Unlikely Friendships

By Aviela Weltman

Human connection can be a predictable thing- we choose to befriend those who are like us. My friends usually have the same background as me, have similar interests to me, or just live nearby me. However, sometimes, human connection can transcend this all, and we find ourselves connecting to people who we never thought we could.

I saw this so often when living and working in Nepal, I had many Nepalese friends that spoke very fluent English, but I found myself connecting to people who barely spoke English in a much different way. During my fellowship, I was living in Dahu, a small village in eastern Nepal. I had limited Nepali language skills; I could get by with basic conversations. Most of the community members in Dahu had very limited English, only knowing a few words. I was worried about this large barrier but was set on making it work.

I met one woman in the village- Amar Maya. When I think back to my time in Nepal, she is one of the people that I feel really shaped my experience, even though we had very limited verbal communication. When going to her house and sitting with her for tea, I learned how to just sit and smile, laugh, make eye contact, and of course not to feel embarrassed when trying to speak my broken Nepali. There was no pressure for elaborate conversation, no pressure to impress each other. We only had a few words we could exchange with each other and the rest was up to our body language and facial expressions, and of course the mutual love and respect we had gained for each other.

When my parents came to visit me in Nepal when I was a fellow, they came to stay with me in Dahu for a few days. I introduced my mom to Amar Maya and, they too, instantly connected. I could at least have some limited conversations with Amar Maya in Nepali, but my mom only knew one Nepali word- “Namaste”, which serves as “hello” and “I bow to the divine in you”. And somehow, this one word, accompanied with the motion of raising prayer hands to her chest, was enough. My mother- a Jewish, Israeli, American, urban woman- and Amar Maya- a Hindu Nepalese, Newari, rural woman- somehow connected over one Nepali word and a smile. Maybe it was the love they both felt for me? Maybe it was the fact that they are both women? Mothers? Sisters?

Across all barriers of language, culture, religion, and socioeconomic class, these two women I love formed an unexpected bond. Over the next few days, whenever they saw each other they would stop and say “Namaste”, smile to each other, and ask me to translate a bit for them. My mom helped her in her fields and marveled over the way she carried grass in the basket on her back.

When I returned to Nepal over a year later and saw Amar Maya, she remembered my mom and a huge smile broke out on her face when I told her that my mom sends love from the U.S. Whenever I return to Dahu to visit, my mom always asks how Amar Maya is, and tells me to tell her “Namaste”.

Can I say that after my two years in Nepal I understand why I was able to connect to Amar Maya? Maybe. I lived in her community for almost a year, learned about her culture and attempted to learn her language. Can I understand why my mom, a short-term visitor to Nepal, someone who barely understood the culture, religion, or language connected to her? I’m not sure. All I can say is that human connection can be an unpredictable thing- and that maybe we should look a little outside of the close spheres where we usually find our friends, because the people we can meet there may be able to teach us much more about the world, and ourselves.

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