Reactions to “Birth in Nepal”

Basanti and her family. Subina Shrestha is on the very left.

There’s an interesting documentary that I wanted to link to about birth in rural areas of Nepal. The movie (at the top of the page) is created and narrated by Subina Shrestha, a filmmaker and journalist. Although I try and veer away from movies/documentaries, etc. that are sad, I found this one really moving and wanted to share.

The film follows Basanti, a 31-year-old woman about to give birth to her sixth child. It documents the final week of her pregnancy and then her labor and delivery. Luckily she doesn’t face any major physical obstacles and gives birth to a healthy baby girl. But, as the movie documents, many women in remote areas of Nepal face much tougher deliveries. Labor and delivery are often painful and difficult experiences for all women, but imagine not having a hospital to go to or a doctor on call to perform a c-section if things went wrong?

Although hearing about the physical challenges of labor and delivery in a rural and remote part of Nepal made me pause, it was the social pressure and expectations that Basanti faced that were hardest to watch. There’s a moment in the film after Basanti has her daughter when she calls her husband, who is working in India, to tell him the news. She’s only able to leave a message, but he never calls her back. She says it’s because he’s mad that she didn’t have a son. Another woman mentions that Basanti told her that if Basanti had known it was a girl, she would have aborted. The preference for sons in that community is overwhelming and one of the more difficult things for me to come to terms with as an outsider and foreigner.

A preference for male children is an aspect of culture in Asia that I’ve never gotten used to. But it’s definitely not uniform throughout Asia or Nepal. In the Sherpa/Tamang village I stayed in, I felt like a preference for sons wasn’t as prevalent. In general, women seemed to have more autonomy there than among other families I had lived with, and many people were okay with having daughters. For instance, my host sister had three daughters, and although she said that she would have liked a son, she was okay with her daughters and told me she probably wouldn’t have any more kids.

In Kathmandu, there’s also less of an overt preference for male kids. I never felt like people were overly concerned with having male children, but I did feel a subtler preference for sons. When people would reference future children I might have, they would say to me, “When you have sons,…” I never heard anyone say, “When you have daughters,…”

As I get into my twenties, and more and more people I known have started having kids, pregnancy and childbirth have become more of a real thing for me. I’m not thinking of having a kid anytime soon! But issues surrounding pregnancy and childbirth have become a bigger part of my consciousness if that makes any sense. I think that’s partly why I felt such a strong reaction when I saw this movie. Anyway, the director Subina Shrestha is speaking at the TEDx conference being held in Kathmandu on July 28th, so if you’re in Nepal, you should totally go see her speak!

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Sunbathing the Nepali Way

My family in the US has been skyping us from sunny Florida, and it’s making me miss warm weather. As I mentioned in this post about my toes, the cold is really getting to me, so I’ve been trying to get a little bit of the sun my family is soaking up this week by sunbathing on our roof.

In Nepal, there are multiple ways to balance the hot and cold in your body. One way is to eat certain foods at different times of the year or on certain occasions. Oranges are a cold food, so they shouldn’t be eaten when you have a cold or cough because they supposedly make it worse, as I mentioned in this post. I ignore this a lot of the time, though, because they have so much Vitamin C, something I was always told to eat when sick.

Sugar is a warm food. A few weekends ago, Nepalis who are part of the Newar ethnic group in Kathmandu celebrated Yomari Purnima. This is a holiday celebrated on the day of the full moon in December, and those who practice it make little dumplings called Yomari, which are often stuffed with a sweet paste made of molasses and sesame. (Ironically I’ve only ever eaten these in the US, at a family friend’s house, but never in Nepal). Anyway, the Yomaris are supposed to be a hot food, good for winter because they’re sweet. Honey is also considered to be a hot food, and some people won’t eat it in the summer because they’re afraid it will make them too warm.

I also just learned the other day that after women give birth, their bodies are thought to be cold. So a special food called gutpak is made for them to eat. This food supposedly warms up their bodies. It has sugar and spices in it and is both sweet and bitter (I think because of the methi, fenugreek, that’s in it).

My host family sitting on a sukul

The way to get rid of the cold in Kathmandu is to eat food that is thought to produce warmth like Yomari and to of course dress warmly, but you can also sunbathe. Because women’s bodies are considered to be cold after giving birth, they are often encouraged to sunbathe with their babies.

Traditionally, Nepalis might have taken sunbaths on woven mats called sukul (and many still do). To the right is a picture of one of my host families sitting on a sukul.

But we don’t have one at our house, so we’ve been using a styrofoam mat that we found in a closet.

Over the weekend, we brought a few oranges, a computer, and some books up to the roof to just hang out and relax…

Our Sunbathing Spot