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Bibek Pokharel ‘15 – Kathmandu, Nepal

<ong>What is Kathmandu like?

It’s as big as Northfield, but very congested. You have a huge population and there’s not much space. For example, you can jump from one person’s house to the other and you’ll be fine. I live in a suburban area and you can’t do that for my house unless you are a really good jumper. If you’re a really good jumper, than you’re fine.

We grew up indoors but you could walk anywhere. It’s a fairly diverse city of people from all over Nepal, but it’s not international. If you find anyone of foreign origin they are probably a tourist. But we have fairly diverse people. Kathmandu is basically a valley surrounded by a bunch of hills. Nepal is a rectangle. The top side is mountains. There is another region that is flat. It [Katmandu] is the hilly region—you don’t have mountains in that region, but you can see mountains. No matter which direction you look at, there’s always going to be some hills, and this whole idea here of having [land] completely flat–it’s scary. When I first came to Germany, in every direction, it was completely flat. Like, how can you have that? You’re supposed to see some hills somewhere.

Why’d you decide to apply to Carleton?

The United States is sort of the default at least for our high school. Everyone sort of sets their eyes on a liberal arts college. Generally it was just sort of the thing the high school did. Different high schools have different things they do. Like some schools are really good for going for medicine and engineering. Our school has lots of people who went abroad. Why Carleton? One of the teachers in my school was from Carleton. I didn’t know anything about Carleton but she’s really famous all over the school because she’s really hardworking and really passionate. She’s like the best teacher you could find in all of Nepal. So obviously, the curiosity was like: where did she come from? She’s American but she decided to live in Nepal all her life. And we were just wondering where she came from, and she came from Carleton. So that’s sort of how I started looking at it. She’s a good representative of Carleton, I think. She’s very hard working, very motivated, and that’s sort like the feeling I got about Carleton.

How’d you decide to study physics?

When I first came here, I wanted to do Econ. But, after my freshman year summer I met a bunch of Econ PhD’s, and I liked the topics they were discussing but didn’t like the way they were doing it. I didn’t like the method of research in economics. All of them advised me to do math for undergrad. So that’s how I started doing math. And then, after I did, I lost interested in Econ. After I did some math, I felt like physics was more fun. It’s not that questions of different subjects are less interesting to me–I like philosophy, I like psychology, I love sociology, I think they are all very interesting subjects, and I think they are answering really valuable questions—but I personally just like the method physics uses to answer questions.  

What have you taken in college that you didn’t anticipate before coming here?

I hated physics when I left high school. Math I was good at it but I never thought I’d take more math. I took Chinese here, which is very atypical (although now more Nepali people are taking Chinese). I took Econ classes and a bunch of writing and English classes, but those were something I planned for. I think Chinese and physics were something that was not planned at all.

What’s an aspect of Nepalese culture you wish was more prominent in the US?

I really don’t like to make a distinction between this is a good culture and this is a bad culture, or this is a good thing to do or this is a bad thing to do, but I think growing up where I did, we celebrate festival much more enthusiastically than I’ve seen festivals being celebrated here. Not because festivals are less enthusiastic, less energetic or they do less [here]—it’s just that more people are involved [in Nepal], and we have a huge community of people. One of the biggest festivals in Nepal is Dashain, which happens for like fifteen days, and you’re just continuously busy. You’re always doing something, and you’re supposed to meet all of your extended relatives, in the ideal case. You take a car or you just walk, you are constantly meeting people, and it involves a lot of family at the same time. And that’s just one of many, many festivals. Every festival has a different feeling. Even when we have a normal weekly routine, it’s very common for us to have a holiday on a Wednesday. We just have so many festivals.

Sometimes so you don’t even know one’s coming up. Someone will be like, ‘Oh, tomorrow’s a holiday.’ It just keeps happening! And then the months that just don’t have any holidays are really boring for us. They’re just really bland. That sort of thing doesn’t happen here. In some sense, it’s good—in places like Carleton, you can have a very good weekly schedule, nothing’s changing…you have a systematic way of doing things. But at the same time, being in Nepal, that was a very fun aspect of things. Every month was different and every holiday was different.

What is it easy for you to integrate yourself into campus culture?

The first time I came here regardless of the fact that I did know how to speak English, I sometimes had no idea what the topic was, and I had to try and steer [conversation] into the topics I knew. If it was about movies, I’d sort of mention the movies I knew, and try to relate with that. It’s a lot about culture with a language. And I think that’s definitely a hard thing—you really have to put some pressure on yourself to become accustomed to it. You don’t know certain music albums, you don’t know things people are talking about, you don’t know political issues, you don’t know movies that are up and coming because different places have different movie trends, different music trends; there are a lot of singers from America that are huge in Nepal—we have huge concerts there and people here don’t know who they are. I thought they were really famous and I come here and people are like ‘who’s that?’

What campus speaker or event has stood out to you?

One [speaker] that sticks out of my mind is Robert Devaney from Boston University. He came here to give a talk on mathematics, chaos and fractals, and I think that’s a wonderful thing because that made me feel as if I wanted to work in this field. I still do research with a professor who is working in this new field, and I did in my summers, researching the same topic. When we talk about events, I go to this gathering called Council of Religious Understanding. We meet and we talk about having discussions about different faiths. It’s not about convincing anyone but learning about different faiths, what different faiths we have on campus and what their perspectives on different things are. I have had fairly meaningful conversations in that context.

Do you think the scientific process is inherently eurocentric?

When I first learned about Newton, Leonardo DaVinci, Richard Feynman, (the people I think I was really influenced by), I never thought of them as being European. I could just really related to their ideas. The fact that they were European only became clear later. Having said that, I think science as of now is a bit Eurocentric. I can’t say it’s not true. It’s statistically true. But at the same time, I don’t think the field of science, and the philosophy of science, and the way of thinking of science, is Eurocentric. Science, in itself, is based a lot on experiments, on truth, and this philosophy I think will surpass all the cultural difference. I don’t think any person from any particular culture has an advantage, just because they have a philosophical structure in which they all partake that makes them more suited towards science. European countries – imperialist countries at one point – dominated so of course they had better scientists. You start training anyone from Asia, South Asia, Africa, and then slowly they will catch up.

Science in itself is above culture. I don’t think it concerns itself too much with the cultural differences as much as what is true. My personal experience with science is it will make you disbelieve something you believed for a long time, regardless of what you believed. The whole perspective is: you don’t know and you will now, so what you knew before doesn’t matter.

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