Tag Archives: Taboo

Co-Habitation

I read a few articles recently which prompted me to write about a topic that I was hesitant to post on at first… but then I figured, what the heck, I’m all about confronting taboo subjects on this blog if need be…

A few years ago my eldest cousin married an Australian man. At the wedding one of my more conservative aunts was standing with me, talking to the groom about how Australian culture was different from US culture. The groom mentioned that in Australia it was pretty common for people who are dating to live together before marriage and my aunt cut him off saying, “I’m so glad you decided to follow our culture and not do that.” Knowing full well I was standing right next to her, and knowing full well that P and I were living together. Slam. (I think the “culture” she was referring to was religious Catholic).

Even though “American culture” is supposed to be a lot more open in regards to people living together before marriage (look at the messages we receive through television and movies), in my family I think it still makes people a little uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it is a Catholic thing or what, but P and I have never had a visit from my aunts, uncles, cousins, or grandmother, even if they are relatively close by visiting others or vacationing, and I can’t help but wonder if they are uncomfortable (even after 4 years) that we are living together. When my cheeky little cousins, who are getting to an age where they can figure stuff out but aren’t afraid to blurt out the obvious, say, “Are you two roommates? Do you live together?” my aunts hush them up like it is some sort of taboo. Luckily my immediate family (sisters, mom, dad) aren’t so conservative in this regard, but it is one reason in particular that I’m excited to get married… so that people don’t have to be uncomfortable and awkward. (Although interestingly, our Nepali friends assume my family must be fine with the living situation since I’m American, and Americans “do that kind of thing”).

Meanwhile, P’s family (at least his immediate family, I’m still just a “friend” to anyone living outside of the main house), although probably not overly happy that we live together and are not married yet, have been surprisingly okay with our living situation. While P was doing his master’s degree at a school nearby to where I grew up, P made it sound like he had his own place and I was just around a lot. Perhaps it sounded a little suspicious, but it wasn’t unreasonable, my hometown was just down the road. Yet when P decided to move to a different state and I tagged along, I’m sure it all “clicked” for the family back home. Instead of outright saying, “Mamu, Daddy, C and I are living together” he said, “C is looking for a job, and while she looks she is keeping me company at my new place. We aren’t sure yet where she will be.” At that point P’s dad said, “I hope that she finds work near where you are studying, otherwise it will be really sad.” I guess that was convoluted South Asian speak for, “We know what you are trying to say, and we think it is better that you stay together and support each other.”

So they knew we were living together, but it is one thing to know something, and another to see it. I wasn’t sure how they were going to react when his family (mom, dad, aunt) came to live with us for part of the summer in 2008. P and I have a two bedroom apartment—one room we share, and one with a single bed that is more of an “office with guest space.” Before the parents arrived there was a debate about whether or not we should make it look like I lived in one room and he lived in the other. The reality is, parents aren’t stupid, they knew we weren’t “just roommates” so there was no point in putting on a charade.

I wasn’t sure what the expectation was going to be that first night when they arrived and everyone was ready to settle down for bed. We had decided to put P’s parents (on one mattress) and brother (on another) in our room and P’s aunt and her daughter in the “office” room. That left P and I outside in the living room. We pondered, should we sleep on the futon together or should he sleep on one couch and I sleep on the other? Luckily everyone was too tired from traveling to care (or perhaps practiced a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation) and after everyone went to bed we slept on the futon. Since the older generation was up by 4am the next day, and the living room was already bustling before we got up, everyone knew where everyone slept and there was no discussion beyond that. Ice broken, moving on.

When we went to Nepal in 2009, again, I wasn’t sure what would happen. Sure, J Phupu, Mamu and P’s dad all knew the living situation, but would things be different around P’s grandfather and younger cousin? Again that first night we were exhausted from travel, and P’s dad directed us to his room. No questions asked, we were put together in the same place. Ice broken, no drama.

Actually the funny thing is… of all these various sleeping arrangements, the one that bothered P’s family the most was when a friend came over to P’s KTM house. Before our friends’ S and R’s wedding, S’s family was in Chitwan arranging wedding details, and S was alone in KTM. Rather than stay at a lonely apartment, counting down the days to the ceremony we invited him to stay a few days at P’s place. Amongst our friends in the US it is not unusual for a bunch of guests to stay overnight after a dinner party or for the weekend, and often a whole bunch of us (guys and girls alike) wind up sleeping on couches, air mattresses, futons, or on the floor, so when S stayed over all three of us slept on mattresses on the floor in the same room at P’s house. I didn’t sleep next to S, but I think P’s family found it odd that I slept in the same room on a nearby mattress with this other man there (even though the family has known S since high school).

When we were leaving Nepal and waiting at Tribhuvan Airport J Phupu was trying to tell me something in Nepali. I couldn’t really understand what she was talking about, and I figured (like usual) that I was misunderstanding the language, because why would she be saying… “Don’t… sleep with… other people…”

So I asked, “On the plane?” and she looked back at me startled, “Not on plane… not anytime.” This is now a running joke when we have guests… that I’m not allowed to sleep with other people, I should be segregated somewhere.

Anyway… here were a few articles that made me think about this—

I stumbled upon an interesting online magazine today called “South Asian Parenting” including a column called “No Sex in the City.” One article of interest in particular was… “Sex, Lies, and a Desi Take.”

Another was a posting from the same online magazine about an intercultural relationship including a conclusion on telling parents about “co-habitation” (“Out of Bounds“).

Next was a BBC article about a Tamil actress that had charges brought against her in the Supreme Court for saying it was “not fair of any educated youth to expect his wife to be a virgin.” As part of the defense judges noted that even Hindu gods Krishna and Radha were co-habituating lovers.

And lastly another BBC article about the “virginity industry” amongst some Muslim communities in the Middle East and Europe.

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A “Female” Taboo

A few days ago AS, N, P and I had dinner together and got into an interesting discussion about female menstruation taboos in Nepal. I don’t know if other people would be turned off by this topic, so I am warning you all outright in case you don’t want to read further.

Along the lines of the toilet paper discussion, sometimes things that are deemed to be really private are some of the things that I’m most curious about…

Anyway, I forget how our dinner topic began, but I remember a few years ago P and I somehow started talking about the taboo.

P was telling me about a time when he was young, and he noticed that for a few days each month his dad would do all the family cooking instead of his mom. As Little P, he couldn’t understand why this was happening, so one day he decided to ask at the dinner table. Uncharacteristically his grandfather shushed him up, saying it was an inappropriate topic of conversation, and something he shouldn’t be thinking about.

Little P was perplexed, he didn’t really understand. Eventually he found out that his father cooked for a few days each month because at those times his mother was menstruating and in traditional Nepali culture menstruating women are considered “unclean” and are not allowed to touch food that others will eat. Some strict families might not even serve the woman food in the same room as the rest of the family during these restricted times.

I found this both fascinating and terribly embarrassing. Particularly during my adolescence, I remember being very much a prude when it came to my body. I didn’t want people knowing what was happening to it, and I was horrified to think that if I had grown up in Nepal, it would basically be advertised to my entire family… even my brothers and father and grandfather, that I was having my period. Ick, who wants that?

It also made me really worried the first few times I spent extended periods of time with P’s family… long enough periods (excuse the pun) of time that they must have assumed I menstruated at some point. I fretted, what if they found out that I was? Would I be banished from the kitchen? Would I not be allowed to cook? Would it disgust them if I touched something that someone else would eat during this “taboo” time. I probably spent a bit too much time thinking about it, because nothing was ever said, and I never noticed P’s mom, aunt or female cousins separated out unless it was done in a way that was not very noticeable.

“If you really think about it, the taboo at one point probably made some sense,” P said, during our dinner conversation, “if you think about rural villages, especially a hundred or more years ago, it was difficult to have good hygiene in general, let alone at that specific time for women. Fresh water might be limited, material goods were limited, during that time of each month women probably were unclean because of the conditions they were surrounded by in addition to her own condition.”

The taboo unsurprisingly seems to be enforced much more in rural areas than in metropolitan areas. For example, one  development website states, “Menstrual taboos are deeply rooted in the culture of some Nepali castes… During menstruation, some girls and women are not allowed to enter a kitchen, touch water, attend religious functions, and in extreme cases, are not allowed to drink cow milk, eat fruit or sleep in a bed.” My guess is that as time goes on this taboo in the general Nepali public will probably slowly start to become less widely adhered to, perhaps more like an “old wives tale.”

But even if the taboo in the cities is less strict, a few of my female friends have explained how it affected them in their own childhood households. Every family is different, and different castes have different variations as well, but one common story seems to be that of confinement during a young woman’s first menstruation cycle. The girl is not able to see any of her male relatives or the sun, instead she has to stay in her room with the door and windows closed and shaded. Many of her female friends and relatives will probably come to visit to keep her company, but she is not allowed to do any religious activity during her period of confinement. The length of time seems to vary, around 12 days, although I think P’s younger cousin only did it for 3 or 4 (J Phupu didn’t want her missing out on too much school). Sometimes the young girl might be dressed up in a sari to be portrayed as more “womanly” during  this time.

I also think that it is around this time when Newars have a more elaborate custom for young girls, called the “Bael  Byah” or “bael fruit marriage,” but I’ll talk about that another time.

Anyway, the conversation was interesting, so I wanted to share. Since menstruation taboos isn’t a topic talked about everyday, does anyone else out there have any stories?