Skip to main content

From the Cascades to the Himalayas: Asian Studies Development Grant recipient reflects on Nepal

February 25, 2019

Anita Harker is a sociologist at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Washington. Harker received an Asian Studies Development Grant from the Jackson School to develop and teach a new course on Nepal. She traveled to Nepal in 2018 to gain a fresh perspective on the country as she prepared the new course; below are her reflections. 


It had been fifteen years since I had been to Nepal, and under pretty different circumstances. My partner and I spent our honeymoon trekking the Annapurna Circuit, and volunteering in a small village school. After receiving a UW Asian Studies Development Grant to help prepare me to teach a new course at my home institution Whatcom Community College (see syllabus here), I was thrilled to have the opportunity to go back.

It is difficult to summarize this experience of traveling to Nepal and teaching this new course into a single blog post. I will do my best to offer a few highlights.

  • Visiting with women who sew reusable menstrual hygiene kits. Hearing their personal stories of how they experienced menstruation. Learning about what they want for their girls. Witnessing them as they are earning a living (many of them widowed or otherwise vulnerable economically). They are combating deeply entrenched stigma and shame through accurate reproductive health education, enabling girls and women to participate in everyday activities that we take for granted, and contributing to a sustainable practice. Founder of Days for Girls International, Celeste Mergens came to speak to my students in the fall, and we invited the campus and community. Many who attended had no idea that this amazing organization is headquartered a few miles down the road in Bellingham. Several connections were made that day, I look forward to continuing our partnership.

  • A very long and bumpy but worthwhile drive to the hilltop of Mankhu in the Dhading District to visit with the founders of Her Farm, Sunita and Scott. They are creating new norms. Encouraging young women. Sending them to drive around the village, just to be seen in that capacity. Teaching them how to make films. Helping them to share their stories through a local radio station. Their vision is inspiring.
  • Dust. So much dust! Monkeys. Wires. And beauty.

  • Visiting the Nepal Orphans Home. Meeting Michael. Being able to share a documentary about his life’s work with my students.
  • When the crowd joined in to sing Resham Firiri.
  • Watching the women compile their photographic journals at the Chelsea Education Center. Seeing their delight at the pens that they got to keep. Hearing their stories of what education means to them. Catching a glimpse of their daily lives. Being taught to stop saying dhan’yabād (thank you) so much!

  • Finishing this book while seeing it come alive as I visited Chitwan to explore Tharu culture. Being thrilled when Elizabeth accepted my invitation to come speak with my class during our discussion of her book. Watching my students gather around to have her sign their copy.
  • Sitting on the floor of the living room of my enthusiastic and kind translator and guide, Nishchal, eating dhal bhat that his wife had prepared. Peeking in on his daughter as she rigged a system to rock her baby brother while enjoying some screen time. Awkwardly trying to keep up with the mountains of rice being offered.
  • Interviewing Lucky Chhetri, one of the three sisters who have redefined the trekking business, teaching women that they too can be guides. Their business and nonprofit have become institutions in Pokhara.
  • Having the opportunity to invite as a guest speaker my 84 year old grandma Elsie James who has lived and worked in Nepal for a good part of the last twenty years. Listening to her stories about helping with the International Porters Protection Group. Watching my students grapple with the ethics of climbing Everest.
  • Sharing a meal of dhal bhat together on the last day of class. Watching my students present their final projects. Feeling full.
  • Waiting while chai was made especially for me, over a fire in a modest village home. Being sent off with a tika and twenty rupees to bless me on my way. Feeling overwhelmed by generosity.

Some final thoughts. A good chunk of my time was spent in and around the capital of Kathmandu. For a little taste of what that city feels like to drive in, see here. Note that this view is from my perspective, in a taxi, where I have plenty of space to myself. The stratification represented by modes of transportation here is striking. Western symbols and vehicles explicitly designated to be “Tourist Only” are everywhere. In contrast, locals overflow from buses, often taking precarious seats on top, or find themselves as one of twenty-plus passengers squeezed into a Toyota van.

Seeing the traffic reminded me of that first trip to Nepal years ago. While en route to Pokhara I complained of being car sick, unable to handle the quick turns around mountain highways. During that trip my grandma shared a story of how she took a Nepali friend on a road trip to see the mountains of Banff while visiting Canada. As soon as they got up to speed on the highway, they had to pull over because he was car sick! He had never driven that fast on that smooth of a road. That story has stuck with me over the years, and I have often reflected on how assumptions about shared experiences (like being car sick) can be defined very differently on the ground. To me, this is the draw and connection between both travel and my home discipline of sociology –  allowing us to question things that can seem so natural and universal, but are in fact, much more complex. And of course, the flip side is also true.

One of my goals with teaching this course has been to help students see the world through this lens. Allowing them to start by identifying differences (the easy part), but encouraging them to look deeper into context, history, and structure, for universal aspects of the human experience, albeit nuanced universals. It’s a tall order I realize, but it’s been incredibly rewarding to have the space and time to think about, using Nepal as a focal point.

And if you’ve made it this far, dhan’yabād for reading.