Identity Crisis: Am I Nepali?

By Rhijuta Dahal/@RizDh

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Photo Credit: Rhijuta Dahal

Growing up abroad we heard words like BBCD – British Born Confused Desis (substituted ABCD for Americans), Coconut (brown on the outside white inside) and plenty of other stereotypes that were used to put ‘people like us’ in a box. Back then, I was very much a Nepali who had just been living in the UK for few years, couldn’t understand why I was categorised as such, but then those few years turned into a decade and has now been almost two decades. My identity since then has evolved significantly.

There’s been a lot of discussions lately about what being a Nepali means. The Madesh crisis (which has now evolved into much bigger Nepal crisis) has brought out ‘what it means to be a Nepali’ in the forefront of everyone’s discussion and this is very interesting for those who can easily be labelled ‘bideshis’ like us to understand the mindset of many people. Often there are comments flying about how ‘bideshis’ or ‘bideshiyeka Nepalis’ shouldn’t be commenting on Nepal’s struggles and troubles while sitting in our comfy chair (actually my comfy chair is my comfy bed) with no recent exposure to Nepal troubles (oh apart from that time we went to attend a relative’s wedding and man, did we complain the whole two weeks we were there? Roads were so dusty and polluted, no streetlights, no one following traffic rules, and now no gas? Black Market thriving everywhere?). And if you are an actual bideshi, like you know with white skin, then god forbid, you comment on anything that has to do with Nepal without several people putting you in your place, sometimes wondering who is it that is paying you to criticise, maybe one should report you to the police.

What I am saying is, yes there are people who still associate themselves with Nepal even though their day-to-day struggles is far removed from the reality of what Nepal faces. They may consider themselves as Nepali just because they have mo:mo parties, dashain parties, teej parties, and occasional fundraising events to raise money for earthquake, funding for a local school in a remote gau. This doesn’t mean the diaspora (minus migrant workers) are all like that or that’s all we do. I know of many people, friends, who moved away from Nepal at a very young age, not their choice I must add, because their parents decided to move, who then made a choice as an adult to go back and live in the country, immerse in the culture to understand it better, and to contribute towards its economy. Some people sacrifice a lot, their job, their support system to be in a country that is supposedly their own, but at the same time feels so alien to them. They may understand the language, but cannot always understand the logics behind things when they hear ‘yaha ta yestai ho’. Some people have contributed so much through their charity work that it’s unimaginable because of their love for the country and its people.

So lumping all of us together and stereotyping is a bit wrong. Just saying.

I may not be able to reiterate everything, but I spent a lot of time reading about modern history of Nepal when I was there. Sadly, it didn’t take long for me to understand that my kakshya 5 mahendramala-esque history education was heavily propagandised. It took me living in Patan to realise my essay in school about how Tihar is celebrated throughout the country was factually incorrect. Not everyone observed it the way I did. It took my visit to far west Nepal to experience that ‘Nepali’ I spoke and ‘Nepali’ that was spoken there were very different. There were few miscommunications; on my first day to my dismay, I thought there was going to be mohi (diluted yogurt) when someone was referring to themselves. I realised what I spoke was very ‘mero saral Nepali’ whereas Nepali spoken there was much more authentic and was even a little melodious. When I returned to Kathmandu with my stories, I was told they speak Nepali differently there. However, when in Kathmandu, when a tamang boy spoke Nepali his way, people were quick to comment that’s not how you speak ‘proper’ Nepali. After living in Kathmandu, I tried to adopt kathmanduspeak (mixing Nepali with English), gender neutral version which was very different from my mero saral Nepali with terai ko twangs and words, the version that had evolved from Bhojpur to Biratnagar to Britain.

I was a bit older when I learnt that not everyone in Nepal speaks Nepali. When in hostel in Kathmandu, one of the dai’s parents could only speak in Newari, they were from somewhere far away near Banepa. I was bit disappointed when I found this out. I didn’t have a secret language I could speak. Language is something I love, the feeling isn’t as mutual, but it’s slowly getting used to me. I love the history of language, its evolution, this is how I connected to a person even in Turkey, some of our words were similar. I was disappointed that there was a language I could have grown up learning had Nepali not been spoken at home. I could have been multilingual (which I am, thanks to my two years of Indian school education and Bollywood), but to learn another Nepali language would have been so much more awesome. Imagine if we had an option to learn Newari or Gurung Bhasa in school, wouldn’t that be much more inclusive?

For some reason, Madesh’s plight for Nepali identity really speaks to me. Maybe because I have been bestowed with my identity through my parents, or my linguistic ability, I don’t naturally feel pride over what is perceived as being Nepali. Unlike some others who naturally feel this pride immensely. Maybe this is because I am woman and no matter how proud I am of my Nepalipann, I will be seen as ‘other.’ If in future, I decide to marry a non-Nepali person then my children will never get an option to be a Nepali, even though they will be Nepali aama ko chora chori (motherland’s son daughter), but never Nepali in the law’s eyes.

As a child, I was completely unaware of Madhesis being Nepali even though I lived in the south for a time, people didn’t acknowledge Madhesis as Nepalis. My ignorance still embarrasses and humiliates me. The Indian school we attended had many varieties of people, Indian doctors’ children, Indian teachers’ children, wealthy Madeshis’ children, Marwari children and mix of Dharan-Biratnagar ‘pahade’ kids. But somehow I remember kids would only make fun of the Madeshi accent. During my visit to Nepal after the Second People’s Movement in 2006, things were a little different in Madesh. Everyone was talking about the rights of Madeshis and my relatives were talking about how you have to be careful because you can no longer treat them they way you did. In the past, shouting at them, not giving the right amount of money, mocking them, name calling, and pretty much not treating rickshaw people like humans was very common. I cannot even write what I experienced when it came to ill treatment and prejudice against Madeshis from some people in Kathmandu.

When we were kids, our essays about Nepal were about how it had so much diversity, culturally and ethnically, and how proud we were that we had that in Nepal. It’s something I certainly told anyone who asked me about Nepal in my later years. What I hadn’t realised was even though it was diverse, it certainly was not inclusive. What I thought was meant to be Nepali, was not what Nepal was about, we respected the diversity, but not everyone was equal because of this diversity. Not being able to speak Nepali ‘properly’ meant you would limit yourself from getting a good education and good job, the language/dialect you spoke wasn’t recognised officially, and often called ‘incorrect’, the festivities some people celebrated were not in our school books. We were looking at Nepal with a rose-tinted glass, and the view was of a woman standing outside her thatched house wearing gunyu cholo, tending to her cattles and a baby, whilst her husband in daura suruwal was working in the field, with a picturesque mountain in the background. That’s what I thought being a Nepali was about.

Which brings to where I am now, with my identity, to others I may be confused Desi, British Nepali, and ‘na yata ko na uta ko’ and to some ‘a bideshi’, I often tell them I am the best of both. Yes both my parents were pahade Nepalis (although that’s debatable, my mother has never been to pahad, neither did her mother). I lived in Terai for few years and also went to school in Kathmandu, but have lived abroad for most of my life. I feel more comfortable speaking in English yet my Nepali is what people would call suddha Nepali. I am not really a fan of Nepali customs and or traditions, because I think traditions are man-made and it had only benefited certain members of the community. I don’t feel comfortable wearing sarees, but I think if we look at that detail then even that’s not Nepali, it’s Indian. However, I am certain I will get married wearing a saree (but I hope no kanyadaan). I have never tried gunyo cholo, apart from that one time when I danced in a Nepali function. I have never worn Nepali dhaago on my head and I absolutely detest gold or anything that is flashy. I love momos and dal-bhaat, but then again, I equally love sea food. I love being in Nepal, but I enjoy just as much being in England (even though it’s cold and rainy). I hate being made to go to temples, but I also love being in a serene place with a lot of positive energy. When I am with my parents or family, I celebrate Dashain, but I am not too keen on everything that comes with it, over indulgence, khasi ko masu, or women spending most of their time in the kitchen. And it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed listening to Nepali songs, does Bipul Chettri count, he’s an Indian, but sings Nepali songs?

So what is it about me that makes me Nepali? The language I speak? Clothes I wear? Where I live? Festivals I celebrate? Food I eat? Beliefs I hold? Is it how long I have lived in Nepal for? Legal status? Am I less Nepali now I confessed I don’t actually enjoy Nepali songs, dances, or wear ‘Nepali’ clothes? More importantly, how is it that I am more Nepali and the other person isn’t? How come an Indian who lives in Sikkim or Darjeeling who wears dhaka topi and speaks Nepali with some twang more Nepali than a person who lives in Terai? Or is Nepali an ethnicity that comes with one’s surname? Is that why Manisha Koirala is seen as Nepali, but Udit Narayan Jha as Indian? Even though she spent most of her time in India and he completed his education in Nepal before moving. Living in Nepal, my surname came with a lot of privileges. I also realised that if my ancestors hadn’t made certain decisions in their life, I could have easily been that woman tending her cattle with mountains in the background (I can assure you I certainly wouldn’t be speaking suddha Nepali then).

So am I Nepali enough? Why?

** Share your thoughts! What makes ones Nepali, what doesn’t? How do we define identities? Can we?

23 thoughts on “Identity Crisis: Am I Nepali?

  1. Excellent post 🙂

    It resonates with my feelings on many levels. I have asked myself the same question a few times since the last couple of years. It’s been only over 4 years I left Nepal, but now I am even more critical about Nepali traditions, mindset and culture. Just as you, when I was young, I had very ignorant ideas on Nepali identity, due to many factors like the school textbooks filled with propaganda and the everyday behavior of people I was surrounded with towards many other castes/groups. I enjoy Nepali food, and sometimes watch Nepali movies and like to be updated with what’s going on in Nepal, but I wouldn’t personally participate or agree with many aspects of the culture itself, which are largely patriarchal and hugely favorable to just one particular group of people.

    I like to talk with Nepali friends and discuss about those aspects and learn more about their cultures (Newar, Gurung etc), but then I don’t like to wear clothes such as saree and kurta. Being a woman and realizing how critically we’re looked down upon in Nepali society is one of the top reasons why I do not feel like a ‘typical’ patriotic Nepali. I am not European either, because obviously I’ve spent only few years here (and in two different countries). This is a very confused state to be in. As I do not wholly embrace each and every aspect of Nepali culture and lead a more Western (=more equal and civilized) lifestyle, I am also called labelled as ‘bideshi’ by my Nepali relatives. I get the impression that you’re seen as a true Nepali woman when you follow every illogical traditions blindly, remain docile and do not have or voice strong opinions; everything that I am not. I do love Nepal and often feel nostalgic about it, but I do not feel 100% Nepali, whatever that means. I do not think I can adapt myself to Nepali society, ever.

    • Rhijuta says:

      Thank you so much for your feedback.

      I am very comfortable in my skin but it takes a lot to criticise something that is essentially what makes us us. I was worried that it could also be easily seen as attack to the country or a culture but when you get back feedback like yours, it really makes it worthwhile. I, like you, love so much about Nepal, but I am more keen to pass on my love to the next generation. One of the worthwhile decision I have taken as an adult has been to go and live in Nepal to understand it better.

      • I would also like to spend time in Nepal for sometime, just to understand things better. I left when I was just 18, so I think it would be helpful and eye-opening for me as an adult, in so many ways to take a close look and live in the culture that I was brought up in.

  2. Great piece. I felt like it was emotional for you and I must respond. First I thought of saying “No, you are Nepali” but I do not have the prerogative to say that and it trivializes your article. I, then, thought of saying “I understand you. I have had similar thoughts, maybe to a lesser extent” and list my reasons for those feelings. I think I found a better response on the third attempt and it helped me think things clearly too. Here it is:

    It is understandable that you are having an “Identity Crisis”. However, this combination of two words has a negative connotation thanks to a positive association with identity and the word “crisis”. Let us think of our situation as “a freedom from identity”. Think of people who are certain about their national identities and are extremely proud of it. Would you really want to buy that social construct and base your thoughts and behavior on them? Some people have taken nationalistic thoughts to such an extreme that it seems better to me not having a national identity. Boundaries are imaginary lines anyways that have been forced down our throats. There is no way of changing other people’s beliefs at this point of human civilization, but we can think of ourselves in a more reasonable way. “I do not believe in man-made boundaries. I associate more with people of certain geographic locations, I like the places I have visited, and I prefer some cultures some communities have. For practical purposes, I will say I belong to the countries that gave me the paperwork. My identity? I am an entity capable of experiencing, thinking and acting. Every other identity is a social construct and and I will only use them for practical convinience.”

    • Rhijuta says:

      Thank you Sailesh, much appreciated your kind words. I have much recently identified myself as a multi local which I haven’t talked about on this blog. But what I was trying to say was people may not be aware but the class privilege does prevail, in this case, I don’t have to prove to anyone that I’m not nepali even when I don’t speak the language and wear an authentic nepali attire,or critise the way of things. Whereas others are struggling or have to constantly prove to others yes their hearts lies with Nepal when they speak Maithali, tamang or any other dialects. And I think that’s where people like us should speak up. What’s the point if we talk about inclusiveness in Western representation of ourselves but keep quiet when others are struggling with this in Nepal?

      Finally, I love your writing style and what you have to say. Why don’t you write more often?

  3. Great post! Like you, I have spent a lot of time abroad. As a matter of fact, pretty much all my adult life — 25 of the last 27 years — and so I was able to relate to a lot of what you talk about.

    But unlike you, I am a Nepalese man AND I recently returned to Nepal to fulfil a long held dream of living and working there. I left the country as a high school student, got my educated in four other countries, travelled the world as an international teacher and returned home to pursue my passions: education, economic and gender equality and social justice.

    One of the things that kept going through my mind while I was reading your you post was how and who you appear to be and how that is so different from most women in Nepal. I blog about gender-equality, amongst other things. Here’s a recent post of mine describing how and why suicide is the biggest killer of Nepalese girls and women: http://www.dorjegurung.com/blog/2015/10/the-silenced-go-silently/

    • Rhijuta says:

      Thank you Dorje for your kind words,

      I read your article, and will be reading more. Everything you talk about is what me and my friends discuss regularly, small hints as we are growing up to tell us that the society and the culture we are in, belongs to men. And yes we are important but to support them, whether at puja path, shraadha, managing the house or common these days, financially.

      And when people like us break out, it takes a lot out of us and we have to make certain decisions in life that can easily leave us with a smaller support group. So what you said about me not being like most women in Nepal is something I hear from my wider family members all the time. The rebel, who makes a decision for herself rather than putting society before her. Thankfully, my immediate family may not be entirely happy with my decisions, support me which has allowed me break out of the norm.

      I do think education is changing the way people in nepal are thinking and glad there are people like you. Unfortunately, my Nepal stay as an adult only lasted few years, with multiple hurdles, but hope we can still be vocal through our writings to raise some awareness by sharing our stories. When you have time, please do also read our stories on other issues like menstruations, harassments and expectations.

  4. Suman Pradhan says:

    I was overwhelmed reading your post, not only for the sentiment you express but the beautiful way you express it. You have a flair for the written language. As a former writer, I appreciate good quality when I see one. keep it going.

  5. Thanks everyone for your positive words. We at Nepali Chhori want these kinds of issues and topics to be discussed openly, it’s nice to have that support! Rhijuta did an amazing job writing down how she feels. I look forward to more of her writings.

  6. a great piece ..thank you for this great piece and yeah its hard to define Nepalipan and yes there is a thing who is more Nepali than other and that’s just not equal when we advocate equality in every sense and when it comes to use there’s always one greater than the other.

    • Rhijuta D says:

      I am glad you enjoyed it. Thank you very much for your feedback. I guess we are all struggling with our own identities in our own way..

  7. I see Nepal as a place of struggling and contrasting ideologies. As the first south asian country to guarantee LGBTQ rights (including court-approved same-sex marriage), assign a third gendered passport, and not have any pronounced major religious disputes in its history proves that Nepal is a fertile ground for change.

    But again, discrimination is so prevalent in every aspect- everyone loves goro skin, frowns upon inter-caste marriage, rich madhesis have poor madhesis working in their homes, poor pahades in the hills have no better opportunities. I think most of it comes down to socio-economic status rather than race or caste. There are bahuns, dalits and madhesis who have gone on to be highly successful but we seldom hear of them being proponents of disadvantaged folks of their communities.

    One common Nepalipan I’ve witnessed in most Nepalis is the habit of putting down other fellow Nepalis. When a bidhesi visiting Nepal starts a small non-profit, gets donations and helps people, that person is a star, but when a Nepali (local or NRN) does the same, most people are quick to comment that the person is just looking for big donations to fill their own pocket in the name of charity. We do not give enough credit to the new generation who have so much potential, but are still backlogged in life because this aunty or uncle might say something to defame them.

    I do not know what to make of Nepal. Should I be happy at Nepal’s progressive rights to safe legal abortions? Or should I be disappointed that pre-marital sex is still illegal and women barely have sexual or reproductive rights even after marriage? Should I be happy that my parents understand and support my learning disability? Or should I be disappointed that they asked me to never disclose it to my Nepali relatives or friends because I might be judged severely? Sigh.

    You got a new subscriber 🙂 Check my blog out ! x

    • Rhijuta D says:

      Hi,

      Thank you for your feedback.

      I agree that Nepal is struggling with contrasting ideologies (even though I don’t think it recognises same-sex marriage, as far as I know, it was decriminalised in 2007 but most people have been misinformed and think this was when it was made legal). I agree we have had some progressive laws in terms of LGBT and I fully support that. However, I only know a few who have fully come out to their family, when I was growing up, I heard a lot about young eligible men committing suicide just when their family members were about to get them married. The society still discriminates when you are different from the norm, you don’t even have to have a different sexual desires.

      I agree that there is a weird set of standards for you to be fully seen as ‘nepali’ and that is what I am trying to get at. We are all so different and individualistic and diverse yet we feel compelled to be ‘Nepali’ by doing certain things, maybe speaking the language, loving momo or doing puja aaja.. I just think we need to redefine what it means to be Nepali and not leave anyone out who doesn’t fit in with the old standards.

      I don’t fully agree that we don’t have caste based discrimination, chuwa chut is very prevalent, whether it’s in a poor person’s house, rich persons house though we may not come across this in our day to day urban life.. try being a ‘lower caste’ and go to a house where members of family are mourning.. I’ve heard stories in kathmandu where brahmin workers refuse to clean toilets, or do anything that may seem ‘tallo jaat’, although these are isolated cases in Kathmandu, I think it’s so ingrained in our society that we either refuse to see it or just don’t see it. Yes, the rich/poor based discrimination is there, afterall, came all the way from British Raj during colonial times…

      I think Nepal and Nepalis (there and abroad) and going through a lot of transition and it’s going to take generations or two to get to the right direction (or wrong depending on where it heads! as long as it doesn’t have a candidate like Trump in the front running, I think we are going the right way) and i just hope that we don’t backpeddle some of the progress Nepal is making through for human rights and more included society.

      Interesting about your parents and relatives.. many diaspora families have similar struggles too. I guess we are the lucky ones to have understanding parents! 🙂

      Very much looking forward to checking out your blogs and posts! and already following you on twitter.

  8. Are you Nepali? Am I Nepali?

    For a Nepali who was born and raised outside of Nepal, for someone who can’t understand the culture of Nepal, for someone whose Nepali gets mocked, and for someone who’ve never really gotten into Nepali movies nor songs, am I Nepali?

    The confusion is still there for me sometimes, the incongruity of the whole situation. However, I… I think I am Nepali. These things don’t define your nationality, at least that is what I believe. I define myself as a Nepali, despite how much of a Nepali I am not. I’m open to learning more about my country. It’s interesting to see a different side.

    “What I hadn’t realised was even though it was diverse, it certainly was not inclusive.” This is a beautiful statement I wholeheartedly agree with.

    I like how you’ve mentioned the struggles Madhesis face, and I too have to admit the ignorance I had regarding the true diversity of Nepal.

    This was a well-written and insightful post. I I

  9. Narayan Gautam says:

    Hi an introspective and good article-thanks 👍 ….I can understand and empathise with your feelings but a little different one- am myself an Indian by birth and my parents have migrated from Nepal many many years backs and also that my grandfather was in Assam where he died. I am an Indian but heart of my heart I cannot forget that my Nepali is my mother tongue and am proud of my nepaliness, interestingly the more am growing older the more am inching towards being myself- a pahadi with such a rich culture of language, music and intrinsic qualities of humanity. It’s not easy to define being a Nepali – not atleast by living in Nepal only or merely by following rituals etc.- it’s above that. It’s about my mental make and how I construct my personality as I grow from my formative years of staying in society as a minority and with the kind of surroundings you got as a background…,.and how you adapted it without losing yourself. It would be great to talk sometime on it.

    • nepalichoriblog says:

      Thanks Narayan for sharing your story and thoughts. You are right, it is not easy to define being a Nepali.

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