Tag Archives: Assumptions

For Many, December’s a Dilemma

P forwarded me this article earlier today. I found it interesting and wanted to share. To see the article in its original format click HERE.

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) — As Christmas season went into full swing this year, Glen Fullmer’s 7-year-old son came home from school with an assignment: Make a poster illustrating his family holiday traditions.

The boy wasn’t sure how to proceed because he and his family are Baha’is, not Christians, and they have no holidays during the Christmas season.

Thus, Fullmer encountered the “December Dilemma” — the term used for the quandaries and anxieties non-Christians and interfaith couples face during Christmas season.

Fullmer, a Baha’i faith spokesman who lives in Evanston, Illinois, said he saw the poster assignment as a “teachable moment” for his 4-, 7- and 10-year-old sons who associated holiday traditions with Christmas.

He reminded his boys that Baha’is have a gift-giving and charity period in February called Ayyam-i-Ha, a stretch of time not unlike the Christmas season.

And he helped his son design the poster about that holiday, which precedes a fasting period and then the Baha’i New Year in March.

“His classmates asked him questions about the holiday, and one of his friends came up to him and wants to celebrate that holiday,” Fullmer said, pleased that his son’s peers helped him reaffirm his identity.

Navigating the Christmas season can be a challenge for the millions of people who don’t celebrate the holiday. Many acknowledge and sometime embrace the season’s customs, such as gift-giving and sending out greeting cards, while at the same time they are conscious of maintaining their own religious identities.

“They strongly try to maintain their own integrity, but they really want to find bridges across holidays,” said the Rev. Dr. Paul Numrich, a professor at the Theological Consortium of Greater Columbus in Ohio. “I think that’s the majority.”

L.S. Narasimhan, chairman of the Georgia Indo-American Chamber of Commerce, is a Hindu and doesn’t celebrate Christmas. But he said he admires the Christian celebrations of his friends and has attended Christmas Eve services at several churches.

“Hindus are typically more open-minded and tolerant. Hinduism is very comfortable in accommodating a diversity of ideas,” he said.

“It is very common for Hindu families to have Christmas trees at their homes, purely as a fun thing to do for their children. When they visit shopping malls, Hindu parents in general are comfortable with a photo-op for their little kids with Santa.”

But at the same time, there are pressures about the encroachment of Christianity on Hindu life.

“Television commercials, good selection of merchandise and great sale prices persuade Hindu-Americans to take advantage of the shopping spree,” Narasimhan said. “Several Hindu temples have risen up to the challenge and added some special Hindu prayers and ceremonies to engage Hindus who are on winter holidays but not on overseas vacations.”

Dr. Shefali Chheda, an Atlanta-area pediatrician, is a Jain — practicing a religion with Indian roots. Growing up in Houston, Texas, she said her parents “felt comfortable letting us celebrate Christmas,” perhaps to help fit into American society and maintain a sense of normalcy.

“The spirit and meaning of Christmas, of helping others and of giving, are nice messages. Therefore, it is hard to consciously object to it,” Chheda said.

“Jains, as a whole, are a minority in India. Many Jains celebrate Hindu holidays, so celebrating Christmas with Santa and a tree and presents is no different. Since Jains wholeheartedly believe in ‘ahimsa’ — peace toward all living beings in thought, word and action — the Christmas spirit is a very Jain-like philosophy.”

The religious aspect of Christmas — believing Jesus is the savior and that December 25 is his birthday — is not celebrated in Jainism, but the customs and symbols are interwoven into daily life, she said.

“Now that I have toddlers in the house, they come home with stories about Christmas. They sing songs about Rudolph and Santa, and Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah. But it’s Santa that everyone talks about, so they talk about him as well,” Chheda said.

“I use Santa as a behavioral modification tool. ‘Santa’s watching you, so you better be good’ works infinitely better than timeout. My kids will be living in this country; they will have a hard enough time anyway with their names and food and other cultural traditions; Christmas — and the Christmas spirit — is not one tradition that I want to take away from them.”

Jesus plays a role in the theology of other religions, such as the Baha’i faith and Islam, even though those faiths don’t observe Christmas as a religious holiday.

The Christmas season presented a struggle for Haris Tarin, director of the Washington office of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. He grew up in Los Angeles, California, area schools, where he sang the ever-present Christmas carols and made the gingerbread houses in schools but didn’t have a tree in his home.

“We definitely had a little bit of anxiety in childhood,” Tarin said. But that changed as he grew up and refined his American Muslim persona amid the American atmosphere of diversity and tolerance.

Now, where he and his family live in northern Virginia, “we don’t celebrate Christmas. We celebrate our holidays” — pointing, for example, to Eid al-Fitr after Ramadan and Eid al-Adha after the hajj pilgrimage. But he welcomes the goodwill of the season — the gift-exchanges with non-Muslim neighbors and the requests from schoolteachers to talk about Muslim holidays.

“There’s definitely going to be a level of discomfort, especially for those who aren’t used to that diverse culture that we belong to,” he said. But the unease spawns discussion, presenting a useful opportunity to help young people and newcomers, he said.

For Jews, the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah happens to fall during the Christmas season. Hanukkah is wildly popular and observed, with its special foods, gift-giving and candle lighting, and with its symbols such as the menorah — a candelabrum — and the dreidel, a toy that spins like a top.

Compared with other non-Christians, many Jews have drawn a sharper line in the sand when it comes to observing Christmas, a stance informed by historic, theological and self-preservation reasons. That attitude emerged recently during a young professionals’ get-together at an Indian restaurant outside Atlanta sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and Young Indian Professionals.

People there indicated that attending Christmas-themed holiday parties, exchanging greeting cards and wishing Christian friends “Merry Christmas” are surely not uncommon or unacceptable among Jews. But some practices are widely shunned — such as plunking one’s child on Santa’s lap at the mall, and deplored — such as assigning kids in public schools to write a letter to Santa Claus.

“It’s a beautiful season. It brings out a joy,” said Hannah Vahaba, who organized the Jewish-Indian event. “But I’m not going to celebrate it.”

Interfaith couples celebrate their diversity during the Christmas season. Jeff Silver, a certified public accountant who is Jewish, and Shweta Gupta, a dentist who is Hindu, are planning their marriage next year. They will have an interfaith household and said they hope to raise children to understand both of their traditions. At their home in Atlanta, they’ve set up a holiday tree decorated with Hindu and Jewish ornaments.

Non-religious Americans embrace a December “secular holiday” called HumanLight.

Patrick Colucci, vice chair of the HumanLight Committee and member of the New Jersey Humanist Network, said the holiday can uplift “atheist, humanist and nonreligious” people who feel left out and isolated during Christmas.

It was a perfect fit for him when it came along, he said, because “it corresponds with my humanity-based ethics and values, without any supernatural or theistic beliefs. My ‘holiday season’ is HumanLight and New Year’s Eve — that’s what I celebrate.”

“The only dilemma, in my experience is, if Christmas is part of the larger family tradition, and then some family members reject us for not believing in it anymore. We’re not out to take Christmas away from anyone who wants to celebrate it — there is no ‘war on Christmas,’ ” Colucci said.

How do Christians themselves see the presence and practices of non-Christians during Christmas? While many would like to see non-Christians convert to Christianity, they also recognize that the United States is a “diverse society” and that conversion “is not even on their radar screen,” said Numrich, the theology professor.

“There’s a deep American virtue in respecting religious differences,” he said.

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“Identity” by Bhuwan Dhungana

I was reading some short Nepali stories this evening and came across one that related to one of my earlier postings (Can You See Everest From Your House?) so I thought I might re-tell the story here. The story was actually written by the mother of one of my friends, so it made me even more interested to share with you. The story is called “Identity” by Bhuwan Dhungana.

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Bhuwan Dhungana

Bhuwan Dhungana

He had tried to introduce himself many times. His name was difficult even to pronounce. It was not possible at the time to find another name easier to pronounce because his identity card bore the name which he had brought with him from his country. To be sure, he looked younger on the photograph attached to it. Whoever looked at him and the photograph simultaneously would ask, glancing at him, “Are you the same person?” He would shrink back, tug at his wrinkled cheeks and reply with a smile, “Yes, of course.”

This had repeated itself many times. He had to forget everything he was supposed to say when it came time to pronounce his name. Often he felt as if his name had no existence at all. He wanted to replace the name with an easier one. But he was compelled to write the same name he had borne since birth, brought all the way from his own to this unfamiliar city. How precious that name was for him! His own name! How easily he could pronounce his precious name as many times as required! His whole family would be linked to his name, his city and his country. He never liked to conceal his name in his city. It was not his country but his name that came first.

But in this city… He had to make his country stand out tall against his name. And in that country he had to search out the snowy peaks, find their height, and move his head back and forth in lively descriptions of their natural beauty, although he himself had not climbed them. In fact he was compelled in this unfamiliar city to be Tenzing* to every stranger he met, to be the Himalayas for them. At such times his name ceased to exist.

Just now something similar had occurred. After he had introduced himself, the stranger shook his hand and said with a smile, “I know Mount Everest; you belong to it.” He suddenly became listless. How meaningless was his name! He thought of stealing the name of an unfamiliar city; he wanted to change his name. But this was both impossible and impracticable. In this large city he possessed nothing apart from his identity card to protect his existence. He was absolutely alone and helpless.

He could name each and every part of the capital of his country. He could get many things done by using his name in his city. But in this unfamiliar city he could not find anyone who could even pronounce his name correctly.

Mt. Everest

Mt. Everest

Something similar had occurred the day before too. As soon as he entered the office, he offered his hand to a man seated on a chair and told him his name. But the man kept on gazing at him with wonder. He pronounced his name more clearly. The stranger laid out a map of the world in front of him. He looked for the outline of his country on it. He felt a thrill upon reading the name Himalaya. He felt excited. Shaking hands with him, the stranger said, “You belong to Mount Everest.” This time again his name did not surface. He was introduced by way of Mount Everest. This kept occurring to him the whole day. He kept shivering from the icy cold of Mount Everest. At dinner that evening he could not feel proud of his name; he could not roar with laughter at the party. He lay sleepless for a long time that night. he kept thinking: What should a country be like if its name is to evoke instant recognition? What kind of name should a person have? He could not find an easy means by which he could introduce himself. The sentence “You belong to Mount Everest” kept reverberating in his ears. He felt himself to be a mound of snow. The whole night he felt cold. He clung to the snowy peaks in search of the existence of his name.

He was sitting eating in a restaurant. A boy eating by his side showed a map to him. It was a map of Machhapuchhre. It was very beautiful. “Have you been to this place?”

Machhapuchhre

Machhapuchhre

He vacillated for some time. He was forced to publicly proclaim the fact that he had neither seen the mountain directly nor climbed it up. He felt as if he were an announcer announcing Machhapuchhre standing beneath the Himalaya and reducing the whole country into an enclosed area.

The big city was larger than his country. There were people from different countries. He was invited to a feast. He had his identity card in his pocket.

He too looked busy among the crowd of people. He was lost in a new civilization of a new country. He wished to present his identity distinctly; he wanted to introduce himself by his name but failed to do so again and again. He shrank back during introductions. Before him were tall people. He was forced to stand next to them and to shoulder the existence of the high Himalayas. They were like flames of fire; he, like a melting peak, was turning colder. Every time he became a mountain he turned colder.

Every time he was invited to such get-togethers or parties, he found his identity card to be meaningless. He wished to display a large photo of the mountain on his chest before leaving his room- a nice photo, an attractive photo. In a foreign land, he had no better way than this to introduce himself.

Taken from Selected Stories from Nepal edited by Sajha Prakashan.

*Tenzing Norgay, along with Edmund Hillary, were the first people to sumit Everest. Due to this Tenzing is one of the most famous Nepalis for people from abroad (although sometimes he is considered Indian because he spent a considerable amount of time there).

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.