Being a foreigner in Nepal sometimes gives you the illusion that you are a celebrity. Children follow you down the street, women you just met tell you they love you, and everyone wants to be your friend.
I’ve been living in Nepal for ten months now as a Peace Corps volunteer. In Peace Corps years, this means I’m a baby. Even after all this time I’m still in the very early planning stages of projects that I hope will improve health, food security, gender equality and income in my community.
In the typical Peace Corps mode, my first months were spent becoming fully integrated. I speak Nepali, live and work with Nepalis, wear Nepali clothes and have adopted the culture as much as possible. Sometimes I trick myself into believing I actually am Nepali, until I walk into town and all the stares rudely remind me just how foreign I am.
Once I hopped on a passing school bus (our version of public transport) to get a ride into the market, and immediately several dozen children erupted in squeals, practically trampling each other to get my attention. It was like being on a bus of middle school girls headed to a Justin Bieber concert – and I was the teen idol.
Wherever I go, I am always an honored guest. I’ve had to turn down invitations to lecture at MBA and MPH classes (I have a Bachelor’s degree in East Asian Studies, which is at best enough credential to speak at a cocktail party), been presented with awards for work I didn’t do, and even had high-level government officials ask me for policy advice.
I can’t tell if people respect me so much because I am new and different, or if they really think that being American, I hold the secrets to my country’s success.
By my count, I’ve been on local TV three times and in the newspaper at least four. Almost none of these media opportunities were to highlight actual work I’ve done. Just my showing up somewhere is newsworthy. My personal favorite TV appearance was when I was sitting in the audience of an event to celebrate a city ward being declared Open Defecation Free (that’s another story altogether) when the MC called me up on stage. In Nepal, honored guests sit on stage behind the speakers and performers during big events. At the end of the event it is pretty much mandatory that the honored guests dance on stage as a formal closing. So there I was, some random white girl, dancing on stage in front of more than a thousand people, being broadcast throughout the district on public TV.
The funny thing is that when everyone keeps telling you that you are interesting, beautiful and important, you start to agree with them. You start to think, of course I should dance on TV! Of course, despite no experience in education I should tell the principal how to better manage his school! Of course people should value my opinions!
Luckily my inflated ego is kept in check by the daily frustrations of being a Peace Corps Volunteer. For all the Nepalis who treat me like Justin Bieber, there are always a handful of realists to remind me that I am unskilled, an outsider, and unlikely to accomplish anything. Nothing brings you down a peg faster than the awareness of your own inefficacy. And the first year of Peace Corps is a lesson in just that.
I’m not sure which was my saddest day of service so far: After I filled out my first quarterly report and had only four measly English classes to show for the last three months of toil – or when my eccentric supervisor at the District Health Office introduced me to a room full of people as, “Here’s Hannah, our Peace Corps Volunteer. She’s kind of stupid and bad at Nepali but if you ask her nicely she might write a grant for you.”
Oftentimes, all the attention I get makes me want to crawl in a hole and never come out. Once, walking alone down a rocky path to my house in the rain, I slipped and almost tumbled off a small cliff. I saved myself in time and went home thinking no one was the wiser. The next day a complete stranger came up to me and said, “I heard you fell yesterday. You foreigners better be careful! You don’t have strong legs like us.”
I swear, the Nepali paparazzi is out there.