A fake Nepali for two months.

No one could tell I was a foreigner. I simply blended in the environment and had what someone may call “an authentic experience in Nepal.” It is really hard to decide what an authentic Nepali experience would look like. Nepalis are so diverse on so many levels: Ethnically, religiously, racially and even linguistically. A country as big as my country, yet the notion of space is so different. It would be best to say that I did not have the typical tourist experience, looking a bit South Asian myself, thanks to my mom’s ancestors who are said to have come to Tunisia from Persia.

Growing up in Tunisia, a country of eleven million people, I thought that we had little space comparing to other countries like the United States. But there I was, exploring the impressive space management in Kathmandu, a city accommodating 1.5 million people in 19.09 mi² of land. I was based in Lalitpur which was 20 minutes south of Kathmandu. My apartment was not far from The Record, the independent online publication I was working for. My supervisors Supriya and Gyanu were Nepali who previously studied in the United States and decided to go back to Nepal and have an impact in their home country. In so many ways, they were both role models for me. I myself hope one day to go back to my homeland and contribute to building our country after all those decades of dictatorship. My role was simple, I helped improve the publication’s website by collaborating with the tech company who was in charge of building the website. I personally enjoyed my tasks, as I was learning so much about web development, a domain I was not familiar with.

Goodbye dinner with colleagues

When I first got to Nepal, I decided to build a routine that would help me have good physical and mental health. So, I enrolled in a gym nearby and in a drawing class! As a painter who has always encouraged me to give drawing a chance, my mom was so happy about my new hobby. “You are finally giving it a try, doesn’t it feel awesome when you recreate something!” My first month was focused on settling in and creating a healthy routine. In the process, I met so many inspiring people and made friends who taught me some Nepali and showed me how to use public transportation and pass for a local. I felt so honored to be treated like a Nepali and be thought of as part of the community. With the little Nepali I learned, I was able to convince the taxi drivers to use the meter instead of charging me tourist fees.

My very first portrait

The program in which I was enrolled, called 85 degrees east, provided a lot of guidance and made me feel at home. I met with Eve, the program manager, every weekend to discuss some readings about Nepal’s history and politics. Our conversations were so insightful and thoughtful. It was a sort of a seminar where we debated different notions and questioned the touristic experience in Nepal.

I also had the chance to go on a mountain flight with Anisha, my friend, and a current Davidson student, and get so close to Everest! Something, I have never ever dreamt of.

In the second month, my cousin visited me from France, and we both started a more touristy experience. We went to Chitwan, a city around 8 hours’ drive away from Kathmandu, where we walked in the jungle for hours, went canoeing, and met beautiful elephants, rhinos, and deer. We also visited my new friend Aunty Hira in Pokhara, a city that is around 9 hours’ drive away from the capital. There we visited a little island in the local lake, we also went paragliding: a breathtaking experience!

Saying goodbye to Nepal was so hard. My neighbors overwhelmed me with their hugs, Deepika the pharmacist downstairs visited me and offered me such beautiful souvenirs. Manju, the brilliant chef who cooked so many delicious Nepali dishes for me, helped discover Bhaktapur and embraced me with her love!




Being an Asian American in Southeast Asia

Lort Cha

Lort Cha — from the street

I’ve decided to dedicate a place on my blog where I write out my thoughts on living in Southeast Asia as an Asian American. One of the reasons I was drawn to the Davidson in East Asia Program was the chance to “go back” to Asia. If you don’t count the first year of my life, these two months in Cambodia will be the first time I’ll be in a country where I physically resemble the majority of the people around me.

Being a part of a transracial adoptee family makes me question my Asian identity a lot. After a month living in Cambodia, my identity crisis has only gotten more complicated. The majority of Cambodians I’ve met are super friendly and chatty. They love to strike up conversations with expats and most of the times they lead with the question, “Where are you from?” While Asians are perceived as the forever foreigner in the US, it didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t be seen as an American tourist here in Cambodia. This was how my first conversation with a waiter went:

– “So where are you from?”
-“I’m from United States.”
-“Really? … But your face is Asian.”
-“Well I live and grew up in the United States.”
-“You look Asian though.”
– “Yes, I am Chinese but I’m from the United States”
-“Oh so your parents are Chinese.”
-“Um, not really. It’s kind of confusing. My parents are also from the United States, but I’m adopted from China.”

At that point I realized the waiter didn’t understand the word “adopted” in English.

The conversation was harmless, but going through variations of this with nearly every Cambodian I talk to has left me get tired of trying to explain where I’m from I why I look the way I do.

One time, I made the mistake of answering with, “I am Chinese and live in America.” The people who asked me where I was from then tried to start a conversation with me in Mandarin, and I had to backtrack and explain I didn’t actually speak Chinese and had no idea what they were saying.

I’ve also had my first experiences with light-skin Asian bias. Usually when I’m complimented on my skin tone, it’s because people are impressed by my tan. For a Chinese person, I’ve been told I have darker skin. In Cambodia, however, I have received multiple compliments on my light skin color. When talking about my skin tone, a few people have asked if I’m half Cambodian and half white.

While many of these conversations have left me a bit uncomfortable, being an Asian American traveler in Southeast Asia has also be amusing. For one, I’ve found that the majority of white, western tourists tend to assume I am Cambodia. I try my best to speak Khmer when I’m ordering food. So when I start some small talk with the other tourists around me, they seem surprised with how well I speak English. It is definitely a bit of a microaggression on their part, but honestly I enjoy watching the impressed looks they get on their faces when I talk to them in “really good English.”

Originally posted on hannaharonson.com

Liberty Asia

Cambodian showing silk process.

Silk Island, a short tuk tuk and ferry ride away from the center of the city,

I’m excited by the work I’ve been doing for Liberty Asia. My internship has been a useful introduction to the anti-trafficking sector and is a good balance of my data science and social science backgrounds. Most the projects I am working on are on the data-side of the Victim Case Management System, but with the ultimate goal of helping NGO partners.

Currently, the Victim Case Management System is the largest data set in Asia. While the VCMS offers support to frontline NGOs in their work caring for victims of trafficking and exploitation, there are also challenges in the current data collection culture. More than just entering case information into the system, we want our partners to engage with their data and be involved in conversations of data collection. Next week I will visiting one of our local partners, Legal Support for Women and Children, to help with training.

Original post from hannaharonson.com

First days in Phnom Penh

I’ve spent the past couple of days exploring Phnom Penh and getting a feel for the city. Last night I enjoyed a mango smoothie (it’s almost the end of mango season here, so I’m trying to take advantage of any and all mango opportunities I have left) and wandered around the northern part of PP. While I have gotten lost on multiple occasions, this method of sight-seeing led me to a Buddhist temple (Wat Langka) and Independence Monument.

On my first day, I decided to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the largest torture and detention center–known as Security Prison (S-21)–under the Khmer Rouge. The museum is breathtaking and documents both the horrors and the resilience of Cambodia. What tied up the whole experience was meeting Bou Meng, one of the only seven survivors of S-21. Meng lived due to his skills as an artist: The guards thought Meng’s portraits of Pol Pot made him look handsome, Hannah Aronson in Cambodiaso they kept Meng alive to paint for them. According to prison records, Meng’s wife was tortured at S-21 and killed. Now in his late 70s, Bou Meng dedicates his life to sharing his story.

It is now my third day in Phnom Penh and I am already starting to grow accustomed to the city’s pace. I learned early on that this is not the most walkable city–the tuk tuk and moto drivers are fearless, zipping by and beeping at you from only a few inches away. Here is a video clip of my tuk tuk ride to work.

Yesterday was my first visit to the office, and apparently last. The lease on the office is up and we’ve decided to mooch off of the free wifi in local coffee shops. On Monday, I will be visiting one of Liberty Asia’s partners to help with training on the Victim Case Management System (VCMS), and this weekend I hope to tour Choeung Ek, the site of the Killing Fields. I look forward to my upcoming adventures!

Originally posted on hannaharonson.com

Putting My Studies to the Test

Going to Korea has been a dream of mine since I was in middle school. My imagination would run wild, and I’d think about all the different ways I could make that dream come true. I could teach English there. I could be a diplomat. But, when all was said and done, I had never imagined that I would take the trip to Korea to work on an organic blueberry farm.

After years of reading and watching videos about Korean culture, I was finally able to get a first hand look at it. While there are still countless things to learn, some things stood out to me:

1.  Hand gestures- There are two main gestures that I had read about but was unsure of how prevalent they are in Korean culture. The first was how people call each other over. In America, you may just wave your hand in your direction in order to tell someone to come to you. But, in Korea, you do the same thing, but with your palm facing down. Like many Korean gestures, it is a matter of respect. Second, when people hand over money to pay for something (or to return change), the money is held in one hand with the arm stretched out. The other hand is used to support the elbow. I started doing this one subconsciously too.

2. The House- Perhaps my biggest regret about the trip is that I should have brought a pair of sandals. I knew I would have to take my shoes off before entering the house which for the most part was not a big deal. But, when I had to carry in groceries, I would put on my muddy boots to walk to and from the car but would have to sit down and take them off each trip I made. That’s not the easiest to do with hands full of bags.

Also with the house– I noticed the absence of three familiar components in an American home: a dryer, an oven, and a shower/bathtub. I saw this trend in a few places around Korea. For example, I stayed in some hostels and visited some houses. And most of the time, these things were not to be found. It didn’t really surprise me, but it took a little getting used to. I mean, technically there was a shower; it just wasn’t not an enclosed part of the bathroom like I was familiar with. Instead, the whole bathroom is the shower, so you can clean the walls and bathe at the same time! This would always require you to strategically place your clothes, so they don’t accidentally get soaked by a rogue handheld shower.

Oh yah, and hot water was hard to come by.