Tag Archives: Nepali Language

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:

Endangered Tongues

After my rant on learning Nepali language perhaps it might seem ironic I wanted to post on preserving Nepali languages. Yet even with my own linguistic frustrations, I am a staunch supporter of preserving languages, particularly less spoken ones.

My undergraduate honors thesis was titled: “Imperial Versus Indigenous: Language Usage and Cultural Identity” which looked at the use of English and Swahili in Kenya and French and Wolof in Senegal. I found the topic wildly interesting, particularly the language usage in literature debate between famous Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (who I’ve mentioned before) and Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Achebe in his book of selected essays “Hopes and Impediments” tackles the question of using the colonial language (English) in his novels. His argument is that the history of colonialism gave him the knowledge that enables him to connect to a wider readership, and he would rather use English as a medium to get his message out, rather than a local language that might be read in parts of Nigeria (also important and valuable), but might not bring Nigerian history, culture and issues to a world stage. His books are heavily culture laden, and in some of his later works he incorporates the use of Nigerian pidgin English in character conversations, but he firmly supports the use of English.

Ngugi on the other hand, first became famous with his novels in English, but later swore off the language, and in his final book in English, “Decolonizing the African Mind,” vowed never again to write in any language other than Kiswahili or Kikuyu (his mother tongue). His argument was that authors, particularly successful authors, should support local languages to encourage their continued use and growth in the written word. That authors with important messages valid to the outside world shouldn’t feel shackled by colonial languages because the age old use of translation can help bring their ideas to a wider audience, not to mention create jobs for local people who can translate these works (if it works for Russian or Japanese why not Kikuyu?).

In several essays the two seemed to be talking to each other, always agreeing to disagree with the other’s point of view. I value them both as important African voices, and I can definitely sympathize with each.

As a reader, if a book is not in English, then it is cut off from me. My friend N’s brother in law wrote a bestseller in Nepali, and although the book sits on the bookshelf in my house, I’m currently helpless to appreciate it. (And I’ve been told even if I could read it in English, it would obviously be richer in Nepali). Although not all the literature is accessible by me,  I value the fact that there is a literary culture in Nepal in (an) indigenous language(s).

However the fact that Nepali is, worldwide, a less spoken language and it is hard enough to learn the  official language outside of the country, consider the multitude of other languages spoken in the country that have far less support and infrastructure. Language is a part of culture, the very words of the language help to create the world it exists in, and languages that become extinct snuff out a whole encyclopedia of indigenous knowledge.

So I wanted to point out that The Asia Mag had an interesting article on endangered Nepali languages and what is being done to preserve them. In a country with nearly 29 million people there are 40 languages spoken within its borders, many of which are growing smaller day by day.

While on the topic of language… a few weeks ago there was news of a  new language recently discovered in northern India (NPR feature), and a new book out about seeking out and preserving some of the world’s most endangered languages, “The Last Speakers.”

And lastly, N’s mother, who is also a Nepali author, will be coming to stay with us for the next few weeks. As a budding writer (or writer wanna be) and avid reader, I’m interested to meet her and see what kind of advice and insight she may have.

So What Am I Doing About It? (Language Part II)

To see my rant from yesterday visit HERE.

I’ve been hesitant to write a blog post on this subject because sometimes when I make “bold statements” afterward I hit a wall and fizzle out. But I’ve actually gotten into a good rhythm in the past week or two, and I want to try and keep it up. I hope that writing about it will motivate me more (fingers crossed).

So I  pretty much own every Nepali learning tool under the sun. I’ve even started an email campaign for Rosetta Stone to come out with a language learning cd for Nepali (to no avail).  So what do I have?

The last few times I attempted to learn on my own I used Teach Yourself Nepali and A Basic Course in Spoken Nepali (a resource P brought back from Kathmandu a few years ago which I think was developed for use by the Peace Corps). I took a very expensive and short lived Nepali language class in Boston where the tutor used “A Basic Course in Spoken Nepali” as well as Nepali a Beginner’s Primer (full text available online) from Cornell University’s language program. Another reader mentioned he was using “Nepali a Beginner’s Primer” and seemed to like it (I think he said there were tapes available too– if you don’t have a native speaker in your home). When I took a few language classes in Nepal in 2009 my teacher used “A Basic Course in Spoken Nepali” as a guide, but we didn’t really use any text book. I also have a few small Nepali dictionaries, but I haven’t gotten that far with them yet– actually I still have trouble looking up words because (besides the first line of letters– Ka, Kha, Ga, Gha, Nga) I always forget the order, so the dictionaries are a little useless to me right now unless I take a lot of time with them.

I’ve had one book on the shelf for a long time that I’ve (time and time again) neglected to pick up and try to use in earnest– until last week. So far, so good.

It’s A Course in Nepali by David Matthews. It’s a no frills book (as you can probably tell from the cover… that’s probably why I waited so long to crack it open)—unlike “Teach Yourself” there are no diagrams, pictures or cutesy dialogues starting each chapter. As one reviewer wrote, “[it] is a very well written textbook, it does not assume any previous knowledge of the language… [however] this book is not an easy textbook, [as] it tends to cover all important grammatical points of the language, making the book very dense… If you are not serious about studying Nepali, or just want to learn some phrases for a short trip to Nepal, this book is definitely not for you, in that case you should buy Lonely Planet’s Nepali Phrasebook.” (which I also have).

But if you want to be a serious language student, I think this book might be exactly what you’re looking for. As the reviewer stated, “The exercises are well designed and closely correspond to the content of each lesson.” And there are plenty of dialogue exercises and translation pieces to practice with. I found that in the first few chapters there was enough new material that I didn’t easily feel bored and skip lessons (and lose interest) which can happen with books like “Teach Yourself” if you already have the basics (I mean, how many times do you need to learn “namaste?” “namaste,” “mero nam C ho,” etc). Again, it’s no frills, but I feel I am learning and retaining more than I have before. My notebook is starting to fill up with notes and the answers to exercises.

The other nice thing is that I feel I have found a happy medium between learning in Nepali script and learning in English transliteration.

This is the age old debate when you are trying to learn a foreign language that uses a different alphabet. Do you spend all your time learning the alphabet, and run the risk of it being weeks or months before you can actually start saying tangible things? Or do you skip the alphabet and go back to learn it later, once you got the basics? I’ve had tutors with both philosophies.

When I was taking the short lived but super expensive language classes in Boston, my teacher felt it was really important that I learn everything in devanagari. He insisted that I would never pronounce anything correctly unless I learn with the Nepali alphabet since it is so phonetic. Writing “sa” for श or “bha” for भ would never help me “speak like a Nepali” but writing everything exclusively in devanagari made it hard for me to memorize words, and I wasted a lot of (expensive class) time getting bogged down with the script.

When I went to Nepal and took a few classes, I went the complete other way, and told the teacher I could care less about reading, I just wanted to communicate orally on a basic level. We wrote out everything in English transliteration phonetically– “perfect pronunciation be damned!”– and I felt I learned a lot more in a short period of time.

But now I want both—to speak and to really know the words, to understand what it is when I see it. I’m still in the phase of “perfect pronunciation be damned” … as long as I’m understandable, but visualization is very important for me. I realize that I am a visual person. You can tell me a phrase ten times, but until I write it out and see it on paper, its not going to stick. Right now I feel I can do that. I know the alphabet (save for a few of the more unusual letters/sounds which I need to be reminded of) well enough that I can read nearly everything that I need to (so far) in the book, but since everything is both written out in devanagari and English transliteration I can take notes both ways. I also know how I pronounce things, so if the author uses an English spelling I don’t recognize (usually a funky phonetic letter like “ʃ” for “sa”), I can easily use the spelling I know from other material or from knowing the word from friends.

It’s still new, but I’m moving along. I’ll keep you updated. And hopefully this time I’ll actually succeed in becoming at least conversational. If I can have a good conversation over tea in the next month, I’ll be over the moon.

If anyone needs help learning devanagari script I’d recommend the Teach Yourself Beginner’s Hindi Script. I used this before going to India and found it very helpful in setting me off in the right direction.

Another Rant on Language

If you want to read others start HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Okay… I’m going to “out” myself.

“My name is C and I have a problem. I’ve been dating my Nepali significant other for seven years and I still can’t speak his language.” (believe me, I blush with shame simply typing the words).

How sad is that? It often makes me feel like a failure, and 2009-2010 has really been the year to rub it in.

Let’s start with our visit to Nepal in the summer of 2009. I took a few language classes, enough to make me almost feel like I was starting to get somewhere. Only to go back to P’s family’s house, be asked all sorts of questions I didn’t understand and for P’s dad to shake his head with disappointment, “She’ll never learn.” When I got back to America, I basically felt like I was back to a linguistic square one.

Then last winter a close friend and I got into an argument one evening. I forget how the discussion started but I was basically told that “Obviously it wasn’t a priority for me to learn Nepali, otherwise I would have done it by now.” That it was basically my fault, and that I “didn’t care enough” to properly learn it. Ouch. That one stung really bad. It still makes me angry to think about it. Perhaps it stings most because I’m worried it is a little true.

Later I was telling another close friend about our discussion and that friend said, “Yeah I agree. It’s either laziness, or lack of interest. You would have done it by now if you really wanted to.” Ouch again.

Then there are the other non-Nepali friends who seem to have a passing interest in the language, who will come for a dinner gathering and learn a few Nepali phrases, and use them in conversation nonchalantly—stuff like “Khana mitho cha” (the food tastes good), or “Malai pugyo.” (I’m full), or count to five—something like that. Inevitably someone will say something like, “It looks like they know more Nepali than you do C!” Which, even if it is said lightheartedly, also hurts. I know quite a lot, at least more than that, thank you very much.

Or the people who think it must be easy to learn the language because I’m surrounded by Nepali people. That I should be able to learn the language by osmosis or something because my head rests next to P’s on the pillows at night. If it were that easy I’d be a Nepali literary critic by now!

The whole thing sucks and makes me mad. Why would I want, in the last seven years, to be the one constantly left out of conversations, or not getting the jokes, or having to wait for a translation? I’m tired of listening to an evening of song and dance and glazing over after a while because I can’t understand and I’ve gotten bored. I don’t want any of that…

But it also sucks because learning a new language is hard work. Being committed to doing that is a full time job. I sometimes feel like people forget that. It’s not like I can listen to Nepali music on an ipod at the gym and tomorrow I’ll magically speak the language. To really learn it, to be able to speak even marginally well, it will be hours and hours of studying, memorizing, quizzing myself, making vocabulary flash cards and practicing conversations. Either in my head or with other people. It’s a major undertaking, and a time consuming one.

Especially when there aren’t any classes. I love language classes. Learning a language in a class is decidedly less work. Sure one has to study, and practice, but a class gives so much usable practice, and really helps to boost one’s confidence. What I wouldn’t give for an affordable, easy Nepali language class option.

I realize that I have used the “but there is no class” excuse for far too long, and I’ve wasted too much time sitting in a room full of Nepali speakers without understanding. I’ve made bold declarations before, but I think I’ve finally reached a point where I need to learn or forever be shamed as “the one who will never learn.”

Why now? Why have I finally reached this ultimate point of frustration? A few reasons:

A)     The reasons cited above

B)      I’m getting married in a few months. Lots of Nepalis will be there and I want to talk to people if I can. P’s family will also come, and I want to speak to them, and finally have them impressed with my language skills instead of shaking their heads in disappointment. Also if we go to Nepal after our marriage I’m sure I’ll be “shown around” to people as the new member of the family, and it would be SO NICE to speak to people instead of silently nodding my head when appropriate. Did I mention how terribly boring it is not to be able to speak? Can you tell how much I like to talk?

C)      It’s also REALLY important to me to be able to speak this language before we have children. Bi-linguality is going to be a major part of our childrearing. Not that I’m planning to have any soon, but language learning is a process, and the time to start learning is definitely not when the baby is trying to learn as well.

D)     And more selfishly– P’s cousin’s American boyfriend recently left for Nepal. He’s a cool guy, and I like him a lot, but I have nightmares of him learning Nepali—which will be a great thing for him, but another reason for P’s  family to be disappointed in me. P’s cousin’s boyfriend plans to stay in Nepal at least 6 months (perhaps longer!) which I never had the luxury to do, and if he takes classes and hangs out with people, I can definitely see him learning a lot.

E)      I have four Nepalis living with me right now. What better opportunity do I have than to hunker down and start learning already? I have a bunch of speaking partners in-house.

F)      Did I mention how *sick* I am of not understanding and contributing to the conversations going on around me?

Since this post is already getting long… tune in tomorrow to hear what I’m going to do about it.

Your Naak is Getting Thulo

There is a phrase P occasionally playfully teases me with. He said it last night, so I thought I’d post about it…

In English when someone is complemented or praised too much you might accuse that person of “getting a big head” meaning all the praise might make him or her too proud or make them think that they are really great—something like that. There is a similar expression in Nepali, but instead of your head getting big, it’s your naak or your nose. The phrase is something like “Timro naak thulo hudai cha” your nose is getting big. Instead P will say to me, “Your naak is getting thulo.”

Last night the expression was said in the context of: I had a gift card to go to one of those pizza places with specialty pizzas—not your regular mushroom or pepperoni, but cheeseburger, nacho, or Greek salad pizza, stuff like that. I thought the pizza was really good, but P said it was only “okay” he’d had better, “actually your homemade pizza is a lot better than this.”

I smiled, “Oh yeah? Good to know.”

“Uh oh, your naak is getting thulo.”

Another instance when my naak gets a bit thulo? When I get a large number of blog views on a particular day ;)

So perhaps the next time your significant other gets unsolicited compliments and you want to tease them about it… you can mention their thulo naak as well.

Linguistically Jealous…

Last night we had dinner with two sets of “couple” friends. Rice; daal; potato and green bean curry; P and AS made a Mule Deer curried stew from some of the meat my dad gave us at Christmas time; I experimented with some cheese and spinach stuffed mushrooms. Everything was tasty and the dinner was fun.

As with most dinners, the conversation went back and forth, and eventually we were talking about a couple we knew who was struggling with jealousy issues. From that stemmed a conversation about whether anyone of us has ever been jealous.

I’ll admit it. There was one time in particular that I was a bit jealous…

Last week I attended one of the Black History Month events at my work. Former MTV reality star Mohammed Bilal came to campus with a really interesting speech on “12 Steps toward Appreciating Diversity.” One of the steps (I can’t remember which) was, “Learn a new language. You won’t truly understand someone else unless you can talk to them in their own language.” Which brings me to what made me jealous:

The first few years at university the only Nepalis I knew were guys. There were about four or five of them and there had been several others along the way, including P. Some people at the International House used to joke that Nepalis mustn’t let women study abroad, since only guys came to our school from their country for as long as any of us could remember. However, my third year, while I was abroad, a few more Nepalis came to the school, including one girl—KS. I used to hear from P about all the stuff going on at school while I was gone, and by the time I got back to the school in January, I felt like I already knew these new students.

I was surprised though, the first few times I listened to P interact with KS. They weren’t flirting or anything remotely like that (for pete’s sake, KS always called the other Nepalis “dai,” older brother, and you don’t flirt with your older brother!) The thing that made me jealous was that they could communicate with each other so fluently in P’s own language, something that I simply couldn’t do. I remember feeling like I couldn’t connect with him linguistically in the same intimate way that she could because I didn’t understand that much beyond the basics. It wasn’t what they were saying that irked me, but that they could say it. Being able to communicate with someone at that very personal, primal level, so far from home– of course it’s comforting, and I was sad I couldn’t provide that same feeling as well. It is one of the reasons I try not to object too much when others speak Nepali in the US around me (at least when I’m the only non-Nepali speaker in the room), because I know it is such a part of their identity.

The jealousy didn’t last long, but I’ll never forget how I felt, listening (for the first time) to P talk in Nepali with a Nepali girl. I know it was silly, but language is so personal, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy. You’d think it would make me even more inspired to learn the language, but fast forward six years or so and I’m still not too far along (I just wish I could enroll in a proper class!!). I’m getting better little by little, but it’s been a very slow and disappointing process.

So there is my jealousy story to share around the dinner table.

Language Quirks

When I first met P he had already been in the US for a few years, but he still had a lot of little language quirks. Sometimes he would pronounce things with the emPHAsis on the wrong syllABle or he would either forget to add (when needed) or add (when not needed) the articles “a” or “the” in sentences. Every now and then he might use an awkward word when explaining something or I would use expressions he had never heard of before and he would ask me what they meant. Now he uses these expressions himself–he told me the other day, “yeah, I guess you need to take her with a grain of salt” when talking about a friend of a friend.

I used to find these little language quirks very endearing, even though I’d often explain or correct. However now, after more than 6 years, I realize that many of these old quirks have faded as P’s time in the US has grown. Every now and then he will come up with something odd out of the blue… or pronounce something a bit different, but not anywhere near as often as he used to.

Sampson and P taking a nap

Yet there is one language quirk he still has that I don’t think will ever fade…

When he has fallen asleep and wakes up suddenly he asks questions in Nepali and doesn’t seem to realize it. It’s usually kati baje? Or kati bajyo? – what time is it?—among other things. I’ve grown accustom to them, and understand enough that I can answer his questions before he closes his eyes and falls back asleep, but I do find this little quirk cute. If P were one to talk in his sleep (which he isn’t) I’m sure his conversation would also be in Nepali.

I was reminded of it yesterday afternoon. We were both having a lazy Sunday… I was watching a movie on my laptop and P had dosed off while reading some articles for school. He had to meet up with some people for an intramural football game at a specific time, so he kept waking up suddenly, his eyes all red and glazed over, and he would mumble “kati bajyo? before falling back asleep, satisfied that he had enough time to keep snoozing.

I remember back when we first met P said something about how “maybe someday I could forget English, but I’ll never ever forget Nepali.” The mother tongue is a beautiful and powerful thing and it effects how your brain is hardwired, and that’s why if (and when) we have children some day we are determined to raise them speaking both of our mother tongues.

Kati bajyo? oh geez, I better get back to work.

“Nepali Bhasha” State of Mind

Don’t worry, I won’t start singing Billy Joel songs…

In my earlier posting on learning Nepali I wrote about my frustrations and embarrassment in not being able to properly speak P’s native language. For the past 6+ years I have been surrounded by Nepali people… friends, neighbors, classmates, family… and instead of really gritting my teeth and doing some good old fashion language prep and studying, I’ve made about 10 million excuses as to why my language capacity is still at the “beginner” level.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve definitely improved along the way. I’ve taken 20 hours worth of disjointed tutoring lessons in a “nearby” city and a similar number of hours of intense crammed language training in Nepal in order to satisfy a language requirement for a degree I am working on. These lessons coupled with being surrounded by the language have helped me to pick up vocabulary and phrases even simple verb conjugations–especially after coming back from Nepal–but now, I need to get serious, start focusing on grammar and really bring the pieces together.

So I basically set myself an ultimatum, or a bit of accountability in that posting, closing out with:

I wanted to declare that I am going to make a committed effort to learn far more Nepali this year than I have been able to do thus far, and hopefully the blog will keep me on track.

So luckily Gori Girl left this comment on the post:

Hmmm… would you be interested in doing a group thing, where everyone commits to so much studying each day/week and check in, report on progress, etc?

The answer is a BIG FAT YES! I think the more people that hold me accountable (and I am happy to do the same for others) the better! So if anyone wants to get in on a learn-your-partner’s-language-pact, by all means feel free to jump on board.

I’m debating what is the best way to allow readers to keep tabs on me, while updating you with the interesting tidbits along the way. I’m open to suggestions… but for now I might just write a “Nepali Bhasha” post every now and then, or start a new tab on the header bar across the top of my blog called “Nepali Bhasha” (similar to “recipes” or “books”) and keep an ongoing “language notebook.” Hmmm…

Anyway- I wanted to give a “shout out” to AS who has agreed to be my language tutor. Language is tricky. Some people are good at teaching it while some people simply aren’t (ahem, P), even if they are good at teaching other things (like GIS, so don’t be sad P). AS and I have agreed to meet 1-2 times a week for 30 mins to one hour at a time to practice speaking, learn vocabulary and grammar, and gain confidence. We have only been at it for a week, but it helps to get into a “Nepali bhasha state of mind” for a set aside period of time every week.

So– off to my tutorial session!

Sometimes Humor Just Can’t Be Translated

My Nepali friend AD has a very infectious laugh. We met as undergrads and lived together one summer while working on campus. In the shared apartment that year it was my humorous friend AD, P, AC (P’s high school friend) and I. As the only American I was often vetoed on food, daal/bhat (lentils and rice) and curries were favored (in general) over pasta and garden salad, forks were shunned for the more “authentic way of eating” with our hands, and the language was often Nepali instead of English, at least at the dinner table (and always when I wasn’t around).

One thing that stands out as particularly memorable from that summer was my friend AD’s laugh. It came from deep within and boiled over into a loud, room-filling echo. It’s very distinctive. In the dormitory you could always tell it was him laughing, and you heard him quite frequently. AD found many things funny, but he was also quite skilled at telling jokes, which would throw him into a fit of laughter as well. There was hardly a night at the dinner table that summer that he didn’t lapse into one long-winded Nepali joke or another and the three would erupt in endless giggles. I couldn’t help but feel left out.

“Come on, what’s so funny?” I’d ask.

“Oh, I wish you spoke Nepali, you won’t get it otherwise,” AD would answer while the other two wagged their heads in agreement.

“Can’t you just explain it? Try me!” I’d whine.

“Nope, it just won’t work. You won’t get it. It has to be in Nepali or it won’t be funny.”

Okay, maybe the laughter wasn't *this* hearty

Okay, maybe the laughter wasn't *this* hearty

I suffered through this for years. AD, the great joke teller, would crack one out at a party, and all the other Nepalis in the room would heartily laugh, and I’d be left in the dark, my language skills still not adept enough to understand the intricacies of the grammar and vocabulary chosen for this particular joke.

AD never wanted to translate the joke into English. He insisted it was pointless. It simply would not be funny in English and in fact it probably wouldn’t even make sense.

Then once we moved, I met AS at P’s graduate school. Shortly after meeting her I found out that one of the jobs she had back in Nepal was translating for a Danish organization. She would spend the day listening to people speak in Nepali and then simultaneously translate into English for her colleagues. I was immediately psyched when I heard this; one of the first thoughts that came to mind was, “I finally have someone to explain AD’s jokes!”

One night I told AS my story about AD and my years of not understanding or having the jokes explained. “One day,” I told her, “I’ll get the two of you together and you will have to promise me that you will explain his joke.”

I had my opportunity at a holiday party that I hosted whose invitees were probably half Nepali, half other nationalities. AD drove up from his home in another state to attend. As the party got underway, I knew it wouldn’t be long before he told one of his famous jokes, and I was ready for it. AS and I had positioned ourselves nearby when he launched into one and I had AS whisper me the quick translation. AD noticed what was going on and asked what we were doing.

“AS knows how to translate well! I’m tired of not understanding your jokes!”

“But I’ve told you, they don’t make sense in English, you won’t like it.” He insisted.

“I know that humor is cultural, but come on, if they are as funny as everyone says, I’m sure there has to be something there of the original humor, even in translation.”

So AD sighed and said fine. By this time everyone in the room seemed to be listening, Nepalis and non-Nepalis. So AD started a joke and when he finished AS laughed and started to translate, but as AD predicted,  it didn’t really make any sense. It wasn’t funny at all.

laughing3“This is what I was afraid of,” AD sighed, “here let me try it myself,” and he started telling the joke in English. I can’t honestly tell you what the joke was about, there might have been a goat in it, I’m not sure, but it was completely forgettable and not funny at all.

“Wait, let me try again.” AD said, and try again he did, but a non-Nepali friend interjected, “you’re right, it isn’t funny in English. I don’t get it at all.” At this point AD must have felt like his honor was at stake because then he tried to explain the different parts of the joke to help us “get” it, but it didn’t help.

“Hold on,” AD said, turned to the Nepalis in the room and told the same joke again in his language. To his great relief he got a laugh out of them, “Phew, okay, so it wasn’t the joke, it’s just the language. I told you it was a waste to try.”

It is rather commonly know that humor is one of the hardest aspects of culture to translate. Foreign born and foreign language speaking people who are able to perform comedy in their non-native environments are generally thought to be quite impressive. There are so many nuisances involved in humor, plays on words, inferred understanding of the cultural capital that makes up the joke, even the manner in which you tell a joke and the cultural implications of voice, tone, impersonations, etc. Of course there are jokes that are straight forward, and types of humor that tend to cross cultural lines quite easily, but many jokes are only funny in the language and cultural setting they are suppose to be told.

I know this, but I still could not resist hounding my friend AD. Years of jokes and laughter, I was sure it must have been universally funny. However he was right, and I should have known better. Subconsciously I could tell there were a lot of cultural cues I couldn’t pick up on, even if I couldn’t understand the language. He often used a funny voice, and I think he was impersonating some famous Nepali radio or television personality. Using that voice and those mannerisms instantly brought a whole cultural understanding to the joke that I simply wouldn’t get, having not grown up in the country, or having watched that particular television star.

I also grew to understand that AD was quite good at finessing language, he was choosing words and phrasing that would accentuate the joke, which was lost on me as a beginner in Nepali. Special words and phrasing can be recreated in English, but it often doesn’t have the same effect.

I admit defeat… for now. Jokes are culture laden. However someday, when I can finally understand one of AD’s many jokes in Nepali I’ll know that I’ve reached a certain level of achievement in my understanding of the language and the culture. I’m not quite there yet, but perhaps someday it will happen.

Nepali Ho?

P has this great talent… it seems like he is able to find Nepali people everywhere we go. It’s like he has a homing device or something. A few years ago, you could pretty much name any college in the US and he would probably know someone, or know of someone, who was going there—maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but probably not by much.

In fact, half the time we eat at an Indian restaurant we wind up with a Nepali waiter. P uses his magic Nepali phrase, “Nepali ho?” the waiter inevitably nods in affirmation, “Nepali ho,” and then it’s like we are part of a secret society. The waiter sits and talks with P for some time, stops by the table more frequently–often to chitchat some more, and sometimes brings complimentary papadum, mango lassi or gulab jamun if the restaurant isn’t too crowded and the owners aren’t really around.

Nepali ho?-- Are you Nepali?

Nepali ho?-- Are you Nepali?

If we meet new people, chances are that P went to the same high school, or knows the siblings, family or friends of our new acquaintances. We even ran into a woman once, while shopping in a random mall in the DC area, who was sitting at one of those small specialty stalls that are usually set up in the middle of the mall passageways. At first glance P whispered, “she looks Nepali, I bet she’s Nepali, you want to bet?” then he walked over and said, “Nepali ho?” and she, of course, answered “Nepali ho.” They spoke for a few minutes, and realized that they were distant cousins of some sort. Her mother was cousins with his father’s sister’s husband, or something like that. She whipped out her cell phone, called someone up, P took out his, called up his dad, and pretty soon they were swapping cell phones and telephone numbers and talking with long lost relatives. We were 7,500 miles away from Kathmandu, how was this possible?

“How do you know all these people?” I once asked, “Nepal seems so incestuous. Everyone seems to know everyone else!”

“You have to remember,” P explained, “it’s a small country, and many of the people who go abroad are from Kathmandu.”

Kathmandu valley

Kathmandu valley

Although Kathmandu is a city, it is smaller than you think. It’s the most populous city in the nation, but there are only about 1-2 million people living in “the valley” (as it is colloquially known) depending on if you are looking at official or unofficial estimates. If someone you meet (in the States) isn’t from Kathmandu, chances are they went to school in Kathmandu, either for secondary or university, and can thus claim a connection. This isn’t the case 100% of the time, but more often then not.

In addition, Kathmandu-ites have a lot of family in the valley… and family units are well connected. Whereas in the US, one might not know their second, third or fourth cousin, it isn’t unusual for close family ties of this nature to persist in Nepal, or for extended family units to still live together or close by. This is more obvious when going back to Kathmandu for a visit–one could easily spend the better part of two weeks running around the valley having dinner, lunch or chai at any number of relatives or relatives of friends’ houses.

I kind of like this networking aspect of Nepali culture. It makes you feel like you are part of a larger whole, with people who are there to help you, even if they don’t know you so well, as long as you can find a connection… even if that connection is based solely on the fact that both of you are from Nepal. P has been contacted by Nepalis back home to ask questions about American universities, TOFEL exams, or even where and how to find apartments in the US. When we moved from New York, you guessed it, a local Nepali guy helped P track down an apartment in our new town, and then helped us move in our boxes the afternoon we arrived!

The sign at the restaurant in Salt Lake... if driving through the city and hungry, check it out...

The sign at the restaurant in Salt Lake... if driving through the city and hungry, check it out...

Likewise, P traveled in Ireland once and friend-ed Nepali people living in Dublin that he found on Facebook, so he could contact them, have a drink, and chat during his trip. Or last year, during a cross-country road trip, we had dinner in a Nepali restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah. By the end of the dinner our group was taking pictures with the Nepali owners and swapping addresses in case the owners ever came for a visit to the East Coast.

I can’t really imagine randomly meeting an American overseas, and swapping telephone numbers based solely on this fact, although once while I was in India I met an American couple who had studied in Nepal as undergraduates. We eventually went out for a plate of momos and talked about Nepal before parting ways, but that was about it. I guess I am guilty by association now, because even that interaction had a bit of a “Nepali ho?” type quality to it!

Actually, the one time I tried to be suave with “Nepali ho?” it backfired. When we were traveling to Kathmandu in June we had a layover at the Qatari airport. As I was going through security a second time, I noticed the security guard had a name tag with the last name “Bhandari.” I have a good Nepali friend with the last name Bhandari, and I had heard from a lot of people that many of the workers in the Qatar airport (and Qatar in general) are from Nepal. As Mr. Bhandari was checking my bags I casually asked, “Nepali ho?” to which he curtly answered, “No… I’m Indian.”

P thought this was hysterically funny… and for the rest of the flight he would occasionally ask me, “Nepali ho?” and then chuckle.

Sigh, you win some, you lose some.

Also- I thought it appropriate to re-post the link to the song Yo Manta Mero Nepali Ho given the title of my piece today :)