Today as I was having coffee in my hostel, a little bird hopped up on the rim of my steamed milk pitcher. He danced around there or a minute then flew off to explore. Tibetan prayer flags fluttered dreamily in the comfortable breeze. And I looked up past the pet pug with a jingle bell collar that someone had brought to work with them at the front desk and saw a beautiful tin swastika above the doorway, adorned with delicate paint splotches.
The first time I saw a swastika in Nepal was at a religious temple. My initial instinct was to hold my breath, something I do when I’m nervous or uncomfortable. It’s been drilled in my Western mind that this is a symbol of oppression and hatred since Hitler appropriated the symbol for the Nazi party during World War II.Side fact: I did more research on this topic and found out Hitler became the leader of the Nazi party on July 29, 1921. July 29 happens to be my birthday. So…there’s that now.
But here in the East, the swastika is a symbol of good fortune.The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, which means “good fortune” or “well-being. Things are relative to one’s experience, I guess. As this is my first time in Asia, I had no idea that this symbol had more than one meaning.
So I began to think about things less in terms of what I’m used to and more what I’m adapting to. There’s the pug with the jingle bell collar who is nonchalantly walking through the restaurant like he owns the joint.The moment I realize thank you and more coffee please are the only things I’ve said out loud all day. People talking loudly on their cell phones. I thought about the strange way Tom Petty’s running down a dream keeps getting stuck in my head. I look at the pretty tin swastika. If I were somewhere else, say Europe, I would not find the beauty in seeing that symbol proudly portrayed. But here, the intention behind it is peaceful.
I wonder if it’s something I can get used to in the grey area, as a symbol with several meanings. Easier for me than someone who has direct experience with the pain it evokes, I guess. So I read a few articles to see what people closer to the issue were feeling.
As a Holocaust survivor puts it in a BBC article… “For the people who went through the Holocaust, we will always remember what the swastika was like in our life – a symbol of pure evil,” he says.“We didn’t know how the symbol dates back so many thousands of years ago. But I think it’s interesting for people to learn that the swastika was not always the symbol of fascism.”
I see the way he is willing to think about a painful subject in a whole new light. Not that it’s easy or that he will ever completely change his point of view, or that he should. But I just found his ability to accept another version of the story to be inspiring, especially in the context of what he experienced.
It just made me think about perspective. How when I was throwing up and laying on the bathroom floor with food poisoning for a night, it was the most I’d suffered in a long while. And slowly everything else creeps in. Where I am. The countless articles I’ve read on human trafficking that made me so angry and so sad I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hug a kid or throat chop a businessman. Earthquake devastation. Poverty on a scale I haven’t seen before. It doesn’t invalidate my own minor illness, but it does frame it appropriately in the outskirts of true suffering.
A friend of mine told me while battling cancer there are people in the world who are really hurting. I am just going through something. To many, her situation would be regarded as the ultimate struggle. I am a giant baby when I’m sick for one night.( See above).But to her, there as a much wider version of suffering than what she was going through.
And she listened without judgment when I complained about my serving job or some other inconsequential seeming issue while she went about getting better. Her thought was always that we all have problems and pain it’s not up to her to rank them. I try to adopt that mentality and not to think about things in terms of whose pain is more valid and instead think about being appreciative of the good things I’ve got going on.
Back in the U.S., there is blazing fast internet, hot water, a busy mentality and a staunch refusal to adopt the metric system, among other things. There also exists the ability to buy things out of season or in massive quantities simply because we demand them. Strawberries all year! All the meat!
Here in Nepal, there is a season for mangoes. They grow on trees. And when they are good, they are better than any mango in the history of mangohood. I see you, spellcheck. When they are out of season, I think you simply cannot buy them.I don’t know what any of this means. There is my perspective as a tourist in Nepal and that of life in my country of origin.
I don’t know if I can say which way of life is better. I like living simply but also comfortably. Right now, my hostel is a little thick with mold and the shower is 2 inches from the toilet so the floor is always wet. I have a weird thing where I’d rather have a little house that’s super minimalist and clean than a fancy modern set up that is grimy. Maybe finding somewhere between those is what works for me. Balance.Maybe I’ve just had too much coffee.
While finishing my last cup and thinking all these disparate breakfast thoughts, I saw my sweet Nepali waiter trip, laugh at himself, then instantly look around to see who saw it. When we connected, each of us giggled and looked away. And I realized that while some things are relative and gray, someone tripping is almost universally funny. Right? And not an old person or a kid tripping, because they are doing the best they can with unpredictable bodies.
But to see someone my own age trip always gets me because we all have a similar reaction and the embarrassment is compounded by how cool we were trying to be in the moment before. It’s like a great equalizer or something. Or maybe I just have a twisted sense of humor.
In any case, the waiter’s trip reminded me that while it’s fun to do some thinking over coffee, it’s important not to take things too seriously and lose the playful thread of my life.