Letters from Kathmandu #17: USA

By Craig Greenman
(Visiting Professor of Philosophy, King’s College)

August 2021

Dear family and friends,

I’m back in the USA.  I arrived in New Hampshire after a grueling 13-hour Qatar Airways flight on July 31.  I was already exhausted when I boarded the plane and sat by a big man who inched his elbow, ever so slightly, across his armrest – like “Chinese water torture” (which, I read, may have been invented by Italians).  And there were babies.  How could they not cry?  We were all feeling the same way; we’d just learned to repress it.  It’s taken a week of jet lag and a severe cold (not Covid; I got tested) to feel human again.

Leaving Kathmandu involved a rush of tests and visas, ATM withdrawals, and airport security.  I learned that hospitals in Nepal can be just as indecipherable as the government offices; luckily I found a kind employee to navigate one.  Airport security checked my bags twice and asked for an exorbitant fee; one of my bags had my teaching books.  Then I had to convince folks I did have an Indian transit visa and I was trying to get to the United States; I guess all the Western tourists had fled long before.

I turned white-privileged when I couldn’t find my gate and an airport employee brought me to the immigration line; there were three windows, two of which had long queues, but the third of which, “Special/Diplomat,” was empty.  I said that I could wait with everyone else, but the employee didn’t speak English and beckoned to the empty line.  (I’d had two flights cancelled in July; one takes advantage of things, despite oneself.)  

Today I watched Aljazeera, the excellent Qatari news channel (except they don’t do critical journalism of their own country, the richest in the world, where many Nepalis work and hundreds die).  The U.S. military had halted commercial flights out of the Kabul airport after the Taliban takeover.  Having had my flights cancelled during a crisis – though one much less tragic for me – I knew how it felt to be stranded.  I cringed for my country, which had invaded another, occupied it for twenty years, then pulled out faster than a Catholic boy . . .

The first word that came to mind after I’d landed in Boston was “wealth,” followed by “order,” “cleanliness,” and finally, “boredom.”  It was all so perfect . . .  I’ve complained about Kathmandu traffic, but the landscape on Interstate 93 – walls of green trees, with shiny, orderly SUVs, lined up perfectly in order – made me think, if I had to drive this route every day, I’d kill myself . . . 

It’s been great to see my friends at home, and to swim in and drink clean water (and good beer).  There are no dogs barking or horns beeping, and the trash is minimal.  But perhaps because I’ve done it before, or because I’m unemployed and making no money (the state of New Hampshire has decided that, since I haven’t worked in the past year and a half, during a pandemic, I don’t deserve unemployment compensation), I can’t stop wanting to be somewhere else.  I miss Kathmandu. 

A friend’s who’s a Vietnam vet tells me some soldiers came home and missed the adrenaline rush of war.  That’s how I feel.  Before I left Kathmandu, I had a manic week.  I finally fed the stray dogs, but I bought them dry dog food, which K. said they wouldn’t eat.  It turned out that beggars can be choosers:  Only a few took my food happily; a few ate it begrudgingly (like, “Is this all you got?”); and a few dogs wouldn’t touch it.  The healthier or more lively ones – the dogs you’d expect to want something better – ate with gusto, while the sick, tired, and hungry ones tended to refuse.  Maybe there’s a virtuous or vicious cycle that dogs fall into, too:  Once you’re down and out, you keep failing.  One particularly beat-up dog, who had bad teeth, took my offering, but I had to feed him or her by hand.

I also returned to the Monkey Temple.  There were more humans than monkeys now, due to the end of the lockdown.  Vendors had taken over, and were pushy; one had a slingshot he used against the monkeys; I reprimanded him.  I thought of Jesus turning over the moneychanger tables; he’d say that “Swayambhu” – as I’ve been instructed to call the Swayambhunath Stupa, or Monkey Temple, now – is for the Buddha, not salesmen.  My own mistake was bringing dog food, which the monkeys wouldn’t eat but attracted the stray dogs, creating a conflict between the species.  The order of nature is easily disturbed . . .

I’d also visited “Thamel,” a heavily-touristed spot in Kathmandu; I didn’t realize I’d walked through it on the way to Swayambhu; it had been empty because of the lockdown.  It was packed with bodies, and awful.  It was like an amusement park with no amusements.  Just mobs of people and vendors, a few of whom accosted me, being a tourist.  (I realized later, when I’d spent two days in Delhi, how respectful the Nepali vendors had been.  Delhi vendors are very interested in your patronage.)

Now I’m back home.  I was told to expect reverse culture shock, but I didn’t expect this.  When I came back from Paris in 2000, Americans looked fat; but now all I see is emptiness, a kind of affluent desolation.  Signs of life but no life; Orwellian posters like, “Social Distance = Caring.”  What did Henry Miller call the United States?  The “air-conditioned nightmare”?  Sounds about right, at least from my current (admittedly, “shocked”) perspective.  I’m sitting in a car dealership as I write this, waiting to spend a heap of money on a new “flex pipe” for my 2014 Mini Cooper.  Angst in the land of plenty . . . The USA can be a silent killer, a stress that’s shapeless:  How surrounded by objects we are!  How much work we have to do to keep them shiny and clean!  The brazen assertion of honking is replaced by the “vanity plate” or the “bumper sticker,” neither of which exist in Kathmandu.  We say not only, “I’m here!” but “Life Is Good©!”

One thinks, gosh, maybe a tin shack, for all its physical deprivation, is better than this . . .

And here’s your repair bill, Craig.

Nepalis want more than they have; Americans fear to lose what they’ve got.  What’s worse, to pine for a treasure or to sit on it? 

But I was wrong to think that American bureaucracy was better than the Nepali kind . . . Finding the unemployment office was just as confusing as dealing with Nepali immigration, except, instead of indistinguishable windows, it was an indistinguishable set of buildings on a giant, clean, state government campus.

And then my phone!  I drove around and around to get it reconnected . . . “Go there!” they told me.  I went there.  “We can’t help you.  Go there!”  But I was just there, I said.  “Well, they’re stupid.”  Okay, but I need help.  “Sorry!”  (And this was Best Buy . . .)  When it comes to the run-around, America is just Nepal with more money.

I’d gotten to visit my friend and film-making partner in the suburbs of Delhi, halfway between Kathmandu and Boston.  It looked like Atlanta’s suburbs, plus some trash.  I talked with his welcoming and philosophy-loving father, and asked, imitating Socrates to Cephalus in the Republic, what he’d learned from growing older.  He said he’d gotten wiser about knowing what was good for him.  I pressed him on the definition of “good,” but maybe his expression was a propos:  Not, what’s good per se, but what’s good for me.  Maybe this is something – despite the Delphic oracle (or maybe that was just a bumper sticker?) – I need to pay attention to:  What do I need to be happy?

To be surrounded by a happy family (like K.’s), with mostly interested students and colleagues, and a manageable workday and plenty of places to explore . . . Plus being special, just by stepping outside – I’ve lost that distinction here, where I’m just another white guy – having my meals made for me and my little chores done, while retaining only a few possessions (a poor man’s aristocracy):  Might that be good for me?  Contrarily, might a place where I walk around and see structures, built by humans, but with no humans around them, for hours and days:  Might that be bad?  Maybe the USA just isn’t my bag . . . Maybe Kathmandu, for all its barking, beeping, and pollution – and its open, not hidden, suffering – is more my speed . . .

I’m beginning to believe (as I never quite have before) that wealth, or at least the things we buy with it, can make us unhappy.  Maybe some of the countries we pity are happier than us, when they’re not having revolutions.  Here, we compartmentalize our lives:  Art over here; work over there; thinking next door; family in the house.  

What is home?  “It’s too bad they have no future in Nepal,” a friend of mine said when I got back.  No, I replied, that’s precisely what they do have.  In America, we seem to have only the past:  We long to return to it (“Right”) or denounce it (“Left”).  Nepalis have aspirations.  Asia seems to be pointed toward the future, while Europe, outside of prepping for a climate catastrophe, seems stuck in a rut.

But as I was leaving Kathmandu, my Tibetan friend waited across the road to put a white scarf around my neck; it’s an old Tibetan tradition of leave-taking.  I also got scarfs from K.’s family and his cousin; and K. gave me the tikka.  I left Kathmandu feeling like part of the family.  The other night I had dinner with a friend; he said I’d seemed miserable in Kathmandu, given what I’d written in my letters.  (He’d read some of them, but not all.)  I told him about the night I fell in love with Kathmandu.  I’d walked through Patan Durbar and the neighborhoods nearby, a mix of alleyways and shops, and lovely, earthquake-damaged buildings.  I stopped by Bhat Bhateni to get some necessities; and when I came out, it was raining.  I looked at my Google Maps; it was a half-hour home.  I decided, sans umbrella, to do it.  I flew into the night – it was nighttime, and cold – and when I got to a main street southeast of our B&B, it was lit up and pretty (this was before the lockdown), and, tripping over the hexagonal cobblestones, I felt an intense exhilaration to be alive.  No more lying in bed in New Hampshire, waiting for the future; I was making it.  I was a part of life.  When I got home, shivering with cold, I jumped in the shower.  But the water ran cold.  It only heats up, as I was told, when it’s sunny.  My teeth almost chattered; then, miraculously, it turned hot.  I’d forgotten that it had been sunny, blazingly so, earlier that day.  It was the best shower I’ve ever had.

That night, I was in love with Kathmandu, and I knew, whatever happened next – even if I fell out of love – I would always love it.  Maybe it will even become home, at least a second one.

In any case, thank you for reading along with me, and for your patience with my reports!  I will be sending one more; then this series will be concluded.

Hope you’re all doing well,



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