Cultural Learnings of…This and That

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CIMG5651-ratna park road sign

Traveling is educational, of course! It teaches you about other people and their ways etc. It teaches you about other places. It teaches you about yourself as well (about which I have written here, here and here).

I thought about all that when responding to the following question in an alumni Facebook group.

“What fact did you not learn/realize until much later than is really comfortable to admit?”

I share below four accounts, the first two are reproductions of ones I shared with the group.

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First time in the West, in Italy in 1988, looking at my Mexican friend’s passport photo of her younger self, I felt sorry for how horrible her teeth looked. Though nothing appeared wrong with them at the time, not wanting to embarrass her, I didn’t make any comment.

It wasn’t until after I arrived in the US in the Fall of 1990 that what she had on her teeth were braces and a lot of Americans had them at one time or another when growing up to have perfectly aligned teeth.

(I hadn’t known until then that my perfectly aligned teeth have been partly just pure luck!)

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Also in Duino, Italy, when a roommate kept applying something to his body which, to me, just smelled really really foul, believing that I would cause him embarrassment if I asked what he was doing, I never did. And of course, for a long time I didn’t really understand what he was doing and why.

And again, I don’t think I learned the answer until well into my stay in Italy or after I arrived in the US.

What he had been doing was applying deodorant/antiperspirant to his body to NOT smell bad!

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One of the first times I walked up to a counter at a fast food joint in the US, probably Fall 1990, when I still spoke English with a Nepalese accent and I wasn’t familiar with some American colloquialism, I ordered a hamburger…well I tried…to order!

The counter attendant kept asking me “What?” or “What do you want?” to which I kept repeating back, “Hamburger!”

When he finally got it, he kept repeating a phrase that sounded like, “Hair-duh-go! Hair-duh-go!”

Not understanding what HE wanted, I think I just shook my head with a puzzled look on my face, which is probably what made him stop.

After paying, I just stood around near the counter wondering what that had been all about. The burger came, I took it and walked off, still wondering what he must have wanted!

It wasn’t until after I had spent some more time in the US that I learned what he had said and why.

He had asked, “Here/To Go?” (The “To” does sound more like “Duh.”) He had wanted to know whether the order was for “to eat there” (here), or “(to eat) somewhere else” (to go).

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Summer of 1995, back in Pokhara, Nepal for a visit, an American friend, a Nepalese friend, and I were walking up the hill on the southern side of Fewa Lake. For most of the walk, we were kept company by a little boy — of about 7 — and his mother, who was carrying a basket of bananas.

At one point, talking about the bananas his mother was carrying, half in jest, we asked him if we could get some. The mother gave some to him telling him to give them to us. But, the playful and carefree little boy, who all the while had been talking, laughing, playing and joking with us, holding hands, happy to be carried on our shoulders etc., all of a sudden went quiet and still, and appeared to be very shy with his gaze to the ground. After some goading from his mom, he reluctantly handed out the fruit.

At the top of the hill, we ended up inviting the boy to join us for tea and snacks at the tea stall. We had our tea and cookies sitting around an outdoor table and continued our playful games and conversations.

When done, we got up leaving the glasses and utensils on the table as most people do in Nepal.

Not the little boy.

He picked up his and walked over to one side of the tea stall. The owner, standing next to him, started pouring water out of container for the boy as he proceeded to wash them.

Curious, I asked the owner why he was doing that. It was his response then that helped me understand the boy’s hesitation in giving us the bananas: he belonged to an untouchable caste.

As young as he was, Nepalese society had reinforced his social position long and often enough that he had come to accept it. Because he was untouchable, anything he touches or handles is “polluted/unclean” and so unsuitable for others, like the bananas. The responsibility of washing and cleaning utensils, such as the spoon and glass, were his and would be his for the rest of his life…when he is lucky to find a joint that serves him!

Growing up in Nepal, I had learned about the caste system pretty early on in my life too. In Pokhara, I had dalit friends, mainly Damais (tailors). But I couldn’t — and still can’t — recall ever seeing anything like that until that day. It’s likely that I may have seen that growing up; they just may not have registered because, in Nepal, they are not anything out of the ordinary.

Living in a country and culture, how you perceive — such as things, people and events — and how you behave is pretty much in line with what the culture and social protocols dictate. For that reason alone, the likelihood of you seeing or viewing your way of perceiving and behaving as unusual, strange, unfair or unjust, and questioning them is not very high. Like, for instance, the way we in Nepal view and treat the Dalits, the untouchables or the way we view and treat our girls and women.

When you have been educated abroad and/or when you have lived and/or traveled in other countries and, in the process, have learned completely different ways of perceiving and being, the likelihood of seeing those practices as unusual or unjust and questioning them is very high. Of course, that is NOT to say that you MUST be educated abroad or you MUST have spent time abroad to question such practices.

Having lived abroad all of the seven years until that summer, not only was I seeing myself differently, I was seeing everything in — and about — Nepal with a new pair of eyes, as it were!

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Do you have similar stories to share? If so, and if you don’t mind, please do share them below.



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