This is a reflection from guest writer Manju, who is currently on her gap year in Nepal.
I’m a Nepali-German kid who grew up in the Bay Area in California. The diverse nature of my environment and international upbringing in my life deeply shaped my outlook on the world growing up. For the last few months I’ve been living at my maternal family’s Newar home in the ancient city of Patan, relearning and reconnecting with the Nepali “side” of myself. Since September 2019, I’ve been volunteering in a primary school as an English teacher in Bhotenamlang, a village in the Himalayas. My experiences so far have been life-altering, profoundly humbling, and have taught me the deep value of human connection. More than ever before, I know that I want to serve as a bridge, working with people in Nepal and people in the West to effect positive societal change. Throughout this, I’ve been using the learning service model of balancing action and learning to get the most out of my experience and be mindful.
I distinctly remember one visit to Nepal when I was seven years old. My family and I were trekking through the Helambu Valley, a region of highland villages. I saw along the side of the trail a young girl around my age carrying a home-made toy made of plastic bottles and chip bags. I remember being so shocked by her lack of toys and moved by her creativity. When I returned home to the United States a few weeks later, I found myself disillusioned with all my toys and my friends’ attitude towards material things. It was that trek that showed me “poverty” for the first time. I saw people just like me and my family living and getting on with their lives, albeit with less material things and in “harsher” conditions. I overheard conversations between my dad, a foreigner who has spent many years researching Buddhist texts in Nepal, and local people talking about how some people had been ambushed and executed there just two days earlier (as at the time Nepal was experiencing a civil war). It was this experience, the exposure at a young age to the brutal realities of life for many Nepali people, that really shaped me. I always had a feeling I would return to Nepal. Once I learned there was such a thing as a gap year 10 years later, I knew what I needed to do after I finished high school.
Around July 2019, just two weeks before taking off to start my gap year, I was in an ice cream shop in a small town in Marin County, California with some friends. It was here that I had my first interaction with “Learning Service”. Between bites of lavender ice cream, I was babbling about how anxious I was to leave for Nepal in just a few weeks when a boy around my age, another customer in the shop, turned to me suddenly. His name was Benjamin Felser, he told me, and he had literally just returned from a gap year in Nepal with Where There Be Dragons the week prior. The whole thing was bizarre and hysterical! I asked him for advice – any advice! – as I was worried about it all, and the first thing he told me was that I should check out the Learning Service blog. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but I wrote it down for a rainy day.
In large part due to that 5-minute interaction, my entire perspective on gap years, global service, and voluntourism would shift. I recalled his advice a couple months later while I was in Nepal and found myself reading this blog until deep into the night. So much of what was being said deeply resonated with my experiences of observing white peers in the US going for service trips to the Global South. The blog gave me the language that I was lacking when talking about issues of White Saviorism. I also found that I was perhaps complicit to this complex in ways I hadn’t been aware of. Lots of uncomfortable, but necessary, reflection ensued. A few weeks after, I would buy the Learning Service book in Kathmandu. I couldn’t have known then in that ice cream shop that my copy of that book would become heavily annotated and earmarked, sitting on my bedside plastic stool while living in rural Nepal. I couldn’t have known then that I would meet Claire Bennett for lunch, a Learning Service author, one of Benjamin’s gap year mentors, and coincidentally also a founding member of PHASE, where I will intern starting April! I really could not have imagined that I would myself be writing a blog entry! But truly, this “practical philosophy” on volunteering deeply resonates with me and has been absolutely core to all my interactions and actions while living in my village in the hills of Nepal.
I’ve been living in Bhotenamlang, Sindhupalchok, a district with high rates of child trafficking and which was very badly affected by the 2015 earthquakes. I arrived in September 2019 and will be here until late March 2020. I came into the community with lofty goals of “changing” the village school, greatly improving literacy amongst my students, and leaving a huge impact on the community. I teach English and Art at the primary school, working with kids aged 6-16. (I myself am 18 so I’ve told my students I’m a decade older so as to gain some of their respect!) Teaching 80 kids, both to enable them to pass the government exams and to truly learn for the joy of learning, requires immense mental energy and creativity and leaves me exhausted every evening. To say it has been challenging would be a huge understatement. I realized I should have taken courses in Teaching English as a Foreign Language to prepare myself… and even with that preparation it might not have been enough. What makes it OK for an 18 year-old kid with no training to teach English? Is it just because I’m from the West?
The biggest challenge for me was realizing that my presence might even be harmful if I don’t go about my role responsibly. I was misguided and naive to begin with and would tell my students that learning English could be an “out” from the village’s main profession – laborious subsidence farming. I saw only the struggles of farming and imagined it to be an oppressive existence, when kids could set goals to instead become doctors or teachers. I failed to see that farming is a way of life, a rite of passage that connects Nepali people to their ancestors and the land. I now teach my classes in a way that is mindful and vocal about the fact that that in an ideal world, if the socio-political economy was structured more equitably, my students wouldn’t need English as a skill. I approach my teaching more as an opportunity to mentor students who over time have become my dear friends. I try to get to know them, listen to what they have to say, visit their homes and meet their families, and teach them study habits and life skills that will be beneficial in their futures. I’d like to believe that this approach has helped some of my students build up their self esteem, open up from past traumas, start building better study habits, and find a love of learning. There have been many moments of reckoning with myself – of catching myself, correcting myself, and going forward more consciously. The philosophy of Learning Service has been my guiding force.
Though I am half Nepali and I can communicate fluently and somewhat relate culturally, I have had very different life experiences and realities than my peers in the village. And though I now live in this community and am interacting on a personal and human level every day with issues like poverty, domestic abuse, child marriage, sexism, colorism, and so on, I will never be truly subjected to them. I have developed a deep and heightened awareness of my privilege, handed to me just because my father is white. And so I’m also naturally aware that though I am living as much like a local as I can, I will move and interact with this space in a completely different way than my female Nepali friends here. Men joke that I ought to get married and live in this village forever, but we all know (at least I hope!) it’s a joke when we laugh over cups of heated raksi. At the same time, I’ve become really aware of the fact that “privilege” isn’t just to be measured by socio-economic class. I would argue that the people here don’t live their lives constantly feeling “under-privileged”… rather their lives are full with the privilege of extended families and a deep connection to spirituality. Also, the more time I spend in this village, the more I also become hesitant to use the empty word “poverty”. I’ve come to realize there are many types of poverty – emotional poverty being one people often suffer from in the West!
After reading the Learning Service blogs and book and after many hours of reflection, I’ve shifted my mindset from thinking I can fundamentally “change” much in my host community to instead focusing on absorbing and learning as much as I can in the hope it will help inform my future studies and career…. I think it’s a privilege to be in the village and be so close to all the socio-political issues I am so intent on working to diminish in the future. I have focused on making deep relationships with people, learning about their lives, and their struggles and aspirations. I attend weddings and village festivals, camera and notebook in hand, and try to interview as many people as I can. I’ve even picked up some Tamang language! I strike up conversations with people to try to understand what forces have shaped their lives. I’m proud to say that I have many friends in the village and am invited to many cups of tea and daal bhaats in the evening. My Facebook now has essentially half the village added as a friend!
I’d love to believe that this grounded and deeply human approach to existing has taken my experience to the next level. There is mutual respect between me and my peers and friends in the village. And the biggest lesson is recognizing how much I have to learn and benefit from people in Bhotenamlang. My patience has increasd ten-fold, I’ve learned to live happily and comfortably with minimal things and amenities, and I have made countless friends and heard their stories. I tell them about my life (as they’re fascinated that someone could be both a foreigner and a Nepali!!) and they tell me about theirs. I’ve been maintaining a journal recording observations relating to migration, education, women’s rights, public health, irrigation systems, farming techniques, cooking recipes, traditional attire, festivals and rituals, and so on…. I’m using this opportunity to play anthropologist and to learn as much as I can. I realized for the first time when a friend of mine visited me in the village how much I have learned about this place, its history, its inhabitants, and their personal stories. This place, its people, and their voices have seeped into my very being and have forever changed my outlook and the way I interact with the world and socio-political and economic systems.
This gap year experience, guided by the Learning Service mentality, has affirmed my aspiration to dedicate my academic life and career to a balance of learning and action in service of social change. I’m so grateful to have learned about the learning service approach; it has served as such a powerful lens through which I see social change!
Manju von Rospatt is in the middle of her post-high school gap year in Nepal, her mother’s country of origin. She organized the experience independently. Starting April 2020, she will begin an internship with PHASE Nepal, a rural empowerment non-profit, helping with reports and communications. She will begin her studies at Leiden University’s Global Challenges Program in The Hague August 2020. Manju is passionate about social justice, community development, and women’s rights. To read more about her experiences, check out her blog! The main image show Manju above Bhotenamlang village.