I was born in a small village full of indigenous Tharu people in Nepal in the year the Nepali Civil War began, 1996. Even though my parents were low-income immigrants from the hilly region, because of existing precedence, we belonged to the upper social strata. Contrary to my parents’ lives, I grew up having enough food and clothes and playing with indigenous friends. As a kid, I always heard subtle comments made about me and my family from Tharus about my social class oppressing them. It was also a time when the Maoist uprising was gaining momentum in rural villages in Nepal. I now understand their anger and envy towards the dominant social class who has politically suppressed them for centuries. The class conflict was very apparent and omnipresent but living in our upper-class comfort, for me, it was not always noticeable.
During the peak of civil war, for safety, we moved to a town called Tikapur. I was sent to an English medium school and studied there up to 10th grade. When I moved to Kathmandu to finish my high school and Idaho for my college, I experienced sudden shocks in my social status. In Kathmandu, my monthly expense for housing was equivalent to my classmates’ weekly pocket money. My accent and birth region were my identity. A constant struggle to fit in with other Nepalis was a daily challenge. This struggle intensified when I started attending the University of Idaho, where my identity suddenly shifted from being a “normal” person to being a non-white immigrant. The feeling of not being in the majority group, both socially and economically, forced me to reconstruct my identity. I also suddenly became poor in Idaho, because relative wealth was not enough to keep me wealthy in the US. All my experiences pushed me to be curious about human behavior and societal structures, and hence, I studied economics.
Trained in the neo-classical economics tradition but observing highly unequal societal structures made me rethink my neo-classical economics education. I happen to live in a time when economics is going through a crisis, and empirical evidence is asking us to reconstruct our theories. My education at different departments and interactions with faculty and peers as well as my involvement with Center for Community Engagement to advance Scholarship and Learning (CCESL) has made me recognize the limit of one perspective to understand the world. All of this challenged me to critically analyze conventional understandings and offered new lenses through which we can view the world that we ourselves constructed.
I may not be able to fully understand what it is like not to have privilege, but I have had my share. To be honest, I am living on the other side for a while – not being privileged. My choice to study economics was, partially, also a privilege. I have seen people of my age (in Nepal) go to the Middle East to work as modern slaves. A few of my cousins do. If they had a chance to study, they would likely be in Nepal and not in the Middle East.
Soon after I began studying economics, I discovered that it is a field largely designed by privileged people for privileged people. Many theories I learned came from the minds of people who were not struggling to pay rent. I gained an education that works very well for only a handful of people. The theories came out of economists’ minds while sitting in a comfortable chair at their home or office, enjoying their extra time to “think.” These theories also have sprung from a supposed unobjectionable truth: Mathematics. However, it never occurred to them to acknowledge that math, in itself, is a human construction. It is time to discard these unamenable theories and reconstruct economics in a way that works for everyone. To do that, we need to rethink society’s insatiable capitalist demand for continuous motion just to keep alive our economies and small communities.
It has been an absolute journey with new challenges and experiences which have continuously molded me and my understandings. My experiences within different communities, from my little village to Denver, have given me a richer understanding of the complexities of society. Growing up in a region of conflict made me understand the frustration, anger, and pleas of oppressed people. The withholding of power by dominant groups made me understand why the powerful do not let go of their power and, as a consequence, why revolutions erupt. Today my comfort and ability to write this essay comes at the expense of hundreds of other low-income Nepali friends who did not get chance to go to school. Thus, now it is in the hands of individuals like me, who walk on a thin line which can easily tilt either towards morality or selfishness, to fight to change these embedded power structures. One simple, yet tough, choice can define our future societal structure. The evolution of my educational and life experiences has shown me new critical dimensions through which to observe our world – and these ideas flourish in an environment like CCESL. I beg people around me to be humble, respectful, good listeners, challengers of conventional wisdom, readers of authors from different cultures, and also to respect and acknowledge the experiences anyone has because it makes us who we are.
Suraj Thapa is a first-year MA student in GFTEI program at Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He is originally from Nepal. Suraj is working with Dr. Kimberly Bender and her team to analyze quantitative and qualitative data previously collected from young people experiencing homelessness about barriers and facilitators to housing. They plan to start going back to the community from winter quarter to implement their findings. Suraj plans to use these experiences of community engagement for greater good on building communities all over the world. Suraj is also highly engaged on research with different professors and works at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures. You can find Suraj watching Barcelona soccer on weekends and some weekdays. He also loves to cook for friends and families! To contact him or learn more, visit his DU portfolio or LinkedIn.