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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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.