Learning, Remembering, and Continuing

Dear Readers,

These past days have been filled with the magic that new experiences bring coupled with the warmth that comes with familiarity. Last week, my friend Dhan Subedi traveled to Nepal for his wedding ceremony. Dhan’s father, Prem, was my first Nepalese friend. About four years ago Prem was my student in the class I helped out in teaching adult refugees English. Prem and his family welcomed me into their home and sparked new life in me, life that was missing as this was during the difficult recovery time of my head injury. Who would have thought that just four years later I would be halfway across the world with his son attending his wedding as his “didi”, elder sister?

Dhan’s wedding was beautiful—the colors, the flowers, the people, the music, the dancing. I was greeted with smiles and in my heart I felt a piece of home was with me during this time; Dhan’s presence comforted me with memories of the past, memories of my family and his family. As I think back to my first experiences with Dhan’s family, I am reminded of the lessons I learned—lessons of reciprocation, giving and receiving, learning and teaching. My life circumstances at this time had felt difficult; I felt lost and helpless at points. However, it was in these circumstances that life offered me a lesson if I was open to learning. I learned that everyone and every circumstance can be my teacher if I am willing to learn. I am grateful for this lesson and for every moment that I am reminded of it.

Dhan’s wedding was in Hetauda, the village where his wife is from. In the Hindu culture, it is customary for the groom and his family members to travel to the bride’s home for the ceremony. Following this, the bride accompanies the groom and his family members back to the home of the groom. The transit from Kathmandu to Hetauda took about six hours. Traveling by bus, I was reminded every so often of the current political situation in Nepal. The blockade of the Indian border has surpassed the 100-day mark. Every day it is becoming increasingly difficult to find not only petroleum, diesel, cooking oil, and gas, but now the crisis has spread to other commodities such as sugar, salt, and medicine. Buses traveling the opposite way of ours showed signs of this as their front windows had cracks or were completely shattered due to the protests in the Terai region lying in the south of the country next to India. It is a situation that continues to deter everyday life, a situation that cannot be ignored, but somehow persists.

This picture tells the story of the desperation, the helplessness, of the situation. A woman standing at the closed gates of a gas station. I wonder what is in her mind, what does she think at this moment? Nepal is facing a crisis that the world is ignoring, that the region is ignoring, that the Nepalese government is ignoring. What are the people to do? I have heard the Nepalese characterized as resilient, but I am hesitant to use this word. I think it may be better to characterize them as flexible, not easily broken. Internally, this country faces problems often; it is circumstances that have taught these people to be resourceful, to adapt, to be flexible. In this flexibility, their ability to find joy teaches me and inspires me.

In the midst of this political chaos, I find joy sparkling in my interactions with the people here. As I entered the area for Dhan’s wedding, a reaction occurred that is similar to my every day experiences here. Everyone was staring at me—I am foreigner in a land of people who I do not look like; however, in this land, my foreignness is not met with hostility, rather it is met with curiosity. I sat next to the man in the photo above and when he realized I could communicate with him, his face lit up with excitement. I learned that his granddaughter was now living in America; he was overjoyed to meet someone from the country that she is now residing in. I believe my presence offered him some closeness to his granddaughter for him, a feeling of familiarity, of warmth.

As I was brought to the dining area, this man brought me extra food and dessert—an action that, in Nepal, suggests feelings of caring and love for the recipient. It is in these actions that I am beginning to explore the themes of food in culture—what does food represent? What does cooking for a person mean in a particular culture? In Nepal, I believe I am beginning to understand that food is a representation of love, a welcoming gesture. I walk into a person’s home and I am instantly offered a cup of tea, some biscuits, a meal. Food is communal here; it is a tradition that family shares together, that friends share together. I rarely see a person cook for only him or herself here—a contrast that I am aware of through means of comparison to the culture I am familiar with.

As I mentioned before, my difference here is often met with curiosity. While at the wedding, I slowly became aware of a set of eyes following my every move. These eyes belonged to a child dressed in tattered clothing; eyes that glimmered with curiosity at this foreign person in front of her. She was accompanied by a few other children that followed me around at a distance as I partook in the wedding ceremony. Each time my eyes caught hers, smiles were exchanged just before her shyness pulled her feet to go the other direction. Finally I was able to talk to this little girl and in this exchange, her shyness began to disappear. The appearance of these children quickly distinguished them from the glittery dresses of the wedding guests; however it was this time I had with the children that brought laughter to my face and warmed my heart. Feelings that transitioned into sadness when it became time to depart. I presented my new friend with a bangle from my wrist and a flower I had been given as this was all I had to give—gifts that I hoped would represent the joy she had given to me throughout the day.

In the photos above, you will see the members of Dhan’s family that welcomed me into their homes, that cooked for me, that cared for me. They did not know me before I arrived, however, I was treated as a member of the family; I was treated as Dhan’s sister. Family relations are so important here; however, it is a different conception of family than I am accustomed to. Family is not only designated to blood relations; the festival called “Bhai Tika” that I wrote to you about before is an occasion in which placing the “tika” on the other person’s forehead transforms you into the relative of that person, a relation that is not merely ceremonial, but is taken very seriously.

The woman in the yellow saree pictured above helped me to dress in the red saree that you see me in—a dress that is comprised of one very long piece of cloth, folded in various ways and fastened with safety pins. It is a complex process. While wearing a saree, I often feel a bit uneasy about the situation. I wonder: Am I imposing in a culture that is not mine? Am I mocking this culture by wearing their dress as an outsider? However, as quickly as these thoughts appear in my mind, they are distinguished by the people around me. As they see a new person partaking in their culture with eagerness to learn and to understand, their eyes sparkle with new light, smiles whisk across their faces. It is these situations that make me wonder about external identity markers—markers that show the outside world the identity we choose to present. This became more apparent when I spent some time with my trekking guide’s family the day after the wedding.

This family is part of the Buddhist culture in Nepal, more specifically, they are Sherpa people. Last names here represent a person’s caste. When I tell a person my name here, I am often asked to also tell my caste. My response that there is no caste system in America is often met with looks of confusion as this is an ancient system of life that has been accepted for a very long time and only recently has begun to be questioned by newer generations.

In the photo above, you see me dressed in the traditional dress of not only Sherpa people, but many of the people with Tibetan roots here in Nepal. From an outside glance, Nepalese people may seem not to differ very much from each other; however, in spending just under two months here, I am learning every day just how different each section of the society is, and the associated power that accompanies these differences. As photos were clicked of me and the younger girls of the family, I was told by one of the older members the merits of the Sherpa dress in comparison to the Hindu traditional dress of the saree. It’s interesting how comparison is such a common thought process across cultures, creating ingroups and outgroups, feelings of us versus them. This theme of external identity markers is something that I continue to explore each day.

As for now, I would like to thank you for listening to my stories.  Today I find myself in the district of Sarlahi–a district that lies in the Terai region, where the political agitation is concentrated.  I would like to urge you not to worry as I am with Nepalese friends.  During this month I will be fulfilling my commitment to help out in my friend’s school.  After a long day of traveling, we have arrived.  I am excited to experience this new part of Nepal with the comfort of good friends who will keep me safe amongst the chaos that this blockade has been creating.

Until next time,

Jennifer