American Jiwan

We got back on Monday night. The journey getting here went pretty smoothly but was grueling like it always is. I got a smattering of sleep, but we were mostly up for the 32 hours.

I know that I’m in the US right now, but I keep forgetting.

I have this feeling that the electricity might go out any second, and I was surprised to remember that my electronics plug directly into the wall and don’t need adapters.

I also keep finding myself using Nepali mannerisms like shaking my head in the South Asia style to indicate a “yes.” I was doing it a lot when I was in Qatar and Heathrow airports, and I felt kind of embarrased about it, but they get enough South Asian travelers that I’m sure they’re used to it. Another habit I picked up while in Nepal is pointing with my middle finger. It’s rude to point with your index finger there, so I had switched to the middle one, but now I’ve really got to watch what I’m doing!

Things are so quiet here. We’re still jet lagged and have been getting up early. In the mornings, all I can hear is the soft patter of rain and chirping birds. In the morning in Nepal everybody is up and going about their day by at least six, if not earlier. If I’m up that early, I often hear a bell being rung for puja, people moving around, yells and conversations.

I feel kind of sad to be away from Nepal. The day we got here, I felt completely fine, excited to be back, ready to start new things, but I realized quickly how much I’m going to miss it.

When I arrived back in the US after my first trip to Nepal, I was really disoriented. I felt lost and uncomfortable, sad to be away from a place I felt like I was just getting to know. The first day that I came back those two and half years ago, Tri and I went to take a nap. I remember waking up suddenly and yelling at him, “timi ko ho? ma kahaan chhu?” (Who are you? Where am I?). When I had shrugged off the sleepy and confused feeling, we laughed about it, but I think it spoke to some of the problems I would have readjusting to my home country. This time around, it’s not nearly as bad, probably because I’ve figured myself out a bit better and am more comfortable with the path I’m taking. But that doesn’t stop me from missing it.

Anyway, I am really enjoying my American jiwan (American life). I’ve been drinking big, cold glasses of milk (cold milk isn’t usually drunk in Nepal) and gorging on my favorite brands of peanut butter. I’m also driving again!

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Thoughts on the Concept of Impurity in Nepali Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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