Nepal, a Shangri-La? Narratives of Culture, Contact, and Memory

Tika Lamsal, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Language, has published a co-edited a new book (with Deepak Shimkhada, Iswari Pandey, and Santosh Khadka; Mandala Book Point, 2022).

by Tika Lamsal

We conceived this anthology of narratives in 2019 with the launch of a website, Nepal Memory Project. The website, which is still active today, was exclusively dedicated to collecting a broad range of essays that were eventually compiled under the title, Nepal, a Shangri-La? Narratives of Culture, Contact, and Memory.

While assembling this volume that has over four dozen contributors, and which focuses on micro-narratives about Nepal, we wondered about the power of memory, and its role in crafting narratives, as we try to make sense of our identity and belonging in an interconnected world. We also wondered about ideas that bring Nepalis and non-Nepalis together: how does the space—that Himalayan country—in both geo-political and cultural terms bind us together? Our starting point was to pose a series of questions to our contributors as we invited them to describe and think about the most salient experiences or memories that represented the country for them. We were interested in how those personal narratives related to the master narratives of the nation, i.e., how they echoed, contested, or resonated with the constructs promoted by the powers that be.

Going by the master narratives of Nepal, we see a careful selection of historically verifiable facts and some imagined ideals. For example, the country is the oldest nation-state in South Asia, as the Himalayan nation was never directly colonized. It is the birthplace of Gautama Buddha, and the land of the Himalayas – actually, the only country with eight of the ten highest mountains in the world. Nepal is also a country with a remarkable diversity of flora and fauna, peoples, traditions, and stupas or temples at virtually every step of the way. It is the home of the Gurkha soldiers whose stories of bravery are told and retold around the world. Untouched by outside influences until recently, it is the Shangri-La that we know of that could potentially function as an antidote to human despair borne off industrialization.

These are the attributes most frequently used to construct a grand narrative about the nation of Nepal, often coupled with the phrase sundar, shanta, bishal (beautiful, peaceful, great), which, as in the case of any nation-state, conveniently leaves out the details that undercut or challenge it. One way to explore the complexity of the lived nation and its memory would be to look back at the experience of various engagements in the space under discussion, engagements that could be as uniquely personal and intimate as growing up within it or as purposeful and strategic as traveling from outside to work, study/research or both. Our assumption has been that “re-membering” and writing about these experiences will not only reveal some complex stories about the nation but also provide specific insights into life, culture, community, citizenship, nation, labor, education, history, memory, mobility, and even (post-)modernity in the 21st century of global interconnectedness.

As this anthology shows, we have multiple Nepals within the geographical boundaries of the nation-state, as is the case with any multicultural, multilingual nation-state. Rephrasing Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy – especially their discussions of English identity—one could argue that it is reductive to discuss Nepali national identity or the forms of national belonging without taking into account the ways in which Nepali identity itself has often been defined through the exclusion of a range of “others” in terms of language and customs. By the same token, Nepali identity has been denied the rights and privileges of equality of recognition until recently in the country’s laws and constitutions. Even the notion of singular Nepalese identity becomes an oxymoron for some authors, such as Shabnam Koirala-Azad, Sonya Dios, and Khushbu Mishra (in this volume), who share their experiences of negotiating their Nepali identity as the “other” even while living within the geo-political space of Nepal. Their narratives challenge the dominant narratives of Nepal while other authors recount their negotiations from multiple locations, both from within and without Nepal’s geographical boundaries. This multi-locational, and multi-subjective challenge to a singular prescribed Nepali identity is the main goal of our anthology of narratives.

How the Orlando Shooting and Presidential Election Changed the LGBTQ+ Community

Lou Felipe discusses the preliminary results of research conducted with Ja’nina Garrett-Walker and Michelle Montagno through the CRASE Interdisciplinary Action Group Grant Award.

SF Pride 2015
Image credit: SF Pride 2015 by Thomas Hawk. This work is licensed under a CC BY 2.0 license.

The shooting that took place at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, FL, on a night that knowingly attracted a Latinx community, pushed to the forefront the intersectionality of discrimination. Notably, the tragedy highlighted how queer people of color are uniquely positioned to be at the receiving end of hateful violence due to the enduring legacies of racism and homophobia. Many in the queer community wondered about our community’s investment in racial equity. As queer people working towards racial equity, Ja’nina Garrett-Walker, Michelle Montagno, and I were not only personally heartbroken by the tragic deaths of those celebrating at Pulse that evening, but we felt compelled to leverage our own resources and privileges to better understand the experiences of people of color in the LGBTQ+ community.

We were awarded the Center for Research Artistic and Scholarly Excellence (CRASE) Interdisciplinary Action Group grant to investigate LGBTQ+ individuals’ racial identity and connectedness to the community. Though we are still in the data collection process, preliminary results reveal the different experiences between People of Color (POC) and White people in the LGBTQ+ community. While differences in mental health did not emerge, POC generally reported feeling less connected to the LGBTQ+ community than their White counterparts (Garrett-Walker, Felipe, & Montagno, 2017). POC also reported greater discord between their sexual and racial identities than White-identified participants. These trends of the data perhaps suggest that lived experiences of communities of color are not well reflected in dominant queer culture. What we see in the data may be the reflection of what many of us who are queer and of color have experienced all along: that the legacies of white supremacy have permeated the LGBTQ+ community, whitening the queer experience in much the same way that the feminist movement centered White voices, pushing Women of Color to demand intersectional feminism.

However, the Orlando tragedy was not the only major event impacting the participants of the study, all of whom identify as queer or claim a space somewhere along the LGBTQ+ continuum. Shortly following the launch of our study, the presidential elections took place, and we were faced with an interesting significant event that created unique response sets: we had a number of participants who responded before the election, as well as a portion of the sample who participated after the election. In examining depression scores, those who responded just prior to the election had scores that were substantially lower than those scores recorded after the election (Garrett-Walker, et al. 2017). In short, LGBTQ+ people endorsed more symptoms of depression after Trump was elected into office.

The presidential election signified a serious threat to the civil rights of the entire LGBTQ+ community, and it arrived on the heels of a massive attack that left 51 people dead. The socio-political environment created an additional stress on the psyches of the queer people in the study, and this indication of increased depression emerged regardless of how the participant identified racially. While these findings are almost sadly obvious, there is another unique finding to consider at this crossroads of identity: the post-election respondents indicated feeling more negatively towards their own racial group, regardless of their racial identity (Garrett-Walker, et al. 2017).

Orlando and the election changed all of us in the community. The accumulation of attacks draws us into a space far too familiar – that of self-loathing. Unless we, as a larger America, take up each other’s causes with the same fervor for which we stand up for our own, we are headed down a terrifyingly divisive path, where we will not only hate one another, but will end up internally empty in the process. And though the mistakes of the past seem to be revived in modern times, the successes of the past have also paved our path for survival and resistance. We just have to listen to those stories and value our own.

Faculty Spotlight: Kevin Lo

Kevin Lo’s cross-cultural research started with the exploration of his own ethno-cultural identity. During our discussion, we talked about interdisciplinary research, social media, and the conversations that inspire him.

Kevin Lo. Photo by Sara Fan

How did you first become interested in research?

My interest in research stems from thinking about my personal, ethno-cultural identity. I’m from Honolulu, Hawaii originally. I was born and raised there, and I’m ethnically Chinese. Obviously Hawaii is part of the US, so I’ve always had experiences in which I felt like I was a local person from Hawaii—not native Hawaiian, but local—American, and Chinese. Depending on the situational context, I would feel a little bit differently—more like I was from Hawaii, more like a Chinese person, more American. I was curious as to what created those differences.

How did you make the leap from your personal experience and this larger identity movement?

Once I became aware of my recurrent thoughts, I wondered, Why do I think like this? Why do I feel like this? Why as I was growing up did my parents say, “We do things this way,”the Chinese way of thinking and doing things? Don’t Chinese people come from China? We didn’t come from China. It was kind of putting these parts of personal identity together that gave me a context for understanding myself and thinking that I can’t be the only person who’s feeling like this.

How have your travels and experiences abroad affected your thought process and research around identity?

Travel gave me a platform for thinking about cross-cultural differences and eventually led me to pursue a degree in international management. As I pursued that degree, it was necessary to collect data and investigate different cultures, but then it also made sense for me to live abroad. I studied abroad in Beijing, China and in Taipei, Taiwan. My first academic job prior to coming here to University of San Francisco was at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. I feel that each of my experiences living overseas have given me insights into that culture as well as points of comparison for thinking about how each of those cultures differed from my perspectives, either growing up in Hawaii or being American.

Two of my early research interests remain current research interests. The first one was people’s use of time, both in organizations and socially. In Hawaii, there’s a slower pace of life. On the East Coast, I experienced the faster pace of life, and it became apparent that maybe Hawaii is not the norm. After living on the East Coast for a while, or even living in China, probably the most salient experience is to go back to Hawaii and feel very impatient when driving at 40 miles per hour down a freeway, which is the norm there. We drive slower, we don’t dart in and out through a crowd of people, you know, just kind of walking at the same pace as everybody else. One of my first research projects was on how people differ in their use of time and what implications that has for international work.

The other project revolves around Chinese American identity and expectations that people put on relationships. In Chinese, we refer to guanxi, which loosely translates to “relationships.” When we talk about business in English, we also talk about importance of networking. Relationships and guanxi are both important, but that doesn’t mean that networking and guanxi are the same thing. While relationships broadly defined are important in both cultural contexts, how you go about them is very different. People could very easily run into problems if they assume that they’re synonymous, not only linguistically, but also if they assume the behaviors associated with each are one and the same. My doctoral research started to tease apart those differences empirically. It’s complex because you’re talking about two very large cultural constructs. In addition, both economies are growing so quickly that what might have been characteristic of guanxi 10 or 20 years ago might not be the same anymore.

I’ve become interested in relationships on social media. Since coming to the University of San Francisco, one of my newer projects is on how business organizations use social media and how individuals use social media as well.

How did you become interested in the social media component of these interactions?

When Facebook was first available, I had an account. I was quite active on Twitter for a while. I don’t think that Instagram is most popular with my age demographic, but I’m still an avid Instagrammer. My interest is in how other people use social media—both in organizations but particularly cross-culturally as well. I think what I know anecdotally is that different platforms are more popular in certain cultures than in others.

I’m also very interested in the use of social media in the classroom and whether current students, because they’re digital natives, are genuinely interested in having their social media lives converge with their academic lives. There have been a lot of suggestions, pedagogically, for faculty to incorporate social media into their teaching. In the past, I’ve actually experienced quite a bit of resistance from students who say, “Yes, we are on Twitter and on Facebook, but we don’t want to be on Twitter or Facebook for class.” Some relationships are very specific and people keep those relationships compartmentalized. Students might maintain a Twitter account for engaging with their friends and maybe a few athletes, celebrities, or politicians, but that is going to be a socially specific or personally specific domain. They don’t want class-related communication rolled into that same Twitter account, and that’s a new phenomenon that has implications for teaching.

How do your students inspire your research?

The best experience that I could imagine would be having a class of students who represent many different cultures and we could talk about interpersonal relationships, use of time, and use of social media to gather stories. I can introduce both a theoretical concept that’s relevant to the class as well as some of the findings that my research has suggested and ask them what they think about it. Or perhaps my findings are already outdated because things change so quickly and that would give them a chance to respond and feel engaged with some of the most cutting edge findings.

How does your interdisciplinary background in business and psychology work together?

It’s part of who I am to choose an interdisciplinary field. I received a degree in international management, but it draws heavily from social psychology, cultural anthropology, and industrial-organizational psychology as well. I think that ultimately helps me be more rounded as a researcher—I can draw from other fields, have conversations with people in those fields, have dialogues that help inform my perspectives, and maybe link up with them for research collaborations.

Sometimes it makes it a little harder because it’s a small discipline unto itself but one that tries to enter other disciplines that are much larger. This is really where I want to sit as a researcher, so I accept that these are some of the challenges as an interdisciplinary researcher. I think it’s really important as a researcher to find topics that are stimulating. I would rather take something that really piques my interest and round it out by drawing from several different fields.

For example, not all disciplines conceive of culture in the same way, and I recently experienced these differences in trying to get some research that a colleague and I had done on organizations’ use of social media. That was targeted for intercultural communications journals, which is not my direct discipline. I think there’s a part of communication literature that I certainly understand, but the way that management academics talk about culture and the way that communication scholars talk about culture are quite different.

Here at our school of management, there are quite a few interdisciplinary researchers. We might have a degree or an area, but we’ll branch out and try to publish work in other related areas. Being here, I don’t feel like it’s a journey I’m trying to forge by myself.

How is your research playing out at USF?

One of the perks of being an interdisciplinary researcher is that it’s easy for me to join in conversations at various parts of the university. Here in the School of Management, my department is called Organization, Leadership, and Communication. In some universities, it’s called the Organizational Behavior Department, maybe the Management Department. I can have conversations with International Business. I can have conversations with our Communications Department within Arts and Sciences. If faculty at the School of Education are interested in culture as a variable, then I probably have complementary interest to some of the work that they’re doing. There are a lot of people across university, not strictly in the School of Management, who are interested in similar topics.

How does being in San Francisco impact how you do research?

This is one of the major cities in the US that lends itself to simulating cross-cultural perspectives. When thinking about my research, I don’t feel like I have to go too far to have those same personal experiences that I might have to go to another country to acquire. By the same token, I make a case to my students if I’m talking about cross-cultural differences that you don’t need to go overseas or abroad. Look at how diverse our city  is. You can go down the street and have a cross-cultural interaction that you don’t quite get and want to examine more closely. San Francisco informs my research because of its diversity.

Do you continue to do a lot of traveling for your research?

When I go abroad, I try to think about what am I feeling and what am I experiencing that might be rooted in cultural differences. I’ve come across the broad dimension of culture that stimulates my interest most intensely. If I could sit down with a local in another country, I would talk about their concept of time and relationships. It’s the personal experience of conversations that prompt me to think about research.