lord_pashupati_with_bird

Will you get a culture shock in Nepal?

संसकृति [sa~skriitii] – culture
गरीबी [gariibii] – poverty
अचम्म [acamma] – surprise, amazement
अनुभव [anubhaw] – experience

I have had a major culture shock three times in my life:

  • Once when my family moved from West Germany to East Germany in 1994 (4 years after reunification)
  • Once when I visited Nepal the first time in 2001
  • Once when I returned to Germany from Nepal in 2002

I am wondering if every person is prone to have some kind of संसकृति [sa~skriitii] shock when they travel to a place that is very different from their own home place culturally?

My Culture shock in Nepal

Having a culture shock on my first day in Nepal
First day in Nepal – hiding in my hotel room: I want to go home!

The culture shock I experienced when I arrived in Nepal the first time was quite extreme, I believe: I was so scared of it all. I did not want to have anything to do with anyone or anything. After a terrified trip to Thamel from the airport and just somehow getting a room from the first hotel available, I locked myself into my room, and so much longed to be back home again.

view from hotelroom in thamel
The view from the same hotelroom.

I hated the place. Listened for the sounds from the street – and was so scared: Where people getting massacred down there? Was it possible to spend my planned six months trip in Nepal without ever leaving this room? Why did I have to be here? I wanna go home now. I could not eat for two days, because the fear just had shot my digestive system down.

Alienation and losing the secure feeling of home

I believe a culture shock has not so much to do with being prepared for the very specifics of what you are going to experience, but more so being prepared for the strong sense of alienation that you will experience in the beginning stages of your stay. It is very hard to communicate (and thereby prepare someone for) this sense of alienation. If you have never experienced the „loss of home“ at the core of yourself, you really do not know what is coming your way.

Home is a feeling of normality. A myriad of knowledge(s) of “reality” that is so normal to us, that we are completely unaware of it and use it therefore with the greatest ease. In German there is a wonderful word for this: „Selbstverständlichkeit“. There is no perfect translation of it into English, but it describes this state of knowing/expecting something to such a strong degree, that you are not aware of knowing/expecting it anymore. Like „breathing“ is a Selbstverständlichkeit. And the terror only begins, when all of a sudden you are forced to realize that this Selbstverständlichkeit is actually not granted (as you had subconsciously always assumed it was). Of course breathing is a difficult example, because losing the ability to breath is actually fatal. So feeling terror in this case, is a good thing in a way. But the same thing happens with Selbstverständlichkeiten, that – if taken away from us – would not endanger us physically at all.

Not everyone gets a culture shock

keeping it cool in Kathmandu
My sister keeping it cool in Kathmandu

I have witnessed a person who travelled to Nepal for the very first time at a really young age, and I did not observe a single symptom of a culture shock with her. This person is my younger sister, who travelled with me at the age of 15 to Nepal. And I still remember my worried अचम्म [acamma], when throughout the month of our trip she seemed to take whatever was coming at her with the greatest equanimity – except the one time when she almost got lost in Sauraha (Chitwan) after going on a elephant safari by herself – the lazy elder sister could not be bothered to come along, since she had done this before in the past.

Observing my sister, I came to the conclusion that a culture shock is not just about the first time exposure to a very different country. It made me also think about different personalities and what it means to be travelling with others (especially with other people who are really close to you and who can introduce you to the new place).

Waiting for the Elephant Safari in Sauraha, Chitwan
Last time (almost) ever I saw her, before she went on the Safari and then got lost

I think a person like me who is highly perceptive to impressions from outside is more prone to such a shock state, than someone like my sister, who I perceive to be much more resting within herself. A person who much more pre-filters impressions according to her likes and dislikes, before she takes them in and processes it. Someone with much more of a spongemind like me, might not be able to avoid a culture shock – at least at the very first time. Interestingly the other times I travelled to countries for the first time – the culture shock, if at all, was minor.

What is so shocking about Nepal?

Nepal provides ample fudder for the average person raised in a Western developed nation.

  • The visibility of गरीबी [gariibii] – you might be used to seeing homeless people if you come from a city; but still the sight of a whole family living in a tiny shed just next to the road might shock you – or people washing themselves and their clothes in public wells, water taps
  • The dirt – many sewages are still open – the different rivers running through Kathmandu valley are used as sewage, and therefore are the most disgusting places to walk by
  • The smog – the air in Kathmandu is really bad still, and I know from the first few times I lived there, that I would actually get a pain in my lungs from all the smog I was breathing in
  • The undrinkability of tap water – if you chose to drink tap water in Kathmandu, you better have the emergency number of a really good hospital ready
  • being_tall_in_nepal
    Feeling even taller than I usually feel with my 6 ft height.

    Adjusting to the average height of Nepalis – this will only be a problem for really tall people, because in Nepal seats, beds and ceilings are often really only produced for short people. Travelling with local busses and TukTuks in Nepal can be a true torture

  • What comes to your mind?

These are just a few points I can think of at the moment, it certainly is not a complete list. And after collecting those bullet points, again I feel amazed by the stoicism of my sister.

Do Nepali ever get a culture shock?

Does it make you curious wondering about the अनुभव [anubhaw] the other way around? What does it mean for a Nepali who comes to a Western country for the first time? Because it really made me curious, and I have asked almost every Nepali I have met in Germany or elsewhere abroad, about how their first days, weeks and months here were for them. Did they go into shock? Of course it is rare to meet a person who could describe a shock state in detail when it is already long time over. But, yes: I have met a few Nepalis that definitely went into a major shock state. I remember meeting this one Nepali guy, who had been in Germany only for 4 weeks, and I invited him to cook dinner for him and he refused to come to my place, because he was terrified I was going to physically harm him. And when we walked outside, he was terrified of some of the people he saw on the street.

Returning home – the return culture shock

The second culture shock that I experienced when returning to my original home is also a common thing apparently. Probably there is a strong corralation between having experienced the first culture shock, in order to experience the return culture shock. It is a strange feeling to be „home“ but to feel like you cannot cope with home. I for example, simply did not know how to shop in a supermarket anymore: Everything seemed super expensive and why was I just expected to pay the price they put on the lables? I was completely overwhelmed.

Interestingly, a similar story was told to me by some Nepalis living in Germany and visiting back home for the first time: How they simply could not cope with the noise and the stress of Kathmandu anymore and just preferred to stay at home with their family all the time.

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