I first visited Nepal when I was 18 years old. I didn’t have experiences that were more or less profound than those of any other volunteer who has gone off to a developing country, but my naive sensibilities were deeply affected by what I saw and remain so today. I remember holding a toddler in my arms as she struggled close to death, her colon falling out of her body due to weeks of dehydration. I saw my host father beat his wife, and later I saw him beat his two-year-old son so badly that I thought he was going to kill him. I watched my favorite student sell his body for drugs and sniffing glue. Lepers, polio victims, tuberculosis patients, prostitutes, refugees, orphans, street children – these were the regular visitors to my teenage psyche.
But that first visit to Nepal was also one of the happiest periods of my life. I remember the unparallelled generosity of my hosts, and the loving sweetness of the children. I remember the thrill of riding on the roofs of buses or hiking into the thin air of the Everest region. The excitement of exploring alleyways, sweet shops, tea stalls, rice shacks – all to the soundtrack of Bollywood ballads and tabla beats – was enough to make me swear I’d never live anywhere else. And over the course of the next decade, I was repeatedly drawn back to Nepal to re-capture something of that euphoric feeling.
Anyone who has worked in a developing country knows the contradiction of being starkly drawn to and repelled by these places. For the Westerner who is accustomed to the yawn of a certain baseline of normalcy, the developing world acts like a hyperbolic drug to propel us to life’s greatest highs and greatest lows – to a realm of emotions that allows us to feel alive like we’ve never felt before. It breaks us out of what we might find dull or monotonous in our home country and introduces us to the exhilaration of “life on the edge.” It paints our world in black and white.
Many have criticized the motivations behind the Westerner’s attraction to the developing world, and there are very good reasons for that criticism. I will write on that topic in a future post, but for now, what interests me here is how we reconcile the contradictions of the developing world – how we make sense of places that give us the most exhilarating highs and the most harrowing lows at one and the same time. How do we return to “normal” and live a life that is clean of this “drug” when we have experienced the screaming dissonance of life’s extremities?
Over the past fifteen years, I have tried my hand at various careers and philosophies in order to recapture some kind of remembered normalcy. But it has been my career as an anthropologist that has brought me the closest solace. I have come to view the discipline as a project in poetic understanding – a field that embraces contradiction, metaphor, and non-literal meaning in order to articulate the confusing bipolarity within our selves and our world. Anthropology is an exercise that, at its best, allows for multiplicity and urges the writer to avoid single, monolithic, and “normal” tales. By dismantling the fog of projection and one-sidedness through which we usually describe the world, anthropology allows for conflicting voices without judgment, giving free reign to the schizophrenic in all of us. Most importantly, it lets us experience the divergent impulses of the developing world – those highs and lows – without favoring one vision over the other.
Furthermore, anthropology continually aims to understand the ways in which we are all, already, part of the developing world, and the developing world part of us. In other words, anthropological writing has taught me that the stark lines between developed and developing, between us and them, between high and low are perhaps not as stark as they first appear. Perhaps the greatest high lies in the middle, where the girl dying in my arms is just as much a part of “the normal” as the shimmering peaks of the Himalayas and the humdrum buzz of America’s noise.