I keep noticing how public and private spaces are very different in Nepal compared to the US. We were warned about this at the Fulbright Pre-Departure Orientation in DC last June. We were told to lock a closed door if we didn’t want someone to come in (if we were changing, etc.) because a closed door did not send the same message of privacy preferred as it does in the US. I have found this to be true. We were also told that people will ask questions that seem more forward than would be considered polite in the US. Such as how much money we make (answer: “Enough to eat and stay”), my age, if I’m married and have kids, and how old my parents are. My mom is five years older than my dad and this generates a lot of surprise and commentary because that is unheard of here.
I’ve been thinking a lot about different cultural norms of privacy and discretion. Where and how ideas of privacy and openness come from. Could aspects of daily life that lend themselves toward more open-ness? And I think so. It is interesting to think about how the organization of space and the level of infrastructure in commerce and the ability to reliably store or refrigerate goods like meat could trickle down and shift ideas and cultural practices around privacy. Cultural Materialism is a perspective in cultural anthropology that suggests that the material realities of infrastructure, such as economic, demographic, and technological factors, drive the structures and superstructures of culture. In this case, structures are the political and social systems of operation and superstructures are the symbolic or ideological systems. I’m definitely not making a full study of this, but I can say the demographics and economics of Nepal do affect the structures and social systems (like local commerce), which itself does affect some of the symbolic and ideological beliefs and interactional styles.
The neighborhood set up of houses and shops are set up in a way that fosters a very different kind of social system around purchasing and consumption. Most shopping occurs at small, family-run stores (versus large corporate-owned franchises, as in the US). These are small and open and you can see everything from the counter, so you tell the shopkeeper what you want. As you walk by you can immediately tell what kind of shop it is. All the action is in the front. As a customer, your purchases and needs are more known to the community. They are said out loud, they are part of a more elaborate exchange than in an American style grocery store, where you select your own goods and bring them to the front and the person ringing you up is not your neighbor.
In the US, we have more separation from our neighbors. Or at least our business and our neighborhoods rarely dovetail as much as they do here (or in most other places in the world). In the US in the post-WWII boom, as people moved out of the cities and into the newly forming suburbs, the construction of these new houses reoriented shared space away from the front of the house and the street and towards the backyard. This shifted the neighborhood social dynamics considerably. In Nepal houses are generally oriented with the front area or front porch as the central outdoor gathering area. It’s very easy to see what people are up to and to have them know what you’re up to. It’s one reason, when in a homestay in the city, I did not return much later than dark (so as not to generate gossip). Also, life really slows down around dark here. Nepalis go to bed fairly early (it’s all quiet by 9 or 10) and get up very early (5 am). I imagine people who visit her from Spain have a very hard time with this schedule.
In the rural areas in Chitwan near my research center and where I did my homestay the houses are generally quite small and the socialization happens outdoors, not inside. But living also happens outside too. Some houses have running water, but many have taps outside. This means that bathing, brushing teeth, washing up, cleaning clothing, washing dishes, and fetching water are all activities that occur in a somewhat public eye. I saw many a naked child getting a bath publicly. Women wear a sarong-like wrap and men might just be in underwear or shorts as they wash up, also quite visibly. Early in the morning, going to look for rhinos, we saw people standing out front, right by the dirt road brushing their teeth, getting their days started with some tea, chatting idly with neighbors, watching their kids play in the street. All this means that the mystery of other people’s isn’t so mysterious. You can witness things that, in the US, are both unseen and considered somewhat intimate in their privacy. And if you think seeing someone brush their teeth isn’t intimate, ask yourself if you would want to brush your teeth with your boss or some other respected authority figure able to see you doing so. Probably not. These actions feel private for Americans because they are done in private and we have the privilege to control who gets to sees us do these things. The older we get, the fewer people are privy to observing such a regular ritual.
And I notice this public and private divide especially a now that it is the height of the festival times. It is Dashain the biggest holiday here. A nearly two-week holiday where different days have different rituals and actions associated with them. The last few days involve ritual animal sacrifice and also the consumption of a lot of meat in celebration. I knew this beforehand (mercifully, I had been warned to expect to see some slaughters). But even if I hadn’t been warned I could have deduced as much. There were suddenly a lot of goats around. Starting with the research center where, on my last morning before coming to Kathmandu to prepare for our trek, I woke up to a goat bleating. I wondered if it wondered onto the research center’s grounds But then I saw it was tied up. I asked the cook if the goat was for meat or milk (knowing very well it was probably meat). I was happy to be leaving before that event took place. I noticed it first in Chitwan, a goat was being loaded into the little back-of-the-bus in a small storage area for bags. I’ve seen more and more goats riding on motorbikes in the arms of a passenger. But I mostly seen them tied up outside. Fortunately, I never directly witnessed a slaughter, but I did come upon the immediate aftermath a few times. The sidewalk was green with feces and red with blood. And there was goat hair (fur?) all around. I held my breath as I stepped into the street to keep my shoes clean and averted my tender, sensitive vegetarian eyes.
The average American meat eater prefers not to think about, let alone witness, the slaughter of the animal that became their meat. It’s never so public, on purpose. Obviously this is partly because of public health concerns (both the meat and the street can easily cross-contaminate each other).. I was crestfallen to realize that the first goat slaughter I saw was right on a corner where I once slipped off of the slimy (from decomposing garbage) curb and my hand landed in a mushy pile of something on the sidewalk. I think it was a combo of garbage and meat by-product. And I keep wondering how it was that I got so sick. There’s a reason people, especially foreigners, get sick here. The excrement and blood of the goat gets washed into the street along with garbage and anything else. There isn’t really a drainage system, so eventually its gets to the rivers and I’m sure into water that people end up having to use. Nepalis have a lot more immunity to this, but Americans are used to a very sanitized environment, so we’re highly susceptible to everything.
Now as a vegetarian my “preachy” phase didn’t last long. I generally support people’s rights to choose what they eat, but I think being aware of the environmental and ethical consequences of those choices does matter. And that belief extends beyond meat to many foods. I say this because the upcoming discussion of the meat industry in the US is not meant to be preachy so much as comparative (and perhaps informative). I believe that the meat industry in the US is very private on purpose. First of all, it happens not on the sidewalk, but behind walls to maintain an allegedly sanitary facility. But I can also imagine many Americans having a knee-jerk response to the type of slaughters I almost witnessed and conclude that the Nepali meat industry is cruel because the animals sit outside and are probably aware of their fate. They see it happen before it’s their turn. They don’t have a lot of room to move on their final day. But what isn’t visible is that these goats were also raised out of the city, on grass and pasture with small herds. They have been free to roam. They are killed individually, not a slaughter line, where they are one of hundreds to be “processed” that day. In both Nepal and the US the prior life of meat before it’s last day isn’t visible. But the animals in Nepal, on the whole, have a much better life than those in the US. The meat industry works hard to make sure American consumers don’t see this process, because many would take umbrage with it. Animals aren’t treated as sentient and living beings, they are more like products on a production line. There is so much wasted meat and excess slaughter. Here animals are only killed if they’re going to be consumed, and not the anticipation of consumption. I was talking with a Nepali friend about Dashain and he was grateful that I wasn’t judging Nepalis as cruel for slaughtering animals. He had talked to Westerners who expressed moral outrage at this very fact. I pointed out that, as a vegetarian, I was a bit more informed and conscious of the meat industry in the US than many meat-eaters in the US.
Dashain is much more than just a meat-oriented holiday. It’s been fun to witness the city change and get quiet as people return to their family homes outside the city. Fewer people are driving, many stores are closed, people decorate their cars, their daily offerings to the Gods are more elaborate and ornate. Much of the holiday is dressing up in finery and walking to visit family nearby. I would walk by families carrying offerings. Dashain has been compared to Christmas because of how major it and because gift giving and getting nice, new things (such as painting houses, exchanging old money for crisp newly printed money, and new clothes) is part it. I was thinking about how in the US its sort of dead on the streets at Christmas. People are all indoors and out of sight with family. And there was definitely some of that, but other parts felt more like Halloween, where people are all walking the streets together in groups, dressed up (but dressed fancy, and not in costume). There has been a festive mood and decorations in the streets. It can be lonely to be in another place for the holidays (I’ll report back on how Christmas goes. My parents are visiting for Thanksgiving, luckily). But it can be invigorating to visit a place for a holiday that you don’t usually celebrate. It’s amazing how much a festive mood can spread. And it might have something to do with finally getting the right, higher strength antibiotics to take care of the 3-weeks of abdominal pain hell I was in. I tested positive for two-types of E.Coli that maybe were causing this. I’m so glad to be feeling like myself again and feeling hungry for the first time in weeks.