Tapaai Nepali ho? (Are you Nepali?) I was asked this question twice recently, which came as quite a surprise; I guess my language skills are getting better? Some people say my big nose makes me look baun, or “brahman,” but my light skin and hair will always give me away.
In the US it’s considered rude to stare, but in Nepal, the rules aren’t the same. Staring, while not necessarily polite, is completely acceptable, and I’ve been stared at quite a bit. There are plenty of other foreigners in Kathmandu, but most are visiting as tourists, hanging out in the touristy areas. If I went to Thamel a lot, the tourist district, I might not get as many stares, but hanging out with a Nepali family, frequenting the non-tourist sections brings quite a few looks. I’ve been putting up with it well enough, but I won’t deny that I’m getting a little sick of it. Even if I live here for the rest of my life, people will stare at me, wonder what I’m doing here. No matter how good my Nepali gets, I will always stand out. This brings some benefits; foreigners are often treated well here, but it can be exhausting and makes integrating into a new culture very hard.
Although I don’t look Nepali, I did recently have someone tell my I have a Nepali soul. During my trip to Dhampush, I got close to the other women on the trip. I live in a house with four men, so it was a nice break to spend some time with women. At one point an Auntie was explaining reincarnation to me, and she said that god gave me an American body but a Nepali soul. There are things about Nepali culture that feel very natural to me, but there are plenty of things that have been hard to swallow. I don’t know if I believe in souls, but I do know that having an open mind and and appreciation for Nepali language and culture has gotten me far. Some Nepalis I meet have very particular notions about Americans, that they marry and divorce easily, that they are loud and rude. It’s not easy to get close to others who have so many ideas about who you are before you meet, but the quickest way I have broken down those barriers is through speaking Nepali. Talking with those in their own language is an easy way to win them over. It’s also an incredible learning experience. What can be said in Nepali cannot always be said in English and vice-versa. That Auntie told me I have a Nepali soul, but really I just want to listen to and learn from the new people I meet.
Although I’m a little sick of the staring, with time, I’ll learn to deal with it. Maybe I’ll dye my hair black sometime, and I’m seriously considering getting a nose piercing (mom–please don’t be mad!) This certainly will make me look more Nepali. I wonder if I’ll ever get past the guards at Pashupatinath…