This article is dedicated to
Fr. James J. Donnelly, S. J. (1929-2009)
and his Brown Bomber
There is an anecdotal story of a Western salesman coming to Nepal and showing his ware to prospective buyers. Every time the salesman asked whether they liked something, the Nepalese traders would shake their heads from side to side. The salesman soon left very disappointed, never knowing that the Nepalese were absolutely pleased by what they saw and their appreciative head-shake meant "Yes, we like it!" Rudyard Kipling wrote, "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet" in his eponymous ballad. Indeed our manners and mores can be confusing to others.
Westerners are alarmed by the habit of the Nepalese sticking their tongues out looking like reincarnated goddess Kali destroying the demon Mahisasura, especially if they have been chewing paan, betel leaves. They need not be alarmed; it is a simple expression of shock intermingling with relief indicating that a big calamity was averted at the last minute. It is an "Oh! What could have happened!" reaction. In the olden days when one yawned, a companion would "snap" his or her fingers several times making loud popping sound. I never knew the reason why. When one sneezed, a friend would exclaim, "Luxmi Narayan!" It was an invocation to the Gods for blessing against sickness. You find people blowing at their fingers if they inadvertently touch their throat. The reason? Perhaps just superstition.
Foreigners riding taxi cabs must notice the number of times the driver touches his forehead as he passes by temples and stupas; as he crosses streams and rivers. It is a flying salute to the Gods, an acknowledgement of His holy presence en route. It is also a quick oneness with divinity before Kathmandu's worsening traffic pressure brings back the devil's own sanguinary thoughts.
Nepalese laughter can be sometimes annoying: people even laugh if you nearly maul them down in the chaotic streets of Kathmandu. No, they are not taunting you; they are admitting guilt with shame for having broken the rules, shame for having been in such a tight spot in the first place. Western faces would darken with fear and anxiety while we Nepalese blush and smile - an anachronistic portrayal of unmitigated innocence.
Foreigners visiting our dignitaries in their offices or watching news on TV are aghast at the ubiquitous Chinese bath towel with bold floral prints draped on every official chair. Why is the use of the towel re-invented by us? Possibly because its use prevents sweat from ruining the original upholstery and save our tax payers' money. Or is it because of the lack of a hook in the toilet? This is a great subject for an anthropologist!
I remember a real life story told to me by my friend Mikhail Vinding who was in the Danish Foreign Service at the time of King Birendra's state visit to Denmark. At a formal reception a waiter was about to hand over a glass of wine to His Majesty with his left hand; Vinding quickly intervened and took the glass in his own correct hand before serving the king. A faux pas was averted! In Nepal one does not offer anyone, may he be a prince or a pauper, anything with the left hand. Left hand is for unclean acts. Foreigners should be careful while showing off their ambidexterity!
How many times while sitting at restaurant tables are we rudely surprised by a loud belch emanating from a nearby table? The person has had his fill and he is appreciating it with bad table manners by today's etiquette, but it was probably not so disgusting even a generation back. I was reading that a Chinese guest shows utmost appreciation of his host's hospitality by belching loudly: the host knows that his guest is full.
Talking about table manners how we Nepalese love eating dal-bhat with our fingers, a feat very difficult to master, perhaps as difficult as eating sticky rice with chopsticks to us. Foreigners need not try to please us; it is well accepted that they eat with knives and forks when invited to Nepali homes. As for me I always use western implements because I am afraid I would eat twice the amount with fingers! The food certainly tastes better.
But there is one bad Nepali habit I do not condone; even many of the Western-educated slurp their soup loudly at formal tables. Soup was never part of our diet, I guess, but we should learn to do in Rome as the Romans do. The age of innocence is over. Ke garne?