Sherpa Sister

A while back, M from nepaliaustralian asked if I would like to submit a story to the Nepali magazine she writes for in Australia, and they published it in the Sept-Oct issue.

I’ve mentioned my Sherpa host family a few times on this blog, but I never really wrote about the experience in detail, so for the article, I wanted to write a little more about it and the impact it had on me.

Here is what the story looks like in the magazine..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FYI, for this post, I abbreviated my host family’s names and the name of their village:

TS = my host sister

PD = her older daughter (3-years-old when I lived with them)

PL = her younger daughter (7-months-old when I lived with them)

SG = their village

 

I planted one stiff foot in front of the other as I struggled along the sandy, narrow path. Ahead, a donkey rounded the bend. Then another and another. They walked with their heads down, the bells around their necks tinkling, as they lugged large sacks of rice. I moved quickly towards the edge of the path to avoid them. The commotion set something off in my stomach because yet again I bent my head over the hill to relieve my clenching guts. I was sick with vomiting and diarrhea from eating god knows what, and the timing was awful. The teachers and students in my study abroad program were on the second day of our trek to SG, the village where we’d be staying with Sherpa and Tamang host families and finishing up our Nepali language classes.

Finally, after a long day, I made it to camp in the graying light. We pitched our tents on a grassy spot between a high cliff to the right and a whooshing river to the left. The next morning my stomach pains had eased, and I set out with the other students and staff on our last leg of the trip.

After two hours of hiking up a steep route, we stepped out onto a flat field of green grass. I soaked in the lavish sunlight. As I looked up, I could see a hill dotted with houses bobbing in a yellow sea of millet. Up we went.

As we hiked, I had time to think about the coming weeks. Was my Nepali good enough to be traveling to a village? My teachers had admonished me for not speaking enough Nepali, not practicing in class. As a shy, quiet person, it hadn’t come easily to me. Although I didn’t know my host family yet, I knew the cultural barriers between us would be great. How would I bridge them without the proper linguistic skills?

After trudging up that last hill in anticipation and trepidation, we all went to one of the host family’s houses for a big lunch. Although I was delighted to be eating solid food again, the heaping mound of rice didn’t sit well with my roiling stomach, so I stepped outside onto the courtyard to get some air. A little girl, about three years old, walked across the uneven stones towards me. She looked at me with a bright smile, eyes full of curiosity. I smiled back. When our meal was over and we were paired with our host families, I found out this little girl was my host sister’s daughter. After I had gathered my belongings, we walked up the incline to my family’s house. When I first saw her, PD had been too shy to say anything, but after we sat down inside her home, she burst into speech, gurgling to me in a mix of Sherpa and Nepali. Although I had just met her, she quickly felt like a younger sister to me. Her sometimes shy but strong-willed nature reminded me of my own.

A few days later, after class was over, my host sister, TS, asked me to come with her to the water tap. She wanted to wash her hair but needed someone to watch her youngest child, PL. Once my didi had nursed her, she lay the baby down on my crossed legs and went off to wash her hair. I had only ever held a baby once or twice before. As her breathing settled, she drifted to sleep, and I felt a growing connection to PL.

The next morning, before class started, I asked TS if I could help her out in anyway. She told me that she was headed out to her fields and that I could come along if I wanted to. I grabbed the scythe she handed me and walked down a little slope from her house to the fields. We worked quietly among the tall stalks of millet, her experienced hands quickly outpacing my clumsy ones. Every once in awhile, she would look up and smile. In the quiet and peace of the early morning, as I worked hard to keep up with my host sister, those barriers of race, culture, and religion seemed distant.

As the days passed in SG, I felt closer to my sister TS but farther from my own family back home. I was only able to talk to my husband twice in the near month I was there, through a crackly and unreliable connection. I knew that after a few weeks in SG, it was time for me to leave for Kathmandu and soon after for the US. But in the time that I lived there, I realized that the distances between us weren’t unbridgeable, and working beside her and being with T and her children made me realize that we didn’t always need words to connect. I had worried so much about what I would say to her or how I would say it, but it, in the end, it didn’t matter.

On the last day of my stay in their village, my didi took out a khada, a yellow scarf given as a blessing to those who are about to travel. As she placed it around my neck, I gave her a big hug. Public displays of affection aren’t very common in her village, so she hesitated, but then hugged me right back.

During the months that I studied abroad, I learned so many new words. Initially I had hoped those words would allow me to become closer to the Nepalis I know. One of the main reasons I went to Nepal in the first place was to learn my husband’s native language which, I hoped, would help me bridge the divide between me and his family. Although words are, undeniably, an incredible means of communication, and they did help me reach out to the Nepalis I’ve come to call my friends and family, words aren’t the whole story. Sometimes they fail and sometimes they’re just not needed.

This past year my husband and I were back in Nepal to be with his family after his mother died suddenly. There were no words in English or Nepali to communicate my husband’s family’s loss. Like I learned with TS, just being there with them, grieving in person, showing them I cared was all I could do.

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 🙂

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.

One Foot in Tibet

Friday was Nepali New Year’s Day. Most people in Kathmandu had the day off including us, so we decided to go on a trip outside of Kathmandu. Last month I wrote a post about our trip to bahra bise, which is along the road to Tibet. While we were hiking, some people had been discussing this place called The Last Resort (I love the name!), which is further towards the border with Tibet. It sounded beautiful, and Tri’s cousin knows some of the people who work there, so he suggested that we all go for an overnight stay.

Tri’s cousin mentioned that we would be sleeping in tents, so Tri and I thought that it would  be a very outdorsy trip. Even though the place does have “resort” in its name, in Nepal, that’s no guarantee that there’s going to be running water or even a hot meal, but The Last Resort really was resort-like.

After driving all morning, we stopped at a long hanging bridge. Holy crap. It was quite a drop to the racing river below.

One of the major attractions of this location is the bungee jumping that they offer. No, I didn’t go bungee jumping, even though everyone was pushing me to, but we did get a video of a beautiful flying leap by one brave soul…

Once we crossed the bridge, we were at The Last Resort.

We rested in grassy common area, had lunch, kicked a ball around with the kids, and then settled into our tents.

They certainly weren’t what I was expecting. These were huge tents with wooden floors and tin roofs built over them to protect from the rain. Here’s Tri settling into our luxury tent…

While exploring, we realized how private and hidden the whole place was. From the other side of the bridge, you can only see the tip of a couple of the tents because of the abundant trees and because of the way it is built onto the hill. The area was green and breezy and nestled between two looming mountains. Quite a relaxing atmosphere.

     

Saturday morning we woke up, hung out for a while, and then decided to drive towards the Tibet border. I was reluctant to leave the resort, but I really wanted to figure out how close I could get to the border. After breakfast, we started on our drive.

It took at least another hour to make it to the small town next to the bridge to China. When the microbus we rented could go not further, we all got out and walked. We weren’t sure If I would be able to get close to the border because I’m American. Nepalis used to be able to cross freely and visit a Chinese market in the town of Khasa by showing their citizenship cards, but these days, they need some kind of permit to go. Someone told us that they knew a guy who wanted to cross, but instead of bringing his citizenship card, he brought his Nepali passport. He showed it to one of the Chinese guards on the bridge, but the guard didn’t recognize it, so he threw it over the side of bridge into the water below. Kind of extreme if you ask me.

Anyway, after we had walked a ways through the sloping town, we finally made it to the famous checkpoint. In turns out that Tri’s cousin knows someone who knows Nepali border patrol guards, so he made sure that it was okay for me to pass by the initial guards before we got to the actual line separating Tibet and Nepal. After we squeezed through a small caged in walkway, past women and men carrying Chinese goods, we walked slowly across the bridge that connects the two countries. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us take photos while on the bridge, but here’s a picture of China from the Nepali side..

While on the bridge, I walked slowly up to the line separating the two countries, and then stepped my right foot over into Tibet. There’s something about straddling the border between two countries that’s just awesome. Borders separating areas that have been traversed freely for centuries or more can be ridiculous and irritating, and without humans around, country borders are meaningless, but I still get a thrill out of being in two places at once. As soon as I stepped my foot over the line, a Chinese guard starting eyeing me and walking towards us, so I quickly pulled it back.

So I made it to Tibet. Next time I go I want to put both feet on Tibetan soil and maybe walk around a bit 🙂

After filling our bellies in the town below the border, we went on our way back to Kathmandu.

Korean Food for Thought

The East Coast city where Tri and I went to college has a sizeable Korean population, and there are some darn good Korean restaurants there. Our alma mater lies outside of the city limits, but Tri and I lived in the city over the summer. We found a little restaurant a few blocks from our appartment, and we would stroll down there when the weather was nice to have delicious dishes like beebimbap and barbecued pork.

Kathmandu also has a pretty big Korean population. So I hoped that with a Korean population in the city, there might also be some places to get Korean food, and thankfully I was right 🙂 There’s a famous Korean bakery, and you can actually buy kimchi at the supermarket chain, Bhatbateni, but to fill my cravings for Korean food, I really needed to eat at a restaurant, and luckily there are a couple of sit-down places in the city.

This morning, Tri had to work, so we went into his office for a few hours, but then we had the afternoon off. We called Mama, who knows a lot about restaurants in the Valley, and he suggested that we try a place called Everest Villa in Thamel, the tourist district.

After walking along one of the side roads in Thamel, past the House of Music, we made it to Everest Villa, right next to the Korea Nepal Friendship Association (I’m assuming the restaurant and the association are connected).

The outside spaces were quiet and cozy, with some plants and shaded areas. But the ambiance on the inside of the restaurant wasn’t great. The white color theme and tiled floors made me feel like I was sitting in either a hospital or a cafeteria or maybe a hospital cafeteria.

But the food was tasty. We ordered beebimbap, which came out sizzling hot with a couple of side dishes. Like always, the crispy rice at the bottom of the pot was the best! It really reminded me of the Korean food we would get back in the US. We also ordered chicken bulgogi, which wasn’t quite as good, I think because they had added too much sugar to the dish. But overall, I was satisfied, and it quenched my cravings for Korean food.

After eating, we sat around for a while, fondly remembering the Korean restaurants and all of the other food joints we missed from the US. Just as we were deciding on where we would eat our first meal after going back, our waiter asked me, “Are you Nepali?” I still get asked this question every now and again. I was on the bus a few weeks ago, heading home from work, and a few of my colleagues asked me if I was sure I wasn’t at least part Nepali. “I don’t think so” I said laughing. Sometimes people ask me this when I’m speaking Nepali, and because not that many white foreigners speak it (although I’m sure the population numbers in the thousands), I see how they be wondering if I am, in fact, Nepali. But at other times, I’m not sure how people come to that conclusion because I don’t think I look Nepali at all!

But maybe the waiter was just off the mark in general because he got Tri’s nationality wrong too when he asked him if he was Indian. There’s something about my husband that makes his race/ethnicity/nationality hard to identify. To me, he definitely looks Nepali, but he’s been asked many times, while living in Nepal, if he’s Indian. He could possibly pass as Indian, but he could just as well be Nepali, so if he’s in Nepal, speaking Nepali, why would they think he’s Indian? He doesn’t have features associated with most Tibeto-Burman ethnic groups, features which are common in Nepal, but there are plenty of Nepalis who don’t look like that. Are they all being asked the same question?

The funny thing is that Tri is, in fact, a quarter Indian, so I guess the waiter wasn’t actually that far off. His maternal grandmother moved to Kathmandu from Assam, India as a child. Ironically, she is probably the most stereotypically nepali looking of all his grandparents.

So I guess both of our races/ethnicities/nationalities are a little bit ambiguous, a reality that highlights that the lines we draw between racial, ethnic, and national groups are not as solid and set in stone as a lot of us would like to think.