Tag Archives: South Asian

Carded with a South Asian Name

We dropped P’s parents off at the airport last night. It was kind of funny sending them off to the other side of the world saying, “See you next week!”

On the way home from the airport I said to P that a burrito and a cold beer would really hit the spot, a mini break from Nepali food and tea.

We picked up burritos on the drive back, and I dropped P off with the food before heading to a small liquor store nearby to find chilled local blueberry beer. The two men behind the counter looked South Asian, and one man had a red tikka on his forehead.

As I handed him my driver’s license I wondered if he would notice my new last name.

After marriage I hyphenated my last name. So now instead of “C C” I’m “C C-P”—where my original last name “C” is quite Irish sounding, and my new hyphen “P” isn’t overtly South Asian sounding to a non-South Asian, but very South Asian sounding to another South Asian, if that makes any sense.

So I handed over my ID to the man with the red tikka. His eyes grew wide and he said, “P? Your last name is P?”

ME: “Yes, my husband is Nepali.”

“Really? And you?”

ME: “I’m not Nepali, just my husband.”

The non-tikka-ed other behind-the-counter guy chimed in, “Have you been to Nepal?”

ME: “Yes, twice, and Friday I am going for a third time.”

The men looked at each other as if to say, “ohhhhhhh.”

The non-tikka-ed man said, “Have you been to India?”

ME: “Actually, yes…”

TIKKA MAN: “Where? Delhi? Agra?”

ME: “Rajasthan.”

NON-TIKKA MAN: “Did you go to Jaisalmer?”

ME: “Yep, on the train.”

TIKKA MAN: “And Ajmer?”

ME: “Yep, and Udaipur, and Jodhpur—the blue city, and Jaipur—the pink city.” This cracked them up—as if to say, “hey this girl’s for real!”

NON TIKKA MAN: “Have you been to Kerala?”

ME: “No, although I hear it’s beautiful.”

NON TIKKA MAN: “It is, you must go the next time you travel.”

The Tikka Man pointed to the small red and yellow beaded necklace nearly hidden under my sweater and asked, “Is that your mangal sutra?”

I pulled my necklace out to show it was just beads—missing the small gold pendent of a mangal sutra, “No, it’s a pote necklace. They have pote in place of mangal sutra in parts of Nepal.”

I paid for the beer, and they handed me back my license, the non-tikka-ed man wishing me, “a nice journey!” By this time several undergraduate looking customers had lined up behind me, probably wondering if (ironically) my chattiness was a tactic to distract the store employees from a fake ID. I departed the store, ready for my burrito.

The encounter made me feel like a member of the “secret South Asian club”.

I wonder what the immigration officer will say when he checks my passport and visa application next Sunday afternoon at Tribhuvan International Airport.

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Half-Pakistani on the Silver Screen

I’m always on the lookout for intercultural (particularly Western-South Asian intercultural) storylines. So I was excited to check out a movie that AS and N recommended the other day.

The film is called “Shades of Ray” and features a half-Pakistani/half-white American man who is going through an identity crisis of sorts. The premise of the story is that he asked a white American woman to marry him, and as she delays in giving him an answer his Pakistani father, who is having marital troubles of his own with his white American wife, pushes an apparently Pakistani girl on his son to spare him the trials and tribulations of being in an intercultural/inter-religious marriage.

Besides the fact that “Ray” is played by a non-South Asian (not even half-South Asian) actor which distracted me a bit (I know, its post-modern, anyone can play any part if they can make it believable, but still, it would have been nice), I thought that the movie was entertaining to watch. As Ray grappled with his issues, I couldn’t help but think about Raj, P’s extended relation from “Frank Uncle and the Nepali Wedding.”

Raj was a half-Nepali/half-white American who bonded (much like Ray in the movie) with his wife over the fact that both he and she were from half-South Asian/half-American families. As Raj’s wife told me, “My father is Indian–Gujarati, but my mother wasn’t–she’s Hawaiian. My dad was Hindu and we would do a puja, and my mom was Christian and we would go to church… I was so confused as a kid! Thats how Raj and I bonded!” These types of interactions help me to think about and contextualize my own potential children’s potential identity crises when they are older, and think about the consequences various influences, or lack thereof, might have in their lives.

Also interesting in the film was the portrayal of two sets of “white American moms” in intercultural relationships. Ray’s mom wasn’t interested in assimilating to Pakistani culture, while Ray’s friend Sana’s mom was really interested in the culture. The first time you see her she is wearing a salwaar kameez during the family initiated dinner date. A surprised Ray says to Sana, “Hey, your mom’s white!” and Sana sarcastically replies, “She is?”

Anyway, if anyone is interested in watching the film, it’s short and sweet, available streaming on Netflix, and is a subject you don’t often see in movies.

More “Nepali” than a “Real” Nepali?

Let me start out with a video clip… thanks to “Blonde Bahu” who recently introduced me to “Goodness Gracious Me” a British-Indian sketch comedy group from the 90s.

Phew, I’m not that bad (at least I hope not! ha!), but as the saying goes what makes humor funny is that it comes with a little “kernel of truth.” It has been discussed on this and other blogs before about how foreigners (non-South Asians) are sometimes more interested (perhaps “enthusiastic” is the better word) in embracing aspects of South Asian culture than a native South Asian living abroad might be. Of course this clip is a highly exaggerated version (perhaps there are people out there that go that “native”) but I’m sure we all do it to some degree or another…

(Although, on a side note, sometimes I feel like my family thinks I act like the person in this video—I promise you, I don’t—but I’m still pretty sure that my participation and interest in Nepali culture weirds them out a bit and anything “different” gets hyperbolized in their minds and blown a little out of proportion).

Anyway, one such example (in my own life) of the “outsider enthusiast” versus the “insider non-enthusiast” (for lack of a better term) is the female fasting festival of Teej… I discussed this back in August (you can re-read the post here). Gori Girl left a thought provoking comment on the post:

I think it’s a very interesting (and important) point you bring up about the outsider/insider perspective on “borderline” (not the right word, but I’m inarticulate at the moment) cultural practices.

I feel like many of the younger South Asians I meet – both men and women – are trying to distance themselves from cultural practices they grew up with because they see them as unfeminist or “too ethnic” – and then they’re bemused (or sometimes offended) by the Western significant others of South Asians (almost always women) trying to bring these practices into their lives.

In some ways the tone of these conversations/remarks remind me of the generation split between the “original” feminists – people of my mother’s generation – and today’s younger women. The older feminists, I think, felt they had to work outside the home, be successful in business while raising a family, etc, in order to prove that they were just as capable as men. In contrast, I feel like a lot of women of my generation feel like there’s nothing to prove, and thus have no problem with quitting work to raise a family. I suspect South Asians might see a similar reversal to acceptance of various rites in a generation or two to a more balanced approach.

Other examples I’ve seen between “outsider” enthusiasts vs. Nepali community non-enthusiasts: I’ve been in situations where we have hosted a Nepali oriented event (such as P’s Bratabandha) and only the Americans showed up in sari while the South Asians were wearing jeans or other American clothes. Likewise, in our household it is usually me that encourages P to keep up with different festival traditions (“Hey! It’s Lakshmi Puja… let’s light diya candles and draw Lakshmi feet on the floor!”) because I find these traditions interesting, different and fun, and I want to learn about them myself so I can explain to potential children someday what the different festivals are all about, and the stories behind them, and I want to take part in the cultural experience too.

In my opinion, when you are living in a dominant culture (the US for us), you have to work harder at accentuating the non-dominant culture if you want to keep a balance. If you don’t go out of your way to acknowledge the passing of events, or cultural traditions, it is easier for non-dominant cultural processes to get lost in the mix of daily life. It doesn’t mean you have to wear salwaar kameez everyday and tikka around town and speak in a fake South Asian accent like the woman in the video, but it’s okay to go to your significant other’s cousin’s wedding in a sari if you want to, why not?

So I just wanted to take a moment– maybe start a discussion about where others might see these types of things in their own lives, perhaps laugh at ourselves a little (yeah—I like getting dressed up in Nepali dress when I get the chance for weddings and parties, even if I have to encourage my neighbors to do so too so I don’t look a little silly), and remember that being in an intercultural relationship is all about compromise and finding the right balance.

The Gori Blogging Meetup

Prior to this weekend, I’m not sure if I have ever met someone in person that I first got to know exclusively online. Times, they are a’changin’…

A few months ago, one of the blogs I really enjoy (Gori Girl) suggested a meetup in her metro-area if people were going to be around. Unfortunately I live quite a distance away, and was unable to attend, but offered that P had a conference in that same area in April, and perhaps we could do another meetup then. April came around, and I reminded about the conference, and GG was happy to facilitate another meet up, and I took advantage of a long weekend from work to finally meet some of the people I’ve gotten to know from the blogging world in real life.

I’m not going to lie, even if it makes me sound like a dork, I was excited– dare I say, even a little nervous, to meet a group from the blogging community in person. The day of the meetup I felt like I was preparing for a blind date. I enjoy reading and interacting with these women online, and I couldn’t help but think, what if they meet me in person and think I’m weird? Or I am nothing like they expected, and that changes the relationship? I really value this online community, and I don’t want to do something to alienate myself from a group I’ve come to really look forward to interacting with.

I wanted P to come with me and meet some of the characters that I talk about from the blogosphere. He has been really supportive of my blogging hobby, and thinks that it is interesting that I have found a creative outlet and a way to connect with other like-minded people, but I’m sure deep down he probably also finds it all a teeny-weenie bit weird, or at least amusing. As I tried to talk him into joining me he joked, “But you don’t really know these people…” while I argued, “But I do! I have learned all sorts of personal details about their lives, sometimes I feel like I know them better than people I actually know in person!” Unfortunately the meetup was opposite a lecture by Jane Goodall at his conference, and he didn’t make it to the meetup spot until about 10 minutes after everyone left.

So after the giddy school girl excitement of the meet up anticipation, the time finally came, and I arrived at the meetup spot a few minutes after the appointed time. I was the fourth person to arrive: GG was sitting with an Indian work friend, and another blogger (who recently started writing, but whose blog is definitely worth checking out: Big Bad Blonde Bahu) was there. As we chatted more people began to arrive including GG’s husband Aditiya, and one of my favorite bloggers Gori Wife, with her Pakistani husband and young son (when she walked in I couldn’t resist the urge to jump up and give her a hug). All in all, I think about 7 or 8 people involved with the blogging community showed up, several with their husbands or partners, making the meetup group about 13.

The meetup was quite fun, as new people arrived we’d ask each other what our username was on GG’s site, if we blogged, what our blog was called,  and usually, “oh yeah, I know you, I follow your blog!” In some cases it was an opportunity to put a face to a name and story. Or to ask for details that might have been blurred out of stories for privacy reasons, or to ask for clarifications. Not personally knowing too many Gori (white girl)-Desi (South Asian) couples it was refreshing to socialize with others who can really “get” your personal back-story, and multicultural household situation.

Luckily, P will be down in the same general area for a summer research opportunity, so I’m looking forward to potentially meeting some of these great women (and their families) again.

After the meetup, I had dinner with a group of friends and I was bursting to share my “Gori social hour” experience and couldn’t help but tell my story again and again throughout the weekend when I met up with other friends. For instance, at the conference I saw an old neighbor who has since moved back to her native Canada to teach at a university and finish her research. “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve mentioned you and your blogging in my class” she said, after I told her about the meetup, “I think what you are doing is great. There is a lot of criticism out there that the idea of ‘community’ is dying out, and young people today are too disconnected… but this is an example of how communities are still thriving they just look very different. You don’t necessarily have a community like this in your backyard, but you found them using technology and the internet. Just because it is virtual doesn’t make it less of a community.”

And I agree. We are a community, and I’m glad to have it. Thanks for the fun meetup… I hope we get to do something like that again.

African Hare Krishna

What to write today? Perhaps a fun story? Here’s an “oldie” but a “goodie…”

First, a preface:

1) My dad had a good friend in high school who was very smart, had high ambitions, and never really thought about life not going his way. After graduating from college he applied for medical school, and for whatever reason, wasn’t accepted.

The friend was devastated. As a result he went on a cross-country road trip that ultimately led to him getting involved with some sort of “religious cult” out in California. He used to send all sorts of weird brainwashed-sounding letters back to my dad, and my dad’s friend’s family was really worried. Eventually they hired a private investigator to go out and bring the friend home—eventually kidnapping him from the supposed cult. However, when the family brought him back to New York, some of the cult members actually kidnapped him back, and it was a bit messy for a while. Eventually though, the friend got away and went on to lead a perfectly normal life (although he never did make it to medical school).

Anyway, I’d heard this story growing up and for some reason—maybe because I was interested in things my dad found unusual and didn’t understand—he always worried that I might end up like his friend if I wasn’t careful. Remember this, it’s important.

2) Prior to this story I’d known P about a year and a half. I hadn’t yet visited India or Nepal, and knew very little about Hinduism.

Okay, now fast-forward a few years to when I was in college. As I’ve alluded to before, my academic major allowed me to study abroad in France, Kenya and India. While I was in Kenya, P was able to finagle a research grant to join me in East Africa over the winter break to conduct comparative research on the environmental impacts of urbanization on rivers. The year before he had received a research grant to travel home to study the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, and he planned to compare this to the Nairobi River in Kenya as a thesis project.

Our university was quite small (everyone knew everyone else’s business), and apparently the faculty panel that reviewed the research requests had a discussion on whether or not it was ethical to fund P’s research since he was asking for money to travel to where his girlfriend was studying abroad. A close professor friend on the panel, who is probably more of a romantic than her feminist heart would admit, championed in our defense, “The research proposal is very strong in its own right… and who are we to stand in the way of true love?”

Kisumu is on the shore of Lake Victoria in western Kenya

Kisumu is on the shore of Lake Victoria in western Kenya

I was elated. I couldn’t wait until P arrived. For years it had been my dream to live and work in Africa, and after spending several months there, I was dying to share this new world with him. Over the Christmas holiday, when I knew Kenya was effectively shut down (at least for anything research or administratively oriented), I planned a whole trip for P and I “up-country” to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria.

I had a few friends who had conducted their internship in the city, and they gave me a list of recommended things to see and do, including visiting an orphanage where one of them had worked. I found a small guest house near the orphanage, off the beaten path of the city, down a red dirt road along the water.

We arrived by overnight bus (riding through the Rift Valley on the local bus was brutal, the road was completely pockmarked and rutted from the rainy season) and took a local taxi to our guest house. After settling in we decided to check out the neighborhood and find the orphanage. On our walk we ran into some local Kenyan kids with long vertical Vishnu markings on their foreheads and shortly thereafter a passenger van drove by with Hare Krishna information written on the side paneling.

“We had a Hare Krishna temple near my high school,” P said when the van passed, “they had a van like that too, and we all used to say that they used the van to kidnap you.” P said this very deadpan, as if he was very serious. I only learned later he was joking.

According to a Hare Krishna website the Kisumu orphanage, "houses children who are abandoned on the streets of Kenya. Here they are given food, shelter and education, and helped to end their glue-sniffing and drug-taking street days."

According to a Hare Krishna website the Kisumu Hare Krishna program, "houses children who are abandoned on the streets of Kenya. Here they are given food, shelter and education, and helped to end their glue-sniffing and drug-taking street days."

I knew close to nothing about the Hare Krishna movement, in fact, the only thing that I had heard was that some people believe it is a type of cult. I know people make arguments that are both pro-Hare Krishna and anti-Hare Krishna, so I won’t take an official stance, but at the time the cult association was the only exposure to the organization I had known. This knowledge, coupled with P’s sarcastic comment, and the old story of my dad’s friend, had me a bit on edge about the Hare Krishnas.

As the week wore on, P and I had a great time. We spent Christmas eve and day volunteering at the orphanage, we went out on an early morning canoe ride in the lake and saw hippos up-close. We met with a friend’s brother in a tiny local (tasty) hole-in-the-wall fish place, and had dinner at his house with his whole family. It was fun.

P on a boda boda

P on a boda boda

Then the time came to return to Nairobi. We met some of the orphanage kids on the road to say good bye before trying to hitch a ride on a boda boda (bicycle taxi) back to town to catch the bus. The kids were trying to help us haggle but the boda boda drivers wouldn’t budge even though the kids and I knew we were being “grossly overcharged.” We were haggling over about 50 cents, but it was the principal of the thing, and eventually we decided to try our luck and started walking towards town. We were really early for the bus anyway, since we planned to find something to eat before heading out on the long journey back to Nairobi.

As we walked, the notorious Hare Krishna van (which we had passed on numerous occasions during the week) started rumbling down the dirt road. The kids started jumping and waving and one kid yelled, “You are lucky! The van will take you to the city for free!”

The van responded to the kids’ arm flailing and slowly pulled to the side of the road a few feet in front of us. There were two men and a woman sitting in the front, and they rolled down the passenger window, “need a lift?”

P, knowing my habit (challenge?) of traveling cheaply, figured this fit the mold… free trip to town, you can’t get more cheap than that… so he opened the van door and climbed in with a big grin on his face. My stomach sank; didn’t these people belong to a cult? What if something happens to us? Yet by this time everyone was looking at me, so I caved and stepped into the van.

Idi Amin famously threw out all people of South Asian and European descent from Uganda during his murderous and ethnocentric regime

Idi Amin (depicted in the movie "The Last King of Scotland") famously threw out all people of South Asian and European descent from Uganda during his murderous and ethnocentric regime

The driver of the van was Colombian and the two passengers were a married couple, the man was from Bolivia and the woman was a Ugandan of Indian descent whose family was thrown out of the country during the Idi Amin era. The couple explained that they had come to visit East Africa so the woman could “retrace her roots” and show her husband her home country. They were also using the trip as an opportunity to connected with Hare Krishna communities in the area.

The Hare Krishna crew seemed very interested in P, particularly after he mentioned he was from Kathmandu. The Colombian driver said he had worked at the Hare Krishna posting near P’s old high school, and the two bonded over shared geographical knowledge. As the van neared the bus depot the driver asked, “you must be hungry, have you eaten yet today?”

I was just about to say that we were fine when P spoke up, “no, actually we haven’t eaten yet. We were planning to find something while waiting for the bus.”

“We can’t have you travel hungry! Please, join us for breakfast!” the driver said.

“Yeah! Sure!” P said, the big grin popping back on his face. I’m sure he thought, more free stuff… alright!

The driver turned the van around and started driving out of the city. That’s when my panic level began to rise. I looked at P concerned, but he seemed oblivious, no doubt already thinking about food.

On the outskirts of the city the van approached a gated compound. A security guard let the van through, and we parked in the driveway of a large secluded mansion. I heard the front gate slam shut and my heart started racing. This is it! I thought, My dad was right… I’m never going to get out of this… I’m going to be brainwashed by a cult, and lost in Africa forever! I’ll never see my family again!

The Colombian driver rang the bell and a Kenyan maid opened the door, dressed in a sari. Although no more unusual than a white American in a sari, I’d never seen an African in a sari before, and it added to the mystic of the compound, and my mounting dread. They are all dressing alike… it must be a cult! The house was decorated with lots of South Asian iconography including large statues and carvings of gods and goddesses. Everything seemed very exotic and different, particularly from the largely Christian Kenyan culture I had been living in for the past several months. In my terrified mind it all added up, this had to be a cult.

The driver encouraged us to sit in a parlor area, and the maid was sent to get us some drinks. I frantically looked around the room assessing my surroundings and trying to make sense of it, looking for an escape route, trying to figure out what would be used to brainwash me.

A few minutes later, the maid brought in a tray of glasses filled with a thick looking green liquid. When I was handed a glass I quickly took a whiff, trying to detect if it was safe to drink. I was told it was some sort of wheat germ smoothie. Was this going to drug me? I watched as the others were served and the driver took a large gulp. P had a sip and he looked fine. I decided to just hold it and pretend to drink.

The driver and couple asked us many questions. What were we doing in Kenya? How long were we staying? What brought us to Kisumu? They continued to take an interest in P, especially when he talked about his research. I started making excuses about time, and catching the bus, but they courteously brushed aside my concerns.

Blowing the conch shell...

Blowing the conch shell...

Suddenly a conch shell horn sounded in another room and the the couple quickly stood up and walked towards the sound while the driver paused to invite us to worship with them.

Aha! This is how they will do it! They’ll brainwash us while “worshiping.” Now I’m done for! I wanted to grab P and run, but he didn’t seem concerned at all.

Life sized Radha and Krishna statues

An example of life sized Krishna and Radha statues

Dumbly, I followed and we turned a corner into a large room made up like a temple with two life-sized Krishna and Radha statues. The entire wall was meticulously decorated in fabric and flowers, and the statues sat on large wall-length altars. The gods were elaborately dressed in shiny clothes and garlanded with fresh flowers. I’d never in my life (up  to that point) seen anything like it. Already scared out of my mind, I thought for sure that this legitimized my fear.

Had I been to India before  this story took place, or visited a temple with P–even an American Hindu temple–or if I knew more about Hinduism at the time, I’m sure I would not have found the room so threatening. Yet all I could think of was my dad’s cult prediction.

The driver explained that Hare Krishnas worshiped through music and handed each of us a small musical instrument. I received a pair of wood blocks and P was given finger cymbals.

At this point I was shooting death glares at P, who seemed totally unaffected by the situation. The music started and he bobbed his head back and forth to the music, ting-tinging the little cymbals to the beat, happy as a clam.

How can he be so oblivious?? My mind screamed, trying to telepathically send him messages, P we need to get out of here NOW and save ourselves!!!

Example of a man doing aarti for puja with the platter of incense and candle

Example of a man doing aarti for puja with the platter of incense and candle, a perfectly normal aspect of Hindu worship

Then the caretaker of the house, an Indian woman dressed in a starched cotton sari, entered the room with a shiny metallic platter carrying incense, a candle and other items for the aarti. During the music and chanting, she stood in front of the statues with the platter, rotating it in circles in front of the gods.

I was feeling queasy with fear and internally freaking out. I wasn’t sure what was going to brainwash me, but I was absolutely… absolutely… sure that it was going to happen. Would it be the music? The exotic smelling incense? The rhythmic chanting? Would I ever see the light of day again???

The music seemingly continued on forever. I kept making exaggerated gestures to check my watch to show how impatient I was to catch the bus while also trying to catch P’s attention, and hum something in my head to counteract the alleged brainwashing. Its hard to think of another time that I had ever been so scared.

Yet finally the music stopped, and miraculously I still had control over my own mind. I can’t help but admit that I was both very surprised, and extremely relieved. The driver asked if we enjoyed the worship and I began reiterating the fact that we had tickets for the bus and had to get going.

The Ugandan woman asked, “are the buses really on time here?” to which the driver answered, “never…” but I insisted, “the one time you count on their tardiness is the one time the bus is ready to go at the correct time… we really really need to get there.”

“But we can’t let you leave without breakfast!!” the driver insisted.

“No, trust me, we are fine. We really need to go. I’m not even hungry… P, are you hungry?” I said, hoping he would get the hint.

“Actually, I am still kind of hungry.” P said.

ARE YOU KIDDING ME??!!

The Indian caretaker led us to her dining room, which had been laid out with a full Gujarati meal for breakfast. The driver insisted we sit. I sat down and started shoveling food into my mouth at a tremendous speed, insisting over and over, in-between bites and gulps for air, that we had to go, we had to make the bus, we were already late. I was hoping the more I insisted, and the faster I ate, the quicker we could get out of there.

Meanwhile, P was savoring the food. He looked utterly satisfied, “I haven’t eaten some of this stuff in years! Delicious!” he kept repeating, taking a second helping, and cleaning his plate.

“Please, we have to go!” I continued to beg.

“You can’t go without snacks for your journey” the Indian caretaker said, and asked the maid to go in the kitchen and pack some food.

“No really, its fine.” I pleaded.

“Its no trouble” the woman insisted.

Finally, FINALLY, the maid entered with our packed food, and the Colombian driver stood up to take us out the door. P thanked everyone and happily followed the driver, while I grumbled a quick thanks and scurried after them.

It’s hard to describe the relief I felt to walk through the front door, and feel the warm African sun on my face. To breathe in the earthy air of the garden, and to hear the birds chirping in the trees. When I went in that house, I never expected to exit, not like this.

We climbed into the van, and the driver turned the key. We started back towards the city while he continued to chat with P, “when you get back to Nairobi you should check out our temple there, it’s quite impressive!”

The van made it to the bus depot moments before our bus was ready to depart the station, and  P and I were the last two to scramble on-board. P waved goodbye, and we took our seats at the front. I watched the Colombian drive away, and when he was out of sight I turned to P and wacked him repeatedly on the shoulder…

“What… were… you… THINKING??!!??” I exploded, “You could have gotten us KILLED!!”

“What??” he looked at me completely bewildered, “what the heck are you talking about??”

Me: “Aren’t they a cult?”

P: “I don’t think so.”

Me: “Seriously?? What about all that, ‘oh there goes the kidnapping van’ stuff?”

P: “That was just a joke. Why are you freaking out?”

Me: “Because I have been scared out of my mind for the last hour and a half!” and I explained my dad’s cult story.

P looked at me for a moment and couldn’t help but let out a sympathetic laugh, “ohhhh… you must have been so scared in there… I had no idea!” Born and raised a Hindu, everything in the house seemed quite normal, or at least not scary. Then he opened up the snack bag, and pulled out the crunchy fried munchies they gave us, “alright! I haven’t had these since the last time I was home!”

So, the moral of the story is: my first interaction with a form of Hinduism thoroughly freaked me out. However, I’ve learned so much since then, and I think I would have handled the situation a lot better if it had happened today. Looking back, everyone was actually very nice, and I now find the story amusing and the situation comical since I know it has a happy ending.

Meanwhile… try to communicate with your partner better than just shooting him “death glares” from across the room… because maybe they can help explain the situation if they actually know what you are thinking.

And lastly, never listen to cult stories from your dad as a kid. It will scar you for life.

Mo:mo

I don’t think anyone can be in an intercultural relationship–wait, no scratch that, I don’t think anyone could be friends–wait, scratch that too… I don’t think anyone can ever know in life a Nepali person and not have tried momos. Ohhhh, my mouth waters just thinking about them.

Tray of freshly made potato momos... folding momos is practically an art form, and everyone has their own style. This is mine... so at least if I can't speak Nepali, at least i have beautiful momos :)

Tray of freshly folded, but not yet steamed, potato momos... folding momos is practically an art form, and everyone has their own style. This is mine... so at least if I can't speak Nepali, I can earn some respect from beautiful momos

What the heck is a momo? 1) It’s delicious, 2) you can’t just eat momos by yourself…its a community oriented food–its easier to have a momo party and have your guests help with assembly (plus its more fun that way too!), and 3) its probably one of the most popular dishes in Nepal. According to my handy dandy Nepali cookbook, momos are “bite sized dumplings, filled with meat or vegetables, usually steamed, though they are sometimes fried.”

The cookbook goes on to describe their history, “The origin of momo is uncertain. Because this dish is popular among the Newar community of Kathmandu valley, one prevalent belief is that Newari traders brought them from Tibet. They modified the dish with local ingredients, such as water buffalo meat, and gave the dish a Nepali name. Others believe the dish was introduced to Nepali cuisine by Tibetans who settled in the mountains of Nepal.”

Yeah... I screenshot it...

Yeah... I screenshot it...

Wherever the origin, one thing is certain, I’ve never met a Nepali that wasn’t crazy about momos. In fact, if you do a search of Facebook you will find no fewer than seven groups/fanpages devoted to momos… one with 18,095 fans! Another one has nearly 3,500. When I typed in “chicken curry” it only had 1,600 fans. I think the facts speak for themselves…

As I mentioned, one thing that is particularly fun about momos is that it is a great food to eat when you are having a party. When we first moved, there used to be Friday night momo gatherings in the neighborhood all the time, and when P’s brother and cousins come to visit it makes for a fun and filling dinner. Frequently we have momos when we visit friends’ houses, and our friend S (remember him? P’s roommate from high school and the guy who went to college with him before he transfered over to me?) makes such amazingly spicy and delicious momos that I fear he might have ruined my momo palate for eating the real deal in Nepal.

I was in northern India a few years ago, and I was able to get momos at certain restaurants, particularly in places with larger Tibetan and Nepali populations like Bodhgaya, Dharmsala, and some places in Uttaranchal, but 95% of my experience  has been with homemade momos in the US. I remember the momos in Bodhgaya and Dharmsala tasting really good, but nothing compared to the momos that we usually make at my house, let alone the out-of-this-world momos that S makes. So when P and I decided to go to Nepal for S’s wedding in June I was excited to taste Nepali momos at the epicenter of momo-dom. Unfortunately I was disappointed.

I should quickly explain before someone comes along and assaults me over this… I am a vegetarian, and I usually make a spicy potato, peas, garlic, onion filled momo (almost like a samosa filling). Most of the vegetable momos that I found in Kathmandu and Solukhumbu barely had any spice and were usually filled with cabbage. However I’ve been told that meat momos are superior and particularly delicious in Nepal. While I hesitate to acknowledge that meat tastes better, I’ve never tried it myself, I bet if going for “authenticity” I can see why P and friends enjoy a plate of momos from back home. Here in the US, they make momos with ground turkey, chicken, or pork, but back home you could have it with water buffalo (“buff” momo are quite popular), yak, or goat in addition to the ubiquitous chicken.

folding momos...

folding momos...

Anyway, I digress as usual… shall we consult the cookbook to get back to topic? Ah, yes… “family and friends often gather to spend a joyful, leisurely time preparing momos… though momo shaping is an art, requiring patience, even young children can learn to enjoy the job.” Momo gatherings are fun because everyone gets together, has to sit on the floor with table cloth or newspapers spread underneath, take a wrapper (we use wonton wrappers from the Vietnamese grocery store down the street), wet the edges, put a spoon full of momo filling, fold, and stick in the queue for steaming. Folding is pretty funny… people have their own style… some people wrap them in the half moon style that I favor (see above), other people make the circular style (like in this video), some make a pocket or pouch, and some make weird amoeba shapes that basically use any means necessary to get the wrapper closed (if this is you, don’t worry… I was definitely once at that stage!) When the momos are steamed sometimes you can tell whose handy work you are eating, and dinner conversation flows from there.

At the time of writing this one of our neighbors had borrowed our steamer, so this is actually a picture from the internet, but it looks something like this...

At the time of writing this post one of our neighbors had borrowed our steamer, so this is actually a picture from the internet, but ours looks something like this...

When we were in college we used to steam momos by wrapping the top of a large pot of boiling water with aluminum foil covered in fork-hole-punches. We would place the momos on the aluminum foil then cover with a deep pot lid to help the steaming process… and unfortunately the number of momos we could steam at one time was very small. Now we have an industrial sized metal momo steamer bought from Chinatown… and it makes a world of difference… However it still takes several rounds of steaming to cook all the momos, because we usually make at least 200. I remember in India, some of the Americans I was with were really impressed when they ate 8 or 9 momos… I would merely scoff… our crew could easily eat 20 a piece.

Eating momos has become almost something of a litmus test. When our friend started dating a girl last year we made momos one night and discovered it was her first time eating them. We joked that if she didn’t like them, then the relationship might be in jeopardy. Meanwhile my middle sister is not a fan of momos (the only person I have thus far met who has eaten one and not liked it very much, mostly because of a dislike of onions) and so I’m pretty darn sure she won’t follow in her big sister’s footsteps and marry a Nepali herself.

So at the end of the day… if you know a Nepali and you have not yet been invited to the inevitable momo party, make sure to ask about it. Momos are a must…

More mo:mo fun!

  • This is a good video on the basic idea of how to make momo. We wouldn’t use beef at our house; instead P would use ground chicken/turkey or pork and I’d use veggies, but this is a good starting point!
  • I was looking for an easy-to-hyperlink veg momo recipe, but everything I was finding looked more complicated than necessary. So I started a recipe section. See my “Potato Veg Momo” recipe HERE
  • One last pearl of wisdom from my cookbook, “freshly steamed momos taste best served piping hot straight from the steamer. If they are served as a meal, six to eight are a good serving [I guess my friends and I must be pigs…] A meat-filled momo has to be eaten whole, as the flavorful juice in its steamed pocket will dribble out if it is broken. Though a well-seasoned juicy momo does not really need any condiments, it is traditionally accompanied by freshly made achar.” (P and I beg to differ on that last note… one of the best aspects of momo is the spicy achar– see recipe HERE!!)

Welcome…

Manu and I at a wedding in Nepal

P and I at a wedding in Nepal

I am relatively new to blogging… I’ve been a reader and a commenter for a while, but I hesitated for quite some time before I decided to take the plunge.

I originally turned to the internet because I wanted some advice. Last summer my partner of 6 years—let’s call him P—his family came to visit us in the US for five weeks. His aunt, mother, father, brother and sometimes his cousin stayed with us in our small 2 bedroom apartment. I had a great time getting to know them better, but I also felt exhausted and a bit stressed out by the situation. I felt like I didn’t really have anyone to talk or relate to about it.

Meanwhile, I have had an ongoing “discussion” (read: on-again, off-again fight) with my mother about my interest and participation in many aspects of Nepali culture, and her fear that I am abandoning my “American-ness” and my culture for P’s.

Out of frustration and curiosity I started searching the web… surely there were multitudes of people out there in similar situations. What did they do? How did they cope? What compromises did they make and what suggestions did they have?

At first I wasn’t finding anything useful. Then I stumbled upon a great blog on intercultural relationships—Gori Girl—which promptly launched me into the blogosphere. Becoming more active on GG’s blog and forum made me feel like I was part of a community, even if it was purely an online one.

However it seemed that many of the commenters on her site, as well as other blogs that I googled were about relationships between Indians and westerners. Although the information was useful and the stories great to hear, I also wanted something a little more. Eventually I was excited to start reading a blog made by a woman who married a Pakistani man because at least it was a bit of a different perspective, but I wasn’t  finding anything out there written about Nepal and households consisting of an American and a Nepali.

Yes, I know… Nepal’s culture is similar in many ways to certain cultural groups in India… and yes, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc, all fall under the South Asian umbrella, but I felt there was certainly room out there for an intercultural blog with a slightly different perspective.

So here I am. For better or for worse.

As a disclaimer (to paraphrase/steal a line from Gori Girl-I hope she doesn’t mind!): South Asia is a large place, with a number of different religions, ethnicities, and languages. I’ve had significant contact with several friends and families from certain types of backgrounds from specific regions (mostly Kathmandu and Chitwan area) of Nepal. But, generally, I have my own experiences with my network of Nepali friends and family, and these experiences might be totally different from yours. Hopefully, though, this will be a place where I can share my thoughts, and others can share theirs.

So let me be the first to officially welcome you to the launch of “Musings from an American-Nepali Household.”