What I have learned about the Deaf community in Nepal

This is one of the posts that I actually don’t feel good writing about, unlike other personal enlightening posts I’ve written about meeting the Deaf community, like Indonesia. Because the truth is: things didn’t go well with the Deaf community. However, it is unrealistic to expect that things always went smoothly when meeting Deaf community around the world. Instead of only writing the positive sides of meeting the Deaf community, I want to share the truth of what really happened between us.

phewa lake nepal
looking at the scenary of Phewa Lake

When I was "guided."

At the time, I was traveling with my partner and my friend who are both Deaf travelers as well. We went to Chitwan because we wanted to see Chitwan National Park to see the wild rhinos (which we eventually decided not to go because of their unethical tourism). They caught a dark-skinned young male staring at us from across the street. He was standing in the doorway of a crafted store that emphasized a huge text of “supporting Deaf, Blind and other disabilities!” 

“Are you Deaf?” he signed with no trace of facial emotions. We all nodded and signed that we are all Deaf. He greeted us in the crafted store and gave us a small tour. We were unable to have a deep conversation because we were only communicating in gestures. He doesn’t know American Sign Language or International sign, nor did I expect him to know. I always find it fascinating to communicate through gestures though, because we are still able to understand each other. I was still able to learn what his life is like in Nepal.

Katmandu nepal
a child was chasing the birds in Kathmandu, Nepal

The next day, he spotted us again walking along the same street where we bumped into him the day before. “Where are you going?” he gestured. I turned my phone screen toward him and pointed the bus station nearby on Google Map. Then I pointed at the next destination, gesturing that we need to go there to purchase the bus tickets to leave the next morning. He nodded quietly and still have that poker face.

Generally, the facial expression is really important to the Deaf community around the world. I’ve been used to many animated expressions from various of Deaf communities, but he was different (I later came to learn that it is part of Nepali culture).

Although he had a very expressionless face, his eyes changed. I just could see something different in his eyes, like he was showing the eagerness. He held up his arms, slowly intertwining his fingers. At that moment, my instinct told me something: he may ask us for money later. I shook away that thought, how judgmental of me. I ignored my instinct and took it as being biased instead. I gestured if he wanted to tag along with us to talk with us. He nodded expressionlessly.

After doing the business at the bus station and started walking back, that was where shit went down. He gestured, “now, I have guided you there. You can give me money.” I knew it. He asked us for $100 USD (I wasn’t trippin’ when he asked for that). I looked away and took a deep breath. I knew there was something about his eyes. I knew that he would look at us like a walking dollar sign. And I am going to be honest with you: I was such a coward. I’m not quite a blunt person either.

I couldn’t face him, and I avoided him by talking it out with my partner and friend. At that moment, everything became so awkward as he walked along silently. I couldn’t just look at him in the eyes. It wasn’t because I was upset or annoyed at what he asked or how he perceived us. It was because I was battling my own morality. I’m too empathic.

Although there’s nothing wrong with it, it is the mentality that I have: wanting to save the world. When I see situations like this, I always try my best to help or have the need to try to save people – when in fact, it doesn’t always work that way. My father’s voice ranged in my head: “Mija, you can’t always save the world.” Because of his life in Nepal, I don’t blame him for seeing me, or my friends, that way. That was just one of the ways for him to survive. Yet, I also don’t want to give the notion that every Deaf foreigner he sees are rich, and the notion that it is expected that every Deaf foreigner will give him money by taking advantage of them.

It became so awkward as we all walked back to the town of Chitwan. One of my friends kindly told him that we were never guided and we had a map to follow; this young man didn’t argue and nodded, although I’m not sure if he was aware of what his action meant. We waved goodbye awkwardly. I couldn’t help but to reflect on what happened and how could I’ve approached this situation better instead of avoiding it.

deaf travelers
no matter where in the world, I'll always tease you (back).

When they said that I will donate...without my consent

I was going to visit the Deaf school but it turned out that the Deaf students were on vacation due to a new year (since their calendar is different, and the new year is in April). Instead, we were referred to a Deaf association nearby. We met with the president of the Deaf association and his assistance, “Jay,” who knows International sign language to communicate with us. Thanks to Jay, I learned that they only have one interpreter for their association and they practically begged the interpreter not to leave her job. The interpreter once thought of leaving the job because she didn’t get paid so well. Although she understood that It was hard for them to find an interpreter who is willing to work for a small pay and help the Deaf community.

Jay later requested my friends and I if we could do a cultural exchange with Deaf Nepalis and give a presentation to share about the Deaf community in the USA. Without hesitation, I told them that it would be a great idea.

For the presentation, I’ve shared the struggles that Deaf Americans still face to this day, such as lack of job opportunity, relying on insufficient welfare, etc. I also pointed out that although we have our struggles, it is not exactly equivalent to what Nepali are struggling with today. While we are still making progress, Deaf Nepali community continue to suffer due to their economy and cultural perceptions of the differently abled community.

deaf nepal

After we finished the presentation, one of the staff at the Deaf association give us this certification that was written in Nepali. He asked us to hold up the certification, and people began taking photos of us. I caught this older Nepali man saying that we have agreed to donate money for the Deaf sports program.

“They are from America...they can give us money for Deaf sports program!”

Wait, what? I tried to compose myself. When did I ever say I will do that? To think that I have already given a presentation about the financial struggles that Deaf people face in the USA, I thought they would at least understand that we are not rich (although in a better state comparing to them). Was that presentation for nothing then?

I honestly didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t want to stop this Nepali man from talking to the audience. I smiled stupidly, thinking that I probably missed something.

After leaving the association, Jay contacted my friend and stated that we need to donate $100 USD each. He later have been sending more messages and asked for money again.

We eventually bumped him at one of the restaurants, and it was painfully awkward. We attempted to talk to him about our thoughts about donation, but he was videocalling his colleague. We left and never saw Jay and the Deaf community in Nepal again. I wanted to meet more Deaf people in other cities. I know are some Deaf Nepalese out there that we can build a relationship with. However, I was only visited for two days before leaving back to India.

I personally found their approach really unprofessional (although it is not their fault). If I want to donate money to the association, I’d rather build a relationship with the first and learn what’s their mission and philosophy. I also want to ensure that the money will be used something that would benefit the community, so we also needed to build trust. And in my opinion, education is much more important and needed than a sports program for the Deaf. Education is a human rights, rights that were unfortunately stripped away from many Deaf Nepalis. I believe education is the key to become stronger together and make a difference.

A Hearing* Nepali, who I befriended with at Madani Home Stay in Pokhara, I talked to him about what happened. He emphasized to never donate money. “You don’t know where the money really goes to,” he said. “Instead of giving them money to the Deaf associations or schools, give something that they really need, like books or backpacks” or training program for interpreters and teachers, I thought.

Katmandu nepal prayer flags
loving the prayer flags in Nepal

What I have recognized and learned about myself and the community

Although I didn’t like the situations and how unfortunate that we weren’t able to build a relationship, I know that I am privileged. I have the capability to travel, own a camera, living under a comfortable roof and I have better accessibility in the USA.

The Deaf community in Nepal is dealing far off worse than what we are currently dealing in the USA. In Nepali culture, I came to learn that some Hearing Nepalese see Deaf people (or other people who are differently abled*) were born or became disabled as a punishment for sins in their previous lives. I once asked one of the Deaf Nepalese if they were ever treated badly. He slowly shrugged and shook his head. I wondered if it is because they are accustomed to it that they don’t see it?

Sometimes I was even ignored by few Hearing Nepalese when I attempted to ask them for directions. It was far more shocking to see that in person than reading stories about it. But then I thought to myself, I only have that experiences a few times, whereas some Deaf Nepalis have that experiences for their entire lives. Deaf people are treated as unequal and many do not even receive an education. If they receive an education, it is often limited.

I also learned that in a situation where I feel ashamed of myself or questioning my own morality, I wouldn’t look at them in the eyes. It is as if they would nonverbally tell me how inhumane I am if I look at them. I have so much empathy and really advocate for human rights. I have to think how can I handle this situation better next time because it will certainly happen again and again. Do I think too much of it? Am I really inhumane? Or I just really need to have you slap some sense into me and tell me that it is okay and that I just cannot save the world?

It is really disheartening what is happening to Deaf Nepali community, and I know it is not only how uneducated many people are about Deaf culture but it is the economy that they’re struggling with. Needless to say, I don’t blame them for pushing my friends and I donate money, nor do I blame them for looking at us like a walking dollar sign. I don’t hate them for asking us for money or how they treated us. I’m sure they are wonderful people but just feeling desperate that just completely caused us not to build a relationship. One day, I actually do hope meet them again, because Nepal is certainly one of my favorite countries I’ve visited because of its beautiful culture and the hospitality that many Nepali have shown me.

nepal deaf community

have you faced a similar situation while traveling?

how did you handle it? What one thing that you would change or wish to do when facing certain situations like this? Share your thoughts/feelings in the comment below! 

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I am so sorry you had to encounter all the people wanting money from you. It’s unfortunate that they see you as “walking dollar signs.” It is what it is. I tend to not go around that kind of mindset. I am deaf. Just sad. Thank you for letting me “tag along” on your journey.

  2. I am so sorry that you guys had to go through what you described your experience with the deaf community in Nepal. I am a deaf Nepali myself living in America and do know how you feel especially as a foreigner. My wife, who’s also a deaf Nepali, and I have always wanted to support and help out the deaf community there and improve it but it’s very difficult to get their respect and build our trust with them, so instead we have to do that through our close deaf friends in Nepal who can explain educational reasons/purposes in our place. Many disabled people especially outside of the capital of Nepal, Kathmandu don’t have access to education as they work as villagers and don’t get paid very well to support their families. In addition to your statements regarding the emotionless feelings, Nepal is one of many countries that don’t show any emotions as it’s part of the culture so the deaf community there is inclined to get that sensation also. If you ever want to visit there again, please reach out to me and I will be more than happy to help and provide tips/suggestions! I know your partner, Jason, so he can contact me directly with any questions you guys may have! I know many people who can give you great tours. 😁😁 Again, so sorry that you guys had to go through this!

  3. Thank you for taking time to visit Nepal and sharing with us about the disappointing situation you guys were in. These fact that what you wrote is right because It must spread your words on your tour to Nepal to others who may like to visit Nepal. In other word, I found it embarrassing while I was reading what Deaf people in Pokhara did to you guys in the unaware ways because I am Nepalese and I often thought that you guys would be tempted by things and people you would find in Pokhara unlike other place.By the way, I would like to apologise to you guys on behalf of Deaf Nepalese people whom you met with for things you didn’t feel good when you guys were in Pokhara.It would have been better and different from what you got experiences from Pokhara if You had directly gone to Kathmandu Because You could find a few DEAF people who are so educated and well aware of the ways tourists are treated. We are disappointed that you guys hadn’t time to visit Kathmandu because we have often had dreams of meeting you guys in person
    Thank you guys for patience

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