We had a little ‘incident’ last week that put us in the hot seat both as parents and as guests in another culture. It started with screaming in the garden. For a while no one could determine whether it was normal, scrappy boy, screaming or something that needed to be addressed. But, the screaming didn’t stop. Two sets of parent descended on the screaming and found one bloody boy, a hyper excited dog and one boy missing entirely. What followed was yelling in both English and Nepali, crying and a whole lot of confusion.
The boys had been playing some made up game in our compound, with the guard dog Bulou. Our son is five and Suffol is nine. One is American and the other is Nepali, but they connect over boy things like super heroes, robots and race cars, never mind that they don’t really speak the same language. They play so well together in fact that neither set of parents pays them too much attention until it is time for homework, chores or dinner. We have generally encouraged playing with Suffol. It gets him first hand access to learning Nepali and it keeps him from crawling all over us asking for drinks and snacks and chanting the constant refrain “Hey mom, look at this.”
This particular evening was like any other. Our didi, Suffol’s mom, was cooking dal bhatt, Dave and I were studying and the boys were playing. That is, until the screaming. Suffol was the bloody screaming boy, and our son was the missing one. After dragging our son down from the roof where he had hidden, and checking to make sure Suffol’s wound was not mortal, all four parents attempted to get the story out of the boys. It was evident to the adults that boys had been playing where they shouldn’t have and something naughty had happened. It was up to the boys to fill in the rest. The first preliminary stories out of each of the boys didn’t seem to match. Of course that could also be from the fact that we as parents didn’t have enough words in either language to get the story straight. “Who did what?” Where was Bulou?” “What? My son bit the dog?”, “We have naughty boy, you have good boy.” “Suffol daddy angry.” “Our son threw a door handle?” Meanwhile, both boys are crying and Suffol is bleeding.
The matching parts of the story were the boys had been playing with some broken pieces of metal and old door hinges, our son had thrown one of the bolts which had hit Suffol in the top of the head and cut him, beyond that the details were fuzzy. It was clear to us our son was the culprit and we marched him inside for some disciple, “No, no!” said Suffol’s mom tried in English “Your son good boy, our son naughty.” Suffol’s father came around the house with a plastic pole. “Wait!” we said, “No don’t hit him, we have the bad boy.” we attempted in Nepali.
I was totally at a loss, what are the cultural rules here? How could we tell them not to beat their son with a pole when we were taking our son inside to spank him? How could we get to the bottom of the stories when we didn’t even have the words to connect? How can we tell them how sorry we are that their son was hurt? How can we tell them it was our son’s fault? How is fault even determined in Nepal? What is the way to fix it when it is your fault?
We want them to be our friends and we are still neighbors. On top of the regular awkwardness of the whole situation was the added awk of having Suffol’s mom as our house help. Would she want to continue the job? Have we so entirely offended her that our dal will be flavorless from now on? This kind of interpersonal/parenting thing is not easy in the U.S. but here the mile high wall of culture and language seems insurmountable.
Neither boy got spanked that night. Doctor Dave offered to patch up the head wound, which turned out to be not as big as the amount of blood would have predicted. But, even this gesture carried cultural weirdness, because why would this upset, frightened boy, want a big pasty white guy (the dad of the boy who hurt him) poking around his cut head. We gave the bandages and medicine to his mom instead. Our son lost computer and iPod privileges for the week and allowance money for a month to pay for the blood ruined shirt. He spent the rest of the evening in our room, because there would have been too much to play with in his own.
I got more of the story as I put our son to bed that evening. They boys had been playing super heroes (of course) and the dog was the bad guy. They were throwing things at the bad guy, when the offending bolt bounced off the wall and hit Suffol in the head. Our son took to the roof when Suffol started screaming. Ah now this made sense and seemed to fill in the gaps for me. Our son couldn’t hit a brick wall in front of him with a ball, so it seems unlikely he would have actually struck what he was aiming at. Also our son seems to be non-confrontational so the ‘fleeing the scene’ part fit the story as well.
As I was in the shower the next morning battling with the crazy gas water heater that never seems to get to a regulated temperature, I thought about how that seemed to be a fitting metaphor for the whole thing. I can’t seem to find middle ground in the culture right now. I am either freezing cold on the outside of culture not even getting a little bit of the warmth and richness of the culture, or I am so pants on fire in the middle of culture that it is unbearable and offensive. There is no comfort zone.
The boys were soon back out in the garden again playing robots or whatever. They have forgiven and forgotten and are apparently over their drama and cultural hang ups. Oh, and they still don’t speaking the same language.
We adults have sorted it out too, but I’m giving the credit to our incredibly gracious and chill Nepali neighbors rather than to any cultural adaptation we have made. I still have lots to learn, and I think Nepal has lots to teach me, about both culture and parenting.