P has this great talent… it seems like he is able to find Nepali people everywhere we go. It’s like he has a homing device or something. A few years ago, you could pretty much name any college in the US and he would probably know someone, or know of someone, who was going there—maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but probably not by much.
In fact, half the time we eat at an Indian restaurant we wind up with a Nepali waiter. P uses his magic Nepali phrase, “Nepali ho?” the waiter inevitably nods in affirmation, “Nepali ho,” and then it’s like we are part of a secret society. The waiter sits and talks with P for some time, stops by the table more frequently–often to chitchat some more, and sometimes brings complimentary papadum, mango lassi or gulab jamun if the restaurant isn’t too crowded and the owners aren’t really around.
If we meet new people, chances are that P went to the same high school, or knows the siblings, family or friends of our new acquaintances. We even ran into a woman once, while shopping in a random mall in the DC area, who was sitting at one of those small specialty stalls that are usually set up in the middle of the mall passageways. At first glance P whispered, “she looks Nepali, I bet she’s Nepali, you want to bet?” then he walked over and said, “Nepali ho?” and she, of course, answered “Nepali ho.” They spoke for a few minutes, and realized that they were distant cousins of some sort. Her mother was cousins with his father’s sister’s husband, or something like that. She whipped out her cell phone, called someone up, P took out his, called up his dad, and pretty soon they were swapping cell phones and telephone numbers and talking with long lost relatives. We were 7,500 miles away from Kathmandu, how was this possible?
“How do you know all these people?” I once asked, “Nepal seems so incestuous. Everyone seems to know everyone else!”
“You have to remember,” P explained, “it’s a small country, and many of the people who go abroad are from Kathmandu.”
Although Kathmandu is a city, it is smaller than you think. It’s the most populous city in the nation, but there are only about 1-2 million people living in “the valley” (as it is colloquially known) depending on if you are looking at official or unofficial estimates. If someone you meet (in the States) isn’t from Kathmandu, chances are they went to school in Kathmandu, either for secondary or university, and can thus claim a connection. This isn’t the case 100% of the time, but more often then not.
In addition, Kathmandu-ites have a lot of family in the valley… and family units are well connected. Whereas in the US, one might not know their second, third or fourth cousin, it isn’t unusual for close family ties of this nature to persist in Nepal, or for extended family units to still live together or close by. This is more obvious when going back to Kathmandu for a visit–one could easily spend the better part of two weeks running around the valley having dinner, lunch or chai at any number of relatives or relatives of friends’ houses.
I kind of like this networking aspect of Nepali culture. It makes you feel like you are part of a larger whole, with people who are there to help you, even if they don’t know you so well, as long as you can find a connection… even if that connection is based solely on the fact that both of you are from Nepal. P has been contacted by Nepalis back home to ask questions about American universities, TOFEL exams, or even where and how to find apartments in the US. When we moved from New York, you guessed it, a local Nepali guy helped P track down an apartment in our new town, and then helped us move in our boxes the afternoon we arrived!
Likewise, P traveled in Ireland once and friend-ed Nepali people living in Dublin that he found on Facebook, so he could contact them, have a drink, and chat during his trip. Or last year, during a cross-country road trip, we had dinner in a Nepali restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah. By the end of the dinner our group was taking pictures with the Nepali owners and swapping addresses in case the owners ever came for a visit to the East Coast.
I can’t really imagine randomly meeting an American overseas, and swapping telephone numbers based solely on this fact, although once while I was in India I met an American couple who had studied in Nepal as undergraduates. We eventually went out for a plate of momos and talked about Nepal before parting ways, but that was about it. I guess I am guilty by association now, because even that interaction had a bit of a “Nepali ho?” type quality to it!
Actually, the one time I tried to be suave with “Nepali ho?” it backfired. When we were traveling to Kathmandu in June we had a layover at the Qatari airport. As I was going through security a second time, I noticed the security guard had a name tag with the last name “Bhandari.” I have a good Nepali friend with the last name Bhandari, and I had heard from a lot of people that many of the workers in the Qatar airport (and Qatar in general) are from Nepal. As Mr. Bhandari was checking my bags I casually asked, “Nepali ho?” to which he curtly answered, “No… I’m Indian.”
P thought this was hysterically funny… and for the rest of the flight he would occasionally ask me, “Nepali ho?” and then chuckle.
Sigh, you win some, you lose some.
Also- I thought it appropriate to re-post the link to the song Yo Manta Mero Nepali Ho given the title of my piece today :)