White Hippies and Cultural Appropriation
Photo by Senghak Lee
I sit in a rustic wooden house adorned with ornaments from South Asia in the middle of the wilderness in Bulgaria. It is a chilly night but inside, the atmosphere is warm. I sit in a circle with twelve new Bulgarian friends. Everyone has brought a vegan dish to this Friday night gathering. There is no wine or weed in sight. We all hold hands and OM for several long minutes before we eat.
I have decided to volunteer in the home of a young Bulgarian family for one month. The nearest road is kilometres away and we are surrounded by thick green forestry. The mother of the house spent five years travelling around the world, before deciding that she wanted to “settle down and have babies”. These were her exact words to me. She talks about Nepal like she encountered a talking Yeti there, and I am 90 per cent sure that my Nepali ethnicity is the only reason why they accepted me as a volunteer.
The father barely speaks and spends seven hours a day making digeridoos although he has never been to Australia. I wonder if he knows the deep cultural significance of the instrument. They have two cats who like to bring me dead mice as gifts and play with their prizes on my bed. They live with their friend who is an assistant to a shaman in Peru who does ayahuasca ceremonies. She parades around proclaiming words of healing and love, but I learn in time that she is actually a deeply insecure and mean woman.
The family has radical beliefs. They do not believe in vaccination and take the baby to the doctor in Sofia every month to fake his vaccinations. The mother had a home birth in a kiddie pool, which is illegal in Bulgaria, and then ate the placenta blended into a smoothie.
At least eight of my twelve new friends have been to Nepal multiple times. When I introduce myself as Nirvana from Nepal, their eyes widen and they sing to me, “Ohhhhh I love Nepal. Nirvana, we have been searching for you our entire lives.” I politely laugh, because I know this gives them pleasure.
After we eat, everyone takes an instrument and make beautiful music together while I sit and gawk. Usually in such a situation, I would be overcome with gratitude and peace for the present moment, but tonight I feel very lonely. If these people are my allies, why do I feel a thousand kilometres away from them?
Their obsession with Nepal annoys me. I find myself constantly comparing myself to them while muttering in my head. “I am the real Nepali. You can never have my origin story and roots no matter how many times you do Vipasanna and attend silent meditation retreats.”
I feel like they live in the clouds, so far removed from reality. Yes, what they say is inspiring: “To become the bridge between the earth and the sky, to open your third eye, to be a constantly flowing stream of love,” but these things aren’t easy to do. They aren’t tangible. It pisses me off when the solution to all of life’s very real problems is to, “Accept every experience, even difficult and traumatising ones with open arms and gratitude.” You would not be preaching this if you weren’t white, living in the safety of Europe, in a serene forest with no need to work and plenty of nutritious food to eat.
My initial annoyance is that these white people go and spend three months in Nepal, do yoga in the mountains and read Shantaram and become touched by Buddha himself. They’re transformed, their third eye is finally open, and their heart chakra is perfectly aligned with their butt chakra.
Does spending three months in Nepal give you permission to name your child Ram, lead OM circles and stick photos of Hindu goddesses all around your house?
I’m not convinced.
I find myself questioning whether their behaviour is considered cultural appropriation because they are not using Buddhism, Hinduism and Nepalese identity as accessories. They are integrating these philosophies and practices into their lives. They make a real effort to educate themselves about what the practices mean, their history and consequences. If a trip to Nepal takes people on a deep spiritual journey, half of which I think is just the psychological build-up of the exoticism of going to Nepal, makes them kinder, more aware and loving, then who am I, as an individual Nepali to criticise that?
I obtain some marijuana later and smoke it quickly to replicate the hippies’ practice of inhaling illusions that could disappear at any second. I have an epiphany as to why white Nepal-loving hippies irritate me so much. I resent them because I am jealous that their knowledge of my culture is greater than my own. Their existence makes me feel guilty that I don’t know more about my own culture, that they have been able to learn and immerse in the spirituality of my culture and religion to better themselves as people, and I have not been able to do this as extensively.
White hippies have the luxury to take just the best aspects of my culture and religion and leave all the dirty facets of being from one of the poorest countries in the world out of their consciousness. Being Nepali for me means a daily struggle against patriarchy, choking pollution and garbage in Kathmandu, and against repressive traditions that criticise me harshly for being myself. You can go to Nepal, hang out with yogis, practice free love, be “a gypsy” with no direction and find freedom, as well as the reverence of all your friends because now you are enlightened as fuck. When I do the same, society judges me severely. I am a disappointment to my parents, the black sheep of my family. Where did she go wrong? Her parents gave her everything.
That is the difference between you – white hippies from Europe – and I, brown hippie from Nepal. Our journeys might look exactly the same, but it is much more challenging for me to live the nomadic, liberal life than it is for you. You might know fifty Sanskrit words for yoga and how to make Ayurvedic medicines, things I don’t know and want to learn. But your relationship with Nepal is an intentional choice you made out of passion and interest. My relationship with Nepal began the day I was born and is highly complex.
You have the privilege of only seeing the beautiful culture and engaging with the ancient spiritual teachings of Nepal. I have to deal first with more pressing challenges of my cultural identity: to constantly ward off the pressure of arranged marriage; to feel the emotional displacement of migration; to justify that it is a valid life choice to travel the world for two years at 26 instead of getting a Master’s Degree; to carry the guilt of leaving my homeland which needs more innovative young people to be there doing the hard work for progression, opposing casual racism and cultural fetishisation.
Once I have dealt with all of this, maybe I too can have the luxury of feeling nothing but unconditional love for everything Nepal has to offer.