(A continuation of K-k-k-k-k-k-Kathmandu)
My senses were buzzing when I stepped out of the airport, looking for P’s dad. He spotted me before I could spot him. P’s eleven year old cousin handed me a small bouquet of flowers and said “Welcome C-didi!” while P’s dad grabbed my bag and patted me on the back, a big goofy smile on his face. P’s dad always looks so serious, perhaps a bit intimidating, in pictures because no one in the family ever smiles for photographs (even when prompted!), but when you meet him in person that’s when you know how gentle and friendly he is.
The only thing I could manager to utter for the first twenty minutes I was on the ground was “I can’t believe I’m actually here. I can’t believe I’m in Kathmandu.” I said it on the way to the taxi P’s dad had arranged. I said it while we drove through the crowded city streets from the airport. I repeated it when P’s dad asked how I was doing. Everything was a bit of a blur until we reached P’s house.
The car turned off the road onto a narrow single lane dirt and rock path, and squeezed between a few buildings. Then it turned a corner and to the right was a large lot being used to grow vegetables by neighbors, and to the left was a wall with a metal gate, the house peeking out from behind. The gate was open and P’s mother, aunt and grandfather were standing in the road waiting to greet me. Gulp, it was now or never.
Before arriving in KTM I struggled with how this initial greeting would go. Should I crouch to touch their feet? Will they find this weird? Or respectful? Who should I greet first? Does it matter? Did they expect me to be more American or more Nepali? I was hoping my time in India would solve this, and I peppered my homestay mother in Jaipur with questions about what the proper etiquette should be, but every family is different so it was hard to know. P had said not to worry, but he also wasn’t there to lead by example.
Luckily when the car stopped everything happened so quickly I didn’t have a chance to think too much. As I stepped out of the car Kakabua (P’s grandfather) had a huge grin. He kept mumbling “Welcome! Welcome!” and wanted to grab my bag and bring it into the house for me. J Phupu (P’s aunt) stared, occasionally she’d laugh, but mostly she stared, sizing me up. P’s mom said, “Come” and led me inside, while his little cousin grabbed my hand to walk with me.
The family led me through the entrance, told me to leave my shoes and gave me slippers. I followed them up the stairs to a room that P and his brother shared as kids. “You stay in P’s room, okay?” Mamu said. I left my bag and was brought to the next room where everyone sat staring at me. When I am comfortable with people I am rarely at a loss for words, but when I’m the outsider, it’s tough to know what to say. I’m sure I looked pretty awkward waiting for them to ask me questions, not sure how to make “small talk.”
Mamu ran upstairs to grab drinks and cookies for everyone (Mamu likes to make sure everyone is stuffed beyond capacity). I reiterated that I couldn’t believe that I was actually in Kathmandu (I must have sounded like an idiot, repeating myself), and that I had heard a lot about the city and was excited to see it. I also mentioned that I was happy to meet everyone in the family, because P had told me so much about them, particularly Kakabua, to which Kakabua started to talk about his love for P, scurrying to his room to pull out old mementos and bring them to show me in the sitting room.
P’s dad felt comfortable speaking English, although like P he is more on the quieter side, and P’s young cousin was learning the language in school, and could be quite colloquial with me once she got over her initial shyness. P’s grandfather speaks enough English to tell interesting stories (with lots of miming action) although I think he has more trouble understanding others, and communication isn’t always two-ways. P’s aunt, a Nepali language and literature professor at a local university, could also speak, although not as comfortably, and P’s mom was the least comfortable. We struggled to communicate, and her sentences were very short (generally two or three words). She often mixed up pronouns (referring to P as “she”) to comical effect.
I could see J Phupu staring at me from the corner of my eye and after sometime I turned to look at her straight on. She smiled and said in the slow, careful, deliberate way she speaks English, “I can’t… believe… P… fell in love!” as if it were truly amazing.
A little while later P’s mom brought in a small old notebook, and J Phupu explained that P had made it as a seven or eight year old. It was one of those elementary school assignments where kids are asked to write a few sentences about themselves and draw a picture to match. P’s mom and aunt quickly flipped through the pages and landed on one that said, “Someday I will marry a person my family will pick.” I just smiled, nodded and said, “Interesting,” pretending not to notice the irony.
P’s dad insisted I call my mother at home, as well as P, his brother and his cousin (P’s younger cousin’s older sister). My mother cautioned me to “be safe” while P said, “I can’t believe you are sitting in my home right now! I can imagine exactly where you are!” P’s brother and cousin talked about stuff they wanted me to bring back to the US from Nepal, and then the phone was passed around for each family member to have a few minutes to say hi.
By then it was dinner time. P’s mom ushered me upstairs and I sat at the table in the kitchen. She put a big spoon on the table in front of me and P’s dad smiled. He had eaten with P and I in the US at the apartment where a group of us were living the summer before, and he knew I had the “special” South Asian skill of eating with my hand. “She doesn’t need a spoon!” he said triumphantly, “She knows what to do.”
I’ve talked about eating with P’s family before. The sheer amount of rice is a bit daunting. I’m also a slow eater (always have been, always will be), plus as the center of attention for the meal, I was even more self-conscious. Again my stomach was doing flip flops, and I had to eat at extra slow speed just to keep the food down and settled. It was delicious, I was just nervous, and tired, and still worried about making a bad impression.
Declaring that I could eat without a spoon made everyone even more intent to watch me, making me even more nervous, making me eat even slower. By the time the rest of the family had finished dinner (including P’s young cousin), I had barely eaten anything, prompting questions like “Do you like the food? Are you feeling okay?” and finally to my own embarressment, “Do you need the spoon back?”
When I got up from the table I washed my hands, but didn’t rinse my mouth out with water (would they expect me to do this ritual? Or would they be worried about me consuming water? I decided to skip it). P’s mom noticed and probably made a mental note to talk to me about it later (I was advised the next day that rinsing my mouth out with water after every meal was very important so as not to pollute the gods).
We ate dinner quite late, so afterward the family sat together in the sitting room to watch tv before bed. It was December, and although not as cold as New England, there is no central heating, so we sat wrapped in blankets and shawls, sitting close together, with a small electric heater nearby.
After watching a few shows with the family (a mix of local Nepali serials and Hindi language programs from India, neither of which I could understand, although P’s younger cousin volunteered to give me the synopsis during the breaks) they asked if I was tired, and at that point I was absolutely exhausted. As I climbed into bed I was greeted again by the whole family. They made sure I had a wool hat to keep my head warm in the night, extra blankets, and P’s aunt and dad tucked me in. I probably reminded them of how much they missed their own kids who were in the US, and with their tenderness towards me, they could pretend, by extension, that they were tucking in their own.
I think as soon as they turned out the light I was dead asleep.