Dinner Conversations- Goats and Head Bobbles

You know you are in an intercultural relationship when…

Sometimes at dinner you talk about goats.

And not just any old goat conversation, but about eating and slaughtering goats. You know… like “best practices.”

I remember back in college when various international students sat together in the cafeteria occasionally the Kenyans and Nepalis would start talking about goats since both cultures enjoy eating them. Each culture has a different way of killing the goat. In Nepal the goat (or buffalo) is usually held with its neck stretched tight so that when the butcher swings his axe hard and heavy the goats head is lopped off quick with one swift whack. The Kenyans on the other hand tend to saw the neck (although some groups, like the Maasai might suffocate the goat first) since they want to save the blood. Anyway, I digress…

Last night I found myself having (St. Patrick’s Day) dinner with a large group of friends at a Vietnamese restaurant (very Irish, I know) to celebrate a friend’s belated birthday. I found myself sitting on one end of the long dinner table with two Nepalis, an American planning to travel to Tanzania for summer research, and another American whose husband is Senegalese. And what did we talk about… yeah, goats.

But in the various goat slaughter conversations I’ve sat through over the years, I did learn something new. Apparently, when Nepalis sacrifice a goat, such as during Dashain when it is quite popular and ritualized, before the goat can be killed it has to “agree.” The butchers will sprinkle the goat’s head with water to get it to shake it’s head in agreement before its neck can be stretched and chopped.

“Sometimes it can be very amusing” our Nepali friend said, “if the goat refuses to shake its head, the butchers have to wait. Sometimes people get really impatient, and they have to sprinkle lots of water on the goat’s head, or they try to agitate the goat to get it to shake its head. If the goat is stubborn, it could take a long time!”

Of course, another caveat to the story is the South Asian “Head Bobble.” For those familiar with the famous “head bobble” or side to side wag that is popularized by Indians, Nepalis also tend to do this. In Nepali culture shaking your head from side to side means “yes” while shaking your head up and down means “no” (the opposite to American culture). Thus when the goat shakes its head from side to side to shake of the water on its head, Nepalis interpret this as “yes, I’m ready.”

“Good thing you don’t use American goats” the American guy (lamely) joked, “they’d be saying no, and you wouldn’t even realize it.”

“Yeah, I guess it’s harder to get the goat to shake it’s head up and down instead of side to side, so good thing we shake our head differently.” The Nepali friend acquiesced.

So the next time you find yourself eating goat in Kathmandu, at least you can rest assured that the goat shook his head “yes, I’m ready” before hand.

If you enjoyed this little goat story, maybe you’ll like this one too…

5 responses to “Dinner Conversations- Goats and Head Bobbles

  1. My husband told me this same thing…as in, it’s perfectly okay to cut the goat’s head off, he said we could!

    I suppose I’m a bit of a hypocrite because, while I eat meat, I don’t think I have the stomach to slaughter an animal.

  2. I did not know that Indian and Nepali head wobble are different. Interesting! For us up and down is always yes and side one is no and side one with an angle is ok. :)

  3. C,

    You got it wrong for the nepali head wobble. up and down is yes and sideways is no, just like americans do. your P will agree with me. but its so interesting that every american (at least all that i had this kind of conversation with) want to believe that people from other country have the opposite meaning to the head wobble. Every time, they end up with, “Oh, its not your country? but people from X country have that opposite head shakes.”

    • americanepali

      Hi Nepalidawg,

      Interesting that you should mention this… because my post sparked quite a discussion between my Nepali friend who made the initial claim, and an Indian friend who insisted up and down that what my Nepali friend said wasn’t true. P didn’t have an opinion either way. It seems as though the head wobble is more shake-from-side-to-side means “okay” but not is such black and white terms as I noted. If any one else has an opinion on it, let me know…

    • Bulgaria truly does have the opposites to America for yes & no, which was incredibly confusing whenever you stopped by the Bulgarian House in college (i.e. the apartment all the Bulgarians international students had together).

      According to Aditya, in India the head wobble means different things in different regions, and doesn’t exist much in some areas (like Calcutta). The wobble is different from both the American shaked “no” and a nodded “yes” – it’s more of a tilting the head from the neck left & right. It’s very popular in Bombay, and means “okay”. My South Indian coworkers use it too to mean “okay”, but I can’t generalize to all of South India off of a few examples.

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