In Buddhism, we believe our enemies are our greatest teachers.
This morning, I met one of my greatest teachers.
I’m in Nepal, preparing to launch our Sustainable Food Program. These last two weeks have been filled with travel, health issues, hiccups (figurative, not literal), and the pain of coordinating schedules.
The restaurant in the hotel was nearly full at breakfast, so before I sat down I told the young men at the table behind me that I cough a lot but that it’s from bronchitis, not Covid. I do cough a lot and it can make other people uncomfortable.
At one point, as I walked back to my seat from the buffet, another man stopped me.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Did I hear you say you have Covid?” His tone was just a very tiny bit sharp.
A little stunned, all I could think to say was, “I’m sorry?”
“Those young men,” he replied. “You just told them you have Covid?”
“No! No, if I had Covid I couldn’t be here in the restaurant.”
“Okay, okay,” he said, and I thought we were done.
We were at two different tables, but our seats were facing each other and there was no one between us. As I started to eat, he began asking me questions, and these questions led to me providing the abbreviated history of my last ten days: I caught bronchitis in Hong Kong; the flight attendants on the flight from Hong Kong to Kathmandu were serving water out of containers, which must have been filled from the tap on the plane; I was horribly sick since arriving Saturday night; and I spent Tuesday night in the hospital.
“So they gave you a-b’s? You’re on a-b’s then?” he asked.
I had to ask him what he meant by “a-b’s.” He didn’t let me finish my question.
“Antibiotics. Antibiotics. So you’re on amoxycillin? Doxycycline?”
“Yes, they’ve got me on something –”
I hesitated. Really, it’s none of his business. Also, he was being a bit rude. And also, I honestly couldn’t even remember which antibiotic.
“I really can’t remember.”
I wish I could recall how the conversation went from there, but what I can tell you is that he commented, at some point, “Oh, I knew all about you as soon as you walked in the door.” He was not saying it as a compliment.
Today, I’m wearing my red kurta and black leggings. I bought the kurta (a tunic-styled top traditionally worn by women) back in 2017, and it is well-worn. I’m wearing my gym shoes, my afro-full, curly hair is up in a ponytail.
After he was done eating, he headed for the door to the hotel but paused to offer me “any a-b I want.” He said he “brought along tons” and if I needed any, to let him know. He repeated all the drugs he’d brought.
Yes, folks, that is just as illegal in a Third World country as it is in the US and in this man’s home country as well, but I kept my mouth shut.
When he made the comment that he was “stuck here until Sunday,” I asked what he meant and he waffled a bit, then turned the conversation back on me. I used it as a chance to tell him something I find amusing. I told him that I’m supposed to go back to the doctor in three days for a follow up, but there’s no set date or time, no appointment —
“Yeah, well, this isn’t America where they try to extract every penny they can from you, now is it? They stick you every chance they get in America. You know, that’s what it’s like with you people. You’re in a foreign country but you still expect everything to be the same as America. You think everyone else is backwards.”
Now it was my turn to cut him off: “This is my fourth trip to Nepal,” I said calmly.
He didn’t miss a beat. Instead, he continued on his rant about Americans, none of which I registered because I was practicing staying centered and grounded and remaining non-reactive — which wasn’t easy, trust me. I do recall, at one point, having the chance to explain that I have two full passports, to which he replied, “Yeah, well I don’t know your background, do I?” and walked out.
As I thought back through our conversation later, I realized how grateful I was to have met this man. This is a difficult concept to put into words, so please bear with me.
I was grateful to meet someone who embodied and displayed a level of bias and disgust, the effects of which I work against 24/7.
He judged me from the moment I walked through the door. Perhaps I appear as a tourist who’s making a vacant effort to look like a local in my old kurta. Perhaps he was disgusted that I brought my notebook computer with me to breakfast so I could work. Perhaps he was just in a bad mood at the time.
I don’t know why, and I don’t care, but he made a snap judgement and was sticking to it and that was it.
Others make these snap judgements — about people from other countries or people whose skin is a different skin tone or who were born into a lower social status. They judge homeless people and anyone that might have a hint of dementia. The sheer disgust reflected on this man’s face and in his voice is something others keep hidden, but the effects are the same: Humans become marginalized as a result of this attitude.
In these moments, this man, as I said, embodied the very attitudes whose effects we fight against every day.
Oddly enough, I am happy to have met him. I am happy to see the enemy in my midst, exposed and unabashed in his beliefs.
We are all fighting against our own insecurities in life, fighting our own battles against demons others can’t see. We are all just humans, struggling to find our way each day. As I said, maybe I triggered something in my appearance, or maybe he was having a bad day. I had to remind myself his behavior did not require a similar response on my end.
By meeting his anger with equanimity, I left the door open for us to engage again later on friendly terms. Sure enough, later in the day, I saw him again. He asked me, with a genuine tone, how I was feeling. He gave me the opportunity to fully respond. From there, we had a wonderful and spirited discussion about global politics, earthquake-preparedness, travel, and being bitten by a monkey at a nearby temple.
His original bias and disgust with me was an important lesson to pause and recognize who and what he represented. And it served as a reminder that I can’t stop fighting to improve the lives of those who’ve been marginalized through that very same bias and disgust. Still, in the end, the two of us could find some common ground.
I hope your day is filled with joy and peace.