A Tale Of Giving: Nepal Edition

I arrived at Pema Ts’al Monastic Institute in Pokhara, Nepal with nine other Yalies, ready and eager to meet our future English students.

Another volunteer with her student, me with Jampa Sangpo
Another volunteer with her student, me with Jampa Sangpo. PHOTO SCHUYLER ARAKAWA

After the previous few weeks of all-nighters, papers, tests, and tech weeks in Nepal,  I was more than ready to be in this monastery, teaching kids, and truly living a life of “zen.” We walked into the main office and they handed us our schedule:

  • 7:00 am: Breakfast
  • 8:30-9:30am: Buddhism class
  • 9:30- Tea
  • 10:00-10:40am- Level 3 English class
  • 12:00pm- Lunch
  • 1:00-2:00pm- Cleaning up around the grounds
  • 2:20-3:00pm- Level 1 English class
  • 3:00pm- Tea
  • 4:30-5:30- Meditation class

The second most common thing I saw on this schedule aside from teaching was tea. We were not only having tea at breakfast, but we would also have two separate breaks throughout the day for tea as well. The tea served is called “Masala Chia,” literally meaning “spice tea,” also the most common tea in Nepal. If you ask for tea, this is what you’ll get, but  a third of the cup is filled with tea and the other two-thirds filled with milk and sugar. What you’re left with is a very spicy, yet very sweet, chai tasting beverage.

Student drawing a picture for the class to guess during drawing class
Student drawing a picture for the class to guess during drawing class. PHOTO SCHUYLER ARAKAWA

I walked up to the beverage window to get my first cup of chia at 9:30 am. I stood in line behind the children in front of me. The woman behind the counter poured my tea, gave me Nepali cookies, and then, much to our surprise, came out from behind the counter with a huge smile to talk to my friends and I. In her broken English and our broken Nepali, we were able to decipher what she was saying. Her name was Doma and she was so thankful to have us here. My camera was around my neck and when I asked if she wanted a picture with us, her eyes lit up. I took the picture and showed her the photo using the playback on my camera. She giggled while pointing to herself, put her hands together and bowed her head to us in gratitude. This incredibly kind woman was one of my first impressions of the monastery. She had stopped everything she was doing to make us feel welcome. With tea.

In between lunch and cleaning up around the grounds, we all wanted to take the time to explore the area around the monastery. We walked to the base of the hill and saw a village to the left. We began walking along the street of the village, waving “Namaste” to everyone we saw and eagerly practicing the few phrases of Nepali we knew to any residents sitting outside willing to listen: “Timalai Kasto Cha?” we asked in our American accents trying to say “How are you?”

Elementary school drawing class trying to guess the picture drawn on the board
Elementary school drawing class trying to guess the picture drawn on the board. PHOTO SCHUYLER ARAKAWA

An old man sitting on the step chuckled as we proudly practiced our phrase on him. “Tapai-lai Kasto Cha” he said as he corrected our pronunciation. He smiled a huge smile as we repeated it correctly after. He continued to speak in Nepali, trying to explain something to us we couldn’t understand. As we were all laughing in confusion, a younger Nepali man came up to us and said “Timalai Kasto Cha’ is ‘How are you?’ for children, ‘Tapailai Kasto Cha’ is what you’d say everyday to people your age or older, out of respect. I’m Santosh. This is my grandfather. Where are you from?” We told him we were from America. As we continued talking, a group of ten or twelve females, aged from five years old to a mother of at least thirty years old, were all gathered on the steps giggling and talking and caught my eye. I immediately went to talk to them: “Tapaila Kasto Cha?” I asked. They all laughed and responded with the usual “Thikthak,” with the bobbing of the head from side to side, indicating “fine.”

The teenage daughter was the only girl who really knew English and began translating what her mother and the rest of the girls were saying: “I like your hair,” “You have a very pretty face,” “I like your bag.” When I gave one of the youngest girls my notebook, she began writing dozens of Nepali phrases and words so I could remember them all. Santosh soon invited all of us inside.  He gave us a tour of his entire house, dealing with all of our questions and curiosities with incredible patience and compassion. His grandparents gave all of us hugs and his grandmother even offered to cook us lunch. We sat down and these villagers made tea, in their home, for a group of complete strangers. Even though the majority of them couldn’t understand a word we were saying, they had stopped everything they were doing to make us feel welcome. With tea.

An inspirational quote on the walls of the Kathmandu elementary school
An inspirational quote on the walls of the Kathmandu elementary school. PHOTO SCHUYLER ARAKAWA

The second week after we left the monastery, we went to take classes from a meditation and Buddhism “Guru” in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. We had four hours of class in the morning and would go to a local elementary school for lunch. We walked into the school, expecting to be led straight to the cafeteria and served the typical Nepali “Dal bhat” for lunch. Instead, we walked through the doors and were immediately surrounded by children of all ages, shouting “Namaste” to all of us as they pressed their hands together and bowed their heads in respect.  They sang a welcome song as they invited us to their food festival. In each classroom there were multiple trays of different dishes. This time we really hadn’t done anything, we weren’t even signed up to teach there. We were just going to that school to eat lunch. But the girls invited me to play badminton, asked us to dance for them and sing our national anthem, and of course, offered us tea. They had stopped everything they were doing to make us feel welcome. With tea.

Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world after water. And with tea comes the lifestyle that accompanies it. In high school, my mom would always give me a cup of tea to calm me down, soothe a sore throat, or to help put me to sleep. Tea provides natural calming effects. But in Nepal, tea isn’t just for these special situations because this sense of calmness is a constant part of their culture. And yet everywhere else in the world also has a time designated if not to tea, to everything that tea encompasses: Spain has selected times for siesta, England has teatime, and China and Japan have tea ceremonies. The rest of the world takes the time to recharge and relax with one another in the middle of their days.

The headmaster's daughter showing us a drawing of her Nepali flag
The headmaster’s daughter showing us a drawing of her Nepali flag. PHOTO SCHUYLER ARAKAWA

When we asked Nepalis for anything, such as giving the taxi driver a time to be picked up, asking for a change in the menu, asking for a cheaper price, the communal response was always, “no problem” with a smile and the bobbing of the head from side to side.  With this “tea” culture comes meditation, yoga, and living outside the restraints of a watch,  a culture where taking your time to help others really is “no problem.”

It’s the tea drinking that both defined the Nepali culture and embodied the heart of these people. They were the friendliest people I have ever met. Everyone, friends and strangers alike, said “Namaste” as they passed. I laughed thinking about what would happen if I went around saying, “Hello” to everyone I passed on the streets in New York City. I’d be shocked if I got one hello back the entire day. In Nepal, people focus on each other. When you pour tea, you pour it for the others before yourself. You take a break over tea to truly enjoy each other’s presence. Even if it’s not getting you anywhere, you stop everything you’re doing to make another person feel appreciated.

With a group of school girls in Kathmandu after playing badminton together
With a group of school girls in Kathmandu after playing badminton together. PHOTO SCHUYLER ARAKAWA

I came to Nepal certain that I would learn the art of relaxation through meditation and Buddhism. Never did I think that I would learn the most about appreciation through something as mundane as tea. So although the Masala Chia is probably more sugar than it is tea, in the end, I’d rather have it overly sweet than unforgivingly bitter. I think it would do everyone some good to stop everything their doing, in the middle of their day, find a friend, a colleague, a stranger, and make them feel welcome. With tea.

Check out more amazing photos in the slideshow and get inside Schuyler’s Tale of Giving – Nepal Edition:

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