10 October, 2004

That Big Bhoot

That Big Bhoot
America, in spite of its limitations, welcomes people into its fold with its original myth—everybody is a pioneer in a new continent. My own story with America is a mythic one.

BY SUSHMA JOSHI
Another of our children has been taken by the bhoot of America,” my mother complains every time she hears about a young cousin who makes off to that continent. “What is there? Kay cha tya?” she asks. “I couldn't live there with all those ugly buildings.”

Skyscrapers and fast cars, chain stores and mega-malls. These are the outward manifestations of a culture that fascinates and draws hundreds of thousands of students from all parts of the world to America every year. But contrary to popular understanding, people go not just for the amount of money they can earn, or the pile of things they can buy. If money were everything, then all those foreign students would have ended up in Saudi Arabia, or Japan. But they end up in rural Alaska and in the inner city neighborhoods of New York not because money is easy to come by, most often it isn't, but because America promises something radically different—a new beginning, a place where one can remake oneself based not on one's gender, caste or ethnicity, but on one's ability to work and accomplish in a seeming meritocracy. I say “seeming” because even America has its hierarchies, its closed doors, its glass ceilings. But America, in spite of its limitations, welcomes people into its fold with its original myth—everybody is a pioneer in a new continent, breaking new ground, surviving on their own merit and labor. This is an exhilarating concept, especially to those who come from places in the world where their roles and opportunities are already restricted by birth- by gender, by caste, ethnicity, race, religion or other defining factor.

My own story with America is a mythic one. At thirteen, during a fit of adolescent rage with my mother, who had threatened to marry me off so she wouldn't have to deal with a hormonal teenager, I sat down and wrote to Emmanuel College, a small liberal arts college in Boston. The catalogue I found in a pile that my brother had collected to go abroad. What was surprising was not the long letter I sent off requesting the college admissions board to admit me at age thirteen—the surprising part was the courteous and professional reply that I received, signed by the director of admissions, telling me that I was slightly too young to apply but they would take me into consideration as soon as I finished my high school education. That letter was the first sign of a culture where even thirteen-year-olds undergoing hormonal temper tantrums had rights—gasp!—to a response. That, to me, was the first indication of democracy in action, the first signs of (extra-terrestrial?) beings who believed in treating underage girls in Nepal with the same respect they gave to anybody else.

Liberal education
America's democratic culture is one reason why people are drawn to study there. The other is its liberal education system. A liberal education draws on the old European ideal of the Enlightenment, one where boundaries between different disciplines are dissolved and people seek knowledge from all fields while being equally adept in all. A liberal education makes a person equally comfortable conversing about philosophy and the sciences, and the linkages between the two, or talking about a painting or new technology. I was fortunate enough to attend an institution where this ideal was actively encouraged. Of my college friends, many ended up doing cutting edge work in fields very different from what they studied—philosophy majors became computer programmers, computer programmers went on to make films and videos, math majors did PhDs in literature. And indeed, many of the most innovative thinking and research, the most entrepreneurial ideas have come from individuals who have received a liberal education.

In Nepal, people interested in arts and culture are relegated to low-quality institutions with Third Division students. An original idea is often considered silly, irrelevant, condescending to the teacher, or worse—wrong—as those of us who have experienced the Nepali educational system know so well. Trying to learn two fields of knowledge, or two skills, is a sure sign that that person is willful, non-committed or “all over the place.” Making linkages between different skill-sets, or different fields of knowledge, is not encouraged. Leonardo Da Vinci would be considered a madman, or a liar, in Nepal.

I am convinced that the elevation of the sciences to a godly realm in Nepal, at the expense of creativity and original thought, is at the heart of the political gridlock we are in today. How can people imagine new worlds if their faculties to create new possibilities were never encouraged? That free reign to dream—whether it is an American dream or some other dream—has always been the defining feature of the American educational system. That is the bhoot that continues to draw people in the thousands to that far-off continent.

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