Category Archives: Society and Culture


Two things made me think of this post—

1)      P is amazing at finding random amusing things on the internet, which led us to the website We spent the better part of an evening a few nights ago watching videos linked off the page. That’s how we found “28 cartoon theme songs in 7 minutes.” I didn’t know all the theme songs, but I knew a good deal of them, and there is always something comforting about hearing the theme song from a cartoon you used to watch while eating cookies after school, or crunching on cereal in the morning. I busted out with lyrics that I hadn’t sang in 20+ years, and was surprised to find I still knew most of them! As the song progressed P said, “Where is Barbapapa?”

2)      Recently there was a facebook meme where many people were encouraging their friends to change their facebook picture to a cartoon character from their past “to help child abuse.” I noticed several friends of P’s changed their profile picture to characters from Barbapapa.

So if you are like me, perhaps you didn’t have Barbapapa in your childhood, and might have no idea what I am talking about. But Barbapapa seems to be a beloved character from the childhoods of many a Nepali I know.

So what is Barbapapa? According to Wikipedia (my favorite website of all time) it is both a title character and the name of the “species” of said character from a series of French children’s books written in the 1970s by Annette Tison and Talus Taylor. (barbe à papa is French for “cotton candy”).  The books were later translated into 30 languages, and the cartoons became quite popular particularly in many Asian countries.


Wikipedia continues…

Barbapapa himself is a generally pear-shaped, pink shapeshifiting blob-like creature who stumbles upon the human world and tries to fit in. The shapeshifiting is usually accompanied by the saying “clickety click—Barba Trick”(or other similar things in a multitude of other languages)… After various amusing adventures, he comes across a female of his species (more shapely, and black-coloured), named Barbamama. They produce seven children, known as the Barbabies, each a different colour:

Barbazoo—yellow, male, lover of animals
Barbalala—green, female, lover of music,
Barbalib—orange, female, lover of books,
Barbabeau—black and furry, male, lover of art,
Barbabelle—purple, female, lover of beauty,
Barbabright—blue, male, lover of science and finally,
Barbabravo—red, male, lover of strength and heroism

P’s brother U in particular has shared the Barbapapa love with me before, so if you want to learn a little bit more about your significant other’s childhood, maybe see if he or she has any Barbapapa memories they might like to share. What is their favorite Barbapapa character?

“Made in China”

D left on Saturday to go to Nepal for a few weeks, and N’s mother (Aunty) has been visiting and thinking about gifts to bring home, so recently shopping trips have been on the rise. Such as two weekends ago when the six of us (Aunty, N, AS, P, me and D) decided to go to an outlet mall near by.

As we rummaged through some shops AS, N and Aunty were telling me that they have to be careful what gifts they buy because people back home are very conscious about where products are made.

In the US a lot of our products are made in China. Most Americans are used to that, we don’t really think a lot about our manufactured goods. Factory made products are so ubiquitous that I really appreciate unique handmade, handcrafted products, and love to bring handicrafts back from my travels.

In Nepal (and many other parts of the developing world) labor is cheap, and handmade products are everywhere. People are more interested in manufactured goods, but they pay attention to the label. If you bring a manufactured good from the US, they want to see something “Made in the USA” or at least from a country far away like Nicaragua.

Bringing products back from the US with “Made in China,” “Made in India,” or “Made in Bangladesh” doesn’t seem to make sense, since these countries are close by, and many of the products in Nepal are also made in these countries. I never really thought about that before.

N’s mother told me a story while at the mall. She was in the US for a conference in 1989 and had a Sri Lankan roommate. The two women went shopping for their kids back in their respective countries, and her Sri Lankan roommate found a cute frilly white dress to bring back for her daughter. She asked N’s mother to hold on to it while she went to search for the cash registers, and while she was gone N’s mother checked the tag. The dress was “Made in Sri Lanka.” When her friend came back N’s mother showed her the tag. “I’m so glad you told me! Imagine if I brought a gift to my daughter from America and it was made in our home country!”

Granted—often times products available in the US are of a different quality than the products available in other countries, even if they were made in the same place. For example, in Kenya, which is a big tea producing country, locals are not able to buy the best quality tea grown by their own countrymen because everything above a certain quality is exported. However I understand the disappointment of getting a gift “from the West” only to find out it was actually “Made in China” when your country borders China.

Food for thought the next time I buy a gift to send to Nepal!

Everyone Really Does Know Everyone…

I know, I know, I have probably beaten this topic to death, but it never ceases to amaze me.

N’s mother is staying with us for a little while, and unfortunately while visiting us her elder brother passed away back in Nepal. There was an article about it in one of the Nepali daily newspapers, and word had filtered out. So a few people have been calling her to make sure she is okay and offer their condolences.

One such person was none other than Jyoti Pathak, the author of the Nepali cookbook I reviewed a while back.

As I walked in the door from work, and came to say hello to Aunty and N in the living room, she shuffled off to the bookcase, handed me the cookbook and said, “She just called me on the phone.”

“Really? The author?” I asked, a bit surprised. Why am I still surprised?

“Yeah, she used to teach at the university where I taught, but she came to the US in the 1970s, and I haven’t spoken to her in 30 years. She called my daughter [niece] in New York to offer condolences, found out I was here, and called me. It was so nice to talk to her!”

So again, the Nepali world is small– (or as P corrected me earlier… “Kathmandu is small…”)

Another such example from the blog– a while ago I posted a documentary on “Birth in Rural Nepal.” While one of the blog readers was watching the video with her boyfriend he looked at the screen and said, “Hey, [the film maker] is my cousin-sister! I remember she said she was working on something for aljazeera”.

Tiny tiny world.

Dashain Articles

A few people (thanks AS and P) sent me articles today from the Nepali online journal Republica that I wanted to share:

The first is called “Nava Durga: Nine incarnations of the Mighty Devi Durga” and discusses the different incarnations of Durga (the power goddess) that are worshiped on different days of Dashain.

The second article was on Dashain tikkas and why some communities use red versus white or black.

(From the Republica article on Tikka): This picture illustrates to those who have never seen or participated in a Dashain tikka giving what it looks like. An older member of your family/community gives tikka and blessing to younger people. Note the jamara grass tucked behind the father's ear.

In the “white tikka” section of the article it discusses how different ethnic communities sometimes choose to use different colored tikkas to differentiate themselves and their practices, since historically red vermillion was not readily available outside of the KTM valley, and tikkas were created with butter (potentially influenced by Tibet), or curd and rice. Also the article gives the example of the Limbu people, whose participation in Dashain can only be traced back to Rana Bahadur Shah’s reign. This reminded me of a story that M-dai told me a while back.

M-dai is from the Sunwar ethnic group traditionally from the mountains in the Solokhumbu region of Nepal. Many of the mountain people were not traditionally (and many still are not) Hindu, but Buddhist or animist/shamanistic. When Nepal became unified under a king, and the country was declared a Hindu kingdom, advisors of the king were sent to the more remote areas of Nepal to enforce Hinduization. M-dai said his grandfather’s grandfathers used to have to show that they sacrificed a goat for Dashain to prove their participation in the Hindu festival and their adherence to the king. For some families celebration of this festival may have stuck, but not for all.

Which leads me into the final article: “Commentary: On Not Celebrating Dashain.” Even though to me Dashain feels more cultural than spiritual, it is important to remember that the festival– much like Christmas (regardless of how secular and commercial it might seem to some) in the US– is not celebrated by everyone. This article is from the perspective of a Nepali who is not Hindu, and thus doesn’t celebrate.

I hope you don’t mind all the posts on Dashain… it’s just on my brain as of late. Thought others might find these interesting….

Marriage (the Nepali Card Game)

In the spirit of Dashain, I wanted to post about the Nepali card game “Marriage.” As I’ve mentioned before one of the favorite pass-times of Dashain (besides eating of course) is gambling, and it is not unusual for families to spend the holiday playing cards. We were at a Dashain party at R and S’s over the weekend and there was card playing/gambling from 10:30pm until 5 in the morning!

There are several favorite games to play for Dashain’s “taas” (card playing)– “Kitty,” “Call Break” (which is similar to the American game Spades), and probably most famously “Marriage.”

I grew up in a card playing family (at least on my dad’s side) but I’m forever forgetting the rules of “Marriage.” A quick google search led me to realize there wasn’t a good listing of the rules out there in internet-land, (although there is a website where Nepalis can play “Marriage” online). So I thought it would be useful to try and explain the rules of the game in a nutshell for anyone who might find themselves pulled into a game during this Dashain season.

If I have misunderstood any of the rules or I forgot something, I encourage readers familiar with the game to comment. Also special thanks to N who took the time this evening to play a round with me and explain the rules in detail.

Marriage is all about the “points” (each point is money that the players have to pay each other), strategically knowing what to throw and what not to, and trying to figure out the “joker” (or wild card).

1 point is a unit of money, whether it is 1 rupee, 1 penny, 10 cents, etc.

The game is played with three decks of playing cards and can be played with 2-5 players. The dealer deals 21 cards to each player. The players look at their hand to see if they have any sequences (either three-of-a-kinds or same suit trials of three). If you have a three-of-a-kind it is called a “tanella” and you can put the cards out in the open. Each player must pay the person with the tanella 5 points. If multiple people have tanella than multiple people are paid 5 points by each player. If you don’t call your tanellas at the beginning before the game begins, you are not able to collect your points.

The play begins with the person sitting to the right of the dealer. The top card of the un-dealt pile is turned over and the player has a choice to pick up this card, or take the next card. If the player wants the card then they take it into their hand and discard a card they do not want. The cards in the discard pile are spread out so all can see the cards that are no longer in play (this can be strategically important).

The game continues in that fashion until someone gets three sequences (either three-of-a-kind or same suit trial of three). The person who gets the sequences lays them out face up and gets to blindly choose the “joker” or wild card  amongst the unused portion of the deck, looks at the joker, and places at the bottom of the pile.

Knowing the joker is a key aspect to the game, and players will only get a chance to look at the joker after they get three sequences.

The joker can be used as a wild card to complete sequences where you are lacking a card. Since you are playing with three decks it is possible that there might be two other of the exact same joker in play, but the same joker of any suit is also usable (just not worth points later on). Also the exact card above the joker and the card below the joker (called “maal”) can be used as wild cards and are also worth money later on. So an example– if the “joker” is the 5 of diamonds than all 5’s are also wild cards (although only diamonds are worth points), and the 4 of diamonds and 6 of diamonds are wild cards (“maal”) worth points as well.

The play continues with picking cards, discarding and making sequences (keep sequences in your hand except for the three original sequences that allow you to look at the joker). The person who first makes all the sequences in their hand discards their final card, lays out the sequences and starts counting points.

The key to the game is in the points:

So you get points for being the first person to complete all sequences in your hand– 10 points from any player that hadn’t made the initial 3 sequence that allowed them to look at the joker, and 3 points from everyone else.

But then other people can get points too…

Anyone who has the exact joker (5 of diamonds in the example above) gets 3 points from each person, and anyone who has a “maal” card (4 or 6 of diamonds in the example above) gets 2 points from everyone.

There is an alternate version as well where you could get 5 points if you have a joker of a different suit but same color (meaning 5 of hearts in the example above) but there are no “maal” points for the same color different suit variation.

After counting up points, and exchanging money, the deal moves to the person on the right and the whole process starts again. The game continues until people decide to stop, there is no definitive end… unless maybe someone runs out of money ;)

Of course there are many other intricacies to the game, but at least this will get you started on the right path…

So happy gambling, and happy Dashain! (Luckily I’ve only lost $5 so far…)

Dashain Ideas

Dashain is soon to be upon us. The first day of the ten day festival is October 8th and it ends on October 17th.

A reader asked me what she might be able to do for her Nepali partner for Dashain. In her specific situation he is across the country. I brought the topic up at dinner last night to see if my in-house Nepali focus group had any ideas.

AS: “That’s tough… Dashain is all about getting together with family and eating lots of food. So if you are far away? I don’t know.”

P: “Make some goat curry and send it through the mail.”

Hmmm… not the most helpful advice.

So I was googling around during lunch today and found a website that explained the importance of Dashain in Nepali culture and the individual aspects of it quite well. It’s not necessarily specific advice, but it might give some ideas:

Dashain is big in Nepal mainly for the following :

  • Holidays – Rest and Relaxation for nearly 10 days!
    This is the longest festival in Nepal. It allows one to travel and be with family and friends for up to a week or more.
  • Shopping – Clothes for wife, children, dad, mum… In spite of extreme hardship, during the festival season, Nepalese families manage to shop if not for all, but at least for the children. Clothes are the most selling item during the season. Those who could not afford to wear even a single new cloth in the entire year will now attempt!
  • Eating – Meat Products, Sweets, Fruits, and meat products again! Dashain’s most popular cuisine is meat, and in popularity order are goat meat, sheep, buffalo, duck, and chicken. Meat is expensive and poor to middle class families usually cannot afford it. So dashain is the time of eating lots of meat. Usually animals are bought live from the animal market such as Kalanki Bazaar, Bag Bazaar, and sacrificed at home or in temples. At home, the whole family is involved in cutting and preparing the meat which usually lasts for 2 to 3 days of feast. But some family prefer to buy the meat already prepared by Butchers
  • Visiting – Meet your Family and Friends near and far
    Dashain is also about forgiveness, kindness and respect, all of which prevails so broken families come together. Cities suddenly seems to empty itself, more people returning back in villages or terai (lower, flat region of Nepal) than that of people joining families in cities. During this season, city rushes to book tickets, bus or plane!
  • Kites – Children love the season also for flying Kites
    If you visit Kathmandu or any other city during this season, the day-sky is filled with colorful kites like shinning stars in the night!
  • Tika and Love – Receiving and Giving Tika and Respect.
    Getting a tika from an older person in your family or from relatives or from anyone is a blessing. Dashain tika begins from the oldest person in your family giving tika to the youngest then the second youngest in the family and so on. Faith, hope, inspiration and blessings, all come alive in Dashain.
  • Money Notes – stacks of notes to give!
    Receive a tika and offer money notes as an appreciation. Popular Dashain notes are Rupees 2, 5, 10, and Rupees 25. Everybody tries to exchange for smaller and new notes, so banks are usually busy during the season.
  • Cleaning – Clean and decorate homes
    Walls get a new coat of paints, roads are cleaned better than before, temples are decorated with lights, villagers join together to clean and build new trails, paint their homes using red-colored mud. People clean themselves mentally too by visiting various temples and worshiping during the festival.
  • Puja – Worshiping God for Peace and Prosperity. Various pujas are performed from beginning to the end of Dashain.
  • Gambling – although not legal in Nepal, but it’s played! Playing cards are popular during Dashain. Usually family members play cards with each-other or with friends for money.

Perhaps you could send or gift your loved one a new shirt or pair of pants and some playing cards, cook a goat curry meal, and/or send Dashain greetings to Nepali family and friends. If you live in a community with Nepali people, you might visit the homes of elder Nepalis for tikka.

Other ideas out there?

It’s Time Again for Teej

It is time again for Teej, the Nepali festival where women (from some of the ethnic groups in Nepal) fast for the long healthy lives of their husbands.

One of my first blog postings last year was about Teej— what the festival was about and my own personal feelings about participating in the festival.

This year I was quite excited. A few weeks ago several women in the community started planning a gathering so we  (with significant others) could be together during this female centric holiday. S-di was planning a big Daar dinner (the feast before the fast), with lots of music, dancing and merriment (as usual).

Next the plan was to be together for the fast on Saturday– relaxing, dressing in red, and going to the temple to meet with other Nepali women for the puja. Lastly, after breaking the fast at midnight on Saturday, we would gather on Sunday morning at a community center where the local Bhutanese refugees were planning a special puja to close the festival celebration.

Women in Kathmandu celebrating Teej

Until… I realized that months and months ago I bought tickets and agreed to go with P and some of our male friends to the US Open Semi Finals in New York on the same day as the Teej fast. If the tickets were less expensive, or the plan more spur of the moment, I would definitely drop it, but I feel kind of locked in. Needless to say I’m really disappointed.

That’s the problem with Nepali festivals. I never know when they are going to happen. I generally know when to start asking about them—Teej is usually in late August or early September. Dashain is in early to mid October (I think this year it’s Oct 8-23rd, but I’m not sure when the main day is yet) and Tihar is in early to mid November (this year Nov 4-7th), but festivals never seem to be on anyone’s radar until they start talking about festival dates and celebrations during conversations with parents back home.

So I think the fast this year will be hard. Waking up early, walking around New York all day, sitting out in the sun, pretending to watch tennis while day dreaming about food. As I’ve mentioned to some of my Muslim friends and students, I have a lot of respect for those who participate in the Ramadan fast. It takes a lot of dedication and will power not to cheat, and for those who come from whole cultures and communities that celebrate, it must be truly challenging to move to a place where there are very few people who commemorate such an important festival. (And by the way, today is Eid-al-Fitr—Mubarak!)

Thus Saturday won’t be as enjoyable participating in the fast essentially on my own instead of with a community, but I’m still going to do it. It’s my last Teej before marriage, and next year will be particularly special as my very first married Teej– which I will be able to prove to the wider Nepali community by wearing my very own red wedding pote. No tennis matches next year for sure!

Our friends AS and N who got married this summer ("Nepali Wedding in New England"). AS is wearing her red wedding pote with golden tillary. She will wear this necklace again tomorrow for Teej.

I also still plan to wear red. Last summer when we were in Nepal P’s mother gave me a few red necklaces and red tikkas that she specifically asked me to wear during Teej. I’m wearing one of her necklaces today in honor of Daar (I’m also wearing a reddish-orange kurta top as well).

So happy Teej to those who might be celebrating, and happy fasting. May the lives of you and your partner (and family) be long, happy and healthy!

Gai Jatra

September-November is prime festival season in Nepal… even though we are at the end of August, the festivals are already starting.

Today is another  such festival, one I hadn’t heard of until we talked about it yesterday evening while P was showing off his rakhi.

Gai Jatra basically means “festival” (jatra) of the “cows” (gai) and is most commonly celebrated by people of the Newar community in the Kathmandu Valley. The festival commemorates those who have passed away during the previous  year.

Supposedly the festival has roots with the royal family—one of the Malla kings lost his son and the queen was so grief stricken throughout the year that her husband desperately wanted to relieve his wife of her sorrow. He announced that anyone who could make her laugh would be rewarded—so the local people paraded through the streets with cows (a sacred animal in Hinduism), and afterward there was a giant party with costumes, music, and jokes, particularly satirical jokes which made fun of important people in society. Eventually they were able to make the queen laugh, and the festival became an annual occurrence.

As part of the tradition, every family who has lost a relative during the past year participates in a procession through the streets of Kathmandu leading a cow. If a cow is unavailable then a young boy dressed as a cow can be substituted. After the procession the atmosphere is light and jovial—people dress up, wear masks, sing songs and tell jokes. Humor and mockery continue until late in the evening.

According to Wikipedia: “Gaijatra is a healthy festival which enables the people to accept the reality of death and to prepare themselves for life after death.”

Photos from this year's Gai Jatra celebration posted by Nepal News

Happy Janai Purnima and Raksha Bandhan

I’ll make this a quick posting, since my lunch break is nearly over and work has been busy lately (my international students are back from summer break, and the office is teeming with people and questions!)

Today is Janai Purnima, the day when Brahmin and Chetri men are suppose to change their “janai” or holy thread that they are supposed to wear everyday (although most young men I know in the US don’t generally practice this tradition– but P’s grandfather wears a janai everyday, maybe even his father). Men usually first receive these threads during their Bratabandha ceremony.

Additionally on this day men, women, and children, regardless of caste, tie a sacred yellow thread around their wrist. Men tie the thread around their right hand while  women tie it on their left. Raksha means ‘protection’ and Bandhan means a bond. The wearer believes that it will bring him or her good luck. It is believed that this thread should only be removed on Laxmi Puja, which falls three months later, and should be tied to the tail of a cow (or I’ve been told, in absence of a cow, one can throw the string into a fast moving river, or lacking that, onto a plant– I have last year’s thread tied to a plant in my office!). Supposedly when death comes to the wearer the cow will help him or her  cross the river Bhaitarna, by allowing the dead to cling to her tail.

Similarly on this day sisters give brothers rakhi– decorative braclets– while the brother is supposed to give sweets in return. This helps to solidify bonds of friendship and kinship.

Simple rakhi

Nepali Men and Whiskey

In keeping with the general theme of “Stuff Nepali People Like” I wanted to take a minute to mention whiskey. Particularly now that I have attended a few Nepali weddings it has become abundantly clear that Nepali men (I know, I’m generalizing) seem to enjoy whiskey–or at least it seems to be the hard liquor of choice.

Last summer when P and I were traveling to Nepal we had a layover in Qatar. Our friends R and S took the same flight several days before, and S had asked us to pick up several bottles of Johnny Walker at Duty Free to bring to his wedding. He had done the same during his transit, but there was a limit to how many bottles could be brought through the Kathmandu airport.

We dragged the bottles from Qatar, to Kathmandu and through the janthi in Chitwan but everything got so chaotic near the end of our journey that I actually lost sight of them after awhile. Hopefully the whiskey made it into the right hands, but even if it didn’t, I’m sure someone really enjoyed it.

At R and S’s wedding reception there were two places set up for drinks on opposite sides of the venue—the bar, and then the “ladies bar.” The bar served beer and, of course, whiskey (perhaps some came from our Qatari Johnny Walker?). The “ladies bar” served soda and wine. I asked someone why there were two separate bars, thinking perhaps women weren’t suppose to drink beer and whiskey. I was told this was “in fashion” and also that the ladies didn’t want to be crowded around by the men. At the “ladies bar” they had space to stand around and gossip with each other over wine and soft drinks. Hmmmmm.

Another wedding I attended in Kathmandu the waiters were circulating with glasses of wine and whiskey, while at AS and N’s wedding they received a few gifts of bottles of whiskey from family and friends. One of which, I must admit, was polished off last night during a dinner party… where more than half the guests were Nepali men.

So if you find yourself entertaining and happen to have a bottle of whiskey on hand, feel free to serve, straight up with ice. Or not sure what to gift at a Nepali wedding when you are a buddy of the groom? Perhaps a nice bottle of whiskey. Trust me, someone will drink it ;)