Evan Skamarock’s Summer Research Project in Nepal

We asked Evan Skamarock, one of our two student summer research award winners, to tell us a little bit about his project. Here’s what he had to say:

In early April 2012 I received a confirmation letter from the University of Puget Sound explaining that my project “Migrant Remittances in Rural Nepal” had been accepted for the Summer Research Grant program. The relief was outstanding. No longer in a frantic rush to find accommodations for the upcoming summer, I slowly began to prepare myself for the challenge ahead. Months earlier, I met regularly with Prof. Andrew Gardner to finalize my research plan for the summer grant. Our intention was straightforward: to craft a project that illuminates the experiences of households who send members abroad for work, and to place this understanding in conversation within the wider context of transnational migration studies. Whereas there has been a small abundance of research concerning the lives and troubles migrants experience in receiving countries, little work had been previously completed which examined the experiences of the households, families, relatives, and communities they leave behind. Accordingly, the project called for a specific type of data—evidence that is best derived from ethnographic methodology. Excited to get into “the thick of it,” I familiarized myself with existing literature on the topic and bided my time until the departure date. On June 2nd, my flight left SeaTac with the ultimate destination of Kathmandu International Airport.

Two days later, I found myself stepping off an airplane into the heat and humidity of Nepal’s largest city, Kathmandu. After navigating customs, and finding my checked luggage, I met with Deependra Giri, the research assistant with whom I would be working and living for the remainder of my time in Nepal. Driving from the airport into the heart of Kathmandu, I was overcome with the new sights, sounds, and smells.

My last day in Bhairahawa, surrounded by Deependra’s (in the blue) family. Note that it is uncommon for individuals to smile in Nepal while being the subject of a photograph.

After spending two nights in Kathmandu, we rode a night bus to Deependra’s location of residence. Situated on the central southern border of Nepal, Bhairahawa is an emerging modernized city with a population of around 100,000, and many more living in surrounding rural farming villages. Living in the house his grandfather constructed, Deependra resides with his joint family (a living arrangement where several generations live within the same domain—male members are usually blood related, bringing their wives to live with them). Surrounded by eight other family members, I was immediately taken with the kindness and support they provided me. After spending several days recovering from travels and becoming acclimated to my new home, we moved to begin our first interviews.

I quickly learned that June and July are not popular tourist travel dates in Nepal. During this period of time, Nepal experiences its hottest temperatures before the cooling rain of monsoon season. In the hot of midday, temperatures reached into the high 40 C (around 100-120F). The heat combined with intermittent energy outages, which happened sporadically every day for 3-6 hours. At first, I struggled to cope with the heat, having never experienced prolonged temperatures of that degree. However, the solution was simple (one endorsed by many of the Nepalese)—rest, relax and let go—do not carry high expectations during these times. Deependra and I, therefore, conducted interviews either in the morning, before 10am, or in the evening after 5, when the temperatures would allow for extended concentration. During these periods, with the aid of an interview guide, recording equipment, curiosity and our ethnographic intentions, we traveled by motorbike to the households of those with members abroad to listen and learn about their lives.

Living deep within the Terai plains region of southern Nepal for more than three generations, this family has recently opted to send a son abroad for work. However difficult life might be with one less pair of hands to contribute, they explained their excitement: the remittances received from migration have been put towards the construction of the brick foundation, upon which they aspire to build a house.

We conducted a total of twenty interviews over the forty-three day period. These informative sessions breached a diverse set of topics. Each household informed us of a diverse set of backgrounds and affiliations; we explored qualities ranging from economic situations, adherence to traditional/religious principles, and education levels, among many other categorical possibilities. However, there were some inter-interview concerns that became apparent. For instance, conducting interviews with a language barrier demanded attention to interpersonal communication stratagems: With the shared knowledge that neither the informant nor I can understand each other, is it appropriate to directly ask questions? Ought I instead address Deependra who will translate and act as an intermediary? By the time interview 10 rolled around, both Deependra and I settled into a comfortable understanding and balance.

Deependra, in blue, and Deepak, in white, during one of our household interviews.

As the story of each household unraveled before us, certain patterns and similarities became apparent. The experience of women (who more often than not, remained in Nepal while male relatives traveled abroad [although not exclusively; a point of interest in itself]) was one such arena. Traditional Nepalese gender roles dictate that the woman’s sphere is mainly in the household, acting as a domestic caretaker and mother. Part of this project’s goal is the exploration of change within the social structure and tradition. In this sense, ten years ago it would have been rare to observe a woman completing tasks outside the domestic domain, as this generally defines the accepted responsibilities and expectations in the male sphere. These same responsibilities remain after a household member migrates. In a shift away from traditional gender roles, women have become increasingly active in the public domain—shopping, paying bills, purchasing medicine, completing business responsibilities, and many other expressions. These changes call into question identity and agency: how might migratory practices influence what it means to be a Nepalese woman? How might these changes conflict with more traditional understandings of personhood? This is but one example of many instances where traditional practices and ways of living have changed due to work opportunities abroad.

A view from the bus traveling between Pokerah and Kathmandu. At this point in time, the monsoon season is in full swing. You can note the rice fields (filled with water). There were often vast irrigation systems to allow these spaces to fill with water, an impressive manipulation of the landscape.

After connecting with such a foreign and unique group of people, I have an intense desire to go back to Nepal and rekindle relationships built over the months I spent there. Believe it or not, the culture shock was more intense upon arrival into the States than it was in Nepal! After diving into another cultural way of life, it felt strange to come back to the conveniences of “modern” living. If there is one lesson that my experiences in Nepal fostered, it is to take nothing for granted!

Anna Sable Overcoming the Language Barrier at Mount Merapi

Anna learning to play the Bonang Barung, a Javanese gamelan instrument, at Tutup Ngisor village, on the slope of Mount Merapi, the island’s most active volcano.

Anna Sable, who went to Indonesia and Thailand with my Asia 399 course/trip this summer, sent in this reflection.

On the way over to Indonesia, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I had just confronted my fear of flying, and in the next 24 hours we were going to meet the Atma Jaya University students that would be working with us. It was the first time I would be in a country where my knowledge of the language only reached to the extent of “Good morning” (selamat pagi) and “Thank you” (terima kasih). Those two phrases alone would be important in breaking the ice with taxi drivers, people in market places, and vendors. Though there was often a large language barrier, it did not stop us from having a wonderful time.

Mount Merapi, the morning we left the village. A devastating eruption in 2010 killed 353 people and destroyed several nearby villages, as well as roads and bridges.

One of the more challenging trips was our one night stay in a village at the base of Mount Merapi named Tutup Ngisor. Rachel and I were staying in Bapak Eddie’s house, where his mother, father, wife, and two children also lived. When we knocked on the door and were let in, we rapidly realized that neither of us spoke each other’s language. His mother fed us vegetables and tofu, but since neither Rachel nor I could say that we were too full, we had way more than we could eat. After lunch we offered to help roll cassava balls for dinner. As we were helping, a herd of baby chicks strolled into the kitchen. Our host mom raised her arm to shoo them out and they turned straight around, they had already learned their lesson!

Pak Sitras, trying to teach us how to dance.

We spent the afternoon learning how to dance from a Javanese master named Bapak Sitras Anjilin, and as Jillian described, we were nowhere near as graceful as him. When it came time for bed, our host mom had stayed up past 9 p.m. to wait for us. We took turns using the bathroom to change for bed, and I changed first. When I came out she stood up, tucked me into bed, and then we both sat in silence and waited for Rachel. Once Rachel returned, she did the same thing, motioning for her to climb into bed and then tucking us each into the covers. Since no one knew what else to say, we reverted back to the only words we did know, “Terima Kasih” and “Selamat Malam” (Goodnight). The only problem was that she had left the light directly above our bed on. When Rachel tried to turn it off, she called from the other room, and we quickly turned it back on. Were we supposed to turn off the light? Did our host mom want it on? We had no way to know. That was the night that Rachel and I bit the bullet, and slept with the bright light on.

The main drag of Tutup Ngisor village. Though houses were modest, with cement or dirt floors, most had satellite dishes and televisions. Many students with similar language barriers found themselves bonding over TV shows with their host families.

I was sad to say good-bye the next morning. Our host family took great care of us, and even though we couldn’t really communicate it was a wonderful and challenging experience. It was unexpected but genuine cultural interactions like these that characterized our trip to Indonesia, and for me made the whole time fascinating and instructive.

 Thanks for sharing your experience with us Anna, we’ll keep the light on for you! Sorry, couldn’t resist. -Gareth