Say It Like It Is

Anthropologists and Sociologists make a distinction between cultures that use an indirect style of communication and ones that use a direct style of communication. I like the way that this website explains the difference, so I’m going to quote them:

Direct communication is when the meaning of the message is communicated mainly via words.

Indirect communication is when meaning is not only in the words, but mainly in the surrounding context of a conversation. In other words, somebody who is indirect will leave it up to the listener to fill in the blanks and make out the meaning by correctly reading the contextual clues (e.g. non-verbal communication, status and/or age of people involved in the conversation, attire, etc.).

Before I spent time in Nepali, I thought of it as being a very indirect place. And from what I’ve heard about Asia as a whole, most cultures here supposedly employ indirect communication styles.

To an extent, it is true that things in Nepal are said in an indirect way. For instance, it’s rude to say no to something outright unless you have a very good reason. I have a good example of this. The organization that our friend works for was organizing a community cleanup the other day, and she and the other members went door-to-door around the neighborhood asking people if they would like to help. She was lamenting to us at lunch yesterday that although everyone would agree to help out when she met them face-to-face, she knew they weren’t going to come for the clean up, and very few of them did.

When I first visited Nepal in 2009, I thought almost everything would be expressed in an indirect way, in a style similar to the one mentioned in the example above. However, people can be surprisingly open and direct about certain things.

Weight is one of them. It’s pretty rude in the US to talk to people about their weight, except with close friends or family. Even then, it can be a touchy subject. But here, it’s completely the opposite. Everyone is always talking about how someone has lost or gained a few pounds. People talk about it with each other and say it directly to the person whose weight is being discussed. It can be strange or even offensive to people who aren’t used to discussing something that may seem so personal, but weight is not considered to be such a personal thing in Nepal. Discussing someone’s weight is also a way to show that you care about them. You might be concerned that they’ve lost some weight, maybe they’re sick or stressed out at work, and you show that concern by commenting on it.

I’ve gotten used to people commenting on weight, but I still find other, very direct comments pretty off-putting.

The other night, we were at dinner with some family we see very rarely. We were talking about water problems and how it’s important to treat or filter the water that comes from the tap. Buwa was asking two of the people (a mother and daugher-in-law) if they brush with the untreated water from their house tap, and they said yes.

“You can’t do that,” Buwa said. And then he added, while pointing to their teeth, “duijannako dant bigriyo,” translated as, “Both of you have damaged teeth.”

Their teeth did look kind of black, but I could never imagine pointing that out to them. Of course, Buwa’s relationship with them is very different than my relationship with them. He’s much closer to them than I am. But to me, that comment sounded so very direct! I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say something similar in English. I could imagine someone trying to torment another person by turning it into a gibe, but never could I see it said in good faith. Buwa was definitely saying it in good faith.

Another direct comment took me by surprise today. I had to go to the asthma doctor to get my medicine adjusted. I don’t know this man personally; I had never even met this guy before today (although he does know Tri). As I was getting up on the examination table, he asked, “How long have you two been married?” Tri exagerated a bit, answering with, “almost a year” (even though it’s only been about eight months).

The doctor replied by saying, “In Nepal, if you’ve been married a year and are not pregnant, people start asking questions.” He proceeded to give me an awkward eyebrow raise.

I think I turned bright red on the exam table. I’ve had other people ask me if I’m planning to have kids, but they’ve been very close to me and it has always happened in a private setting, not in a public exam room with about 10 other people in it! I guess he could have been more direct by saying, “Why aren’t you pregnant already?” Maybe I should thank him for his indirectness.

Would a doctor have said something like that to me in the US? I don’t think so. I’ve heard of women in the US being asked when they’re going to have kids, but only by other women they know.

This type of directness really catches me off guard sometimes. Will I ever get used to it?

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Impurity, the Caste System, and How I Fit into It

Yesterday I started writing about my experiences with and reactions to the concept of jutho, translated as “impure” in English. In this post, I wanted to write a bit more about that concept as it relates to my place the caste system.

I’ve always found that members of the Baun, “Brahman” caste adhere most strictly to rules concerning jutho. Tri’s dad’s family is Baun, and Bua’s parents always followed rules about jutho. Bua told us that when he was little, his mom prohibited him from learning the English alphabet because it was considered a jutho language. Another family friend told us that when he was in the 13-day mourning period that happens right after a family member dies, a Baun neighbor told him not to speak English. During this period, people must eat a very simple diet, not touch others, and try to purify themselves. Because his neighbor thought of English as an impure language, she considered it inappropriate to speak it at a time when he was supposed to be purifying himself.

English is supposedly impure because it’s considered a gai khane bhasha, literally a “cow-eating language,” meaning a language spoken by people who eat cows. In Hindu culture, the cow is a god, and eating beef is a big no-no. Those who eat it are apparently impure and so is there language.

These rules about jutho are part of a Hindu tradition. Many members of ethnic minority groups in Nepal who are not Hindu pay no heed to these rules. When I lived with a Buddhist Sherpa host family, my host sister didn’t care one way or another whether or not I followed rules about jutho.

A few weeks ago, some older, distant relatives came over to visit. After arriving, the women started cooking in the kitchen. I try to learn about Nepali cooking whenever I can because I’m truly hopeless when it comes to cooking the local cuisine, so I went into the kitchen to observe. I immediately noticed that one of the women was uncomfortable, but I ignored it, thinking it had nothing to do with me. Then I started pointing to different foods, asking their names and how they were to be cooked. Although one of the women was responding to my questions, another of them pulled back away from me. She then said in Nepali, “You stay over there, okay?” while pointing to the opposite side of the kitchen.

When it was time to eat, I went over to get a spoon from the drawer. This woman was sitting by the drawer and looked very uncomfortable as I neared. Out of respect, I stopped and asked Tri to get the spoon for me because, at that point, I understood she didn’t want me to touch or come close to her.

After they left, I talked to Tri about what had happened. He explained that because I am a foreigner, they believe that I am and will always be jutho. Any food that I touch supposedly becomes impure as well. Most of this impurity apparently arises from the fact that I come from a country and a group of people who eat beef.

A few days later, I was talking to Maijiu (Tri’s Aunt) about the experience, and she asked me, timero man dukhyo? “Did your heart hurt”? I said no, trying to brush it off, but it hurt a little. I keep reminding myself that it’s just what they grew up with. I also realize that what I have to deal with pales in comparison to what others have to put up with. I know of some people who are not Baun but married into Baun families. They were treated in a similar way but much more frequently. I only have to put up with this attitude once in a while.

Although I don’t like how they treated me, I feel a little better about the whole thing. They came over again this past weekend and weren’t as harsh. Once they realized that I respect their culture and that I can speak Nepali, they eased up a bit. One of them even sat next to me, and we had a nice conversation about her daughter (whom I’ve met and really like). I also feel incredibly lucky that Tri’s dad is not this way. Although he comes from a conservative family, he has always been very open, accepting, and does not believe in these types of restrictions.

Missing Some Things from Home

I haven’t talked to an American in weeks (outside of skype and gchat). I have been meeting lots of really awesome, friendly people around my age, but I miss connecting over American culture. I also miss food from home…My cravings seem to come in waves. I’ll totally forget about whole wheat bread or home-made cake or chicken noodle soup and then I’ll see something or smell something and it all comes back. Last week, someone with sweet-smelling perfume walked by. It happened to really smell like sticky buns, and after I got a wiff, all I could think about was those delicious gooey desserts.

A Turkish lady I know told me that it took her two years to adjust to life in the US, but it never really felt like home. When I came to Nepal for the first time, everything seemed strange and new, but slowly things became more normal, and I didn’t look on with wide eyes every time the morning meal was being cooked. But there are some things that I probably won’t ever feel comfortable with. The traffic is one thing. Other things have to do with culture and tradition. At least in the Baun and Chhetri castes, women (particularly mothers) traditionally serve other family members first, making sure they are fed, and then eat after everyone else has finished. Because of rules about jutho (where after you start eating with your hands, you can’t reach to take seconds; someone else has to do it for you), this method may be practical. But it’s never going to feel right to me.

I miss some aspects American culture, but I never have to fear that I’ll forget my traditions or that my children will never learn them. It’s different for those who move to the US. In Nepal, the channels on TV are fulls of English language programs, and cuisine from the US is served in plenty of restaurants. If I raise children in Nepal, they will learn both Nepali and English. If I raise children in the US, they might speak a little bit of Nepali but probably won’t be fluent. Not all immigrants to the US want to maintain the culture or language of the country they come from. But for those who do want to preserve these things, it can be very hard, particularly in the face of discrimination and anti-immigrant feeling.

I know that things will continue to get easier, and I’m hoping my cravings for the American food will diminish. I also have Tri! Not only does he understand my American mannerisms and culture, but he’s also really supportive, and when I’m having a bad day, he always makes feel better.

Are You Nepali?

Tapaai Nepali ho? (Are you Nepali?) I was asked this question twice recently, which came as quite a surprise; I guess my language skills are getting better? Some people say my big nose makes me look baun, or “brahman,” but my light skin and hair will always give me away.

In the US it’s considered rude to stare, but in Nepal, the rules aren’t the same. Staring, while not necessarily polite, is completely acceptable, and I’ve been stared at quite a bit. There are plenty of other foreigners in Kathmandu, but most are visiting as tourists, hanging out in the touristy areas. If I went to Thamel a lot, the tourist district, I might not get as many stares, but hanging out with a Nepali family, frequenting the non-tourist sections brings quite a few looks. I’ve been putting up with it well enough, but I won’t deny that I’m getting a little sick of it. Even if I live here for the rest of my life, people will stare at me, wonder what I’m doing here. No matter how good my Nepali gets, I will always stand out. This brings some benefits; foreigners are often treated well here, but it can be exhausting and makes integrating into a new culture very hard.

Although I don’t look Nepali, I did recently have someone tell my I have a Nepali soul. During my trip to Dhampush, I got close to the other women on the trip. I live in a house with four men, so it was a nice break to spend some time with women. At one point an Auntie was explaining reincarnation to me, and she said that god gave me an American body but a Nepali soul. There are things about Nepali culture that feel very natural to me, but there are plenty of things that have been hard to swallow. I don’t know if I believe in souls, but I do know that having an open mind and and appreciation for Nepali language and culture has gotten me far. Some Nepalis I meet have very particular notions about Americans, that they marry and divorce easily, that they are loud and rude. It’s not easy to get close to others who have so many ideas about who you are before you meet, but the quickest way I have broken down those barriers is through speaking Nepali. Talking with those in their own language is an easy way to win them over. It’s also an incredible learning experience. What can be said in Nepali cannot always be said in English and vice-versa. That Auntie told me I have a Nepali soul, but really I just want to listen to and learn from the new people I meet.

Although I’m a little sick of the staring, with time, I’ll learn to deal with it. Maybe I’ll dye my hair black sometime, and I’m seriously considering getting a nose piercing (mom–please don’t be mad!) This certainly will make me look more Nepali. I wonder if I’ll ever get past the guards at Pashupatinath…