Tag Archives: America

American by Birth, Nepali by Marriage

I’m kind of outing myself a little, but I recently wrote a story for a new Nepali magazine. I wanted to share it (I hope the magazine folks don’t mind) as I really liked how it came together. I was asked to talk about my views as a non-Nepali married to a Nepali, and I see the article as a nice introduction to how I see my world today.

——-

“Can you see Mount Everest from your house?” I asked my friend, a native of Kathmandu. We were sharing French fries in the campus cafeteria, and I was making conversation. I remembered the glossy photos of past Everest expeditions in the National Geographic I received each month, like a prize, from my grandfather after he had finished reading. Every article on Everest started with the expedition team departing from Kathmandu; a yellow star on the map followed by dotted lines that connected the city to the top of the world. I assumed the giant mountain towered on the outskirts of the capital, like an ancient skyscraper of rock and ice.

My friend narrowed his eyes, searching my face for signs of sarcasm. Finding none he smirked, and responded, “Oh yeah, and some times during gym class we hiked to the summit to have a glass of tea.”

I had only been at the university for a few weeks, so I was almost naïve enough to believe him. I knew very little about his country aside from the magazine pictures, an unfortunate side effect of 1990s American public education. High school curricula simply weren’t very “global,” at least when it came to non-Western countries.

A year later I would meet my future husband, not more than a few hundred feet from the cafeteria where I first began to learn about Nepal. He was bean-pole skinny, with medium-length black hair, and glasses that tinted in bright sunlight. He was quiet, and sweet, and would occasionally leave a sticky note on my dormitory door that inquired, “के छ?”

It has now been almost nine years, and not only have I been to Nepal, I have seen Mount Everest with my own eyes—while panting for breath on the steep upward climb to Namche Bazar. From Kathmandu it took a small plane and two days of hiking to catch a misty glimpse of the mountain, and would take several more days of hiking if I wanted to touch its feet.

I have journeyed far in other ways too. I am now part of a Nepali family and my identity includes words like buhari and bhauju. I celebrate American Thanksgiving and Dashain, Christmas and Tihar. Our home is often filled with laughter and conversations with friends in both English and Nepali.

I have fallen in love with a man, but also a country.

My journey has not been without bumps. I cringe each time my father-in-law greets me at the airport by pinching my arm and exclaiming joyfully about how “fat” I have become. Ironically my mother-in-law compares the amount of rice I eat to that of a five-year-old child, but I have to surrender; I will never be able to keep up in the daal-bhat department.

My biggest hurdle has been language—that same hungry five-year-old would clearly beat me in a Nepali oratory contest—but I lumber on, still feeding my mind a few new words every day.

In many ways I have become a hybrid. I am American by birth and Nepali by marriage.  As the years unfold, our cultures are better interwoven, pulling two worlds together with a tighter thread.

Someday I want to be in South Asia for Holi

I know that the festival of Holi happened a few weeks ago, and I meant to write a post like this at the time, but I was reminded of Holi last night while searching for photos on the internet and figured it was time.

As the title professes, one of these days I would really like to be in either India or Nepal for Holi. I understand and appreciate that there is a religious significance to the festival, so I don’t want to seem disrespectful or  flippant, but there is something that looks so amazingly fun about throwing handfuls of colored powder at each other, regardless of the reason.

I remember once in elementary school someone gave me the idea of putting a spoon or two of flour into an opened  napkin and tying the napkin shut with a piece of string to make a “flour bomb” that “exploded,” sending flour everywhere, when you threw it at someone/something. I made about a dozen, and my sister K and I threw them at each other in the back yard. We were covered in white powder at the end. It was extremely fun, and of course, silly, but I couldn’t replicate it because I got in trouble for wasting flour.

I imagine a full scale Holi is kind of like that, only the flour-like powder is dyed vibrant hues, and the world is covered in rainbows.

P says that in real life (well, in the kid version he remembers) playing Holi can also be kind of brutal. Teenage boys love targeting Western tourists (particularly females) and Holi colors don’t always come in fun handfuls of powder… sometimes they come in buckets of colored water or balloons. There was even a dangerous trend of more mischievous people throwing motor oil in Kathamandu, but I still  like to imagine crowds of happy, friendly people, shrieking in delight and playing tag with fist fulls of beautiful powder.

Actually, P has a “battle wound” from a Holi shenanigan in his youth. One year he was up on the roof of his house, leaning far over the ledge to hit a neighbor girl with a balloon filled with colored water. As he positioned himself for the sneak attack he let the balloon go, but lost his balance and fell off the roof with it! He cracked the side of his head on the path below and started bleeding. As luck would have it, the timing of his accident coincided with a city curfew, and his family couldn’t taken him to the hospital until the following morning. Several stitches later, he still has a bump on his noggin that you can see in the right light if you know where to look.

But I’m not deterred :)

We have played Holi a few times in Massachusetts, although of course a tamer version, at Holi potluck gatherings where fellow party goers gently wipe powder in a streak across each others faces. But much like smearing birthday cake on someone’s face, the real fun is getting a little crazy. I wouldn’t mind coming back from Holi looking like this:

Pictures are from The Telegraph and Boston.com.

What’s in a Name?

About a year ago 4B introduced me to the British comedy serial “Goodness Gracious Me” and their sketches really are priceless. Many of their sketches explore the conflict and integration between traditional Indian culture and modern British life. And some, like the following, reverse the roles to view the British from an Indian perspective or poke fun at Indian stereotypes.

“Jonathan”

I saw this particular sketch back then, but recently an acquaintance reposted it on facebook and it reminded me of a post I wrote about a year and a half ago called “Pashwa’s Name.” The writing of the original post was inspired by the fact that many of my family members were finally writing P’s name correctly on Christmas cards after 6 years of crazy spellings like: “all sorts of variations, often with “Os” and “Zs” and “Ss” and “Hs” (letters that he doesn’t have in his name at all!) … My dad used to write his name as “Pazz” for several years, while [my Grandmother used the name] “Pashwa” which [she] still kinda calls him.”

The first time my mother met him they went through this exchange:

Mom: “Does your name translate into something in English?”

P: [honestly ponders this question for a few minutes…] “Well, I guess you could say light or maybe bright light.

Mom: [looks a bit puzzled, this was not how she expected him to answer the question. The look on her face was absolutely priceless. She was thinking something like “Patrice” is the French form of “Patrick,” and “P” is the Nepali version of “Peter”] “Huh? Light? I was thinking Peter or Paul or something like that. Don’t you have an English name?”

P: “No, I guess I’m just P_______ or you can call me P__ for short.”

The “Jonathan” sketch also reminds me of my new freshmen students during international orientation. At one point we had them stand up and introduce themselves, and there were quite a few students who introduced themselves by English names instead of their original more “ethnic” sounding names.

This happens a lot with Chinese students, who are often advised by educational consultants back home to pick an English name since many Chinese sounds are butchered by our American tongues. From experience I know that Burmese students tend to have particularly challenging names—not necessarily long names like Thai or Sri Lankan (I have ten Thai students this year and the average number of letters in their last names is 16!)—but Burmese names tend to have strings of letters you don’t expect to be next to each other—this year I have one student whose first name is Hnin Pwint. I tried several times to say it properly, and the poor girl kept correcting me, and finally she said she goes by the name “Snow.” (Also kind of interesting, since I don’t think it snows in Myanmar).

One of our new Nepali students also has a challenging name—Kshitij. I had to check with some friends before I met him to make sure I was saying it correctly—it is pronounced kind of like chee-teej, but when he stood up to introduce himself to the new students he proudly told the audience his name was…

“Ken.”

When I got home that night I told the P family that one of my Nepali students didn’t want to use his Nepali name, and decided to call himself by an American one.

“Why would you do that?” P asked, “Having an ethnic name is kind of cool. It’s different. It makes you stand out.”

I was a little surprised by P’s answer, since his name can and has been butchered as well, however I also agree. My name is “ethnic” in that it is mostly used by Irish-Americans (or perhaps other Irish-in-diaspora communities*), and although the combination of my first name and last name is quite common within these communities (if you google it, you will get pages of “CCs” that are not me, and as the original C____C____@gmail.com email account I get emails for the wrong “CCs” all the time!) it’s not that common of a name in general. Whereas I had a truckload of “Jennifers,” “Elizabeths,” “Marys,” and “Sara(h)s” as friends growing up, it wasn’t until high school that I met another “C” at an event I attended. During my school age years I don’t think I could have dealt with being in a room and someone calling out “C!” and more than one of us turning around to ask, “What?”

If/When P and I decide to have kids, I think we are probably in agreement that we would want to name them something  “different” but we will have to keep in mind that it should be pronounceable by both my family and his.

So I guess no “Jonathans” or “Kshtijs” for us.

* I wanted to quickly note that all my life I thought of my name as very “Irish” not “Irish American” until our (real) Irish friend RH told me that no one in Ireland is actually named “C.” It’s a noun in Ireland, and has been appropriated by Irish-in-diaspora descendants as an “Irish” name. It really rattled my world when I found out that my supposedly super-Irish-name was really inauthentic… although I guess not really, since I am not really “Irish” but “Irish American.” If it is an “Irish American” name, I guess it actually is authentic in my case.

Wedding Weekend Post I: “Crazy,” “Fun,” “Fast,” and “Exhausting”

Sorry for the prolonged silence. I’ve needed a day or two to recover from the festivities. The weekend was such a whirlwind. People say that your wedding goes by so quickly you hardly have time to get your head around it. It’s true, and it’s only now as I sort through pictures our friends and family have been posting on facebook that I am really getting a sense of what it looked like and what I want to say.

I have to admit that there were many times throughout the weekend where I thought, “I need to write this in my blog!” so I will break my story into several posts so as not to get too long winded at one time.

But now I’m left with the dilemma of where to start. I don’t think I have many words in me today, but I thought I’d share with you a few of the pictures that our friends took. We had a professional photographer there, but we won’t see his pictures for several weeks, so I will share those later.

If I could sum the weekend up in four words I would say “Crazy,” “Fun,” “Fast,” and “Exhausting”– Crazy because after years of being together, years of engagement, and a full year of planning, it was finally here and it felt so surreal; fun because we did have a lot of fun–dancing, talking to friends and family, singing, enjoying; fast because the weekend seem to be over in a blink of an eye, and exhausting because even though it went fast, we still had many long days, late nights, and lots of activity.

As I mentioned before, the weekend before the 4th of July P and I were doing as much wedding prep as possible before his parents’ arrival. My new in-laws arrived a week and a half before our wedding, which made it a bit challenging to sneak out of the house to get wedding stuff done, so I’m glad I did most of it ahead of time. P’s brother came July 1st and stayed with us until the 12th, my mother and sisters came on the 7th. The rest of the time went like this:

7th- last day at work before wedding, mother/sisters arrived, P’s brother’s birthday–took him out to dinner with friends

8th- final wedding prep day, white wedding rehearsal, rehearsal dinner, up until 2am making flower arrangements

9th-Nepali wedding day! temple set up, red wedding, red wedding “after party” (did I mention Nepalis know how to party?) until 2am

10th-American wedding day! last minute wedding prep, white wedding, and formal reception

11th-Get to know P’s extended relatives day and “welcoming the buhari” rituals  (until midnight!)

12th-Crashed like a train wreck

13th-Back to work!

Red Wedding:

Wedding sari pre-ceremony. Many of the sari wearing women got ready at S-di's house where S-di, her daughters, AS and R helped people who are not accustomed to saris get wrapped and folded accordingly

Me sitting under the mandap during the ceremony wearing the "dubo ko mala" (Nepali grass garland), flower mala, and veil

P and I with AS (left) and R (right) helping with the rituals under the mandap. I can't thank these two beautiful friends enough for all their help, we would have been lost without them!

P and I under the mandap walking around the fire

With P's family after the ceremony-- left to right: P's brother U, P, me, Mamu and Daddy

With both our immediate families: left to right: P's dad in traditional Nepali daura suruwal, my dad wearing a Nepali dhaka topi, P, me, my sister K in a sari, my youngest sister M in a sari and mom in a sari, and P's mom

One of my favorite pics of the day (taken by U)-- P and I walking out after the ceremony to find our car decorated with red streamers and bows. The back of the car says "P weds C" and the sides of the car say "P2 + C2" (referencing that both our last names and first names start with the same letter). A childhood friend of P's chauffeured us to the hotel I was staying at so we could freshen up.

P and I after the red wedding but before the red wedding "after party"... wedding round 1 complete!

P, U and I at the red wedding "after party"-- yep-- that's me in my bridal sari with tilhari at a local bar, dancing it up (in front of my new in-laws and extended Nepali family... I guess I'm not the run-of-the-mill buhari, luckily it didn't seem to make a bad impression... I even danced with some of them!)

White Wedding:

White wedding ceremony

I have to put this picture in, because P was so embarrassed to kiss in front of his family. He wouldn't even let me tag him on facebook!

The groomsmen fooling around during the cocktail hour

Father/Daughter dance at the white wedding

International House college friends at the white wedding: 1st KS, 3rd D, 4th me, 5th P, 6th and 7th our American/Bulgarian friends (we are going to their wedding at the end of the month), and AD

More to follow soon!

Nicknames and Pet Names

When I was in elementary school my grandmother took my sister and I on our first sans-parents trip. We flew across the country to San Diego to see one of my aunts who had a young son and was pregnant with her second child. My little cousin’s name was Sean, and I remember cooing to him, “Hey Sean, hey little Sean, hey there little Seanie-Seanie-Seanie-Seanie-Seanie!” My aunt stopped me right there and said, “Oh, no. No nicknames. He is just Sean. I don’t want anything silly to stick.”

I didn’t really grow up with a nickname either. I think my parents didn’t really know what to shorten my name to, or maybe no one really thought about it (except for my sixth grade teacher who jokingly referred to me as C—-nie-Weenie-Beanie-Frances, although that’s not really shorter). But for someone who grew up without a ton of nicknames, I think P and I are going to be the kind of parents (someday) that have a million nicknames for our kids–if our poor dog is any indication. His name is Sampson but he also goes by Sam, Sammy, Sammu, Samaloula, Samalou, Bubala (which actually means “grandmother” in Yiddish, so don’t ask me where that came from), Bubalou, Bubaloula, Bubahead, Bubaface, you get the picture. I guess the dog is used to our craziness, because he seems to respond to all of them.

Anyway, that was my long introduction to my ramble for today: Nicknames (pet names?) for couples, US and Nepali style.

In the US couples have all sorts of pet names for their significant other. They range from cutesy (Baby, Sweetie, Darling) to food inspired (Cupcake, Muffin, Honey) to silly (insert all sorts of potential nouns here). I kind of wish P and I had a better pet name for each other. I admit, ours is totally dumb, and really has absolutely no meaning at all, but it’s one of those things where it just stuck, and now I don’t think it will ever change (perhaps my Aunt had a point way back when?)

In high school somehow I started using the made up word “Merface” as a silly term of endearment for friends or my sisters. I don’t have a clue where it came from, it was probably something that just came up in conversation once and stuck. By the time I met P in college, “Merface” had morphed into “Merf” and that also just kind of stuck. Eventually P was the one and only Merf in my life and that name became this silly nonsensical term that I used so frequently with P (and he with me) that occasionally he stops and says, “You know, my name isn’t really Merf.”

Much like our poor dog, Merf also has lots of variations: there is the short and to the point “Mer” that can also be elongated when I’m pouting about something like, “But meeeeeeeeeerrrrrrrrr I don’t want to eat rice today” or P:
Meeeeeerrrrr pasta, again?”), there’s the flirty “Merfy” (“looking good Merfy”) or the more playful “Merfalou” or “Merfaloula.” Or even an insult—“Don’t be such a Merface.” You get the idea.

Gosh, I feel pretty ridiculous even typing all this out, but I’ve already gotten this far, so I might as well keep going.

“Merf” I think looks even stranger when typed out rather than said, because I think most people probably assume we are saying “Murph or Murphy” to each other, like the Irish name. Maybe they think I’m trying to Irish-American-ify P by christening him “Murphy.”

Anyway, aside from our weird nickname that doesn’t mean anything, there are some relatively common Nepali terms of endearment that people use, so I wanted to mention those.

I think a frequent one is “Nanu and Baba.” Nanu means something like “little girl,” while Baba could mean “father” but is also used similarly to Babu for little boys. Sometimes I find in confusing because “Baba and Nanu” are also used as generic cutesy terms for Nepali children. So there could potentially be both an older and younger set of “Babas and Nanus” over for a dinner party. Although I guess there could be a lot of older and younger “Muffins and Sweeties” too depending on the crowd you are with.

Our friends AS and N use these particular pet names a lot. When they stayed with us for several months, I got so used to hearing them call each other Baba and Nanu that I even started referring to them as Baba and Nanu, which in our household was more of an inside joke, but when visiting Nepalis heard me call N Baba it probably scandalized them (“What is going on in this house?”)

I asked P if he could think of any others. Some wives sometimes call their husbands “Raja” (king) and I guess conversely the wives might be called “Rani” (queen). P’s parents call him “Kalu” as a nickname (black). AS said that sometimes couples might call each other Kalu and Kali (black) or Budha/Budhi (husband/wife).

So now that I’ve embarrassed myself with nicknames and pet names, what do you guys call each other?

10 Years in America

Ten years ago (minus a day or two), P, draped in yellow and orange marigold garlands, hugged his family at the Tribhuvan International Airport. The group who gathered to see him off posed for a photo (which still hangs on our refrigerator). In the photo P looks different—much skinnier, with longer hair and tinted glasses. His expression is a mixture of excitement, nervousness and sadness. His little cousin at the time was about six years old, she was the smallest one in the photo—now she is nearly done with high school. After the photo P again said goodbye, trudged off to the departure gate, and boarded a plane bound for Bangkok. It was almost two years before he returned for a visit.

His brother, P, his mom and dad before his departure

It took him over 48 hours—flying from KTM to Thailand, then Tokyo, then Minneapolis (where he briefly met up with a cousin who, during P’s layover, brought him to the “Mall of America.” An undoubtedly overwhelming first entry into the US, P fretted at the cost of an alarm clock when he converted dollars into Nepali rupees. His cousin gave him sage advice, “Stop doing that. You’ll never survive here if you keep converting everything.”) then from Minnesota to Boston, and finally to Bangor, Maine. Once the tired traveller departed his final airport, he was greeted by his friend and former high school roommate S, who drove him the final two hours north to their small college campus in rural “Downeast Maine.” Today is the anniversary of his initial arrival on US soil.

A decade in America.

Ten years is a long time. It’s hard for me to imagine being away from my own country for that long. P said that when he initially left, he knew he was leaving for quite a while, but he can’t believe it’s been ten years already, “Time passes fast in the US.”

Now—almost three American university degrees later, soon to be married, with lots of memories under his belt, I guess today is one of reflection.

I can’t speak for P, but I think about all the immigrants who have come to America who never had a chance to go home again, who missed weddings, births and funerals. We are lucky that we now live in an age of great technology. P is able to talk to his parents often on the phone, and video chat through Skype and Gmail. We are able to travel to Nepal every few years, and P’s family has been able to visit. We make an effort to highlight beloved and important aspects of Nepali and American culture so that both of us feel respected and appreciated in our household.

So happy ten years to P. Perhaps someday we will be celebrating a happy twenty years… or perhaps a happy ten years to me in Nepal. There is a lot of life (knock wood) in front of us, so we will have to see what will happen.

DV Lottery Blues

The 2011 DV Lottery closed at noon on November 30. I had been bugging P to submit an application all month, but by the time he got around to checking it out the application time period closed (he thought he had until midnight that night). I was hoping he would at least try, because if he were randomly to “win” then he could get a green card, and potentially help us sort out some of our immigration related logistical issues. Unfortunately, P has always been a bit laid back about immigration stuff. Where many Nepalis I know apply like clockwork every year (including P’s brother), I’m not sure if P ever has himself.

So what is the DV Lottery? It is the “Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery” also known as the “Green Card Lottery” administered by the US Department of State. According to Wikipedia, “Section 131 of the Immigration Act of 1990 amended INA [Immigration and Nationality Act] 203 to provide for a new class of immigrants known as ‘diversity immigrants’ (DV immigrants). The Act makes available 50,000 permanent resident visas [‘Green Cards’] annually to persons from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.”

Essentially anyone can apply as long as you are not on the “ineligible country list” based on current immigration trends, this list includes: Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born), Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Poland, South Korea, UK and Vietnam. All correctly filed and relevant applications are put into a “lottery drawing” and 50,000 visas are awarded each year.

Wikipedia continues, “The visas are distributed on a regional basis, with each region sending fewer immigrants to the US in the previous 5 years receiving more diversity visas. Currently, Africa and Europe receive about 80% of the visas in the lottery. In addition, no single country can receive more than 7% of the total number of visas (3,500).

In order to allow for those who do not pursue immigrant visas, more ‘winners’ are selected in the lottery than there are visas available. Hence being selected from the lottery does not guarantee an immigrant visa to the U.S. To receive a diversity visa and immigrate to the United States, ‘winners’ must meet all eligibility requirements under U.S. law. Requirements include at least a high school diploma, or its equivalent, or two years of work experience in an occupation requiring at least two years training.”

There are quite a few Nepalis in the US now through the DV Lottery (including the Nepali woman who threaded my eyebrows over the weekend… she arrived three months ago with her DV, and a master’s degree in sociology). In the 2010 drawing (last year) 2,132 DV’s were awarded. This is about the average given out each year for Nepal… in 2009 1,891 were awarded and in 2008 there were 2,562. However millions of people (worldwide) apply. Putting in your application doesn’t necessarily guarantee you.

For example, P’s dad has submitted an application every year for the past 5-8 years. When he went for his visa interview in 2008 in preparation for the family visit to the US that summer, the consular officer asked if he was planning to immigrate to the US if given a tourist visa since, “I see you have applied for the DV religiously over the years.” When applying for a tourist or student visa the key is to prove that you will not overstay your visa and illegally immigrate (or in the case of students, that you will continue working in the US after you graduate even though many do), and thus the burden of proof is on you to show that you have reason (land, family, job, etc) to return. P’s dad planned to return but had some explaining to do to the official before finally receiving his required tourist visa.

Yet to show you the randomness of the lottery… a friend of ours from New York landed in the US with a DV a few years ago. As a student in Nepal he had heard of the DV but honestly thought “no one ever actually wins.” One day at university (back in Nepal) many of his classmates were filling out the DV application and his friend started pestering him… “come on, you have to do it, you never know!” Our friend eventually said fine, filled out the information, and gave it to his friend to send in. When the DV selections were made, our friend didn’t even check the list. He never even thought to look. Ironically (of course), he was on the list, and the friend who urged him to apply (and wasn’t selected) had to let him know. This was a guy who probably never would have come to the US on his own, and here he was, 21 years old, given a visa and sent to the US to start a new life alone. It was tough. He missed his family. He had no one to lean on for support. He spent long nights working at Indian restaurants and driving taxi cabs and days working at the university towards a degree. It took him many years to finish undergrad.

I kind of think the DV is a bit interesting and a bit weird (not in a good way or bad way, just in a… hmmm kind of way). When I hear people complain (especially in this recession) about how “ridiculous” it is to award 65,000 H1B work visas to qualified international students and workers each year when we have plenty of Americans looking for work (and I have students who have spent many years of their life studying so they can get a good job in the States, and are now left without a lot of options and having to return home), then we have this lottery which is a lot more random and permanent, and most people know very little about it, and… I don’t know… sometimes I just don’t get it.

I know the DV helps people… I have a Bulgarian friend from college who has a great job in New York City, and was selected for a DV, and now has permanent residence. He and his American fiancé have less immigration hurdles, and his work and personal life are more settled and stable because his immigration status has been finalized. But then there are others… like P’s dad’s friend, who won the DV lottery and moved to the US with his wife and younger son. Both have university degrees from Nepal (his wife has a master’s in English) but all they can do is work at a Subway sandwich shop. They came to the US to give a better life to their son and the DV Lottery gave them a legal channel in which to do this, but they are frustrated that as working adults their options in the US are limited.

So anyway, it is an interesting program that I don’t think many people know about. I am kind of on the fence about it. It definitely has good points and not so good points. However, it would have been nice to at least have P put his application in for once…

Nepali Students in the US

I was reading the Chronicle of Higher Education today at work, and last week’s paper had a lot of information on international student trends based on the newly released Open Doors reports. I was particularly interested to see reports of the number of Nepali students studying in the US.

I know I am kind of biased, since I am now seemingly “tapped into” the Nepali community (at least while around P)… so I feel like I run into Nepalis all the time (case in point—I went to get my eyebrows threaded with R over the weekend in Connecticut and she was “Nepali ho?”-ed), whereas growing up I never would have imagined bumping into someone from this small Himalayan country. Anyway, regardless of the connection, recently I have felt that I see more and more Nepalis around. I guess Open Doors confirms the phenomenon (at least from the student angle, I won’t even get into the DV Lottery).

According to the Chronicle, Nepal was number 11 out of a list of the top 20 countries of origin for foreign students in the US during the 2008-2009 academic year, with a reported 11,581 students studying here. I guess 11,581 students doesn’t sound like a whole lot, particularly compared to the number one and number two countries India (103,260) and China (98,235) but I was surprised that Nepal even made the list considering it is such a small country (only 29 million compared to India’s and China’s billion plus populations). The article continues that in 2008 there was a 29.6 percent “surge” over the number of Nepalis studying in the US in 2007.

I have mixed feelings about the large number of Nepali students coming to the US. Of course I feel that it is important for everyone to have access to quality education, however with the exodus of so many young Nepalis to other countries I wonder what will happen to this nation which is still struggling to keep itself out of further civil war.

I’ve had this conversation a few times with P’s dad, who is firmly of the opinion that everyone and anyone possible should study in the US, and most likely stay here afterward to work and have a “better life.” My argument to him is that if the “brain drain” keeps all the best people away who will help to rebuild the Nepal of tomorrow? Friends of mine often talk about how when they visit Kathmandu most of their high school buddies are gone, not many seem to be around anymore… most of the young and educated have seemingly left to study and start a life abroad.

I know I have no right or place to judge people who leave as students and stay abroad, Nepal certainly has its many many problems– but I have a lot of respect for people who go back, I can’t help but feel it is impressive and courageous. Heck, perhaps one day, a few years down the road, I’ll be one of those who goes as well!

I have no illusions to the fact that the decision to stay or return home is a tough one, and the whole later section of this post could be a post in and of itself, so I won’t really get into it further than this—I am sure it could be a heated discussion anyway.

For those who are curious, the full list of 20 countries are as follows:

Top Countries of Origin of Foreign Students in the United States, 2008-9

1)      India 103,260                                     11) Nepal 11,581
2)      China 98,235                                       12) Germany 9,679
3)      South Korea 75,065                         13) Brazil 8,767
4)      Canada 29,697                                   14) Thailand 8,736
5)      Japan 29,264                                      15) Britain 8,701
6)      Taiwan 28,065                                    16) Hong Kong 8,329
7)      Mexico 14,850                                   17) Indonesia 7,509
8)      Turkey 12,263                                    18) France 7,421
9)      Vietnam 12,823                                 19) Colombia 7,013
10)   Saudi Arabia 12,661                         20) Nigeria 6,256

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education

Can You See Everest From Your House?

Nepal- a tiny country sandwiched between two giants

Nepal- a tiny country sandwiched between two giants

In general, most people know very little about Nepal. Some have never even heard of the country before, while others think it is in some other part of the world (Africa? South America? Blank stare?) In fact my mother, after having known P for some time, still referred to Nepal as “Nepal-India” for quite a while because she had at least heard of India before and knew it was a real country. I guess it was her way of creating some sort of visualization she could connect to, women wrapped in colorful fabric with dots on their foreheads, sure, I know where you are talking about…

First view of Mt. Everest from P and my trek

First view of Mount Everest from P and my trek. We made a trek to the Everest region in June for P's phd research. It was his first time to Solukhumbu, and we were only able to go 1/2 way to Base Camp due to time constraints. When P and I got back to Kathmandu many people in the city told me how lucky I was to see it, "It is in my country, and I've never laid eyes on it!"

Then there is a second group of people, those who have heard of Nepal’s great “claim to fame” Mount Everest (otherwise known as “Sagarmatha” in Nepali and “Chomolungma” in Tibetan) so thus they kind of know about Nepal. I pretty much fell into this category in the beginning. My freshman year in college I made friends with a few Nepali students and I remember a specific (and now kind of embarrassing) conversation. I had always associated “Kathmandu” with the starting point of most Everest expeditions I’d heard about in The National Geographic (my favorite magazine as a kid, heck, still my favorite magazine). I figured the city was basically at the base of the mountain.

Me: “So can you see Mt. Everest… from your house?” (eek… I sound like Sarah Palin)

Nepali friend: “You mean in Kathmandu?”

Me: “yeah, isn’t it really close?”

Nepali friend: “um, yeahsure… actually we used to climb part of it for gym class in high school. Once I made it to the top and we had a cup of tea.” He had me going for a little while until the blatant sarcasm at the end.

And now I know that the mountain is at least an hour plane ride away from the capital!

Actually, while I was writing this post, I did a quick “Google Chat” poll of Nepali friends who were online. I asked them, “When people find out you are from Nepal, what is the first thing they think of or ask you about?”

Friend 1: “Have you climbed Mt Everest, that’s one of the common questions”

Friend 2: “Have you climbed Mt. Everest?”

Friend 3: “(They become blank) and ask… Where is Nepal?”

Friend 4: “I don’t know if it’s the first thing, but many asked me if we have electricity or computers etc. Not that we don’t have power cuts, but I was like helloooo… I knew how to work on a computer before I came to the US… Someone asked my sister—how many times have you climbed Mount Everest?”

I think, more often than not, Nepali people (that I know) give the benefit of the doubt to others who genuinely don’t know anything about Nepal (Friend 4: “Many people don’t even know where Nepal is. So I have to start- it’s in Asia, in between India and China…”; Friend 3: “I use Mt. Everest as a reference to tell them where Nepal is…”)

As an American, I am not used to people not knowing anything about my home country, so it is hard for me to imagine what it might be like for my friends to run into this time and time again. I’m sure it has to be frustrating to get into conversations with people who have never heard of your country, and also a bit odd when all the knowledge someone has about your home is limited to only one small aspect of it—in this instance, Everest. I guess it is better to be associated with something like Mount Everest than having some other sort of affiliation with your country, like my poor Kazakhstani students who make a sign for their culture booth each year that says, “Borat is not from Kazakhstan.”

Photo from a Sherpa climate change festival P and I went to on our trek. These dancers/singers are probably Tibetan, although Sherpas live in both Nepal and Tibet

Photo from a Sherpa climate change festival P and I went to on our trek. These dancers/singers are in traditional dress and they are probably Tibetan. Sherpas live in both Nepal and Tibet

Probably the second most popular cultural association with Nepal, also tied to the idea of Mount Everest, are the Sherpa people. “Sherpa” can be a few things. There are “Sherpa” which is an ethnic group, but the term is sometimes used to refer to several ethnic groups that live in the Himalayan region that are sometimes lumped into the “Sherpa”

Sherpa--helping with mountain expeditions

Sherpa--helping with mountain expeditions

category because of their similarities with each other. Then there is the term “Sherpa” which has become a more generalized word for porters and climbers who help with annual mountain expeditions to Everest and other high altitude climbs in Nepal, Tibet (and sometimes India and Pakistan). Generally these porters are local people (but not always) whose bodies are better adapted to the thin atmosphere and rigors of hiking up and down the mountains. They may or may not be actual “Sherpa” but the term sticks.

So my next question in my informal mini poll was, “Does anyone think that you are a Sherpa because you are from Nepal, or make “jokes” about you being a Sherpa, even though they know you aren’t?”

Friend 1: “Yeah, I think I got called a Sherpa last Friday…”

Friend 3: “Not really, because people don’t generally know Nepal, so they don’t make the connection.”

Sherpa women (Sherpani) serve us local food during the festival

Sherpa women (Sherpani) serve us local food during the festival

Friend 2: “Not really, because I clearly don’t look like a Sherpa” (follow up question “But an American might not realize that…could it also be because you are a woman and people don’t necessarily associate Sherpas who climb Mt Everest–almost exclusively portrayed as men in documentaries and news about expeditions–with women?”) “I suppose most people have some vision of a Sherpa. But they do ask if [I’ve] climbed Mt. Everest, of course women can climb mountains too. Plus everyone thinks I shouldn’t complain about the cold because I am from Nepal and they think of the snow and mountains. Half the country is hot and tropical, we have jungles!”

P channels his "inner Sherpa" as he tries to carry our porter's load during a tea break

P channels his "inner Sherpa" as he tries to carry our porter's load during a tea break

Me: “P, does anyone else call you ‘Sherpa’ outside of my family?”

P: “Nope, its pretty much exclusively your family.”

A running “joke” with one of my uncles insinuates that since P is from Nepal he “must be” a Sherpa. When he sees P coming he calls out, “here comes the Sherpa!” and when my grandmother once asked if P was tired when holding one of my baby cousins my uncle said, “Sherpas are used to carrying heavy things! He’s fine.” After the Sherpa joke was well established, two Christmas’s in a row, two different aunts gifted P a “Sherpa blanket.” They thought it was pretty clever… Nepal has Sherpas, P is from Nepal… he will probably get a kick out of a Sherpa blanket!

P is so laid back anyway that he doesn’t take offense or care much either way about the jokes, but it is still a bit odd. I guess it is kind of like people in Nepal giving me cowboy hats for gifts and calling me “Texas” because during an 8 year period the world associated the US with George W Bush who famously considered himself Texan. That’s the only example I can think of.

Friend 1: “I actually think it is funny, considering that given the different ethnicities in Nepal, Sherpas are so popular. [I think] it’s because of the [mountaineering] industry and the Sherpas sheer awesomeness. They climb up that mountain as a job carrying all that heavy stuff for other people!”

Passing porters carrying heavy loads up the mountain trail...

Porters passing us carrying heavy loads up the mountain trail... I just had a back pack, and I was out of breath!

I agree, it is actually amazing to see the strength of some of the people up in the mountainous region in Nepal. In Solukhumbu, where P and I did our trek, the only way to transport almost all types of goods into the mountain villages was either by mule/yak caravan or by people hauling stuff on their backs. We watched people carry nearly 110 kilos up steep mountain passes to stock lodges for tourists and bring food and materials to the local people. We passed large stacks of plywood, window panes, large kerosine fuel tanks and boxes of heavy beer and sodas strapped to porters’ backs. The sheer power of the people we encountered was amazing, it was hard work for very little pay… with people often walking long distances in plastic flip flops on muddy steep passes.

This was probably all I could do... and I was just goofying around...

This was probably all I could do... and I was just goofing around...

Since I’m still not great with the kilo/pound conversion (or really any metric-to-standard conversion, I’m terrible in math), the heaviness of what the porters we saw were carrying (110 kilos…more than 240 pounds!!) didn’t really hit home until I was packing our bags for our return flight to the US. Four very large heavy suitcases were about 25 kilos each, a total of about 100 kilos. That was some math I could see! I couldn’t imagine tying these together and carrying them on my back up a rocky path.

So, how to now end this somewhat-stream-of-consciousness post? I guess the gist of it is, Nepal might be a small country that’s not on a lot of people’s radars, but good things to know so that you don’t seem silly if you find yourself talking to a Nepali person for the first time–Mount Everest is not at everyone’s doorstep (and no… they don’t run up the mountain for gym class to take tea on the summit), and not everyone is a Sherpa. It is a small place, but quite complex in lots of ways, with a diverse and interesting culture and history to explore.

And on a side note, I’ve told P… not to even think about climbing Everest. The risk is too high, and a lot of people come back with badly frostbitten fingers and toes, not to mention other things that could go wrong. After trekking near the mountain I think the idea of climbing it has become a bit alluring, but I stand my ground.

How the American Girl and the Nepali Guy First Met…

I know on the other blogs that I read, I really enjoy the personal stories—how the couple met, how did they get together, what happened next—so I figured it was about time to make some introductions.

New York is a massive state, not just a city!

New York is a massive state, not just a city!

I say in my “About” page, that P and I met at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. I’m originally from central New York, several hours drive north of New York City (yes, such a place exists), so when I say upstate I don’t mean Poughkeepsie, I mean “practically Canada.” (sorry, I had to get that off my chest, upstate New Yorkers don’t like being confused with “downstate” and NYC- I actually come from a part of New York with cornfields, onion mudflats and cows! No skyscrapers, yellow taxi cabs or hot dog and pretzel stands…)

As the first of three daughters, my family was more restrictive with the geographical range of my college choices. I was ready to fly the coop and move half way across the US, but when reality hit, I eventually settled on a school in upstate New York because of its African Studies program (and multitude of study abroad options- if I couldn’t go to school far away, I’d find another way to do it). I can’t really articulate why I was interested in Africa straight out of high school. Everyone probably thought I was just weird, but I thought it sounded so exotic and different, so far from everything comfortable and “normal,” everything that I had known all my life. I grew up in a very monocultural town in a very Caucasian school system. Cultural diversity was expressed through wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day or red on St. Joseph’s Day depending on if your ancestors where Irish or Italian. It wasn’t a bad place to grow up, but I was ready for something different.

Nepal

Nepal

Meanwhile P grew up in Kathmandu in a house with his mother, father, younger brother (U) and paternal grandparents (particularly his grandfather, Kakabua). He was granted admission for his “plus 2” at one of the prestigious boarding schools in the valley with a reputation for sending graduates overseas for their university education. After finishing secondary school it took him about a year to finally gain admission (with an affordable price tag) at a small, very rural state school in the northeast. Luckily his old roommate had been granted admission at the same school a semester before and was already there to help with P’s transition from life in Nepal to life in the States.

Can you imagine this being your first experience in the US?

Can you imagine this being your first experience in the US?

P’s first experience in the US was during a layover in Minneapolis, Minnesota when a cousin picked him up at the airport for a few hours to visit (this was pre-9/11, air travel was easier back then) and took him to the Mall of America. Already a bit overwhelmed, P was going to buy an alarm clock, but then converted the price into Nepali rupees, and quickly put the clock down. His cousin said that he had to stop converting or he would never survive in America.

P was at the state school for about a year and a half. He lived with his old roommate, S, and the two of them were probably the only Nepali people within a 200 mile radius, especially after another high school friend of theirs (AC) transferred one semester into his program from their school in Maine to my school in New York.

P’s original plan was to study biology, his parents were encouraging him to become a doctor, but he found he was more interested in environmental studies. Since the school was located on the ocean, the biology and environmental program was specifically geared towards marine environments. Nepal, as a landlocked country, would not benefit much from P if his knowledge was about the oceans, so he decided to start over at a new school. He gained acceptance at the school where his other high school friend transferred… my school in New York.

I had already been a student at the school for a year, but had jumped at my first opportunity to leave the country on an experimental freshman abroad program in the spring of my first year. It was an introduction to the “francophone world” and included study in Quebec, France and–this was the selling point for me–Senegal in West Africa.

International House, affectionately referred to as "I-House" was in this building...

International House, affectionately referred to as "I-House" was in this building...

When school started again at the end of August, I was excited to start living in the International House, a place I qualified to live in because of my recent international experience and my international major. However, I still felt like a new student since I didn’t know many people at the school besides the small group with whom I traveled to France. Luckily an older friend from my high school had introduced me to some international students my first semester, so there were a few familiar faces in the International House.

That August I was able to sneak in to the dorms early since I was assigned a Ukrainian exchange student roommate and she had already arrived. It wasn’t long after I finished moving my boxes in that I bumped into AC, the Nepali guy I knew from the previous year, with the “new Nepali” (as we called P for a while) transfer student. We exchanged quick hellos and took off down the hallway in opposite directions. That was the first time I remember seeing P, but he thinks the first time we met was this:

Now, I have the misfortune of having a birthday at the very end of August. When I was a kid I didn’t like it because it meant the end of summer, and when I was older I found myself constantly in a new place, with people who didn’t know me on my birthday, so it felt like I could never do anything “special.” That year was no different. Few people knew me, no one knew it was my birthday, and I was a bit bummed out. So I walked to the one grocery store in town, bought some cake mix, and baked my own birthday cake in the I-House kitchen. I figured that a good way to meet people was to give away food, so I propped open the door to my dorm room, put the freshly baked cake on a chair and invited who ever walked by to come in for some birthday cake and conversation. That’s when P walked by… and got himself some cake.