Tuning in to Nepali Radio

Listing to Nepali radio on my phone

Nepali TV and radio have always been some of the hardest things for me to understand. People speak exceptionally fast and use lots of words that I’ve never heard before, so I usually only get bits and pieces. I was so grateful to have the BBC available on the radio in Nepal so that I could listen to the news in English as we were driving to work. But now that we’re back in the US, I miss Nepali radio! I don’t miss the talk shows so much because I couldn’t understand them very well in the first place, but I do miss the music.

Luckily I don’t have to miss it so much anymore because I can get Nepali radio on my phone 🙂 I just recently got an iPhone, and my mom showed me this cool app called Tunein Radio that you can download for free. It allows you to listen to music from all over the world. There are several Nepali radio stations available, although not every channel is always reliable. Sometimes you have to try a few before one will come through. Of course I could always listen to a song or two on youtube, but there’s something about the spontaneity of radio that’s just more fun. Although music is what I’m listening to most, I find myself tuning in to talk shows too because I’m realizing how much I miss hearing Nepali being spoken. Both talk and and music radio can also be great language-learning resources. At the very least, I’m hoping that hearing more Nepali will help me improve my accent. Happy listening!

Reactions to “Birth in Nepal”

Basanti and her family. Subina Shrestha is on the very left.

There’s an interesting documentary that I wanted to link to about birth in rural areas of Nepal. The movie (at the top of the page) is created and narrated by Subina Shrestha, a filmmaker and journalist. Although I try and veer away from movies/documentaries, etc. that are sad, I found this one really moving and wanted to share.

The film follows Basanti, a 31-year-old woman about to give birth to her sixth child. It documents the final week of her pregnancy and then her labor and delivery. Luckily she doesn’t face any major physical obstacles and gives birth to a healthy baby girl. But, as the movie documents, many women in remote areas of Nepal face much tougher deliveries. Labor and delivery are often painful and difficult experiences for all women, but imagine not having a hospital to go to or a doctor on call to perform a c-section if things went wrong?

Although hearing about the physical challenges of labor and delivery in a rural and remote part of Nepal made me pause, it was the social pressure and expectations that Basanti faced that were hardest to watch. There’s a moment in the film after Basanti has her daughter when she calls her husband, who is working in India, to tell him the news. She’s only able to leave a message, but he never calls her back. She says it’s because he’s mad that she didn’t have a son. Another woman mentions that Basanti told her that if Basanti had known it was a girl, she would have aborted. The preference for sons in that community is overwhelming and one of the more difficult things for me to come to terms with as an outsider and foreigner.

A preference for male children is an aspect of culture in Asia that I’ve never gotten used to. But it’s definitely not uniform throughout Asia or Nepal. In the Sherpa/Tamang village I stayed in, I felt like a preference for sons wasn’t as prevalent. In general, women seemed to have more autonomy there than among other families I had lived with, and many people were okay with having daughters. For instance, my host sister had three daughters, and although she said that she would have liked a son, she was okay with her daughters and told me she probably wouldn’t have any more kids.

In Kathmandu, there’s also less of an overt preference for male kids. I never felt like people were overly concerned with having male children, but I did feel a subtler preference for sons. When people would reference future children I might have, they would say to me, “When you have sons,…” I never heard anyone say, “When you have daughters,…”

As I get into my twenties, and more and more people I known have started having kids, pregnancy and childbirth have become more of a real thing for me. I’m not thinking of having a kid anytime soon! But issues surrounding pregnancy and childbirth have become a bigger part of my consciousness if that makes any sense. I think that’s partly why I felt such a strong reaction when I saw this movie. Anyway, the director Subina Shrestha is speaking at the TEDx conference being held in Kathmandu on July 28th, so if you’re in Nepal, you should totally go see her speak!

Wedding From Afar

Last year one of my cousins got engaged around the same time Tri and I decided to get married. I was really excited about it, but I kept waffling about whether or not I would go. I thought we might be in Nepal this summer, so at first, I said no. Then I found out we would be back in the US, so I said yes. But then I got a job for the summer that I couldn’t get time off for, so again I said no. I really wanted to go. I’ve never been to Washington state, where she lives, and haven’t seen this cousin in years. But alas, it wasn’t to be. My older brother also had to stay back in Boston for his job, but my parents and younger brother were able to fly out for the event.

They left last weekend, visited Seattle and then went up to Canada for a bit before traveling back for the wedding, which was this afternoon. Although I couldn’t be there in person, skype allowed us to watch the wedding from afar. My mom set up skype on her phone and called me before it started. Sorry for the bad photo quality, but here are the bride and groom…

I felt sort of out of place while watching, a bit like an interloper. It feels very strange to be watching a fancy event taking place across the country, in another time zone, while sitting on my bed wearing jeans and a t-shirt. But it was lovely to watch nonetheless. We had a couple of people skyping into our wedding last year, and I’ve heard of others doing it too. I’m still in awe that we are capable of connecting to each other in this way. Anyway, congratulations to my cousin and her husband!

A Kimchi Success

It worked! Today we went over to my brother’s house to pick up the kimchi, and it was deliciously sour, crunchy, and spicy. We’re hoping that as it continues to ferment, it will get a little bit softer, but overall we’re very happy with it 🙂

Kimchi fresh out of the fermenting pot

Jarred up and ready to be taken home

Kimchi 101

I’m not a particularly picky eater (maybe my family would say otherwise), but honestly although I’m wary of certain meats (and don’t eat beef or pork), I’ll pretty much eat whatever you put in front of me. I wasn’t always that way, though, especially when I first started eating Nepali food, in particular achaar.

My first encounters with fermented foods (where I actually recognized them as fermented) were in Nepal. Many Nepalis eat achaar, which is an often-fermented vegetable or fruit that accompanies the meal. During my first few meals of daalbhaat (daal and rice), I cringed at the spicy, sour and sometimes bitter taste of most achaar. It was too much for my tastebuds. But as with most Nepali food, I grew to love and crave it. In fact, of all the Nepali foods that I am hankering for, achaar is on the top of the list.

Fermented foods may make you uneasy (like they did me) when you learn that they play host to an ecosystem of bacteria, but once you get past that, you’ll never go back. While we were in Nepal, people would bring over some of the most incredible tasting pickled foods like gundrukko achaar (dried and fermented lettuce leaves), mulako achaar (fermented radish), and lapsiko achaar (fermented lapsi fruit–the sweet and tangy bite of this achaar makes it a personal favorite).

In the US, its much harder to get achaar like you can in Nepal, and I’m woefully uninformed about how to make it. Once, while at my parents’ house, I tried to make lemon pickle from an Indian recipe we found online, but it became horribly sour and then rotted, stinking up the kitchen in the process. Apparently there is an art to making delicious fermented foods, and although I am at a loss for how to do it, both my mom and my brother are really good at it. My parents visited a few weekends ago and brought with them a jar full of crunchy, homemade sauerkraut (a Ukrainian/Russian dish of fermented cabbage). I can’t get enough of its mouth puckering sourness.

My brother also makes great sauerkraut and knows how to make kimchi as well, so I suggested that we make kimchi together this weekend. Today Tri and I went over to his apartment to start a batch.

Kimchi is a sour and spicy Korean side dish made from cabbage. You can buy it at most East Asian supermarkets, and it’s often served with the main meal at Korean restaurants.

Before we went to my brother’s apartment, Tri and I stopped at the local Asian supermarket to get napa cabbage, an Asian variety of cabbage and a key ingredient in kimchi.

Once we got to my his place, I started cleaning the cabbage and chopping it into big chunks. Here is the cleaned and chopped result:

Mound of chopped cabbage

My brother has a nifty pot that is used for making fermented foods. It has a lip around the rim into which you add water. After placing the lid on top, it forms a seal with the water that discourages mold spores from infriltrating the fermenting food. After I chopped the cabbage, we added it to the pot in small batches. My brother then poured in a big spoonful of salt with each new batch, some chopped green onions, chopped radishes, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, and chile paste.

Mashing the cabbage

After each new handful of cabbage, we would take turns mashing it really well. The picture to the left is one of us mashing one of the earlier batches. The idea with the salt and all the mashing is to get the cabbage to release water. After about 45 minutes of adding cabbage and working it over, I started to notice the water line rising. The water seemed to seep out all at once, and suddenly we had something that actually resembled kimchi. Here it is in all of its liquid glory…

After adding everything and mashing it together, this is what we got. Now it will take a few days to ferment.

None of that is added water! All of it’s from the cabbage.

After we had added everything and tasted the liquid to make sure it had all of the right flavors, my brother put ceramic plate-like weights on top of the mixture to keep the vegetables submerged, which further prevents them from getting moldy.

Now we wait. Because of the heat, it should only take a few days, maybe a week to ferment. I’ll update you when it’s done!

A New Friend on the Bus

Although my ancestors all immigrated to the US at one point or another, their lives in their countries of origin are a distant memory, so my family never really had a particular connection to one immigrant group or another.

When I started dating Tri, immigration and immigrant communities were more on my mind. I also became aware of the Nepali community in the US, although it wasn’t until after I returned from study abroad that I felt like I was part of that community myself. And when I did feel like I belonged, I became much more aware of others who were also connected to Nepal in some way. It was exhilarating to meet somebody who had something to do with Nepal because we had an instant connection. It didn’t have to be people who were born and raised there. I’ve felt that same connection with people who have traveled there, lived there, studied there, or who are connected to the Nepali community in other ways.

Although I was excited to meet others with a connection to Nepal after I got back from study abroad, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to do so in Philadelphia. Seeing/meeting Nepalis or hearing the language was pretty rare in Philadelphia. There were/are Nepali students at the local colleges and universities (or former students who work in the city) and there’s a population of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese Refugees and we still have some very close Nepali friends in Philly, but the number of Nepali-speakers in Philadelphia is pretty low. For some reason, not as many Nepal-connected-people ended up there.

When we got to Boston, I was surprised to see so many Nepali restaurants and stores around. I’ve also been hearing Nepali everywhere. Outside of Target, in the fitting room at Marshalls, on the bus. The other day I saw this woman dressed in a traditional Nepali lungi (wrap-around cloth used as a skirt). She had her ears pierced from the lobe all the way up to the top and was wearing a thick gold hoop right through the center of her nose. I bugged Tri to go up to her, to say hi, but he wouldn’t do it! Having a large Nepali population around (outside of Nepal) is definitely new and exciting for me and Tri, but being the semi-introverts that we are, it’s a little hard for either of us to start a conversation.

Almost every time I walk home from work, I see an older woman sitting out on the stoop of her house in a yellow maxi (a nightgown-like dress), holding a baby who must be her grandson. She looks very Nepali, and her pote (Nepali marriage beads) and tikka (bindi) are a pretty sure give away that she is. I’ve been dying to talk to her. Every time I pass her, I smile but just can’t get up the courage to say anything. What am I afraid of? Part of it is fear of judgement. Even though most Nepalis I know are very happy to learn that I’m married to a Nepali guy, some of them still act strangely when they hear about our intercultural marriage, especially those who are older. But beyond that, I think it’s my shyness getting in the way.

Yesterday I made a small step in the right direction. I was sitting on the bus headed towards my neighborhood when a very Nepali looking woman wearing tikka and pushing a stroller got on. She ended up sitting down right across from me. She probably thought I was some kind of weirdo because I kept stealing glances at her and her baby. I was feeling super shy, but finally I just blurted it out, “tapaai Nepali ho?” (are you Nepali?). “Yes,” she replied back with a big smile.

I told her about how my husband is Nepali and how we had lived there this past year. We talked about families back in Nepal and when she and her husband had arrived in the US. It felt good to speak in Nepali and just strike up a conversation with a stranger who turned out to be really nice!

Genghis Khan, Prithvi Narayan Shah, and Changing Last Names

As a kid, I didn’t like my last name very much, but over the years, it’s grown on me. So I never thought I’d change it after I got married. Last summer I was pretty solid in my decision and didn’t do anything about it after we tied the knot.

When I got to Nepal, though, I realized how useful it was to have a Nepali last name, so I started using Tri’s last name when I introduced myself or had to fill out forms. Sometimes people wouldn’t realize that I was a foreigner when I used his last name, which was a plus. I remember one time when the nurse at a doctor’s office told me to write Tri’s last name on a form (instead of my own) so that I could be billed as a Nepali instead of a foreigner. The price difference was huge.

My first name is not Zoe (which is actually my middle name) although I’ve always been called Zoe by friends and family. My legal first name is much easier to pronounce in Nepali, and is even used in Nepal as a name. So if I really wanted my name to sound Nepali, I’d write my first name and Tri’s last name together.

I loved it. It felt like I had multiple identities and I could switch back and forth between my Nepali alias and my American one. In the US, however, things are more cut and dried and there are people keeping track of these things. Legally I still haven’t adopted Tri’s last name. It wasn’t easy for me to make it official while I was in Nepal, but now that we’re back, I need to get the ball rolling. Honestly, I’ve been kind of lazy about getting a new license and changing my social security card. I guess there’s been a lot going on, but I’m hesitant about it too. It feels final. In Nepal, I could pretty much use whatever name I wanted to, but here I’ve got to choose and stick to one.

When I feel uncertain about something or am trying to make a decision, looking back at what people used to do always helps me feel better. By no means am I a history buff (it was my least favorite subject in school), but sometimes figuring out how others have done it helps me understand how to move forward.

Tri has been reading a lot about Genghis Khan lately. He keeps stopping me every once in a while to read me an interesting fact or tidbit about the esteemed conqueror. We started talking about Genghis Khan’s name and what it meant. Apparently khan is a title used in Mongolian to mean “leader.” According to the books that Tri has been reading, the title spread to South Asia and was taken up by people there. Khan is now a pretty common last name found in Pakistan and India.

Prithvi Narayan Shah, the ruler who unified Nepal

While we were talking about name changes, Tri reminded me of the Shah rulers in Nepal. Prithvi Narayan Shah, the most famous Shah, conquered and unified a lot of what is present-day Nepal. He suggested that their last name may also have been an adopted one. It’s a name of Persian origin meaning “king.” I don’t mean to go barreling into the history of names in South Asia, but it’s comforting to remember that people change their names for a lot of reasons and that it’s not that uncommon.

But I don’t need to go all the way to South Asia to remind myself of that. A lot of women in my family changed their names after marriage. Other ancestors did as well when they came to the US. My father’s father’s parents came to the US from the Ukraine in the early 20th century and changed their name on the way in.  Another ancestor was born in Norway but didn’t end up in a great family situation. He was brought over to the US and adopted by a German man. My ancestor changed his name to his adopted father’s, which remains my mother’s maiden name today. Somehow, hearing about others’ name changes makes me feel okay about changing my own more permanently.

I feel strongly about my last name. It’s not the prettiest or daintiest of names, but it’s mine. Changing it around or adding onto it is okay, though. I want to take Tri’s name because it connects us and reflects my connection to his family, but I’ll keep my own too because it connects me to my maiti (parental home) and my past.

The next step is getting my butt in gear to make it official 🙂