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!

Having a Rough Time

Everything seems to be going wrong or breaking. The electricity is off for 10 hours a day, which doesn’t seem too bad except that I’m stuck at home at lot of time now that I’m on break, and it always seems to go off right when I need it.

Our inverter was also broken for a few weeks, so once my computer was out of charge and there was no electricity, then that was it. No more computer for quite a while. Thankfully the inverter is back from the repair shop and seems to be running smoothly. But now our internet has decided to stop working most of the time. We’ve been using this one company for the past several months, but they just haven’t been able to get our internet up to speed or to work at all. They say that the fog, which often visits us in the morning, is the reason for our bad connection. But we don’t want to pay for unreliable internet, so we’re thinking of getting rid of that service. We also have a portable modem from one of the big cell phone companies that sticks right into the USB port, but it’s also been unreliable lately (thankfully it’s working today). I don’t know what to do. If it’s the weather that’s causing our problems, then switching companies isn’t going to help.

Beyond little electricity and unreliable internet, there are also shortages of fuel. This week, all of the sudden, everything got much worse. The lines at the petrol pumps probably reach up to 30 or 40 cars/motorbikes at a time. Maybe more. The fuel dial on our car is getting dangerously close to empty, so we’re going to have to figure out something. Tri went over to the petrol pump this morning; however, they turned him away because they didn’t have any left. I heard that the reason for the fuel shortage is that the Indian suppliers have stopped shipping petrol into Nepal because the Nepal Oil Corporation isn’t paying its debts. I don’t know what we’re going to do when our fuel runs out (which will be by the end of the day). I think that Buwa knows somebody who own a petrol pump, so maybe we can contact him and see if he has extra gas that he’s willing to sell us.

The other thing is that I need to go to the doctor but can’t make it over there. Yesterday I had scheduled an appointment for 10am. This morning Tri and I walked downstairs and were ready to head out the door, but Tri’s brother informed us that there was a bhanda. I don’t know the exact details, but I heard that some of the Maoists who had not been given benefits had organized the bandha. We called the office where my appointment was to take place, and they confirmed that they were closed for the day, so we rescheduled for tomorrow. Luckily for the commuters, the bandha seemed to dissolve by midmorning. Cars, taxis, and motorbikes were back on the road. However, now I have no way to get to the doctor. I’m supposed to head over there tomorrow, but we won’t have any fuel left! And we live too far from the office to make it by bus. Maybe the taxis will have fuel and be running? But then they’re so expensive. I’m not sure what to do.

And on top of everything else, I’m freezing!! I miss my heated house. All of you Nepalis out there are probably like, “Yeah, yeah, get over it. We deal with this every year.” But it’s been difficult for me to adjust. I’m praying that this is just a bad period and hoping that everything will get easier soon…

Adjusting to Life in a “Developing” Nation

That word “developing,” when used in the context of countries, has always sounded a bit off to me. All nations and countries are changing and evolving, so it’s silly to call some “developed” and others “developing.” It also implies that the “developing” nations need to aspire to become “developed.” Maybe it would be better for them to take a completely different trajectory than those “developed” nations did. But there are big differences between Nepal and the US, and that word “developing” is sometimes useful in describing and identifying those differences.

It’s been almost four months since we moved to Nepal. Although some things have gotten easier, others never will.

I grew up in a quiet suburb on the East Coast with good public schools and friendly neighbors. As a kid, in certain ways, I was pretty aware that not everyone lived exactly like us because my parents tried hard to expand my horizons. We went to the city often, and they took us on trips around the country and to Europe. However, my entire education, from what my parents taught me, to what I learned in school, to how I was taught was very Western-centric.

I remember arriving in Nepal for the first time. I walked out of Tribhuvan International Airport, and my mind stopped. On the way to my study abroad program house, I remember dumbly staring out the window at the masses of people and cars. In the days that followed, after accepting that I really had made it to Nepal, my fellow study abroad students and I began to explore our new environment. The first time I walked along the streets in the city, I reveled in the smells of exhaust and frying sweets, of sewage and sweat. I loved it and hated it at the same time. It was so intense and new and different. Those first few months in Nepal, I was in shock, pretty much all the time. Not only was I in a new environment, but I was also surrounded by a foreign tongue that felt impossible to decode.

This time things are quite different. I’m not a student but a resident, I guess an immigrant, although that word can mean many different things. When I lived here before, if life got difficult, I always told myself that I would be going back to the US at the end of the semester. But now, although we have a general idea of when we will be heading back west, it’s very much up in the air. I’m also here for much longer this time around. When things get uncomfortable or hard, I can’t just put off dealing with them. I have to confront the problems head on, learn to accept certain things, and sometimes change myself in order to survive.

One of the most difficult things to adapt to is the lack of basic infrastructure. The streets are constantly in need of repair, the public transportation often unsafe, and the electricity irregular. My father-in-law and brother-in-law moved right before Tri and I arrived in Nepal. Although their old house had a solar panel on the roof that would power the lights during load shedding, our new house doesn’t have one yet. So we’re pretty much stuck with trying to read by flashlight or if the flashlights are lost or not working, by candle.

I mentioned in my post about Butwal that we had to make a trip to the emergency room while staying there. Tri got a bad stomachache on our way down south, so we went to the hospital. When we walked in, I immediately noticed the crumbling, dirty walls and cobweb-filled corners. Patients were lying on the floors in the crowded waiting room. Inside the main treatment area, even though hospital beds lined the walls, Tri has no where to lie down. Family members of the sick also had little room to wait. One family of four had gathered on their relative’s hospital bed to eat dinner. Although the doctors and nurses were obviously overwhelmed with the load of patients, we were lucky to be seen quickly. After describing his symptoms, Tri was immediately diagnosed with food poisoning, given a shot of pain killer, and sent home.

We didn’t have to spend too much time there, and Tri’s condition was not that bad. But what if something much worse had happened and we needed better care? Even in Kathmandu, some of the health care is very limited, and I dread the day when one of us comes down with something much more serious.

In Nepal, more time has to be spent doing basic things. With few washing machines and no driers, all clothing has to be hand-washed and hung to dry. This is a problem sometimes in the summer because of the frequent Monsoon rains and in the cloudy, cold winter days, your clothes may take a couple of days to dry. Pre-made meals are also not an option, and eating out is expensive. With two full meals to cook every day, time spent in the kitchen can really add up. We are very lucky to have someone who helps with cooking, cleaning, and washing clothing. Without him, life would be much more difficult, but I still end up spending more time doing these things than I would have in the US.

Even washing my hair takes more effort and time. The area in which we live has very hard water, and when we first moved here, my hair was falling out in droves. Now I use bottled water (the kind that comes in those big plastic jugs found in offices) to wash my hair. It takes much longer than a quick scrub and rinse in the shower would and can only be done a few times a week. Without heating in our house, it gets pretty cold in the morning and night. The prospect of washing my hair with that cold water is just not appealing, so I try to  wash it during the warmer hours in midday. Of course, I’m at work during the day, so I only get to wash my hair a couple of times a week. I’m complaining about it, but I am really lucky to have what I have. Most people here live much tougher lives than I do. Some don’t have running water at all and must bathe in the rivers. I don’t know how they manage during the winter.

Because there aren’t many government regulations concerning food production, we have to be very careful about what we eat. On the TV recently, the news-readers have been reporting on restaurants and companies selling inedible food products. Police recently shut down a famous sweet shop and a water-bottling plant. Tri also just told me about a dairy in India caught for adding poisonous chemicals to their milk. Although nothing has been reported like that in Nepal, I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens in the dairies here too. Even some local, independent farmers are known to add unsafe chemicals to their vegetables to boost their size and increase profits.

I just reread what I wrote, and it really makes me sound like a complainer. I admit it. I am sometimes exhausted by living in Nepal, and I needed to vent. I’m also dealing with cultural and linguistic barriers, and my struggle with those may be clouding other aspects of my experience.

However, I can say that although I sometimes feel exhausted by life here, I’m also succeeding at adjusting. My Nepali is getting better, and I have a much better understanding of Nepali culture than I used to.

Today I came home from work kind of tired and worn out. It’s 6:30pm, and Tri won’t be home for at least another two hours, but when I got into the house, I thought about just how happy I am. In college, I struggled with depression during sophomore year. I’ve been thinking about that time and what it was like. My life has its ups and downs now, but I can’t see myself ever being depressed in Nepal. There are moments in every day where I smile and laugh, look out the window at the Himalayas and appreciate how lucky I am, and it makes living here worth it.

Impurity, the Caste System, and How I Fit into It

Yesterday I started writing about my experiences with and reactions to the concept of jutho, translated as “impure” in English. In this post, I wanted to write a bit more about that concept as it relates to my place the caste system.

I’ve always found that members of the Baun, “Brahman” caste adhere most strictly to rules concerning jutho. Tri’s dad’s family is Baun, and Bua’s parents always followed rules about jutho. Bua told us that when he was little, his mom prohibited him from learning the English alphabet because it was considered a jutho language. Another family friend told us that when he was in the 13-day mourning period that happens right after a family member dies, a Baun neighbor told him not to speak English. During this period, people must eat a very simple diet, not touch others, and try to purify themselves. Because his neighbor thought of English as an impure language, she considered it inappropriate to speak it at a time when he was supposed to be purifying himself.

English is supposedly impure because it’s considered a gai khane bhasha, literally a “cow-eating language,” meaning a language spoken by people who eat cows. In Hindu culture, the cow is a god, and eating beef is a big no-no. Those who eat it are apparently impure and so is there language.

These rules about jutho are part of a Hindu tradition. Many members of ethnic minority groups in Nepal who are not Hindu pay no heed to these rules. When I lived with a Buddhist Sherpa host family, my host sister didn’t care one way or another whether or not I followed rules about jutho.

A few weeks ago, some older, distant relatives came over to visit. After arriving, the women started cooking in the kitchen. I try to learn about Nepali cooking whenever I can because I’m truly hopeless when it comes to cooking the local cuisine, so I went into the kitchen to observe. I immediately noticed that one of the women was uncomfortable, but I ignored it, thinking it had nothing to do with me. Then I started pointing to different foods, asking their names and how they were to be cooked. Although one of the women was responding to my questions, another of them pulled back away from me. She then said in Nepali, “You stay over there, okay?” while pointing to the opposite side of the kitchen.

When it was time to eat, I went over to get a spoon from the drawer. This woman was sitting by the drawer and looked very uncomfortable as I neared. Out of respect, I stopped and asked Tri to get the spoon for me because, at that point, I understood she didn’t want me to touch or come close to her.

After they left, I talked to Tri about what had happened. He explained that because I am a foreigner, they believe that I am and will always be jutho. Any food that I touch supposedly becomes impure as well. Most of this impurity apparently arises from the fact that I come from a country and a group of people who eat beef.

A few days later, I was talking to Maijiu (Tri’s Aunt) about the experience, and she asked me, timero man dukhyo? “Did your heart hurt”? I said no, trying to brush it off, but it hurt a little. I keep reminding myself that it’s just what they grew up with. I also realize that what I have to deal with pales in comparison to what others have to put up with. I know of some people who are not Baun but married into Baun families. They were treated in a similar way but much more frequently. I only have to put up with this attitude once in a while.

Although I don’t like how they treated me, I feel a little better about the whole thing. They came over again this past weekend and weren’t as harsh. Once they realized that I respect their culture and that I can speak Nepali, they eased up a bit. One of them even sat next to me, and we had a nice conversation about her daughter (whom I’ve met and really like). I also feel incredibly lucky that Tri’s dad is not this way. Although he comes from a conservative family, he has always been very open, accepting, and does not believe in these types of restrictions.

Thoughts on the Concept of Impurity in Nepali Culture

I’ve hesitated to write about this topic because it’s complex, and I’m still working to understand all of its nuances. Notions about and rules concerning impurity are prevalent in many aspects of Nepali culture, from traditions surrounding mourning to menstruation to the caste-system. Some of the rules are practical, but some of them have been very hard for me to come to terms with.

Jutho is the Nepali word for “impure.” In Nepal, we eat with our hands, and once I touch the food on my plate to my mouth, my hand and the whole plate of food are considered jutho. I can’t reach for the serving spoon to take a second serving for myself because it would contaminate the non-jutho food. In Nepali culture, the left hand is also considered impure. Because it is the one used for wiping, touching others, handing them things, or serving with the left hand is impolite. These rules reduce the spread of germs and are, in that way, very practical.

The concept of jhutho extends way beyond the hands, though. As I’ve mentioned in some of my other posts, this year, because Tri’s mom died, we can’t celebrate any holidays. This is because we’re considered jutho. I still don’t understand exactly why we’re considered jutho (I’m still investigating this one), but I do understand some of the reasoning behind this rule. It forces the mourners to really mourn and remember the one they lost. It also frees them from performing some of the social obligations involved with Nepali festivals at a time when they’re feeling bad. On the other hand, a year is a long time to be restricted from any kind of celebration, and it can be painful and lonely.

Although I don’t understand all of the traditions behind these rules about impurity as they relate to mourning, I respect and accept them. I struggle more to accept impurity in other contexts, especially as it affects women.

When a woman is menstruating, she is considered jutho. She cannot touch other people or their things; she cannot go in the kitchen, cook, or touch others’ food or water.

When I was studying abroad, I lived with a fairly conservative host family that followed traditional rules about jutho, and the first time I had my period in their house, I was shocked. My host aamaa was very strict and wouldn’t let me come in the kitchen. I had to sit in a separate room while eating, and I couldn’t serve myself; she had to serve me.

There was a teenager who used to work in their house as a domestic helper. One day, when I had my period, we were outside washing clothing. Before we started, he filled a bucket with water and then went inside the house to get some soap. I thought I would help him by bringing the bucket over to the dirty clothes. As I was lugging the water across the patio, he came back outside looking really mad. “Why did you touch the water?” he yelled at me in Nepali. He then took the bucket, dumped out the precious water and refilled it before washing the clothing.

There is some positive that comes out of the rules about jutho as they relate to menstruation. For women in Nepal who work hard from before day break to sunset, that time of the month is a time to relax. The men often cook the meals, and women are off the hook. On the other hand, for women to get a break from work, why do they have to be considered “impure”?

Thankfully my immediate Nepali family members don’t believe in that type of jutho, so it’s never been an issue in our house. One of the interesting outcomes of the tradition is that periods are less taboo here than in the US. If I can’t enter the kitchen, then everyone in the family knows when I have my period. In the American culture I grew up with, people didn’t talk about periods and definitely didn’t want others to know about them.

I still struggle with the rules about menstruation, but it was something that I dealt more with as a study abroad student, living with a host family. The jutho that I’ve been struggling with recently has to do with how I fit into the caste system in Nepal, something I’ll leave for tomorrow’s post.