Rice Pot Literacy

IMG_2668A year or two ago, Aamaa starting making noises about getting an electric rice cooker.  Of all things, right?  I am constantly baffled by the perceived awesomeness of this contraption in a place with no plumbing, no heat in the winter or A/C in the summer, no political system, and widespread illiteracy, where the one thing that people have been doing for hundreds of years with no problem whatsoever is cooking rice. In pots. And never mind that in the winter, there’s load shedding for up to 16 hours a day.

Nevertheless, it is a thing.  By some mysterious process, the rice cooker has become the iPhone of the rural Nepali woman, just like TVs became standard in Kaski’s mud-and-stone houses when so many kids left the village to work abroad, where they send home just enough money to cover a few celebrity amenities.  Now a TV I can understand.  But a rice cooker?  I used to say that about cell phones – remember how we used to just call each other on landlines?  And that worked fine?  Aamaa used to cook rice in a pot, from 56 years ago until last June.  It’s not about whether it’s fine.  It’s about having a celebrity rice cooker.

So last year when Bishnu was visiting, she picked up a rice cooker for Aamaa.  And of course, Bishnu went for a large, impressive looking one – even though Bishnu should know better than that by now.  Because first of all, when you put rice for one or two people in a large, impressive rice cooker, you get a wide, unimpressive rice pancake.  And let’s not forget that there’s no electricity half the day.  So I arrived this year to find that when the electricity comes on, the first thing Aamaa does is rush to plug in the big electric rice cooker.

No matter what time of day it is.

IMG_1042This is how we have found ourselves eating a room-temperature rice pancake as our 2013 featured dinner entrée.  And the thing that blows my mind is that it’s not like Aamaa doesn’t know what hot, properly prepared rice tastes like. It’s the only meal she’s eaten for her entire life.  But this rice-cooker-chilled-pancake-system inexplicably retains its a status of superiority in the face of damning evidence that it is terrible.

“You know, Aamaa,” I said as we were eating the rice-pancake the other day (for the record, it can literally be cut like a pie), “the rice cooker is too big.  You should have a little one, like I have in Connecticut.”

Aamaa’s expression widened.  “Really?  Do they make small ones?”

Sometimes life is so strange.

“Yes Aamaa, they’re just—they’re just like that one, but smaller.  So you can cook less rice in it and it won’t come out like a roti.”

Ehhhhh,” Aamaa cooed.  “If you see one of those, will you get me one?”

I wasn’t sure how serious she was, but the next time I was in Pokhara, I decided to get Aamaa a 1-liter rice cooker.  Like the one I have, in Connecticut.

I brought the small rice cooker home the other day and we unwrapped it on the front porch.  It was like the Second Coming.

“Look at this pot Laura got me!” Aamaa has been telling the neighbors.  “It’s the perfect size.”

The fourth beloved grandchild of the family is introduced to all visitors. Aamaa takes it out and points to its dainty circumference and shiny exterior.  Then she and I regale the neighbors with stories about the failings of the large rice cooker – it makes rice like a roti, for goodness sake – and swoon over the shimmering, earth-shattering perfection of the small rice cooker.  Which is just right for two people.

Or one person.  Like my rice cooker, in Connecticut.

As we were eating our fluffy rice today, I couldn’t help being re-amazed that Aamaa, as my protector and general knower of all things, had no idea that the big awesome rice cooker was too big and awesome.  For somebody who can build anything, cook a complex meal over a fire with no measuring devices and not a single taste test, detect subtle changes in the mood of the buffalo, and nurture soil and seeds with a nuanced literacy that is invisible and incomprehensible to me, it seems completely incongruous that she didn’t look at the rice cooker and think, “That’s too big.”

I am so used to Aamaa’s highly technical and nimble mind that it never stops surprising me to run in to the boundaries of her experience. I remember during my first year in Nepal, I got first-grade primers so that Aamaa and I could learn to read together.  I started copying new letters and sounding out the phonetic alphabet.  It turned my world upside down the first time I watched Aamaa try the same thing and saw that she copied letters slowly and awkwardly like a child.  Why wouldn’t she?  I sifted grain like a child.

The rice cooker more than anything has reminded me that we simply have different types of literacy.  Most of Aamaa’s life has been extremely repetitive, and she moves in it with a technical and intuitive agility that I think few people in my world ever have the chance to know – if only because of the much wider range of experiences we have to integrate.  I think that makes us more adaptable across novelties and habituates us to thinking relationally; it’s what allows me to look at a new situation or task and decode it or try out variations in my mind.  But Aamaa just doesn’t encounter nearly as many new situations in her life, so instead, she knows the ones that are familiar to her with a level of subtlety that maybe only Olympic athletes and ultra-dorky mathematicians ever encounter where I come from.

So much so that even the rice cooker, which seemed just a few degrees removed from Aamaa’s mainstream world, turned out to be a static event for her, not something to be adapted or improved the way the millet seedlings can be tended to in the garden.  Now I’m trying to get her to use the “warming” feature, so that when dinner gets cooked at 3:06 pm, it stays warm as long as possible.  I mentioned this the other day when Aamaa rushed to unplug the cooker rather than leaving it with the warming light on.

“Aamaa, it’s going to get cold,” I said.

“I don’t want it to overcook,” she said.

“It’s just…” I sighed. “…Warming.”

Right.  It’s warming but not cooking…that makes no sense, does it?

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