Friday, February 25, 2011

Lessons in Madal Tuning

I brought my madal to my music lesson today—carted it with me on the bus from Ektantakuna in my canvas Hollins bag—as Buddhalal had instructed me to bring it two weeks after I received it, so it could be tuned. As usual, I arrived early—Nepalis usually have the problem of arriving late (dhilo) I have the opposite problem of always arriving too early (chaaDho). I sat on a bench on one of the covered porticos, and listened to the tabla class above me and the dhimay class across the courtyard, and the one guy practicing various rhythms on an oversized madal in between them while I waited for my class to begin.

“You brought your madal today,” Buddhalal stated when he saw my canvas bag.

“Yes, for tuning,” I replied.

He took the madal from me and resounded the smaller head. His faced screwed up at the sound. “Oho,” he exclaimed, “heterika! [a Nepali expression equivalent to “wow” “geez” “dang” etc in English]” He resounded the larger head as well. “Sound is so small,” he commented.

He told me to watch as he tuned the instrument. He found the end of the rawhide lace that helped bind the two heads to the wood body, undid it, and began to tighten it like a shoelace. He braced the drum between his bare feet, and tugged on the rawhide until he reached the other end. He now had a longer tail than at the beginning.

“I need water,” he said, and went to the window and began calling names. He came back to wait for the water to be brought. A young man soon appeared, but without water; he rather carried a pair of pliers. Buddhalal began using the grip to tug the rawhide lace to make it as tight as possible. In the end though, part of the rawhide ended up breaking off.

“La!” he exclaimed. “What a problem! How to bind it again?”

After fiddling around with it, he exclaimed, “where is that water? I guess I’ll go get and bring it myself!” He left the room and came back shortly with a bowl of water and a rag. “This is to soften the rawhide,” he told me in answer to my question, “to make it more pliable and easier to work with.” He began soaking the broken end of the lace in the water. He was able to bind the broken piece to this end, giving him enough lace to tie the ends back together. “There!” he was pleased with himself. “Just like it was before!”

He then took the small metal hammer that he used to tune his tabla, and began banging on each of the heads. The pitch of the head rose with each stroke. Soon, it was to his liking, or at least satisfactory. “You’ll have to bring it back in two weeks to be tuned again,” he informed me.

“Ha, I’m always so tired after tuning,” he stated. I was not surprised; tightening the rawhide had taken quite a bit of energy.

I wonder if he’ll let me tune it myself the next time around?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Overcoming Timidity

“Bhajaunus,” Buddhalal—my madal instructor—told me as he removed his shoes at the door. As he grabbed a cushion from the stack in the corner and a madal for himself off the top shelf, he listened to me play the “Tamang Selo” rhythm he had given me. “There are lots of these selos, this is just one,” he had told me. After listening for a bit, he asked me, “are you ready for me to play the flute with you?”

“I’ll try,” was all I could say. Buddhalal called out the open door into the courtyard to one of the staff sitting in the sun—he spoke in Newar, but I assumed he was asking for a flute. A flute was passed up to him soon after that. “Oh, look at this! Some student must have bitten it with their teeth!” he showed me the chew marks on the instrument. Earlier, he had complained that all the covers for the tabla drums were missing. Students—they were so naughty. “Ok, here’s the melody.” He played it once for me on the flute at my request. Then, I began to accompany him.

“Not enough, not enough,” he stopped playing and shook his head. “You got ahead of me. I wasn’t there yet.”

“That’s a little too much,” he stopped again. “You lost count of the repetitions. Here, let me play it for you again.”

“Here, just play the rhythm for me…Oh, yes, see, you know it, you just don’t know the melody. You need to put that in your memory. Here, let me play it again for you….with practice, you’ll sound great.” He smiled broadly. Then, he said, “You need to clean up your sound, and have more precise rhythm. And, play louder.”

Producing volume has been the bane of my musical existence. “You have wonderful finger work, and you shade things so well,” my piano instructor in college would tell me, “but—I’m at the back of the concert hall. I can’t hear all that detail because you don’t play LOUD enough!”

“If you play louder,” Buddhalal told me, “then people will feel joyful when they hear it. If you play small and timid, they can’t enjoy it. And, you’ll enjoy it more, if you play louder. Try again—GHE…kha, ga, GHE…kha ga, GHE…” he began repeating the syllables to go along with the strokes, emphasizing first beat of each measure with a loud resounding beat on the larger drum head.

He wisely decided to give me a few rhythm patters in triple meter that made use of these loud, emphatic strokes.

“This tal (rhythm) goes well with mangal dhun,” he told me. “This melody is one for good, auspicious beginnings. It’s played at weddings, when the new bride and groom hold hands for the first time, and have their parents’ hands around theirs. It’s played when the first brick of a new building is laid. Learn the rhythm and I’ll play that on the flute next time. You just need to play with confidence!”

If banging around on drum heads doesn’t make me confident, I don’t know what will.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Adventures at the music department

“Oho, so you’re studying at Kathmandu University’s music department?” The immigration official asked me as he glanced over my paperwork.

I was one of many foreigners crowded around the desk in “room 106,” why, I’m not entirely sure. But apparently we needed this guy to dribble red ink all over our application forms as evidence of his approval so we could get our visas.

“Hajur,” I replied the affirmative.

“What will you be learning?”


“Oh, that’s easy! You just play ‘dang, dang’!” He dribbled red ink under the photo on my application and handed the stack of papers back to me. I managed a half smile and went back to the desk outside, crowded today mainly with foreign men who had apparently married Nepali women and were looking to get marriage visas.

I have discovered that playing madal involves more than ‘dang, dang.’ There’s lots of ‘na,’ ‘ti,’ ‘ga,’ and combinations thereof—‘ghe’ (ge and na combined), ‘tin’ (kha and ti combined). It involves sitting for long periods of time cross-legged on the floor with this double-headed drum across your lap. It can mean waiting for over an hour for your teacher to show up, because he lost his appointment book and forgot that your lesson at 9 was the first of his day, not the tabla class for undergrad students at 10. It can also include hearing stories concerning other foreign students. Such as “Miriam” from South Africa, who has been learning the same madal exercise for the past four months and still hasn’t mastered it. This is confusing for my teacher, for, she is from Africa; shouldn’t she have an innate sense of rhythm? “Its ok, she’s not sitting for exams,” my teacher said, “but, I get really bored after a while.”

So far, he’s given me a different exercise every time we’ve met. “So, what instruments do you play?” he asked on our first meeting. “Piano,” was my reply. “Oh, good, that means you know about music and can use both hands at the same time,” he said. “You’ll master the madal in four months or so. You can even play it in sangati,” he added, when he found out I was a Christian. He began singing the melody of “king of kings and lord of lords” to “la” and playing a rhythm to go with it—one that was a little more complicated than the one I was used to hearing accompany the song. “Just like that,” he smiled when done.

“Oh, if you go buy a madal, they’ll see your white face and charge you double,” he said when I inquired about where to buy a madal for practice purposes. “And, even if they gave you a fair price, you wouldn’t be able to tell if it’s a good or bad instrument. And you can’t just buy a ready-made madal—those are for tourists. You have to order one, a good one, and it will last you your lifetime. I’ll talk to a maker in Bhaktapur that I know, and order one for you. It will take about a week, and will probably cost around 2000 rupees.” A week later, I carted home a drum on my shoulder that cost me 1400 rupees, with instructions to bring it back in two weeks so he could tune it again. “The skins are new; they have to set, then be tuned again,” he told me. Not too different than having a new piano, I guess, which requires three or four tunings its first year as it accommodates to its new environment and parts. “So, bring it back in two weeks and we’ll do that.”

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On being a bridge

“Tori, do you ever find yourself being judgmental of the church in the West, since you’ve grown up here?”

This question was posed to me by a fellow TCK—Third Culture Kid—who I was able to meet up with again over Christmas, as he was visiting his family still working in Nepal.

His question, posed directly, had a sting to it that also brought a balm of relief. The sting because it was so blunt, the balm because it was good to know someone else had similar thoughts and was brazen enough to voice them.

The short answer: yes. The long answer: still yes.

The problem with being a TCK is that you are in fact a mixture of two cultures, quite literally, and you can’t always tell where one begins and the other ends (I won’t go into detail about how this can complicate the process of “reflexivity” for the purposes of ethnographic writing). It’s just your reality (in my own opinion, TCKs are a prime community for an ethnographic case study on culture and how porous the concept really is. Takers anyone? It would make an awesome doctoral dissertation!) And you happen to think it’s everyone’s reality because all the other kids you grow up around who have American passports (in my case) have similar experiences. So when you return to the States (in my case) and discover that golden calves on pedestals, taking diversity for granted, a rice diet, being able to speak two languages, among other things, is not everyone’s reality, it’s a bit of a culture shock. (And to your American peers, you act like you just emerged from ancient Israel. Thinking back, I probably have more in common with an ancient Israelite than I thought). Its also hard not to become arrogant when things like poverty, other religions, the supernatural, etc, are all seen as rather exotic when in fact these are part of your everyday experience too. And it’s hard to not be judgmental of a church where people don’t want to take risks in their faith, when you have friends overseas who have risked (and often lost) all for that faith. Its hard not to become jaded when congregation members at “home” have a problem with people of other skin colors attending their place of worship, yet praise your family for going to a foreign country to share the Gospel.

In my own experience, I’ve found there to be two choices: you either take the way of arrogance, or, you become a bridge. In the way of arrogance, its “Duh, buddy, (insert: Scripture is supposed to change the way you think/ your culture is not the only way things are done/ not everyone grows up wearing designer jeans, and they’re overpriced anyway). Have you been living under a rock all (fifteen/fourteen/thirteen) years of your life?!” This was, unfortunately, the way that I chose for much of high school.

Being a bridge is a little more involved. It takes a lot of humility, as it requires you to meet someone where they may be—be it “whatever, I don’t care what someone thinks, I’ll just share the Gospel with them” or “what woman wouldn’t wear bangles and eye liner and have long hair?”—and allow God to use your experience to expand the other person’s way of thinking. If the person doesn’t change their thought as soon as you think they should, or refuses to see a different way at all, it takes a lot of forgiveness, and in my case temper control, and faith to keep loving that person. It also means making yourself vulnerable to criticism (good and bad), or misunderstanding. Plus, it just takes a lot more energy.

It also means you have to step out there. Like, volunteer for a missions committee (scary!), and say something in response to the comment “drum kits have no place in church!” (proper response to that one: “Handel’s Messiah has no place in church!”). Being a bridge goes the opposite way too. I had a conversation with a Nepali brother right before Christmas where he commented that many people in Nepal don’t know the true meaning of Christmas, even though it is a national public holiday. For many, it’s just a day when you get together with friends and family, go on a picnic, and have a nice time off. He was shocked when I told him the same concept ruled in the States and many other Western countries.

Has God been working on my judgmental sieve? Of course. Over the years, He’s shown me time and time again how many logs I carry around in my own eyes. And Christ’s promise of rest grows ever more appealing when you work cross culturally and become heavy laden and weary from interacting with two cultures who oftentimes don’t seem to “get” each other.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Secrets that aren’t secrets about Nepal

“Tori, what is the thing about Nepal that most tourists don’t seem to get?” Carly asked me this when she, LeAnna and I visited the Swayambunath stupa--a Tibetan Buddhist temple complex overlooking the Kathmandu Valley--over Christmas break.

“That Nepal is characterized by violence,” I said.

It’s partly Nepal’s fault. They advertise themselves as a Shangri-la, where numerous religions coexist in harmony. But much of this coexistence has caused religious and political friction, which at times has erupted in blood-letting violence. The history of the Shah royal family and the Ranas is one story. While the Kot Massacre of 1846 and the most recent royal massacre in 2001 are perhaps highlighted, the interactions of the families are consistently riddled with intrigue, murder, madness and getting rid of rivals. The recent Maoist civil war, which officially lasted from 1996 to 2006, was another incident. Politically, the country has had constant instability, especially since 1990, which has erupted in riots and fights that have included more than a few injuries and deaths (the Hithrik Roshan riots in early 2001 being perhaps the most bizarre).

But interactions between ethnic groups have also contained a fair amount of friction. The relationship between the Tharu—especially the Dangaura Tharu—and the Parbatiya, or hill-folk who rule the country, is one example. Its one example of internal colonization, where much like in the United States, land was the issue. Once malaria was eradicated in the 1950s and 60s, people from the hills moved in and registered lands formerly inhabited by the Tharu in their own names, making these people their tenants or bonded laborers. Incidents like this culminated in the Tharu—who span the Terai—forming their own ethnic identity, despite the fact that they are a very diverse people, both in language and culture, often not having anything in common other than living in the Terai and becoming bonded laborers.

That’s the other thing short term visitors don’t always see: how complicated and diverse the Nepali people are. There is no one “Nepali” ethnic group. When I go to the Shahi house, I only understand about half the conversations the family has; that’s because half their conversation is in Newari, and half of it is in Nepali. They are Newar both culturally and linguistically, but Nepali has been an integral part of their entire lives as the national language, used everyday in the government, economic, and educational spheres. There’s a family of Tamangs in my congregation; the ladies will often wear their traditional dress to special functions like Christmas or the anniversary celebration. More than once, people in my congregation have greeted me or started conversations with me in their own mother-tongues, just to see me smile and shake my head. I’ve been a part of two songwriting workshops for (culturally) Tibetan congregations. Within them, the languages of Lhomi, Kagate, Sherpa, Lowa, Hyolmo and Tibetan have been used. We will sing songs from each of these groups, but then will usually bookend them with popular Nepali choruses. Interacting with the Tharu on my most recent trip I ate new kinds of food, listened to a new language, and made me feel like I’d arrived back at square one when it came to learning about Nepali culture.

I’m still learning about this wonderfully complicated place called “Nepal”…

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

“Tenzing, you need your own bideshi!”

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned

My work at the office varies from day to day. Mostly, it involves editing English documents—annual reports, drafts of grants, my Nepali boss’s articles, various forms that are supposed to amount to ‘accountability’ for foreign donor agencies—but I’ve also re-done bulletin boards, made photocopies, collected/edited material for the website, phoned liasons at embassies, mingled with linguists/politicians, made two trips to Dang, and numerous trips across town to various partner agencies that are based in the Kathmandu Valley. The most recent project my British boss has given me involves creating a template of a cultural calendar for Upper Mustang in the form of a Tibetan thangka painting. My job is to create a platform and provide the needed text from which a thangka artist could then actually create the work of art. The idea is that this calendar will generate income for the NGO with whom we partner in conducting literacy classes in that area, as well as be good PR for the work they do.

While I was working on this, the director of the NGO that works in Upper Mustang dropped by. “Oho, Tori, jaimashee and tashi deley!” he greeted me. I returned the greeting. As I drew big circles on the sheet of butcher paper I had taped/nailed down to a desk, the director commented to my British boss, “There are three bideshis [foreigners] in this office now. I think you should—sshht” he motioned with his hand out the door, “send one of them to my office.” He laughed to indicate that he was joking.

“Tenzing, you need your own bideshi,” my boss commented, in a more serious manner. “I’ll talk to a few people and see what can be done.”

Bideshis—useful creatures they are. They are self-supported, so you don’t have to pay them; they’re committed and have a good work ethic; usually, they can be full of good ideas; if you have one working for you, your credibility with Western donors goes up, and the prestige of your organization in the eyes of other Nepalis often rises too. They offer amusement on the side, everything from language and cultural fo-paus to continually getting certain sicknesses that usually manifest themselves in diharrea. Of course, the latter can curb their work productivity.

As a woman, I’m finding that there are other ideas concerning foreign women as well, and most of them very unflattering. Foreign women are loose, free, both in dress and speech and action. Isn’t this how they’re portrayed in films, and represented by celebrities? Vulnerable in a new culture, they can easily be taken advantage of for everything from financial to sexual favors. The pretence of guiding them through the culture can be an easy in for these favors. But at the same time, if they’re single, they’re just dangerous anyway, all that unbridled sexual energy, and no one to keep them accountable. Their parents must have been unable to find them a husband in their own country; that’s why they’ve come to Nepal, to get a husband, and heck, why shouldn’t that be me/my son/my brother? Why shouldn’t I/he be the recipient of a green card, foreign passport, and foreign financial backing? And think, then, the rest of the family can leave this undeveloped Nepal too and go to other lands with more opportunity!

What’s a girl to do in the face of all this? Express your femininity in ways familiar to them. Wear kurtas and scarves, and even appropriate jewelry. Sometimes, a nose piercing does help, depending on the people group you’re working with. Speak Nepali when at all possible, but then again, with discretion—sometimes, it’s a good idea if they don’t know you speak Nepali. Don’t be rude, but let them know your attention is elsewhere: on public transportation, wear a face mask (it keeps dirt out, covers your white face, and inhibits conversation) wear earbuds (even if you’re not listening to music), or read a book. Don’t be afraid to let your boundaries be known. If conversation with a male friend gets weird, ask how their mother or sister is. It’s also ok to tell them you’re busy and need to be home by a certain time and (politely) decline additional offers for food/ tea/ hang out time. Just hang up the phone on the weird guy who dialed the wrong number and tries to flatter you with “Truly? You’re not Nepali? You sound just like one! I live in Thapatali—“ It helps to have discretionary and wise male bosses as well, who trust your cultural savviness but recognize the challenges that accompany being a young, single, white woman, and act on your behalf to lessen possible dangers or awkwardness. Giving introductions, even if through phone calls, on your behalf can be extremely helpful. And last but not least, seek the company of Nepali women, be it relationships at church or sharing a seat with them on a bus.

Sometimes though, you can’t control what comes to other’s minds when the see your single, white and female status. In those cases, you just pray like crazy for discretion and that nothing will happen to risk your well being or honor, or the integrity of the work you’ve come to do.

I’m all for being some office’s token bideshi if my skills set fills a need in their organization. But I’d rather not unnecessarily risk my personal honor and dignity, or the organization’s integrity.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Adventures in House Sitting

The dog refused to eat for two days. Actually, she agreed to only eat pancakes—the last thing her “mother” had made her before leaving for a winter vacation in India. Thankfully, she began eating “normal” Nepali dog food—bread and milk, rice, and whatever leftovers I had for her to finish—and I didn’t have to become an expert at making pancakes.

We are now down to about six hours of electricity during the day. It comes on for about six hours and then leaves for six hours. Unfortunately, the inverter is only good for about five hours of electricity, if that. And because the electricity is on a different schedule daily, there is often only three hours between electrical cuts, which doesn’t give the inverter enough time to fully charge. When the thing starts beeping, I begin by unhooking by computer, then flicking off lights one by one. There has been more than one time where I have been down to candles.

The wireless router is attached to a separate inverter, which doesn’t have as long a battery life as the one that powers the rest of the house. Unfortunately, the router and inverter are locked in the home office, so when the inverter runs out of juice, I can’t turn it off to stop its continually beeping. It doesn’t help that the office is across the hall from my room. After a while, it just becomes white noise, but my ears do hurt if I listen too long, so I try to leave the house, or if its at night, my iPod is a welcome distraction.

The family has their drinking water delivered to them. I don’t know how the dude in the company office figures out where I live—I just tell him I need water and live behind Roadhouse CafĂ©. Last time I called for water, a tanker showed up. Thankfully, that one wasn’t for me—it was for the house two doors down—but my guys came at the same time. They carried the huge, 50+lb water bottles on their shoulders to my place.

The family I am house sitting for has been very generous with their resources. I got a phone call from a friend of theirs—on my mobile—who had left her red bike in their care; she was back in town now and wanted to know when I was home so she could pick it up? Another friend came knocking on the gate one night, returning a large frying pan and several wine glasses she had borrowed. Their house help comes to work three days a week—to clean the house, do any laundry I may have, and feed the dog if I happen to be out of town for the day—the rest of the week, she works at the guest house the family runs. A random family friend showed up today from out of town; I informed him that they were on vacation and would be back this coming weekend. I would let them know he came calling. My job has become to coordinate all this in addition to just keeping the house.

The house has a well for its main water supply. There is an electric pump that shoots the water up to the holding tank on the roof. This pump is supposed to be run daily, for 5 to 10 minutes. With the erratic electricity schedule, I have to remind myself constantly when to run it. If it isn’t run for more than 48 hours, it tends to sound sick for a while, and not work as well.

The family does have a car—a very old jeep. It would be fun to drive, especially since driving on roads in Kathmandu is like going off-road. Except I refuse to drive in Kathmandu; my defensive driving capabilities are not that strong. Instead, I content myself and run/warm the car twice a week to keep the battery from dying. It’s not nearly as exciting.

The dog decided to run away one morning when I went to church. Thankfully, the neighbors saw her and brought her into their place. She has now spent more time in her little house on the side yard than she would probably like. She now tries to escape under the gate when I’m home as well. Stupid dog. Thankfully, her family is coming back in four days.

I wonder if house sitting in the States is this involved. I’m sure it depends on whom you sit for.