Lessons Nepal Taught Me

By Rhijuta D

It’s inevitable that when you go somewhere different, you see things in a different perspective and learn new things. Even if I had stayed put in one place, I probably would have learned some new things over a year and a half; I am the reflective type, learning various things from different experiences of my life and observing others around me.

Something drew me to Nepal, tore me away from the steady job, and I had to know what it was like to live in Nepal, not just visit. I had to be a Nepali and not just tell everyone that’s where I am from. Despite being broke now and living with my parents, It was one of the best decisions I have made in my life.

This experience managed to change a lot of my views. For example, I never thought that it was actually possible to survive a year with one suitcase full of clothes. Turns out it’s possible, some faded, some had holes and I had to buy one or two more, borrow some (specially at weddings!) but I got by. Below is a list of some serious lessons I learned:

1. You don’t always die alone

I always used to believe that you come to this world alone (unless you’re a twin) and leave alone. Then last year, both my grandparents passed away within a week of each other. Those of you, who want to be technical could say it’s not at the same time or together. But when I went to visit them a month before their deaths, my grandmother was sick, my grandfather was ‘physically’ healthier than her, he could move around. But sadly, he was depressed. It was obvious he was deeply upset that my grandmother may not survive this time.

They got married when they were children and had been married for over seventy-five years. Even if I were to get married tomorrow, I would have to live over 100 to have a marriage last that long. They didn’t have the kind of love our generation may instantly recognize as love. But the sadness in my grandfather eyes when my grandmother couldn’t get out of bed was nothing but deep love for the woman he had been with for over seven decades.

It was one of the saddest times for my family, yet it was also moving.

2. Family matters

Growing up in different countries and living away from my parents’ culture means that within our family, aside from the generation gap, there is a lot of culture clash. Growing up in a different culture also meant that we didn’t understand each other and we didn’t know how to communicate. This was widened by the fact that there was a lot of disapproval on how we decide to live our lives. For example, deciding when to get married, making a financial commitment like a mortgage, and the list goes on.

I have supportive parents but as Nepali parents go, they have a habit of comparing me to others. It’s either someone who earned more than me, someone who decided to get married or someone who has already bought a house. Every phone call lasts with my mother telling me about some guy who has had a PhD and is looking for a wife (and probably a residency). This meant fewer calls to home. The visits became more infrequent as I tried to balance my life with work, study, and living.

In the midst of living a very full life, I decided to quit my job, and leave. After the initial shock for my parents(why are you going to Nepal? What about your job? What are you going to do when you get back?), it got better with time. Perhaps my parents were worried that I had forgotten my roots and  was becoming more Western and they felt that it wouldn’t be bad if I were to visit the motherland. Or maybe they felt that their biggest fear (I assume, this is their biggest fear) of me settling down with a someone who is of a different cultural background would be slimmer. Or maybe they were proud that I was trying to go back to the country that they had left to provide a better future for my brother and I. Whatever it was, we started talking a lot more, not all of our conversation (although there were some) involved me finding a man. Maybe they gave up or they actually started accepting the fact that I am an adult.

Being in Nepal, I understood about the importance of family. And this family bond isn’t just limited to your immediate family. It includes your extended family, cousins, aunts, uncles, and sometimes people that you’ve never met before. These people are also there to celebrate your happy occasions and provide support during difficult times. Life was just a bit easier with all that family around. It was nice to observe the similarities between yourself and your relatives because it can sometimes explained why you are the way you are.

Since coming back to England, I am closer to my family. I still get told that I should get married but at least  for now I can be honest with them about how I would like my wedding to be. I don’t want a long wedding ceremony and  I don’t want to waste money on throwing multiple receptions but I still want a pretty outfit!

3. You don’t have to be rich to give

This section is dedicated to my maiju, mama and bainis in Achham.

We aren’t related by blood, we aren’t related at all. They are a distant relative of my friend’s. When my friend was working in Achham she was staying with them. So when I decided to visit her, I was welcomed into their home.

Achham is one of the far-western districts of Nepal, which can be reached only by a road from Dhangadi. It is one of the poorest districts in the country yet with one of the most generous people. The generosity and hospitality I received there would be very hard to beat. Most people didn’t have much money. I felt embarrassed to talk about how much money I used to get paid and how much money I would pay as rent in London. I was significantly rich compared to the people there. However, I would have never welcomed someone I barely knew in my house and fed them twice a day for a month. I don’t even know if I would be able to do that even to someone I know well.

I will never be able to repay the hospitality I received (I don’t think making mo:mo: with my awesome wrapping skills was enough)  but I will forever try to remember that you don’t need to have anything to be generous.

4. Money matters!

I used classify myself as someone who is not attached to material possessions. I wanted experiences out of life more than owning clothes, a house, shoes, cars or the latest gadgets. I guess I used to sacrifice buying new clothes to meet my friends or go on holidays (or even get a late night taxi rides home after a night out!)

Being in Nepal on just my savings and a Nepali salary (which was not much!), I soon realized I couldn’t afford to do the basic things like I used to do in London, like buying lattes. After running out of clothes (because they had holes, or I simply got bored of switching between 4 or 5 outfits over six months, or because I put on weight after my dal bhaat consumption), I realized I couldn’t afford clothes (turns out I am also a snob, who didn’t like super cheap clothes and I couldn’t afford pretty things they have on boutiques window). I had to get rid of my snobby ways to survive Nepal, especially Kathmandu, where there are so many temptations.

This is when I realized that I may not want a smartphone or designer labels but having money does matter if I want to have some of the things (like latte) from my life before (in London!). Or if I want to install a hot water geyser for winter. I know this not what many people worry about but Kathmandu is a more materialistic place than I thought and it has many temptations. There is a dual society there, where one group would never even dream of setting foot in any of the fancy restaurants in the city, and the other group, who have never set foot on public transportation. Whereas me, I lived in an apartment with no fridge, would get on Nepal Yatayat, but enjoyed a latte and a croissant regularly.

5. Opinions and advice

So I knew that people are very opinionated in Nepal from my previous trips but I had thought that this was only limited to family members. “Oh you’ve put on weight,” “Oh you’ve lost weight,” “Oh you have gone dark,” “Oh look how fair you are,” “Oh what short skirt you are wearing, you should dress more appropriately”. AND the big one, “oh you should get married.”

Now I have realized reasoning doesn’t help and explaining things doesn’t help. There is no point even trying to explain why it’s rude to make those comments. These opinions extended way beyond family members. It’s people you meet, people that barely know you, people you work with, and even people on the street. Everyone has an opinion about you and everyone else. I would hear, “oh that skirt is short (when I hadn’t shown any flesh!).” People I barely knew were interested in my love life and wanted to know why I had decided not to get married. I was asked by young people, ‘kaile bihe garney?’, and I thought this was just a generation thing. No matter how well I knew someone, they had a hard time understanding that this was my decision.

One of the most interesting encounters I had was when I was on the bus and I started talking to an older man. He asked me if I was single, asked me if I had a boyfriend,  and asked me if this was because I had a ‘physical problem’ or some roundabout way of asking me my sexual preference and then after all that, he still asked me if I would be interested in meeting his son.

6. Variety is the spice of life, spice definitely IS not.

I love Nepali food. Aside from ‘ghiraula ko tarkari’ and ‘mula ko tarkari’ and some daal that tastes funny, I eat anything. By anything, I mean any vegetarian dish. I have no interest in haggis type dishes of Nepali food. However, I did learn that chicken curry tastes a lot better when cooked with bones. And even though I cannot eat more than one piece of khasi, rice does taste good with khasi ko jhol.

However, eating it everyday, Nepali food was starting to get a bit too much. You can only order momo for lunch so many times. And as much as I loved bhat the first thing in the morning, occasionally I wanted some breakfast foods that I was used to. There were different varieties but the base ingredients were the same. Garlic, onion, spices, and tomatoes. All the flavors started to blend into one flavor, spicy. I started craving vegetables that tastes like vegetables, not with masala or garlic or overcooked.

I remember complaining to my friend that I wanted bland food and being so happy when my bhauju invited me for lunch. We had spaghetti with olive oil and parsley and a quiche. I started discovering places in Kathmandu that looks after your gastronomical needs, thanks to the expat culture. Soon enough, I had a regular breakfast place (thank you Cafe Soma) and a salad place (thank you Cafe Soma).

7. Taxi!!!

When I first arrived in Nepal, I was told not to get a taxi or walk by myself when it got dark. So I imagined taxi drivers to turn into some evil monsters as soon as it became nightfall. I avoided getting taxis by myself as much as possible, probably a good idea, as they do rip you off badly (It only took me few months before realizing I was paying more than a double for the same destination). When I had to get a taxi at night, there were several approaches I took:

1. I would get my male friend to be present as I was hailing the taxi

2. I would take my friend halfway on my route and then take the taxi to where I was going. She would call me to make sure I was okay  and sometimes she even took a photo of the number plate.

I was getting scared and paranoid for nothing. I still took my friend to bargain down the price but I started just talking to the taxi drivers (to let them know I am human, if they do have monstrous thoughts!). Surely these drivers rip you off but the notion that they will take advantage of you because you’re a woman is BS.

Kathmandu is a relatively safe place for a woman. Sure, you get cat called, you get sang at (this is a new concept for me), get leered at but when I walked home late at night by myself, no one did say anything to me, no one tried to make me feel uncomfortable. To be honest, walking home late at night, you are probably more likely to fall in a roadside construction ditch than to be harassed. However, it was sad to see that many girls get scared and feed into the notion that it’s unsafe so for people like us who don’t want to pay for overpriced taxis have to count the number of females on the street when walking home, or be on the phone to our friends. Saying all this, I don’t think I was brave enough to do this all the time, I have asked for numerous lifts on my friends’ bike, walked friends with me to my home through a scary little gullli and ran home before it got dark but then again I would avoid deserted alleyways late at night in England too. I am not saying it’s absolutely safe, there are areas to be avoided but to walk on the street where there’s heavy traffic flow I don’t think one should be scared.

8. Friendship grows stronger with memories you create together

Since a young age, I have changed schools, cities, and countries frequently. This meant I had to make new friends every few years. A year or two before I made my move to Nepal (I had been thinking about leaving England for awhile), I had this discussion with my really good friend. I had been in one place for few years, which was a very long time for me and I had made some good friends. I wanted to work on these friendships before I moved again. With age you get lazy and making new friends is an effort. My friends were going through some big changes in their lives and I wanted to be there for them during these changes.

Whilst in Nepal I bonded with a few people. I also found out that with some friendships, you are not needed as soon as the friend finds someone to date. But with some people, I pretty much failed to even get a conversation going, let alone be friends with them. I thought I would be saying something witty but would get no reactions. I thought it was because people didn’t get my sense of humor but after a few trials, I realized it probably wasn’t a friendship that was meant to be. Once I was with a group of people, one of them had painted their nails very creatively and they were having a conversation about it. It was very pretty and definitely not something I have a talent for. So I said, I don’t think I would be able to create something like that, I don’t even know how to paint my nails with one color properly. The conversation stopped. It was awkward. Maybe all the Kathmandu girls know how to look beautiful and paint their nails (they all do look made up all the time). But after that, It was definitely better to keep my mouth shut and only talk to my friend who had brought me there.

I understand that friendships gets stronger with every memory you create together, with every problem you share and with every happiness you celebrate. My time away has been an eye-opening experience for me but for my friends whom I left behind (and who I hope gets when I am trying to be funny), I’ve been left out of their lives, only to be caught on with snippets of their lives over emails or skype. Most of them probably got used to me not being part of their lives and I had to get used to them not being part of my life.

So I learned that with every memory I created in Nepal (even awkward people not getting me jokes), this meant, missing out on creating memories with my friends in England. Now I have returned, I know that with some friends, it’ll be like I’ve never left, with some, it may take a little effort but with a few, I should understand that it may never be the same again. It’s a thing to be aware of and learn but it’s just part of life, right?

 

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(Photo Credit: Rhijuta D)

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8 thoughts on “Lessons Nepal Taught Me

  1. Richa P says:

    When I was in KTM, I never went out alone in the city because of this fear that something bad would happen to me. I came home before dark every night which meant I never did anything with friends after dark. I also agree with you about the food thing, I was really missing simple food. Luckily for me, my mama and maiju cooked all different kinds of food and didn’t care to have dal and bhaat at night.

  2. Maha Rai says:

    Dear Riz baini… so grateful to share your experiences with us… very interesting and insightful baini… i remembered baini paying for me in wanagama… thank you again… welcome back… and yhea , nepalese community living any corner of the world is in facing one of the dilemma baini mention… and some may be facing all of them… or more… Best regards cha baini…

  3. Teju G says:

    Read a line or two at work and was eagerly waiting for my lunch break to read the whole blog!!! I’d love to do what you did.. still even considering it! Was lovley reading your experiance dii

  4. Rhijuta D says:

    So Richa, did you not go out in the city by yourself even during the day? I also avoided being out and about at night a LOT just because I didn’t know how I would be getting home. But later on, I would be somewhere that wasn’t far from home, so didnt’ want to pay for overpriced taxi, sometimes didn’t have friends to drop me off, so just walked home. I must admit, I did used to get scared but later realised I didn’t really need to be. I never told my relatives that I used to do that because they made out Kathmandu so much scarier than it was.

    By the way, Richa, thank you for encouraging me to write, if it wasn’t for your initiative, I probably wouldn’t have got round to ever finishing this.

    Maha Dai and Teju – thank you for your kind words. It means a lot. And Teju, you can always do it, there’s nothing you can lose.

    • Your piece is amazing and I am so glad that you enjoyed writing it! That is the whole point of this blog is to write about things that are important to us or things that bother us or things you are curious about. Writing is very therapeutic for many.

  5. I guess we all share a love hate relationship with Nepali cultures…as a married women in Nepal there are so many prejudices that sometimes I wonder if coming back to live with and be there for family is going to be a worthwhile decision or not! The gender bias and “buhari” role is hard to take on at times.

    • Rhijuta D says:

      You mentioned married ‘buhari’ role; I believe one of the reasons so many young couples don’t return back to Nepal to work after their education is highly influenced by this. Specially those whose family live in the valley (people outside the valley could get a job in Kathmandu and be away from the family), there is that expectation (not even expectation, maybe ‘social logic’?) that one lives with her in-laws once they get married instead of the couple starting their life together somewhere new and if you think otherwise it does not make sense. I faced similar issues when I was moving out of my cousins and I’m not married (or maybe I faced it because i’m not married!). In the end, my parents were supporting me so it didn’t matter but am pretty sure they were asked why they let me. I had to give so many reasoning to why I moved out whenever I was asked by relatives. Even though, I do also have the ‘bidheshi’ ho,-she-does-what-she-likes card; so I can see how it’s even harder for other people.

      Also, I was recently talking to one of my friends who recently got married, someone like me, who is independent and used to making her own decisions, and she had to ‘inform’ (roundabout way of asking permission) her in-laws that she was going to travel her studies, she is not even living with them. I thought it was one of the most absurd this I had ever heard of, she didn’t even used ‘inform’ her own parents before. There is so much social obligations as a buhari that you have to fulfill and even though she was the one who made me think about coming to Nepal, I doubt she will be coming back once she leaves.

      • You are right its difficult and many couples are opting to go abroad because of this. Some of my friends wonder why I decided to come back after all but this is a decision me and my husband made it together. We talked it out and he has vowed to support me. The main question here is not how to avoid the gender bias and the prejudices women face in our culture but how to educate people and try to eliminate it altogether. We do our bit, we tell our in laws that its a joint responsibility of me and my husband to take care of both sets of parents. They do understand some of it but some other things are work in progress.

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