Monday, October 6, 2014

Never Should You Ever: A Cultural Guide to Nepal

It has occurred to me that I have never actually written a post detailing the various cultural differences between Nepal and the USA. I have told many of you in person (and by many, I mean my parents and former roommates), but it might be interesting to the rest of you as well. A few weeks ago, I gave a talk on this topic to the class 10 students at my school, so I will try to follow the structure that I used then.

Note: My host family is unique in that many of these rules don’t apply to our household. Anything does apply to my household or my life, I will mark with an asterisk (*).

-Food should never be touched or eaten with the left hand, which is used for, as my Lonely Travel guide puts it, “personal ablutions.”
-Food may become “jhuto,” or impure, if you touch it with your hands or utensils, or if handled by someone of a lower caste.
-Many people eat with their hands. As in they eat slippery, curried rice with their hands. It’s very impressive to watch. They’re like vacuum cleaners (the people, I mean, not their hands).
-Beef is a big no-no.* It may even be banned in Nepal, but I’ve seen it on the menus in some tourist restaurants. Depending on caste, families might also ban alcohol* and pork.

-There’s no polite way to put this: everyone smells. Especially during the hot, humid monsoon season. Deodorant/antiperspirants are much harder to find than you would think—hence the reason I brought male athlete’s deodorant with me.*
-Bathing is not an everyday habit. Since most houses do not have showers, bathing takes place at the public tap. To accomplish this modestly, women wear these cloths that wrap around their bodies, and go about their washing very carefully.
-Western-style toilets, or commodes, are only found in Kathmandu and in hotels that cater to Western tourists. Most houses have squat toilets, which may range from rather nice* to just a few boards balanced over a smelly hole in the ground. As mentioned above, your left hand is used to wipe your bottom with water from a bucket, because, guess what? There’s no toilet paper.  
-People do a lot of hacking, spitting, nose-picking, burping, and other mildly offensive bodily functions in public. It’s like the soundtrack of village life sometimes.

-This falls in between hygiene and health, but bear with me. Also, a warning to men: if you don’t like this topic, don’t complain to me. Menstruation. Everyone’s favorite word. I won’t dwell on this long, but the short story is that people get a little funny when a woman starts menstruating. Depending on the strictness of the household, she may not be allowed to go in the kitchen, to be near or touch men (or anything that men touch), or to enter various homes and temples. Pretty intense.
-You can buy anything you want at a pharmacy—without a prescription. You go up, tell them what kind of medication you need, and they charge you by the pill.*
-Old wives’ tales: the true medicine of Nepal. If I hear one more time that going to bed with wet hair will give me a cold, I might shave my head.* Similarly, showing at night is frowned upon. Other pearls of wisdom include: bananas and almonds are bad for colds, hot black tea should be consumed before bed to scare away colds*, cold water is not healthy*, buttery/oily green leafy vegetable curry soup will help if you have diarrhea* (sorry for that), leeches are good for purifying your blood*, bread causes stomach aches*, and electric fans can give you colds*.
-I’ll give my premed/doctor friends a moment to bang their heads against a wall.
-Nobody seems to know what sunburn is, but luckily, people often carry umbrellas to block out the heat of the sun, so I don’t look like an idiot when I do so.*

-Dating is pretty taboo. When I told class 9 that my mother was a little disappointed that I didn’t have my first boyfriend until I was 17, they were shocked.
-Many marriages are still arranged marriages rather than love marriages. My host parents had an arranged marriage (although they love each other very much). When I talk about “if I get married” or “who might I marry”, it genuinely confuses my aamaa.
-PDA is a very big no-no (that’s public displays of affection).
-However, men will often walk around holding hands. There is no romantic connotation to it; it’s just a thing that male friends do.
-Family dynamics can be pretty stressful, from what I’ve been told. Often, after marriage, the daughter-in-law will move in with her husband’s family, where in some village homes, she’s treated no better than a servant. Younger people are expected to serve those members of older generations.

-People stick out their tongues a lot. They also bob their heads from side to side rather than nodding, which is confusing, because it looks like they’re shaking their head “no.” *
-In many temples, leather items and shoes are forbidden.*
-The bottom of the foot is considered the filthiest part of the body (other than the left hand), while the top of the head is the most sacred. Therefore, you never step over people or point your feet at them, nor should you pat students on the top of the head.*
-In public, both women and men are expected to wear clothing that covers their shoulders and ankles (and everything in between, with saris being the exception). Women also wear scarves hanging in a “u” shape over their chest for modesty.* To see someone (normally only in tourist areas) walking around in short-shorts or a tank top is pretty jolting. (It’s like, do they even know what country they’re in?)

This list ended up being quite a bit longer than I expected, but so it goes. I hope that it was enlightening!

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