Originally published Tuesday, July 14, 2015
The Nepal Earthquake and a Pizza Party
We were nearing the end of the semester at Westminster College when the earthquake struck Nepal. My students and I had planned to celebrate the final week of a tough semester with a pizza party on Monday, April 27—as it turned out, two days after the devastation. Instead of a grammar and mechanics session, we’d have a proofreading party. I volunteered to bring donuts.
The weekend before that Monday, however, turned out to be life changing. At 2 a.m., April 25, my wife, Jessica, and I found out about the earthquake that had just struck our country. We spent the next few hours glued to the internet, horrified by the images and headlines unraveling at social-media speed. After what seemed like a hundred attempts we managed to contact our families. They were safe. That instant relief turned into nagging helplessness as large parts Kathmandu collapsed into rubble. The images kept pouring in on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. The landmarks we’d grown up around, such as the old-brick temples in Durbar Square, had collapsed into dust. Even the 213-step Dharara tower was now just a stump.
Worse affected were villages outside the capital that had simply vanished. Relying on sporadic phone calls and text messages that assured us of our family’s safety, Jessica and I lay in bed all day, scouring the internet as aftershocks kept rupturing land and lives. Meanwhile, our two-year old son Tenzing exhausted his arsenal of gestures to indicate he wanted to go out and play. He walked around carrying his tiny pair of shoes, motioned his hands to mimic the steering wheel, stood near the door with his ball while my wife and I lay immobile, numbed by shock and depression. When we finally took Tenzing out for a drive, the tranquility of suburban Salt Lake City seemed like a different planet. My privilege embarrassed me, but there was nothing I could do except take my son to the park.
Monday arrived. On my drive to work, I listened to NPR’s Morning Edition, which was my go-to station for breakfast news. Cat-Man-Do and Ne-Paul had invaded the news space in a way that I hadn’t seen or heard since I moved to the U.S. in 2003. It was surreal. Part of me was surprised that Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne even knew that our country existed. Part of me felt guilty for thinking about such trivial things. I took the longer route just to stay with the news. When I finally reached college, I realized I’d forgotten something: donuts. I’d even forgotten to email my students to let them know that in light of the tragedy in Nepal we would have to forgo the pizza party. Class would start in half hour. It was too late to send that email. I knew my students wouldn’t mind that I’d forgotten the donuts, and maybe, they’d had a discussion in their dorm rooms to cancel the party out of courtesy.
I was wrong. I walked into the classroom greeted by stacks of pizza boxes, red cups, fizzy drinks, and cookie-brownie assortments. The students had done an excellent job with the preparation. They’d perhaps forgotten that I was from Nepal, or maybe they hadn’t caught the news, yet, or maybe they had, but didn’t know how else to respond. We had a plan, and unless we were informed to act otherwise, our job was to stick to it. America is a melting pot. Uncomfortable and inconvenient histories are left at the door. But higher education in the U.S. emphasizes critical thinking and questioning assumptions. Should I enlighten my students about a country they might otherwise never hear about? Or, start an invigorating discussion about social conscience and global citizenship? At Westminister, we have institutionalized on our campus walls the contemporary vocabulary of higher learning by enshrining words like “interconnectivity,” “global consciousness,” and “ethical awareness.” Each summer students take educational trips to Ireland, India, and Thailand and post pictures on social media, which the college proudly displays on its streaming web banner.
So I stood at the door of the classroom, wondering if I should turn this into a learning moment. “Sorry, I forgot the donuts,” I began. “Because of the earthquake.” Those who weren’t scrolling their phone screens stared back in silence. Did they know what I was talking about? “How many of you followed world news in the last two days?” I asked. A few hands went up. “Did you read about the earthquake in Nepal?” I proceeded, putting on my cheerfully inquisitive smile. One student shook her head in sympathy. I latched on to that moment. “What did you think?” I asked. After a lazy shrug, she said, “Sorry, it’s Monday morning.”
“Oh, well,” I finally said. The warm smell of cheese and marinara sauce had found our nostrils. We dug into the pizza and commenced reviewing papers about legalizing marijuana and lowering the drinking age. The students sat in groups and exchanged their laptops. They did what dutiful students would do — read each other’s papers and engage in discussions about their topics. During a short break a student even offered to drive to Dunkin’ Donuts, where they now had glazed croissants. The proofreading party was a success. No one mentioned the tragedy again.
A version of this blog entitled, “Even an Earthquake Can’t Stir Student Empathy,” appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, http://chronicle.com/article/Even-an-Earthquake-Can-t/230529/
Ranjan Adiga was born and raised in Nepal. He currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Westminster College. His works have appeared in Story Quarterly, South Asian Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. He obtained his doctorate in English (Creative Writing) from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in 2013.