Mixing Cultures

If you had a crying 3 1/2 year old in your care, what would you do?
a. Give him some banana bubble gum
b. Give him whatever he wants
c. Nurse him
d. Give him a cleaver and a vegetable to hack
e. All of the above

Believe it or not, in this Nepalese family where I am staying, I have observed all of the above strategies. When his mother asked me if my children were like him with his many tantrums, I diplomatically said there were times when they acted like that. It becomes a fine line to walk when living in another culture to respect the way things are done balanced with the urge to show a different way.

At the orphanage, the children have been busily studying for their week of exams which finished today. Each morning I have worked with a student asking them questions to help them prepare. Their questions come out of their texts which they have been memorizing all year. It is incredible how much they remember, quoting paragraph long answers verbatim. I was impressed by the math facts and procedures that the young children have mastered, whipping off triple digit multiplication at lightning speeds, where we struggle to get our students to master their times tables at that age. The twist comes when you ask a question related to the text that is not phrased exactly the same way or that requires some in depth thought. At this time, they give you a puzzled look like you just asked how many men live on the moon.

This morning a 5th grader explained all about a Wordsworth poem but didn’t know most of the vocabulary that the poem contains. That’s not on the test. So, as a teacher, how much do I correct and explain and how much do I just make sure they remember their recorded memorized answers? If I were to be here longer, I certainly would work harder to add a different dimension to the education but in just a couple of weeks, my influence has to be around other things. I did do quite a dramatic reading of a Roald Dahl poem in the back of the book which I’m pretty sure the students understood and we all had a laugh as well.

All of the classes are held in English, except their Nepali class. It’s impressive that these kids are studying basically the same curriculum that we teach at the same ages but they also have to learn a new alphabet, number system and vocabulary at the same time. It has been a good education for me, as a teacher, to be exposed to an alphabet that is completely foreign to me. Even the numbers are made differently so I feel much like my students do as they learn to read and write and do math in our school.

Since I arrived a week ago, I’ve been the only volunteer at the orphanage. Yesterday though, a British couple who is here for three months returned to town from their week long break. He is a retired British army colonel and she a retired postal worker. Their way of dealing with the children is different than mine. He has some raunchy limericks that the boys crack up over while she helps organize sewing projects and other classes for their free time coming up the next couple of weeks. “Dal baht, dal baht in your tum, tomorrow it comes out your bum”, chanted the colonel today at the 10 a.m. Dal baht feeding. Meals are all referred to as Dal baht because that’s all that’s eaten. My host family is vegetarian but they also grow all their own veggies. I’ve actually enjoyed eating the food although I admit to some hunger between the 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. dal baht times.

Tom and Izzy, the Brits, gave me their own guided tour of the local village yesterday, a 45 minute walk from here. One of the stops was a hardware store (all stores are open to the street) where they discovered a scale for weighing out the goods. Izzy goes in for a weekly weigh in and I took my turn. Once I did the calculation from kilograms to pounds I was pleased to find I have lost almost 10 pounds since I was in Hawaii. All dal baht all the time has advantages for weight loss along with the running and chasing games I’ve been doing at the orphanage.

They also showed me where they buy their daily Mars bars (they special ordered them for the colonel) and a cafe that serves cake. I’ve yet to have a piece but I hear that all the flavors taste the same. Both Izzy and my host brother have a birthday on Sunday so I’ll get a chance to do my own taste test. It was great to have some English speaking people to share experiences with. We were able to commiserate about the Nepali way of things changing all the time, dal baht, host family issues and the gossip around the village and orphanage.

Sunday we’ll celebrate Izzy’s birthday at the orphanage. I’ve got the kids all primed to sing the Beaver Song for her (“Go beaver, It’s your birthday!). A group of teen age volunteers just arrived today with their British teachers from Portugal. We’ll have plenty of helpers to fill the time during the school break and to help celebrate with Western style birthday games. Two weeks ago, Tom and Izzy organized their own version of the Iron Man for the kids. With the new students we did quite a brainstorming session today for lots of activities to do this next week. The textbooks are all put away and the mood tonight at the orphanage was relaxed and fun. No more teachers, no more books… Instead, I organized a wild game of Red Rover (aka the color game) and even the older kids joined in.

When I got back to my host family, there was a huge pile of corn in the front yard. Today they were harvesting and all the ears were out front ready to be shucked. I joined in to separate the husks from the ears which grew into a substantial pile like the ones I’ve seen them around the village these last few days. The kernels are all separated and laid out to dry on sheets and tarps in the front yards. After they are dried they are sold. I’ll miss having fresh corn around though, as we have had some roasted ears as snacks. I made the mistake of eating mine off the cob and was told “Fingers, sister!”. The first day I was here, I came home to help take individual kernels off the cobs with the family. Later, we were rewarded from the tedious work by some freshly stir fried kernels – a delicious treat.

The other day, the father of the family, a man my age who speaks only a little English, asked me if I liked his family. I was able to honestly say yes. Despite the challenges of being awake in the middle of the night listening to a screaming child or sweeping the kitchen with a small hand held broom used from a squatting position on the floor, I’m really happy to have a chance to experience another culture from such an intimate place in the family. They are careful to make sure I’m included in everything so I’m invited into the room with a small T.V. (on the nights the power is on) to watch with them in Nepali. I can understand the sitcom which looks like a 50’s T.V. show with its simple sets and overdone acting but watching the news by a broadcaster at a desk is challenging.

Last night I had the opportunity to mix up the cultures a little bit more. I was invited to spend the day and night with a Nepali family that my friend from home, Lisa, had met when she was in Kathmandu to adopt her now 14 year old daughter. Both of the parents had lived in Canada and done some traveling in Western countries so their English is great. They live in a second floor apartment in a town about a 15 minute drive away with their 10 year old daughter. I was welcomed with tea and toast with peanut butter, a flavor I haven’t tasted since I left the U.S. Their meals are served at a table with chairs and they use utensils to eat and on a western schedule. It’s funny using a fork after a week of eating with my hand but also very nice and much neater. It was also a treat to taste chicken again after living in a vegetarian family.

Sarita showed me how to make Momos, a Nepali speciality that I had tried in Kathmandu at a local restaurant. That night I was violently ill but these were delicious and made under much more sanitary conditions. I was hopeless at doing the delicate folding of the wrapper but still got to enjoy the treat, filled with greens, spring onions and garlic.

I also enjoyed a comfortable night on a bed with a nearby fan and no insects. At my family home, there are tiny little bugs that crawl on me and leave little red welts where they bite, despite the mosquito netting. I can hear their little bodies when they hit the linoleum floor and I have made a game of how many I can squish with my fingernail. When I was shucking the corn I realized they come from the ears as some were laden with them. It’s annoying but just part of the experience and made last night’s sleep all the more restful.

After a Western breakfast, I returned to the orphanage where the Portugese students were busy playing games and whitewashing the dingy dining area. The orphans had newly shorn heads, apparently done on the last day of the school term. In a conversation with one of the chaperones, I heard that the teenagers were not happy with their homestays and working as volunteers and wanted to cut their visit short by a day and return to Kathmandu for more shopping time. As the Nepali organizers diplomatically tried to determine what the disgruntled teens were experiencing, one chaperone loudly and barely controlling his anger told them they were there to work, not shop, and they had plenty of time for sightseeing and leisure in their schedules for the week already.

I was sympathetic to their challenges even as I knew the adult was correct. My first few days here I wondered if I would make it through two weeks. Being away for the night though, helped me to realize what I already knew on some level that this experience, as challenging as it is, is actually one where I feel like I’m getting more than I’m giving.

Sure, it’s hard to use the squat toilets and the bucket “shower”. Washing your clothes on a cement pad on the ground is not what we are used to and Dal baht twice a day is not our usual diet. Mosquitoes and insects have voracious appetites at dusk and through the night. But, seeing the smiles when I arrive at the orphanage, when the children call me Sister and cuddle up, when the older girls take my hand and show me the new flower in the garden, when they catch me in a tag game, when an adolescent boy clobbers me in ping pong, I know that this is a special place.

I’ll leave my cultural imprint by my silly songs and dances but I also hope that for a short couple of weeks, sharing our lives here together in this little village is a true multi-cultural experience that benefits us all. I hope my young Portugese friends will know that as well by the end of their week here.

(I’ve stumbled upon a wireless source. It doesn’t work in the cafe where they advertise wireless but they gave me the password and sent me across the street to sit on a stoop. So far it’s working so I’ll post this now and hope I can get a few pictures from last week on before the power goes out.)














Leave a comment


  1. Mary Blake

     /  April 1, 2012

    You look thinner, I thought that several post ago. You sound so wonderful and energetic in your portrayals that you must be doing well. Your village is lucky to have you there even if for 2 weeks. I love the pictures. The bicycle shop looks to have all the parts one would need, and of course I love the elepahants, Take care, I’m following all the way.

  2. Barbara

     /  April 1, 2012

    Its wonderful to hear about the cultural and life-style differences you are experiencing….I’m impressed with your ability to adjust so easily! Great to read your post.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to share your trip with us. What an adventure! You photographs are amazing. I love that you taught them the beaver song. I want to meet the little girl wearing the Eagles t-shirt. Did you play her an Eagles song? Keep the blog posts coming!

  4. Amy Martyn

     /  April 1, 2012

    Will print this out for everyone here to read…I’m wishing we’d had Kamini write a letter to the kids you’re with. Maybe I’ll try to get her to send an e-mail. Sending lots of love! Amy

  5. Donna Jacobs

     /  April 1, 2012

    You have a great way of describing your experiences that helps really accentuate what you are acclimating to without sounding like you are complaining. It does sound like you are continually making incredible adjustments, but also enjoying all the differences in spite of the challenges. I’m really enjoying your blog.

  6. Janie Sherwin

     /  April 1, 2012

    Ellen … I admire you more and more each time I read your blog. I can’t begin to imagine myself adapting to even one of your cultural experiences. Your positive mindset is an example for all of us in our daily lives. I’m sure those children in the orphanage will hate to see you go, but your magnetic personality will definitely leave an imprint. I can’t wait to see you.

  7. Dawn Fogarty

     /  April 2, 2012

    Wonderful! Just wonderful Ellen… sending love and hugs – you are blessed, they are blessed and we are blessed as well.

  8. Mary Kay

     /  April 2, 2012

    The photo of you embracing the goat brings me to tears as I am in awe and admire just how beautiful you are. Thank you for all that you are sharing. Keep safe.

  9. Beth-Ann Betz

     /  April 4, 2012

    Ellen, thank you again for your wonderful posts. Your descriptions are so alive and full of loving kindness. Gosh, what a rich experience you are sharing with us. Go girl, go!
    Until next time, stay well and enjoy some more. Best, Beth-Ann

  10. pam perkins

     /  April 4, 2012

    Hi Ellen, You really capture your experience in descriptions that take me dirfectly to this incredible place and the people you are living with. I even felt a bug bite or two. You are amazing in your ability to adjust. I guess it’s just a matter of shifting your mindset, but living with squat toilets and the bucket showers for two weeks is more than brave. One month from today we’ll be leaving New Orleans and biking the Mississippi, Any anxiety I am feeling about that trip is negated by reading about your adventures. XXOO


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