There are few choices in personal grooming that evoke as much emotion as a mustache. It brings to mind such noble professions such as, high ranking military officer, fire fighter, police officer and car mechanic. Not usually a doctor. Members of my parents generation will often proudly display a mustache (my father has had one for most of his life, and ever since I was born) however, few of my generation can pull it off well. For those who actually have grown a ‘flavor saver’, typically done in irony and part of a step-wise process in shaving off a beard, the result is generally ridicule from those close to them and strange looks from all others. In Nepal the story is completely different. Especially for those of Indian descent, ‘a soup sifter’ is standard adornment, and a sign of age obtained wisdom. Many in positions of power and prestige don the mustache, and it adds to their esteem.
There is not a lot of outside amusement in Tansen, and so we make our own. Recently I decided if there was ever a place and a time to grow a mustache, Nepal was the place and monsoon was the time. The mustache received the expected cultural reaction from the other Americans who live in Tansen. At first they thought I may have missed a considerable patch while shaving, or perhaps it was a rare form of fungus on my upper lip. When it was clear that it was an ‘intentional mustache’ I found many of my foreign friends simply stopped making eye contact with me, including my wife for a time.
The mustache found true appreciation in the reaction of my Nepali friends. “Dr David, you look so Nepali!” “Dr David, this is a very manly choice of hair style.” “Dr David, something is different, have you been losing weight?” For the most part, people just didn’t bat an eye, and I was quite proud of my facial adornment and the status it conveyed.
The full impact of the effect of the mustache came late one afternoon as we were trying to usher out the last outpatients from the ambulatory clinic. I had finished with my last patient, and my resident was seeing his. As I walked by his room to let him know I was heading out he flagged me down, saying,
“Oh Dr David! You are just in time. This family has come from very far and they were hoping to see a foreign doctor.”
This request usually rubs me the wrong way. I feel it is a form of racism, as if my skin color infers I know more than my fully competent Nepali colleagues. Generally I refuse these requests, but since the resident himself was asking, and it would be rude to refuse with the patient right in front of me, I obliged.
My resident explain to me the full story of, the initial diagnosis elsewhere, incorrect medications being prescribed, and the patient then traveling for 8 hours to arrive at our hospital. He then went on to describe his perfectly formulated plan for which medications he planned to start and when he would like the patient to follow up. In complete agreement, I turned to the patient and relayed the exact plan in my best but far from perfect Nepali, including the resident’s diagnosis, what medications we planned to start, and when we would like the patient to follow up. Feeling I had satisfied the request made of me, I stood and turned to leave the room. At this point the patient exclaimed “Well thank you very much, but could I now see the foreign doctor!”
This delightful mix-up was not due to my American accented language skill, or other Nepali vibes I put out, but soley to the presence of the mustache! My resident quickly tried to explain that, in spite of my mustache, I was indeed an foreign doctor. The patient had thought we were trying to pull a quick one on him. The fact that the resident and I were breaking down in fits of laughter didn’t do much to dispel the impression this was all a joke, either. I gave the patient a hearty mustachioed “Namaste” and excused myself.
Despite the wonderful compliment of being thought a Nepali even with my light skin and less than stellar language skill, the mustache experiment has come to an end. I have had to bid the mustache goodbye, in hopes that my American friends will talk to me, my children won’t cry when I kiss them, and my wife will let me near her again. Who knows though, since it brings so much career success, the mustache may make a reappearance in Nepal another time.