A Nepali Wedding of Our Own

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The front of our Nepali marriage certificate

Tri and I have been married for nearly 5 years! Which is pretty darn unbelievable to me. So much has happened in the last five years. I graduated from college, we lived in Nepal for 9 months, we moved to Boston, I got my masters degree, Tri worked at two different companies, I started my first job as a speech therapist, and we bought a place of our own here in Boston.

When Tri and I first we got married in 2011, we had a super small ceremony in my parent’s living room. All of that was in the wake of Mamu’s death, so although were delighted to be getting married, we were overwhelmed with grief. Then, when we moved to Kathmandu, we had to register our marriage there. I sort of consider that an extension of our marriage process because we got a Nepali marriage certificate at that time. Since our wedding in 2011, both of our families have been bugging us to have another wedding and/or a wedding reception. For a while, I thought that we wouldn’t do it. We’re both pretty shy people and neither of us enjoy being in the limelight. However, over the years, as we’ve had time to live together as a married couple, we’ve warmed to the idea of a big wedding celebration.

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Tri and I went down to my parents’ house this past week to help get ready for our July wedding. One this we started working on was the mandap, the structure under which the Hindu ceremony will take place.

This summer, we will be tying the knot once more. We’re planning on having a Nepali Hindu ceremony – first thing we did last summer (when we decided that we wanted to have a Hindu ceremony) was get in touch with a great Nepali priest who will conduct the ceremony in both Nepali and English. Although the ceremony will be long (around 1 and a 1/2 hours. eek!) and many a Sanskrit prayer will be said, we’re hoping that everyone, both Nepali and American alike, can feel involved.

After the ceremony is over, we’ll have a big ol’ wedding reception. All of this will take place in my parents’ backyard in order to save on costs and capitalize on the (hopefully) beautiful East Coast summer weather. Tri’s family is coming over from Nepal, and we have family and friends coming from all over the US to celebrate with us. Although Tri and I were initially very hesitant to go through with a big wedding, now that our plans are coming together, we’re both really excited to be celebrating our marriage once again 🙂

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The Story of Hing

I’ve been trying to do a little more Nepali cooking lately and have been venturing down the road of Nepali spices. Before I knew anything about South Asia, whenever I heard the word “spices,” I thought of back pepper and maybe paprika. But when I got to know Nepal and Nepali culture, I became aware of things like turmeric (besar), cumin, (jeera), hot pepper powder (khorsaniko dhulo), and my all-time favorite: timurwhich doesn’t have a direct equivalent in the West, although people say it’s related to Szechuan pepper.

A bottle of hing from the Indian store down the street

Although I’ve gotten to know and love many of these spices, one flavoring that still remains elusive to me is Hing. Hing is a very unique-smelling white powder that is used in South Asian cooking. I’ve actually never seen any Nepalis add it into their food, but I learned about it a few years ago when my mom brought a little bottle home from the local Indian store. I didn’t know anything about it, so I asked Tri. Apparently his mom used to put it in cooking when he was younger, and he has very distinct memories of its pungent flavor and odor. Hing has an intense smell to it, that’s both slightly sulferous and (this may sound bizarre), similar to the smell of gasoline. As I was looking it up on the internet, I read that some people think it tastes like leeks, and I do taste that in there. You can imagine this mix of flavors and smells brings out strong reactions in people.

Hing in its powdered form

Even after Tri told us about his experiences with hing, I was still mystified by this spice, especially when my maternal grandmother told us her story about hing. My grandmother grew up in a small town in Missouri, and when she was a kid, her grandmother made my grandmother wear a little pouch of hing around her neck, apparently to prevent sickness. She didn’t call it hing but instead called it by it’s Western name asafoetida (asa in Persian means “resin” and foetida in Latin means “stinking”). Since my poking around the internet told me that asafoetida originated in Afghanistan, I wandered how and why hing had become part of my grandmother’s heritage.

I found this website that describes how hing is cultivated and what it’s used for. It also includes a bit of it’s history. While reading this source and others, I kept finding information that suggested asafoetida was introduced to the Western world during the time of Alexander the Great through trade routes that ran from the East to the West. In fact, this website gives a great description of asafoetida’s ancient history. Through further reading, I found that although it was used in Europe for a period of time, it became a less popular addition to food during the middle ages. But Europeans continued to use it for medicinal purposes. Which is, I suppose, how it ended up in a pouch around my grandmother’s neck. Apparently there’s even a story called Penrod Jashber written in 1929 by an American author named Booth Tarkington that tells the tale of a little boy who is forced to wear a bag of asafoetida around his neck to ward off sickness.

Although I’m still not sold on its ability to keep the germs away, hing is apparently very healthy for you. WebMD mentions that there’s evidence that hing can help people with IBS and can also bring down high cholesterol. So despite its intense smell, I think I might try to eat it more often.

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 🙂

One Year Ago…

One year ago Tri and I got a horrible phone call in the night. It was his cousin. “You’re mom’s in the hospital,” he said to Tri. “Come to Nepal now.”

Tri booked the earliest flight that he could and left for the airport alone. I kissed him goodbye, not knowing exactly what was going on, not knowing how long he’d be there, not knowing when I get to see him again. The next few days were lonely as hell for me. I felt lost and confused. I knew he would reach Nepal by Tuesday night while I was sleeping, and I was hoping that I would get news letting me know that he had made it to his family safely. When I woke up on Wednesday morning, groggy from a restless night, I checked my mail to find something from Tri’s friend: Tri had made it to Nepal, had his seen his mom one last time before the ventilator was turned off, and now she was dead.

Those few days of being alone and unsure and then the shock of finding out that Tri’s mom was dead were the worst days of my life, and I hope that as long as I live, I’ll never have to experience something so heart-wrenching.

Tri, his dad and his brother went immediately into the initial 13-day mourning period required of Hindus, but the next year was also part of that mourning process. This past year we’ve been considered jutho (discussed here and here), unable to partake in religious holidays, weddings, or pujas, except for the monthly shradda. Last week was the puja to mark the end of the year long period. It was a strange experience, both sad and uplifting, a big fat reminder of the nightmare that happened a year ago but also a time to enjoy family and friends.

The puja area with the fire in the middle. Tri, his dad, and his brother were sitting off to the right out of view

On the first day, the family priest came to our house and performed the usual shradda that has been happening every month. Tri and his brother fasted in the morning and participated in the puja. The next day, a similar puja took place at the house. Normally we would have gotten visitors for this puja, but there was a bandha in Kathmandu that day, so only a few people living close by could make it. The third day was the big puja. Eleven priests came to our house. They were required to recite the Mahabharat, a Hindu epic, but because it’s so long, each priest read a part of it so that the whole thing could be finished that day. A picture of Mamu was set in the middle of the puja area, and a fire was lit. Tri, his brother, and his dad were called over by the priests periodically to sit near them and perform certain rituals. I don’t know the meaning behind most of what was going on, but there were a lot of fruits, flowers, and water involved, and one of the priests kept pouring ghyu (clarified butter) into the fire.

This went on from morning into mid afternoon, all the while the fire burning strong. Towards the end, one of the priests went onto the balcony on the second floor of the house and unrolled a red cloth. Buwa grabbed onto it and then Tri, his brother, his dad, his aunt, and I all got under it as the priest poured water along the cloth and onto our heads. I assume it has something to do with purification.

Then a long string of dried leaves was hung across our house to keep the ghosts and bad spirits away. This was actually supposed to be hung up after we moved into our new house, but since we weren’t allow to then because we were jutho, the priest included it in this puja. Afterwards, the priests blessed us with tikka (our first in a year) and then tied red doro strings around our wrists.

Towards the afternoon, people started showing up, hanging around to watch the puja, and after everything was over, we all ate a big meal. Many people came by: neighbors, distant relatives, close ones, friends. In the evening, as fewer guests remained, we all moved into the living room, and although there was sadness, things felt a little festive with people joking and laughing. Mostly, I just felt relief. It feels like we’ve been given the go-ahead to live again, to continue with our lives.

Here are few more photos…

A diyo (candle) in our front hall that burned throughout the puja and into the evening

The remains of the fire lit during the puja

Ironically, the first day of puja fell on Easter. Tri wasn’t supposed to eat meat or eggs that day, so no Easter Eggs for us, but despite the clash in traditions, the two somehow felt similar. I’m a secular Christian more than anything else. I’ve always celebrated Easter but never attached any religious meaning to it. However, I do recognized it as a holiday of death and rebirth. According to Hindu beliefs, Mamu might be out there somewhere, experiencing a rebirth of her own. For us, this ceremony was kind of a renewal and and permission to move onto the next chapter of our lives.

Although we’ve been immobilized by grief and Hindu rules about mourning during this past year, I have to admit that this year has been filled with a lot of wonderful things too. I graduated from college; Tri and I got married. We learned a lot about each other and ourselves, and we moved across the world. I got to meet and know his family and friends better so that now they’re my family and friends too.

Despite the still tangible grief, life is looking pretty good. I recognize what has happened in the past and won’t forget it, but I feel excited for the future.

Understanding Grief

Yesterday morning, I woke up and went downstairs to have breakfast while Tri stayed in our room to check his email. When I got back upstairs, he called me over to the computer and showed me an email from my mom saying that my grandmother died early Friday morning.

My maternal grandmother had been sick for about 3 years. She was diagnosed with cancer back when I was a Sophomore in college, and she’s been battling it ever since. At certain points, she seemed like she had really gotten rid of it, but there have been many times when we thought she would die.

Before Tri and I left for Nepal last summer, we stayed with the rest of my family at a beach house in North Carolina, something we’ve done every year for a long time. Before we moved to Nepal, I knew that my grandmother was likely to die this year, so I tried my hardest to say my goodbyes and spend time with her during that week.

Despite having tried to prepare myself for her death, I was shocked and saddened into tears when I read that email from my mom yesterday.

This is the third death this year of someone close to us. The first, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, was Tri’s mom’s death. She passed away suddenly last April. The second death was also sudden, the death of a friend of Tri’s from his school days (I’ll call him A).

Last spring, right after Tri and I got the horrible call that his mom was in the hospital, Tri booked his flight to Nepal. He left that evening. His mom had been put on a ventilator, to keep her heart beating so that Tri could see her one last time. Once she was officially dead, he, his dad, and his brother went into the 13 day mourning period required for Nepali Hindus.

For the first few days, I had no way to contact him because he wasn’t allowed to use his computer, but then I was able to talk with him on gchat during parts of the day. About a week and a half after his mom died, while we were on gchat, Tri told me that the remains of A’s body had been found in India along the side of a cliff. This friend had gone to visit another of their friends in India, and at one point, he went hiking on his own. When he didn’t return, his family called the police. A’s family went down to India to help look for A, hoping that he had just gone off with another friend and had failed to contact them. After looking for about 10 days, they found the remains. Apparently A had been hiking and, as far as they could tell, just slipped and fell.

These three different deaths were each been different and hearbreaking in their own way. Tri’s mom’s death was sudden. It made me sick to my stomach, completely knocked the wind out of me. Although she had been sick for many years, we never expected her to die so suddenly and so soon. She was only 47.

A’s death was quite different. It was sudden, like Mamu’s, but more tragic in a way. When Tri told me about his friend’s death, I burst into tears. Some of the tears, I’m sure, were renewed grief for Mamu and some of them for A and for the way that he died. He was so young, only 25 and perfectly healthy. A’s death helped me put Mamu’s death into perspective. Although she was young too, she lived a full life, had an incredibly loving husband, and raised two sons to adulthood. A had barely made it to adulthood.

Now, as I start mourning for my grandmother, although I am sad, I don’t feel as bad as I might. Partly because I knew her death was coming, but also because Mamu and A’s death have put my grandmother’s death into perspective. It’s still really painful. I can’t go home and mourn with my family, and I can’t support my mom, aunts and grandfather as they mourn the loss of their mother and wife. But I know that my grandmother lived a long, full life and had a large supportive family that really loved and still loves her.

Living in Nepal has also given me some perspective on death. People die here all the time and very suddenly. Just last night I heard of a bus that crashed in far Western Nepal, killing at least 16 people. At least once a month, I hear about someone being hit and killed by a motorcycle, car, or bus. We hear about incidents like that all the time, plane crashes, bus accidents. People here also die of dysentery and other, often treatable diseases, that don’t kill in the West. Of course people die in the US too, but I think their deaths are often less sudden or maybe less tragic; there seem to be fewer death caused by accident and fewer early deaths from disease. Being around all this death in Nepal hasn’t helped me to understand the phenomenon any better but has helped me to accept death as a fact of life.

A few weeks ago, I tried to start reading a book called The Year of Magical Thinking, written by Joan Didion, a woman whose husband died suddenly while her daughter was sick in the hospital. Her daughter then died a year later. The book was way too sad for me to continue, so I put it down after a few pages. But one thing I got out of the part I did read was that grief comes in waves.

And this really rang true to me. As I’ve been grieving for Tri’s mom these past 8 months, I’ll have a span of days where I won’t think about her death at all. Everything will seem normal and okay, but then I’ll miss her suddenly, all at once. These times of intense grief come when I see her picture or cook Nepali chiya (tea), something she taught me how to do, or when I see Tri’s dad looking teary-eyed and know that he’s thinking about her. But these waves of grief have lessened in frequency and intensity with time.

I’m still waiting for a greater understanding of death grief to come. People say that when faced with diffficult situations, you’re supposed to gain wisdom and understanding, but somehow I just feel like a deer caught in the headlights, still in shock and unbelieving of what’s happened.

Becoming Part of a Nepali Family

When Tri first told his parents that he had an American girlfriend, they were a little worried. They had known several Nepalis who had married women from abroad, but none of their marriages had worked out.

But when his parents came to visit us for his college graduation, everything went amazingly well. I had talked to them on the phone a few times before they came over, and they were very excited to meet me. Despite initial anxieties expressed by his mom, I have always felt very welcomed into their family and now that I am in Nepal, I’ve felt very welcomed into their home. Part of the reason it’s been such a smooth transition is because of the way that Nepali culture treats married women. Traditionally, women live in their natal home (In Nepali, it’s called a maiti) until marriage and then move into their husband’s home after the wedding. Some couples now are living on their own before or after marriage, but it’s still very common for the bride to move in with the groom’s family.

Because of this tradition, it’s socially and culturally acceptable for me to be living with his family. Even people who normally look down on Nepali-foreigner marriages find it appropriate that we moved in with Tri’s dad and brother after marriage. It’s also not uncommon for women to travel great distances when moving to their husband’s homes. I’ve met a couple women who were born and raised in Western Nepal and even India who moved to Kathmandu after meeting and marrying their husbands.

If Tri were the foreigner, and I were Nepali, however, it would probably be much harder for us. Women in Nepal traditionally have less autonomy than men, so it’s often harder for them to marry outside of their caste, religion, race, nationality, etc. It would also be harder for a foreign man to move in with his Nepali wife’s family.

Certain aspects of Nepali culture have made the transition into a Nepali family much easier for me, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the support that I received from Tri’s parents. They always made me feel welcomed and loved in their home and have been infinitely patient with me as I learn a new language and culture.

Shradda

Mamu’s shradda was on Thursday. After someone dies in the family, if you are Nepali Hindu, you have a priest perform puja (religious prayers and worship) for that person every month for a year. After a year is up, you must do it once a year, on the day he or she died. This is called shradda and is done to feed the deceased.

On Wednesday, the day before, Tri, his brother, and his dad had to refrain from eating meat and eggs and could only eat one meal of daalbhaat (rice and lentils). We weren’t sure if I was supposed to fast or not so to be on the safe side, I didn’t eat meat or eggs either. And I actually made a mistake that day. Usually we have rice in the morning and roti for dinner. Because I had eaten about 6 rotis for lunch (they were really good), I didn’t want to eat them for dinner, so I made myself some rice. After I started eating, Tri’s brother told me I wasn’t supposed to have more than one meal with rice the day before shradda.

On Thursday morning, Tri and his brother had to fast until the puja finished. All of this fasting has to do with purity. To partake in the puja on Thursday, Tri and his brother had to be pure. Neither I nor my father-in-law were part of the puja for my mother-in-law because only the sons of the deceased have to perform shradda, so we didn’t have to fast that morning.

After the priest came over, he arranged some flowers, fruit, and spices in pots specially used for puja and in bowls made from dried banyan leaves. After he finished getting ready, Tri and his brother went to the roof of the house, where the puja was taking place. The priest recited prayers, gave them some special water to drink, and gave them each a new sacred thread to wear. The long white string is worn like a sash inside of the clothing. Traditionally Hindu Baun (Brahman) men were supposed to wear this sacred thread all the time, but I don’t think it’s as common today. After the puja finished, we all sat down to have daalbhaat.
            On Friday, we had another shradda for 16 generations of my father-in-law’s ancestors. This puja occurs only once a year and is also done to feed the ancestors. It reminds me of a book I read by Lisa See called Peony in Love about a young girl in China during the 17th Century. I’m skipping over a bunch of the story, but from what I remember, the main character dies and becomes a ghost. However, because her funeral rites do not happen as they should and no one in her family sends her offerings, she starves in the afterlife. We were talking about this tradition in the context of Hinduism, and Tri made the point that if your ancestors have already been reincarnated, why would you need to feed them? I’ve learned a lot about Nepali Hinduism in the last few years, but I still have so many questions.