Tag Archives: Culture

Night Runners

While we were at S-di’s place for Maghe Sankranti, in addition to M-dai’s story about the flatulent Peace Corp teacher, they told me a story about how they had recently attended a wedding party for one of the local Bhutanese refugee families, and that during the party one of the guests became possessed by a spirit or a god that wanted the party organizers to know that some ritual during the wedding had been conducted incorrectly. This went on for a while, and eventually two other people became possessed as well, and it created a bit of a ruckus at the party. That started a brief discussion about what actually transpired—was it a delusion? Or acting? Or real?

It reminded me of another story from my time in Kenya:

A week after arriving in Nairobi and going through program orientation our professors brought us to Western Kenya—Nyanza Province, the Kenyan state which borders the famous Lake Victoria—to stay with families in rural farming villages. The community gathered at a local school and each family stood up to proudly claim their American student, and one by one we were taken away to far reaching corners of the surrounding villages. For the first time, each American student felt they were finally on their own in East Africa.

My homestay sister and I road in the back of a pickup truck down the main road, and were eventually dropped off at a small cement building set up like a shop. My sister insisted on carrying my backpack, and I followed behind her on the footpath that led away from the road and into a thicket of grass and trees. I realized later that these footpaths, only wide enough for a person or an animal, were the superhighways of the villages, leading from one house to the next along the widely spaced farms.

Eventually we found our home, a mud walled building with corrugated metal roofing, blue painted wooden doors and wooden window panels that latched shut in the evening to keep out mosquitos. The family compound had three small buildings—a cooking house, the main house (which had a dining/living room, two bedrooms and a sitting room for special guests), and the eldest son’s two roomed home. There was no electricity, but there was an outhouse on the edge of the family compound, and many chickens and other small farm animals running around or tied up to stakes in the yard.

In a mix of Swahili and English I got to know the family quite well over the next week, and I was eventually told the story of the “Night Runners.” Nyanza is home to the Luo tribe, the second largest ethnic group in Kenya, the same tribe that Obama’s father came from. You can usually tell a Luo based on their last name—most start with “O.” Within the Luo tribe there is a superstition about people who were completely normal by day, but have an uncontrollable compulsion to run in the middle of the night.

Supposedly the propensity for night running runs (no pun intended) in families—so if your grandfather was a Night Runner then you might be one too—and is generally passed along the male line. A Night Runner can’t really help himself, and will get up in the middle of the night and run for hours; they say if you try to stop a Night Runner their bodies become swollen and bloated. Night Runners like to scare people on their run, and will circle around family compounds, throwing dirt and sticks up on to the metal roof to make a lot of noise, or will try to throw small stones through the gap between a roof and the top of the house wall. It isn’t a violent action, it’s more to be a nuisance.

In addition to being noisy in the night, they are rumored to have certain magical abilities—first they can possess animals and often bewitch them to come along on their run, and secondly they can possess a person, in the sense that if a Night Runner takes you by surprise from behind you become frozen to the spot, unable to move your arms or legs or any other part of your body. Once the Night Runner has passed, and is out of sight, your mobility returns.

Most of these stories were told to me around the table while the entire family sat together for dinner. The room was lit with two or three kerosene lamps, which helped to give these tales a ghost story type of mystique. I was assured that the village hadn’t had a Night Runner for many years, and that there were none around that the family knew of; however I was also assured that these Night Runners certainly existed.

Shortly after dinner the dishes would be cleared and put in buckets to soak and be washed at sunrise, and the family would retire to bed. As I was their “honored guest” for the week, I was encouraged to eat the most food, and the best pieces, and was given a hefty glass of milk especially for me as a treat for dinner each night (I’m definitely not a milk drinker, and I’d have to force myself to drink the whole glass) as well as cups of tea.

Not surprisingly at some point during the night I would have to go to the bathroom really badly. The outhouse was quite a distance in the dark at the edge of the compound, and doubly difficult to get to as the main door to the house was very securely locked. To even get to the door I would have to step over sleeping family members who were on mats in the main room. The first two or three nights I woke up well before dawn and wiggled in my bed until daybreak, afraid to make the journey to the outhouse before the rest of the family woke up. But one night I really had to go, and no amount of wiggling was going to save me until morning.

I’m the type of person who turns the lights on while on the way to the bathroom in my own apartment, on the slight chance I might bump into something unexpected. Now I was going to have to sneak out of a locked house with people sleeping in my path with only the aid of my small Petzl headlamp, then scurry across a farm compound in the dark African night, and hope that I wouldn’t a) bump into a farm animal, b) or a scarier bigger animal, c) or someone else wandering on the village paths that skirted the edge of the farm or d) a Night Runner who might freeze me to the spot while he runs around with possessed animals.

As I stepped over the sleeping people and unlatched the door as quietly as I could, I peered into the dark expanse that came between the doorstep and the corrugated tin of the outhouse and I thought to myself, “If I run into a Night Runner, I am going to have a heart attack and die right here on the spot. I will literally just die of fright, I know it.”

I took a deep breath, and I ran like a crazy Night Runner myself. Luckily the only thing I saw on my journey was a giant spider on the wall of the outhouse while I squatted over the hole.

When our homestay was over, we traveled back to Nairobi to begin our courses. I signed up for an anthropology class on health, healing and sickness in Kenya. The professor happened to be Luo, and we were eager to ask him about some of the Luo cultural intricacies we were exposed to in Nyanza. At some point the discussion turned to Night Runners.

He explained that he had heard stories about Night Runners throughout his childhood, and may have even heard some of the night rustling sounds they made, but he never really believed they had “magical powers.” Then he went to university and sat in many Anthropology classrooms where he learned more about “magic” and “superstition” from an academic stand point. He was cynical. Sure, these were “his people” and he grew up with all the stories, but he believed more than ever that these superstitions were nothing more than that—superstitions.

“I was certain Night Runners were just crazy people out for a jog, but then one year I was home from university on break. I was your age, in my twenties, and I didn’t want to sleep early. Instead I decided to walk to the nearby village for some beer and dancing.” His eyes grew wide, “I was on the same path I had walked many times before, and I had no reason to be afraid. I had been walking for some time when I tried to take a step and my right foot was rooted to the ground. No amount of force could release it. Then I noticed my other leg was also stuck, then my whole body. I panicked, but nothing would move. I stood frozen for several seconds and heard a sound behind me, and a Night Runner brushed past. I continued to be stuck for several more moments before my limbs would move again.”

A cheeky smile appeared on his face, “I didn’t believe. I was absolutely certain that Night Runners couldn’t have the powers my grandmothers insisted upon. Logically, academically, it didn’t make sense. I was the most cynical of all! But I am also telling you, as your teacher, I experienced it firsthand. I know I couldn’t move. I can’t explain it, but for me, it was real. I guess you will have to decide for yourself.”

Even Barak Obama had a short passage about Night Runners in his book, “Dreams of my Father” from when he went to visit his family in Kenya:

A moment later we heard a strange, low-pitched moan off in the distance.

“The night runners must be out tonight,” Auma said.

“What’s the night runners?”

“They’re like warlocks,” Auma said. “Spirit men. When we were children, these people here” – she pointed at Granny and Zeituni – “would tell us stories about them to make us behave. They told us that at daylight the night runners are like ordinary men. You might pass them in the market, or even have them to your house for a meal, and never know their true natures. But at night they take on the shape of leopards and speak to all the animals. The most powerful night runners can leave their bodies and fly to faraway places. Or hex you with only a glance. If you ask our neighbors, they will tell you that there are still many night runners around here.”

Fast forward a few years… I’m sitting in the dining hall of my graduate school having lunch with several student friends. We are all international education professionals, and the past few days we have been swapping stories of interesting experiences overseas. I had just finished my Night Runner story, and one woman, a Caucasian woman from New York City who had been listening intently chimed in, “This is going to sound crazy… My sister married a Kenyan man. He is the sweetest man, very kind and gentle, but for many years every time he came to my house my dog would get very nervous and pee on the floor. It happened every single time. I know my brother-in-law wasn’t beating him, or hurting him, so I couldn’t figure out why the dog always cowered and peed in his presence.

“So one day I asked my mother. I said, ‘Why does Buddy always get scared and pee when Peter comes over?’ She answered, ‘I don’t know, they seem okay together later on. Peter usually takes him out for a run in the middle of the night most nights. It’s the funniest thing; I’m not sure why he does it.’”

“Is your brother-in-law Luo?” I asked the student.

“I don’t know. I never thought to ask, I just know he is ‘Kenyan,’ I’ll have to call my mother later.”

The next day at lunch we were all eager to know… and yes, Peter was in fact Luo.

“Maybe your brother-in-law is a Night Runner! That means your sister’s kids might be Night Runners too!” I said.

So are Night Runners real? Do they really have “magical powers” to possess animals and freeze people in their paths?

What about the possessed guests at the Bhutanese wedding party? Acting or delusion? Pretending or real?

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The “Sh*t People Say…”

There has been a meme (did I use that term correctly?) making the rounds in internet land… “sh*t _____ say to/about ______.” The number of videos out there is proliferating by the hour, and I knew it was just a matter of time before there was one that had to do with Nepal.

And of course, the first to pop up was “sh*t Indians say to Nepalis.”

I’ve wanted to write about the relationship between Nepal and India for a while… actually, I thought I did, but I can’t seem to find the post… perhaps I’m thinking about the comments I’ve made on other blogs that I know have touched on this subject before.

Now I’m not Nepali, so if I misinterpret Nepali sentiments, I apologize in advance, but from what I understand Nepal—a small country sandwiched between the two giants of India and China, often feels pushed around, particularly by India, since the border to India is quite a bit more fluid than that of China (visa wise, and geographical wise). It’s true that there are certain cultural characteristics that are shared by various groups in Nepal and various groups in India, but Nepal (and Nepalis) don’t like being lumped together with Indians… in all fairness, they are their own country.

I actually feel this sometimes too (of course on a very small scale)—I try to be careful and talk about “South Asia/ns” when I’m referring to more than just Nepal/is, but even among some of the gori significant others I’ve connected with online, “India” is sometimes used as a blanket term to mean all of South Asia. I know it’s not meant with any disrespect or negativity, being “Indian” is by no means derogatory, but the term isn’t a blanket catch all for the whole of South Asia even if India is the biggest, most populated country in the region.

I make the same argument about the United States. As the economic, political and social superpower in the region, it’s easier for us as a country and people to forget about others. A lot of Americans don’t realize that the term “American” could also mean someone from Latin or Central America, and I’ve met Canadians who are frustrated to be lumped together with the United States, because “Hey, we are our own country too!”

I’ve even seen it happens at the university where I work. We don’t have a lot of Nepalis (sadly) but we do have quite a few Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans, however the university’s South Asian student association is still called “ISO” for “Indian Student Organization.” I also remember another time when a European student was upset when he thought the undergraduate “International Student Council” had been run by South Asian students for too long; he stormed out of the vote saying, “You should call this Indian Student Club if only the Indians can win the leadership positions!” (never mind that that there was one Indian, one Sri Lankan, two Pakistanis and one Bangladeshi in those positions at the time—just because they had similar features doesn’t mean they are all from the same place, perhaps the reason the European student didn’t receive enough votes to win?).

I remember on one of the blogs that discussed this topic some Indians readers commented that they didn’t think there was any rivalry between the two countries, while most of the Nepali commenters said something to the effect of “oh yeah, definitely!” Our Irish friend likened this to the relationship between Ireland and England. Many Irish would characterize England as their “biggest rivals” and many English don’t even have Ireland (in that way) on their radar. It’s a matter of position and perspective.

Anyway, I digress… below is the link to the “Sh*t Indians say about Nepalis” video, I listed a few that I thought “oh yeah, I’ve heard this before…” or felt I could somehow identify with:

“You’re Nepali? So you are basically Indian.” (ouch).

“I have a Nepali friend in college… maybe you know him?”—this one might be true! Sometimes I feel like everyone of a certain age knows everyone else from Kathmandu.

“So you’re Indian…” “You look Indian…” “So you’re Indian…” “Your eyes man, your eyes…” (I liked the “eyes” comment. I don’t think P has particularly East Asian looking eyes, but I’ve heard people ask if he was Korean, Japanese, and Thai before.)

You don’t do Diwali? I thought you guys were all Hindus…”

“So you are basically just a cross between Chinese and Indian.”

“Do you feel more Indian or Tibetan?”

“Do you come from a long line of Sherpas?” (my mother’s brothers like to friendly-tease P about being a “Sherpa,” they don’t mean anything by it, but it is a bit racist. Not all Nepalis are Sherpa, and not all Sherpa are Nepali).

“You must love the mountains…”

“Nepalis just basically look like weather beaten Chinese.”

“You are drinking chia, don’t you mean chai?” (After a semester in India, I certainly fall in the “chai” category sometimes…. I also sometimes count “ek, do, teen, char, panch” instead of “ek, dui, teen, char, panch.” When I was in India I was scolded for saying “dui” for “two” by my Hindi teacher who said, “What, are you a villager from the hills or something?” and I replied, “I learned how to count in Nepali before I did in Hindi.”)

And just for fun… I thought “sh*t that white girls say to brown girls” was pretty funny.

Musing on Gas

My blogging ebbs and flows, depending on what is going on in life, how busy work tends to get, and if I need a distraction. Even if I’m not a super consistent writer (although I try), I’m usually lurking on other blogs, and when I get really hooked on one and all of a sudden there hasn’t been a post in a few weeks (or months) I find myself thinking, “Come on!” [in the voice of GOB] “Where did this blogger go… I miss them!

Alas, as of late, I’ve become one of those absentee bloggers. Je suis très désolée.

It’s not that I don’t have anything to say, I just sometimes lose the motivation to sit down and put it together in a post. I have a bad habit, during dark chilly New England months, of burying under blankets in the evening and reading good books. Perhaps I was a hibernating creature in another life.

So, to transition in to writing a little bit more, I decided to share an amusing story from the weekend.

January 15th is P’s western calendar birthday (his Nepali calendar birthday was near the beginning of January, and like every year he didn’t know it was happening until he got a call from his parents one night wishing him a happy birthday) and this year it was also the Nepali holiday of Maghe Sankranti. I’m not totally clear on the details of this specific holiday (although the ever handy Wikipedia gave me a better idea), other than it marks the start of the Nepali month of Magh and the passing of the unlucky month of Poush, and that on this holiday you eat boiled cassava and purple colored sweet potato that can only be found locally at the Vietnamese grocery store.

This year, as last year, S-di invited our local crew over to her place for the day. Between S-di, M-dai and his wife’s cooking there was much to be had—the required boiled cassava and sweet potato, sel roti, a giant bowl of homemade ghee, sesame sweets, rice, taarkari, chicken, etc.

And as usual, we went to her house thinking that we would only stay for a few hours… and we wound up being there for eight or nine. After our bellies were full, and M-dai, Bhauju (M-dai’s wife), S-di, P and I were settled on the couch under cozy blankets, we spent time chatting and M-dai told a funny story.

M-dai grew up in a village up in the hills of Okhaldhunga district. When he was a kid there was a Peace Corps volunteer who worked at his school. He even remembered the volunteer’s name… “Spike.”

Anyway, they used to find this foreign teacher really interesting. He was quite different from the rest of them in various ways, but he had this one habit that all of the students found really bizarre—he used to fart in public like it was no big deal.

Now one could speculate. Maybe this guy was a bit of a bum, and he would have farted in public anywhere, including in the US. Or maybe the combination of Nepali food, a different altitude, and intestinal bugs continually agitating his GI tract, left him with no choice but to let loose, or else be plague by terrible gas pains (hey, it could happen). Yet it’s also possible that maybe this guy simply thought passing gas wasn’t a big deal in Nepal—burping certainly isn’t, although apparently there is a different feeling about flatulence from the other end—and never thought much about doing it where ever he was, alone or with others.

Certainly Westerns fall into this mentality when it comes to clothing while traveling in the “developing world,” myself (formerly) included. Sometimes even the most “culturally interested” or “attuned” just fail to realize things. I used to think that when walking through dirty, dusty streets, or living in a village, it didn’t really matter what you looked like. I’m not really one to get really dressed up in general, but I wouldn’t bring my “nicer” clothes on my study trips to Kenya or India, in part, because I was worried about “ruining” them, but also I just figured there wasn’t really a need to bring them. Even before my time in Kenya was over, I was starting to catch on and dress a little more “East African chic,” but it wasn’t until my embarrassing first clothes buying experience with P’s family in KTM that I really realized that in the “developing world” (and, let’s face it, most of the rest of the world outside of America) clothing is more formalized than back home. When you go out, you dress up, period—whether it’s for school, going to a party, going to a friend’s place, going for dinner, going to the market. It’s simply not acceptable to show up in a shabby pair of shorts and a dusty t-shirt, even if you sit next to a goat on the minibus you take to your friend’s house!

So maybe this guy thought the same way about farting—hey, it’s the “developing world,” people burp, I’m not in America where they have social etiquette rules about this, I feel gassy, and I’m going to let it go. According to M-dai this guy would fart all the time, including while he was standing in front of his class, and the students just couldn’t believe it.

“Sure people fart.” M-dai said, “But not in front of others, and certainly not in a formal situation like a class, or in front of elders!”

So from this early ambassador to American culture, the young M-dai thought that in America it was acceptable to fart at any time, that there were no social taboos in the US about doing so in public.

When he came for graduate school in Massachusetts five years ago he was shocked to discover this wasn’t the case! ;)

Wearing Pote as a Newly Married Woman

Nepali Jiwan had an interesting post recently about “The Married Look” and what expectations people in Nepal have for the look of a married women including a few social cues such as tikka, churaa bangles, pote necklaces, nose piercings (for some ethnic groups), and wearing make-up like kajol. I basically left a blog post sized comment on her post, but I wanted to take a few moments to discuss at least one aspect of my new Nepali “married look.”

I’ve written about potes necklaces before, but I want to revisit the topic.

As I noted in the previous post, I occasionally wore potes (pronounced like po-thay) before I got married. P’s aunt, J Phupu, gifted me a necklace in 2008, and 2009, and sent a few more a little after that. The necklaces were generally short, colorful and multi-strand. I would sometimes match them with a saree if I was going to a South Asian party or dressing up for a cultural event at my work. On even rarer occasions I would wear one to the office to dress up an outfit (this makes me sound particularly fashionable, which I’m definitely not). S-di’s daughters would tease me sometimes saying, “Did you get married?” when I wore them because of their use as a marriage symbol in Nepal. They didn’t really have any special meaning for me at the time, other than a gift from P’s aunt, so I didn’t think it was a big deal to wear them before marriage.

Pre-marriage pote wearing examples over the years...

The week after we got married I informally wore red clothes (P’s mom didn’t tell me to do this, but I remembered my friend R being encouraged to wear red for a certain number of days after her wedding as a “naya buhari”, and as I was excited to be married I decided to wear red as well). I dressed up my red outfits with the short red, green and gold colored pote necklace that P’s mom brought for me to wear. It’s a nice necklace, but the Nepali wedding colors of red, green and gold remind me so much of Christmas, especially certain combinations and designs with these colors, that wearing red, green and gold jewelry in July seemed kind of “off-season.” (I’m definitely not a “Christmas all year round!” kind of gal).

Examples of green, red and gold potes hanging in a pote shop near Thamel. To the left are examples of "thin" potes, and to the right and above are examples of "thick" multi-strand potes.

During our second week of marriage I started transitioning into other outfit colors, and picking other potes, but as someone who rarely wore necklaces before, wearing the thick multi-strand short necklaces felt clunky, like I was wearing a tight collar every day. S-di had gifted me a single strand purple and silver pote during Teej 2010, and I started wearing this simpler, single-strand, longer pote on a daily basis, because I could hide it discretely under my shirt if I wanted to, but I still felt that connection of wearing a pote as a married woman.

I didn’t expect to wear pote every day. During those first two weeks I did it because I was excited to be married, and thought it was a nice nod to P’s mother’s traditions. I thought eventually I would probably stop. Then Mamu started talking about how my two very close Nepali friends—AS and R—both married to Nepali men, didn’t seem to wear “any signs of marriage.” AS wears a wedding ring every day, which to me is a sign of marriage, and R occasionally wears bangles, but neither wore pote or tikka daily, two signs that Mamu seemed really surprised about.

After hearing her talk about this a few times, I figured I would wear pote while she was staying with us, so that she would feel more satisfied that I was showing signs of being married in a Nepali fashion, but I didn’t like wearing the thick short necklaces all the time, and continued wearing the thin purple/silver necklace, even when it didn’t match anything.

The next time I visited R I asked her if she had any simple pote, very plain necklaces that I could wear inconspicuously. She said that the last time her mother visited she was also concerned that R wasn’t wearing pote as a sign of marriage, and had brought several simple ones for her to wear. She hadn’t made it a habit of wearing them, and said if I wanted to take one or two I could. I picked up two of the plainest necklaces: one that had pale pink and pale clear-yellow beads that basically blended in with my natural skin tone and another that had alternating tiny red and yellow beads that could blend with almost any outfit.

Sporting my single-strand red and yellow pote while out and about with P's cousin in KTM. In the US I usually tuck the thin pote under my shirt collar to be more inconspicuous, but in Nepal I felt more compelled to pull it out in the open to show I "belonged" more.

With my new simple pote, and the few fancier pote I already had, it was easier to find something to wear every day and it became more of a habit. By the time P’s mom was packing her bags to return home, I was putting the necklaces on without even thinking about it before I headed to work each morning, or slipping one over my head on weekends.

While I am in the US I don’t always want to show off the fact that I have on a pote. Most of the people I see don’t know the significance of it, so I wear it more for the significance it holds for me. However when I was in Nepal I found myself wanting to be very overt and intentional in displaying the pote I was wearing. Instead of tucking it under my shirt collar, I was pulling it out and wearing it publically and proudly. It made me feel like I belonged more—that I wasn’t just a tourist walking in Thamel, but someone married to a local person, someone more deeply involved in the culture. It felt like wearing pote was a statement—yeah, I’m a gori wife, “Mero shriman Nepali ho.” [My husband is Nepali].

Individual strands of pote hang waiting to be twisted and tied into proper pote necklaces in a pote shop in KTM

Completed multi-strand pote hanging in a pote shop. To the right are shorter styles, to the left are longer styles.

Actually, when I departed KTM for home, I was still dressed up for Dashain tikka—in the red and dark blue cotton block print salwaar kameez I bought in Delhi while studying there a few years back, the longer multi-strand shiny red pote bought for the bhoj party, the small red tikka sticker between my eyebrows I wore occasionally on my visit, as well as the giant red tikka and jamara grass from Dashain. I have to admit, I kind of liked the looks and surprised expressions I received at the airport—there are lots of tourists that leave Nepal with a simple red tikka, a kata scarf or a marigold garland draped around their neck, you might even see a tourist dressed in local clothing, but I figured you didn’t normally find a foreigner wearing pote, Dashain tikka and jamara grass unless she was part of a real Nepali family.

Mamu and P drop me off at Tribhuvan International Airport in KTM. In this picture you can't really see my thicker red pote well since it blends in with the red of my salwaar kameez, but the longer multi-strand necklace is hiding in between the draped sides of my dupatta scarf

Now that I’m back, I’ve been wearing a few of the thicker, multi-strand, but longer potes that I brought back from Nepal this time, as well as my good old simple single strand ones. I didn’t think I’d like wearing pote all the time, but it’s become kind of my “thing.”

Wearing the same shiny red pote as the previous picture, but it's more visible here. P's two cousins, J Phupu and I sit together after our first round of Dashain family tikka

I just kind of wish I didn’t wear them before marriage so that it would have been a little bit more special.

Preparing for Bhoj

It’s about time I start back in with some of the Nepal posts…

We started preparing for the Bhoj around 12:15 when P’s younger cousin walked me to the local beauty parlor, a small shop tucked off one of the main neighborhood roads. The shop was barely big enough to fit the four parlor chairs (which were computer/office chairs) and the small sitting area for waiting customers.

The beautician seemed excited to work on a foreigner, and commented that my hair was “ramro” [nice] and soft (I’ve been told quite a few times my hair was “so nice” and “so soft” this trip. I’ve never really thought of my hair as nice, but kind of thin, stringy and frizzy; instead I’m jealous of many of my South Asian friends’ hair which I think of as “so nice” and “so thick.” I was told my hair was “so soft” in East Africa, but compared to tightly curled Sub-Saharan African hair my straight longer hair probably does seem “soft,” so I didn’t seem as surprised.)

Since my hair was “so soft” and apparently slippery to handle, the beautician slicked my hair with about a bucket of hair gel, then divided my ponytail into sections and rolled each section into a tight loop and secured it with bobby pins so that the final product was a large circular pun that looked weaved together at the center. She added small pearl pins and small red fabric flower pins to give it some color and design, and finished it off with glittery hair spray.

I was happy I could follow most of the conversation between the hairdresser and P’s cousin. They spoke sparingly and in short sentences:

“Is this for a wedding or a bhoj?”

“Where is your bhauju [sister-in-law] from?”

“How long has your dai been in America?”

“How does she like Nepal?”

When I got back to P’s place, his mother told me it was time to do the rest of my preparation. The two women who help in the house sat me down in P’s parents’ bedroom. One woman—L Didi—gently strung a long red pote necklace over my head and new hair style while the other painted my toe nails and finger nails fire engine red. As my fingers and toes dried P’s cousin (the one who took me to the beauty parlor) and the women who painted my nails debated over what make-up would look good on me–in a place where my pale-as-a-ghost skin color sticks out like a sore thumb, make-up shades take some deliberation. The nail polish woman powdered my face and P’s cousin started putting pale sparkly eye shadow on my eyelids. The woman took some kajol (eye liner) and lightly lined my eyes and put mascara on, while P’s aunt and mother debated over what shade of lipstick I should wear. I vetoed the first bright red one, and agreed to the lighter more natural looking pink.

What the 'naya buhari" should look like was a group decision...

Borrowed some gold bangle bling from mamu, although that thick one was a tight squeeze that scraped the back of my hand as it was forced over my thumb

With makeup done the extra women left the room while I put on my red petticoat and blouse. L Didi is the resident sari expert in the house and generally helps Mamu tie her saris (Mamu feels more comfortable in salwar kameze and usually wears those instead of sari on a daily basis). The last time I was here L Didi tied my saris, not because I didn’t know how, but because I was too slow, and her sari fixing looked nicer.

L Didi wrapped me up and made sure everything looked correct, occasionally patting me on the hip and saying, “dheri ramro cha” [very nice].

L Didi, getting the job done nicely.

Getting wrapped and fluffed up by others makes me feel like a living doll, but this was their family’s wedding party and I was ready to go with the flow. Everything looked so nice once they were done anyhow. One I was finished everyone else had to get ready—P’s mom’s hair was done by the woman who painted my nails, P’s cousins got in their saris– hair was curled, makeup applied, high heeled shoes put on. By 4:30 we were all ready to go.

With P and his grandfather, waiting for the car to the Bhoj venue.

Kukur Puja 2011

Previous Kukur Pujas: photos from 2010, from 2009

Kukur Puja is one of my favorite Nepali festivals. It is part of the Tihar cluster of events including Kag Puja (crow puja, yesterday), Kukur Puja (dog puja, today), Laxmi Puja and Gai Puja (puja for prosperity and for cow, tomorrow), Thursday is a series of pujas I’m not as familiar with (Goru Puja, Gobhardan Puja, Maha Puja and Nepal Sambat as explained by NepaliAustralian), and lastly Bhai Tikka (brother puja, Friday). In our household we usually only celebrate Kukur and Laxmi puja and Bhai Tikka.

One reason I love Kukur Puja is because I am a big “dog person.” Luckily P is too, or we would probably have a big problem!

My dad had a black lab named Jack when he married my mom and we had him until I was in fourth grade. I always remember him as an older dog, reserved and calm, and he never minded when my sisters and I would bug him, or lay all over him. Even though he was around when I was a kid, he wasn’t really my dog, he was always my dad’s.

When I was seven years old I started begging my parents for a dog of my own. I whined and pleaded in a way only a seven year old could. I remember that Christmas there was an article in the local newspaper where “Santa” was responding to a young girl named “Joleen” who was asking for a pet for Christmas, giving her a checklist of things she had to agree to do before she would be ready to have a pet. My parents told me that Santa was actually writing to me, and had accidently misspelled my name, and I cut that article out of the paper and carried it around with me, showing it to all my relatives that Christmas and explaining—“I can do #1, and #2, and #3…I promise!”

A week or two after Christmas my dad found an advertisement in the newspaper for cocker spaniel puppies, and he took me to the kennel to check them out. There were little black and white puppies scurrying here and there. One of them tried to eat my shoelaces, and I fell in love. I brought him home and named him Blackie (he was all black with a white stripe down his neck).

Blackie was my constant companion until I left home. We used to go trudging through the backwoods together, covered in mud; sledding down the hill in our back yard together, little chunks of snow and ice matting in his curly hair; he even went on jogs with me as a high school cross country runner, although I’m sure mid-summer 6 mile runs were not his favorite. We dressed him up in baby clothes and diapers (my youngest sister was born the same year as Blackie), brought him along on long family trips in the car, and nursed him back to health when he was attacked by a two ferocious dogs that lived down the street.

Having a dog when you are really young probably helps someone to grow up with a soft spot for dogs, and to not be afraid of them. Various people I know tell me that they are scared of dogs, sometimes because they were once bitten or attacked by one. I was also attacked by a dog once—my friend who agreed to take me to the big “eighth grade dance” had two big dogs behind an invisible fence, and my school friend and I rode our bikes over to his house not knowing the dogs were out. As we started walking up the drive way the dogs charged at us, and my friend had the sense to step backwards behind the invisible fence but I didn’t, and instead put my arms up to protect my face. One of the dogs latched on to my left elbow and started biting, leaving a nasty bruise/puncture wound. I had to go to the hospital and get a tetanus shot, but luckily no stiches. And in true 8th grade fashion, I had a dress with no sleeves at the dance so I could show off my battle scars to everyone all night. But luckily I  had a lot of positive exposure to dogs as a baby and small kid, which preempted me from developing any major fears.

After Blackie had to be put to sleep while I was studying abroad in France my freshman year of college, I didn’t have a dog for many years—obviously you couldn’t have one in a dorm room, and when P and I graduated our first few apartment buildings wouldn’t allow pets either. Finally P wore out our second to last landlord, and we were given permission for a “small, quiet, well behaved dog.”

I did a petfinder.com search for cocker spaniels (since that is what I had as a kid, and felt confident I could properly take care of one, “I can do #1, and #2, and #3…I promise!”). I was particularly partial to black dogs, since I had two growing up. Sampson came up on the search results at a rescue in New Hampshire (although they said he is “part cocker spaniel, part retriever” people tell us he looks like all sorts of things, but the key word “cocker spaniel” brought him to us). He was cute, and black, with a white stripe on his neck–like Blackie!—and he was a rescued stray from the streets of Puerto Rico—an intercultural dog! Perfect!

So P and I put in the application, begged our landlord some more, and two and a half years ago Sampson joined our household. Now he is a spoiled little mutt, because P and I nearly treat him like he’s our real baby. He gets momo snacks from P when momos are on the menu, and egg yokes when I’m making waffles, and he already tried a piece of yak cheese when I returned from Nepal.

And every year on Kukur Puja he gets a special tikka, a flower garland made just for him, a new toy, a tasty packet of new treats, and special treatment all day.

So if you have a little pup in your life, feel free to give him some extra love today!

Sampson is the king of sad eyes, even with his happy, easy life in the AmericaNepali household!

Menstruation Jutho

Continuation from the last post

For a woman, jutho taboos surrounding menstruation can be challenging. I’ve written about this before in “A ‘Female’ Taboo” but I wanted to revisit it as I have experienced a few more things since then.

As I noted before, for me, a woman’s menstruation cycle is a very personal thing. It’s not something to be ashamed of, but it certainly isn’t something I’d like to announce to the world (although ironically, I’m writing about it on a blog, ha ha). This might be where my own personal feelings and Nepali culture greatly deviate, because although there are taboos affiliated with a woman’s period in Nepal there doesn’t seem to be embarrassment around others knowing that a woman is having it, since the taboos are enacted in such a way that everyone would know.

Case in point, during Dashain a cousin’s family came over to P’s family’s house to receive tikka from P’s grandfather. It was a cousin-sister and her two kids and her brother and his wife. They were making the rounds to the different family houses, however the brother’s wife had her period, so she couldn’t come in the living room where the family was giving tikka and had to sit in the hallway. It was obvious to everyone in the room why she had to sit outside, and not only did she have to miss out on receiving tikka and blessings from everyone for the year, she had to go from house to house sitting outside and being excluded, so everyone in the entire family would know she was menstruating. Perhaps the family didn’t care, but I really felt for her, and thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t have to go through the same thing, because I would feel mortified.

Right before Dashain, one of P’s cousins asked me if I knew of any medication that could delay the onset of her period. I asked why and she said that she was probably going to get hers right as Dashain tikka time would be in full swing. It was going to be her last Dashain in Nepal for a few years, and I am sure she didn’t want to miss out on the activities and gatherings.

“Would anyone know? What if you didn’t say anything?” I asked. That would have been my tactic if I was in the same situation.

“Well… if maiju [P’s mom] finds out, I might get in trouble.” She said. We didn’t talk about it afterward. She participated in the festival so I figured she sorted something out.

I’ve now spent several months with P’s family, so I’ve obviously gone through my “impure” time of the month while I was around them—handling food, sitting with everyone at the table, and no one has ever questioned anything. I’ve kept my mouth closed about it, so they probably never really knew when it happened, but they had to assume it did at some point, so I was a little surprised by P’s cousin’s comment about P’s mom scolding her if she participated in Dashain tikka while she was having her’s. Perhaps it’s easier for P’s mom to think about me in a different category when it comes to jutho as a foreigner, or maybe she is uncomfortable to bring up the topic with me, I’m not sure. Although it would be interesting to learn more about the taboos, it isn’t a topic I would eagerly bring up with P’s mom as I would hate to have menstruation jutho extended to me. I kind of like the policy of don’t ask, don’t tell we have going on right now.

But I’ve seen women perpetuate menstruation jutho on themselves—when a friend of mine got married a relative of the groom had her period during the ceremony and so she insisted on sitting outside the temple and peeking through a window while her husband and son were inside enjoying the festivities. It was only after we convinced her that the marriage was not taking place inside  the main temple, but in the breezeway/meeting area of the temple building that she felt comfortable coming inside to watch the ceremony. Had we been in Nepal she would probably have been completely excluded by family members, but here in the US no one was going to scold her.

Nepali Jiwan gave an example of living with a conservative Nepali family while she was doing a study abroad homestay and when they found out she was menstruating (I was wondering how—did they ask?) they included her in jutho taboos—she had to sit in another room and eat away from the family, and was scolded by a house worker when she touched the clothes washing water during her “impure” state.

Anyway—I guess I’m not really sure where I am going with this post except that I find the discussion of these taboos both interesting and humiliating.

Has anyone else ever run into menstruation taboos when dealing with their partner’s parents or extended family? What did you do?

Do you feel it is important to participate in the taboos when it comes to religious observance such as not entering a temple when you are having your period or would don’t ask, don’t tell?