An American Abroad

The book that my grandparents gave me

A few years ago, my maternal grandparents gave me a book called The House of Exile by Nora Waln. I flipped through it briefly, but with college papers and readings calling, I stuck it in my bookshelf and forgot about it. When I got back from Nepal, I was sorting through my room and found it again.

It’s an old book, written in the 1920’s by a woman who lived in China when she was a young adult. She moved there after receiving an invitation from a Chinese family and stayed for about 12 years.

As I started to read the book again, I remember why I had put it down in the first place. It’s a very slow read. She describes her life in China with extreme detail. To someone who knows a lot about China or to someone who is very interested in learning about China, I imagine the book could be captivating, but for me, it’s been a bit boring.

However, as I’ve been working my way through the book, I found some passages that caught my eye, made me laugh or reminded me of something from my own experiences abroad…

A Different World

After arriving in China, Nora Waln writes,

From the moment of my arrival…it was as though, like Alice, I had stepped through a looking-glass into another world. The world I left behind became a dim, fantastic dream. Only this in which I entered seemed real (30).

This really rang true. I remember being in Nepal and feeling like the U.S. was so far away, a different world, a different time. Sometimes I’d stop and think about where I was and just wonder in amazement at how different my life had become. This feeling became even more intense when I remembered that only a few years ago, I knew almost nothing about Nepal and didn’t speak a word of Nepali.

Dye Your Hair

As Nora settles into her new home in China, she begins to make relationships with the women in her household who end up teaching her a lot about China. She writes about one of the women in the house,

[She] wanted to dye [my] hair black, as it is the color of the yellow gentian of misfortune. But Shun-ko reminded her that yellow is also the color of the innermost petals of the sacred lotus (40).

This part made me laugh. I’ve had so many people tell me that I should dye my hair black, not because blond/yellow is considered the color of misfortune in Nepal, but just so that I would look more Nepali. I still haven’t dyed it black, although I did go through a period in high school and college where it was pink. Now-a-days, though, my dirty blond hair has grown on me, and it’s here to stay.

What was Missing

Something that was missing from this book was a sense of her reactions to and inner thoughts about her new life. I admit that I haven’t read the whole thing, so maybe she goes in that direction at some point in the book, but in the beginning, where she describes her first days, weeks, and months in China, she doesn’t. This makes the book read like a little like a list of events, rather than an intimate description of her life in China.

One thing that I wish she had elaborated more on was the process that she went through to learn Chinese. At one point, her hosts dress her up in fancy clothing and she goes to meet some of the important ladies in the extended family. After being unable to speak Chinese in front of them, one of them commands her to learn the language. Nora says, “I was not to be presented to audience again until I was sufficiently civilized to hear and to speak for myself” (51).

Later on Nora writes,

Eventually, however, my ear, my brain, and my tongue were sufficiently well versed for Shun-ko to present me…(51).

This is all she writes about her language learning. But I want to know how she learned it, how she felt about being immersed in a new language. Did she have low points and frustrations? Was she as impatient as I was?

All About the Women

Although I didn’t find her storytelling as rich as I hoped it would be, one thing I really loved about the book was the connection and intimacy that she has with the women of the household she lives in. They take her in, find her a place to stay in their already crowded home, teach her how to dress like a Chinese woman would, and take her to get her horoscope read. They tease and joke with her too. Nora’s strong connections with the women of the family is something I could really relate to.

Both while I was studying abroad and while I was living there this year, it was the women in Nepal who I had the closest relationships with. It was women who both loved and judged me, took me in like their own, told me secrets, cared for me, and scolded me when I did things wrong.

Final Thoughts

There are definitely interesting tidbits and quotes that pop out while reading The House of Exile, and there’s whole section towards the end of the book about the changing political climate in China at that time, which I’m interested in reading. However, I wanted Nora to go deeper and describe more of her reactions to China. Without being able to understand her feelings towards living abroad, it was hard for me to relate to more of her story.

Advertisements

Back From New Hampshire

I was off the internet most of last week because I was in New Hampsire with my mom, brother, and his friend. Tri came up to meet us on Saturday. Here are a few pictures from the trip…

Near Mount Washington

On top of Mount Major, looking over Winnipesauke Lake

A basin carved out by water

From the top of another hill in NH.

Tri and I got back on Saturday night and are settling into Boston. We’re about to move into our sublet for the summer and finally found a more permanent apartment for September 1st. Moving to a new city is so difficult! I can’t imagine doing it without the support network that we have. My mom has been a huge help, especially with hauling all of our stuff up here, as has my brother, who lives in Boston. Our Nepali friends have also been amazingly helpful. We’re staying at one of Tri’s family friend’s house right now, and one of our Nepali friends helped us find our apartment for September.

It’s always exciting to move somewhere new, and I imagine I’ll do it again for grad school and again after that for work. But after moving around so much, I do see the benefits of finding one place to call home. Who knows. Maybe it’ll end up being Boston.

About

I haven’t addressed what I’m doing with this blog, so I wanted to take a post to write about it. I started nepali jiwan to keep in touch with family and friends while we were abroad. But it also became a way for me to document our time in Nepal and a place to discuss and think about issues that I’ve been trying to understand better. Best of all, it has allowed me to connect with others and hear their thoughts on and ideas about topics that are important to me. I’ve learned so much from blogging and gotten to know so many interesting people that I don’t want to stop. So at this point, I’m going to keep going with the blog. I still have a lot I want to write about Nepal, and it’s such a big part of our lives that I imagine a lot of posts will continue to have something to do with Nepal, but I’ll probably be posting about other things in our lives as well, which brings me to my next point…

I want to give an update about what’s going on. Tri went up to Boston last Sunday to start work. I’ll officially being going there next weekend, although I’ll be in Boston on Tuesday night as well. Next fall I’ll be applying to grad school, and I’ll figure out where I’m going in the spring (if get in!). This coming year I’ll be taking the prerequisite courses that I need, hopefully finding part-time work, and exploring a new city 🙂

Navigating Language in the U.S.

When we first arrived in Nepal last summer, I think it took me about two months to readjust to hearing and speaking Nepali again. Although I had spent almost five months there before and spoke Nepali on a pretty regular basis with Tri while we were in the US, it was still a shock to hear so much Nepali at once.

Once I eased into the Nepali environment, I was able to start practicing and improving. The first time I was in Nepal, I was so overwhelmed. I was adjusting not only to a new language but also a new culture, living with a host family, and being away from Tri. Although I learned a lot of Nepali at that time, I didn’t pick up on many of the little things: the slang, the abbreviations, little words ( like “na” and “ni”) that are often added in for emphasis. Before, my Nepali probably sounded very stilted, but during these last months in Nepal, I had more time and energy to focus on picking up the bits and pieces that made my language sound more natural.

However, I’m in kind of a weird place with my Nepali. I understand most things being said and can respond to a lot of things, but people tend to think that I can speak more than I actually can. I’ve gotten really good at having some conversations. For instance, when I meet someone new, I can speak to them fluently about where they’re from, what they’re family is like, where I’m from, how I learned to speak Nepali, etc. I’ve mastered this basic conversational material, but problems start to arise when they think I can fluently talk about everything. If they start veering into a subject I don’t know much about or haven’t learned the Nepali vocab for, I may generally know what they’re saying, but I may not be able to respond in the right way. And when it comes to higher-order conversations or discussions about theoretical things, I get very lost. A lot of it is because I don’t recognize the words, but it’s also because I have trouble expressing myself and my thoughts in Nepali.

I’d love to get better, to learn more, to become more comfortable with the language. What I want to get better at is discussing politics or literature. Honestly, though, I don’t think that’s going to happen easily without taking a class or at least finding a teacher willing to spend time working on Nepali with me.

At this point, I don’t think I’ll get a chance to take a class and expand my Nepali in that way, but I have started trying to speak more Nepali with Tri. While we were in Nepal, Tri and I mostly spoke English to each other. I would usually need a break from a long day of hearing Nepali, so I always wanted to gab in English with him when I got home. But now that Nepali isn’t the majority language, I want to switch back to speaking with him in Nepali as much as I can.

One of the problems I face, though, is the risk of alienating others. I had a friend in college whose brother was in a relationship with a Chinese woman. They both spoke Chinese, and she used to speak to him in Chinese in front of my friend’s family. Her family didn’t like it. The US is particularly negative towards languages other than English, and I always feel a little worried when we say something to each other in Nepali while others are listening. I wish I didn’t have to feel that way. And if we ever have kids, I wouldn’t want to pass on that anxiety to them. I wouldn’t want to give them the message that speaking Nepali is something to be ashamed of. I don’t know. Maybe I should just relax about it and get in the practice when possible, even if others are around. I’d be interested to hear from others who speak a minority language with their family or friends…

What methods do you use to keep your language skills up? Do you feel anxiety about speaking it in front of others? What do you do about it?

Can’t Escape the Stick Shift

When I was a senior in high school, I had a pretty jarring car accident. I was driving two friends home from school one day. While I was crossing a busy street, another car came zooming over a hill and hit my car. My car spun out and hit the curb. No one was seriously hurt, although I did bang my head pretty hard and have to go to the emergency room. Although everyone was okay, the car was totaled, and I developed a horrible fear of driving.

I should have started driving again shortly after the accident so that I could regain my confidence and squelch the fear of driving that I was developing. But I didn’t. Except for maybe once or twice, I don’t think I really drove for a year and half after that, and I haven’t really ever gotten used to driving in the five years since my accident. I guess I didn’t really need to. I was in college, didn’t have a car, and didn’t need one. When Tri got a car after graduating, he pushed me to drive, but I was still hesitant.

Our Santro. It had its problems, but I do appreciate all it did for us 🙂

After we got to Kathmandu, we needed to buy a car to get to work in the mornings, so we got a Santro, a small Indian car. We talked about me learning to drive it, but no one ever pushed me to, and I wasn’t really interested.

It was easy and socially acceptable for Tri to be the sole driver. Many women in Nepal ride scooters and some ride motorbikes too, but it’s still unusual to see a woman driving a car. I really wish it weren’t so, and I think that if I had stayed in Nepal longer, or if we were planning to settle there more permanently, I would definitely have wanted to learn to drive. It’s important in emergencies and just convenient. However, it was very easy for me to slip into the passenger seat while Tri took the wheel. And because our car was a manual, and I don’t know how to drive a manual, I had even more of an excuse not to drive. BUT now that we’re back in the US, both Tri and I want me to start driving again.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need a car. As you can see, I’m not too fond of them. But we’re realistic and know that life will be a lot harder without one. Unfortunately we couldn’t bring our car with us to the US…or maybe it wasn’t such an unfortunate thing. It didn’t even have airbags, and the only reason it got such good gas mileage was because, as Tri likes to say, “it was a metal box on wheels.” So with no Santro by our side, we bought a new car last week. Although it’s a better car in better condition than the one we bought in Nepal, it was still cheaper than the Santro (Nepali taxes make car super expensive over there).

I really like it so far. The only catch is…it’s a manual! which is one of the reasons why it was such a good deal. I’ve always had this idea in my head that I should learn to drive a manual, so I guess this is my big chance. No escaping the stick shift for me.

Dealing with the Bureaucracy and Learning to Shop Again

Adjusting to life back in the US has been pretty problem free. Most things feel natural and easy to navigate, but I have hit a few roadblocks. First of all, I kind of forgot how complicated life is in the US. Tri and I are working on getting our health insurance set up again, buying car insurance, finding an apartment in Boston (where we’re moving in a few weeks!), getting our phones in working order and so many other little things.

I drove with my brother to the eye doctor yesterday morning and when we were about half way there, I realized I had forgotten my health insurance card. Neither of us could remember if you have to have it at the eye doctor, so we were ready to turn around, but a call to my mom let us know that I probably didn’t need it. In Nepal, things are more relaxed. You don’t need a health insurance card; in fact, we didn’t even have health insurance, and instead of having to make an appointment weeks in advance, we could call up and get one with only a few days wait. I realize that getting healthcare in Nepal is not so easy for everybody and only minimally available for many, but thankfully we didn’t have much trouble while we were there.

I was complaining to my brother, saying that life is so complicated here, but he reminded me that I used to call and talk about how difficult things were in Nepal. It’s true (at least it was for me). There are many things that are more difficult in Nepal, but the nice thing about life there is that there aren’t so many rules to be followed and not as much of a bureaucracy to deal with. It makes things a little simpler.

It may take a while, but I’ll eventually get used to dealing with all the little details that I have to deal with in the US. What I’m afraid I’ll never get used to is shopping.

Over the weekend we went to visit some friends and family in Washington DC. My aunt and cousin were driving up that way from further down South and wanted to meet us before they headed to another destination. We had lunch at a diner and then went to a nearby mall to check out the lego store. I was shocked. This place was a huge shopping complex with what must have been hundreds of stores. Stores for clothing, shoes, computers, stands to buy jewelry, get your eyebrows threaded, even a store selling only steinway pianos. It’s incredible. In some ways, it’s not all that different from big markets in Nepal like Ason where you can get most of the everyday things that you would be looking for. However, a place like Ason is overwhelming in a different kind of way. Its noises, smells, and intensity make it a lot to take in for a foreigner like me. But this mall was overwhelming because of its size and the huge range of items available. I mean, who ever thought that there would ever be a store dedicated just to plastic toy blocks?

When I was in high school I read a book called The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s a story about a white American missionary family that moves to the Congo in the late 1950’s. It’s a really great, detailed story full of interesting symbolism, but I remember it as being very sad. The youngest of the four daughters dies, and the other three daughters and the mother eventually all all find paths that lead them in very different directions. There’s this one scene from that book that stuck pretty strongly in my mind.

Leah, one of the daughters, marries an African man and decides to settle with him in the Congo. At one point, they visit the US to see if they want to move here. I don’t have a copy of the book, and I can’t find the specific details of this scene on the internet, but I remember them walking into a grocery store and being overwhelmed by the items they find and shocked at the abundance of it all. As far as I can remember, when Leah and her husband were in the Congo, they were living in a rural area, growing much of their own food; the ease of just walking into a store to buy food was the shocking part. I’m not experiencing the degree of shock that they did, but I can relate to the feeling. There’s just so much here, so much stuff available and so much variety. It’s amazing and wonderful but makes me a little sick to my stomach.

American Jiwan

We got back on Monday night. The journey getting here went pretty smoothly but was grueling like it always is. I got a smattering of sleep, but we were mostly up for the 32 hours.

I know that I’m in the US right now, but I keep forgetting.

I have this feeling that the electricity might go out any second, and I was surprised to remember that my electronics plug directly into the wall and don’t need adapters.

I also keep finding myself using Nepali mannerisms like shaking my head in the South Asia style to indicate a “yes.” I was doing it a lot when I was in Qatar and Heathrow airports, and I felt kind of embarrased about it, but they get enough South Asian travelers that I’m sure they’re used to it. Another habit I picked up while in Nepal is pointing with my middle finger. It’s rude to point with your index finger there, so I had switched to the middle one, but now I’ve really got to watch what I’m doing!

Things are so quiet here. We’re still jet lagged and have been getting up early. In the mornings, all I can hear is the soft patter of rain and chirping birds. In the morning in Nepal everybody is up and going about their day by at least six, if not earlier. If I’m up that early, I often hear a bell being rung for puja, people moving around, yells and conversations.

I feel kind of sad to be away from Nepal. The day we got here, I felt completely fine, excited to be back, ready to start new things, but I realized quickly how much I’m going to miss it.

When I arrived back in the US after my first trip to Nepal, I was really disoriented. I felt lost and uncomfortable, sad to be away from a place I felt like I was just getting to know. The first day that I came back those two and half years ago, Tri and I went to take a nap. I remember waking up suddenly and yelling at him, “timi ko ho? ma kahaan chhu?” (Who are you? Where am I?). When I had shrugged off the sleepy and confused feeling, we laughed about it, but I think it spoke to some of the problems I would have readjusting to my home country. This time around, it’s not nearly as bad, probably because I’ve figured myself out a bit better and am more comfortable with the path I’m taking. But that doesn’t stop me from missing it.

Anyway, I am really enjoying my American jiwan (American life). I’ve been drinking big, cold glasses of milk (cold milk isn’t usually drunk in Nepal) and gorging on my favorite brands of peanut butter. I’m also driving again!