I know we are all busy during this time, so I will try to keep it short. I just want to share a story about Molly and I’s last visit to see our refugee family. When we showed up at the door we waited for someone to let us into the building, but it was cold and no one was showing up. I decided to call the father of our family to come let us in, so I dialed his cell and began to explain the situation. He responded “no” to almost everything I said- (Can you come let us in? No. Is everything ok? Yes. Would you like us to help with English? No. Can we visit some other time? No.) I was frustrated because this same conversation had happened several times when I had tried to call and make plans with him, however, he was always very cordial to my face and even welcomed me graciously to visit his home. I just couldn’t take the confusion anymore, so Molly and I decided to go upstairs when a kind tenant let us in behind them. We climbed the 6 flights of stairs, then debated what to say as we tried to catch our breath. We decided we would just ask if everything was ok, then walked down the hall and knocked in a style both tentative and demanding an answer. When the door was opened, there was no sign of the father, but the grandparents warmly invited us to come in and sit. We tried to decide what we were about to say, as the father emerged from a back room. Molly looked at me a little in shock, so I began to politely inquire if everything was alright. The father seemed as baffled as I was and quickly corrected me as I recounted the story of our phone conversation- telling me he had not spoken to me on the phone moments ago. Suddenly, everything snapped in place in my head and I whipped out my cell phone. I asked him to repeat his phone number for me out loud. As he gave the last few digits, I burst into laughter: I had the wrong phone number all along! For months now, I had been calling some other man who spoke just enough English to trick me into thinking he understood me, but not enough English to tell me he is not my Nepali friend! I explained the entire confusion to the refugees, and explained that I thought I had spoken with them several times on several occasions to plan visits. We all had a good laugh about it and then some sort of miracle took place. It was like an invisible barrier in the room had burst. The awkwardness, tension, and frustration we’d been working through for months was gone. The family suddenly understood why we had been uncomfortable and I understood why they had “told me to stop coming” over the phone. The visit was like none other we had ever had. We talked, ate, and played games, for the first time, able to truly relax and enjoy one another’s company. I can’t wait to go back and get to know my new friends even better.
While I was home during Thanksgiving break, surrounded by wonderful family and friends while we shared delicious food, it occurred to me that I should write a blog about something we can all relate to, regardless of what culture we come from—a love for food. As I spent time during the Thanksgiving season feeling thankful for all that I have, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Damai family, who have accepted me as part of their family as well. Family and food is a magnificent combination that is experienced worldwide. Food is a universal symbol for love, happiness, friendship, closeness. The Damai family first welcomed me with food, and continue to show appreciation and fondness of me through sharing their culture of food with me.
In Nepali culture, they eat all their food with their hands. The first time I visited the Damai family, they welcomed my partner and I with warm dishes of traditional Nepali food. Eager to please them by showing appreciation and respect for their culture, we attempted to eat the food with our hands as well. My left hand is my dominant one, so after I graciously thanked Ama, the mother who prepared the food, I immediately dug into the rice and curry with my left hand and tried to gracefully shovel it into my mouth. The family laughed. I blushed and asked what they were laughing at. Di, the 12-year-old daughter who knows English best, explained “In Nepal, we eat with our right hand, and wipe our butt with our left.” We all joined in laughter as we acknowledged this cultural mix-up. Although it was at my expense, it was a great icebreaker and tension reliever for the first-day jitters we were probably all experiencing. Since then, I have thankfully become more agile with my right hand!
Not a visit goes by that I am not presented with a warm, home-cooked, traditional Nepali meal prepared with motherly-love by Ama. They come from a very hospitable culture, and they consider it an insult if a guest refuses food… Let’s just say I’ve probably gained a few pounds since the beginning of the semester! As a result, I have learned to arrive hungry (I have had a couple bad experiences trying to eat on a full stomach at their apartment, yikes!) It took me a while to become accustomed to the food that they eat, but through time I have come to associate the smell and taste of Nepali food with feelings of comfort and joy, and so I look forward to these foreign dishes now.
Rice is always the primary element of the meal, usually white but sometimes brown. To compliment the rice they serve it with a sort of soup, which we pour over the rice (I have absolutely no idea what the soup consists of; and the color, texture, and taste vary). They serve a generous portion of curry next to the rice, and the type of curry varies from day to day. So far I have tasted potato, cauliflower, and spinach curries. They also serve a dash of pickled fruit, usually lemon and lime. Pickled fruit is SPICY. So is the “surprise” habanero pepper hidden in the curry if you don’t look closely. There have been multiple occasions where I have broken into tears at the dinner table because of the spiciness! I do not handle spice well, but I am learning to love it ☺. We drink water or a sort of Nepali homemade tea with our meals. If you have not noticed, there has been an absence of meat in my descriptions; they are vegetarian. For snacks/appetizers they graze upon fresh fruit.
I recently came across a VERY interesting item they keep in their refrigerator: cow urine. I know what you’re thinking, but let’s look at this from a relativistic perspective: we might perceive the consumption of cow urine to be barbaric, but they also perceive the consumption of meat to be barbaric. It is hard for us to shake our innate biased opinions that have been shaped by our culture, however I am not asking you to drink cow urine, I am only asking you to accept the fact that this is a great illustration of the differences between cultures. If we were narrow-minded and ethnocentric, we might dismiss them as uncivilized and barbaric. Such assumptions and accusations are pervasive throughout the history of humanity and have resulted in racism, discrimination, war, and genocide, to name a few. And for the record, they were laughing as they showed me the bottle when I first found out—they are aware that it is considered “odd.” They made a point to explain that it is an instrument of their culture that they use for special occasions to mix in their milk and tea. They have never put it in anything I have consumed (I hope!!!) It might also make sense to be reminded that the cow is their god in their Hindu religion. They worship it.
I hope I didn’t tease your hunger by talking about warm, delicious rice and curry and then totally murder the notion of appetite by presenting you with a discussion on the cow urine they keep in the fridge. Haha! Namaste.