Written by Richa Pokhrel
When I moved from Nepal at the age of seven to the state of Iowa, I was in shock. We moved during winter, I had never seen snow before, it was cold and wet. I did enjoy the snow though, it was different and fun. My brother and I enrolled in the local elementary school right away. We had to shave our heads because we carried lice overseas. Can you imagine coming to a new school where you don’t know the language and having a shaved head? Not the easiest way to fit in. But luckily, over time, I was able to make friends. I grew up without having any Nepali friends, though. Sure, there was my brother and other small Nepali children, but through my elementary and middle school years, there were no other Nepali girl my age.
I slowly started having South Asian friends in high school and lots of them in college. However, I was always surrounded by Indian culture. While it is very similar, Nepali culture is unique in many ways, like the food (momos!), the Hindu holidays we observe, the many different languages and cultures, our flag, and many more. People always thought I was Indian. The thing that set me apart from my Indians friends was the fact that I spoke Nepali. My parents never spoke English at home, so I was able to retain my language skills, a part of my Nepali identity.
It was only after college that I started to appreciate and discover this cultural identity though. I hadn’t really dug deep into learning about Nepal, its people, or the culture. I was in Japan and everyone always asked me where I was from. When I would reply that I was from America, they wouldn’t believe me, they begged for more answers. I started saying I was from Nepal from then on. Japanese people were very excited to know I was from Nepal – they loved the beauty, the people, the language, and the landscapes. I started wondering why didn’t I feel the say way? These things weren’t things I found to be exciting at all. Yes, dal bhat is good, but is it exciting?
I have always been idealistic in the sense that when I was younger I always wanted to go back to Nepal and give back, there was no question about it. That was my goal even though at times I was disconnected from my Nepali culture. I went back in 2011 to work, rather than be a tourist. Unfortunately, my commitment to the organization didn’t last the year that I had signed up for. My grandfather was diagnosed with cancer so I left early to spend the rest of that time with him. I ended up staying 8 whole months in Nepal, and I learned a lot about myself, my culture, my family, and my language. I wouldn’t say living in Nepal was easy, some things were definitely hard (no electricity, cultural expectations and norms, idea of personal space), but I came to appreciate those small things that I had dismissed before.
What I have learned is that identity is not solely based of your race, your ethnic background, your profession, your last name, your caste, your disability, your looks, your wealth. It’s more about how all those parts (plus more) make you… well, you! I have lived most of my life in America, I have an American husband, and my future kids will be mixed, but I can still appreciate Nepali culture and continue to educate others about it. I can be a strong independent female who sometimes need her parents, who enjoys being the type of wife that can cook and clean, who doesn’t really like gundruk but loves lapsi ko acchar. I am not sure how I would be if I had stayed in Nepal, but what I do know is that I am very happy in my own skin. It took time to get here, but I am here and will stay here.
This blog was started mostly off the identity question – what does it mean to be a Nepali woman? To me, it means lots of things, it means being a respectful daughter, it means being a warrior in a male dominated society, it means being the only Nepalese girl at your work or school, it means not always finding support in your family, it means taking risks, it means finding happiness in small things, it means feeling beautiful when you wear that sari, it means being sensitive, it means hiding your feelings, it means being different, etc, etc. These challenges are not new, many generations of women have had to deal with this kind of stuff, but our generation has the technology to make it easy to connect. We are lucky we have some amazing Nepali role models to pave a path that is easier for us to navigate.
Despite all this technology, there still isn’t anywhere on the internet for Nepali women to come and talk, a place for ourselves, just us. A place where we aren’t bunched with Indian girls or other South Asians. My goal is that this blog is relevant for anyone who identifies as a Nepali woman no matter where you live. I want it to be a bridge for our differences and similarities because there will be some things we all go through and some things we can’t relate to. In the end, those differences will create meaningful discussion and reflections. We will each face lots of challenges, desires, happiness, and questions in our lifetimes and that is why this space was created.
SO let’s all create a place where we can be ourselves, a place we can come to share experiences, tell stories, celebrate success and voice our struggles. We aren’t alone, we are in this together.
How have you struggled with identity in your life? How has your family supported your uniqueness and independence? Please share your stories!
(Photo by: Richa P)