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?

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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…