Making Sense of Migration

One of my co-workers from Korea told us today that she’s leaving Nepal in mid-November  because her visa is going to expire. Her fiance, who will be leaving with her, is also an immigrant (from Europe), but neither of them want to return to their home countries. They’re not sure where they’ll be headed next. I felt so sad. Although I’ve only known her for a short amount of time, we connected over travel, life in Nepal, and being in international relationships. Hearing of her departure got me thinking about movement and migration.

In the US, I’ve met people from all over the world. What seems to be particular about immigrants to the US is that they often move there and stay, or at least the ones I’ve met have. So once I get to know someone from another country, it’s easy to meet up and stay in touch.

In Nepal, I’ve also met people from all over the world or who have lived in or traveled to other countries. Many of them are Nepali who have lived in the US, Australia, Europe, or other places and are back to visit. Some have lived abroad for years (like Tri) and are back in Nepal for a while. Others are temporary or permanent immigrants from the US, Korea, China, and other places.

What’s different about the people I meet here is the brevity of their time in Nepal. Even though some of the immigrants I meet or the Nepalis returned from abroad are planning to settle here for good, the majority of them will move away again. It makes for a lot of mixed emotions. I love meeting these people who have great stories to tell and different perspectives, but it’s also incredibly sad getting to know them and then coming to terms with the idea that I may never see them again.

The amazing thing about it is it makes me live in the moment, enjoy the likely limited time I have with new friends, but it’s never easy. Those in international relationships have to consider these realities of movement and migration all the time. For me and Tri, at least one of us will always be an immigrant, no matter where we live.

I’m still trying to understand migration and the mixed feelings I have about it. For those of you who have lived abroad, traveled, immigrated, how do you make sense of the realities of migration?

Becoming Part of a Nepali Family

When Tri first told his parents that he had an American girlfriend, they were a little worried. They had known several Nepalis who had married women from abroad, but none of their marriages had worked out.

But when his parents came to visit us for his college graduation, everything went amazingly well. I had talked to them on the phone a few times before they came over, and they were very excited to meet me. Despite initial anxieties expressed by his mom, I have always felt very welcomed into their family and now that I am in Nepal, I’ve felt very welcomed into their home. Part of the reason it’s been such a smooth transition is because of the way that Nepali culture treats married women. Traditionally, women live in their natal home (In Nepali, it’s called a maiti) until marriage and then move into their husband’s home after the wedding. Some couples now are living on their own before or after marriage, but it’s still very common for the bride to move in with the groom’s family.

Because of this tradition, it’s socially and culturally acceptable for me to be living with his family. Even people who normally look down on Nepali-foreigner marriages find it appropriate that we moved in with Tri’s dad and brother after marriage. It’s also not uncommon for women to travel great distances when moving to their husband’s homes. I’ve met a couple women who were born and raised in Western Nepal and even India who moved to Kathmandu after meeting and marrying their husbands.

If Tri were the foreigner, and I were Nepali, however, it would probably be much harder for us. Women in Nepal traditionally have less autonomy than men, so it’s often harder for them to marry outside of their caste, religion, race, nationality, etc. It would also be harder for a foreign man to move in with his Nepali wife’s family.

Certain aspects of Nepali culture have made the transition into a Nepali family much easier for me, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the support that I received from Tri’s parents. They always made me feel welcomed and loved in their home and have been infinitely patient with me as I learn a new language and culture.

Missing Some Things from Home

I haven’t talked to an American in weeks (outside of skype and gchat). I have been meeting lots of really awesome, friendly people around my age, but I miss connecting over American culture. I also miss food from home…My cravings seem to come in waves. I’ll totally forget about whole wheat bread or home-made cake or chicken noodle soup and then I’ll see something or smell something and it all comes back. Last week, someone with sweet-smelling perfume walked by. It happened to really smell like sticky buns, and after I got a wiff, all I could think about was those delicious gooey desserts.

A Turkish lady I know told me that it took her two years to adjust to life in the US, but it never really felt like home. When I came to Nepal for the first time, everything seemed strange and new, but slowly things became more normal, and I didn’t look on with wide eyes every time the morning meal was being cooked. But there are some things that I probably won’t ever feel comfortable with. The traffic is one thing. Other things have to do with culture and tradition. At least in the Baun and Chhetri castes, women (particularly mothers) traditionally serve other family members first, making sure they are fed, and then eat after everyone else has finished. Because of rules about jutho (where after you start eating with your hands, you can’t reach to take seconds; someone else has to do it for you), this method may be practical. But it’s never going to feel right to me.

I miss some aspects American culture, but I never have to fear that I’ll forget my traditions or that my children will never learn them. It’s different for those who move to the US. In Nepal, the channels on TV are fulls of English language programs, and cuisine from the US is served in plenty of restaurants. If I raise children in Nepal, they will learn both Nepali and English. If I raise children in the US, they might speak a little bit of Nepali but probably won’t be fluent. Not all immigrants to the US want to maintain the culture or language of the country they come from. But for those who do want to preserve these things, it can be very hard, particularly in the face of discrimination and anti-immigrant feeling.

I know that things will continue to get easier, and I’m hoping my cravings for the American food will diminish. I also have Tri! Not only does he understand my American mannerisms and culture, but he’s also really supportive, and when I’m having a bad day, he always makes feel better.

Are You Nepali?

Tapaai Nepali ho? (Are you Nepali?) I was asked this question twice recently, which came as quite a surprise; I guess my language skills are getting better? Some people say my big nose makes me look baun, or “brahman,” but my light skin and hair will always give me away.

In the US it’s considered rude to stare, but in Nepal, the rules aren’t the same. Staring, while not necessarily polite, is completely acceptable, and I’ve been stared at quite a bit. There are plenty of other foreigners in Kathmandu, but most are visiting as tourists, hanging out in the touristy areas. If I went to Thamel a lot, the tourist district, I might not get as many stares, but hanging out with a Nepali family, frequenting the non-tourist sections brings quite a few looks. I’ve been putting up with it well enough, but I won’t deny that I’m getting a little sick of it. Even if I live here for the rest of my life, people will stare at me, wonder what I’m doing here. No matter how good my Nepali gets, I will always stand out. This brings some benefits; foreigners are often treated well here, but it can be exhausting and makes integrating into a new culture very hard.

Although I don’t look Nepali, I did recently have someone tell my I have a Nepali soul. During my trip to Dhampush, I got close to the other women on the trip. I live in a house with four men, so it was a nice break to spend some time with women. At one point an Auntie was explaining reincarnation to me, and she said that god gave me an American body but a Nepali soul. There are things about Nepali culture that feel very natural to me, but there are plenty of things that have been hard to swallow. I don’t know if I believe in souls, but I do know that having an open mind and and appreciation for Nepali language and culture has gotten me far. Some Nepalis I meet have very particular notions about Americans, that they marry and divorce easily, that they are loud and rude. It’s not easy to get close to others who have so many ideas about who you are before you meet, but the quickest way I have broken down those barriers is through speaking Nepali. Talking with those in their own language is an easy way to win them over. It’s also an incredible learning experience. What can be said in Nepali cannot always be said in English and vice-versa. That Auntie told me I have a Nepali soul, but really I just want to listen to and learn from the new people I meet.

Although I’m a little sick of the staring, with time, I’ll learn to deal with it. Maybe I’ll dye my hair black sometime, and I’m seriously considering getting a nose piercing (mom–please don’t be mad!) This certainly will make me look more Nepali. I wonder if I’ll ever get past the guards at Pashupatinath…