04 September, 2003

Sushma Joshi, September 4, 2003, Kathmandu Post

Over many discussions with friends of Nepal who have chosen to live in America, I have come to the conclusion that one of the biggest differences between the two cultures is people's attitude towards success. More precisely, the celebration and acknowledgement of success. While Nepal might seem like a celebratory culture (all the badai you receive would make you think so), and yet the heart of it, we remain, surprisingly, a stubbornly goal-oriented culture, willing to acknowledge and praise only the most visible and socially sanctioned successes, never the process of reaching there.

When I talk about celebrating success, I am not just talking about the big ones: the First Division, the prestigious job, the rich husband and the beautiful wife, the healthy children, but also the smaller, day to day struggles that happen to us as we navigate through increasingly complicated work and social environments. For instance, after almost a decade in the US, I realized I had picked up the habit of saying: oh good or great! when someone finishes a small task, or accomplishes a tiny goal. This phrase, a small declaration of affirmation, still strikes one of my Nepali friends as a good joke, and he never lets up the opportunity to make fun of it.

And yet at the heart of that oh good!, which can seem superficial and overly bright to most Nepalis unused to thank yous and great jobs! is something perfectly and breathtakingly simple, and yet might contain the big secret of America's domination over the world: a simple acknowledgement of a job well-done. It is a small moment of celebration, passing as quickly as it happens, and yet upon all these small affirmations is built one of the greatest work cultures of the world. America is seen as a place where people can make money very fast, but this is not the only reason why people go there, or why people work so hard every single day. If money were the only criteria, the Middle East should be the biggest migration hotspot for people. But its not. People work for money, but they are also motivated to work for something far less tangible: the satisfaction derived from the recognition of a job well done.

Western culture looks towards the East for remedies to modernity: to reduce the stress of urban life, to integrating mind and body, to living a life that blends both spiritual and material elements in a harmonious whole. Due to the admiration and respect Western scholars have given to holistic knowledge from the East, most Easterners, including Nepalis, have come to take on a slightly superior attitude to what we have come to see as the materialistic excesses, the workaholic culture and the alienation of the West. But this, in the end, stops us from learning what we can about the many good things that Western culture has to offer. What we often pinpoint as lack or problems in our own culture - the disorganization of public life, the inability to share power and delegate responsibility, the lack of productivity and creativity, the corruption of public resources - is not a natural or cultural inevitability. When we look towards the West for inspiration, we should try not just to emulate their material successes, but also the processes through which they get there.

Perhaps by looking at the culture, we will recognize why somebody like Bill Gates, who build one of the biggest and most successful corporations in the world, had to be a product of America - not China, not India, not England. Bill Gates dropped out of college, but America does not have the stigma and shame of not following a socially sanctioned path that a Nepali boy would experience if he did the same thing. He was innovative and creative, again something almost unimaginable for an average Nepali child. Can you imagine which parent in Kathmandu would be happy if their son dropped out of a prestigious college and started tinkering with machines? He started his entrepreneurial venture from his garage. You can fill in the blanks for the hysteria and drama that a Nepali boy or girl would experience if they took over a middle class family's garage for their entrepreneurial venture. But this was nothing out of the way for an American child - America actively celebrates, indeed, glorifies, individuals who have built themselves up by starting out a tiny venture from their garage.

This ethic of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, celebrated in America, remains a matter of shame for Nepalis. I meet plenty of Nepalis in America who work more than sixty hours every week, send their children to boarding schools in Kathmandu, build houses for their parents, support their brothers and sisters, send money to needy relatives - and yet will not admit that they work at restaurants or drive taxis because that would be a matter of dishonor for their families. In Nepal, the affirmation of success will come only when the house gets a new roof, or the relatives get their motorcycle. Remittances have now become Nepal's biggest source of foreign exchange, but do we hear any celebration, from the government or the people, of all that hard work?

In America, that land of instantaneous gratification, an individual working this hard is acknowledged moment to moment. A cabdriver's success - in negotiating traffic, dealing with a difficult customer, keeping his head in a torturous driving situation, finding the quickest possible route to the destination - is rewarded with a simple good job!. This is not the gushing and slightly insincere badai that hides envy, jealousy and competitiveness behind it. This is a good job! that comes straight from the heart. Yes, it is quick, and it is convenient - but it also means what it says. This is why this continues to remain a country that draws so many people from across the world - you can be a cab driver or gas station pump attendant, but you're doing an honest day's work with integrity, and you get acknowledged for it, not just financially but also socially.

Hopefully, when Nepali families who spend years here finally return home, that ability to affirm a job well done will be one of the things they carry back with them in their suitcase.