Wednesday, February 9, 2011

“Tenzing, you need your own bideshi!”

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned

My work at the office varies from day to day. Mostly, it involves editing English documents—annual reports, drafts of grants, my Nepali boss’s articles, various forms that are supposed to amount to ‘accountability’ for foreign donor agencies—but I’ve also re-done bulletin boards, made photocopies, collected/edited material for the website, phoned liasons at embassies, mingled with linguists/politicians, made two trips to Dang, and numerous trips across town to various partner agencies that are based in the Kathmandu Valley. The most recent project my British boss has given me involves creating a template of a cultural calendar for Upper Mustang in the form of a Tibetan thangka painting. My job is to create a platform and provide the needed text from which a thangka artist could then actually create the work of art. The idea is that this calendar will generate income for the NGO with whom we partner in conducting literacy classes in that area, as well as be good PR for the work they do.

While I was working on this, the director of the NGO that works in Upper Mustang dropped by. “Oho, Tori, jaimashee and tashi deley!” he greeted me. I returned the greeting. As I drew big circles on the sheet of butcher paper I had taped/nailed down to a desk, the director commented to my British boss, “There are three bideshis [foreigners] in this office now. I think you should—sshht” he motioned with his hand out the door, “send one of them to my office.” He laughed to indicate that he was joking.

“Tenzing, you need your own bideshi,” my boss commented, in a more serious manner. “I’ll talk to a few people and see what can be done.”

Bideshis—useful creatures they are. They are self-supported, so you don’t have to pay them; they’re committed and have a good work ethic; usually, they can be full of good ideas; if you have one working for you, your credibility with Western donors goes up, and the prestige of your organization in the eyes of other Nepalis often rises too. They offer amusement on the side, everything from language and cultural fo-paus to continually getting certain sicknesses that usually manifest themselves in diharrea. Of course, the latter can curb their work productivity.

As a woman, I’m finding that there are other ideas concerning foreign women as well, and most of them very unflattering. Foreign women are loose, free, both in dress and speech and action. Isn’t this how they’re portrayed in films, and represented by celebrities? Vulnerable in a new culture, they can easily be taken advantage of for everything from financial to sexual favors. The pretence of guiding them through the culture can be an easy in for these favors. But at the same time, if they’re single, they’re just dangerous anyway, all that unbridled sexual energy, and no one to keep them accountable. Their parents must have been unable to find them a husband in their own country; that’s why they’ve come to Nepal, to get a husband, and heck, why shouldn’t that be me/my son/my brother? Why shouldn’t I/he be the recipient of a green card, foreign passport, and foreign financial backing? And think, then, the rest of the family can leave this undeveloped Nepal too and go to other lands with more opportunity!

What’s a girl to do in the face of all this? Express your femininity in ways familiar to them. Wear kurtas and scarves, and even appropriate jewelry. Sometimes, a nose piercing does help, depending on the people group you’re working with. Speak Nepali when at all possible, but then again, with discretion—sometimes, it’s a good idea if they don’t know you speak Nepali. Don’t be rude, but let them know your attention is elsewhere: on public transportation, wear a face mask (it keeps dirt out, covers your white face, and inhibits conversation) wear earbuds (even if you’re not listening to music), or read a book. Don’t be afraid to let your boundaries be known. If conversation with a male friend gets weird, ask how their mother or sister is. It’s also ok to tell them you’re busy and need to be home by a certain time and (politely) decline additional offers for food/ tea/ hang out time. Just hang up the phone on the weird guy who dialed the wrong number and tries to flatter you with “Truly? You’re not Nepali? You sound just like one! I live in Thapatali—“ It helps to have discretionary and wise male bosses as well, who trust your cultural savviness but recognize the challenges that accompany being a young, single, white woman, and act on your behalf to lessen possible dangers or awkwardness. Giving introductions, even if through phone calls, on your behalf can be extremely helpful. And last but not least, seek the company of Nepali women, be it relationships at church or sharing a seat with them on a bus.

Sometimes though, you can’t control what comes to other’s minds when the see your single, white and female status. In those cases, you just pray like crazy for discretion and that nothing will happen to risk your well being or honor, or the integrity of the work you’ve come to do.

I’m all for being some office’s token bideshi if my skills set fills a need in their organization. But I’d rather not unnecessarily risk my personal honor and dignity, or the organization’s integrity.