Category Archives: Cross-Cultural Issues

Please… No More Rice!

First off, let me assure you, I love Nepali food. As noted before, I’m lucky that P’s national cuisine is so vegetarian friendly, and having grown up in a house with relatively bland food, my introduction to South Asian spices has really positively educated my taste buds. Veg momos, pani puri, mattar paneer, and masyoura (dried vegetable nugget curry) are some of my favorite foods.

We eat a lot of South Asian food, but we also eat a lot of non-South Asian food and dinner often turns into a negotiation. If usually starts with P asking, “what’s for dinner tonight?”

Me: “hmmmm… what about pasta casserole?”

P makes a scrunched up face: “nooo pasta… how about daal bhaat?”

Me: “Daal bhaat again? We just had that, what about pizza?”

P: “I’m really in the mood for rice…”

Me: “What about burritos?”

P: “Okay, burritos works for me.” (Oh burritos, always a good compromise. It has rice, and its spicy, with lots of vegetables and guacamole. Everyone is happy).

However recently I’ve been a bit faint of heart in the daal bhaat department, and I have to get over it. Rice and daal is a *major* part of a Nepali’s daily diet, in fact not liking rice and daal is probably a Nepali-American relationship deal breaker, the equivalent of “I think we should see other people.” I’ve eaten my fair share of daal bhaat, with my hand no less (as P’s dad says, it doesn’t taste as good if you eat it with a spoon), but over the summer I had a daal bhaat overload, and I haven’t been the same since.

daal-bhaat

Typical Nepali meal... with large bhaat mound and a bowl of daal

The first time I went to Kathmandu was almost five years ago (I traveled to Nepal to meet P’s parents by myself… I was so nervous I was literally shaking on the airplane, but that is a story for another day). I was only there for a few days and was able to eat whatever was given to me with relative ease (minus perhaps the first meal, when everyone was staring at me). It was winter time, the weather was cool, and I had just spent 5 months living in India and eating South Asian every day. P’s family gave me an enormous amount of food to eat, but I took it in stride, bistarai bistarai (slowly slowly) eating my way through the mountain of rice. I remember them commenting on how slow I ate, but not my ability to actually eat the food. Plus it was only a few days. People can do anything for a few days, right?

Then in the summer of 2008 P’s family stayed with us for 5 weeks. We had massive rice-filled dinners every night. Yet I had a trick up my sleeve… I had to wake up early to catch the 5:30am commuter train to work, and so I could have a doughnut or muffin in route, skip lunch (or have something small), and be prepared for the massive dinner. They never knew about my appetite-prepping.

Now we come to June 2009. P and I arrived in Kathmandu pre-monsoon. It was sticky and hot (not as bad as Delhi, but still). Maybe it’s just me, but the heat makes me lose my appetite. When I was a kid, when the weather was really hot, my family tended not to cook. We would eat something cold… like salad, or sandwiches, but mostly salad. The sliced vegetables, which often came straight out of the backyard garden, tasted so clean and refreshing.

One summer during college I lived with several Nepali friends in a second story apartment built over the garage of someone’s house. It was like an oven in there on most days, and when the temperature spiked, it was downright unbearable. I tried to reason my logic on the really hot days… “don’t turn the stove on, don’t cook, it will make it so much more hot in here. Let’s just eat salad or something.” AD, D and P—my chicken loving friends—would hear nothing of it… and we would spend the next few hours dripping with sweat in the apartment after cooking the meal.

So back to Katmandu in June… I’m sure the heat had something to do with it, and the fact that I just don’t eat that much in general, plus I eat really slow, contributed to making meals quite stressful. I am definitely familiar with the concept of showing love through food… and I experienced this in Africa, but as a vegetarian my eating habits were strange, and so food wasn’t forced on me as much as other foreigners I knew. P’s mom is a vegetarian so at his house I didn’t get off that easy.

MamuSortsDaal

Mamu sorts and cleans daal for lunch

Each meal was massive. A huge pile of rice (and I mean Himalayan mountain sized), a bowl of daal, and several types of vegetable curries. P’s mom would usually serve the first round, so it was hard to control my portion size, and once I was almost done, she was pretty quick at putting more on my plate. I got really good, really quickly, at learning the phrase, “Malai pugyo!!” I’m full!! I’m done!! But just saying it didn’t necessarily mean that I wouldn’t get more on my plate. I had to practically hurl myself over my plate to protect it from getting more food placed on it while begging “malai pugyo, malai pugyo!

That first week I tried to eat everything that I was given, but I started feeling so full at each meal that I literally felt ill. Some days I worried if I put just one more spoonful of rice in my mouth I might just vomit, and I started to wonder how long it could take for someone to develop bulimia.

I started dreading meals. Sitting at the kitchen table felt like I was going into battle. I couldn’t eat any street food while out in town during the day because I just knew that there were massive meals waiting for me back at P’s house. Visiting extended relatives became painful because each visit required that I drink at least a cup of milk tea and at least a portion of a large plate of snacks. Every bite brought dread that I wouldn’t be able to finish my plate of food at dinner.

Whats worse, after a while I noticed that the family members were saying to each other in Nepali at the kitchen table, “she doesn’t like our food… she doesn’t like rice.” I would protest (in Nepali), “but I do, I do like rice, I just can’t eat this much!”

RHeats

P's dad, RH and P eating a candle-lit dinner during one of Kathmandu's many electrical blackouts

I tried to convince P’s family that if you don’t grow up eating rice every day of your life you can eat less rice and feel full. In P’s family they think that if you don’t eat rice it isn’t a “real meal” and P has told me stories of his grandfather going to wedding receptions only to come home and eat more rice because he didn’t feel full enough at the ceremony. I think P’s mom and I almost started reaching an understanding about rice portions when our friend RH (our Irish neighbor) came to join us on our Everest trek. Even back in America RH’s appetite is legendary, and here he was, sitting at P’s kitchen table, chowing down on the mountain of rice and then…unbelievable… asking for seconds! There went my whities-can-eat-less-rice theory out the freaking window!

BhaatOnTrek

P and RH eat daal bhaat along our trekking route. If you order daal bhaat you get unlimited refills, much to RH's and P's delight

One day I kind of freaked out a little at the table. I thought if I had rice, I would just be sick, so I begged to eat cucumber and mango. That’s all I wanted. Sliced cucumber and mango. It was probably the strangest lunch request ever made in their kitchen. “You just want cucumber and mango? No rice? Do you have a fever?” Nooo… I just need fresh uncooked vegetables. I need something that isn’t a starch today.

Shortly thereafter P and I left for our trek. I was so happy not to be force fed that I practically ate nothing for the next two days. I felt like I was being cleansed. I lost my appetite for most of the trek probably due to altitude anyway. By the time I came off the mountain I felt refreshed and empty. It was a nice feeling.

EatsTooMuchRice

Me, feigning death, after eating another massive rice-filled lunch

Back in Kathmandu I started requesting smaller and smaller portions of rice. P’s mom would complain that I eat the “rice of a 5 year old” but at least it helped me to get dinner down.

When we returned to America the last thing I wanted was to see a plate of rice and daal. I’ve eaten the combo since, but it has quickly dropped from being a tasty food to being a somewhat dreaded food in my mind. Every time I think of it I think about that over-stuffed-I-think-I’m-gonna-vomit feeling I had at P’s kitchen table. I’m hoping if I take a little break from it, then I’ll feel better about daal bhaat again, and hopefully I’ll forget that sinking awful puke-y feeling.

I’m happy to eat rice, as long as it is the “rice of a 5 year old.”

Can You See Everest From Your House?

Nepal- a tiny country sandwiched between two giants

Nepal- a tiny country sandwiched between two giants

In general, most people know very little about Nepal. Some have never even heard of the country before, while others think it is in some other part of the world (Africa? South America? Blank stare?) In fact my mother, after having known P for some time, still referred to Nepal as “Nepal-India” for quite a while because she had at least heard of India before and knew it was a real country. I guess it was her way of creating some sort of visualization she could connect to, women wrapped in colorful fabric with dots on their foreheads, sure, I know where you are talking about…

First view of Mt. Everest from P and my trek

First view of Mount Everest from P and my trek. We made a trek to the Everest region in June for P's phd research. It was his first time to Solukhumbu, and we were only able to go 1/2 way to Base Camp due to time constraints. When P and I got back to Kathmandu many people in the city told me how lucky I was to see it, "It is in my country, and I've never laid eyes on it!"

Then there is a second group of people, those who have heard of Nepal’s great “claim to fame” Mount Everest (otherwise known as “Sagarmatha” in Nepali and “Chomolungma” in Tibetan) so thus they kind of know about Nepal. I pretty much fell into this category in the beginning. My freshman year in college I made friends with a few Nepali students and I remember a specific (and now kind of embarrassing) conversation. I had always associated “Kathmandu” with the starting point of most Everest expeditions I’d heard about in The National Geographic (my favorite magazine as a kid, heck, still my favorite magazine). I figured the city was basically at the base of the mountain.

Me: “So can you see Mt. Everest… from your house?” (eek… I sound like Sarah Palin)

Nepali friend: “You mean in Kathmandu?”

Me: “yeah, isn’t it really close?”

Nepali friend: “um, yeahsure… actually we used to climb part of it for gym class in high school. Once I made it to the top and we had a cup of tea.” He had me going for a little while until the blatant sarcasm at the end.

And now I know that the mountain is at least an hour plane ride away from the capital!

Actually, while I was writing this post, I did a quick “Google Chat” poll of Nepali friends who were online. I asked them, “When people find out you are from Nepal, what is the first thing they think of or ask you about?”

Friend 1: “Have you climbed Mt Everest, that’s one of the common questions”

Friend 2: “Have you climbed Mt. Everest?”

Friend 3: “(They become blank) and ask… Where is Nepal?”

Friend 4: “I don’t know if it’s the first thing, but many asked me if we have electricity or computers etc. Not that we don’t have power cuts, but I was like helloooo… I knew how to work on a computer before I came to the US… Someone asked my sister—how many times have you climbed Mount Everest?”

I think, more often than not, Nepali people (that I know) give the benefit of the doubt to others who genuinely don’t know anything about Nepal (Friend 4: “Many people don’t even know where Nepal is. So I have to start- it’s in Asia, in between India and China…”; Friend 3: “I use Mt. Everest as a reference to tell them where Nepal is…”)

As an American, I am not used to people not knowing anything about my home country, so it is hard for me to imagine what it might be like for my friends to run into this time and time again. I’m sure it has to be frustrating to get into conversations with people who have never heard of your country, and also a bit odd when all the knowledge someone has about your home is limited to only one small aspect of it—in this instance, Everest. I guess it is better to be associated with something like Mount Everest than having some other sort of affiliation with your country, like my poor Kazakhstani students who make a sign for their culture booth each year that says, “Borat is not from Kazakhstan.”

Photo from a Sherpa climate change festival P and I went to on our trek. These dancers/singers are probably Tibetan, although Sherpas live in both Nepal and Tibet

Photo from a Sherpa climate change festival P and I went to on our trek. These dancers/singers are in traditional dress and they are probably Tibetan. Sherpas live in both Nepal and Tibet

Probably the second most popular cultural association with Nepal, also tied to the idea of Mount Everest, are the Sherpa people. “Sherpa” can be a few things. There are “Sherpa” which is an ethnic group, but the term is sometimes used to refer to several ethnic groups that live in the Himalayan region that are sometimes lumped into the “Sherpa”

Sherpa--helping with mountain expeditions

Sherpa--helping with mountain expeditions

category because of their similarities with each other. Then there is the term “Sherpa” which has become a more generalized word for porters and climbers who help with annual mountain expeditions to Everest and other high altitude climbs in Nepal, Tibet (and sometimes India and Pakistan). Generally these porters are local people (but not always) whose bodies are better adapted to the thin atmosphere and rigors of hiking up and down the mountains. They may or may not be actual “Sherpa” but the term sticks.

So my next question in my informal mini poll was, “Does anyone think that you are a Sherpa because you are from Nepal, or make “jokes” about you being a Sherpa, even though they know you aren’t?”

Friend 1: “Yeah, I think I got called a Sherpa last Friday…”

Friend 3: “Not really, because people don’t generally know Nepal, so they don’t make the connection.”

Sherpa women (Sherpani) serve us local food during the festival

Sherpa women (Sherpani) serve us local food during the festival

Friend 2: “Not really, because I clearly don’t look like a Sherpa” (follow up question “But an American might not realize that…could it also be because you are a woman and people don’t necessarily associate Sherpas who climb Mt Everest–almost exclusively portrayed as men in documentaries and news about expeditions–with women?”) “I suppose most people have some vision of a Sherpa. But they do ask if [I’ve] climbed Mt. Everest, of course women can climb mountains too. Plus everyone thinks I shouldn’t complain about the cold because I am from Nepal and they think of the snow and mountains. Half the country is hot and tropical, we have jungles!”

P channels his "inner Sherpa" as he tries to carry our porter's load during a tea break

P channels his "inner Sherpa" as he tries to carry our porter's load during a tea break

Me: “P, does anyone else call you ‘Sherpa’ outside of my family?”

P: “Nope, its pretty much exclusively your family.”

A running “joke” with one of my uncles insinuates that since P is from Nepal he “must be” a Sherpa. When he sees P coming he calls out, “here comes the Sherpa!” and when my grandmother once asked if P was tired when holding one of my baby cousins my uncle said, “Sherpas are used to carrying heavy things! He’s fine.” After the Sherpa joke was well established, two Christmas’s in a row, two different aunts gifted P a “Sherpa blanket.” They thought it was pretty clever… Nepal has Sherpas, P is from Nepal… he will probably get a kick out of a Sherpa blanket!

P is so laid back anyway that he doesn’t take offense or care much either way about the jokes, but it is still a bit odd. I guess it is kind of like people in Nepal giving me cowboy hats for gifts and calling me “Texas” because during an 8 year period the world associated the US with George W Bush who famously considered himself Texan. That’s the only example I can think of.

Friend 1: “I actually think it is funny, considering that given the different ethnicities in Nepal, Sherpas are so popular. [I think] it’s because of the [mountaineering] industry and the Sherpas sheer awesomeness. They climb up that mountain as a job carrying all that heavy stuff for other people!”

Passing porters carrying heavy loads up the mountain trail...

Porters passing us carrying heavy loads up the mountain trail... I just had a back pack, and I was out of breath!

I agree, it is actually amazing to see the strength of some of the people up in the mountainous region in Nepal. In Solukhumbu, where P and I did our trek, the only way to transport almost all types of goods into the mountain villages was either by mule/yak caravan or by people hauling stuff on their backs. We watched people carry nearly 110 kilos up steep mountain passes to stock lodges for tourists and bring food and materials to the local people. We passed large stacks of plywood, window panes, large kerosine fuel tanks and boxes of heavy beer and sodas strapped to porters’ backs. The sheer power of the people we encountered was amazing, it was hard work for very little pay… with people often walking long distances in plastic flip flops on muddy steep passes.

This was probably all I could do... and I was just goofying around...

This was probably all I could do... and I was just goofing around...

Since I’m still not great with the kilo/pound conversion (or really any metric-to-standard conversion, I’m terrible in math), the heaviness of what the porters we saw were carrying (110 kilos…more than 240 pounds!!) didn’t really hit home until I was packing our bags for our return flight to the US. Four very large heavy suitcases were about 25 kilos each, a total of about 100 kilos. That was some math I could see! I couldn’t imagine tying these together and carrying them on my back up a rocky path.

So, how to now end this somewhat-stream-of-consciousness post? I guess the gist of it is, Nepal might be a small country that’s not on a lot of people’s radars, but good things to know so that you don’t seem silly if you find yourself talking to a Nepali person for the first time–Mount Everest is not at everyone’s doorstep (and no… they don’t run up the mountain for gym class to take tea on the summit), and not everyone is a Sherpa. It is a small place, but quite complex in lots of ways, with a diverse and interesting culture and history to explore.

And on a side note, I’ve told P… not to even think about climbing Everest. The risk is too high, and a lot of people come back with badly frostbitten fingers and toes, not to mention other things that could go wrong. After trekking near the mountain I think the idea of climbing it has become a bit alluring, but I stand my ground.

Musings on Death

I got a call from my aunt last night. She invited P and I to my maternal grandmother’s birthday party at the end of October.

Aunt: “Grandma doesn’t really want to have anything special, but you know, she is getting up there in age, so we should all get together to celebrate. Grandma’s not going to be around forever.”

Later on my Grandmother called, “Did you hear this nonsense? They want to have a birthday party for me. I’m getting too old for this. Anyway, maybe if I was turning a ‘special year’ like 90 or something, but I think this is all very silly. But, your aunt said that we should all get together as a family during happy times, and not just for funerals.”

Maybe my family is just weird, I don’t know, but we’ve always been  candid about this kind of stuff. Death has never been a taboo topic to talk about. In 2007/8 my paternal grandparents passed away within a few months of each other and I feel like most of us knew my Grandmother wasn’t going to be around much longer after Grandpa passed away. She even spoke like she wasn’t going to be around. We didn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, wish death on her, but I think we were all realistic about it… however I think P found this a bit appalling.

Even when I got off the phone last night he had a comment, “I don’t know why you guys have to talk like that. It’s disturbing.” I don’t think we were being morbid, it is a bit lighthearted and harmless, but also acknowledging reality. Grandma isn’t going to be around forever, so why not celebrate now?

This is a cultural difference I’ve noticed between (at least) my family and P’s. I have to be careful sometimes, because I’ve learned over the years that talk about death, even as a joke, bothers him.

For instance, when discussing getting married sooner rather than later, I’d love to say, “My grandmother and your grandfather [Kakabua] are getting quite old. Wouldn’t it be nice to get married earlier so that they can attend?”  but I know he wouldn’t appreciate my point, no matter how valid, because it insinuates that they might die in the next few years. Meanwhile I was excited to go to Nepal and see Kakabua again. I met him four years ago, and at the time he was already in his 80s, I wasn’t sure I’d get the chance to meet him again and was really happy to do so in June. I don’t think I should mention that to P either. Any talk about or around death seems to be off topic.

I was mentioning this to AS today:

Me: “Is this a common thing among Nepalis, having it be a bit taboo to talk about death, or do you think it is just a P thing?”

AS: “Talking about death is taboo, and more so if you are talking about your grandparents or old age people. It is thought to bring ill luck to the person. There is a saying—sometimes people say something and it happens for real, so death is unspoken. Even if someone is in the hospital bed, no one will utter the word death. It is out of respect, love or maybe superstition.”

I can respect that. Talking casually about death in front of P bothers him like people talking about weight in front of my family bothers them.

A pint of beer and bit of reminising during the "Irish wake"

A pint of beer and bit of reminising during the "Irish wake"

Actually this reminds me of when my paternal grandparents passed away. My grandfather died in early December. The Nepalis in the neighborhood had found out shortly afterwards, and they came by to see how I was doing. That night I didn’t feel like making dinner, so I ordered a pizza, and I got a few “looks” while I was eating. I then remembered that in Nepali culture it is common to refrain from certain foods—meats, garlic, onions, salt, etc for a mourning period (usually 13+ days depending). Here I was eating a pizza, the day I found out about his death, which probably had all sorts of taboo elements for someone who just lost a paternal grandparent.

Then when we traveled back to New York for the funeral, the night before my father’s family did what they called an “Irish wake,” meaning we all went out for drinks, and reminisced about my grandfather over glasses of wine and bottles of beer. It was therapeutic, particularly for my father and his siblings, and it was nice for us cousins to hear different stories from our parents’ childhood.

When I was asked about the funeral when I got home, there was again a bit of a shocked reaction–alcohol is another taboo during the mourning period in Nepali culture. They were also surprised that we celebrated Christmas that year… usually Nepali families refrain from celebrating major holidays for a year after a family member’s death. Here we were, three weeks later, although our holiday was “toned down” everyone’s feeling on the matter was, “Grandpa would have wanted it this way” since Christmas was always kind of special for him–his birthday was on Christmas day.

My grandmother passed away during the “epic family visit” in June of 2008. P’s family was both very respectful, but also very curious about my family’s customs associated with death—wearing black, burying the dead, the wake and the funeral, the “Irish wake” that happened again (hmm, maybe we didn’t tell them about that), and probably most shocking of all… P and I brought home a cooler full of meat from the funeral. I know this probably sounds weird even by American standards, but my grandmother loved the caribou and antelope that my dad would hunt, and had quite a bit of it in her freezer when she passed, so my dad took some back and gave us some because he knew P liked it. J Phupu took one look in the cooler and said, “yes, our cultures are very different” since many people abstain from meat for a duration of time after a close family member’s passing.

Anyway, I hate to sound morbid on a Friday afternoon, but I was thinking about these things after the conversation with my aunt last night and P’s reaction, and I thought some of you might find it interesting. We don’t talk about death all the time (I swear!), but it definitely comes up in conversation occasionally.

Which reminds me, speaking of death, I read an interesting blog post a while back about a tourist at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. She basically wrote about how she felt uncomfortable as a tourist at the cremation grounds. You might find it interesting, as I did.

Sometimes Humor Just Can’t Be Translated

My Nepali friend AD has a very infectious laugh. We met as undergrads and lived together one summer while working on campus. In the shared apartment that year it was my humorous friend AD, P, AC (P’s high school friend) and I. As the only American I was often vetoed on food, daal/bhat (lentils and rice) and curries were favored (in general) over pasta and garden salad, forks were shunned for the more “authentic way of eating” with our hands, and the language was often Nepali instead of English, at least at the dinner table (and always when I wasn’t around).

One thing that stands out as particularly memorable from that summer was my friend AD’s laugh. It came from deep within and boiled over into a loud, room-filling echo. It’s very distinctive. In the dormitory you could always tell it was him laughing, and you heard him quite frequently. AD found many things funny, but he was also quite skilled at telling jokes, which would throw him into a fit of laughter as well. There was hardly a night at the dinner table that summer that he didn’t lapse into one long-winded Nepali joke or another and the three would erupt in endless giggles. I couldn’t help but feel left out.

“Come on, what’s so funny?” I’d ask.

“Oh, I wish you spoke Nepali, you won’t get it otherwise,” AD would answer while the other two wagged their heads in agreement.

“Can’t you just explain it? Try me!” I’d whine.

“Nope, it just won’t work. You won’t get it. It has to be in Nepali or it won’t be funny.”

Okay, maybe the laughter wasn't *this* hearty

Okay, maybe the laughter wasn't *this* hearty

I suffered through this for years. AD, the great joke teller, would crack one out at a party, and all the other Nepalis in the room would heartily laugh, and I’d be left in the dark, my language skills still not adept enough to understand the intricacies of the grammar and vocabulary chosen for this particular joke.

AD never wanted to translate the joke into English. He insisted it was pointless. It simply would not be funny in English and in fact it probably wouldn’t even make sense.

Then once we moved, I met AS at P’s graduate school. Shortly after meeting her I found out that one of the jobs she had back in Nepal was translating for a Danish organization. She would spend the day listening to people speak in Nepali and then simultaneously translate into English for her colleagues. I was immediately psyched when I heard this; one of the first thoughts that came to mind was, “I finally have someone to explain AD’s jokes!”

One night I told AS my story about AD and my years of not understanding or having the jokes explained. “One day,” I told her, “I’ll get the two of you together and you will have to promise me that you will explain his joke.”

I had my opportunity at a holiday party that I hosted whose invitees were probably half Nepali, half other nationalities. AD drove up from his home in another state to attend. As the party got underway, I knew it wouldn’t be long before he told one of his famous jokes, and I was ready for it. AS and I had positioned ourselves nearby when he launched into one and I had AS whisper me the quick translation. AD noticed what was going on and asked what we were doing.

“AS knows how to translate well! I’m tired of not understanding your jokes!”

“But I’ve told you, they don’t make sense in English, you won’t like it.” He insisted.

“I know that humor is cultural, but come on, if they are as funny as everyone says, I’m sure there has to be something there of the original humor, even in translation.”

So AD sighed and said fine. By this time everyone in the room seemed to be listening, Nepalis and non-Nepalis. So AD started a joke and when he finished AS laughed and started to translate, but as AD predicted,  it didn’t really make any sense. It wasn’t funny at all.

laughing3“This is what I was afraid of,” AD sighed, “here let me try it myself,” and he started telling the joke in English. I can’t honestly tell you what the joke was about, there might have been a goat in it, I’m not sure, but it was completely forgettable and not funny at all.

“Wait, let me try again.” AD said, and try again he did, but a non-Nepali friend interjected, “you’re right, it isn’t funny in English. I don’t get it at all.” At this point AD must have felt like his honor was at stake because then he tried to explain the different parts of the joke to help us “get” it, but it didn’t help.

“Hold on,” AD said, turned to the Nepalis in the room and told the same joke again in his language. To his great relief he got a laugh out of them, “Phew, okay, so it wasn’t the joke, it’s just the language. I told you it was a waste to try.”

It is rather commonly know that humor is one of the hardest aspects of culture to translate. Foreign born and foreign language speaking people who are able to perform comedy in their non-native environments are generally thought to be quite impressive. There are so many nuisances involved in humor, plays on words, inferred understanding of the cultural capital that makes up the joke, even the manner in which you tell a joke and the cultural implications of voice, tone, impersonations, etc. Of course there are jokes that are straight forward, and types of humor that tend to cross cultural lines quite easily, but many jokes are only funny in the language and cultural setting they are suppose to be told.

I know this, but I still could not resist hounding my friend AD. Years of jokes and laughter, I was sure it must have been universally funny. However he was right, and I should have known better. Subconsciously I could tell there were a lot of cultural cues I couldn’t pick up on, even if I couldn’t understand the language. He often used a funny voice, and I think he was impersonating some famous Nepali radio or television personality. Using that voice and those mannerisms instantly brought a whole cultural understanding to the joke that I simply wouldn’t get, having not grown up in the country, or having watched that particular television star.

I also grew to understand that AD was quite good at finessing language, he was choosing words and phrasing that would accentuate the joke, which was lost on me as a beginner in Nepali. Special words and phrasing can be recreated in English, but it often doesn’t have the same effect.

I admit defeat… for now. Jokes are culture laden. However someday, when I can finally understand one of AD’s many jokes in Nepali I’ll know that I’ve reached a certain level of achievement in my understanding of the language and the culture. I’m not quite there yet, but perhaps someday it will happen.

“Fat” is Relative

This story is relatively infamous within my immediate family.

A few years ago, while studying in India I received an email from P. It basically said, “Can you please contact your sister K. I’m afraid my father said something that really upset her and I don’t really know how to handle it.” Meanwhile I started to get ranting emails from my youngest sister, M, talking about something P’s father had done to K. So I wrote back to P and asked, “What the heck happened?”

My sister K and P’s cousin-sister*, coincidentally, both went to the same undergraduate university. When P graduated from our school his father came to the States for the first time and stayed for about 6 months. For a good chunk of his visit he lived with P in New York. On weekends they would travel around seeing the sights and visiting people. One such weekend they visited our “sisters’” college. P took both the “sisters” out for dinner with his father, and while driving back from the restaurant he watched his dad say something to K in the rear-view mirror and then K’s face crumple up like she was upset. He was pretty sure he knew what his dad said, but didn’t know how to react because he didn’t want to hurt his father’s feelings by correcting him in front of everyone, and he also didn’t want K to be upset but it wasn’t the right time or place to explain the cultural intricacies.

Everybody is different

Everybody is different

So by the title of this post, I’m sure you can imagine what he said to her. He basically asked her why she was “so fat.” I think the exact phrasing was something like, “why are you so puffy fat? Do you exercise?” (although the actual use of the word “puffy” is debatable. It is what my sister swears she heard, but its hard to imagine that “puffy” is part of P’s dad’s English vocabulary.) In any case, he meant it completely innocently, and was probably not really aware that he hurt my sister’s feelings.

Anyway, in a place like America, where obesity is rampant, my family’s waist size doesn’t deviate that much from average. Some people are bigger, and some are smaller, but no one is dangerously heavy. However, like most Americans, people in my family are sensitive about weight. If I lost 5 pounds, I’d love for someone to compliment me, but the big taboo is not to mention if I gained 5 pounds, at least not from someone I just met! It can be quite insulting.

Neither of my sisters have ever forgotten that incident. In fact, K even used it for a “cross-cultural misunderstandings” report she had to do for one of her education classes. I was actually probably lucky, because K is a lot more quiet and calm. Had P’s dad made this mistake with my youngest sister M, she probably would have screamed at him. Which would have complicated this sensitive cross-cultural situation even more.

Over the years I have learned that P’s dad, in particular, is pretty bad about this “taboo.” Mostly because it isn’t taboo at all to talk about weight in Nepal. In fact, in most cases, it is a compliment to say that someone is looking bigger. It means you are eating well, and if you are eating well, then you are probably also doing well financially. A Nepali euphemism for “fat” is “healthy.” I mean, healthy sounds like a positive word, right? “You are looking so healthy these days!” is one way of saying, “wow, you’ve grown larger, looking good!”

Me, P's dad, P's mom, P's Phupu, family friend, and P's brother U... as you can see I'm towering over the ladies

Me, P's dad, P's mom, P's Phupu, family friend, and P's brother U... as you can see I'm towering over the ladies

Yet even if you know this cultural tidbit about Nepal, it is still (in my American mind) not fun to be called fat, compliment or not. For example, I just knew that when P’s family came for the “epic family visit of 2008” that one of the first things his dad would say after getting off the plane was something about my weight. I think I’m totally average sized, for a Caucasian, but sometimes hanging out with some Nepali female friends who tend to be a bit shorter and skinnier, it can distort the way you look at yourself and in turn make comments about weight sting even a little bit more.

As expected, as P’s family walked through the departure gate, pushing their luggage carts in our direction, his dad came over to say hello and give us a hug/pat on the back. Then he squeezed my forearm and chuckled, “C you’ve grown so large!” Cringe.

I just knew we had to say something to them. During the family visit, P’s mother, father and Phupu (aunt- literally “father’s sister”) were going to travel to Virginia to stay for two days with my mother and sisters. This was already an awkward visit on so many levels (and I’ll discuss this some other time), but one of the big things that we had to instill in them was that talking about weight—especially heaviness—was absolutely against the rules of engagement.

Scolding is bad during first impressions...

Scolding is bad during first impressions...

My mother had already had that conversation with me: “They are in America now, so they need to learn about our culture as well… I will not tolerate people calling us fat. If they do, I don’t mind telling them to their face that it is wrong.” While she was right about the cultural sensitivity thing, I also wanted to make a good first impression, so impromptu rudeness lessons from my mother were not part of my plan. I made sure that P had time to talk to his family about this and I’m really lucky that they are willing to see things from another perspective.

On the way down to visit my mother we inevitably stopped at R and S’s place. S’s parents were also visiting at the time. As the two families were chatting J Phupu basically said, “You are all looking so healthy!” Then she leaned in and said, “I learned that you can’t say fat in America!”

Well… at least it is a step in the right direction.

I think that P’s family has become more sensitive about the “fatness” thing. In fact, I can’t remember them saying anything while we were in Nepal this summer. Well… they did say I had a nice body for a sari, but I think they meant I had nice wide hips, hmmm, I won’t think about that. Anyway, the gist of this post is: don’t be alarmed if you meet (particularly someone older and newly arrived) from Nepal and they comment on your weight. It is not meant as an insult, it’s a way of striking up conversation and connecting with you! Just smile, and change the subject.

* Meaning a female cousin. She is actually P’s father’s sister’s (J Phupu’s) daughter.