I Thought There Would Be More Culture Shock Than This: Traveling in Nepal for the First Time

I remember prior to my time in Nepal I would be hit with a huge culture shock that would take days to recover from, especially since it was my first time in Asia. My other foreign travel experiences mostly involved Western Europe. The most “exotic” place I had been to was Greece. This trip was a big mile stone for many reasons. I was traveling there on my own, I was volunteering and would be spending three months there, I had never been to Asia, and I had never been to a developing country before. I expected culture shock and it was definitely there, but it was nothing near to the extent I expected.

When looking at Nepal and the United States, they couldn’t seem any more different from each other. Nepal is a small landlocked country that happens to be the poorest in South Asia.  A quarter of its population, about 25%, live below the poverty line. In the United States it is only 15% – still a shocking amount for a developed nation and global super power. Nepal relies on agriculture and tourism while the United States is known for industry and global trade. While America has had its share of turmoil, it doesn’t seem to compare to Nepal who had a long civil war that came to an end in 2008 and the devastating 2015 earthquake. The effects of the earthquake can still be seen and felt, years after it occurred. There are also a multitude of social differences between the two countries.

While American society is far from perfect, it is in many ways progressive compared to Nepal. One of the most distinct differences in Nepal regarding social relations is the role of women. While the Nepali president is a woman and the government has make steps to better the lives of women, Nepal is very much a patriarchy. In Western Nepal, menstrual huts are still in use despite the government taking steps to ban them. Arranged marriages are also very common, as is the custom in many parts of the world. A question I was frequently asked was “Are there more arranged marriages in America or are there more love marriages?” Nepal also has a caste system, I was often asked “How many castes are there in America?” and “Can people from different castes marry each other in America?” Despite the array of social problems and the caste system, Nepal is very tolerant in many ways. People proudly mentioned  to me how Nepal doesn’t have religious or ethnic conflicts, the national anthem highlights this, “Of many races, languages, religions, and cultures of incredible sprawl This progressive nation of ours, all hail Nepal!”

There is a lot hope for the country to be better in the future, as well as uncertainty. If you go to Nepal, people will say that change happens, just very very slowly. I recall one night having a discussion with my host parents about domestic violence and how normally women are supposed to tolerate it. Both of them hoped that with more education that would change. They both emphasized how they wanted their daughters to be educated. In a country where there is gender inequality regarding education, that is significant.  When I asked my host sister if she thought the poverty facing the country would be better she said she wasn’t sure, but she hoped it would be. It is a country of optimism, and uncertainty.

The people I talked to wanted change, but always mentioned that it might be slow to happen with a corrupt government. Multiple people mentioned the corruption during my stay. I was told that during the earthquake, government officials pocketed some of the relief funds. In that type of political climate, protest is common. Especially when elections are being held. While I was there I was told that a strike near the Indian border turned violent. When there would be strikes in other parts of the country, my village would close down too. It would be like, “Oh there is a banda today, no school.” Coming from a place of privilege back home, being middle class, white, and college educated, protests and strikes are relatively unfamiliar territory for me.

In addition to all of the major social and economic differences previously mentioned, there are the in-your-face physical differences. Kathmandu is the dustiest city I have ever been to (my inhaler got so much action). Also there is livestock EVERYWHERE! Cows and water buffalo roam the streets in both the countryside and the cities. Chickens are everywhere so are stray dogs. After spending almost three months there I was shocked to see a goat on top of a bus! Also, road safety is not a thing in Nepal. When I cam home I had to remind myself to use a seat belt. It can be a sensory overload, Nepal is a place that is so unlike anything I had ever seen before. If I was in the city or in the country, there was always something interesting or breathtaking or new. My host family had no idea what Star Wars was. When I was living in the village people asked if I felt uncomfortable being in such a different place, I didn’t at all.

I think the lack of culture shock was a conscious effort on my part. I told myself, “Okay this is a different part of the world, just go with it.” People are still people no matter where you go. If you share good food and a few laughs, you forget about the language barrier. When you are having a few drinks with your host family teasing each other and laughing at silly jokes, it feels like being home with your real family. I played soccer with my students and had flashbacks to playing soccer at recess in elementary school. Nepal started to feel like a home away from home.

When traveling to a place that is so different, embrace it. The people in Nepal are so welcoming and friendly and they took an effort to share their culture with me, I got the most of my time there by diving straight in to it. I ate with my hands, I danced at the local celebrations, I tried all the food – even if it was weird, I went to people’s houses for tea, I wore a sari. I made myself be open to it all. I was fortunate to have had the chance to spend a prolonged amount of time in Nepal, which gave me more insights into how people lived their lives. I also had a longer period to adjust to things there. Regardless of the time you have in a place, just try to experience as much of it as you can.

Coming home I felt weird, I still feel a little weirded out being home. I went from walking for three hours to visit friends to driving for twenty minutes. I don’t see any livestock in the road. I think the roads here are too quiet compared to the non-stop horns blasting in Kathmandu and Pokhara. I still find myself eating with my hands when I have curries and rice (I probably can’t eat Indian food in public anymore because of this). I also think that the Rocky Mountain are hills after staring at the Himalayas for months. Nepal is an amazing and breathtaking place, it is now almost like my second home.

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