The Positive Side to COVID-19 Xenophobia

: :

Author: Tony V Pham, Duke University

Fieldsite: Nepal

Non-anthropologists can mythologize ethnography as the alluring product of lone wolf research. However, self-evident to most in the trade are the partnerships which must bridge and stabilize the international ethnographer. As someone with no formal anthropological training, it took a destabilizing pandemic to show me how paperwork and administration, however ostensibly unalluring, can offer the feelings of safety, inclusion, and community.

To encourage other non-anthropologists rooted within anthropological research who must, preceding their actual fieldwork, trek through the seemingly dull lulls of grant applications and regulatory approvals, I offer the story of my ethnographic and largely internet-less 2019-2020 research life. Seven months in, high within the far-western regions of Nepal, and during a COVID-19 peak of which I had been blissfully unaware, a local community member and friend broke the inconvenient news — people were talking and well… everyone agreed I brought COVID-19 to their village. This realization came to a head during a year in which my other home, the US, continuously reported on xenophobic slurs against Asians for bringing COVID-19. I and my research colleague, Utsav Koirala, hadn’t exhibited COVID-19 symptoms at that point, but we could take a hint, and on our last ethnographic leg, we began our demoralizing descent back to the previous village.

The human mind has a notoriously negative bias towards the self. In a fantasy world, I, at my weakest moment, can craft a self-identity accurately rendered from four years of psychiatry residency and what little anthropology I had taught myself. Back in the much less suave and more biased reality, I self-identified using the barest of terms, “Asian-American,” and with that my prospects seemed bleak — stay and be made to feel like a foreign harbinger of disease or return home and feel no different. Naturally, more than one hyphenation can bridge an individual’s humanity and right now I can rattle off other equally valid self-categorizations. To name a few I worked towards before COVID-19: Duke Global Health Fellow, Fogarty Scholar, and friend of Far-Western-Nepalis. The stereotypes I created for my twin homes were no more true than the two hastily created for me.

I slowly came to this realization during my descent, which while defeating, didn’t completely demoralize the work-me. Following our next interview, a group of community members walked up to us, of which the front-man appeared ready to show us out in spectacular fashion. Instead, he alerted us to what everyone with a radio already knew, that COVID-19 had become a pandemic on a scale no one had predicted and that local officials mandated an immediate cease communication with village outsiders. They warmly encouraged us to continue trekking without stopping for research. The next village transformed into another emotional relay point when we discovered cellular coverage and with that new and encouraging orders from our university, “return back immediately!”

With a complete lock-down on our hands, a recently misplaced wallet and phone, no cash, and no nearby ATM, we turned to our collaborative NGO, TPO Nepal, our home university, Duke, our grant funders, Fogarty, and old familiar faces from the local community for directional and emotional support. A village elder planned and payed for our transportation back to Kathmandu. Our in-country supervisor paid back the village elder. Our university administrators and supervisors clued us into the US Embassy who, through a multi-social media campaign, flew myself along with all other foreigners back to their homes.

Now in the US and back at the drawing board, I no longer subscribe to the misguided image of ethnography as a singular effort. I can appreciate the hidden and many actions which interconnect beneath and now look back on and to the future of the ostensibly dull arena of ethnographic planning, administration, and collaboration, in all its files and forms, without the dread or disillusionment which I previously associated with it.


I thank Utsav Koirala, Rishav Koirala, Brandon Kohrt, Nathan Thielman, Tara Pemble, Cynthia Binanay, Donna Ingles, Allison Henry, and Doug Heimburger among many other administrators from the Duke Global Health Institute, Hubert-Yeargen Center for Global Health, Duke Master of Science in Global Health, VECD Global Health Fellowship, Transcultural Psychosocial Organization Nepal, and U.S. Embassy in Nepal.