Category Archives: American Family

The “Real” Football

During my time over in Kenya I undertook an internship at a refugee camp on the border of Sudan. It was probably one of the most intense experiences of my life.

KakumaI had been at the camp for a few weeks, and Thanksgiving was approaching. The days prior had been rough. Daily loss of electricity, a torrential rainstorm that triggered a flash flood through the camp, the oppressive oppressive heat, and just the day to day hardships that one hears as a camp aid worker had worn on me. I was feeling bummed in general—and being far from home on a holiday wasn’t helping.

I had scheduled a phone call home to my family which I knew was gathering at my aunt’s house for the holiday. I had been looking forward to the call for a long time. I thought for sure they would have a lot of questions for me about the camp and what I was doing, or at least about Africa in general but instead my conversation went like this:

Dad: “Hey, Happy Thanksgiving! What’s the time there right now? So, do they watch [American] football over there on this day too?”

Uncle: “Happy Thanksgiving! Don’t worry, I’ll eat your share of the turkey, ha ha, anyway, what time is it over there? Any big [American] football fans working with you? Are they watching the game?”

Aunt: “Happy Thanksgiving! We are watching the game… is it on over there too?? By the way, what time is it there?” etc, etc.

I was aching for some telephone bonding, but instead they wanted to talk about [American] football… which is a longwinded way of getting to my topic du jour—sports.

I think by now you have realized that my dad’s family is big into [American] football. He is a Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys fan (I know, an odd combo, but hey, I guess it can happen). One of my sisters follows the Colts (she even named her dog Peyton!) I have uncles supporting the Bills, the Dolphins, and the Patriots; aunts who like the Bills, Patriots, and the Giants; before my grandfather passed away, he was a lifelong follower of the Green Bay Packers.

Holidays with my dad’s family are filled with lots of people, lots of food, and lots of [American] football. My cousins are into it, the in-laws are into it, probably even the dogs are into it (every family has their dog), and sometimes I don’t know where I came from… I just don’t care about the game. I’m one of those people who grudgingly watches the Superbowl for the commercials and food at the party. When my dad took us to the local college games as a kid, I’d watch the band and the cheerleaders. I apologize to [American] football fans out there, but I just don’t understand the game, I don’t care to understand the game, and I just find it boring. If it is any consolation, I’m not much of a sports fan in general.

D ("the Chelsea fan") and P ("the Man U fan") at a Barcelona game a few years ago

D (the "Chelsea fan") and P (the "Man U fan") at a Barcelona game a few years ago. How is it possible that they can be friends?

Insert P. P is a wild and crazy football fan of a different nature. Football (minus the brackets), or as Americans like to call it… soccer. He played for the university when he was a student in Maine before he transferred to upstate New York and he has played intramural football as an undergrad, a masters and now a phd student. He is an adamant supporter of Manchester United in the British Premier League but also follows teams in Italy and Spain, as well as individual soccer stars like Argentinean Maradona (back in the day).


P, D and a friend from college at an Inter v. AC Milan game this past summer

One of his favorite procrastination tactics is watching goal highlights on FootyFilms and ESPN SoccerNet. He often watches games in Vietnamese or Chinese, and doesn’t care that he doesn’t understand the commentary, he just wants to watch the game. I have even seen him re-watch old goal highlights from games in the 70s, 80s and 90s just to “re-live the experience.” I think if he had the chance, he would abandon his phd and become a professional soccer commentator if the opportunity came along (“gooooooooaaaaaal!!!!!”)

The last time the World Cup was on he rented a DVR and ordered cable tv just for the month so that he could record and watch nearly all the games. Out of 64 I think we saw about 56. Now that’s a lot of football!


P in his Ireland jersey. When people travel, they now pick him up the "local" jersey.

I’m stuck between these two extremes. I have no interest in [American] football, but I’ve slowly grown fond of “the real football,” if anything, because it is always around. What really won me over was the 2006 World Cup. I watched some of the games in 2002, but it wasn’t until the DVR that I really got into the matches, and supported teams. I tend to root for the African teams (surprise surprise), and in 2006 I was excited about the underdogs Trinidad and Tobago (even though I knew they probably wouldn’t go too far). I am actually excited for the 2010 World Cup, and had really hoped to actually go to South Africa (I figured it was a great way to bring together our two interests… football and Africa) but alas poor planning, too much international travel last summer and not enough funds kiboshed that plan. Ah well, there is always a DVR to be rented.

I do appreciate my new found knowledge of football. It really helps when working with international students. Football can be a quick cross-cultural bonding tool. I could connect with Sudanese and Somali refugees at the camp (where big football games were organized), or the Bangladeshi and Jamaican students who I commiserated with last night at work (“I completely understand… I agree it makes more sense to call soccer ‘football’ when the ball is on your foot for 90 minutes of the game”). Although, I usually try to feel someone out before blurting that P loves Man U… its like saying you like the Yankees. Depending on their loyalties, people can go crazy!

For the time being, I’ll stick to the World Cup. I think it will be quite a while before I have a “team” in the British Premier League, so don’t get too excited ;)

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.

“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.