Revisiting ‘Fat City’

As Champa and I count down the days until we complete our volunteer service in Peace Corps Moldova, I’ve been thinking about the last time I went through this transition. Thirty-nine years ago this week, I published the following op-ed article in The New York Times, shortly after I returned from Peace Corps Nepal. Now seems like a good time to revisit it, even knowing I failed to live up to much of what I wrote then. My perspective has evolved as I’ve gotten older but, four decades later, parts of the article still resonate with me. 

[Reprinted from The New York Times, June 9, 1979]

People wrote to me before I recently returned home to New York, after two years in Peace Corps, about all the changes I’d find: disco, roller skating, a new mayor, a decent Rangers team.

But nobody warned me about what’s remained the same: how rich and wasteful this city is.

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NYT op-ed - jpg

New York’s being rich sounds strange, I know. After all, the city was staving off bankruptcy when I left in 1977. And I hear similar sacrificial moans from New Yorkers now about gas prices and inflation.

But today those cries ring hollow. After I’ve lived so long in a truly poor country, New York seems like Fat City. People here don’t realize how lucky they have it.

My post was in Nepal. My first year was spent in a Himalayan hill bazaar, Ilam, the second in Katmandu, the capital. I taught English and writing, worked with blind students, set up several newspapaers and organized a village literacy project.

The Peace Corps paid me $76 monthly, $92 in Katmandu. This was plenty. The per capita income in Nepal is less than $100 per year. Given the skewed distribution of wealth, many Nepalese live on less than 15 cents daily. Most children work. The literacy rate is below 20 percent.

One of my students in Ilam was Mardi Kumar, an untouchable. One week he didn’t come to school. I went to his house to see why not. His father told me that Mardi’s older brother was dying in the local hospital.

The doctor said Mardi’s brother needed insulin. There was none to be had in eastern Nepal. The father pleaded with me. I was a foreigner; didn’t I have some insulin? No, I didn’t. A few days later his son died.

In Katmandu, I hired a cook, Harka Bahadur. I taught him to read Nepalese and gave him room, board and $1.75 weekly. The neighbors complained that this was too much and would drive up local prices. I insisted. Harka supported his mother, wife and baby daughter on his salary. He had no money for eggs, fruit or medicines. In the winter I had to convince him to take a sweater I’d been given for the holidays.

Now I’m home. My first full day back, my folks took me to see the new shopping atrium at the Citicorp headquarters. I saw imported jams at $10 per bottle, exotic pastries, shiny furniture stores, a giant delicatessen, several chic cafes.

It was a shock. I could not believe the extravagance, the wealth.

The following morning I had an argument with my father about Mother’s Day. My father wanted me to buy my mother an azalea bush. As much as I love her, I couldn’t bring myself to spend the money. My mother doesn’t need an azalea bush, I told him. So why waste money that others need just to survive?

My father told me that I was culture‐shocked. I ought to stop converting New York prices into what they could buy abroad. Nepal was Nepal. This was New York. Why take it out on my mother?

A few days later my grandmother complained to me that she has to travel a long way from her house in Flushing to take my grandfather to the doctor to get his prescriptions filled. I sympathized, but I couldn’t help reminding her how fortunate she is to have medicines availaable at all. After all ‐ Mardi’s brother didn’t.

Then a conversation with my other grandmother: She asked what kind of furniture I plan to buy for my new apartment. I told her I will get whatever is cheapest while not squalid. She responded with a smile and reassured me that with time I will get over this “phase” and back into American life.

The point is that right now, I don’t want to get back into a consumptive American life. I don’t want to jump on the bottled water bandwagon when I can just as easily drink water out of the faucet like I did before I left and give the 70 cents per bottle to somebody who really needs it.

But, as I’ve learned quickly, to say those things out loud, even with the excuse of being just out of Peace Corps, makes one come across like an Asianized Jeremiah. Friends ask me, quite rightly, just what it is that I expect them to do. Give up all of life’s small luxuries until there are no more poor people? My instinctive reaction right now is to say yes.

That’s idealistic and unworkable, I know, but I remember too vividly my Nepalese friends: Rudra Bahadur, the farmer across the street who thanked me profusely when I gave him my wornout rugby shirt. Ram Prasad, a fellow teacher who almost burst into tears when I gave him the seven dollar calculator that I’d bought in Times Square. The Brahmin village family —I don’t even know their names — who shared with me their dinner of rice, lentils and dried yams when I appeared on their doorsteps one evening while hiking.

Intellectually, I recognize that if friend here spends $20 extra on a pair of blue jeans just to sport a designer label; it isn’t going to make any difference to the lives of my Nepalese friends. Not unless the friend chooses to send that $20 to Nepal and just take a pair of Levi’s.

But I can’t choose for others. And also know that I must fight off this moralism. I know there are many poor New Yorkers, poor Americans. Our country can’t take upon itself all of the world’s suffering. We shouldn’t all go through life. guilt‐ridden. After all: that’s Nepal, this is New York.

Still, as I face my new life ahead, I keep wondering: Am I really as culture‐shocked as people tell me, or is American society as profligate as it now seems to me? Will I be able to hold onto my new convictions about living modestly and helping others? Will I remember?

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