Thank you aniji. It’s our pleasure to help you. Personally, I’ve found you so kind and helpful than I had thought before.
We’re really blessed to have you here. We’re sure our preparations won’t discourage you. We’re looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.
It is I who am blessed to be here. Thank you for inviting me…
I wonder how it is possible to be in love with people whom you have never met before, simply because, together, as you plan from a distance, their fingertips tap out words that tell you that they are concerned about your every need and wish only to please you because you are doing trying to design workshops that will meet their needs, workshops based on information that you have gathered from them about what they want, and because you are going to travel all the way to their town to deliver the workshop that you designed especially for them.
People in Kathmandu are very nice but they are not what I would call dear. But, once you leave the hustle and bustle of the big city, the sincerity and kindness of the Nepali people becomes apparent. If anyone wears their hearts on their sleeves, it is the Nepalese. There is a sweetness here in the heart of Nepal. Whatever I need, they find it for me, or do it for me, cheerfully and reassuring me all the while not to worry. I don’t have time to worry about anything not going well because whatever goes wrong, we fix it together with ease and with laughter at our mistakes. When I forgot to bring to one workshop the slips of paper that I had carefully cut in advance and brought from Kathmandu to teach card games for language teaching, everyone helped to cut more.
For my part, I do my best to do the same for them. When they did not have a cord to connect the computer to the projector, I did the workshop without power point slides. When I can see in their faces that they do not understand what I am saying, I stop and change how I am speaking and what I am doing so that I can make sure that everyone can understand. I suppose that they honor this quality of mine as much as I appreciate what they do for me. However, I am not always able to show my appreciation for them in ways that they might be expecting.
The most dramatic example of my failure to be cross-culturally sensitive of which I am aware (there are probably plenty that I don’t know about) occurred when another sign of caring rolled around that I could not accept. Shame on me, perhaps, that I could not tell a lie, but when the people at one site ordered Nepali snack boxes for all the participants but wanted me to eat hamburger (actually a chicken burger) that they had specially bought for me, I told them the truth, — that I was very very appreciative of the gesture but that I don’t eat hamburgers, that I preferred eating Nepali food and I wanted to eat what everyone else was eating. Of course, one could argue that one cultural mistake on their part, i.e. the assumption that all Americans eat hamburgers, put me in the position where I had to, in turn, commit my own socio-cultural faux pas. It was really a joint effort that then became an amusing anecdote that was told among the program coordinators as well as (probably) among any participants who were hanging around at the time of the fatal conversation.
At first blush, one might say that I should have accepted it and eaten with gusto and great appreciation but, first of all, I would have been lying, and secondly, if I had, word would have spread and everyone at every workshop for the next ten month would have been running trying to find me a hamburger for lunch as a gesture of appreciation. Honesty was the only possibility. But I told them the truth — I was extremely touched by the gesture and…. I don’t eat hamburgers, even if they are the real thing and made out of beef and I am in the United States. In the long run, I think my response to their cross-cultural gastronomic misconception was seen by all as just another manifestation of my being a genuine American: you are frank, you are authentic, and they mean this in both senses of the word — honest and a real native English-speaking person — you are kind. That is, refusing the hamburger was just another example of the wacky old eccentric American lady being an authentic English native speaker.
In addition to being able to wear purple with a red hat that doesn’t match when you are old, you can get away with a whole bunch of other misbehaviors if you are an authentic American sent to represent your culture in a foreign land. Think of all the things that I can get away with simply because I am a real American!! Certainly no Nepali probably would have dared to refuse the hamburger if it had been purchased especially for her, as long as it wasn’t make out of beef. Of course… this story would not be complete without the final chapter: On the last day of the workshop, they served momo, little dumplings filled with veggies or meet. For a moment, I forgot myself,
I love momo! I cried with great delight…
Oh, if we had known, we could have had momo sooner!
I had to remind everyone that I like samosa just as much as I like momo. I think it is just situations such as these where the expression to hang on someone’s every word came to be. Of course, their reply to this revelation was…
Oh yes, you just do not like hamburger!!
In addition to showing their support for me by helping me whenever I need assistance of any type, and hanging on my ever word to see if there isn’t some other way that they could please me, the Nepali people also have many ways to formally honor the people whom they care about. In the first two workshops, I was given a kadha, a long narrow neck scarf that is used to show respect to a guest. In the third, there were bouquets of flowers and leaves that were handed out to honored guest during the official opening of workshop which, then, everyone turned around and left when the ceremony was open. I scooped them all up and took them back to the hotel. I had already noticed that ceremonial gifts are offered and accepted, and then left behind.
For me, a gift is something that you accept from someone because they chose it for you as an appreciation. I can’t quite get my mind wrapped around the idea of giving a gift and then throwing it out five minutes later. This remains true for me even if you tell me that it is customary to toss it aside once the ceremony where it was given to me is over. Woven into the tapestry of my cultural heritage, there are apparently some customs that are more difficult for me to to release in the name of cross-cultural sensitivity than others. This custom of tossing ceremonial gifts does explain why all the gifts that people take and leave as offerings in the temples later find their way into the trash bags behind the temples. What is important is not what you gave, but that you offered something. That is, in ceremonial displays of respect and worship rituals it is the process of accepting a gift, that demonstrates your appreciation for another. You don’t have to keep it, you just have to accept it. Actually, I think that is what a ritual is — something done because of its particular socio-cultural significance rather than because of its functionality.
Of course, there are also gifts that you are expected to keep.
In the fourth workshop, I was given the book Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and, when I asked about it, the coordinator confided in me that he had started a revolution of sorts, moving from the giving of symbolic gifts to the giving of books personally selected for the individual. He owns a bookstore. The person who chose the book for me did not know that I was Buddhist, of course, but it was a good choice to give to a foreigner, a spiritual introduction to a spiritual country. I was touched that he chose it for me.
On Sunday, they outdid themselves. I received several gifts. First, a necklace of fresh orange marigolds — a sayapatri phool mala. Marigolds are used in celebrations and ceremonies everywhere. They grow on 3-4 foot high stalks. Everyone is amazed when I tell them that marigolds in the U.S. are only 6-8″ high.
I noticed that you wore your mala all day in the workshop. Usually we give a person a mala of flowers and they thank us but then they take it off. You didn’t do that. You are still wearing it now even at the end of the day.
Another (apparently) peculiar behavior of mine became the basis of yet another cross-cultural lesson. Not only do some Americans not eat hamburgers, but most of us, if not all, believe it is important to keep the gifts that we are given. In fact, to leave a gift on the table and walk away would be perceived as an insult. This revelation was met with some obvious amazement on the part of the workshop participants when I explained why I was still wearing my mala, six hours after having received it.
After the mala, I was given an ornate name tag that looked more like an award ribbon for a competition without the streamers at the bottom — a round cardboard circle with my name and my title “Trainer” in the middle surrounded by first by red, then blue circles of pleated ribbon. It came with a safety pin to attach it to my clothing.
The most amazing gift, and one that I was obviously expected to keep, was a 14 x 12 framed certificate. It had the name of the workshop, the sponsor, and my name. A picture of Sagarmatha (remember, that’s Mt Everest) with Nepal’s national flag waving happily at the top, a small picture of Lakshmi Prasad Devkota (Lakshmi is both a male and female name), Nepal’s most famous poet, a small picture of a Nepali trekking, and, of course, a small picture of the goddess of wisdom and knowledge, Saraswati. Last but not least, in huge gold letters against a blue background, placed at the foot of Sagarmatha it said Token of Love – Trainer. At the end of my last workshop in this teacher training tour, I received a letter of appreciation in a gold frame, and another 14 x 12 token of love comprised of a gold map of Nepal and all its regions secured in a gold frame with the words Token of Love emblazoned across the top. If I harbored any doubts that our planning of the workshops together had been anything other than a mutual expression of love, they were finally laid to rest.
When would a professional training in the United States ever end with the host institution giving the presenter a Token of Love?
Indeed, in this tiny country at the top of the world, love is all we need.