Friday, February 8, 2013

Thoughts About Hospitality

My pastor in the States has been on a series on Romans for quite some time now. A recent sermon was on the little phrase, “seek to show hospitality,” in Romans 12:13. He used an illustration from the church’s recent past of hospitality gone wrong: they used to have a “hospitality night” on the fifth Sunday night of a month, where church members had the opportunity to sign up as a “host” or “guest”; and people would be hosted in other’s homes. After some time, they noticed that the same people were signing up as “hosts” and “guests.” So the pastor sent the person in charge of the ministry to survey all the “guests” and see why they never signed up as “hosts”. The surveyor gave the pastor the answers, with names detached. Here are a few that my pastor received:

“My yard really needs landscaped.”

“I don’t have the gift of hospitality. I have the gift of being a guest.”

“I’m too lazy.”

“I’m not a good cook.”

“It takes too much effort to clean my house.”

My pastor commented that all these answers revealed a skewed understanding of hospitality. Hospitality is not social entertaining, where the focus is on the host and how well s/he can entertain. In Christian hospitality, the focus is on meeting the needs of another person. Hospitality can happen in a messy house, while the host and guest do chores, and over a dinner of canned soup. Hospitality is about telling someone “I have room in my life for you.”

I have been the recipient of numerous aspects of hospitality in Tharu homes. The Tharu are famed for their hospitality—not because they are great hosts and entertain their guests; rather, they show that they have room in their lives for others.

Anita and her sister came over to the house I live in while researching in Dang. They had come to get photos of a recent family wedding from me; Anita had her pin drive on which she wanted me put them. After doing this for her, Anita phoned my didi—host sister—to see if she had really gone fishing in this cold weather. She had me talk to her over the phone. My didi asked where Anita et al were. “They’re downstairs,” I said, as instructed.

“Did you give them the photos?”

“Yes, they’re on Anita’s pin drive now.”

“Are you going to their house now?”

“In a bit.”

“Ok, well, make tea for them first, then go.” My didi had recently entrusted me with making my own tea in the afternoons. Though she still surprised me sometimes—like coming in from her work in the fields unexpectedly in the afternoon, just to scramble an egg and make tea for me while I worked away at typing notes on my computer. “I thought you might be hungry,” she would explain as she left to go back to the field. Like I should be the one who was hungry from work?!

“Alright,” I replied.

Anita and her sister first said for me to go to their house for tea; they didn’t want to cause me dukha [pain or suffering]. “What dukha?” I asked. “I boil water and throw in tea. It’s easy!”

So I made the tea; I even added sugar and black pepper. Before giving it to them, I warned them that it might not be sweet enough; I rarely put sugar in my own tea. The grandmother—my didi’s mother-in-law—took a sip. “Gulio chaina [its not sweet]” she placidly commented before taking another sip. Anita smiled, “It’s fine.” They did me the honor of drinking my unsweetened tea.

“Do you like popcorn?” Anita asked me. I replied affirmative. “Then come over to my place and I’ll make you some.”

On the way over, she asked me how old I was. “Twenty-six,” I replied.

“Then I will call you didi [older sister],” she said. “I just turned twenty-two.”

I did some math in my head. “How old were you when you got married?” I asked.

She smiled slyly. “Fourteen!”

A love marriage at fourteen?! The biggest decisions I made at age fourteen were what Friday electives I wanted to take at school, and whether I should go to Sunday night youth fellowship or not because I wasn’t sure I really enjoyed it.

Anita continued: “My husband is three or four years older than me. Our little girl is now six years old.”

We arrived at her home. She and her daughter live in a small room above a kitchen, in the same building as her in-law’s livestock. She started a wood fire the chimney-less kitchen; smoke soon filled the room, smarting both our eyes. “Don’t worry,” she told me, “it will stop in a minute.” She was right. The smoke rose and drifted out the open door into the yard. She started laying on dried cow paddies for fuel. “We Nepalis are poor,” she explained, “so we burn dried cow dung. But it makes good fuel.”

Soon, she had a clay pot on the fire, in which she popped corn and roasted soybeans. We continued our conversation over these hot snacks—she asking about the States, I asking after her husband. Her husband currently works abroad, as a migrant worker like so many Nepalis. “I don’t like it that he’s abroad,” Anita said. “But what to do? There’s so much unemployment in Nepal.” She said that he works in Malaysia, in a plastics factory, making plastic jugs and putting the company’s stickers on them. He comes back once every two or three years. “He just left again, about five months ago,” she said.

She also told me that she’s not Tharu; she’s Pahadi (from the hills). I had suspected as much; she had the bridged nose and more angular features of a Pahadi rather than the characteristic round moon face of Tharu women. I had also heard her speaking in Nepali to her daughter, while everyone else spoke to the little girl in Tharu. How was that, marrying into a Tharu house? I asked. “Oh, it was so hard—it was like you, coming from the States to Nepal! I didn’t speak the Tharu language; I didn’t know if people were scolding me or complimenting me! My husband taught me though. It took me a year. Now, I’m fluent.”

Her mother-in-law came in after a while; she wanted Anita to come cook at their place that night, to make their dinner. As their daughter-in-law, they had the right to her labor. I went with her to the main house. The mother-in-law brought in a basket of greens. She told me to pluck the coriander leaves from the stems, and the dead ends off the green onions, and to peel the onion bulbs.

After finishing this, I got up to leave. The mother-in-law asked me to stay for dinner. I told her that I had already committed to going to the neighbor’s place that night; they were having a good-bye party for some family members returning to work abroad, and had promised to record a song for me. I would come have dinner at their place another time. She had me take dhikiri—steamed rolls of rice dough—to my didi. “These are from Bishna’s aunts,” she said, recalling her newly married daughter. These must have been left over from the wedding feast. Once I got home, these treats were happily devoured by my didi’s sons, just returned from school.

One of the pastors I recently interviewed commented that he liked the hospitality of the Tharu; it naturally provided an opportunity to share the Gospel. “Most people just ask us ‘why have you come? What work do you have?’ However, the Tharu first ask you to sit, they give you water, then they ask why you have come.” Their hospitality provides a space to share the Gospel.

Is hospitality a burden? My pastor commented that the Apostle Paul’s soul expanded as he embraced new believers—at first strangers, to become beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. While none of my new Tharu acquaintances in this particular village are believers, I am still humbled—and challenged—that they would show such kindness to a stranger like myself. And while we’re still new to each other, we’re no longer complete strangers. My didi asked me as I left the house, to begin my roundabout journey back to Kathmandu, when I would return? I said in about a month’s time. She said to call them when I knew the exact date, so they could expect me. And she plopped a fried egg on my plate, right after I had finished my rice, before I could protest. “Bahini [little sister], anda khau [eat the egg],” she lovingly commanded.