Insulting nicknames, Spanish speaking taxi drivers, and other moments of cultural confusion
by Brooke Hartman
Sometimes, lost-in-translation moments sneak up in unsuspecting ways. During our time in Nepal, Jeff and I were prepared not to make fools of ourselves by misunderstanding the Nepali word for radish, which is similar to the word for testicle, or to refer to our sinus infections using the Nepali word for sinus (“penus”—they said it, not me!). These are both things Tiny Hands International staff have reported doing, and we’ve managed to avoid any major faux pas at their expense. But sometimes lost-in-translation moments have nothing to do with language. Sometimes they’re social or cultural. And all the time, they’re perplexing:
Due to the intermittent electric outages, we were constantly battling the light switches in our bedroom. If we left the house during a time with no electricity, it was easy to forget to turn the lights off because everything already feels off. We sometimes came home to find a light or two on or the fan working hard to provide light and cooling for… no one. One of the first times we left during an outage, we were verrrry careful to turn all 8 light switches off in our bedroom, including the fan. We triple-checked, locked the door, and took off for the afternoon. We came home later in the evening to find the house in a panic because all 8 lights were on in our bedroom and the fan was spinning itself full-blast off the ceiling fixture. In our room, off is flipping the switches up, not down. By flipping the switches down before we left in the dark, we had accidentally turned everything on full blast, and the family was concerned we had locked ourselves in our room refusing to come out for dinner or afternoon tea. Whoops.
We were on our way to a remote area of Kathmandu, and I was struggling to communicate with the Nepali taxi driver because I only know how to say “hello,” “thank-you,” and “victory in Christ” in Nepali. In the middle of my linguistically challenged frustration, the driver turned around and said, “Hablas Español?” Wait, what? YES! I totally hablo Español! We then had an entire joyous conversation in Spanish. Would you believe that was my first of three Spanish conversations with three different people in Nepal in three days? When in doubt, bust out Spanish skills, obviously.
One of the first times we were sitting around talking with our host family, Jeff casually mentioned that when he was in Nepal before, 14 years ago, local Nepali friends gave him the nickname of Ban Manche, meaning (he thought) Forest Man, which is the literal translation. Jeff loves the outdoors and is fascinated with the Yeti, so he embraced this manly nickname with pride. As Jeff relayed his nickname to our new family, they burst out laughing. Actually, Ban Manche means gorilla. You know, the big, hairy, stompy ape that hangs out in the woods, bangs his chest, and walks on his knuckles.
We casually mentioned to our host family that we’d love to learn how to make the traditional Nepali dish, momos (dumplings). We said it would be great to feature the recipe in our magazine and asked if they could teach us. How could we know when they said yes, they were agreeing to an entire day’s worth of preparation involving 7 kilos of buffalo meat, 5 kilos of onion, 7 kilos of flour and 6 hours of pressing, filling and sealing the pastry treats—on top of several hours of dough-making and spice grinding and sauce making?! All this by hand to feed all 20 people in the house, totaling EIGHT HUNDRED momos. Whoops.