A few nights ago, I went out to dinner with the rest of the girls who went with me to Nepal. It was great to see them and talk about Nepal, and I realized that it’s been a couple months since I left (eep!), and I still haven’t written any final thoughts on my blog.
When I first got back, I didn’t write anything because I was so caught up in being with my family and winter break. Then school started, and I got sucked right into the Cornell whirlwind of classes, clubs, and weekends. I have had very little time to sit down and reflect on my experience in Nepal. Even now, I’m not sure what to say.
Everyone seems to expect me to feel uncomfortable in the U.S. now or to experience culture shock. I hate to disappoint, but I never felt culture shock. When I came to Nepal, I expected something new and different, and that’s exactly what I got. When I came home, I knew what to expect because I’ve lived here my entire life, and four months out of the country couldn’t make me forget what it feels like to be home.
Maybe culture shock is misnamed. I can definitely point to cultural differences that I see everyday that register in my mind as being a change from Nepal. Few of those differences truly shock me or make me feel uncomfortable. I think people can adapt to any situation if they feel motivated. In Nepal, I wanted to immerse myself in the country and connect with the people, so I tried to speak Nepali and embrace their traditions. It really wasn’t hard to feel comfortable there. Back at school, I want to have fun with my friends and do well in my classes, and it’s easy to make a life for myself here as well.
One thing I can say Nepal taught me (warning: this will sound cliché) is that people are people everywhere, no matter their race, ethnicity, language, or geographical location. People have the same hopes and dreams and ability to love one another any place you go, they just might express it through different cultural practices and traditions.
There were the mothers I talked with who carried their babies in sashes, gave their infants hot oil massages, and fed their children very different food from American baby food, but I could still see the same mother to child connection. There were the friends who addressed each other more formally than American friends and held hands more willingly, but could still make each other laugh till they cried like my friends and me at home. There were the children in the villages who wore rags, had dirt on their faces, and could roll roti better than I could, but all they needed to make them smile was a simple game of follow the leader just like I played when I was little. I never felt culture shock because I was among people who, at heart, were the same as me.
I know, I know. I already wrote one post about food, but since we’re leaving soon (one day…eep!) we’ve been talking a lot about the food here – what we’ll miss, what we never want to see again, and what we’ll eat when we get back to the U.S. Also, I know that next semesters’ American students are gearing up to come here, and they may be curious about the food. So I thought I’d be a little more detailed with my food descriptions a.k.a. this time I’m including pictures.
This is ‘haluwa.’ It’s some sort of fried ghee with dried fruit in it, and it is amazing. We get it for breakfast at CNSP, but I recently saw it on a menu under the dessert section. Shh.
After breakfast comes daal bhaat.
Lots of daal bhaat. Nepalis have an uncanny ability to not only eat daal bhaat twice a day, every day, but also appreciate the minute differences in the dish. Many times I’ve heard a Nepali exclaim that a certain daal bhaat is ‘Amazing, so much better than yesterday’s,’ when I can taste no difference whatsoever. Foreign students tend to either love or hate daal bhaat. I’ll let you guess which camp I fall into.
Here is an example of a three o’clock snack. Popcorn is big here. My host family was actually surprised when I told them we had popcorn in America too. I tried to explain how it was a little different – made in microwaves with gobs of butter. I think we all preferred their method of preparing popcorn.
When we go out to eat things tend to get a little crazy. This is from a restaurant in Pokhara where we discovered gelato and salsa on the menu. There was too much excitement to take a picture before we devoured everything.
French fries (chips) also disappear quickly. The good news is there’s not a lack of them here. Nepalis love their potatoes in all forms.
Here we have another popular snack (or maybe it’s just popular with me, but I felt it deserved a picture considering how many times I’ve mentioned it on this blog) – soynuts! And a half-eaten banana roti.
Speaking of roti, here I am hunched like a true Nepali woman, rolling out roti for snack.
The final product. Note the charred, smoking one. Guess I still have to work on my technique.
Food in Nepal reminds me of the different people in Nepal. There’s your basic staple, daal bhaat, which everybody eats. But there are also all sorts of variations and fun foods for snack depending on where you are in the country and who’s cooking. Nepali people have a basic connection through their language and shared history. But the castes and ethnicities have different customs, dress, language, and, of course, food.
Tomorrow I’ll head to the Kathmandu airport, go through security (see final picture), and head home. I may never get to eat haluwa for breakfast again, but at least I’m coming home to my dad’s waffles. To future students – enjoy the food and your time here because it’s truly unique and goes by too fast.
P.S. I’ll still be writing a few more posts from the U.S. so it’s not goodbye yet!
Hi all! I’m back at CNSP in Kirtipur, along with the other students. We’ve spent the past few days catching up, sharing our research experiences, and planning out how we are going to make the most of the rest of our time here. Everyone has crazy stories from research – Mika and Brenda saw freshwater dolphins, Michelle stayed in a village that only has running water for two hours each day, Emily went to a festival where people circle a lake screaming their prayers all night, George ate rat meat, and Carl got to help develop emergency plans in case of an earthquake. My crazy story? I was in the delivery waiting room with one woman then got to hold her beautiful baby girl ten days later. She snapped enough pictures of the babe and me to make me feel like the president.
But after almost four months here, crazy stories have become the norm. We’ve been discussing how different life will be when we go home, partly because we are used to being shocked, amazed, or completely confused by everyday occurrences. How will we handle returning to the states and not needing to wonder at everything going on around us? Life in the U.S. may be more comfortable, but it certainly won’t be more interesting. So to organize my thoughts about leaving, I made two lists! The first, ‘Good things about the U.S. that I’ll be happy to have again.’ The second, ‘Good things about Nepal that I will sorely miss.’
1 Dishwashing machines
2 Central heating (I am currently writing this in wool socks, leggings, sweatpants, two layers of flannel, and my sleeping bag)
4 Drinkable tap water
5 Seatbelts (and an understanding that the rooftop of the bus is not a seat)
7 Spring mattresses
2 Nepali bananas (taste like banana bread batter in a peel)
5 Rooftop restaurants
6 Milk tea
7 Stupas and temples
8 Parle Gs (a biscuit that is quite tasty dipped in #6)
9 Fabric stores
10 Jewelry stores
11 Those random stores that sell recalled toys from the 90s, expired Chanel make-up, and clothes with English phrases on them that don’t make sense
12 Two-dollar curry dinners
13 Hindi soap operas
14 Traditional dress (especially the funky hats men wear called ‘topis’)
15 Nepali people
Yes, the U.S. has its advantages. I’ll be excited to sit in a chair, throw trash away in a proper receptacle, and turn up the thermostat if necessary. But would I have rather been drinking water from the tap than watching the sun sink over the Kathmandu valley and hit a mountain just right so that it glows? No way. Would I have rather been sleeping on a comfortable mattress than walking around one of the world’s biggest Buddhist stupas? Yeah right. Hamburger or milk tea? Tough call, but not even an In’N’Out burger could beat my village aamaa’s tea made with milk straight from the buffalo. Nepal might need to work on getting some basic comforts (Is it too high-maintenance to want a mattress soft enough so my butt doesn’t fall asleep when I sit on my bed?), but it has plenty of breath-taking, unbelievable, and indescribable views and experiences to make up for its lack of luxury. For the next two weeks, I’ll be more than happy to sleep on my rock-hard mattress, drink only boiled water, wear my winter coat inside, and ride in unsafe public buses because it’s all worth it to be living in this amazing place.
A few days ago, my translator and I decided to end our field research four days early. That means in a couple days we will hop on a bus back to the comforts of Kathmandu. At first, I was uneasy about our decision. Am I throwing in the towel? After three weeks, can I really not handle four more days in the village? Am I not as rough and ready as I thought?
My time here has been incredible. I got to live in a place that looks like a feature on the Discovery Channel, and I really got to know the people. Before coming, I thought that there would be a world of difference between my culture and the culture in the village. But I found many more similarities than expected. Sisters fight over clothes; mothers remind their children to do chores; everyone loves to sit and gossip; and there’s the neighborhood floozy to provide ample gossip material. Family has the same importance as in my own home. We all work together peeling potatoes, cutting cabbage, and rolling out roti for dinner. Then, the whole family sits down around the fire for the evening meal. They talk and laugh while scooping warm heaps of rice and lentils into their hands. When I think about these parts of village life, it seems hard to leave.
But there have also been difficulties. In my first blog post from Pyuthan, I talked about being an oddity here. That has not changed. While my own host family has stopped staring at me while I go about my daily activities, I still catch other people with their eyes fixed on me as I brush my teeth or wash my underwear. In the village center, people come up to me and tell me they’ve seen me there every time I come. Sometimes, neighbors come by to chat with my host auntie, and I think they’re talking about other business. Then I hear my name or catch the word ‘American’ being used, and I know I’m being talked about. I may be sensitive, but it’s hard for me to feel comfortable in a place where people comment on everything I do.
The language barrier has also been frustrating. The people here speak a slightly different dialect than the one I was taught, and it’s enough to seriously confuse me. I can understand snippets of conversation or when people make an effort to speak slowly and clearly to me, but other than that I’m lost. While my translator can easily hang around with the girls our age, I’m a hindrance to the conversation. If they want to include me, and they do try to sometimes, then the conversation has to progress at a snail’s pace and can only be about a limited number of topics. Or my translator has to stop every minute to explain in English what was just said, and I usually still miss the true meaning. I’ve taken to sitting and knitting with the girls while they converse in rapid Nepali, just so I can be around other people even if I can’t understand them. But it is lonely to be the only person in a village who doesn’t speak Nepali.
Living in Pyuthan, like my other Nepal experiences, has had its amazing and not-so-amazing aspects, and I’m ready to go back to Kathmandu. Maybe it means that I’m not cut out for village life, or maybe a month is just too short to stop feeling out of place and too long to stay where you don’t feel comfortable. The point is my research is done here, both my translator and I think it’s time to go, and there’s still plenty I need to see and do in Kathmandu.
I’ve never rented a room in somebody’s house before, but from what I can tell after one week here it’s kind of like a bed and breakfast – a really personal bed and breakfast. There are scheduled meal times, and you get a call at your door if you’re not in attendance. There are planned activities, and if you try to dodge out you get a wide-eyed proprietress telling you, “It’s up to you, but we really think you should come.” Attempting to leave the dinner table (by which I mean dinner floor) early, maybe to write in your blog or type up your research notes, is met by loud protestations to “Sit, stay!” and the fire is built up to entice you to stay in the warmth. Personal questions are by no means off-limits and being dressed up in traditional clothes is a norm.
Of course, there are also the house rules. Most of these are discovered when you accidentally break them.
1 Take your shoes off before entering any room, even to sit on the porch.
2 Sleep under the blanket provided, not on top of it in your sleeping bag.
3 Don’t try to wash your hair in the water tap in front of unknown men.
4 Duck your head before entering any room. This is more a suggestion for your safety because otherwise you will hit your head on the doorframe.
5 Never sit on the ground without a mat because you will get dirty and embarrass your host family. Also you will certainly get cold and fall ill.
6 Don’t ask the family servant if she’s the fourth sister.
7 Never go anywhere alone.
And this last one is very important:
8 Avoid at all costs accidentally showing your host sisters pictures from your last sorority formal when flipping through iPhoto. Shock will ensue.
Now that I’ve got all the rules down, life here is pretty sweet. The scenery is lush and green, like a tropical paradise. It’s pleasantly cool in the morning, warm enough to bask in the sun in the afternoon, and just right sitting by the fire at nighttime. The supply of soy nuts and bananas seems never-ending. And to top off the remote vacation spot atmosphere, my Nepali cell phone has decided not to get service. At first, I was panicked and edgy about being completely cut-off, but I came to embrace the solitude. When I’m not taking interviews or writing my research paper, I have time to read and knit. I’m currently working on my second book and scarf. It’s funny that in a remote Nepali village, without a shower or toilet, where my bed is a straw mat, where there are chickens in the kitchen, a mouse in my room, and two buffalo sleeping next door to me, I feel like I am able to relax. To everyone at Cornell – good luck with finals!
It’s my fifth day in Pyuthan, and I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever stop being an oddity here. Most of the people in Kirtipur have gotten accustomed to white people wandering around. The owners of the fabric stores, beauty shops, and hair salons that we frequent know us and treat us like regulars. Have I mentioned that you can get an incredible head massage in Kirtipur for only 100 rupees? Why did I leave again? But in Pyuthan, it is not everyday they see a tall (in comparison to everyone else), light-skinned (where did my tan go?), American girl parading around with an entourage that includes a translator, host auntie, host sisters, and various friends or relatives of the host family. I know they’re excited to introduce me to people, but I had hoped for a less ostentatious introduction to the community.
People stare when we walk down the street. They speak rapid Nepali to my host family about me. Most of the phrases I attempt to say in Nepali are met with uncontrolled laughter from anyone listening. When I go to the hospital to conduct interviews, the nurses drop whatever they’re doing to answer my questions despite my protests that they can attend to all their patients first. Then they ask if I can give them equipment in exchange for their answers to my questions. I say no but wish I could say yes.
Though there are the requests for my money and jokes about my mangled Nepali, not all the attention is negative. When the girls in my host family gather around to watch me read, knit, or work on my computer, they are simply curious about my mannerisms. Everyone stares at me while I eat, something that would not fly with me in the states, but they just want to see the way I use a spoon or try to eat with my hand.
Most people are interested in hearing about the U.S. They ask questions like “Are there goats in America?” “How does honey taste in America?” and “How is your mother’s cooking?” In most cases, I’ve realized that they just want me to make a comparison to Nepal. I tell them that there are goats in America, but on big factory farms. Honey is very good in the U.S., but it’s better when it comes straight from the hive. And, are you kidding? My mom’s specialty is Chinese take-out. At the end, I’m always pressed to assure them that their village is very nice and their food is tasty, which I willingly do. I’m not lying because, except for the unwanted attention, I truly like it here.
Pyuthan is beautiful, and I enjoy the village life, especially since I’m paying for a room and don’t have to wash countless dishes (see my post about Mane Gang). The village where I’m staying is a half hour walk from the district hospital, and I love the time we spend walking there and back because the scenery is straight out of National Geographic. Stars light up the sky at night, and the air is refreshingly unpolluted. It helps that my host auntie makes the best milk tea and nut mix for snack. Her roti bread is nothing to sneeze at either.
I’ve only been here a short time, so I have hopes that eventually people will lose interest in watching my every move. It’s anyone’s guess if my entourage will allow it, but I plan to go into town by myself this weekend. Today I spotted a well-stocked fabric store, and I thought I saw beauty salon that looked like a place where I could get a mean head massage. In an ideal world my next post would be about how I found some places that treat me like a regular, but I’m willing to give it some time.
The time has finally come for research. We’ve prepared all semester, written our proposals and literature reviews, met our translators, and now we just have to head to the field.
In an hour, I’m heading to the airport to fly to Bardia. From there I’ll continue on to my research district – Pyuthan. I”ll be staying in the district center in a home stay, and I’ve been told that there is an internet cafe, woohoo! So hopefully I’ll be able to continue the weekly blogging and write about my research experiences.
I’m looking forward to talking to mothers, husbands, in-laws, community leaders, and health workers about maternal health in the area. Hope to update soon!
P.S. We celebrated Thanksgiving last night at CNSP because we’ll all be researching during real Thanksgiving. I’m still stuffed. Though we made some minor adjustments to the menu (duck instead of turkey), it felt authentic and was the perfect send-off. Now I’m off to steal some leftover apple pie for breakfast..
This post is about taking advice. My mom was actually the one who told me I should write about this, and at first I told her it was a terrible idea. Then I thought for a minute and realized this could be a prime opportunity for me to take someone else’s advice. Thanks mamacita!
We just returned from our trip to Lumbini and Chitwan. Unfortunately, I have little to tell you about the trip because I spent most of it either in the fetal position in a hotel bed or in another position in a hotel bathroom. The first night, our hotel served us some traditional Nepali daal bhaat for dinner, complete with a heaping bowl of achar for us to serve ourselves. Achar is a spicy relish, perfect for topping off rice and lentils. Our hotel’s version looked delicious, and I was just about to dig in when our program director warned us not to eat the achar because it was made up of raw veggies that hadn’t been soaked in iodine for disinfection. Our TA repeated the warning and added that we wouldn’t want to spend our whole vacation sick because of contaminated food. Whoops.
I’m usually a cautious traveler, but I’ve been living in Nepal for over two months now and feel pretty comfortable here. I no longer feel like a visitor, but more like a resident. I use the water to brush my teeth, eat pretty much anything on my plate, and stopped using silverware long ago. So that’s why even after being warned, I decided to pile the achar on my plate. And, man, was it good.
Unfortunately, the next two days were anything but good. I was so sick I missed out on riding elephants and seeing fire dancers! While my friends got to eat the hotel’s fine cuisine, I subsisted on dry toast and plenty of water. We visited one of the Nepali students’ home for lunch, and her family had prepared a huge spread of every Nepali food I love. All I could manage to eat was rice, even amidst the grandmother’s appeals for me to “Please eat more!”
What did I learn from this experience? (I always have a strange urge to wrap up my blog posts with the lesson I learned…) First, I don’t have a stomach of steel. Second, no matter how comfortable you feel in a place there’s no need to lose all common sense. When you have a native Nepali and a knowledgeable American telling you not to do something, you should trust that they know better than you. Two months is not a replacement for a lifetime of experience, no matter how delicious the achar looks.
Here are some pics in Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace, taken before the achar incident:
Happy Halloween! Last night, we celebrated All Hallows Eve in true CNSP style. We donned costumes made out of whatever we could find in Kirtipur and headed over to the program house for some fun and games. The festivities included pumpkin carving, apple bobbing (a scary activity now that I’m old enough to recognize the hygiene issues involved), and biting donuts off string. We even got candy – a rare commodity in Nepal. We had explained the holiday during last week’s American culture night, so the Nepali students also made an effort to dress up. The CNSP staff was prepared with masks and decorations, and the mood was decidedly festive.
I love Halloween at Cornell, but it was great to experience the holiday in a way that I hadn’t done since elementary school. We were trying to give our Nepali friends an authentic Halloween, but we were the ones who ended up benefiting the most because we got to remember all the great things about Halloween (the things that don’t involve minimal clothing and massive frat parties). We shared stories of past Halloweens, reliving the days of roaming the streets with pillowcases, trading candy with friends, then bingeing on absurd amounts of sugar. I think the Nepalese enjoyed our stories, but it was mostly us who loved to tell them.
Tonight, it was the Nepali students’ turn to share one of their holidays with us. It was Nepali cultural night, so they explained Tihar, a five-day holiday that starts in a few days. It’s a festival of lights, so they had set up some candles and flashing lights and showed us pictures of buildings with elaborate light decorations (kind of like my neighbor’s house every Christmas…). They also demonstrated the ceremony that takes place on the fifth day where sisters give tikkas to their brothers. The American students liked the demonstration, but again, it was the Nepali students who most enjoyed sharing the traditions with us.
I hope I’ve already made clear in previous blog posts that I think CNSP is an excellent study abroad program – for the opportunities, the location, and the staff. But I would argue that its most valuable attribute is that it’s a true cultural exchange. During American and Nepali culture nights, we discuss our different traditions and learn about each other. And while it’s enlightening to learn about Nepal, I most enjoy explaining American traditions. When I get to explain a typical American custom to a Nepali, I can see the custom through their eyes. I can remember the things that are truly great about one of our traditions, and I can also notice things that might be strange or unjust (explaining Thanksgiving was a fun one).
In going abroad, I wanted to immerse myself in another country, and CNSP allows me to do that. In the two months that I’ve been here, I’ve gotten to understand and enjoy some Nepali customs. But a surprising outcome of my cross-cultural exchange, one that I realized on Halloween, is that now I can see my own country more clearly. I hope the Nepali students feel the same way.
CNSP does Halloween (Yes, Paul shaved his head to be Ghandi):
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I came to Nepal excited for many things – trekking, researching, learning Nepali, going to monasteries… But one thing I was especially looking forward to was taking yoga. I usually practice yoga at home in San Diego and also through group fitness classes at the Cornell gyms. By now, I’ve got a pretty good handle on the basics of American yoga – downward dog, child’s pose, warriors one and two, tree pose – all those fun postures. I imagined that in Nepal my yoga practice would only become more intense. I bragged to my friends that I would come back a yoga master, sure I would learn to twist my body into a pretzel while keeping a perfectly zen demeanor. After all, yoga’s got its roots in Nepal and India. How could yoga here not be exhilarating?
While I’ve certainly been doing a lot of yoga in Nepal, it’s not at all what I expected. We have a regular yoga teacher who instructs us at CNSP, and he’s unlike any American yoga teacher I’ve ever had. He’s not a large, muscled guy nor a toned, bohemian girl. He’s a small Nepali man, who likes to spend the yoga session sitting cross-legged, placidly drinking his tea, and guiding us through the poses in his soft, lyrical way. His voice is soothing, and his goal is to help us relax our minds, not stress our bodies.
Those people who have taken yoga in the states may know what I’m talking about when I say this is a drastic change from most American yoga. At home, yoga is a workout. I’m constantly pushing my body, whether it’s just to feel the stretch more intensely or to stay in chair pose longer than the person next to me (I hate to admit it, but sometimes yoga does bring out my competitive nature). And I like the feeling that I get from American yoga. I revel in feeling that I’ve been proactive, that I’ve made a change in my body.
I never realized it before coming to Nepal, but getting enjoyment out of pushing myself is part of my American mentality. I don’t want to relax; I want to push forward, be bigger and better. This mentality is something we don’t share with Nepalis. A common phrase you hear in Nepal is ‘Ke garne?’ It means, ‘What to do?’ When the subjects of trash in the streets of Kathmandu, the ongoing effort to get a constitution in place, or the dengue outbreak in Chitwan come up we often hear ‘Ke garne?’ in response, indicating ‘Oh well. Such is life.’ This attitude used to frustrate the other American students and me to no end. We’d try to protest that things could be done, that action could be taken to improve certain situations in Nepal. It should not be ‘Ke garne,’ but ‘Ke garchhu?’ meaning ‘What can I do?’ But the Nepalis remain unmoved.
Through the Nepali style of yoga, I’ve learned to understand this ‘ke garne’ perspective a little better. Our yoga guru tells us that yoga isn’t about changing your body to be where your mind is, but it’s about bringing your mind to where your body is. We’re learning to be at peace with our bodies. ‘Ke garne’ is also about learning to be at peace. Yes, there are plenty of things I can change to improve myself and the world, but there are also things I have no power to change. While Americans are good at continually striving for something better, Nepalis understand how to accept the world as it is. I still disagree that ‘ke garne’ can be a catch-all answer, but acceptance is an important life-skill to learn. Together, I think that Americans’ motivation for change and Nepalis’ acceptance for things that can’t be changed is a balanced approach to life. And don’t you need balance in yoga?