Is it possible to stay indifferent to the American presidential elections? This is a question people all over the world have asked themselves over the past week. There was a meme making the rounds on Nepali social media for example that said: the only difference between the two candidates is that one won’t pronounce Nepal, Nipple. Now I understand it’s a meme and its very basic nature is to be a little offensive to drive laughter, but what got to me is when a prominent Nepali thinker was quoted paraphrasing the meme.
It was the third day into the elections and I was like almost every other person in America who was obsessively refreshing my phone looking for updates. The race was really close then and it looked like anything could happen. The map would go Red (Red is the Republican Party) and then get Blue washed again (Blue is the Democratic Party) It was like living in a Bollywood suspense thriller, anything could happen the next moment. The environment here was such that classes were being called off early, offices were being lenient about the workload and I was pulling my hair desperate for the results. And it was in the midst of this extreme anxiety nationwide, that this statement from this prominent person popped up on my Facebook. It read, “The only difference between #Trump and #Biden is that Biden knows where #Nepal is, and will not pronounce it “Nipple”.
The article does a better job of articulating what a Republican or Democratic win means for Nepal. So why am I making such a huge deal out of a mere Facebook post? The answer is because it is a huge deal. The pull quote on the article might have been a simple clickbait meant for people to laugh, but for people like us here, literally living in this political environment, it’s no joke – the impact and consequences are severe.
We could go into detail about how American politics and policies impact the world and Nepal. For example, the significant deduction of foreign aid or the massive “crackdown” on immigration laws but that’s for pundits and professors to tell. I can tell you how an average person’s life is impacted by who becomes the head of state. America is a country rife with racism and when the leader encourages that behaviour, or at least doesn’t discourage it, the everyday life of anybody who is not white becomes a struggle. We Nepalis’ here are brown people who have no identity beyond South Asians and have to struggle every day to prove our worth, at our jobs, in school, and sometimes at the grocery store as well.
I was at my neighborhood laundromat and minding my own business while my clothes were in the dryer. I had my headphones on so at first I didn’t understand what was going on. A middle-aged white woman was moving in circles around me, I looked up and smiled at her, I didn’t think she’d have anything to say to me, but she kept mumbling around me and so I took off my headphones and said hello. Her response to my hello was, “so you think you people can come here and take away all our jobs and money?” This is exactly what she said to me, I remember the incident clear as a cold shock ran through my body and I didn’t know what to say.
The shock was too much for me to bear, and my instinct was to ignore her so I put on my headphones again. But she wouldn’t let go, she started circling closer to me and was visibly getting more excited. She kept mumbling and all I could think was how I will save myself if she physically attacks me. But from some unknown corner of my being came a push and before I could realise what I was doing, I was asking her to back off. She kept saying, “go back to where you came from” and I had to warn her about calling the police for her to stop. I have never stepped foot in that laundromat again. It’s anybody’s guess who encouraged this narrative and behaviour.
I know of people who have faced much worse. Being denied job opportunities, being looted, being humiliated for their accent, bullied and beaten, and even killed. I could go on. I know a hundred stories but I think I made my point. So coming back to the original question: no, the pronunciation is not the only impact the president of America will have on Nepal and Nepalis. And it’s not asking for much when we demand those with an audience to think about the impact of their words, after all, their professional identity is built on the words they write.
As for me and the election results, we have Joe Biden as the President elect and Kamala Harris, as the Vice President elect and I couldn’t be more excited. Will the Biden and Kamala administration change everything? No, but have they lighted a small flicker of faith in the American dream with the first female and woman of colour as the VP? Yes, and will they at least discourage the everyday blatant racism? Definitely yes.