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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Lia Lee’s Story

There’s a riveting book I just read called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down that documents the story of a girl named Lia Lee.

Lia comes from a Hmong family that settled in California after immigrating to the US. At a young age she starts having seizures. Her parents take her into the emergency room, but because she is not having a seizure during the visit and her parents don’t have the English to explain what happened, it takes several visits before she is diagnosed with epilepsy. But even before she is diagnosed by the doctors, the Lees recognize the seizures as the condition where “a spirit catches you and makes you fall down.” In Hmong culture, it’s seen as a source of pride, and those who have epilepsy often grow up to be shamans.

The doctors who care for Lia aim for an agressive course of medicine, but there are issues that make it hard for Lia to get the doses the doctors prescribe. For one, the Lees don’t speak English, are illiterate, and there aren’t always Hmong-English translators on hand at the hospital. So the doctors have trouble communicating the complicated regimen of medicine that Lia needs to take. In addition, the Lees are wary of doctors and believe that the medicine they are prescribing might be making her sicker.

Despite everyone’s attempts to treat and care for Lia, she doesn’t fare well. Eventually Lia has a severe seizure that lasts for two hours. The doctors at her local hospital can’t stop it, and it she is transferred to another hospital with more advanced pediatric care. There, she goes into a coma and is unable to breath or eat on her own. Her doctors think that she will die and allow her parents to take her home. Amazingly, she lives, albeit with severe brain damage.  It turns out that this last seizure wasn’t caused by her epilepsy but by her body going into septic shock after contracting a serious infection. One of the doctors at the pediatric unit she is transferred to suggests that her immune system may have been weakened by the seizure medicine she was taking, which could have led to the infection. So in some ways, the Lee family may have been right, that the medicine was making Lia sicker.

As the story unfolds, the most glaring barriers that both the Lees and the doctors face are linguistic and cultural ones. One of the doctors, Neil, describes it like this,

It felt as if there were this layer of Saran Wrap or something between us, and they were on one side of it and we were on the other side of it. And we were reaching and reaching and we could kind of get into their area, but we couldn’t touch them (91)

Some of my Bhutanese Nepali friends from class

That image felt so real to me and reminded me of the refugee population that I know more about, the Bhutanese Refugees in Philadelphia. In college, I taught English as a Second Language in South Philadelphia and met many Nepali-speaking Bhutanese families who would come into class.

One of the most difficult things that accompanies moving to a new country is overcoming those cultural and linguistic barriers. With that comes trying to figure out the way that things work and learning how to navigate the bureaucratic systems. I remember one time an adult student came into class very upset. She was yelling and almost on the brink of tears. She was speaking in Nepali very quickly, so I had a lot of trouble understanding what she was saying, but I told her that I would help her out after class was over.

After class, I was beginning to get bits and pieces of her story, but I was still having trouble figuring out what was wrong. She invited me over to her apartment to talk to her husband who was able to speak some English. After talking with her husband, I finally understood they were talking about their water bill. They had recently moved to a new apartment but were being charged for both the water bill from the old apartment and for the water bill from the new one. This had been going on for several months.

It took me four separate calls to different departments in the water company to finally find a live person to talk to who was able to transfer me to somebody who could help with the problem. I told the representative what the issue was, and she promised to right the problem immediately. I felt so much for my friend and student who was overwhelmed by the bureaucratic mess. For heaven’s sake, bureaucracy is hard to deal with if you’re a native and speak the country’s language. Imagine trying to call up this organization without knowing how to navigate the system or having the needed language skills.

Although the story of Lia is a sad one, I smiled a lot while reading the book and loved all of the bits of information and anecdotes that Anne Fadiman collected. I learned so much about the Hmong that I never knew. Here’s one of my favorite tidbits from the book,

The Hmong have a phrase…which means ‘to speak of all kinds of things.’ It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point (54)

It just loved this 🙂 There’s a lot about American culture that I like, but its obsession with “getting to the point” is not always one of them. In school we’re taught to stick to the point, write concisely, leave out unnecessary details. Which is important sometimes! But maybe there’s a place of balance that would allow for more exploration and wandering off the path.

I loved The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. It’s a captivating read that I’d recommend to everyone, especially those who work or interact with people from cultural or linguistic backgrounds different from their own.

A New Friend on the Bus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Married Look

As a woman in Nepal who is married to a Nepali, I’ve been expected to dress, groom, and generally beautify myself in the way that other women do. I cared about the way I looked back in the US, but I never had any overt pressure that was telling me how much makeup and jewelry I should wear, how I should style my hair, etc. In Nepal, however, women, in particular married women, are expected to look a certain way. This pressure is really a mixed bag. I love that the people who are pressuring consider me a part of their culture and therefore expect me to follow the cultural norms here. On the other hand, I simply can’t do all of the things they want me to. I’m still negotiating this pressure and trying to figure out how many of these rules I want to adopt and call my own and how many I want to forget about.

Some of the things that women do to keep themselves looking a certain way can be incredibly painful, and I am always amazed at Nepali women’s high tolerance for pain. One of these things is eyebrow threading. I used to pluck my eyebrows back in the states, but after a bit of pushing from some people here, I started threading. Omg it it can be painful, but I like the result, so I put up with it. The reason why it’s so painful is because the threader plucks out about ten hairs at once. Many of the women I know who do it act like it’s a cup of tea. Maybe they’re just used to the pain? The picture on the left is of me during one of my first eyebrow threadings. I kind of look like I’m in surgery!

Another painful body modification is nose piercing. I’ve been bugged again and again to pierce my nose, partly because of its religious significance. Some Bauns and Chhetris here believe that if a married woman is performing puja and she doesn’t have her nosed pierced, the puja won’t be heard by god. The jury is still out on whether or not this is going to happen for me. Tri and I haven’t had our Nepali wedding yet, so I might do it before that event. However, I also have major post-nasal drip/allergies at some points during the year, so a piercing could cause some issues. Luckily, I won’t be alone if I decide not to pierce my nose. It’s not as common among young women here as it used to be. I have a Newar friend who married a Chhetri man. Newar women don’t traditionally get their nose-pierced but often do if they marry a man from the Baun or Chhetri castes. Despite pressure from her in-laws, my friend has refused to pierce her nose, in part because her non-pierced nose is part of her Newar identity.

Other rules concerning beauty and marriage aren’t necessarily painful, but they are very strict. For starters, I’m expected to keep my hair long. A few months ago, I went to get my hair cut. Before I stepped out of the house, I told Bua where we were going, and he said, “Just don’t cut it short, okay?”  I have a history of occasionally chopping my hair off. I do it when I want to promote change in my life or signify the start of a new chapter, but it’s a big no-no for women here. In fact, long, straight hair is often a source of envy.

Both women are wearing pote

Married women here also wear pote and churaa. Pote is a long string (or multiple strings) of beads that signifies you are married. Americanepali has a post describing it here. Churaa are glass, sometimes gold, bracelets that women of all ages wear. However, married women are expected to wear at least one thicker one on each wrist. I’ve had people tell me time and time again that I need to start wearing pote and churaa. I don’t mind the pote, and it’s the most common way to signify being married in Nepal, so like my wedding ring, I’ve started to wear it everyday.

The top two bracelets on her hand are churaa

Churaa, however, I save for special occasions only because I’m a bit of a clumsy person. Last week I tried wearing churaa on both hands all day, but I kept banging them around and ended up cutting myself, so for me, this is also a painful practice!

Gajal (Kajal in Hindi)

Then there’s the makeup. I don’t wear makeup every day, but many women here do. Before going out, women apply lipstick, blush, sometimes foundation and always kajal (eyeliner). Many people have pushed me to wear gajal everyday, saying that it brightens my eyes. There’s also a tradition here of putting this type of eyeliner on babies and children because it’s supposed to protect from glare and be good for the eyes. I like gajal, but it sucks when you have something stuck in your eye, start rubbing it, and you end up smearing the gajal all over the place (yes, I have this done this multiple times). I’m still trying to figure out if I want to wear this everyday.

Will I keep up some of these practices when I’m back in the US? Maybe. I think I’ll stick to wearing pote. I have always wanted Tri to wear a wedding ring, something that’s part of my culture, so I guess it’s only fair for me to wear this type of necklace. It’s also not difficult or taxing. Pote can be gorgeous and fun to wear too. If I do end up getting my nose pierced here, I’ll probably keep the piercing in. If I’m going to go through that much pain to start with, I’m not going to want to give it up.

In intercultural, interreligious, etc marriages and relationships, there’s always a pull and tug between two (sometimes more) entities, not necessarily between the people in the relationship but sometimes the forces outside of it. Tri doesn’t care one way or the other if I wear kajal or get my nose pierced, and I feel so lucky for that! Instead, it’s his family or friends or the aunties down the street who push me to do these things. I know that some of the people who read this blog have lived abroad, come from multiple cultures, or have been in intercultural, inter-religious relationships. I’m interested to hear how you have negotiated these multicultural influences. What aspects of the cultures you’ve come in contact with have you decided to adopt as your own and what have you decided to ignore?

I also want to mention that women value different aspects of body modification and appearance in different parts of Nepal. Some Sherpa women cap their teeth in gold, some women in the Tarai wear tattoos on their arms and faces, and some Gurung and Tamang women pierce their noses in two spots, on the side and in the middle. These forms of body modification sometimes have a religious or spiritual significance and sometimes they don’t. I’ve only been expected to follow rules that pertain to Bauns and Chhetris because I married a man from one of these castes.