Delicate Mzungu–revisited

**UPDATE** It has now been chopped to 1,998 words! Changes below.

Readers of my blog will be familiar with this story, however I spent a lot of time this month retooling and polishing it into a traditional short story for consideration in an upcoming anthology of “interesting stories of travel abroad” by international educators.

It is only 2,183 words long, so if you have time, I’d love to have my readers give some feedback. Even if I’ve asked you to read this in the past few days, this latest edition has gone through a lot of editing (particularly in the middle and end), so it might be worth a re-read. I think it is nearly ready for submission and I am eager to share:

Mzungu is a Kiswahili word that originally translated as “aimless wanderer.” Yet it has evolved colloquially in East Africa to refer to people of European ancestry—like an 18th century inside joke about imperialists spinning in circles, lost on the Maasai Mara. As an Irish-American with pinky-white skin, my mzungu-ness was as obvious as the strong Kenyan sun.

I felt no offense by this newly christened identity. Neighborhood children would sing, “Hey mzungu! Where are you going mzungu?”  Minibus conductors leaned out their doors to solicit us: “You there! Mzungu! Come!” Kitschy t-shirts in the Nairobi tourist markets quipped: “My name is not Mzungu!”

Instead, it was the adjective “delicate” harnessed to mzungu that stung, like a sharp accusation of weakness.

*

I was in Kenya for five months, studying abroad at one of the oldest undergraduate programs in East Africa. Students spent two weeks in Nairobi taking language and culture courses, alternating between two weeks of field experience in communities around the country. We lived with local Kenyan families and tasted many different recipes of life.

My first wrangle with the “delicate” modifier occurred in agricultural western Kenya. Fresh from orientation in the capital, my group of twelve plunged into our next sojourn, living with rural Kenyan families. I communicated with my hosts in my simple Kiswahili, insisting to work shoulder-to-shoulder with them. “Tafadhali”—please—“let me carry that bucket of water on my head, like you, back from the well…let me hoe the potatoes, let me feed the chickens…” I wanted to hunch over the large aluminum basin in the back yard and learn how to scrub the laundry by hand. I wanted to sit with my host sister and slice the leafy green sukuma wiki in preparation for dinner.

But I was told again and again, “It is okay, please rest. Wazungu# are delicate; we don’t want you to tire. Tafadhali, have some biscuits.”

I respectfully protested, “I’m not delicate. Please, let me help. I’m here to learn!”

The few times I was given a chance, I would either mess up—I stumbled while balancing a bucket of water atop my head, drenching myself—or something odd would happen, like a sudden nosebleed while I bent over the laundry basin. Each unfortunate incident reinforced their theory of the delicate mzungu.

*

Three months later, it was time for my group to travel to the savanna of southern Kenya, within sight of the Tanzanian border. It was the height of the dry season, and the landscape was barren but for occasional acacia trees. We were in Maasai-land, the ethnic group known by their iconic red clothing—women’s sarongs and men’s wraps called kanga and kikoi—and the wide, flat, beaded necklaces worn like starched Elizabethan collars around the women’s necks. Both genders kept their heads cleanly shaved and sported pierced earlobes that hung in stretched loops.

We camped along the edge of several Maasai family settlements. Called boma, they dotted the plains like sparse oases. The first week we walked through the countryside with the moran, the young male warriors of the tribe, who taught us how to identify different plants, herd goats, and survive a pastoralist lifestyle. Yet out in the relentless sun, the days were long, tolerable only by hiding under hats and loose long-sleeved clothing that kept us ventilated like desert Bedouin.

We burned through the clean bottled water brought from Nairobi, and the group had to share the ground water. We attempted to purify it by boiling it over the campfire, but bits of sediment still floated in the sulphurous liquid. Although it was another lesson in the reality of life shared by much of the world, my stubbornness resurfaced.

I was convinced that I didn’t need as much water as the rest of my classmates. I believed my body had better adapted to the dry climate, and I could, like a camel, sustain myself on just a few sips of water a day. I thought this could prove that being an mzungu didn’t automatically mean I was “delicate.”

My body dehydrated, but I was too naïve to pick up on the signs. My skin became dry and tight, and I had less use for the makeshift outhouse dug from the ground. Young people feel invincible, as though surrounded by an invisible bubble. Eventually everyone has an experience which pierces that bubble.  Mine was coming soon.

*

 During our second week in southern Kenya the group was divided into pairs and sent to different Maasai family boma. The settlements were enclosed in a circular acacia thorn fence.   This kept out roaming predators and protected the large herds of livestock which constituted the principal wealth of the family. Within this fence were several huts made of sticks, mud, and cow dung, built small so that an adult must stoop when standing inside. My hut was empty except for a piece of cowhide pulled tight across an elevated stick frame, used for sleeping.

I was paired with Nicole, a petite spiky-haired student from New York City. We spent the evening sitting outside our hut with our host mother, who was likely younger than either of us. We spoke no Kimaa, the mother tongue of the Maasai, so our communications were mimed. After sharing a dinner of boiled cornmeal and milk tea, the three of us sat under the heavy blanket of stars, which shimmered like millions of shards of glass.

*

The next morning Nicole and I arose from our shared cowhide cot and exited the hut into a cooler, overcast day. A moran named Joel Twiga—twiga being the Kiswahili word for giraffe, and a play on Joel’s lanky physique—had been summoned to help translate. He spoke of a large festival happening a few miles away at the “Big Boma”: every few years, families gathered to celebrate their men as they graduated from one phase of life to the next—childhood to warrior-hood, to junior elder, to elder. Our family wanted to take us.

They dressed Nicole and me in full Maasai regalia; a piece of fabric was tied around our hips like an underskirt, two red kangas were tied like toga across each shoulder, held tight by a belt, and we were adorned with white beaded necklaces. The clothing felt comfortable in the cool morning air—but they left large patches of neck, shoulders, and arms exposed.

Joel led us to the festival, and we joined the thronging mass as the sun broke through the clouds. Nicole and I were the only wazungu faces in the sea of red-clad ebony. Some children cried, scared of the mzungu-Maasai imposters, while other people wanted to greet us—“Soppa!” in Kimaa, answered by, “Ebba!” Two thousand people treated us like celebrities.

At first we were ushered from hut to hut, like high level ambassadors, as we greeted the elders. Then we were stationed in the sun to watch a medley of dance; the women vigorously shook their shoulders, causing their necklaces to bob as if floating on stormy ocean waves. The men responded by pogoing ever higher into the sky. The air was thick with ululations, and with the metallic smell of blood from goats butchered for meals not far outside of the boma fence.

By mid-day, Joel, Nicole and I were summoned to honor the regional chief. He welcomed us to his hut with a chummy slap on the back and handed each of us a warm bottle of Tusker, a popular Kenyan beer. I nursed mine while Joel translated the chief’s sermon. I was having trouble focusing on Joel’s words, as the beer and the heat soaked through my skull. My face had a fever-flush, but my skin remained dry of sweat.

After the chief’s hut, the sun became blinding and severe; I could feel every patch of exposed skin broiling in the afternoon heat. I grew agitated and disoriented by the constant attention of the revelers. Joel offered a placating umbrella, and I found a place to sit in the dust, hiding myself like an ant under a colorful mushroom. When evening shadows pulled long across the boma, Joel agreed to take Nicole and me back. I nearly passed out on the return walk.

*

That night my skin was on fire. My face, arms, and a patch of my neck and upper back were the color of cooked lobster shells. Lying on the cowhide cot was like rolling on a bed of freshly sharpened nails.  I could barely tolerate the weight of my loose fitting clothes.

The following day our professor, a tall sable Sudanese man, returned in the program Land Rover to take us back to our original campsite. I felt sore and periodically lightheaded, but remembered the milder sunburns of my childhood, which subsided in a day or two. I failed to realize anything was seriously wrong, and joined the other students in a night drive through the grasslands in search of zebra, antelope and lion.

We had been driving for nearly three hours, spying on a family of zebra in the Land Rover’s headlights, when my world spiraled.  I was instantly sick. A few moments earlier the bouncing car had been fun; now it was torture. My abrupt shift in demeanor alarmed our professor, who signaled our caravan to turn back. I had to sit very still, and breathe very deeply, to keep from vomiting on the return trek. By the time we reached our camp, I could barely walk under my own power. I retched up the contents of my stomach before I was dragged to my tent.

It was the start of one of the longest nights of my life. I vomited until I could not, then vomited some more. I shook and muttered, delirious. I was certain that the daytime heat would kill me. Nicole and the professor sat by my side all night, forcing me to sip water laced with rehydration salts. Finally, at dawn, I fell into a fitful sleep.

Our professor drove half an hour to find cell reception and made arrangements for my transport to Nairobi Hospital. Before his return, I had awoken, more coherent than the night before, but my back and neck had exploded in a mosaic of sunburned blisters. He loaded me into the Land Rover, and the other students waved goodbye.

*

The Nairobi Hospital, called the “European Hospital” during colonial rule, is a state-of-the-art facility and by far the fanciest in the country. Amongst locals, even the arriving patients dressed in beautiful outfits for their visit, while I arrived straight from the bush; filthy, dusty, and limping.

The intake doctor noted in my chart that the “mzungu dressed like a Maasai and was badly burned,” so each time a new nurse came on duty she had to meet that unusual mzungu. I was admitted for four days due to dehydration, sun poisoning and heatstroke. My treatment was a rehydrating intravenous drip and burn cream for the blisters on my back.

On my second day, the hospital director visited my room. He was a bulky, dark-skinned Ugandan doctor; a personal friend of our program director and one of the urban homestay fathers. He looked at my chart and examined my back.

After making his assessments, he held out his fist and asked, “See this hand?”

I nodded.

“It is a strong African hand. I can put it near fire and it will not burn. But you…you are an mzungu, and you are delicate. You must be more careful.”

*

In Kiswahili there is a saying, heri kufa macho kuliko kufa moyo—it is better to lose your eyes than to lose your heart. I may have bruised my pride on that burnt African savanna, but I found my taste for all the extraordinary experiences life has to offer. I hope never to be far from that next adventure, but I promise there will be a lot of sunscreen and water.


#Wazungu—the plural form of mzungu.


Author bio:
C is Assistant Director at the International Students Office at xxx University. In addition to traveling in various regions of Africa, she enjoys South Asia, especially Nepal. C lives in New England with her  husband and dog.

Bringing Shoe Stealing to a Whole New Level…

In some sectors of Nepali and Indian culture there is a wedding tradition where the sisters of the bride–and this could be immediate biological sisters, or cousin-sisters, or female friends, etc–steal the shoes of the groom.

The set up for this works well because during the ceremony the bride and groom have to remove their shoes since the mandap becomes a small Hindu temple, and in all Hindu temples one must remove their shoes. I believe it is the same with mosques, so I wouldn’t be surprised if shoe stealing happens at South Asian Muslim weddings as well–readers can weigh in.

The groom’s friends or male cousins/brothers are supposed to guard the shoes, and I’ve even heard about “decoy” shoes to throw the sisters off.

Once the sisters steal the shoes the groom has to pay a bribe to get them back at the end of the ceremony. Depending on the parties involved, negotiations can be pretty tough.

When my sister heard about this, she loved the idea, and stole P’s shoes at our wedding, but I gave her a limit on how much she could reasonably ask for. When she asked for $50, S said, “that’s too little!” and gave her a handful of money from his wallet. I think she made off with $100 and was pretty satisfied.

Over the weekend we went to an Indian/Nepali wedding in the DC area. It was the biggest wedding I had ever been too– about 600 people. The bride was a childhood/neighborhood friend of P and his brother, and she was marrying a Punjabi man. Both the bride and groom had 13 or 14 members in their wedding party–“bridesmaids” and “groomsmen,” so when the “bridesmaids” (sisters) demanded payment for the groom’s shoes, they meant business and had the numbers to back it up.

They started chanting, “$3,000! $3,000!”

The groom countered with, “It’s a recession! That’s too much for a pair of shoes!”

Sisters: “We want $3,000!”

Groom: “I’ll give you two-fifty each…”

Sister: “Two hundred and fifty dollars each?”

Groom: “No! Two dollars and fifty cents!”

Sisters: “Noooooooo! Boooo!”

Groom: “Be reasonable girls!”

Groom’s brother: “No more than $50 per sister, otherwise they are being greedy!”

Sisters (urged on by the bride): “No, we want $3,000!”

…Haggling back and forth for quite a while…

Groom: “Okay, how about I give you all the money in my wallet right now? Trust me, it’s a lot, you will be happy… and I’ll throw an awesome party!”

Sisters: “How much is in your wallet?”

Groom: “$800 and a gift card for $25, you can have that too!”

Sisters: “Noooooo!”

…Haggling some more…

Some of the brothers reluctantly open their wallets and sweeten the pot to make an even $1,000 plus the $25 gift card.

The sisters finally accept.

P’s cousin’s American husband leaned in and whispered to me, “Um, is this for real?”

Sisters enjoy their shoe money...

Apparently!

My New Anthem?

I had to share this… since my pitfalls in learning Nepali sometimes make me think, “I can only imagine… if I’ll ever learn!”

My personal favorite lyrics– “I can only imagine/when the day comes/when I find myself/with a loosened tongue,” “When they ask if I have eaten, will I say uh-huh or khae?” and “Surrounded by Nepalis, what will my mouth say?”

So enjoy this Friday fun video:

Gori Watching Part I

During the Bratabandha weekend P and I spent two full days hanging out at his relative’s house. The first day was more of a “prep” day. Nepali friends and family members were frantically cooking; there was a group of women monopolizing the kitchen—cutting cauliflower and onion, tossing fried noodles, and peeling potatoes—while a second group was stationed in the garage making stacks of beautiful sel roti. I was the sole Caucasian guest mingling in the crowd, and although I offered to help cook, or even just chop vegetables, there were too many seasoned experts and eventually P and I found ourselves on kid duty, playing tag, “duck, duck, goose!” and “Go Fish!” (which we Nepali-fied into “Macha!”)

Confession time: I have to admit that I have grown very comfortable being the only Caucasian around. Being the resident “American” has kind of become my niche to the point where sometimes, while in a group of other Caucasian-Americans, I feel a little lost, like I’ve lost my “specialness,” my major point of identity. Perhaps that’s why I feel myself playing up the Nepali side of me in an American crowd, so I can feel different and comfortable again. Does that sound weird? Do others sometimes feel the same way?

The following day, I figured that I might meet some non-Nepali friends of the family at the Bratabandha/after party, but I was a little surprised to see other Nepali-American couplings. By day’s end there was a total of four.

Other South Asian-Western couples I’ve met online have discussed “the Gori Gaze” before. Perhaps you find yourself at a restaurant, and a few tables away you spy a South Asian-Western couple, or maybe you bump into one on an airplane or at a shopping mall. You imagine what their story is—perhaps projecting on the westerner parts of your own experience. You can’t help but size the other couple up—does she look more “into the culture” than you? Can she speak the language? Part of you wants to walk up and introduce yourself, swap phone numbers, facebook names, or give them a high five. Maybe another part of you just wants to keep to yourself.

The morning of the Bratabandha was chilly—only about 40 degrees (F), and I had packed a thin sari expecting better weather. Groups of people stood together in the garage where the head shaving was due to take place. We watched as P’s cousin razored the two Bratabandha boys down to a clean, close shave. A few moments later I noticed a white woman dressed in a warm coat and a pair of slacks—smarter than me, since I was shivering in my sari—walk up the drive way holding the hand of what I presumed to be her eight year old daughter and ten year old son. They mingled in the crowd as well, checking out the puja staging area and chatting with the women who were putting the finishing touches on the cauliflower curry dish for lunch. The woman looked about ten or fifteen years older than me, light brown hair, and fair complexion, while her kids had brown hair had a tanner skin tone. The little girl was dressed in a salwaar kameez. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were Nepali-American.

The woman moved around like she was familiar with the house and the cooking women who were local Nepali, so I was hoping she might approach me as the out-of-towner, but instead she moved into the house. A few minutes later I went inside to grab a cup of steaming chia to thaw and saw her sitting on the couch with her daughter, looking through a coffee table book about Nepal, and talking about the pictures with some authority. I lingered on the edge of the living room, hoping to catch her attention, but she didn’t acknowledge me, so at first I thought that maybe she wasn’t interested. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was put off by me being trussed up in a sari, tilari, and bindi?

I moved outside and wandered to the second puja staging area under a tent in the back yard. The pandit was preparing the wood for the small fire under the mandap, and another Nepali man was helping him make the arrangements. The white woman’s son was hanging around too, asking questions to the man, before scampering off. After a few minutes the Nepali man looked up and smiled, “You look very nice in sari. Is your husband Nepali?”

He had picked up on my wedding tilari, a clear signal that I wasn’t just a friend dressed up in a sari to watch the event. I nodded yes.

“Have you been to Nepal?” he asked.

“Yes, three times.”

“Nice.” He said, “My wife has been too. She lived there for four years.”

“Is that your wife inside?” I asked, and he indicated yes. “I wanted to talk to her, but she looked busy.”

“You should go talk to her, her name is Jenny*.”

*name changed, for privacy.

Auspicious April First

This April Fools Day there is something to celebrate, apparently. We were invited to two events on the same day. Both program dates were chosen by pandits in Nepal due to the auspiciousness of the day– a bratabandha in Wisconsin and a pasni in Connecticut.

Those of you familiar with American geography will know that these two destinations are at least a time zone away from each other. And since the bratabandha invitation arrived first, P and I are currently sitting on a plane making our way to the state known largely for beer and cheese.

I attended P’s bratabhanda but it was more of a rag tag, simple ceremony… there weren’t any older family members around to make sure everything was done according to proper family tradition. It was still fun, just probably not as “official” as the ceremony we will attend tomorrow, or anything that would happen back in Nepal.

It’s actually going to be a double bratabandha as P’s cousin’s son will be undergoing the ritual side by side with his other cousin, who is flying in with his family from Germany for the event. Other family members are taking the opportunity to visit from Nepal as well, so there are bound to be a lot of new relatives to meet.

P’s mother instructed me to wear my best new sari and bring my tilari. It’s important for naya buharis to make a good impression. It should be fun, although I get a little nervous when I’m around a lot of P’s older relatives. I’m embarrassed I still can’t speak or understand Nepali very well, and I’m generally worried I’ll do or say something stupid– but I guess most people feel that way around new people.

Sadly the event we are missing is R and S’s son‘s pasni or first rice feeding ceremony. I had really been looking forward to this event, and even told R to try and avoid April 1st so that we would be around, but S’s family pandit in Nepal declared that the 1st was the best day and R was powerless to reschedule. They will have a pasni party in the summer when S’s family visits from Nepal, and the ever tech-oriented S is planning to live-stream the pasni online, so hopefully we can tune in for a little while. At least I can look forward to that, although I’m still disappointed.

So may your April Fools Day not only be filled with practical jokes but much auspiciousness as well.

Everest Season

This time of year is generally busy in Solukhumbu, the region of Nepal made famous by the trek to Everest. Most summit attempts happen around the end of April/early May as the weather is best due to the winds and the position of the monsoon. Climbers make their way to Base Camp to prepare and acclimatize in March.

I think P and I have probably watched every movie, documentary and tv show ever made about Everest (thank you Netflix). The stories are intoxicating even if they are often similar… people putting everything on the line to attain a dream that for many would seem absolutely crazy–investing tens of thousands of dollars and potentially fingers and toes (or more!) just to stand for a few moments on the roof of the world. There is drama, suspense, beautiful scenery; the stories are hard not to watch. (If you haven’t yet read Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” you must– then read the Outside Magazine article about the expedition that started it all. Don’t watch the movie, it’s rubbish.)

As P’s phd research is on glaciers and climate change in the Himalayas, it is likely in the future that he will be trekking in various parts of Nepal. Every time we watch one of the documentaries I always feel the need to declare, “P– you are never climbing Everest!” However even I can’t help but feel a bit seduced by these shows– and deep down inside I feel a little ping of envy. It would be amazing to stand on the roof of the world. Well… I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t make it past the Khumbu Ice Fall, as it took quite a bit for me to even hike to Tengboche in 2009.

This year P and I actually know someone who is making the climb. When P was a graduate student in New York he met a Chilean student through mutual South American friends, and he invited us over for a party to see his Nepal pictures. The graduate student was active in climbing circles in Chile, and was asked to be part of a Chilean team expedition to climb Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world. Lhotse adjoins Everest so the Base Camp is shared amongst climbers of both mountains, but eventually their trails diverge. The student had come back with amazing pictures and stories, and had a party to share his experiences.

P recently heard from the student… and he is back in Nepal, but this time he is going all the way. You can follow the expedition online (although the site is in Spanish): http://www.xn--everest20aos-jhb.cl/ and you can check out some of the great pictures posted thus far by the expedition: http://vertical.expenews.com/es/expeditions/220/dispatches/3659. Currently they are in Namche Bazar.

I particularly liked their photos from the airport in Luka:

We will let you know how the expedition goes!

Someday I want to be in South Asia for Holi

I know that the festival of Holi happened a few weeks ago, and I meant to write a post like this at the time, but I was reminded of Holi last night while searching for photos on the internet and figured it was time.

As the title professes, one of these days I would really like to be in either India or Nepal for Holi. I understand and appreciate that there is a religious significance to the festival, so I don’t want to seem disrespectful or  flippant, but there is something that looks so amazingly fun about throwing handfuls of colored powder at each other, regardless of the reason.

I remember once in elementary school someone gave me the idea of putting a spoon or two of flour into an opened  napkin and tying the napkin shut with a piece of string to make a “flour bomb” that “exploded,” sending flour everywhere, when you threw it at someone/something. I made about a dozen, and my sister K and I threw them at each other in the back yard. We were covered in white powder at the end. It was extremely fun, and of course, silly, but I couldn’t replicate it because I got in trouble for wasting flour.

I imagine a full scale Holi is kind of like that, only the flour-like powder is dyed vibrant hues, and the world is covered in rainbows.

P says that in real life (well, in the kid version he remembers) playing Holi can also be kind of brutal. Teenage boys love targeting Western tourists (particularly females) and Holi colors don’t always come in fun handfuls of powder… sometimes they come in buckets of colored water or balloons. There was even a dangerous trend of more mischievous people throwing motor oil in Kathamandu, but I still  like to imagine crowds of happy, friendly people, shrieking in delight and playing tag with fist fulls of beautiful powder.

Actually, P has a “battle wound” from a Holi shenanigan in his youth. One year he was up on the roof of his house, leaning far over the ledge to hit a neighbor girl with a balloon filled with colored water. As he positioned himself for the sneak attack he let the balloon go, but lost his balance and fell off the roof with it! He cracked the side of his head on the path below and started bleeding. As luck would have it, the timing of his accident coincided with a city curfew, and his family couldn’t taken him to the hospital until the following morning. Several stitches later, he still has a bump on his noggin that you can see in the right light if you know where to look.

But I’m not deterred :)

We have played Holi a few times in Massachusetts, although of course a tamer version, at Holi potluck gatherings where fellow party goers gently wipe powder in a streak across each others faces. But much like smearing birthday cake on someone’s face, the real fun is getting a little crazy. I wouldn’t mind coming back from Holi looking like this:

Pictures are from The Telegraph and Boston.com.

“The Engima of Bhutan”

I’ve written about Bhutan before in the post “Gross National Happiness” and Ethnic Cleansing, but I wanted to mention the country again as it recently featured in a great Nation article. I highly recommend the read as it maps out the history of the ethnic Nepali expulsion from the country.

Header from the Nation article

I hadn’t connected the dots before, but it was mentioned in the article, that the deportation of the Nepali population started in 1992– right around the start of the ethnic cleansing and killings in the Balkans, and continued through the  US military blunder of the “Battle of Mogadishu” (of “Black Hawk Down” fame) in 1993, and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (gosh– the early ’90s were some harsh times).

No wonder much of the world hasn’t heard about the forced removal, albeit largely “brutal violence” free, of 80,000 people–15 percent of Bhutan’s population of 550,000. When competing against the more high profile, flashy news stories of the day, it was probably easy to forget a quiet mountain kingdom tucked in the far corner of the globe.

Recently an American couple moved to town (the husband is attending the same university as P). They arrived in Massachusetts by way of Bhutan, as the wife was offered a teaching contract in the country after finishing her cultural anthropology master’s degree. It’s been interesting to compare notes on our various experiences in lesser traveled to Himalayan nations.

She is now working with a local refugee organization that helps newly arrived Iraqi and Bhutanese (of the 108,000 Bhutanese in Nepali camps in 2007 50,000 have been resettled in the United States). I’m curious to hear more about her experiences with the refugees. I wonder what their thoughts are about interacting with an American who was able to travel and live in a country that they are no longer welcomed to return to or even visit.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day 2012

St. Patrick’s Day is nearly over. I didn’t do too much this year– I wore my requisite green shirt, and striped green socks, and even drank a holiday themed beer in the evening, however overall the day was relatively low key, as P and I were both busy working on projects, shackled to our respective computers.

Conversely, P’s younger brother U was in Dublin, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in style with our Irish friend RH and our former neighbor D (who several months ago resettled in the Emerald Isle). U was periodically uploading pictures of his St. Patrick’s Day activities on Facebook, giving us a glimpse of what the party was like in the Irish-American “motherland.”

U, RH and D in Dublin

I’ve mentioned before that my family considers itself “Irish-American.” On my mother’s side my grandfather immigrated from Western Ireland (I believe in the 40s), and my grandmother’s parents were also both from that region of the country. On my father’s side the connection stretches back farther, but the family still takes pride in it’s “Irish-American” roots. As an “Irish-American” St. Patrick’s Day has always been an acknowledged and celebrated part of the spring calendar.

Growing up my father was part of an Irish-American club in the town, and I remember many childhood St. Patrick’s Days spent at the club helping to serve corned beef and cabbage dinners to townspeople who came by the hundreds every March 17th. Many of them probably considered themselves “Irish-American” as well but I’m sure others just wanted to join in the fun and celebrate along with their friends and neighbors.

We would watch Irish step dancers perform and listen to recordings of Irish pub songs that relied heavily on accordions and fiddles. Everyone in the club was bathed in Kelly Green… shirts, pants, dresses, socks, scarves. Some wore plastic shamrock shaped shot glasses hanging from green Mardi Gras bead necklaces, others wore headbands with cheesy shamrock antenna, and little kids often sported sparkly green shamrock stickers on their cheeks. As far as I was concerned, as a kid, everyone in the world celebrated St. Patrick’s Day.

Then in sixth grade I signed up for a youth magazine that had a pen pal section in the back. For several years I often responded to pen pal requests, and I advertised for pen pals as well. I had quite a few, some in the US, but also several from abroad– including one kid I exchanged several letters with from Singapore. He had responded to my pen pal request printed in the magazine, explaining he was of Indian origin and his name was Manuj. In response to the letter he sent I told him a little about myself, and talked about my excitement for St. Patrick’s Day, which was coming a few days later. In the letter I asked him about how he celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, and what people do for the holiday in Singapore.

A few weeks passed and I received a letter back that contained shocking information for the sixth grade version of me… “We don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Singapore, as there are not a lot of Irish people here. Since my family is from India, we have never done anything for St. Patrick’s Day, but it was interesting to hear what your family does.” It was one of those “aha” moments for me that made me realize that other parts of world really are different.

After meeting our Irish friend, I’ve had several other “aha” moments about my understanding of “Irish-American” culture, and how it differs from “real Irish” culture– including my name. I think I mentioned this before, but I always thought my first name was a super-uber Irish name, but later realized (and this really shook up my world!) that my name is only popular in Irish-diaspora cultures like the US and Australia, and hardly anyone in Ireland proper has my name because it is a gaelic noun.

I think RH had similarly strange “aha” moments (I am assuming, he can correct me if I am wrong) after coming to the US for his graduate studies. Many Americans, particularly in New England which is a large “Irish-American” stronghold, had a lot of stereotypical views of what an “Irish” person was supposed to be like, and RH often didn’t adhere to their expectations.

So when U decided to travel to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day RH was a little worried that U would be disappointed. St. Patrick’s Day is often an excuse for people in the US to go a little crazy, drinking green beer and sharing their Irish pride all over the place… but these crazy celebrations are often in Irish-diaspora cities. Dublin has a parade and celebrations, but RH worried that U might expect the biggest St. Patrick’s Day party ever, the granddaddy of them all, so to speak.

It seems from the pictures that the festivities were fun, and U had the “authentic” Irish St. Patrick’s Day party he was hoping for.

If you are interested in learning more about the creation of “Irish-American” cultural identity NPR had an interesting 45 minute radio program on Tom Ashbrook’s “On Point” the other day called “How the Irish became American” arguing, in part, that “Irish-American” identity was one of the first hyphenated identities in the US. It’s definitely worth a listen.

Hope you all had a nice day… whether you celebrated St. Patrick’s Day or not :)

Titaura

Today I simply have to link to another Nepali blog. Many of the readers of this blog probably already read NepaliAustralian‘s, but if not you should check out her most recent post on titaura.

From time to time I like to write about things Nepali people like…
momo,  sel roti, WaiWai, heck even the Bryan Adams song “The Summer of ’69

… and  titaura  should certainly be added to the list.

Often when friends or family return from Nepal they bring with them packets of these small dried and candied fruit snacks, and the packets don’t usually last long in our house.

There are several kinds of titaura– salty, sweet, sour or hot. Many are made from the Nepali fruit “lapsi” which comes from a tree native to Southern and Eastern Asia.

Lapsi fruit hanging on a tree

I’m not a fan of the spicy or salty titaura. Early on in my friendship with the Nepali crowd at my university I was talked into trying a spicy mango titaura and I’m not interested in eating another one of those any time soon! However I love the sweet and sour ones. Even writing about titaura is making my tongue tickle with sweet and sour anticipation. Too bad I polished off a recently found (and presumably last) packet  from our October trip a few weeks back.

Packets of Nepali titaura candies.

I like the yellow ones in the lower right hand picture, but I’ll eat the orange ones in the upper right and the ones right below that too! yum yum :) P likes the ones that are sticky and wet like the red ones in the lower left picture. I think he is also more of a salty or spicy fan.