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Pros and cons of ‘Curry Smell’ approach

| by Shelton Gunaratne

( February 18, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The (Fargo, ND) Forum’s recent attempt to focus on the Asian minorities in its circulation area is commendable.

However, as a long-time journalism professor who trained some of the leading journalists in this area, I wish to confess my culpability for some of the lapses in The Forum’s shallow reporting approach.

Let me substantiate my culpability and your shallowness with the example of the story on the wedding of the Bhutanese couple that ran under the banner headline FIRST LOOK AT A NEW LIFE (Feb. 11, 2014).

Strapline: For area Bhutanese, arranged marriages still common practice, but with a modern twist

Lead: “In a steamy apartment rich with the smell of curry, a pair of newlyweds sat on a loveseat Monday afternoon, accepting gifts and blessings in the Hindu tradition.
“Well-wishers stuck tika—a mix of red powder, rice and yogurt—to the couple’s foreheads and sprinkled dried flower petals onto their laps.

“The groom, Ram Thapaliya, and his bride, Madhavi Regmi, both Bhutanese refugees, sat quietly and smiled as their friend and family looked on.

Story beginning: “This reception took place in the three-bedroom apartment of Thapaliya’s family in south Fargo. The actual wedding, as tradition dictates, happened at the home of Regime’s family in Denver on Sunday.

“Their parents had arranged the marriage, a common practice among Bhutanese who have made their homes in North Dakota and many other states.”

Background: “Bhutanese refugees, who are of Nepali descent, were forced out of Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom in Southeast Asia that adopted a “One Nation, One People” policy in the early 1990s. For close to 20 years, the refugees lived in the thatched-roof-and-bamboo shelters of Nepali camps.”

Now, here are my basic observations on this story:

This story, as well as the next day’s story headlined DRAGON ON WALL STREET, reflect The Forum’s conscious attempt to reach out to the Asian minority groups who have settled down in the Red River Valley of the Midwest.

Reporter Archie Ingersoll, however, shows his cultural arrogance by adopting the anthropological approach to judging primitive behavior from the superior pedestal of Western culture. Thus, he unintentionally offends the entire Asian community by focusing on the “smell of curry” in the “steamy apartment.”

The story structure is designed to convey the idea that the Asian refugees have attained freedom and happiness in America from the misery (dukkha) of their ill-governed homelands. The reporter also shows his geographical illiteracy by locating Bhutan in Southeast Asia, not in South Asia.

Had the reporter adopted the mindful journalism approach, which I now favor, he would have looked at the marriage customs of a wider group of Asians settled down in the Red River Valley without the dubious focus on individualism (self or soul), as signified by the attempt to personalize everything. When dramatization takes precedence over ethical and fair reporting, the result would be greater ignorance (avijja) and misunderstanding. 

As a journalism teacher, I taught my students to personalize and dramatize their feature story leads to attract readership. I now realize that this approach has further contributed to make news a commodity than a social good.

A journalist assigned to report on people and events related to other cultures must try to understand and empathize with the culture of the other. A basic cultural distinction between the East and the West is the focus on the group in the East (as in marriage customs).

Had he done his research, the reporter would have enlightened the readers on why the Bhutanese refugee population in the U.S. stood at 66,134 in April 2013, a fact he failed to research; and whether they were all actually Nepalese Bhutanese or Nepalese annexed to the refugee camps by Nepal.

Bhutan (pop. 2.3 million) is overwhelmingly Buddhist while the neighboring Nepal (pop. 27 million) and India are overwhelmingly Hindu. The reporter fails to mention Bhutan’s presumed reason for adopting a “One People One Nation” policy in the early 1990s, viz., the census revelation of vast numbers of illegal Hindu immigration.

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