While sitting at my Nepalese family’s dining table during my second visit to their apartment, I thought I would attempt to try to include myself in their cultural practices by eating without utensils. I feel I am being clever until Ama (Nepalese word for mother) starts laughing uproariously at me. I sit at the table timidly as she explains my huge faux-pas. Using mostly hand motions she explains that the left hand is used for wiping one’s behind and the right is for eating. I was using my butt-cleaning hand to consume food! At the same time my refugee-outreach partner Katrina is in tears from unknowingly eating a chunk of habanero pepper. Ama was gracious, and gave us each a much needed cup of water . Besides these embarrassing moments the meal was delicious (and spicy). Although I’ve had the luxury of trying many different South Asian cuisines this was my first Nepalese meal ever. I never thought you could make a vegetarian meal so tasty (coming from a Vietnamese/ Taiwanese background where most dishes have meat in them). Ama served buttery basmati rice, a side of yogurt, fresh tomato and onions, and a curry potato dish. I finally resorted to eating with the supplied spoon since the father noticed how uncomfortably I was trying to put rice into my mouth. Eating with your hands seems like an easier task than it actually is!
What I’ve noticed also was the amount of hospitality and warmth they gave to us. Ama cuts us fresh fruit served on a plate and sweet chai whenever we visit. This way of greeting guest reminds me alot of home. I’m starting to realize how food and drink is used cross-culturally to symbolize friendship and acceptance.
Yesterday was my first day with Katrina to our teamed Nepalese family’s apartment. My family lives literally feet from me. I was aware that their place was close to mine but not this close! What I find so interesting about Roger’s Park is that you could be living amongst the most dense population of refugee resettlers in Chicago and totally be unaware of this fact (as I had been). It’s spectacular that this neighborhood is so ethnically diverse.
The oldest daughter greeted Katrina and I at the door. We were surprised that she had just opened the door for us without question, and especially since we were strangers. Katrina and I are worried about safety issues. Doors are often not locked since family members and friends frequently moved in and out of each other’s apartments. The oldest girl Di (who is in junior high) told me that their neighbors have already attempted to steal from them. Another issue we encountered was the fact that the children will go out unaccompanied by adults. In their home countries it was probably a norm for children to go out independently, but as an American I am probably way more paranoid about child molesters, pedophiles, and kidnappers.
The older sister was taking her little brother Billy to buy juicy fruit gum to get him to stop crying so much from his fever. She did this alone while carrying him. I find it beautiful that sisters/ brothers share the responsibility with adults in raising their younger siblings, but they must become aware of potential danger within the city. This means that although children can take up adult roles, they are still children in the eyes of dangerous predators on the street. Katrina and I were unaware that the children had left. We warned the father that this was dangerous. He quickly ran out to retrieve them.
My family lives in a one bedroom apartment with seven people. The buzzer is broken so we have to call someone on the cell phone or wait for someone to let us in. And the elevator according to the family is often malfunctioning. They don’t seem to complain though.
They arrived here last February around Valentine’s day. I was impressed how well they have adjusted in such a short period of time. The Nepalese community especially seems to be extremely well networked. Refugees who arrived earlier will reach out to newly arrived refugees. Families are also tightly woven communities. I was confused when cousins were referring to each other as brothers and sisters. This comes to show the degree of importance they place on their extended family (by extended family I mean in the Western definition). In Vietnamese I also call my cousins brothers and sisters.
The father’s English is very good for only have been here for eight months. He explained to us that he has lived in a refugee camp with his family for eighteen years!! He was married in the camp and raised his children in the camp in Nepal. They are ethnically Bhutanese and were forced to leave their country to the neighboring country of Nepal in one of seven refugee camps. He told us that there are around 130,000 refugees living in these camps.
He then asked if I had a husband or was single. I noticed that there was no in-between “dating” option. I explained that I had a boyfriend and he looks at me a little puzzled. He explained that Nepalese marriages are oftened arranged by family members.
He works at a retail shop six days a week for ten hours a day. He then goes to ESL class at a local community college. He is the sole provider for the family so far. The uncle is not working nor is the mother.
I went grocery shopping with Di, Dep (the middle brother who is eight), and Ama. I thought this would be a good way to explain foods in English. They purchased all of the items on a Link Card. I wonder how long the state of Illinois will allow a family to be on food stamps? I purchased a pumpkin and tried to explain the signifigance of Halloween, I think something was lost in translation. Therefore, I will go back on Tuesday to carve the pumpkin with the children to demonstrate a popular childhood pastime in America.
The father came back with a shopping cart full of food, the shopping cart, and the baby inside of the shopping cart. He pushed this into the main room. I was curious where he got this shopping cart. I hope he didn’t take it from the store. Next time I will ask him if he did. This may turn into a lesson of American shopping norms.
I also realized how much I take for granted in terms of the modern day conveniences I passively enjoy. The father told me that he thinks Paris is the most beautiful city in the world (even though he only saw the airport during his transfer flight). He thinks it is beautiful because of the human conveyor belt that helps passengers go from one end of the airport to another in an expedient fashion. He was also amazed at the elevators. He has never encountered these things in Nepal and told us about his confusion when he first saw them.
My partner thought at first that the family had a pet elephant and monkey. In actuality these creatures were pests in their eyes. The wild elephants would come at night from the brush and steal rice and bananas. The monkeys were also sometimes nasty. I suppose when you live in America these animals seem charming when you only see them at zoos and in books/ t.v.
Grandma is seventy-two years old. She speaks incessantly to me in Nepali as if I understand what she is saying. I am honored that she finds me interesting enough to talk to. I just feel bad that I can’t understand what she is trying to tell me. I wish I could comprehend what she is telling me, since I’m sure she has a lifetime of profound stories and knowledge that she could share.
Baby Billy was running a fever. He was crying for most of the second day. The father has scheduled a Wednesday appointment at a local hospital for him. The only was to get there is by foot, which will take an hour. Ama will push the baby all by herself in the donated baby carriage. Katrina volunteered to take them to the hospital to talk to the doctors and nurses. I’m not sure if they have to pay a hospital fee. I sent an e-mail to ECAC asking them if there could be a way to have them go to the uptown clinic where most of the refugees are given services for free. This would be more convenient since the train can take them there. Katrina also took a family member to CVS to purchase baby Tylenol. This information on what medicines to take may seem like common knowledge to us, but to a Nepalese family just arriving it is not. I am glad Katrina took the initiative to help take care of the baby’s sickness.
Something I noticed was how tech savvy the children were. Dep uses youtube to watch children cartoon shows. Di has a facebook and likes to keep in touch with friends from school. They also like watching Nepalese music videos.
You learn so much from someone just by spending time with them, even without asking questions. Ama gave Katrina and I a photo album to look at. There were pictures of their sponsors, their friends and family, and also Billy’s haircutting ceremony. They told us that in Hindu ritual a toddler’s hair will not be cut until the second year. At this time family members are present. The elderly will give the baby ”lucky” money. The forehead is patted with red dye and sticky rice. The hair is then cut.
Gold and body ornamentation seems to be prized in their culture. Most of the girls have their ears and noses piered. They pair these piercings with 24 carot gold. Even the boys ears are pierced.
I look forward to my future blog, which will probably be full of yet more embarrasing cultural faux-pas and improntu decision making.