Cultural integration, racism in Nepal & the great white elephant syndrome

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ August 20th, 2013. Updated on March 26th, 2014. Published in: Travel blog » Nepal.
A Nepalese Elephant

A Nepalese Elephant is a little different to the meaning of “White Elephant”

Is social integration in Nepal possible for a foreigner?

Racism in Nepal –  does it exist?  Or is it a reality everywhere today? Could racism in Nepal really be all that different? Perhaps living here as a foreigner has taught me too much about really integrating with an open society over the long-term.

I’m desperately writing this before it’s too late. It’s my own fault as the title has been siting on my “to do” list for many months now.

I feared writing it when I discovered its factual base would be too raw and impassioned. So I let it sit on the back burner. The problem with the back burner is that the longer we leave things on it, the drier and more irrelevant things can become. Not always, but sometimes.

The world moves on and what’s in the past stays there and while not irrelevant today can still be claimed as irrelevant and no more than a passing phase of cultural evolution (or de-evolution).

Today I sit down and write about cultural integration in Nepal as a foreigner. Because tomorrow it will all change.

A historical snapshot of the people who live in Nepal today

To avoid a huge historical through the ages genome section I’ll just cover the major cultures that have settled in Nepal over the past 100 years. Bordered by Tibet (China) to the north along with India and Bangladesh to the south Nepal is a landlocked country.

Mosque in Kathmandu one of many religions welcome which could in turn define that racism in Nepal should be minimal

Nepal’s culture is welcoming of all religions – racism in Nepal from the outside is minimal

Mainly it’s been Hindu and Buddhism that’s played a huge role in Nepal throughout the ages as trade ties between the Indian Subcontinent ran through Nepal into East Asia.

In 1923 Britain and the British East India Company signed an agreement that meant Nepal would lose most of its territories. By the 1950’s along with India’s independence Nepal gained its independence.  Since then it’s teetered between a monarchy, communism and a parliamentary democracy. Throughout recent history Nepal has been, relatively, open to any and all religions, creeds and races.

So there you have it:

Nepal by recent historical virtue is a trading mix of both Hindu and Buddhist cultures while maintaining a peaceful, open and accepting stance of many others.

Remaining true to its own culture

India took on many aspects of the British Empire after independence. Nepal tried likewise, though due to political upheavals, economics, resources and territorial positioning found it a much steeper mountain to navigate.

Yes there has been violence and a bloody civil war in Nepal. But again, aside from a few antagonists, these have largely been politically or economically motivated.

The sheer beauty of Nepal was that both Hinduism and Buddhism worked together with relative peace right up until today. Add in a dash of Islam from the south, Christians from the time of the colonies, various tribal cultures and you have a society that seems pretty much open to many. From the outside it doesn’t seem that there could be racism in Nepal.

Live here for a while however and you’ll see something else. Religion plays only a small part in this diverse culture. Power games are afoot and whether you are a part of them or not it’s a reality you should note.

The reality of racism in Nepal today

Racism. Such a cruel word with a reality that never stops biting from all angles.

While many Nepalese will say their caste or ethnic background is often the subject of domestic racism. I find this common to many countries in my travels. Though the level of racism and the nature of its background varies widely. (do read about the caste culture of Nepal for more)

I’m also trying desperately to not draw comparisons to other colonial countries. But the inevitability is that there is some crossover. To identify with this one must first remove the notion of tourism. At least from a day-to-day perspective where it’s most evident. Tourism and racism in Nepal are different.

Nepal’s number one industry is tourism. We as “foreigners” are therefore seen as cash cows. But what of the foreigners that have elected to live and spend here rather than just visit and spend?

Whilst in the Philippines I wrote about social integration. This is the next step in what’s proving to be a rather unsettling development for a 21st solo migration such as mine. In the East at least.

Outside of aid workers and diplomats I’ve met quite a few of the dwindling foreigners still living and working in Nepal. Their tales of a life living in a developing country is not one of a paradise found. It’s one of frustration and of discrimination.

Digging deeper I was told by one man who lived here for several decades that he is often referred to as a “White Elephant”.

The White Elephants of Nepal

Traditionally the term “white elephant” is often used to describe a burdensome possession which its owner cannot dispose of and whose cost is out of proportion to its usefulness.

Elephant statue in Nepal

Were the “white elephants” in Nepal as powerful or influential as today’s Asian investors?

Interestingly this term came about from the monarchs of Thailand who kept real white elephants as a show of their wealth. While in Buddhism a white elephant is Sakka’s mount, a three-headed white elephant known as Airavata.

Taking both these meanings into account its relatively easy to see which mantle “white foreigner” comes under.



“We came here as traders of our time and this is the price we pay today”

So says one man who explained his own experience to me.

“I was the manager. The boss. No one liked the fact I was a foreigner managing the Nepalese in Nepal. I was hired to do a job because of my qualification and experience, not my hereditary standing.”

There’s bitterness, sadness and defeat in the air as he continues.

“There are no real friends when you are the foreign boss. Only enemies, everyday, for years. No olive branch is enough. Make a mistake and the world knows it. Fire someone and have several families come after you. It’s a miserable existence.”

It’s hard to find people willing to speak of the isolation they’ve succumbed to at the cost of being dubbed a “white elephant” in Nepal. One can see why. “No one is your friend. You either get over it or leave.”

Are there Asian (white) Elephants too?

I found all this silent talk of “white elephants” quite a hipocracy in Nepal. You see in 2007 when I first arrived the “western” tourist was still charging in. While the Asian investor was subtly working away in the silent background.

Today it seems the subtle approach no longer needs to be quite so silent. Today China bank can now send funds back to China rather than through Nepalese banks or literally by suitcases across the border.

Today I see first generation Korean immigrant investors buy Nepalese land through their second generation Nepalese sons.

As their sons are citizens the family can now hire managers from home, own local land, businesses and send the profits home. Local Nepalese workers are hired only for “grunt” force labor at minimum wage or below.

Meanwhile I look at a western foreigner who’s spent the last 10 years trying to get citizenship for his Nepalese born daughter … to no avail. His Nepalese wife owns their house outright as he is not allowed. He’s a house husband as no one will hire him anymore.

Somehow in this tiny country there’s been a great reversal of fortunes that closed a nations front door to the white elephants yet left the windows open for burglary from its neighbors.

The White Elephant’s last stand

When doing some work for a national newspaper I came across this changing Nepal. Everything was going well until one day I went from open communication to the typical Nepalese “next week” style. This went on for a number of weeks until I called the editor I’d originally worked with. We met for a coffee far away from offices.

Historic street in Kathmandu

Today Nepal’s colonial past is far in the distance, its national pride runs straight, but the old ways are being replaced by a new breed of colonialism …

I expected to hear a myriad of excuses to do with budget. Instead I found myself sitting opposite a man who had been educated overseas and now worked as a senior editor for a national publication. His face had an embarrassed, frustrated look about it.

I liked the man as he was far more open than most to “international” ideas for columns etc. Today though he looked more like a business man who had run out of options before finally revealing a confession.

“All the writing staff are now Nepalese,” he said with an unnatural head wobble. “It’s not policy. It’s just the way it is. This is a publication for Nepalese people, by Nepalese people.”

I’d heard a similar tune in The Philippines so snapped back a little. “You might want to stop re-publishing all those BBC articles then …”

There was a tension in the air I’d never felt between us. I think he felt the same way. I did the head waggle thing and shrugged off the whole thing as not being a problem. We shook hands as a show of no hard feelings and relaxed into a more social communique before departing.

Nepal’s bittersweet independence

It’s a complicated situation in Nepal. Indeed this whole subject is worthy of a book rather than 1500 words.

Today the “White Elephants” are becoming as rare as their mammalian counterparts. Today I keep hearing Nepalese people saying they don’t need foreigners anymore. They can do it themselves.

“They should just come and bring their dollars and then leave,” said one Nepalese business man I know. He is of course referring to tourist dollars.

Yet at the same time I see eastern foreigners buying up the rights to this country from all aspects.

Telecoms to the Russians. Land & electricity to the Chinese. Food & fuel imports to the Indians and local businesses to the Koreans.

The new world of economic colonialism

The fact of the matter is that there’s a new “white elephant” in Nepal that’s not “western”. Indeed there are already several herds of these new “white elephants” here.

Only this time they’ve not come here to be burdensome possessions. They’ve come here to possess the burden.

The price … Instead of whispered veils about the colonial “white elephant”. I see a look of panic, fear and guilt envelop the Nepalese people in the know.

I see a people who have dispatched one “problem,” but have bred a new problem into the foundation of a society that’s slowly becoming someone else’s possession.

In the process let’s hope that Nepal does not become someone else’s … great white elephant in return.

 This is an additional article about social integration in Nepal

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15 Great responses to Cultural integration, racism in Nepal & the great white elephant syndrome

  1. Claudia Ochsner says:

    Good and important article! Congratulation …. it needs guts to publish it. I can understand the frustration all too well.

    By myself living in South Africa I do agree. By us is it even worse because of the hatred and violence against Whites. This includes those who are living here since the very beginning and who has build the country as it is today.

    Tourism is a double-edged sword. One is certain for me, tourists are not longer coming when the racism becomes too visible. When chaos and crime takes over. We had a lot of discussion in my country of origin ( Switzerland ) about an incident with a climber ( Swiss ) and Sherpas ( Nepalese ). It will cost dearly. People don’t like to be looked at as cash cows. Same here with the Safari industry.

    What is frustrating me most that it is taken for granted that the “West” is looked at as guaranteed aid money giver for all times. Not that the “West” would expect thankfulness, but at least the “West” want to see progress. And not an overwhelming corruption. The British and Dutch East India companies has brought not only colonialisation, but a heck of developments as well. Every coin has two sides. And everything is coming with a price.

    Today other large global companies take over the role of the former conqueror from Europe. China is playing in the upper league. I can see it in Africa. Thousands of mine workers are now illegally mineworkers. They do not even give bad jobs to the natives anymore. Why ? Because they don’t like the way the Africans are working and living.

    Racism is a taboo in the Western World to talk about. But we have to ….. or all our nicely and not so nicely meant ideas of fighting poverty, avoid wars and so on will going down the river. Human mankind is separated by race. Like it or not. And every race has its own self concept and its own abilities. Respect would be the key and acceptance. But we are far away from it.

    By myself I decided to become a fast traveler again. Long enough on a place to understand this world, fast enough on another place to live in peace. And at least for min. 3 months per year on my own home soil. Until I have enough of the incredible naivety there as well.

    We only find our home in the within. We have to look for peace in the within. And we gain all the knowledge needed to survive into ourselves.

    “Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof.”
    Khalil Gibran

    Keep on going and keep on moving …. and thank you for your insights.

    Safe travels and be safe ….

    • Thanks for the insightful comment. Like you said every coin has two sides. There’s pluses and negatives for a lot of what is going on. And again, it’s plain to see China making huge gains around the world, Africa in particular, with fairly high human rights issues. Only the financial rewards China offers silences many in the short term. I wouldn’t surprise me to see China getting the blame for a lot of what they are doing now in 100 years. Too little too late.

  2. Malcom says:

    Another great article Dave, quite a read. If I’d be panning for a more I’d say this is a problem in many countries and not just Nepal. But this is probably the most I’ve ever seen on this little country. Congrats.

  3. Craig says:

    Really quite an eye opener here. I’ve traveled to many parts of the world. We have a hard, but fair immigration, system whereby people can live as citizens after a number of years. Own property and have a family. I don’t see this in many developing countries that we support with our tax money. Two tier pricing and inflated entrance prices are things I’m a little sick of. Let alone this you can’t be a citizen or own land here.

    I think we are on the cusp of a new age of development. One in which the countries we’ve been supporting turn their backs on us. It’s already happening I think. China is handing out billions for mining rights. Russia for gas. Then we in the west tie ourselves up in knots looking to “do the right thing” and then end up getting charged and treated like we are barely welcome. It’s time to look after our own first, or else do as China is and just whitewash everything over with short term money.

    • Valid points Craig. The “west” does tie itself up in knots it seems, while China etc power on without the same amount of regard. I’m not sure if this will even change. But as I wrote above history will probably see a rejection of China etc’s type of “influence” that’s ongoing today.

      • altai says:

        Again, absolutely misguided comments based on the Western mainstream media propaganda about China. If you just limit your self (for the reason of scope) to Africa and make a good research on this topic, you would see that much of the so-called Western governmental aid to Africa is nothing but a subsidy to Western corporations and a continuation of exploitative colonialist policy, which by the way never ended. China is just a young inexperienced student comparing to the West in this area. And make no mistake. The western corporations are still by far the major players in Africa. Just research, for example, the co-called Democratic Republic of Congo and what’s happening in those jungles rich with bauxite and all kinds of minerals. Who is looting those minerals in the lawless environment far from any governmental control protected by the highly trained mercenary armies armed with the latest weapons having helicopters and armored vehicles at their disposal? Are they Chinese? Are they black African? Sure those minerals often get shipped to China, but the companies who loot those resources and sell them, who terrorize the locals are all Euro-Australian-USA based corporations. And the mercenaries are as well Western. And if you think that Latin America or Asia are very different, do your research and you will be surprised to see that colonialism hasn’t gone anywhere, in fact it’s alive as never before.

  4. Karen says:

    Hi Dave, Some serious writing here. It’s why I really enjoy your blog it goes far beyond just travel to the point of raising interesting topics like this.

    I think what we are seeing is “western” politics influence day to day travelers much like politics influence are day to day lives back home. Governments support developing nations for many reasons. Developing nations have easy visa procedures and we avail of them. Then we are charged more once we arrive. It’s a circular thing. But it is very interesting to read about it hear as I’ve seen little written about this anywhere else. The subject is so Taboo. Yet in sub-Saharan Africa a black man calls a white man all kinds of derogatory terms. And indeed the same can be said back. But do that in the west and there are arrests made. I think Asia is in the halfway zone. Perhaps.

  5. PeterH says:

    I can empathize with the comments here, being white and having lived most of my life in Africa and Asia. The attitude towards whites in this corner of the world is that we owe them a living. In part this is due to post independence propaganda about how badly ‘we’ treated ‘them’. The truth is that ‘we’ didn’t do anything to ‘them’, as none of us had been born yet. But feelings of self righteous injustice provide an excellent cover to excuse unethical behavior towards fellow human beings that could never be tolerated in an open and fair society. Of course whilst dispossessed whites are being treated in such a fashion, the torch bearers of our post colonial world i.e. multinational companies, continue to reap rich rewards despite having been the real culprits in the mercantilist expansion from which colonialism was born. And yes, the irony is that whilst the West has adopted multiculturalism, its former colonies have set their doors to ‘exit’ only.

    • It’s one of those “rare” things this. Most people who have not lived in these parts of the world don’t see it. The average tourist certainly doesn’t. And if they do, they don’t want it to spoil their holiday. Meanwhile the world moves on …

      I’m not sure how that exit door scenario will work out in the end. There’s an “enter here” door in the west and no exit. Sooner or later somethings gonna give. It usually starts with economy.

  6. altai says:

    the inherent bigotry of this confused and misguided post in the otherwise interesting and thoughtful blog is only mitigated by the apparent sincerity of the author.

    Without going in too much details about the post itself, I can only say that as far as I understood you feel discriminated in Nepal due to your being white (anglo-saxon?) male expat. If you just expressed your personal feelings about this in clear terms and gave some evidence supporting it, I’d be OK. But you go on dragging Chinese and other Asian business (and Russian- aren’t Russians white Europeans as well?)into it, which is a totally different subject and reveals more your own cultural prejudices than the Nepali social reality.

    Are there not Western owned business in Nepal? Do Nepalis really resent the white Western expats but embrace their Asian counterparts? I certainly didn’t feel so. But I did notice (and I am surprised you never mention this in the post) the near universal negative feeling among Nepalis about their southern giant neighbour- India. And in most cases it’s not that they’d criticize Indian government’s policy towards Nepal, which would be a legitimate argument, but most comments I heard were directly against Indians as human beings (dirty, disgusting, sub-human, you name it) and what surprised me the most was that the people who despised Indians so much were mostly Nepali Hindus themselves, people who never had been to India, but who’d spend a lot of time watching Indian soap operas and who knew all about Bollywood latest gossips.

    As for being white in Nepal, overall, I think, being white middle aged male is probably the most advantageous identity to have in today’s world and in SE Asia in particular. And if you did indeed experience racism towards you in Nepal, I think you should take it as a blessing, as this unique experience would give you a chance to understand what millions of non white (and some white as well) immigrants experience on daily basis in Europe and the USA.

    • “bigot: someone who, as a result of their prejudices, treats other people with fear, distrust, hatred, contempt, or intolerance” – you might have misinterpreted the meaning of this word.

      You’ve made a lot of assumptions here, which is quite strange as you give an indication you’ve read the more on this site.

      Firstly this is not a “personal” post as such. I have written about racism in Nepal directed towards people known as “white elephants”. If I were to write about racism as a while in Nepal is would be worthy of a book in terms of trying to cover all aspects. That’s not what this article is about.

      I will not get into a tit for tat about Russia / China and Africa. A mere look at Algeria/ South Sudan / Nigeria / Zambia … well the list goes on. I will interject and say I did mention India in my article in lieu of food and fuel.

      I find the Nepalese as a whole have equal distain for China as they do for India. India is certainly more pronounced and has been for the past decade due to overland trade in physical day to day goods eg. fuel / food. Add in a dash of Hindu rights / linguistics and there’s plenty more for the average Nepali to talk about than Chinese “investment”. Get it? Good.

      As a small snippet of the average Nepalese dislike towards Chinese when they come in contact with them? Just take to the hills and ask who the most disliked tourist is? Yes, tourist. That’s the most common Chinese person the average Nepali comes across. Yes, as you wrote, India is up there too. But one must take into account the ease of understanding when it comes to disliking Indians in Nepal- Again, linguistics plays a big part. Turn the tables and Northern Indians what they think of the Nepalese and much of what you wrote cab be reversed. Dare I mention to you to read the statistics in child abuse and who the main offenders are when coming to Nepal? Anyway, that’s somewhat off topic.

      Again, this article is about uncovering the little known topic of white elephants in Nepal. It’s a term that many have not heard of. Little more do people often read about racism of any kind in Nepal. So here it is in all it’s un-pretty glory.

      Is this article just about me? Absolutely not, but in part I have of course been exposed to much of what’s going on in Nepal.

      This is an unpopular topic and one that raises the ire of many people. That’s not to say one should not write about what’s going on. Read more and understand what I really think of Nepal.

  7. Graham says:

    Nepal was never a colony of the British Empire.
    The British East India Company fought a war with Nepal in 1814-1816, which ended in a treaty.
    Which was when the Gurkha’s started to be recruited into the British army.
    Their was only ever 1 British resident stationed in Nepal.
    Their was no British colonial settlers in Nepal ever. Nepal was closed to all foreigners till the 1950s.
    The British Surveyor of India who calculated MT Everest to be the tallest mountain on earth did that from Darjeeling as they were not even allowed into Nepal.
    All mountaineering expeditions before 1950s had to have the permission of the government to enter Nepal.
    Nepal went to war with Tibet in 1855-56 with no involvement of the British Empire.
    Nepal has always retained its independence and governed its own foreign affairs.
    A Englishman and retired British Army officer in command of The Queens own Gurkha rifles in Hong Kong and Brunei.
    Any questions feel free to email me.