On Wealth and Poverty

“Genius is only a superior power of seeing.” – John Ruskin

I was in a Sherpa home last night. It was a business meeting, but with people I already knew, so they invited me and my family in for dinner, because that’s how Sherpa culture works. Over seven amazing handmade courses, some pulled right out of their backyard garden, we discussed the business, but also talked about culture and home life. We talked about Nepal and I listened intently to their thoughts about the recent Indian blockade and political issues surrounding the little country. I can spend endless hours contemplating how different life is for a first generation American Nepali than it was for their parents. And I ask a lot of questions. So between them, “Is your sister in New York, too? Tell me the name of your home village again… I remember going through there. What is this dish called? What do you do for your other job?” I enjoy seeing how their perspective and experience affects their answers. How the things they see are different because of their heritage and culture. She reminded me that we had stayed in her sister’s lodge when we passed through her home village in 2013. Nunthala is off the tourist track, so it’s unusual that random American trekkers would pass through. I didn’t know her then, but I had met her brother who lives in New York, when he came to Seattle with one of my other Sherpa friends who lives in New York. Sherpa circles are tight and tangly. There is rarely a time when I meet a Sherpa and they don’t know most of the Sherpas I know. Sherpa names repeat frequently, so most people are described through family association or where they live, or what their occupation is. A sumptuous amount of time is spent describing friends, acquaintances, relatives, before talking about them. That way we’re all sure who we’re talking about. The only confusion tends to happen when I describe someone as a climber. That doesn’t narrow the Sherpa lot very much. I’ve gone into Sherpa names before. Calling someone by their given name doesn’t work, so we talk in personal descriptions instead. It’s lovely.

As we talked, my kids played basketball and skateboarded with their kids in the cul-de-sac down the street. Then their cousins arrived, followed by auntie Lhakpa, “My older sister, I am youngest of six. She just lives a few blocks away and they come down all the time.” Appetizers were served formally, each plated individually, but Lhakpa and her sister shared a plate, complete with sisterly bickering about “you eat that one, no, you, that’s enough,” in Nepali.

We talked about Nepal’s struggle to regain its footing after the blockade (which is widely believed to have been more detrimental to the country than the earthquake that killed nearly 10,000 people). “It’s such a poor country,” they said more than once. Nepal lists in the world’s poorest countries by GDP and by purchasing power pretty regularly. To make matters worse, it’s land-locked, dependent on the two largest economies and powers in Asia for enough food, fuel and medical supplies to feed and care for its people.

But I see beyond the financial poverty, privileged as that might be (financially). It might take a lot of looking and some experience in financially barren places to see this next part. I don’t see poverty first when I go to Nepal. I see a wealth there that we lack in our own culture. I see families that will move across the country to be closer to each other rather than farther away. I see the time they take every day to fill seven silver bowls on the altar of the family shrine, as an offering to the gods. “And we empty them before dark… or anytime after four.” I see shared meals as a regular happening, and a pile of kids playing in the street with no watchful eyes hawking them. I see a desire to give to each other, to community and to strangers without reservation.

The kids came in after a half hour and my oldest asked about some of the Tibetan Buddhist decor in the living room. We shared a second cup of tea and noticed the ornate symbols in Himalayan rugs over hardwood floors. There is an amazing luxury of time that happens during a Sherpa meal… the relaxed conversation, the enjoyment of the food, discussion over the preparation. I asked about the spices in each bowl of their spice box. He chopped chives, cilantro and mustard greens fresh from their yard. I only asked about them, and was instantly ushered out to the garden and offered some seeds from the mustard greens and cilantro they were growing (seeds originally from Nepal, of course) and a green vegetable that we don’t have here, from the chayote family. “Put it on good supports, let it grow big.” In the living room one of the girls played on piano, the notes spilling into the kitchen. “Is she taking lessons?” She’s teaching herself… unstructured music and art time happens regularly in this home. Values we have shunted, over-structured and commercialized so they are nearly sterile in our culture, are radiant here. We’ve managed, in our “wealthy” culture, to manipulate every bit of love out of our food, our creativity, our play time. And that’s the wealth I think about when I think of Nepal. If we could only see it when we consider wealth, perhaps countries we see as impoverished would be realized for their depth in wealth instead.

Nepali Food