base of the tree. From my location, I can see a vast ocean of people stretching out in all directions, and it is breathtaking. I also can’t help noticing, and being surprised, that it is a predominantly white ocean.

Later, the critiques will roll in from feminist advocates, and especially from those who have spent lifetimes advocating on behalf of people of color, of all those in this country marginalized by class or race or sexuality. What will happen after all of this? Will we march, feel better, and then go home? What about those who have been railing against injustice for decades, centuries?  Where were we then?  This sea of whiteness is angry and disappointed and embarrassed, but we are not being profiled and shot. Our sons are not wasting in jail because they cannot pay bail on an arrest for marijuana possession (but our sons are high, I’ll tell you that). Our daughters are not making sixty cents on a dollar, not spit at, welfare queens, baby mamas, you bought that hand-bag and you’re on stamps, learn English bitch, lazy—

Maybe, after today, we’ll feel better, and then we’ll be…you know, busy.

Maybe we have a lot of nerve showing up here at all.

I cling to the tree branch as words fly past me, originating from massive speakers many blocks away.  At the base of the tree, I can see Bishnu looking a little bored, although she is a great sport. I don’t know what she will make of all of this. In the world Bishnu is from, it doesn’t matter what you are doing here in America: if you can get your feet on U.S. soil, you’ve won the golden ticket. Period.  Or so it is perceived, for better or worse.  You hang on and don’t let go.

This thing happens sometimes where I zoom out and I feel I am seeing us from far above. Little me and little Bishnu, like neon dots of radar in an anonymous expanse of blue-gray nothingness, moving in some configuration that must have meaning to it I do not understand. What are they doing? Where are they going?  These two little dots…what is their story?  Can they explain anything about the topography around them?

After all this time, I am no closer to an answer. There we are, leaning on a tree, just as far from something that holds together as when we started.  But in the decade and a half we’ve mucked around in each other’s worlds, there is one I thing never stop coming back to.  It is always better to show up.  Be a little blip of radar.  Even if you screwed up the first two centuries.  Even if you don’t know what you’re going to do about it next.

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You’re White. It’s Fine, But Own Up.

 

It’s no secret that I am not a big proponent of health camps – for all the obvious reasons.  Despite the very quantifiable benefit of a rapid delivery of emergency care in remote places, we’re working in a different space, trying to uproot transience, lack of accountability, saviorism, and the indignity that in the final reckoning still goes with things like…well, health camps in rural developing world communities.

I know this seems unrelated, but I remember a day back in 2004 when I had made my morning run to the junction at Naudanda, and a bus was just pulling up along the Bagloon Highway.  Some tourists got out and they had a collection of enormous plastic bags from which they began extracting articles of clothing.  A crowd of people gathered around, reaching for the anonymous pieces, irrespective of size or relevance or history or purpose.  Just in case something was useful.  As I stood watching, my running shoes expelling wafty dust from the dry road, there was no analysis or judgement that went through my head; I was just frozen by a wave of shame in my heart.  For the indignity, the dehumanization, the unspeakable power differential before my eyes, in which I was complicit.  For the participation we are all assigned before we’ve even arrived: savior, beggar, observer.

There was never a time in my life when I thought, you know what my passion is?  Dentistry!  Working in oral health was something that grew out of being assigned the observer role, which turned out to be very uncomfortable.  I’m more in the business of looking at casting and lines, of trying to rewrite parts of the script.  Oral health is an ideal area to be working on this because disease is so prevalent, chronic, and preventable, with services disproportionately skewed toward upper classes (globally, not just in Nepal). This is an area where it is entirely possible to create a system that does not rely on helicopter interventions organized to address the greatest volume of teeth, but relies, instead, on structural accessibility and strong public health policies.

I’ve had a decade and a half to grapple with the problem of myself as a white person working in an underprivileged country.  What I realized pretty early on is that the only way to handle that is to embrace it with all four of your limbs and hang on tight for the whole ride. Centuries of colonialism have conferred on my skin and nationality a power and predicament that none of us, in the current act, created or can do away with, which only leaves us the option to be honest about the whole clumsy issue.  The way this translates is that I think carefully about when and how I show my white face, and in fact, this is not an uncommon topic of discussion in our office when we are planning fieldwork. Over the years I have mostly built myself into a behind-the-scenes role, while Nepali people fill all the stage characters. But when it’s strategic, our team openly brainstorms over how my whiteness and Americanness (two, not one, power plays) can be leveraged to bring legitimacy to others or bend things in favor of a local agenda. That is what these privileges should be used for.  In fact, shirking that opportunity seems almost as problematic as not knowing when to stay out of the way.

So, if you are staying with me here, we have on one spoon some peanut butter (health camps, with their historic problems) and on the other some jelly (colonialism, lending power and privilege to white foreigners), and we are about to make a kickass sandwich.  Are you ready?  Welcome to the promotional community-based dental camp. We did this last year in Hansapur, almost by accident, when we arranged for fifteen foreigners to go do a survey, while six Nepali dental technicians set up a field clinic and treated 300 people. The result was that Hansapur asked us to help them start a local dental clinic and school-based oral health programs with providers of their own.

YOU GUYS, we thought. This is a good idea.  This is an excellent use of a brigade of white people.

So this year, for Nepal Smiles 2.0, we flipped the agenda.  The purpose of the camp is promotional, and in the mean time, we’ll do a survey, treat some patients, get extra supervised field training for our technicians to cap off their week of professional development.  But the primary goal is to expose a rural community to resources we can help them develop, while a large group of outsiders adds legitimacy by being part of the process.

Welcome to the village of Dhital.

In the promotional community-based dental camp, our agenda was explicitly not to save all the teeth in Dhital. This is quite a different stance than your typical health camp.  We limited patients to fifty, so that technicians would be able to properly go through the entire respectful assessment and treatment planning process they had practiced all week. We invited politicians and social leaders in Dhital to observe the treatment room and meet our field teams from other villages. All services at the camp were provided by technicians and assistants from surrounding villages while Dr. Bethy consulted on the learning from the week, lending her stature as well as her expertise. As patients came through the camp, we treated a limited number within the constraints of this approach, and then provided referrals to our partner hospital in Pokhara.  We accept these limitations because we are also laying out a pathway for Dhital to launch its own similar services.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been mulling over this quite a bit and would love to see this conversation happening out in the world.  What do you think?  How do we negotiate a racial story that has been hundreds of years in the making, and leverage it to make a more equitable world?  Surely, there are people out there ready to rip this conversation to pieces.  But we should have it.  What I see daily is that, for rural Nepali health care providers like those we train, being associated with people from California and New Zealand confers legitimacy. Hand-wringing over this is less useful than taking responsibility for these roles we’ve been cast in, and unflinchingly examining how we play them in a way that ultimately deconstructs them, chips away at the hard shell of racism and colonialism, and eventually, creates new a revised and more just theater. This is not something that happens by accident, or quickly or easily, or without mistakes.  And definitely not without calling it out in the first place.

Here’s us, having our imperfect go.

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