WSA hears tale of the ultimate culture clash

SUQUAMISH — When Washington native Broughton Coburn brought 84-year-old Aama — a Nepalese woman who lived in an rural mountain village her entire life — to the United States in 1992, the experience was sure to be a clashing of old civilization and new.

But when those clashes occurred between Aama, on her end-of-life pilgrimage, and ordinary Americans, Coburn was often placed in an awkward moment.

“I didn’t know which was easier,” he said, “explaining America to Aama or Aama to Americans.”

What he did learn from Aama’s trek he wrote two novels about — “Nepali Aama: Life Lessons of a Himalayan Woman” and “Aama in America: A Pilgrimage of the Heart” — and West Sound Academy students Wednesday were privy to hear of their journey together.

Coburn and Aama first crossed paths when he was in the Peace Corps teaching 30 years ago.

“Something told me we would have a mutual bond of faith,” he said of their initial meeting.

Their relationship indeed grew familial, enhanced by the fact Aama had no son and that Coburn had lost his mother in his teens, he said.

But an opportunity of a lifetime for Coburn came in the summer of 1992, when he returned to Aama’s village with his girlfriend, Didi. As customary in her culture before death, Aama agreed to take a pilgrimage, with Coburn, to explore the U.S.

What came next was a clash of civilizations as Aama experienced the modern world through her traditional Nepalese eyes. But rather than fear it, she welcomed it, Coburn said. Often her misconceptions of new technology, for example, proved humorous, showing themselves on the journey from Nepal to first destination Seattle.

“She wasn’t afraid of flying,” he said. “In fact, she wasn’t afraid of anything at all. She did once ask, at 35,000 feet, if she could ‘throw something out the window.’”

Once they arrived on the West Coast, Coburn, Didi and Aama bought a used station wagon to travel across the country. The trip ultimately lasted two and a half months and covered some 13,000 miles.

“We began to feel like unexpected parents out of wedlock,” Coburn said of the experience.

As someone who’d farmed her entire life, Aama was greatly taken aback by refrigeration, Coburn told the students. When she first took a look inside a refridgerator, she wondered “Where the shopkeeper was,” he explained, thinking it resembled a typical Nepalese bazaar stand.

In fact, throughout the pilgrimage, Aama’s greatest fascination proved to be with farming equipment, what Coburn referred to as “agriculture shock.”

“She was humbled by it,” Coburn explained when she witnessed enormous machines whose production vastly exceeded her native Nepalese ways. “But she was also agitated by it.”

One example was seeing a farmer whose machinery ignored large amounts of corn during a harvest, which was left behind and trampled.

“The land here is crying,” Coburn said she’d exclaimed and she proceeded to let everyone know that in Nepal, if any part of the harvest is left behind, those who neglected it must go without eating that amount.

Though she often viewed the large farming machinery as “sacred,” she was displeased to learn that for the sake of productivity, ranchers and farmers were no longer spiritual and only “mechanical” in their work, he told students.

One experience that evoked perhaps the most laughter was the threesome’s trip to Disneyland, one that prompted Aama to say of one parade there that, “We’re so fortunate to come here on a day of a religious festival.”

On the same trip, she was also able to give a blessing to Mickey Mouse, a deity whom Aama referred to as “The King of Mice,” Coburn said.

Coburn summed up his trip with Aama to the West Sound students by reminding them that education is very much a two-way street.

“I went to Nepal to teach, but I ended up learning,” he said. “Aama came to America to learn, but she ended up teaching.”

For more information about author Broughton Coburn, log onto

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 21
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates