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.

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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!

Teaching in Nepal

I’ve been teaching for a few months now and in that time have been thinking about education and schooling in Nepal. Here are a few thoughts and observations…

Parent-Teacher Relationship

Tri showed me this comic a few months ago about the teacher-parent relationship in the past versus now.

The way the cartoon describes 1969 is a somewhat accurate (although exagerated) description of the parent-teacher relationship at the school I teach at and (I think) in Nepal in general. When a kid does something wrong or isn’t doing well in school, a parent is called in, there’s a discussion, and the parent often expresses his/her disappointment to the kid. Sometimes it’s more than disappointment. I’ve seen parents get really mad at their kids for not doing well and yell at them for not listening to their teachers. I’m sure that parents get mad at teachers too, and they must have disagreements, but I’ve found that for the most part, parents listen carefully to teachers and respect their opinions. This is pretty different from the model I grew up with in the US. I’ve never taught in the US, but I was a student at a public school. Not only do parents blame teachers for failing students, the government does as well. With new reforms aimed at fixing inadequacies in the school systems, it’s often the teachers who suffer. I don’t think the Nepali model is necessarily the answer, but it’s good to see teachers really getting respect. I think there’s probably some balance between the two extremes that would work best.

Public vs. Private

I like working at a private school. The curriculum is great. Extra-curricular activities are well-funded, and parents are heavily involved. But it has also made me appreciate public schooling. The thing about a private school is that if a kid is a trouble maker or not doing well in school, he/she can be kicked out. The school may try very hard to prevent that from happening, but ultimately they make the decision about it. Public schools, on the other hand, have to accept every child in their district: the studious pupils, the troublemakers, students with disabilities, students who are poor and those who are rich. Of course, many districts in the US are already segregated racially and socio-economically, but at a public school, there’s still a greater likelyhood that students come from a range of experiences and backgrounds. The idealist in me likes to think that this helps to foster tolerance and appreciation for difference.

Attitude Towards Education

One thing that I love about teaching here is the Nepali attitude towards education. The students’ families at the school I work at are very involved. Parental willingness to help out at school, go on field trips, organize events, etc. is actually one of the criteria the school looks for when accepting students. The parents there may have particularly strong feelings about the importance of getting an education. However, I’ve met Nepalis from many different parts of Nepal, from different ethnic groups, in different economic situations. Again and again I hear and see a similar attitude towards education in parents and kids: that school is one of the most important things and no matter what, you must try your hardest. Whether it’s the kids whose parents drive them to school every day or the kids who walk two hours both ways to attend. In the US, many people believe that getting an education is important, maybe one of the most important things in life. And I think that the great majority of people want their kids to attend school, but there’s no wide-spread push to do your very best and to attain the highest degree that you can.

A New Perspective

Becoming a teacher has given a new perspective on schooling. Being in Nepal and getting to know how education works here is one thing, but I think just being a teacher has given me a new perspective on how teaching and learning work and also on my own education. It’s definitely made me more empathetic towards my previous teachers. Teaching is not an easy job. I come home exhausted from work sometimes, but I find it immensely satisfying. There’s no “best way” to teach a child because students vary so much, but I am learning that some methods work better than others. Although I don’t think I want to continue to be a classroom teacher in the long run, I think I’d always like to teach in some capacity. The process involved in learning is so fascinating, and I’d like to continue in a career that allows me to explore and understand it better.

Children’s Literature, From Denmark to Nepal

There isn’t a long history of children’s literature in Nepal, at least that I know of. I have heard of a few books written for children in Nepali like The Adventures of a Nepali Frog (Dhumdham ko ghumgham: Bhaktaprasad Bhagytako Nepal Yatra), and there must be others. A few people and organizations have been working hard to increase the number of books written in Nepali for children and to increase access to educational sources of entertainment in Nepali. For one, the school I work at has done a lot to promote the writing and publishing of Nepali children’s literature.

Maya & Max

A woman named Shrijana Singh Yonjan is also working towards providing educational TV for kids. She created a Nepali language program called “Maya & Max.” A couple of weeks ago, I went with my class to a presentation about this show, and it reminded me of some of the shows I used to watch as a kid, like “Zoom.” In “Maya & Max,” there are kid stars who speak to the camera while taking trips around Nepal and conducting interviews. We saw an episode, and it was pretty good.

The other part of the exhibit included a display of children’s literature from Denmark, which I absolutely loved. They had blown up drawings from the kids’ books and put them on glass plates behind which they shone lights to illuminate the pictures. While flipping through the books (which were also on display), I couldn’t understand a lick of what was written, but the illustrations were so fantastic, I didn’t feel like I was missing out. Some were a bit scary, and I was surprised that they were classified as children’s literature. But maybe that’s not so unusual. Some original versions of our modern day Western fairy tales are known for their gruesome and disturbing details. However, most of the illustrations were whimsical and imaginative, sometimes strange but lovely too. Here they are…

A little bit scary! They kind of look like zombies

The guy in the back reminds me of a creature from "Where the Wild Things Are"

I love his expression 🙂

Reminds me of Escher

One of the scarier images

One of my favorites

Another of my favorites