Somehow we came up with idea over dinner. I had just arrived in Birtamod, Jhapa, to visit Andrew one last time before our lives as PCVs.
I was going to stay for a night, maybe two, before heading back to Birganj.
Anyhow, we were having dinner, and Andrew was talking about the school visits he would be making the next day: a short in-and-out trip to invite two English teachers to an upcoming training.
So wouldn’t it be funny, we thought, if I came along pretending to be one of those know-nothing jocks from Washington, DC, pretending:
- to know something about the work that we’d just invented
- be aware in the slightest of the surrounding people and their culture
We could mock the worst aspect of Peace Corps to the people whose opinions actually mattered—the Nepalis, who were often victims of seemingly random, surprise visits from people with unclear agendas and even stranger messages to deliver to people with whom they have no direct contact before. Weird.
I had seen it happen just a couple of months before when two Peace Corps suits (essentially ‘from corporate’) rolled up in a white SUV at an agricultural co-op where a PCV was working.
Their backgrounds were not in agriculture. They had no visible interest in the economics of the micro-finance scheme of the NGO. In fact, they were ex-military intelligence.
Strange ambassadors to send to a dirt farm needing development assistance, especially considering their collective credentials from Vietnam and Somalia.
After they asked preliminary questions on how the office was built (my favorite question,
With what type of steel reinforcement?) and the location of the toilet (there was no toilet, just a pit latrine), they mostly talked amongst themselves about the chiye they had been served.
Oddly, they both compared it with teas they had had in Vietnam and Somalia, respectively. Which was enlightening.
Anyhow, the locals had sat nearby, uncomfortable with their non-comprehension of the foreigners’ curiosity with the tea.
The Nepalis there been told that they two men in starched white shirts, khakis, and high-gloss burgundy loafers had come to Nepal a few days ago from far away to visit their NGO. And so far they had been asked about concrete, and then mumbled to themselves for 20 minutes about, apparently, the tea.
Then they walked to the white SUV and drove off into the sunset, leaving the volunteer behind to explain what had just happened.
Sadly, terrible behavior by the office types in Peace Corps isn’t limited to dumb Americans, although they usually do it with such skill it is humorous for everyone involved.
If only these bumblings were just cultural misunderstandings, they could be excused. But it is usually logistical and financial intimidation. If they don’t put on a good show, they won’t get a PCV.
If they don’t get a PCV, they won’t have access to the piles of money available through grants and proposals.
Now, we are way up in the Himalayas, far from the hot, oppressive Terai. A friend from my group was posted in small village in Lang Tang National Park in the heart of Rasuwa district, north of Kathmandu and bordering the Chinese province of Tibet.
It is a wonderful place of mellow, accepting people: some indigenous to Nepal, some decedents from Tibetans. All are Buddhists in my friend’s village, and there’s only a single government school, which is where she teaches.
So a couple of the senior staff from Peace Corps (who happen to be Nepali) show up in her village to
assess the situation. She has but a few months left in her village before her time as a PCV comes to an end.
The staffers are her program officer, a woman, and a training officer, a man. Upon arriving, the two check into the one hotel in the village, which they find awful. They begin complaining to the sole proprietor of the sole hotel in the little village about the hotel’s lack of rooms with joined bathrooms.
Actually, the village is little more than a overnight stop for trekkers heading up, up, up to see some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Probably a rare occasion to hear the phrase ‘attached bathroom’ spoken in Nepali.
But they’re not done. Much to the PCV‘s horror, during dinner, the duo ask the proprietor for meat with their meal. The guy says that meat isn’t available and heads back into the kitchen.
The PCV is crawling in her skin and explains that most all Buddhists in her village don’t eat meat. She’s lived there for 24 months without meat.
Nonsense, the woman says,
I saw chickens out front. Then the PCV has to explain that chickens also lay eggs.
When the proprietor comes back from the kitchen, they ask him again for meat, mentioning the chickens.
They’re for the trekkers. Although I’m a Buddhist, I’ll prepare eggs. The woman is spurred by this and starts negotiating how much it will cost her to pay him to kill a chicken.
Of course, they didn’t get any meat. All they had done was attempt to bribe a person into abandoning religious beliefs for money. And meat. The volunteer was so mortified that she spent the next day apologizing for her office’s thulo manches.
Touching lives, making a difference.
Our plan was for me to wear Andrew’s pin-stripped suit, a Nepali >topi, and act like a total ass.
A few rules: I couldn’t speak Nepali and would have to pretend like I was from Mars and be totally baffled by everything. Yet I would have to press them for certain pointless information and ask them to complete specific pointless tasks in my absence.
We showed up at the school in a white car that we had rented for effect. We had the driver pass through the gate and right up to the office’s front door.
The driver, convinced by a test dialogue Andrew and I had run through during the drive, got out and opened my door for me. I then walked directly into the office and began loudly introducing myself to the faculty who were waiting together before the school day began and exams were handed out.
Hello, I am from Aaaaahmeriii-cah, I said in my best moron-from-Washington voice and then, commanding Andrew, shouted,
Translate! The faculty then gave their introductions.
I listened and then began asking them random statistical information, like how many 14 year olds were currently attending the school.
It’s the age when children learn the best, I told them,
Get ‘em when they’re 14, and it’s all over—translate!
Andrew was trying to translate, but the sight of me looking so out of place and acting like such a fool was too much for him and he started laughing, quietly to himself.
His counterpart came over to ask him a question while I was discussing dental health with the headsir, putting his hands around Andrew in an unexceptional display of affection.
I turned to him,
We don’t do this in America, I said, looking as dumb as I sounded,
And I find it . . . disturbing.
I realized that I was losing steam and asked the headsir if I could address the entire student body, but he told me that because of exams, only a few classes were present.
That’ll be sufficient, I said,
because I need to share some things about dental health.
I then asked the faculty what they thought was more important, learning English or dental health.
They talked amongst themselves and then told me in unison,
Both are important.
Fine. I then walked out of the office and wandered around the school, pointing at students and shouting,
Is this a student, Andrew?
Once the students were assembled, I produced a whistle I had taken from Andrew’s and blew it as loud as I could. I had them.
Out of another pocket, I took out some floss that I had grabbed it as we left Andrew’s, thinking a prop or two might come in handy. I asked the students,
What is this?
No one knew so I told them it was floss, yelled at Andrew to translate, and began giving a demonstration of how to use it in front of the 8th and 9th graders, who were assembled outside.
A girl raised her hand and asked (in Nepali),
Is this available here?
I said something and Andrew translated,
I then asked the students if they enjoyed learning English and of course they said yes.
And how can you speak English, I was really being ridiculous,
without a nice smile?
I then asked the kids how to take care of their teeth.
Brushing, they responded in unison.
I then asked some other ways. A hush fell upon them and no one said anything for about half a minute, until a small boy in the back of a line said,
Exactly! I told them, glad that the kid had given me something else to ramble on about,
I then went through the three mouth exercises I invented on the spot, the big O, the sidewinder, and the cat’s meow. I’ll let you imagine what these were.
I had the kids going through the exercises when the headsir came up to me,
It is time to begin the exams.
I concluded by telling those present that I would come back in five years. If they hadn’t taken care of their teeth, I would remove them—forcibly,
A girl raised her hand and mentioned that they wouldn’t be at this school in five years. Good point. So I took their names and told them that I would track them down. This seemed to make them happy.
The faculty hadn’t bought my act, though, and I think that’s a good thing.
Next time when a white Peace Corps SUV rolls up in the school grounds, drives right up to the office, and some hack with absolutely nothing important or significant to share with the faculty marches into the office, maybe they will have a broader context to understand the significance of such things.
One last note.
As Andrew and I were leaving, we noticed two teachers. One was Andrew’s counterpart, mouth wide open, and the other was the headsir.
The headsir hand a length of floss in his hand and was carefully flossing the other teacher’s teeth.
Touching lives, making a difference.