There is an anecdotal story of a Western salesman coming to Nepal and showing his wares to prospective buyers. Every time he asked whether they liked something, the Nepalis would shake their heads from side to side.
The salesman soon left very disappointed, never knowing that the Nepalis were completely happy with what they were seeing and their appreciative headshakes meant, "Yes, we like it!" Culture Shock Nepal is littered with such miscues whereby our mannerisms and manners (or lack thereof) serve to disorient, confound or offend outsiders...or vice versa.
Westerners are often alarmed by the habit of Nepalis sticking their tongues out like the goddess Kali destroying the demon Mahisasura, especially if they have been chewing pan. They need not be: it is a simple expression of shock intermingling with relief indicating that a big calamity was averted at the last minute.
In the old days when one sneezed, someone would exclaim "Narayan" to invoke the gods' blessings against a killer flu. It's still pretty common to see people blowing on their fingers religiously if they inadvertently touch their throat (or insisting, if they touch someone else's throat, that the person blow on the offending fingers), thinking this will prevent goitre. And the one I still haven't been able to figure out is the snapping of fingers every time someone yawns.
Foreigners riding cabs must notice the number of times the driver touches his forehead with his fingers as he passes wayside shrines or crosses streams and rivers. It is a flying salute to the gods, an acknowledgement of his holy presence en route. It is also a means of achieving quick oneness with divinity before Kathmandu's traffic trials usher in the devil's own sanguinary thoughts.
The slapstick humour of Nepalis can be sometimes annoying to outsiders. We laugh at everything. People even laugh if you nearly mow them down in the chaotic streets of Kathmandu (although if you do, passersby will set fire to your car these days). No, they are not taunting you, they are admitting guilt for having broken the rules, shame for having put oneself in such a tight spot in the first place.
Foreigners visiting our dignitaries in their offices are aghast at the ubiquitous Chinese bath towel with bold floral prints draped behind them on the chair. They are there possibly to prevent sweat from ruining the original upholstery bought with tax payers' money. Or is it because of the lack of a hook in the toilet?
My friend Mikhail Vinding, who was in the Danish Foreign Service at the time of King Birendra's state visit to Denmark, tells of how at a reception a waiter was about to hand over a glass of wine to His Majesty with his left hand. Vinding quickly intervened and took the glass in his own 'right' hand before serving the king. A faux pas was averted, although having been educated in the west we don't really know if Birendra would have really taken offence.
Rules of etiquette also change with time. At a restaurant you may still be rudely surprised by a loud belch emanating from a nearby table as a diner broadcasts his compliments to the chef. We love eating dal-bhat with our fingers, though like belching, you won't see (or hear) many urban Nepalis doing so publicly these days. I for one stick to spoons because I eat twice as much when I use my fingers.
But there is one breach of table manners that really gets me, and that's our loud slurping when we Nepalis take soup or tea, and our habit of eating with our mouths open. It's fine at home, but could we try not to export such Nepalipan to international conferences?
Dedicated to Fr James J Donnelly, S J (1929-2009) and his Brown Bomber.