In the first days of April 2020 I texted Nawang. One of my core research collaborators, Nawang Tsering Gurung is someone whose presence and insights are woven through my new book, The Ends of Kinship: Connecting Himalayan Lives between Nepal and New York. As forms of kinship go, he is “younger brother” to my “elder sister.” Like many from his home region of Mustang, Nepal, Nawang now lives in Queens, New York, not far from Jackson Heights–one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country, if not the world. At that point in early spring, this part of New York had become the epicenter of the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.
Haven’t heard from Dolma, I wrote. Worried. Will call her tomorrow.
Two minutes later, my phone rang. It was Nawang. We’ve weathered a lot together: mutual family upheavals, the death of his father, destruction in his natal village during the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, as well as quieter moments of kyi-dug,this twinning of happiness and suffering that for many Tibetan and Himalayan people describes the nature of existence. But on this spring evening I could tell that something was desperately wrong.
“Didi, I have some bad news to share,” he said after initial greetings. “Uncle died today.”
“At Dolma’s apartment?”
“Yes, didi.The very same. The rest of the family is there. With him. They are very scared.”
Over the ensuing hours and days I came to learn the details of how this man I will simply call Uncle–someone I have known in Nepal and New York for twenty-five years, a person in whose household I lived in the walled city of Lo Monthang, up near the Tibetan border, and in Kathmandu, a loving and responsible husband and father to a wife and two children he had not seen in person in twenty years but whose labor at restaurants and grocery stores in New York had made their lives in Nepal possible, a man with a streak of shyness and a broad smile–had died of the novel coronavirus in a tenement walkup in Woodside.
I spoke with Dolma’s daughter the next day. My dear friend from Mustang was too distraught to talk. I was told that cough and fevers had passed through Uncle in waves for a couple of weeks, but they were never enough to keep him from work at the grocery store, a Manhattan establishment where he restocked want as if it were need and worried about what his boss would say if he didn’t show up. You see, unlike some of the other employees and the rest of his family, he was undocumented.
On Monday in the week of his death, Uncle seemed weak. Nobody in the household felt like eating–all five people living in the two-bedroom apartment had lost their senses of taste and smell–but everyone except Uncle forced themselves to drink hot water and tea, to slurp dal,andto stay home. Uncle reported to work onTuesday. He spent Wendnesday and Thursday searching for care, but the hospitals and clinics turned him away: Not sick enough. Not the right langauge. No space. By Friday morning he had succumbed.
A few days later, the family’s son-in-law forwarded a recording of the conversation he had with the coroner’s office. I listened to language strained on all sides by exhaustion and imperfect English, and learned that the cause of death was a “sudden influenza-like illness, most probably COVID-19.” Tests were in too short of supply to use on someone who had already died, to offer confirmation.
Despite this family’s descent into fear and grief–enfolded as it was within the much larger vortex of public health crisis and economic disaster–a translocal community of care encircled Uncle’s family. Cremation expenses were paid in New York. Tibetan Buddhist funerary rituals were arranged in Nepal. A lama close to this family beamed virtual practices of purification from Kathmandu into the Queens apartment where Uncle died. Voice memos sent through Messenger and WeChat moved around the world, offering love and lament, prayer and song. In so doing, people from Mustang tied the ends of kinship together once again, braiding their senses of duty–to culture, language, history, place–with their collective desires and individual aspirations for change as manifested by what I call the khora of migration.
Khora bespeaks both the (often daily) act of circumambulating sacred space and turning the wheel of life, abiding with our fellow sentient beings through samsara,cyclic existence. It is an imperfect English gloss for these two interlocking Himalayan concepts. It is a word that helps to theorize mobility and belonging and allows us to think about how such movements at once rely on and work on kinship. The Ends of Kinship weaves short fiction with narrative ethnography to tell stories of migration and social change between a small Himalayan kingdom and the heart of the American immigrant experience. These are stories told with devotion, in recognition of learning and friendship that span a quarter century. They are also told with the recognition that Mustang has experienced one of the highest rates of depopulation in contemporary Nepal–a profoundly visible emptying that contrasts with the relative invisibility of Himalayan migrants in hyper-diverse, populous New York.
Uncle’s death was a single tragedy that occurred within an urban sea of loss. For those from Mustang who now make their homes in New York–like so many marginalized and vulnerable Americans, many of them performing essential labor as healthcare workers, childcare providers, grocery store clerks, drivers–COVID-19 has caused sickness and death as well as brought into stark relief the tears in our social safety nets and the deeply uneven terrain on which we build our lives. This landscape of suffering is revealed not only through mortality and morbidity statistics, but also through language: some of the New York neighborhoods that have been most heavily impacted by the coronavirus are also the city’s most linguistically diverse spaces.
Over the past eight months, I’ve worked with Nawang, along with colleagues at the Endangered Language Alliance and the University of Britsh Columbia, building on past collaborations to help members of the Himalayan and Tibetan New Yorker communities document in their own languages and on their own terms the impacts that COVID-19 is having on their lives. For many Himalayan and Tibetan New Yorkers the pandemic has upended the assumptions upon which the khora of migration is based: ideas about economic stability and educational opportunity, the continued capacity for people and resources to circulate between Nepal and New York, the possibility of at once honoring and reimagining culture. It has brought into stark relief the epidemiological invisibility and structural inequality that affect Himalayan and Tibetan New Yorkers. As the city braces for a third wave, the toll that the virus is now taking on Nepal continues apace, not only through illness but also through dwindling remittances, labor curtailments, food shortages, derailed schooling, limits on travel, and limits to primary health care. Still, in and through forms of virtual khora, acts of compassion and senses of connection persist.
Sienna R. Craig is associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College and author of Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine. Her latest book The Ends of Kinship: Connecting Himalayan Lives between Nepal and New York is available now.