Shortly after I arrived in Kathmandu, I developed a standard walk to work. It was relatively safe from traffic, utilizing UN Park and side streets. Making it more interesting were were two bridges, one over the Bagmati River and one over Dhoki Khola, a tributary.
Along the way there were shops, hiti with stone water spouts, Buddhist stupas and prayer flags, Hindu mandirs with temple bells, free range cows, goats, and poultry, wild dogs, schools, parks, snooker halls, motorbike repair shops, restaurants, tailor shops, soldiers, joggers, yoga and meditation practitioners, vegetable stands, young cricket players, roasted peanuts, and people of all ages, occupations, dress, and personalities.
This is just a small fraction of what I see, hear, taste, feel, and smell every day. There is a lot packed into one and a half miles. It’s impossible to summarize it all in a single blog post, much less with a label, such as “capital city,” “Himalayan country,” or “developing nation.”
During my walks, I came to know one family fairly well. We speak as I pass by in the morning and evening, but also when I go out for tea or a neighborhood walk.
A ten year-old girl in the family asked me when we first met:
What kind are you?
Her English was limited (although far ahead of my Nepali). Maybe she meant “what is your name?” or “where are you from?” She might have been thinking “how tall are you?’ or “how old are you?” which are questions I frequently hear in schools.
But her question as posed stuck with me. If I don’t self-identify with a proper noun, and I can’t answer with a number, what would I say?
It’s remarkably easy to apply a label to another person–an “entertainer,” a “jerk,” a “scholar,” a “homemaker,” a “fun-lover,” “a ten year-old girl,” and so on. But doing the same to ourselves, leads to a protest.
Yes, I am an “American.” Perhaps, that’s the type of answer my young friend expected. I have US citizenship and live permanently in the US. But that label alone is very incomplete.
At the moment, I’m American, but working and residing in Nepal, a country for which I feel a great affection and even identification. I’ve also lived in other countries and have a generally internationalist perspective. Even with respect to the US, “American” captures only one aspect of who I am. I don’t want to be reduced to a single word. Why would I do that to another?
So, I might grant myself the freedom to answer her question with several words. I recall giving her a facile answer at the time, a guess at what she must have meant. But if I really listen to what she said, and I have to answer in terms of what kind of person I am, or want to be, what would I say?
What kind am I?