Post-Program Reflections

I’ve been back two weeks now, and the semester is going in full force. As I reflect upon my time in Kathmandu, I’m filled with many emotions – from love to nostalgia to fear of losing the language I worked so hard to learn. Sometimes I dream I’m back in Nepali class trying to form the best sentences I can. ‘Is this how to say ‘Even though….’?’ my sleep-filled brain asks itself. I wake up realizing I’m back in my own bed in South Bend feeling bewildered and amused.

Post-experience reflections can be an important way to incorporate new experiences into our every day lives, which is why I am happy to do this final, SLA reflection blog post. I’m honored to have participated in the RYI Nepali program with the SLA extended network and the Kathmandu communities. I look forward to going back to Nepal and meeting all the friends I made there again.

Reflect on your language learning and acculturation during your SLA experience. What insights did you gain into the language acquisition process? How did you engage and understand cultural differences? Did you meet your goals for language learning that you articulated on the blog before you started your program? Why or why not?

I found that learning a language is hard, especially with the summer heat, mud up to your ankles, monsoons pouring down, and, of course, the summer flu that’s had been going around. I learned that there’s more to a language than the grammar. There’s the formalities, the informalities, the culture, the slights, the friendship in each phrase, interaction, and exchange. While I reached my goals for learning Nepali technically, I quickly realized how much more I have to learn. I found that volunteering and watching Nepali songs with my homestay sister took time away from my studying, but they also taught me about the culture that the language class couldn’t. I also learned that it’s ok to be tired and to make mistakes. Friends and teachers will still be there and there’s nothing like a good tea and snack to make studying for that test go a little bit better.

Reflect on your SLA experience overall. What insights have you brought back as a result of this experience? How has your summer language abroad changed you and/or your worldview? What advice would you give to someone who was considering applying for an SLA Grant or preparing to start their own summer language study?

I had breakfast with one of my teachers the day after the program to get some feedback on the next steps for my language learning. Other than telling me I need to work on not mixing up my vowels (which came as no shock), what he said next surprised me. ‘I really appreciated your class’s ability to take criticism and not be defensive.’ Defensive? I guess it makes sense – learning a language and being immersed into a new culture is hard. I’ve lived abroad before for extended periods, but this was my first time in a homestay, and I can say that while rewarding, not having personal space or control of one’s schedule can also take some getting used to. This on top of all the studying and adapting to new food and a new environment – it adds up to a challenging experience. While I accepted my teacher’s complement on our lack of defensiveness, it made perfect sense that being defensive is a natural response. For this reason, my advice to someone applying for an SLA grant or preparing to start their own summer language study is to know that these challenges exist, but that the rewards will come in turn. It’s important to be kind to yourself and others. Take a break, splurge on a nice cookie when the studying is tough. Make friends and rely on their support. It’s a hard – and incredibly rewarding – journey.

How do you plan to use your language and intercultural competences in the future? Where do you go from here? How will you maintain, grow and/or apply what you have learned? How might you use your SLA experience during the rest of your academic career and post-graduation? How will your SLA experience inform you as you move forward academically, personally and professionally?

I’m lucky to have found a Nepali language partner here in South Bend that I will begin meeting with soon to keep up the language. I want to chat with her informally and translate articles about the earthquake or politics so that I can hone in my vocabulary. This experience taught me that learning a language warrants one’s full attention, and I am hoping RYI offers intermediate Nepali next summer so that I can give it another go. This past summer, I fell in love with Kathmandu all over again, and I can’t wait to visit again, whether that be for a language course or my dissertation fieldwork.

Academically, I hope my language skills help me connect with the Nepali communities as I do my research so that my research reflects the country and citizens I’m studying. I want the voices of Nepali citizens to shine through my work, and I want my work to be relevant and useful for those affected by the disaster and for those who want to encourage political participation. Personally, I want to use my language skills to connect with people, to make friends and expand my personal community. Professionally, I hope to be able to become even more connected to amazing Nepali research community.

Saris and Goodbyes: फेरी भेटौला नेपाल!

Studying for the final exam

So, the semester has come to an end. I feel tired and sad and happy and nervous that I’m going to forget everything and hopeful to learn more – in other words, it was a great time, and I really hope to be able to do intermediate next summer.

Us practicing how to wear saris after class

For the end of the semester celebration, our teacher Pavitra and some of the language partners helped us learn how to put on saris – a traditional South Asian dress. I have worn saris before, but it never fails to astound me how much fabric they are to tote around with you. It’s fairly simple in theory – there is a petticoat and a blouse, and then the actual sari – a long piece of fabric you pleat and fold around you in an elegant way. Luckily, Moona (my homestay ‘mother’) was at home the day of the party to help me put mine on since, although Pavitra is a great teacher (of both Nepali and putting on saris!), I think it’s going to take more than a couple lessons for me to really ‘get’ the art of donning a sari.

Me and Phoebe with the language partners, our teacher Pavitra, and my homestay little sister at the end of the semester party.

For the actual party, my homestay sister picked out one of her mom’s for me (a beautiful bright purple one with jewels), and Moona expertly pleated it, telling me when to tuck it into my petticoat and when to wrap it around. I loved having it on, but my little sister had to keep reminding me to hold the front up as I walked so I wouldn’t trip. It was hard work.

Nepali class and language partners being silly before our talent show performance – Kutama Kutu

Even so, that didn’t stop us from dancing at the end of the night to a super catchy traditional Tibetan jam and getting tons of complements for our enthusiasm to wear saris. We sang a popular Nepali song for the talent show and ate good food and cheered on other classes as they showed off their talents. It was a great time.

Eating daal bhat for lunch with class and some of the language partners

It’s hard to imagine that I’ll never be with this same group of people again in quite the same way, but I do feel assured that we will all cross paths in the future. The research community in Nepal has been amazing, and the language partners and teachers have truly become my friends. I look forward to the program next year (fingers crossed) and to meeting my new language partner back at home.


Gharials, Tigers, and Conservation, oh my!

Some of us on our field trip to Namo Buddha

One of the best things about this program (other than the Nepali language instruction, of course!) is all of the amazing researchers I have been able to meet. From art historians and medical anthropologists to linguists and zoologists, I’ve been able to learn so much about Nepal that I would not have otherwise.

One zoologist currently studying at Oxford in England, Phoebe Griffith, generously offered to come speak to the fellows I volunteer with at Samaanta Foundation. My classmates and I have found Phoebe an endless resource of knowledge about animals in Nepal. Over midterm break, she even took us out into the forrest to search for Chinese pangolins, an endangered armadillo-like animal that are quite rare (and hard to find, luckily, since they are often poached) and whatever other animals we could come across. (I’m sad to say, I aborted the mission pretty quickly as I watched with horror the growing number of leeches collect on my shoes and legs. Those little suckers move so fast for things so small!) I was thrilled when she agreed to give a presentation to the fellows on gharials, an endangered crocodilian species that can be found in Nepal’s jungle region.

Talking about conservation

In preparation for her talk, I lead a discussion with the fellows on conservation – we all learned so much! Some of the fellows that study biology told us all about different conservation efforts in Nepal and what conservation means to them. Even the fellows that don’t formally study biology had read about conservation in books or in the news. I left with the impression that a significant portion of Nepali youth hold conservation to be an important part of the country’s future. I found myself wondering about these dynamics in the context of my research interests on natural disasters and civil/political participation. It will be exciting to see how Nepal’s conservation efforts evolve in the coming years.

Talk at Samaanta about gharials

Phoebe’s talk was as wonderful as we had hoped for. We learned about how different species of crocodilians eat different things, are different sizes, and have different habits. Gharials, for example, are of no threat to humans (they only eat fish!) and are actually great parents to their babies. They can grow to be quite big, though at the moment the population in Nepal is very small and the adults are not as big as their species can grow to be. The knob at the end of the males’ noses can be used to make sounds like big POP!s that act as forms communication. Currently, the gharial population is threatened by their being caught in fishing nets, sand mining (for concrete), and manmade dams. Education programs are underway to help people get to know what they can do to help save the Nepali gharial populations.

Class trip (including some of our language partners!) to Namo Buddha

As the language program is coming to an end, I find myself reflecting on how lucky I am to have been able to get to know such a diverse group of people – the Nepali youth at Samaanta Foundation, the network of researchers learning languages at the institute, the teachers, my homestay family, and even the taxi drivers and shop keepers in and around Boudha. I am sure my research will be benefited not only from my having learned Nepali, but also from being able to learn more about this country and the culture and peoples housed within.

Saag, Saag, and more Saag

Takaari for sale in an alley in front of the institute

Though Nepal is a country of diverse peoples (which means many different types of foods!), one might think of daal bhat as a very ubiquitous Nepali dish. Daal bhat translates literally into ‘lentils’ and ‘rice,’ but it’s often much more than that. Like in many South Asian countries, daal bhaat in Nepal includes other sides to complement the lentil soup and rice, including a seasonal vegetable (takaari) mix, pickles (achaar), and a leafy green side, or saag.

Saag for sell

Which brings me to saag. Saag generally means leafy green vegetable, but actually there so many different types that it’s hard to keep them straight. Chinese leafy greens, mustard greens, spinach…. The list goes on.

Dinner at my house

At my homestay, I’ve found my favorite are ‘pumpkin greens.’ First things first – Moona, the wife/mother in my homestay family, is an amazing cook, so anything she cooks is to die for. (One of the first things I learned how to say without even having to think about it was mito cha! – it’s delicious!) However, I’ve found that despite all being greens, there are definitely differences in the texture and eating experience of the different saags. In my opinion, pumpkin greens just can’t be beat. Mixed with the achaar, bhat, daal, and curry dish, they add the perfect texture and taste to the whole experience, and I just can’t get enough of them. I haven’t yet eaten with my hands this trip, which is the way my family and many Nepali people eat (and which some claim to actually change the way the dish tastes), but I plan to try that soon.

Pumpkin greens cooking on the stove at my homestay house

To prepare pumpkin greens, you must first tear off the fibrous outer layer of the stem as you break it into smaller pieces. The first time I saw Omkar, the husband/dad in my homestay family, doing this, I asked to help. For every one of the sections I did, Omkar had done three, but it was still nice to be able to help and learn how to prepare my favorite greens.

Takaari seller going on his way

I am going to miss daal bhat (and especially Moona’s cooking) so much when I am back in the states, but luckily I recently bought a cookbook to bring back with me. Hopefully it won’t be long before I’ll be replicating some flavors of Nepal in South Bend, IN.

Midterm Break, Hills, and Himals

The clouds cleared for just an hour or so so we could see the snow topped mountains

Time is going faster than I can even keep up with – this is the end of the 5th week, with only three more left! After our midterm exams, we had a four day weekend holiday – two of which I spent on a field trip to Nagarkot – a little get-away from Kathmandu where one can see the mountains even in the monsoon season (if they’re lucky – which we were!).

The hills around Kathmandu – seen here behind Boudha stupa – are not mountains (हिमाल) but hills (पहाड).

Here in Nepal, I’ve been corrected numerous times for saying how pretty the ‘mountains’ (हिमाल) were around Boudha. The problem is, in a country with 8 of the 14 tallest mountains (the 8,000-ers, which includes Sagarmaathaa [सगरमाथा], also known as Everest), ‘mountain’ very specifically means a mountain with snow on the top year around. A ‘mountain’ without snow is actually a pahaaD (पहाड).

Excited for the himals!

This language differentiation makes perfect sense (even if I probably will still continue to call the little mountain-hills I normally hike on back at home ‘mountains’), and when one sees the majestic snow caps, one can really see how different the पहाडहारु and हिमालहारु are. In Nagarkot, we were so lucky that the monsoon rains and mist cleared for a moment to see the snow tops. They were so white, it almost gave us headaches gazing at them for too long. We were so happy – calling to everyone still inside to come share the view with us.

On the way home to Kathmandu

Even when the mountains weren’t out, the break was great – I feel the few days just to breath fresh air and wander around really helped the language sink in. It’s almost scary to think of how little time we have left to learn so much more. Luckily, everyone here is so helpful and I’ve found a language partner back in South Bend who agreed to help me over the next school year. I’m already thinking of all the things I’m going to miss in this city and program, but hopefully I’ll be back soon for research – and with a new language skill at that!


Buses, Volunteering, Monsoons, and Mud

Nepali class second week of class

I’m currently in the middle of my third week and I am amazed by how much I’ve already learned. I feel I know enough Nepali to be understood at least part of the time, even if I can mostly only ask very confusing things in probably slightly inappropriate tenses. My big success this week was taking a local bus by myself to and from Samaanta Foundation, where I started volunteering twice a week helping the fellows develop their professional English skills. It really forced me to get out of my comfort zone and use my Nepali – and for such a good cause of getting to and from the foundation where I get to hang out and help a great group of Nepali college-aged fellowship recipients.

The second floor of the institute with some light monsoon clouds hanging overhead

Going by bus was slightly terrifying at first. The roads here in the city are confusing and dense, and busy times can be a frenzied flurry of people, animals, vehicles, and mud (especially in monsoon season). However, both ways I was befriended as I tried my hardest to speak Nepali – first to ask after the bus fair and second to chat about my destination.

Monsoon rains can turn roads into rivers!

The woman I befriended on the way to the foundation ended up having great English – we spoke a bit in both languages as she told me she was moving abroad soon to join her husband. Nepal has a large portion of economic migrants leaving the country to work elsewhere – a phenomenon I’d love to explore more in my research down the line. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to talk to my new friend for long before my stop came up and I hopped off, happy as a clam that I had actually ended up where I was trying to go.

Boudha neighborhood from the roof of my classmate’s house

The way back to Boudha began with me being walked to the stop by one of the fellows who was eager to make sure I got to my bus safely. On our walk, he told me about his village and how beautiful it was, even if the opportunities there were extremely limited. Higher education isn’t available where he is from, so the fellowship enables him to study in Kathmandu and be introduced to new opportunities and resources. Like this one student, many of the fellows have overcome great difficulties to pursue their education, including a dearth of resources, destruction from the earthquake, and a lack of access to institutions. I was awed by how eager these students were to improve their language skills and to learn about the world around them – volunteering at Samaanta is truly going to be a highlight of my summer stay here in Kathmandu.

On a Nepali local bus

Once I was safely on the bus, two teenage girls sat (or squashed) next to me, giggling to themselves about whatever it is teenage girls giggle about. It wasn’t long before they were offering me their chips almost unceremoniously – as if it were expected we would just be sharing. Nepali actually has an interesting construction – or lack thereof – of possession in some instances. When asking if one has something like chips or pencils, for example, you don’t use a direct or possessive construction, but instead ask if that thing is ‘with’ someone. In other words, you’d ask ‘Is there a bag of chips with you?’ instead of ‘Do you have a bag of chips?’ I’m not sure whether or not this actually implies a sort of communal possession of items like pencils and chips, but it is certain that many things are actually shared in practice here (including water, which I think might be why one can see people pouring the water into their mouths without touching the bottle – even if it’s ‘their’ bottle). It’s a bit of a different concept of ownership than we have in the West, but it can be quite lovely.

After we had been sharing their chips for a while, one of the girls finally got enough courage to ask me where I’m going (in English), and I replied (in Nepali) and we all did a fist bump in celebration. It was great. We continued the bus ride with them helping me with my flashcards and squishing closer as rush hour picked up until we (finally) arrived at our destination. At Boudha, they paid my fair without me realizing it, and we parted with many smiles and salutations. I can’t explain how wonderful it made me feel to be a part of something so small, yet so expansive and meaningful.

The days are going by so fast here, and I can only trust that the language is seeping in where it can. It’s almost overwhelming to meet so many wonderful and interesting people, but I can’t wait to see what else the summer has to offer.

(Bonus: Pictures from our field trip to Swayambhu Temple this past weekend, our teacher’s birthday celebration, and our 4th of July pizza party below.)

नमस्ते नेपाल! (Namaste Nepal!)

Patan Durbar Square right before a monsoon downpour. (The construction is rebuilding from the 2015 Nepali earthquake.)

Despite still suffering from a bit of jetlag, I’ve officially been here one week! Orientation began this past Wednesday, and the days have been an exciting blur. The past few months I’ve been so focused on the fact that this was an intensive summer course (how else would you learn a language in such a short time!) that I didn’t give much thought to how wonderful everyone would be. My teachers are amazing (and already piling on the homework!), the staff is supportive and caring, my fellow students are incredibly diverse and lovely, and the cultural field trips are a real treat. (See the bottom of this post for some pictures from our Patan tour this past Friday.) The Boudha community has also been so welcoming and patient – helping me find an umbrella for the monsoon downpours and pointing me in the right direction when I’m lost.

Boudha stupa in Boudhanath – the neighborhood of the institute.

The institute itself is housed on the edge of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery and includes courses such as Sanskrit, Buddhist studies, Classical Tibetan, and Colloquial Tibetan (as well as Nepali, of course). There are about 100 students here from all over the world studying anything from the languages of remote Nepali ethnic groups to the history of Nepali religious rituals and even to the endangered crocodiles in Chitwan. I’m learning so much.

As far as class goes, next week we move from the alphabet on to actual words and phrases, and I’m both excited and nervous about learning so much material. One thing I don’t have to worry about, though, is lacking support. I’m really lucky to have such a great community to help me during this process, and I can’t wait to see what the next few months bring!