Travelling to another country can be great fun, an educational experience or a life-changer, but it’s not always easy. There are language barriers, new food, and different cultural norms to contend with. Over my six months living in Nepal, I have found myself confused, offended, upset, or the object of laughter on several occasions! This is all part of culture shock, which can be expected when travelling abroad.
There are two sides of culture shock: not understanding what is going on around you, and consequently not knowing how to behave in different contexts. One of the best ways to avoid culture shock is to be prepared, something that I was not when I first stepped out of Tribhuvan Airport and into the dusty chaos of Kathmandu city! Here I will decode some potentially confusing Nepali habits, give a few tips on how to avoid common cultural faux-pas and instead, maybe even make those around you smile.
In Nepal, many things are left unspoken. Body language and facial expressions fill in many gaps. For example, “dhanyabad” (thank you) is usually reserved for situations where exceptional gratitude is called for, while a simple smile replaces the everyday “thanks”. Equally, “yes” and “no” can be confusing. A side-to-side head wobble replaces a nod for yes, and a horizontal hand wobble may replace the negative shake of a head.
When interacting with Nepali people, it is best to try to keep a happy expression on your face, as frowns – even unintentional – may be interpreted more negatively than you might expect. Even when bargaining, maintaining positive body language and a polite, friendly demeanor often results in a better outcome!
“Namaste” (said with palms together, and a slight nod or bow) means “hello” as well as “goodbye”. You may hear it as “Namaste dai” or “Namaste didi”, as names are rarely used in Nepal. Dai (older brother), didi (older sister), bhai (younger brother), bahini (younger sister) are used instead. It can be perceived as rude to use the name of an elder – baa (father) and aama (mother) and the English uncle and aunt can be used in the place of a name.
While “namaste” is used frequently, friends and family are often greeted with the question “Khana khanu bhayo?” (Have you eaten?) This indicates the importance of food in Nepali culture. In general it is best to reply that you have eaten “Khana khaye”, to avoid worrying the asker, or being towed off to eat with them!
Nepalis are, in general, very curious people. Outside of main tourist areas, you may find yourself stared at as you walk down the street. It’s not because there is some toothpaste left on your cheek, but because they’re interested in seeing new faces. If it unnerves you, try to simply smile back. If the starer isn’t shy, you will almost always get a beautiful smile in return!
You may also find yourself asked a lot of questions – about your life, your family, marital status, work, price of possessions, etc. Your weight and appearance may be commented on, too. While these questions and comments may seem very forward by Western standards, they are not considered rude in Nepal. On the contrary, showing curiosity is perceived as a positive thing because the asker is interested in you.
In general, Nepali people are highly uncomfortable with nudity and immodest clothing. To avoid this, men should wear a top, even when it is hot. Women should cover shoulders and wear skirt/shorts at least to the knee. If you can wear Nepali traditional clothing (kurta or sari for women, daura suruwal and dhaka topi cap for men) this is usually welcomed as a sign that you respect Nepali culture. Having a clean and tidy appearance shows respect for yourself and for those around you – so keeping your clothing, hair and facial hair tidy will be appreciated.
One of the hardest things to get used to in Nepal is the understanding of cleanliness, which is different from the West – in the streets, toilets, and kitchens! Having said that, it is possible to find eateries and hotels that have Western standards, and to undertake some measures yourself to stay healthy, especially if heading into the mountains. Just remember: the famous anthropologist, Mary Douglas, said that “dirt is matter out of place”, indicating that different cultures consider different things dirty.
In Nepal, the left hand is considered unclean (used for the toilet), while the right hand is clean. It is best to eat and drink with the right hand only. Giving and receiving (handshakes, money, gifts, food etc) should also be done with the right hand, while using the left hand to touch the right wrist or arm. Likewise, one’s mouth is considered unclean. When individual glasses aren’t provided, the Nepali style of drinking from communal water jugs is to tilt your head back and pour the liquid into your mouth. Another ‘unclean’ body part is the feet. It is polite to take shoes off before entering temples and many homes, and to avoid pointing the soles of the feet towards people.
Ambiguity and uncertainty are a part of life in Nepal. Nothing happens on time, no-one is on time, and plans will rarely be achieved as hoped. Things may be promised at some point in the future (tomorrow, an hour, a few hours, next week), but whether or not these will eventuate is uncertain. As well as happening by chance, ambiguity is also often favoured over the directness of “no”. For example, a waiter may offer a different food if the one you ordered is not available, or people may point you in a random direction if you ask them directions and they don’t know the way. Although it’s a cliché, the best approach to life in Nepal is to expect the unexpected – or at least be flexible and open-minded when the unexpected inevitably occurs!
Article by Florence Reynolds.
Top image: Ananta Bhadra Lamichhane/Flickr