The Multilingual Norm

I grew up in a monolingual home in an area where the majority of people were monolingual. In sixth grade, I started my first French class and enjoyed it a lot, but I never expected to use what I learned outside of the classroom. I wasn’t interested in foreign exchange programs to French-speaking countries and never talked to anyone in French outside of my classes. Languages were considered difficult to master by most people around me, and there was a prevailing attitude in my school and among my peers that we wouldn’t ever be able to speak the languages we were learning that well or actually need to.

A few years ago, I was really happy to hear that the school district I went through has started offering language classes before the sixth grade. They’ve also added at least one non-European language, Mandarin, to the list of available courses. And I imagine their attitudes towards second (and for some students third or forth) language learning have changed a bit. But those efforts were too late for me. I had to learn a second language through other routes and learn to appreciate multilingualism on my own.

At that point in my life, I doubted I’d ever have the opportunity to become proficient in a second language, let alone use it in my daily life. That changed when I met Tri. Our first-date anniversary is coming up, so I’ve been reflecting on those first few months of getting to know him. I still remember the very first Nepali word that he taught me: khatraak-khutruk. I kind of can’t believe he taught me that one as a first word because it was particularly hard for me to pronounce with the Nepali ‘r’s in it, but I made him repeat it again and again and would pop into his room to practice it with him. It’s an onomatopoeia that means “stuff” (sometimes this type of word is called an “expressive” because some people limit the definition of onomatopoeia to words that represent sound, whereas this one is used to things or the state of things). If you look around a room and see lots of little things, maybe covering the ground, potentially in a chaotic state, you might say, “This room is filled with katraak-kutruk.”

That first word was the start of my Nepali language learning, which has been one of the most rewarding and at times, the most frustrating projects I’ve ever started. I’ve been meaning to write a post about the process of learning Nepali, but I wanted to talk about living in a multilingual environment, why I enjoy it, and how that has changed the way I look at language and fluency.

As many of you know, Nepal is a highly multilingual place where people speak languages that are part of at least two major language families (Indo-European and Tibeto-Burman). You really see this multilingualism in action here. On a daily basis, I hear at least three languages being spoken around me: English, Nepali, and Hindi. But I also hear Newari (or Newa Bhasha) pretty often, and I hear Maithali every once in a while. (Maithali is an Indo-European language spoken in Southern Nepal). When outside of Kathmandu, you can often hear an even greater variety of languages on a day-to-day basis. When I lived with my Sherpa host family, I would speak English with my friends, Nepali with my host family, wake up to my family chatting away in Sherpa, and listen in on my neighbors conversing in Tamang.

Being in a multilingual environment was definitely difficult for me at first. When I came to Nepal in summer of 2009, I had a rough time learning the new sounds and expressing myself in a foreign tongue. I didn’t start to feel comfortable with it until the end of my time here in December of 2009. But now that I’m back here and my Nepali is a bit better this time around, things are easier, and I’ve been able to enjoy the multilingualism more. Before, I was struggling to understand the simplest of words and on top of that, trying to adjust to life in a new culture. And I still feel awkward sometimes speaking in Nepali; on some days, I just can’t get my tongue around those sounds, and everything I say comes out jumbled. I also can’t easily express complex thoughts or feelings in my second language, but I understand most everything that’s said to me and can say most things I want to. That has made living here much easier. It’s also allowed me to start paying attention to and learning a little bit of at least one of the other languages spoken in Nepal.

When I was in high school, I dreamed about studying abroad in India and learning Hindi. I don’t know why I wanted to learn Hindi in particular, but for some reason, it seemed like an interesting language to learn. I’ve loved learning Nepali and I don’t regret studying Nepal one bit, but I still have that itch to learn Hindi. Lucky for me, there are lots of Hindi speakers in Nepal, so I’ve been able to pick up some of it here and there. Since we’ve moved into this new house, we’ve had a lot of workers in and out setting things up, doing last minute construction, and many of them are from either Southern Nepal or India. They often speak Hindi with each other. I can understand a lot from knowing the context and by recognizing words that are the same or similar to ones in Nepali. My brother-in-law also speaks to me in Hindi sometimes. He’s quite good and learned mostly from TV and film. He does it to joke around, and although sometimes I get irritated because I can’t understand him! I do appreciate it 🙂

Multilingualism is omnipresent in Nepal. Most people speak at least two languages and many people speak three or more. Although that’s almost unimaginable to me, and especially was to my high school self, I’ve found that multillingual communities often have a different definition for “knowing a language” that makes multilingualism seem less of a hurtle. When I was growing up, fluency seemed like an unatainable dream. But what I’ve come to understand is that “fluency” and whatever that means doesn’t matter when learning a language. If language is about communication, then the most important thing is to make yourself understood, whether or not you use perfect grammar, whether or not you have great pronunciation. And many people here, when they say they “know a language,” they don’t mean that they know every part of it, that they can say everything that they might every want to say in that language; they mean that they can communicate. This new definition of “knowing a language” (new for me at least) is good news for us second language learners. When I realized that ability to communicate, not fluency was the goal I was aiming for, my life got so much easier! Most of you are probably rolling your eyes and saying, yeah, we knew that ages ago, but for me, it was a such a revelation. It has changed the way I look at language and language learning and made me much less self-concious about how I sound when I speak Nepali. This in turn has allowed me to relax and just enjoy the process of learning, rather than worry about the details.

The other thing that I just love about being around many languages is getting to listen to them. It’s even better when I don’t understand what’s being said. Languages all have their unique quirks and can differ significantly in the sounds they make use of, and I love just sitting in a room, forgetting about trying to understand what is being said and instead listening to how it’s being said. In college, I remember enjoying my Phonetics and Phonology class which dealt with sound systems and how sounds are produced and used in language. However, I still can’t pinpoint the reason why I enjoyed it and why I like listening to speech sounds. But getting the opportunity to be around so many languages and listen to them is definitely one thing I’ve loved about being in Nepal.

There’s this stereotype about Americans that we’re all monolingual and don’t think multilingualism is all that important. While it’s just a stereotype and there are plenty of people who defy that stereotype, there’s some truth to it too. However, now that the United States’ position in the world is changing and more people are acknowledging the reality of globalization, I think this attitude towards language is changing. There are so many benefits that come with striving towards multilingualism and living in a multilingual environment. I don’t know what linguistic direction the US will take. But at the very least, if I do have kids, I hope I can provide them with linguistic opportunities from a young age and encourage them to appreciate multilingualism in a way that I couldn’t until I was an adult.

Protests, Paperwork, and Finally, the GRE

I set out for the GRE two days before I actually took it. We just moved into a new house, and at the beginning of this week, the stairs still hadn’t been polished, so we had to get out of the house on Tuesday when that was set to happen. That’s why Tri and I left to stay at Mama’s house on Monday night. The plan was that we would stay there, and I would go with Mama and Maijiu to their office on Tuesday. Then we would stay at Mama’s again on Tuesday night and Tri would take me to my test on Wednesday morning before he went to work. Then we would return home on Wednesday evening.

The plan was a little complicated from the start but it got even more so. On Monday night, after getting to Mama’s, we found out that a number of student unions had scheduled a bandha for Wednesday. Streets would be closed and no cars allowed to travel. At that point, I was freaking out a bit. How was I going to get to my GRE? But then Tri figured that we might be able to stay with someone close to the center where the GRE was being held. In the morning, we could just walk over to the center. We ran through our list of relatives and friends and realized that one of Tri’s close family friends lives 15 minutes from the testing center. So we called her up and asked to stay over there on Tuesday night. She said yes. I went to work with Mama and Maijiu on Tuesday and tried to get some last minute studying done, although I was kind of all-studied-out. In the evening, I returned with Mama and Maijiu to their house and Tri came over from work to pick me up. Then we left right away for J-Auntie and R-Uncle’s house.

When we got there, we ate buff momo (water buffalo dumplings), which are pretty much forbidden at our house because Buwa doesn’t eat water buffalo. Most of the Hindus I know avoid beef, but some of them also don’t like to eat water buffalo. I don’t normally eat buff either, but I didn’t actually realize it was buff when I ate it, and those momo were delicious, so no complaints from me. We went to bed on Tuesday and woke up to the alarm Wednesday morning. After a breakfast of cake and eggs, Tri walked me over to the testing center and waited until they let me in. Then he left for work, which is only a 10-15 minute walk from the center.

My mom asked me to tell her what it was like taking the GRE in Nepal. Honestly, I think it it’s probably very similar to taking it in the US. The whole thing was very regimented. The building in which the test took place was outfitted with cameras and a handheld metal detector, which was all a little bit intense. But the thing that made me uncomfortable was that the test proctor kept walking up and down the middle aisle in the testing room every half hour or so. I guess she was doing it to make sure we were actually taking the test so not a huge deal.

The thing that really tripped me up, though, happened before the test. In the form I had to fill out, there was a section with a statement that we had to copy. The statement affirmed that I was actually who I said I was and had something in it about agreeing to not cheat. That’s all fine, but it required that I write it in cursive! I ended my cursive days long ago in elementary school when I put that arcane script to rest in the third grade. I get all the way through middle school, high school, and college without having anything to do with it and then, unexpectadbly, cursive rears its ugly head. The other two people taking the test with me nonchalantly started copying in perfect little loops, but not me. When I finally started writing out the statement, I first tried to be neat and orderly but ended up with some kind of pseudo-cursive that turned into chicken scratch and slowly morphed into print. When I handed the proctor my paperwork, he scanned it and stopped near the bottom. I thought he had seen my sorry attempts and was going to make me rewrite it, but it turned out I had just forgotten to check a box about my country of citizenship. Phew! I was off the hook.

Despite that little snafu, everything else was pretty smooth sailing and it looks I won’t need to retake it. Thank gods! 🙂

Poverty and Wealth, Side by Side

Masala Bou wrote an interesting post about wealth and poverty in India and her reactions to it. Her experience reminded me of my own in Nepal, and these last few days, I’ve been trying to understand and tease out my own reactions to wealth and poverty.

According to The World Bank, Nepal is the poorest country in South Asia. I’ve read a number of different statistics about the percentage of people living in poverty, and they seem to vary a bit, but from what I can tell, between 30 and 40 percent of people in Nepal live below the international poverty line, which means they live on less than $1.25 a day. The problem with this definition of poverty is that it’s a little bit arbitrary, as many thresholds are, and it ignores the fact that quality of life does not necessarily go down with decreased income. A lot of the people that would fall under the poverty line in Nepal are subsistence farmers who grow what they eat and don’t need much money to survive on or even live well. For about a month two years ago, I stayed with a Sherpa farming family a rural area of Nepal that practiced subsistence farming. Although they also had a small lodge for trekkers that brought in some money, and the husband in that family was a teacher for part of the year, they had a very small income. I’m not sure if they would fall under the international poverty line, but they were quite poor by Western standards, and I met with other families living in the village who definitely did fall under the international poverty line. But were these people really poor? When I think of poverty, I think of destitution and squalid conditions, but this family was definitely not living in that type of situation. They had a comfortable house, they owned land and always had enough to eat.

But there are a lot of people in Nepal who do live in much worse conditions and don’t have land or houses of their own. The poverty that you see is a strange and disturbing contrast to the wealth that’s also present in Nepal. I’ve met Nepali businessmen here who have done tremendously well and are richer than anyone I know in the US. They build expansive houses and buy cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars (with Nepali tax included). And then right outside the gate to their house, there’s a man sleeping on the street.

The disparity in wealth, the gap between the rich and poor, as far as I can tell, is growing in Nepal. I just saw the documentary Inside Job about the people largely responsible for the irresponsible lending in the US that led to the recession. Definitely see it if you haven’t. Not only was it fascinating, it also made me angry as hell. The greed of these powerful people have connections not only on Wallstreet but also in DC just blows my mind. The film notes the growing wealth gap in the United States, a disparity that I’ve heard is increasing in other parts of the world as well.

Shortly after I arrived in Nepal, I wrote this post about the economic innovation happening here, and as I reread it now, I can see how excited I was when I published that post. It is exciting; people are doing creative things, starting successful businesses, changing the country. But somehow I feel more wary of the whole thing than I did back then.

I’ve been thinking about my wariness and trying to figure out why I’m feeling that way, and I think it has to do with my upbringing in the US. I grew up on the American Dream. The idea is that if you have the smarts and can just work hard enough, you can make it. You can get an education, have your house and car, go on vacation. There’s this idea that success is purely based hard work and smarts, not where you grew up or who you know or who your parents know. Of course it’s a lie and intellectually I know this but I think I still wanted to believe in that meritocracy and not just in the US but in Nepal too. And then I came here and realized on more than just an intellectual level that the world doesn’t work that way.

What has shocked me in Nepal is just how much who you know matters. Occasionally you hear stories here of people rising up, working hard and using their smarts to start companies and make lots of money, but it’s almost never as simple as that. I always knew this but to really understand it on an emotional and experiential level is different.

Living in Nepal has put both poverty and wealth in perspective for me, but also confused me a bit. While living here, I’ve felt both incredibly rich and really poor. I feel wealthy because I look around and see people sleeping on the streets and know that I have warm place to go home to and three square meals a day; I feel really grateful for that. But I feel financially poor thinking about how little I’m making every month. As far as Nepali salaries go, it’s not bad at all, and I feel grateful to have a job and a steady income, but in comparison to American salaries, it’s very little. Although we don’t have to pay rent (because we live with Tri’s family), we end up spending a lot on groceries, clothing and our car, more than we probably would in the US. It’s quite strange that we have to spend so much on these things, but food here has become very expensive (as I’ve heard is also happening in other places around the world), and there are few clothing sales or second hand stores that sell things cheaply, so we pay a premium price for clothes. On the salaries that we have, there’s no way that we could buy a house for many many years to come, even with meticulous savings. Because a lot of people feel like the salaries paid to workers aren’t enough, if they have the resources, they’re turning to business to make money. And it’s great if you are able to be successful at that, but for those who aren’t, it can be difficult.

Before I came to Nepal, I wanted to keep open the possibility of settling and making a life here. But over the last few months, I’ve felt more and more like that would be near impossible for us. If we couldn’t eventually (in the years to come) make some kind of business venture work, then there’s no way we’d have enough funds to live the lives we’d want to live, buy a house, keep our car, travel back to the US to visit, save for retirement. Right now, we’re doing okay. We’re young and don’t need much to live on and even though we’re not making much, it doesn’t matter. I didn’t come to Nepal to make money; I came to be with Tri’s family, learn more about Nepal and its culture, improve my Nepali, and figure out myself out a bit. But when considering the future, it would be very hard for me to feel financially secure in Nepal. So we’ve pretty much closed the possibility of settling here. I always want to make Nepal part of my life, and I dream of the day that we might be able to spend part of the year in Nepal, maybe a few months during the summer. But for now, we plan to go back to the US, probably in another year or so.

Eating Locally in Kathmandu

Recently I saw the move Food, Inc. I’ve been hesitating to watch this film for a long time because I was told it’s incredibly depressing, but I gathered my courage and watched it one day a few weeks ago. I’ve heard a lot of what’s in the movie before, about how animals mass-raised for consumption are kept in awful conditions without proper ventilation, about how some chickens are bread to have extra breast meat and are so top heavy that they can only walk a few feet before falling down, about the antibiotics fed to livestock. I did learn a lot from the movie, though. Before I watched it, I had never heard of Food Libel Laws, which make it easier for food producers to sue for libel. Opera Winfrey was sued in 1998 for making some kind of disparaging remark about beef and Mad Cow Disease on her show.

I also didn’t really know the extent to which The Monsanto Company has been affecting small famers in the US. Their policies and practices are particularly on my mind these days because they’re trying to set up test plots in Nepal (with the support of USAID), something I think would be awful for the farmers here. Here are three articles that describe the issue in further depth: Nepali Times article, Republica article, ekpantipur article.

Food, Inc. is part of a movement that’s been generating speed for at least the last decade, although probably much longer. There have been a number of books and movies about fast food and mass food production in the United States. The two that come to mind are Fast Food Nation, published in 2002, and Supersize Me, a film featuring Morgan Spurlock, that documents his month eating only McDonald’s food. Other books and publications that have tried to promote alternative ways of eating are books like Michael Pollan’s Eat This, Not That and a book called Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. (Courtesy to my mom and brother for introducing me to a lot of these people and books).

I have a pretty cursory knowledge of this movement and its impact, but it has always seemed to me that one of its problems has been its inability to get a socio-economically diverse group of people involved. However, the basic messages that a lot of the books and movies set forth could benefit anyone. Some of the messages that I’ve come away with are things like mass-produced food is not so good for us and some of the food our grandparents and great grandparents cooked and ate should be reintroduced into our diets. The movies and books also suggest that we eat organic and local when available and when it fits within our budgets. None of these ideas are revolutionary or new, but probably good to remind ourselves of.

Living in Nepal has made it feasible for us to follow some of these suggestions but impossible to stick with others. For instance, organic food is hard to find here. There is a small market that I know of that sells organic produce and daal, but it’s far away and expensive. A lot of our food comes from small farms near our house, and I doubt that they use a ton of pesticides, but I don’t think they’re organic either. When I lived up in the hills with a Sherpa family, all of the food that they grew was organic (not certified as such), but they never used pesticides and their fertilizer was natural; it came from cows and chickens. But as far as I know, most farmers do not farm organically in the Kathmandu Valley, so our vegetables are generally not going to be organic.

Organic or freerange meat is also hard to come by. Although all of the meat we eat is local, from what I’ve heard, not all of it is raised in the best of conditions. You can get local kukhura, “local/free-range chicken,” (mentioned in this post) but it’s hard to find and again, expensive.

One thing that’s really easy to do in Nepal is eat locally.  Part of the reason for this is our fairly simple diet. Our main food consists of rice, daal, vegetables, flour (for making roti), and meat. Of course, I eat candy, crackers, biscuits, etc. that are often imported, but generally, on a daily basis, almost all of the food I eat comes from inside of Nepal and often from inside of the Valley.

The fields on which most of the saag we eat is grown

A fair number of the people living the Kathmandu Valley are still famers, and there are always fresh, locally grown vegetables available. Nepalis eat a lot of saag, which is a catch-all name for greens. The fields on which the saag we eat is grown are right near our house…

As I mentioned in some previous posts, Buwa has land right outside of the valley, and it’s rented out to farmers. We buy our rice and wheat from those farmers. Here’s our huge bucket of rice that came from a Nepali field…

Nepali Rice

We also get milk delivered every day from a farmer who lives nearby. He milks his cow in the morning and brings the milk to us in a container. It’s very yellow; the milk I used to buy in the US was always white. Someone told me that it’s yellow because the cow just had a baby, and so I guess the yellow color is indicative of extra nutrients and fat in the milk, but I saw something else online that said that yellow milk is caused by carotene, found in grass and other green plants. The milk I used to buy in the US was relatively more processed than the milk I drink here, so it’s unlikely that I ever would have peered into a container to find yellow milk.

I don’t think my diet is necessarily healthier here, but it is simpler, and living in Nepal has definitely led me to eat more locally than I would in the US. Part of the reason why my diet is so simple is because I don’t have as many options, but when I get back stateside, I will have lots of option, and I don’t know if I’m going to want to limit myself to eating locally. When I’m back in the US, if I see some great-looking imported fruit in the grocery stores in the winter, I don’t think I would stop myself from buying. But I think eating locally and even more than that being around farms and farmers has made me more aware of the whole process of growing food and what that entails.

The Power of Names

I just re-watched one of my favorite movies of all time, Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. All of his films are fantastic, both light-hearted and serious, full of detail, and always tackling universal issues like growing up, forming one’s identify, and conserving natural resources.

I’ll give a short synopsis for those who haven’t seen it (spoiler alert)…Spirited Away is about a little girl named Chahiro who moves to new town with her parents. During the drive to their new house, Chahiro’s dad veers off the main road to explore a bit, and they end up at the entrance to an abandoned theme park. While walking around, they smell cooking food and head towards the source. The delicious food tempts Chahiro’s parents into eating, and her parents gorge themselves, but Chahiro eats nothing. It turns out that the abandoned park is actually part of the spirit world, and the food that her parents ate was meant for the spirits. Her parents’ piggish behavior turns them into pigs, but Chahiro remains a human. However, despite the fact that she has not been turned into an animal, she has no way to get home, so must start working at the bath house in the spirit world. Over the course of the film, she goes through many trying experiences, learns to work hard, fights a demon, and gains courage and strength that didn’t posess before. She also frees the friend she has made, Haku, from the bonds of the bath house owner, turns her parents back into humans, and leaves the spirit world.

One of the underlying themes of the movie has to do with naming and identity. When Chahiro starts working at the bath house in the spirit world, she must handover her name to Ubaba, the owner of the bath house, in order to gain employment there. She is given a new name, Sen. Ubaba controls the workers at the bath house by stealing their names and giving them new ones, so if Chahiro/Sen ever forgets her real name, she can never leave the bath house, which is exactly what happened to her friend Haku. He is a river spirit who forgot his real name and has never been able to stop working for Ubaba. Part of Sen’s adventure includes helping Haku remember his real name and who he is. There is something powerful about the characters’ real names, the knowledge and ownership of which allow them to remain free and independent and avoid the grasp of Ubaba. The power that is accorded to names in the movie reminded me a little bit of the way that names are viewed in Nepali culture.

For starters, there are specific rules that dictate when it is appropriate to call someone by their first name and when it is not. It’s impolite to refer to people by first name in many circumstances, especially with elders. We have something similar in English. Children often use kinship terms like mother, father, grandmother and grandfather (or their equivalents like mommy, daddy, etc.) because not doing so is generally impolite. Growing up, I knew a few people who called their parents by their first names, but I always felt weird about doing it with my own parents.

This feeling of embarrassment about using first names with elders is multiplied a hundred times in Nepal. It’s extremely rude to call your elders by their first names, so kinship terms are used instead. Each term reveals the particular relationship between the person being referred to and the person using the term. For example, I often mention Mama and Maijiu on this blog. Mama means maternal uncle and is Tri’s mom’s brother. Maijiu means maternal uncle’s wife. Paternal uncle is said in a completely different way (kaka). There’s something about this rule that gives a certain power to first names. I guess that part of it is that uttering someone’s first name suggests that you are senior to them, so saying someone’s name in a way confirms your higher position in the hierarchy.

Wives are also not supposed to call their husbands by first names, although husbands can refer to their wives by the first name, a rule that I’m not too keen on. Once, when I was in Nepal two years ago, I was going out with Mamu to the store. Buwa was going to arrive before we got back to the house but he didn’t have the key, so she asked a neighbor to give him the key when he got there. To refer to Buwa, Mamu wouldn’t say his name; instead, she called him sir, a term the younger neighbor might have used to refer to Buwa (not the name that Mamu would have called Buwa while talking to him). I’ve also heard women refer to their husbands as uhaa or hajur, both honorific third person pronouns that can be used for men or women (the closest equivalents in English are “he,” “she,” “him,” or “her”).

There is another part of Nepali Hindu culture that accords power to names. The Nwaran ceremony is a ritual that takes place after the eleventh day in a child’s life (it might be a different day for girls; I’m not sure). During this event, the child is given a “secret name,” based on his horoscope, that he’s not supposed to disclose to anyone else. It reminds me of Christian baptism, although I don’t think the names given during baptism are supposed to be secret. If anyone else finds out about this name, they can supposedly use it to gain power over that person. When I was looking for information on this ceremony, I was able to find stuff about the rituals but not so much about the significance behind them. If anyone knows more about it, please chime in!

I’m not sure if my ramblings are really making sense. There’s no direct parallel between Spirited Away and naming practices in Nepal, but something about that movie reminded me of Nepali culture. What do you think? Is it valid to make these connections between Spirited Away and Nepali/Hindu culture?