The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Foreign)

by Sanjena Sathian:

I made a research trip last weekend out of the hilly district of Ilam where I’ve been living to the flat, agricultural expanse of Nepal known as the terai. I went to a city called Dharan, the sixth-biggest in Nepal. Dharan is wealthy, namely because of the presence of a two twin jewels: ex-Gurkha soldiers, and a hospital.

The Terai's flatness is the very reason it is so wealthy. In Nepal, flatness means accessibility, which means education, business, healthcare, and a more developed chunk of society. (Sathian/TYG)

the Gurkhas
All over the country, Nepalis are offered opportunities for escape. Signs in cities advertise study abroad in the US, UK, Korea, Japan. Other billboards suggest joining the Singapore police service or the British army. Nepalis who train to join the British army form an upper crust of society. The practice of recruiting Nepali soldiers to the British army began when the Brits were strong in India. They didn’t get control of Nepal, and they were impressed by the soldiers they fought against. So, if you can’t beat them, recruit them: and the Gurkha brigade of the British army was born. All over Ilam, I’ve seen men training to join the Gurkha army. When they’ve done their time, ex-Gurkhas usually grab a visa and get to the UK as fast as possible, or they move back, and they often settle back in Dharan.

Signs like this one advertise the chance to join the British Army all over Dharan and Kathmandu. (Sathian/TYG)

The city is cloaked in a kind of reverence to this not-quite-colonial legacy. The homes are large and brightly painted to show off the western wealth their owners have amassed. They look like overgrown dollhouses.

As I walked through the city, admiring the houses, I felt like I was suddenly encountering a Nepal that seemed proud of itself. Kathmandu felt like an eager-to-please puppy at times, wanting a pat on the head from an approving west. In Dharan, I thought I had found my way to what Nepalis are most proud of: their strength as warriors.

I was wrong.

the Hospital
The thing that proved me wrong was my visit to Dharan’s other proud jewel: the BP Koirala Institute of Health Sciences, the biggest and supposedly best hospital in the country. People in Dharan are proud of BPKIH; it not only brings people from around the area and country to the city, seeking treatment, but also attracts European and American medical students looking for an internship in community medicine. I had made friends with some Dutch medical students working at BPKIH for the summer, and when I complained to them of a bout of stomach problems, they told me I should see a doctor while in Dharan.

The BPKIH has a vast campus, with multiple wards for clinical care, hostels for residential students, apartments for doctors, and a mess hall. (Sathian/TYG)

After waiting thirty minutes in a mob of sweaty, sick, elbowing Nepalis to get a ticket (which I paid 70 rs, or $1 for), my Dutch friend Kiki and I found our way through the emergency ward (where I stopped to gawk at a little boy getting stitches with no anesthesia) to the internal medicine ward. There, another crowd of tired, sick masses waited – as many as 70 people were sitting in the waiting room.

Kiki flashed her badge indicating she was a student. What was more important to the receptionist was seeing the flash of her white skin and hearing my American accent. We were ushered quickly past the tired crowds. A man escorted us to a small room at the end of the waiting room and knocked. “Videshi,” he said, pointing at us. “Foreigner.” We were seen immediately.

The room where I saw the doctor was smaller than my double room at school. Three doctors sat around one table, and about fifteen people were crowding around as all three doctors loudly tried to diagnose their own patients. As one doctor wrote out my prescription, he turned to his colleague and offered his advice on an old man with tremors in his left hand. I guessed: Parkinson’s. Twenty minutes later they came to the same conclusion. The man’s wife looked near tears. They had been waiting for several hours, and had driven from several towns away to get the bad news.

Nepali hospitals are crammed and overcrowded; access to healthcare around the country is limited. (Sathian/TYG)

Dharan, like Kathmandu, boasts its connection to the Western world. And it seems more interested in showing off the wealth than sharing it with the rest of Nepal. The Dutch students at BPKIH live in nice apartments, with no curfews. They are allowed to live in co-ed arrangements. The Nepali students live in small, gender-segregated “hostel” dorms, and the curfew is 11 PM. Kiki told me that often patients do not trust the professional Nepali doctors’ diagnoses, and she, despite being a student with no expertise of her own, is brought over to reiterate the diagnosis. Upon seeing the foreigner’s corroboration, they believe it.

As I walked back out through the waiting room, I wondered aloud how long the other patients would take to get seen. Kiki guessed it’d be about a 3 hour wait for most of them. I checked my watch: my visit in and out of the hospital had taken 45 minutes. Easy. The word videshi hung in my mind.

Contact Sanjena on Google+