The Married Look

As a woman in Nepal who is married to a Nepali, I’ve been expected to dress, groom, and generally beautify myself in the way that other women do. I cared about the way I looked back in the US, but I never had any overt pressure that was telling me how much makeup and jewelry I should wear, how I should style my hair, etc. In Nepal, however, women, in particular married women, are expected to look a certain way. This pressure is really a mixed bag. I love that the people who are pressuring consider me a part of their culture and therefore expect me to follow the cultural norms here. On the other hand, I simply can’t do all of the things they want me to. I’m still negotiating this pressure and trying to figure out how many of these rules I want to adopt and call my own and how many I want to forget about.

Some of the things that women do to keep themselves looking a certain way can be incredibly painful, and I am always amazed at Nepali women’s high tolerance for pain. One of these things is eyebrow threading. I used to pluck my eyebrows back in the states, but after a bit of pushing from some people here, I started threading. Omg it it can be painful, but I like the result, so I put up with it. The reason why it’s so painful is because the threader plucks out about ten hairs at once. Many of the women I know who do it act like it’s a cup of tea. Maybe they’re just used to the pain? The picture on the left is of me during one of my first eyebrow threadings. I kind of look like I’m in surgery!

Another painful body modification is nose piercing. I’ve been bugged again and again to pierce my nose, partly because of its religious significance. Some Bauns and Chhetris here believe that if a married woman is performing puja and she doesn’t have her nosed pierced, the puja won’t be heard by god. The jury is still out on whether or not this is going to happen for me. Tri and I haven’t had our Nepali wedding yet, so I might do it before that event. However, I also have major post-nasal drip/allergies at some points during the year, so a piercing could cause some issues. Luckily, I won’t be alone if I decide not to pierce my nose. It’s not as common among young women here as it used to be. I have a Newar friend who married a Chhetri man. Newar women don’t traditionally get their nose-pierced but often do if they marry a man from the Baun or Chhetri castes. Despite pressure from her in-laws, my friend has refused to pierce her nose, in part because her non-pierced nose is part of her Newar identity.

Other rules concerning beauty and marriage aren’t necessarily painful, but they are very strict. For starters, I’m expected to keep my hair long. A few months ago, I went to get my hair cut. Before I stepped out of the house, I told Bua where we were going, and he said, “Just don’t cut it short, okay?”  I have a history of occasionally chopping my hair off. I do it when I want to promote change in my life or signify the start of a new chapter, but it’s a big no-no for women here. In fact, long, straight hair is often a source of envy.

Both women are wearing pote

Married women here also wear pote and churaa. Pote is a long string (or multiple strings) of beads that signifies you are married. Americanepali has a post describing it here. Churaa are glass, sometimes gold, bracelets that women of all ages wear. However, married women are expected to wear at least one thicker one on each wrist. I’ve had people tell me time and time again that I need to start wearing pote and churaa. I don’t mind the pote, and it’s the most common way to signify being married in Nepal, so like my wedding ring, I’ve started to wear it everyday.

The top two bracelets on her hand are churaa

Churaa, however, I save for special occasions only because I’m a bit of a clumsy person. Last week I tried wearing churaa on both hands all day, but I kept banging them around and ended up cutting myself, so for me, this is also a painful practice!

Gajal (Kajal in Hindi)

Then there’s the makeup. I don’t wear makeup every day, but many women here do. Before going out, women apply lipstick, blush, sometimes foundation and always kajal (eyeliner). Many people have pushed me to wear gajal everyday, saying that it brightens my eyes. There’s also a tradition here of putting this type of eyeliner on babies and children because it’s supposed to protect from glare and be good for the eyes. I like gajal, but it sucks when you have something stuck in your eye, start rubbing it, and you end up smearing the gajal all over the place (yes, I have this done this multiple times). I’m still trying to figure out if I want to wear this everyday.

Will I keep up some of these practices when I’m back in the US? Maybe. I think I’ll stick to wearing pote. I have always wanted Tri to wear a wedding ring, something that’s part of my culture, so I guess it’s only fair for me to wear this type of necklace. It’s also not difficult or taxing. Pote can be gorgeous and fun to wear too. If I do end up getting my nose pierced here, I’ll probably keep the piercing in. If I’m going to go through that much pain to start with, I’m not going to want to give it up.

In intercultural, interreligious, etc marriages and relationships, there’s always a pull and tug between two (sometimes more) entities, not necessarily between the people in the relationship but sometimes the forces outside of it. Tri doesn’t care one way or the other if I wear kajal or get my nose pierced, and I feel so lucky for that! Instead, it’s his family or friends or the aunties down the street who push me to do these things. I know that some of the people who read this blog have lived abroad, come from multiple cultures, or have been in intercultural, inter-religious relationships. I’m interested to hear how you have negotiated these multicultural influences. What aspects of the cultures you’ve come in contact with have you decided to adopt as your own and what have you decided to ignore?

I also want to mention that women value different aspects of body modification and appearance in different parts of Nepal. Some Sherpa women cap their teeth in gold, some women in the Tarai wear tattoos on their arms and faces, and some Gurung and Tamang women pierce their noses in two spots, on the side and in the middle. These forms of body modification sometimes have a religious or spiritual significance and sometimes they don’t. I’ve only been expected to follow rules that pertain to Bauns and Chhetris because I married a man from one of these castes.

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A Day for Laxmi

This past week, many Nepalis celebrated Tihar, the festival of lights. It’s also called Dipawali here and in India Diwali. Tihar is a series of puja‘s (“religious worship”) that are done over the course of 4-5 days. On the first day is kaag (crow) puja and on the second kukkur (dog) puja. On the third day, there is both gai (cow) puja and Laxmi (the goddess of wealth) puja. On the fourth day, according to wikipedia, there are potentially three pujas that can be performed: gobardhan (cow dung) puja, goru (bull) puja, and Mha (self) puja–performed in the Newar community. On the last day is Bhai (brother) Tika, which is not a puja but a day where sisters put tika (often red vermilion powder mixed with water) on their brothers’ foreheads.

This year, Laxmi Puja fell on a Wednesday, our fourth night in Bhutwal. The family friends we were staying with on Wednesday worked much of the day, cooking food and preparing the alter for the puja. The day before, they made some of the traditional Nepali treats that are eaten around Tihar, like celrotikhajuri, and goje (or bharuwa). Celroti is made from rice flower batter that’s been fried in oil. It’s crunchy when right out of the frying pan but gets stale quickly, so it’s not one of the favorite desserts. However, the khajuri, made from flower, butter, and sugar was so delicious, sweet and crumbly. I also like the goje (comes from goji, meaning “pocket), which was stuffed with ground coconut and sugar.

There were already enough hands in the kitchen, so I went with one of the girls to help make the rangoli. A rangoli is placed in front of the door to the house and is be made from colorful powder (avir) and flowers (often marigolds, sayapatri). I didn’t see these in Kathmandu when we returned on Friday, and Tri told me that they’re more popular in Southern Nepal. I also found out through my friend’s blog that South Indians living in Indonesia make rangolis as well.

The girl I was helping bought some avir from the market. After bringing it home, she added very finely ground cement to thin out the brightly colored powder. To start, she made a rectangle of marigolds and then used the lid of a big pot to trace a circle inside of the rectangle. Then she added some designs with white powder inside of the circle and filled them in with color. To do this, she took a bit of powder between her fingers and slowly sprinkled it inside of the white lines. I thought it looked easy, so I tried it, but my work looked awful. It was clumpy and uneven, so, due to my lack of skill, I mostly just watched the making of the rangoli. After about half and hour, it was finished…

Footprints were also painted on the stoop outside of the house.

They lead up to the room in which puja was performed and are supposed to guide Laxmi into the home.

Before the puja started, our hosts lit lots of diyo‘s (small ceramic bowls with wicks) and put them in front of every room in the house. They also prepared them for the puja…

Then everyone, dressed in their finest, gathered for the puja.

I like Tihar because it’s about respecting things that are important in our lives. The crow and dog are worshipped because they perform important services; they are messengers and guards. The cow and bull are respected because of the milk and work they provide. I’m not sure about why cow dung is worshiped, although it is considered a sacred substance because it comes from the cow, a representation of Laxmi. Although my family doesn’t celebrate Mha Puja because they aren’t Newar, I think that’s my favorite of the pujas. nepaliaustralian describes it here. It’s an opportunity to formally show respect to ourselves. I also enjoy Bhai Tika, the last day of Tihar, because it acknowledges the important and unique relationship between sister and brother. I’ve been told me that when we celebrate tihar next year, I’m going to have to perform Bhai Tika. I have to two brothers back in the US, so maybe I’ll have to give them tika through skype 🙂

A Trip Down South

We’re back! It was an intense trip that included meeting lots of new people, a visit to the birthplace of the Buddha, and a trip to the emergency room, but we all made it back in one piece.

We left Kathmandu on Sunday and arrived at about 5pm in Bhuttwal, a little city an hour’s drive from Lumbini. We stayed there with some friends of my father-in-law. Much of their family was gathered there for Tihar, and we brought along 9 people (including me, Tri, Tri’s brother and dad and a number of family friends). All together, including the staff in the house, we were 33 people. Although it was, at times, a little overwhelming, I loved it. There was always something to do, people to talk to, food to eat. I had never met these people before this week, but now they feel like family.

On Monday morning, we set out for Palpa, a hill station about an hour and a half out of Bhuttwal. It was a bit crazy getting out of the house because there were so many of us, but we finally made it for a picnic lunch.

On Tuesday, 10 of us went over to Lumbini to see the temples. Lumbini is in the Terai (the planes of Nepal), only about half an hour from the Indian border. Before coming to Nepal in 2009, I visited Delhi and Agra, and Lumbini really reminded me of what I saw there. In India, the land was flat and dry and the weather hot, very much like Lumbini. The people also looked more like the Indians I met in Agra and Delhi than the Nepalis I know in Kathmandu. Lumbini is a cluster of beautiful temples right in the middle of a vast expanse of farmland. Different countries have donated money to build temples to the Lord Buddha, many of them replicates of Budhhist temples from those places. Here’s the Thai one…

The Cambodian one was under construction, so we couldn’t go inside, but you can see the top of it here…

The German, supposedly one of the most elaborate ones, is built in a Nepali style. I love the ceiling…

Going to see the Buddha’s actual birthplace was the best. There are ruins in the middle of Lumbini supposedly from Siddhartha Gautam’s family palace. They also have the stone on which Siddhartha’s foot was imprinted after he was born. Of course I was a bit skeptical about the lumpy imprint on that stone being from the baby Buddha’s foot, but I didn’t mind extending my imagination a bit 🙂 There were tourists from all over, including a number of pilgrims from South India. You can see the ruins on the grass. The people in white are the pilgrims…

I started re-rereading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse when we were down there, a book I remember loving in high school. It’s a little slow but a good story. I can’t give a proper review of it because I haven’t read it in so long, but I would recommend it to anyone interested in religion in this area.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection between Buddhism and Hinduism in Nepal, partly because of one of Barani’s comment on this post about Buddhism having only a small influence in Nepal. Thulobaa (Tri’s uncle; literally means “big dad”) came with us on the trip down to Bhuttwal, and I asked him if there were any Buddhists in his family. Although I don’t think he would call himself a Buddhist, he said that he and many other Hindus practice Buddhism because they consider the Buddha to be a god. Similarly, there are a number of people in Nepal who would call themselves Buddhists but celebrate Hindu holidays. The fact that the Buddha can be worshiped and loved in what was once considered the only Hindu Kingdom on earth is only one example of the tolerance for diversity and difference that I see so often in Nepal.

Anyway, I’ll add some more photos to the photo page, and I’ll post a little about what we did for Tihar, in particular Laxmi Puja, soon.

Going Away Again

We’re headed out of Kathmandu tomorrow. This coming week is a holiday week (Tihar – the festival of lights – is coming up), so we have a few days off. We’re planning to go to Lumbini or somewhere around that area. I never really know exactly where we’re going or what we’re doing on these trips, so it’s always a surprise, which can be fun 🙂 If I have internet, I’ll post. Otherwise, I’ll see in a few days!

Also, thank you everybody for the discussion on jutho! I learned so much.

Indo-European Roots

When I started this blog, I honestly thought I would be writing more about language. I was a linguistics major in college and love thinking about and trying to understand the complexities of language. So in honor of my major, I thought I would write a post about Nepali…

Nepali is part of the Indo-European language family, a big family that includes many of the languages spoken in Europe, across Afghanistan and Iran, and into parts of the India subcontinent. All of these languages from English to to Farsi to Hindi are descended from one language, what linguists call “Proto-Indo-European.” Before I started learning Nepali, although I knew that Nepali and English are distantly related, it never really meant much to me.

After I started learning Nepali, I began to see a lot of words that look very similar to English words, and this distant relationship between Nepali and English became more tangible and real to me. I learned words like naam, which means “name” and daant, which means “tooth” in English but sounds very similar to the French word for tooth, “dent,” and is related to the English word “dental.” I was talking to my grandfather about Nepali last year, and it came up that the word for “well” (as in “are you well?”) is sanchai or sancho in Nepali. He thought this might share a root with the word “sane” in English, which also in one sense means “well.” A few more of these cognates include:

manche, which means “man” or “person”

naya, which means “new”

musa, which means “mouse”

Even the word “go” in English is related to the word for “go” in Nepali. The verb for “to go” is jannu, but in the past tense, it is gae (first person, past tense), which does look very similar to “go.”

Although similar sounding words often share a root, it is not always so. To check these words that I think may be related, I use this Etymological dictionary. If you type in the English word, then it will give you its roots in older languages like Old English, Latin, and Proto-Indo-European (PIE). You may also find a note that gives the equivalent word in Sanskrit (abbreviated as Skt.), from which Nepali is descended. If the English word is related to the Sanskrit word, and the English word sounds similar to the Nepali word, then I can be pretty sure the English and Nepali words share a common root.

For one of the seminars I took during senior year of college, I had to read a book called Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us by Nicholas Evans. It’s a great read that gives a lot of fascinating facts about a lot of different languages. As I was flipping through the book, I found this quote by the author about the Nepali word lakh,

‎Hindi and other Indian languages have a unit ‘lakh,’ meaning 100,000. (The Sanskrit word laksa, from which ‘lakh’ derives, comes from the same root as the German word ‘lachs’ “salmon” and its Yiddish and now English counterpart ‘lox’; the extension to 100,000 was based on a metaphor of huge numbers of swarming salmon.

Doesn’t that just blow you away? I always thought of “lox” as a distinctly European word, but to find out that it’s origin goes beyond Europe is amazing.

I’m not sure why these remnants of that ancient, common language are so fascinating to me. I guess they remind me that it’s very likely Tri and I come from the same stock of people. We’ve had quite a few friends and family tell us that we look alike, so maybe we even share a distant ancestor 🙂

If you’re interested in this kind of thing, another fun thing to do is to check out the Romani language, spoken by the Romani people in Europe. Many believe that the Romani people originated in South Asia, and a look at their language supports that possibility.

Here’s a list of Romani phrases.

Look at the third one down, amaro baro them, meaning “our big land” or “our ancestral land.” The amaro looks an awful lot like the Nepali word hamro, meaning “our,” and the baro looks a lot like the Nepali word bado and Hindi word bada, which both mean “big.” Although the Romani people’s migration out of South Asia began over a thousand years ago, they were able to maintain their language.

For more examples from the Romani language, check out this online dictionary.

Impurity, the Caste System, and How I Fit into It

Yesterday I started writing about my experiences with and reactions to the concept of jutho, translated as “impure” in English. In this post, I wanted to write a bit more about that concept as it relates to my place the caste system.

I’ve always found that members of the Baun, “Brahman” caste adhere most strictly to rules concerning jutho. Tri’s dad’s family is Baun, and Bua’s parents always followed rules about jutho. Bua told us that when he was little, his mom prohibited him from learning the English alphabet because it was considered a jutho language. Another family friend told us that when he was in the 13-day mourning period that happens right after a family member dies, a Baun neighbor told him not to speak English. During this period, people must eat a very simple diet, not touch others, and try to purify themselves. Because his neighbor thought of English as an impure language, she considered it inappropriate to speak it at a time when he was supposed to be purifying himself.

English is supposedly impure because it’s considered a gai khane bhasha, literally a “cow-eating language,” meaning a language spoken by people who eat cows. In Hindu culture, the cow is a god, and eating beef is a big no-no. Those who eat it are apparently impure and so is there language.

These rules about jutho are part of a Hindu tradition. Many members of ethnic minority groups in Nepal who are not Hindu pay no heed to these rules. When I lived with a Buddhist Sherpa host family, my host sister didn’t care one way or another whether or not I followed rules about jutho.

A few weeks ago, some older, distant relatives came over to visit. After arriving, the women started cooking in the kitchen. I try to learn about Nepali cooking whenever I can because I’m truly hopeless when it comes to cooking the local cuisine, so I went into the kitchen to observe. I immediately noticed that one of the women was uncomfortable, but I ignored it, thinking it had nothing to do with me. Then I started pointing to different foods, asking their names and how they were to be cooked. Although one of the women was responding to my questions, another of them pulled back away from me. She then said in Nepali, “You stay over there, okay?” while pointing to the opposite side of the kitchen.

When it was time to eat, I went over to get a spoon from the drawer. This woman was sitting by the drawer and looked very uncomfortable as I neared. Out of respect, I stopped and asked Tri to get the spoon for me because, at that point, I understood she didn’t want me to touch or come close to her.

After they left, I talked to Tri about what had happened. He explained that because I am a foreigner, they believe that I am and will always be jutho. Any food that I touch supposedly becomes impure as well. Most of this impurity apparently arises from the fact that I come from a country and a group of people who eat beef.

A few days later, I was talking to Maijiu (Tri’s Aunt) about the experience, and she asked me, timero man dukhyo? “Did your heart hurt”? I said no, trying to brush it off, but it hurt a little. I keep reminding myself that it’s just what they grew up with. I also realize that what I have to deal with pales in comparison to what others have to put up with. I know of some people who are not Baun but married into Baun families. They were treated in a similar way but much more frequently. I only have to put up with this attitude once in a while.

Although I don’t like how they treated me, I feel a little better about the whole thing. They came over again this past weekend and weren’t as harsh. Once they realized that I respect their culture and that I can speak Nepali, they eased up a bit. One of them even sat next to me, and we had a nice conversation about her daughter (whom I’ve met and really like). I also feel incredibly lucky that Tri’s dad is not this way. Although he comes from a conservative family, he has always been very open, accepting, and does not believe in these types of restrictions.

Thoughts on the Concept of Impurity in Nepali Culture

I’ve hesitated to write about this topic because it’s complex, and I’m still working to understand all of its nuances. Notions about and rules concerning impurity are prevalent in many aspects of Nepali culture, from traditions surrounding mourning to menstruation to the caste-system. Some of the rules are practical, but some of them have been very hard for me to come to terms with.

Jutho is the Nepali word for “impure.” In Nepal, we eat with our hands, and once I touch the food on my plate to my mouth, my hand and the whole plate of food are considered jutho. I can’t reach for the serving spoon to take a second serving for myself because it would contaminate the non-jutho food. In Nepali culture, the left hand is also considered impure. Because it is the one used for wiping, touching others, handing them things, or serving with the left hand is impolite. These rules reduce the spread of germs and are, in that way, very practical.

The concept of jhutho extends way beyond the hands, though. As I’ve mentioned in some of my other posts, this year, because Tri’s mom died, we can’t celebrate any holidays. This is because we’re considered jutho. I still don’t understand exactly why we’re considered jutho (I’m still investigating this one), but I do understand some of the reasoning behind this rule. It forces the mourners to really mourn and remember the one they lost. It also frees them from performing some of the social obligations involved with Nepali festivals at a time when they’re feeling bad. On the other hand, a year is a long time to be restricted from any kind of celebration, and it can be painful and lonely.

Although I don’t understand all of the traditions behind these rules about impurity as they relate to mourning, I respect and accept them. I struggle more to accept impurity in other contexts, especially as it affects women.

When a woman is menstruating, she is considered jutho. She cannot touch other people or their things; she cannot go in the kitchen, cook, or touch others’ food or water.

When I was studying abroad, I lived with a fairly conservative host family that followed traditional rules about jutho, and the first time I had my period in their house, I was shocked. My host aamaa was very strict and wouldn’t let me come in the kitchen. I had to sit in a separate room while eating, and I couldn’t serve myself; she had to serve me.

There was a teenager who used to work in their house as a domestic helper. One day, when I had my period, we were outside washing clothing. Before we started, he filled a bucket with water and then went inside the house to get some soap. I thought I would help him by bringing the bucket over to the dirty clothes. As I was lugging the water across the patio, he came back outside looking really mad. “Why did you touch the water?” he yelled at me in Nepali. He then took the bucket, dumped out the precious water and refilled it before washing the clothing.

There is some positive that comes out of the rules about jutho as they relate to menstruation. For women in Nepal who work hard from before day break to sunset, that time of the month is a time to relax. The men often cook the meals, and women are off the hook. On the other hand, for women to get a break from work, why do they have to be considered “impure”?

Thankfully my immediate Nepali family members don’t believe in that type of jutho, so it’s never been an issue in our house. One of the interesting outcomes of the tradition is that periods are less taboo here than in the US. If I can’t enter the kitchen, then everyone in the family knows when I have my period. In the American culture I grew up with, people didn’t talk about periods and definitely didn’t want others to know about them.

I still struggle with the rules about menstruation, but it was something that I dealt more with as a study abroad student, living with a host family. The jutho that I’ve been struggling with recently has to do with how I fit into the caste system in Nepal, something I’ll leave for tomorrow’s post.