The Boundaries of Collectivism

Wikipedia defines collectivism as, “any philosophic, political, economic, mystical or social outlook that emphasizes the interdependence of every human in some collective group and the priority of group goals…over individual goals.”

That definition describes a lot of what I see and experience in Nepal. Nepalis I know recognize the importance of interdependence and gravitate towards and actively work to support each other.

Much of that collectivist attitude and interdependence is seen in the family structure. Family needs are often put above individual needs. People are consistently expected to do things that will benefit their family. Few young people live away from their parents, and there is not much of a tradition of “striking out on your own.”

There are also certain built-in cultural expectations that increase the interdependence of Nepalis on one another. In the US, when friends go out to eat, they often each pay for themselves. In Nepal, the expectation is that one person will pay for the whole group. The person who invited everyone to go out might pay or sometimes friends take turns. This increases the interdependence of people on each other and tends to increase social interaction. If you paid for me last time when we went out to eat pizza, I’m more likely to suggest we go out to again so that I can repay that favor.

People here also tend not to separate themselves out from the group. When eating out with friends, no one will order a particular dish for themselves unless they have some kind of restriction (like an allergy or are vegetarian). Instead, multiple dishes are ordered, and the same food is eaten by everyone. People also always share food that they have bought or brought from somewhere else. While traveling or hiking, if someone pulls out a snack, it’s very rude not to offer some of it to everyone. In the US, although people share food with each other, it’s acceptable to bring food for yourself and only yourself.

Another Nepali custom that promotes interdependence and reciprocal relationships is gift giving. As I mentioned in this post about achaar, people often bring little gifts (especially for those younger than they are) when visiting others.

This collectivism and interdependence is present in almost every social encounter I have. At work, when I go out, when I meet new people, I sense this tendency to stick with the group, do things for the whole.

But just how far does this collectivism extend?

Residents of Kathmandu often don’t often take care of public spaces or think carefully about what’s good for others when it comes to the streets and roads. People litter all the time, just chuck their trash right out of the car window. When I studied abroad, I was suprised to see all of the fences carefully built around houses and property. People here keep their own little space nice and neat, but throw their trash right over the fence into public areas and even onto others’ property. Drivers are also often not thoughtful about other drivers and pedestrians on the road. It’s not uncommon to see cars or buses stopped squarely the middle of the streets, mindless of other commuters. It particularly irritates me to see the buses letting passengers off in a busy spot, clogging up the road when there is a convenient place to pull off just 20 feet away. In Kathmandu, it seems that there’s little attention paid to doing things for the “greater good.”

In the US, there are plenty of public spaces that are dirty, and it’s certainly not like everyone is always keeping the “greater good” in mind. I remember my parents telling me that my grandmother (who was a smoker) used to dump the ashes from her cigarettes out of the window of her car onto the road. They said that a few decades ago, people used to throw trash out of their windows without a thought. But I think that there have been successful governmental campaigns to promote the preservation of public areas, and certain traffic regulations and their successful enforcement keep the roads a bit safer than the ones in Kathmandu.

Although there are people here who are really trying to raise public awareness about the upkeep of urban areas, people like Anil Chitrakar, I don’t think there have been any large, successful campaigns that have really changed the way Nepalis treat their public spaces.

I think an important way to promote people to do things for the “greater good” is to make sure they feel ownership for the place they’re living in. While I was talking with Tri about this topic, he mentioned an interesting fact about Kathmandu that helped me understand what I’ve been experiencing. Many people who live in Kathmandu moved here from outside of the Valley, so they may not feel like this is truly their home or “their place.” A lot of people here have a gaun, “village,” outside of Kathmandu that they visit during holidays; maybe they have some land or family there. Sometimes their grandparents, parents, or they, themselves, moved into the Valley from those areas looking for better opportunities. Others settled here during or after the 10-year conflict to escape the sometimes more dangerous rural areas. Could the fact that Kathmandu is a valley of migrants be affecting the way that residents here treat their public areas and each other?

There is such a culture of collectivism in Nepal. If this could be harnessed somehow and extended beyond the boundaries of family and friends, I think there could be some real change. Pollution would decrease and politeness and consideration for others on the roads and streets would go up. Now somebody has to figure out how to get that in motion. Any ideas?