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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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!

Trying to Make a Habit out of It

When Tri’s parents came to the US for his college graduation in 2009, they brought me a little kid’s book used for learning first letters in Devanagari (the script used to write Nepali, Hindi, and other South Asian languages). Tri worked through some of the activities in that book with me, and I did learn how to spell my name in Devanagari, but I really didn’t soak in much.

When I was studying abroad, we were supposed to learn Devanagari along with our Nepali language lessons. I put in effort at first; I wrote my characters slowly but diligently, but after a few lessons, I quickly fell irritated with it. Unlike Nepali language, which I loved going to class for, I just couldn’t motivate myself to really learn Devanagari. And honestly, I think trying to learn Devanagari brought back some memories of learning to read and write as a kid, two things I really struggled with. Eventually, I came to love both, but those memories of struggle haunted me while I was tracing those unfamiliar characters.

As time passed in Nepal, I came to realize that it was important for me to know at least some Devanagari, especially when I was more on my own during my independent study project. It was useful when reading signs and trying to navigate areas in the city.

And, frankly, it’s a neat writing system. In Devanagri, in the vast majority of cases, each character represents one sound. There are a few exceptions. For instance, the character व can sometimes be pronounced “buh” and sometimes “wuh.” There are also a few characters that share sounds. For instance श, ष, and स can all, in some instances, be pronounced “suh.” However, that kind of thing is unusual in Devanagari, which makes learning to read and recognize sounds easier than learning to read in English. In English one letter can represent two different sounds and one sound can have multiple representations. For instance, you have to learn that the “g” is pronounced differently in “green” versus “gender” or that the cluster “ck” makes the same sound as “k” or that for some strange reason “ph” is pronounced like an “f.”

Despite Devanagari’s uniformity, I’ve never been fully motivated to learn to read and write Nepali, and I think the main reason doesn’t actually have to do with the writing system but instead has to do with the way that written Nepali works.

When we were still in Nepal, Tri got a section of the newspaper out that featured a kid’s story about a lizard and a squirrel. In an attempt to encourage me to practice my Devanagari reading skills, he gave it to me, but it was no use.

The major problem I run into with written Nepali is that it’s so different from spoken Nepali. For starters, the verb conjugation in written Nepali is very different from spoken Nepali. I guess that spoken Nepali has gravitated away from written Nepali. I don’t know the history of it, but it’s really confusing! In addition, many of the words in written Nepali are words I’ve never once heard before in spoken Nepali. It makes reading very slow and difficult. It’s frustrating to try and decipher something written for beginner readers and have to ask Tri about almost every other word. A few paragraphs after starting that little article about the lizard and chipmunk, I got fed up and stuffed it into a drawer. Clearly not the right attitude to take when learning something new.

Will I ever need to know how to read and write in Nepali? Probably not. But it would definitely be nice! and could open up a whole new world of books, newspapers, and magazines. Recently I’ve been reading more of Zen Habits, a neat blog my dad introduced me to a few years ago. Leo Babauta, the author there, has recently written about ways to cultivate habits. One thing he suggests is doing something that you want to turn into a habit for just 1 to 2 minutes a day. Once you’ve done that for a month or more, you can bump up the time. Maybe I can try to practice my Devanagari for just a few minutes every day for a month. It may not get me far, but if I can make it a habit and turn it into something that I look forward to doing every day, then at least maybe I’ll be on the right track.

Navigating Language in the U.S.

When we first arrived in Nepal last summer, I think it took me about two months to readjust to hearing and speaking Nepali again. Although I had spent almost five months there before and spoke Nepali on a pretty regular basis with Tri while we were in the US, it was still a shock to hear so much Nepali at once.

Once I eased into the Nepali environment, I was able to start practicing and improving. The first time I was in Nepal, I was so overwhelmed. I was adjusting not only to a new language but also a new culture, living with a host family, and being away from Tri. Although I learned a lot of Nepali at that time, I didn’t pick up on many of the little things: the slang, the abbreviations, little words ( like “na” and “ni”) that are often added in for emphasis. Before, my Nepali probably sounded very stilted, but during these last months in Nepal, I had more time and energy to focus on picking up the bits and pieces that made my language sound more natural.

However, I’m in kind of a weird place with my Nepali. I understand most things being said and can respond to a lot of things, but people tend to think that I can speak more than I actually can. I’ve gotten really good at having some conversations. For instance, when I meet someone new, I can speak to them fluently about where they’re from, what they’re family is like, where I’m from, how I learned to speak Nepali, etc. I’ve mastered this basic conversational material, but problems start to arise when they think I can fluently talk about everything. If they start veering into a subject I don’t know much about or haven’t learned the Nepali vocab for, I may generally know what they’re saying, but I may not be able to respond in the right way. And when it comes to higher-order conversations or discussions about theoretical things, I get very lost. A lot of it is because I don’t recognize the words, but it’s also because I have trouble expressing myself and my thoughts in Nepali.

I’d love to get better, to learn more, to become more comfortable with the language. What I want to get better at is discussing politics or literature. Honestly, though, I don’t think that’s going to happen easily without taking a class or at least finding a teacher willing to spend time working on Nepali with me.

At this point, I don’t think I’ll get a chance to take a class and expand my Nepali in that way, but I have started trying to speak more Nepali with Tri. While we were in Nepal, Tri and I mostly spoke English to each other. I would usually need a break from a long day of hearing Nepali, so I always wanted to gab in English with him when I got home. But now that Nepali isn’t the majority language, I want to switch back to speaking with him in Nepali as much as I can.

One of the problems I face, though, is the risk of alienating others. I had a friend in college whose brother was in a relationship with a Chinese woman. They both spoke Chinese, and she used to speak to him in Chinese in front of my friend’s family. Her family didn’t like it. The US is particularly negative towards languages other than English, and I always feel a little worried when we say something to each other in Nepali while others are listening. I wish I didn’t have to feel that way. And if we ever have kids, I wouldn’t want to pass on that anxiety to them. I wouldn’t want to give them the message that speaking Nepali is something to be ashamed of. I don’t know. Maybe I should just relax about it and get in the practice when possible, even if others are around. I’d be interested to hear from others who speak a minority language with their family or friends…

What methods do you use to keep your language skills up? Do you feel anxiety about speaking it in front of others? What do you do about it?

A Fox’s Wedding

It’s been quite stormy around here. In Kathmandu, the month of Chaitra (what we’re in now) is known for it’s lightning, thunder, and rain. The monsoon doesn’t officially start until June, but if I didn’t know any better, I would probably assume this was it. Along with the storms, we’ve been getting some funny rain patterns. Sometimes it will start, stop, and then start again throughout the day, and yesterday it was pouring rain on one side of the house and brilliantly sunny on the other.

I told Buwa about it at dinner last night, and he told me that when he was a kid, they used to say that a sunshower meant that the shyaal (foxes) were getting married. But it wasn’t just foxes that were involved. There was a biraalo baaun (brahman cat) officiating and kukur (dogs) playing instruments during the janti, a procession during the wedding where the new bride is brought to the groom’s house. I then remembered that Tri had told me this story a few years ago while we were watching a Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa called Dreams.

It’s a fantasy movie composed of eight short stories. Although I didn’t watch the whole movie, the IMDb page says that the stories are mostly about “man’s relationship with his environment.” The first one, called “Sunshine Through the Rain” is about a little boy who slips out of his house during a rainstorm and goes to a forest where he witnesses a fox’s wedding. The foxes end up seeing him, which is very bad luck for the boy. He returns home and his mother tells him that a fox has left a knife for him with which he must commit suicide. She tells her son to go and beg forgiveness from the foxes so that he doesn’t have to go through with it. The image at the top of the page is the little boy walking into the forest in search of the foxes.

Now that I’m recalling what happened in the story and looking up the details I’ve forgotten, I’m remembering what a disturbing tale it is! Sometime I’d like to watch the whole movie. It’s a bit slow but its stories are intriguing. I think you can stream it on Netflix if you have it, and here is a good review of the whole film if you’re interested.

Because the Nepali story and the Japanese one are so similar, I’ve been trying to find out if they could be related. The first thing I thought is that the tale might have spread to East Asia along with Buddhism. I found a page from Wikpedia about fox folklore in Japan, and the page does suggest that some of the stories about foxes could have a connection to Buddhism. It also notes that many of the stories about foxes were recorded in a book called Konjaku Monagatarishu, translated as Anthology of Tales from the Past. This book was written in about 794-1185 AD and includes tales from India and China in it.

What I love about blogging is that it gives me a good reason to go searching around the internet for interesting stuff. I especially love Wikipedia, and as I’ve been exploring information about sunshowers, I found out that a lot of different cultures say that something special happens when the rain and sun are battling it out. This page gives some examples. For one, some people in the US claim that “the Devil is beating his wife” when the sun and rain are both present, but more interesting than that, most of the cultures mentioned on this page claim that some kind of animal is getting married while it’s both raining and the sun is shining. Below I copied the sayings from the website that mentioned something about animals getting married. Look at this…

  • In South African English, a sunshower is referred to as a “monkey’s wedding”, a loan translation of the Zuluumshado wezinkawu, a wedding for monkeys.[2] In Afrikaans, it is referred to as jakkalstrou,[2]jackals wedding, or also Jakkals trou met wolf se vrou as dit reën en die son skyn flou, meaning: “Jackal marries Wolf‘s wife when it rains and the sun shines faintly.”
  • In Hindi, it is also called “the foxes wedding”.[2]
  • In Konkani, it is called “a monkey’s wedding”.
  • In Sinhala, it is called “the foxes wedding”.
  • In Bengali, it is called “a devil’s wedding”.
  • In Brazil, people say “Rain and sun (chuva e sol), Snail’s (caracol) wedding”, “Sun and rain (sol e chuva), Widow’s (viúva) marriage”, or “Casamento da Raposa” (Fox’s Wedding).
  • In Arabic, the term is “the rats are getting married”.[2]
  • In Korea, a male tiger gets married to a fox.
  • In various African languages, leopards are getting married.
  • In Kenyahyenas are getting married.
  • In Bulgaria, there is a saying about the bear marrying.[2]
  • In Tamil Nadu, South India, the Tamil speaking people say that the fox and the crow/raven are getting married.
  • In Mazandarani language, in north of Iran, it is also called “the jackal’s wedding”.
  • In Pashto, it is also called “Da gidarh wade” or “the jackal’s wedding”.

I can imagine why many areas in South Asia and the Middle East would have folklore about animals (mostly jackels or foxes) getting married. Contact among and between these places was and still is common. Of the above languages, that includes: Hindi, Konkani, Sinhala, Bengali, Mazandarani, Tamil, Pashto, and Arabic (not all related languages).

The European cultures and languages that make use of this folklore may have come up with it independently, but the wedding aspect that is associated with sunshowers seems so specific to me, so maybe the folklore about the wedding goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European. Maybe it spread to areas of Europe with the spread of language (that would include Bulgarian, Afrikaans, and Portuguese, spoken in Brazil).

But I’m so intrigued by the similar folklore that has African routes, the “monkey’s wedding” that comes from Zulu and the “Hyenas wedding” that comes from Kenya. Could folklore from other parts of the world have influenced the African folklore? Or could the African folklore have influenced folklore elsewhere? Could these tales have arisen independently? I would guess they probably did, but it seems so incredible to me. Is there something about a sunshower that seems particularly matrimonial? So many questions… I don’t really know anything about the rise and spread of tales, stories and oral traditions, but the whole thing is quite interesting.

The Multilingual Norm

I grew up in a monolingual home in an area where the majority of people were monolingual. In sixth grade, I started my first French class and enjoyed it a lot, but I never expected to use what I learned outside of the classroom. I wasn’t interested in foreign exchange programs to French-speaking countries and never talked to anyone in French outside of my classes. Languages were considered difficult to master by most people around me, and there was a prevailing attitude in my school and among my peers that we wouldn’t ever be able to speak the languages we were learning that well or actually need to.

A few years ago, I was really happy to hear that the school district I went through has started offering language classes before the sixth grade. They’ve also added at least one non-European language, Mandarin, to the list of available courses. And I imagine their attitudes towards second (and for some students third or forth) language learning have changed a bit. But those efforts were too late for me. I had to learn a second language through other routes and learn to appreciate multilingualism on my own.

At that point in my life, I doubted I’d ever have the opportunity to become proficient in a second language, let alone use it in my daily life. That changed when I met Tri. Our first-date anniversary is coming up, so I’ve been reflecting on those first few months of getting to know him. I still remember the very first Nepali word that he taught me: khatraak-khutruk. I kind of can’t believe he taught me that one as a first word because it was particularly hard for me to pronounce with the Nepali ‘r’s in it, but I made him repeat it again and again and would pop into his room to practice it with him. It’s an onomatopoeia that means “stuff” (sometimes this type of word is called an “expressive” because some people limit the definition of onomatopoeia to words that represent sound, whereas this one is used to things or the state of things). If you look around a room and see lots of little things, maybe covering the ground, potentially in a chaotic state, you might say, “This room is filled with katraak-kutruk.”

That first word was the start of my Nepali language learning, which has been one of the most rewarding and at times, the most frustrating projects I’ve ever started. I’ve been meaning to write a post about the process of learning Nepali, but I wanted to talk about living in a multilingual environment, why I enjoy it, and how that has changed the way I look at language and fluency.

As many of you know, Nepal is a highly multilingual place where people speak languages that are part of at least two major language families (Indo-European and Tibeto-Burman). You really see this multilingualism in action here. On a daily basis, I hear at least three languages being spoken around me: English, Nepali, and Hindi. But I also hear Newari (or Newa Bhasha) pretty often, and I hear Maithali every once in a while. (Maithali is an Indo-European language spoken in Southern Nepal). When outside of Kathmandu, you can often hear an even greater variety of languages on a day-to-day basis. When I lived with my Sherpa host family, I would speak English with my friends, Nepali with my host family, wake up to my family chatting away in Sherpa, and listen in on my neighbors conversing in Tamang.

Being in a multilingual environment was definitely difficult for me at first. When I came to Nepal in summer of 2009, I had a rough time learning the new sounds and expressing myself in a foreign tongue. I didn’t start to feel comfortable with it until the end of my time here in December of 2009. But now that I’m back here and my Nepali is a bit better this time around, things are easier, and I’ve been able to enjoy the multilingualism more. Before, I was struggling to understand the simplest of words and on top of that, trying to adjust to life in a new culture. And I still feel awkward sometimes speaking in Nepali; on some days, I just can’t get my tongue around those sounds, and everything I say comes out jumbled. I also can’t easily express complex thoughts or feelings in my second language, but I understand most everything that’s said to me and can say most things I want to. That has made living here much easier. It’s also allowed me to start paying attention to and learning a little bit of at least one of the other languages spoken in Nepal.

When I was in high school, I dreamed about studying abroad in India and learning Hindi. I don’t know why I wanted to learn Hindi in particular, but for some reason, it seemed like an interesting language to learn. I’ve loved learning Nepali and I don’t regret studying Nepal one bit, but I still have that itch to learn Hindi. Lucky for me, there are lots of Hindi speakers in Nepal, so I’ve been able to pick up some of it here and there. Since we’ve moved into this new house, we’ve had a lot of workers in and out setting things up, doing last minute construction, and many of them are from either Southern Nepal or India. They often speak Hindi with each other. I can understand a lot from knowing the context and by recognizing words that are the same or similar to ones in Nepali. My brother-in-law also speaks to me in Hindi sometimes. He’s quite good and learned mostly from TV and film. He does it to joke around, and although sometimes I get irritated because I can’t understand him! I do appreciate it 🙂

Multilingualism is omnipresent in Nepal. Most people speak at least two languages and many people speak three or more. Although that’s almost unimaginable to me, and especially was to my high school self, I’ve found that multillingual communities often have a different definition for “knowing a language” that makes multilingualism seem less of a hurtle. When I was growing up, fluency seemed like an unatainable dream. But what I’ve come to understand is that “fluency” and whatever that means doesn’t matter when learning a language. If language is about communication, then the most important thing is to make yourself understood, whether or not you use perfect grammar, whether or not you have great pronunciation. And many people here, when they say they “know a language,” they don’t mean that they know every part of it, that they can say everything that they might every want to say in that language; they mean that they can communicate. This new definition of “knowing a language” (new for me at least) is good news for us second language learners. When I realized that ability to communicate, not fluency was the goal I was aiming for, my life got so much easier! Most of you are probably rolling your eyes and saying, yeah, we knew that ages ago, but for me, it was a such a revelation. It has changed the way I look at language and language learning and made me much less self-concious about how I sound when I speak Nepali. This in turn has allowed me to relax and just enjoy the process of learning, rather than worry about the details.

The other thing that I just love about being around many languages is getting to listen to them. It’s even better when I don’t understand what’s being said. Languages all have their unique quirks and can differ significantly in the sounds they make use of, and I love just sitting in a room, forgetting about trying to understand what is being said and instead listening to how it’s being said. In college, I remember enjoying my Phonetics and Phonology class which dealt with sound systems and how sounds are produced and used in language. However, I still can’t pinpoint the reason why I enjoyed it and why I like listening to speech sounds. But getting the opportunity to be around so many languages and listen to them is definitely one thing I’ve loved about being in Nepal.

There’s this stereotype about Americans that we’re all monolingual and don’t think multilingualism is all that important. While it’s just a stereotype and there are plenty of people who defy that stereotype, there’s some truth to it too. However, now that the United States’ position in the world is changing and more people are acknowledging the reality of globalization, I think this attitude towards language is changing. There are so many benefits that come with striving towards multilingualism and living in a multilingual environment. I don’t know what linguistic direction the US will take. But at the very least, if I do have kids, I hope I can provide them with linguistic opportunities from a young age and encourage them to appreciate multilingualism in a way that I couldn’t until I was an adult.