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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

Nepali Roots in Hostile Soils

Exploring Un/Belonging in Nepal and the US
By Luna Ranjit |
MARCH 17, 2022
One of the three photographs from the author's parents' wedding. They are surrounded by their friends and the father's family. Mother's family did not attend because she was marrying a "lower caste" man; they were considered progressive at the time because they did not try to stop her or punish her.
They say you look other than you say. As if you didn’t know who you were. You say who you are but you begin to doubt.
–Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee

Where are you from? On a warm fall evening twenty years ago, as I was sitting at Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, a stranger approached me.

Around here, I replied. It was not untrue; my apartment was nearby. Not satisfied, he proceeded with his interrogation.

Where are your parents from? Your grandparents?

When I asked him where he was from, he became agitated, as if he couldn’t imagine how a brown woman dared to challenge a white man. I picked up my bag and walked away.

Before Washington, DC, there was another incident in a park in Kathmandu a decade earlier. I was strolling alone, my family nearby, when I overheard a group of boys–teenagers like me–betting on whether I was Nepali or not. I was flustered, angry, sad, but I pretended not to have heard anything and walked away.

These are just two episodes in a long string of encounters that continue to this day. Whether posed as a question, rude comment, or insinuation, the interrogation of my identity is a weapon wielded to assert that I do not belong. This experience is not mine alone–I am one among millions who have to constantly justify our belonging wherever we are.

Maya (name changed), an indigenous woman from western Nepal currently living in New York, shared in her oral history interview:

“to feel foreign in this country for me is absolute because I'm an immigrant. But that feeling of foreign foreignness was also there in Nepal. I have been told I do not look Nepali. I have been questioned about being foreign.”
It is frustrating and emotionally exhausting anywhere. But personally for me, it cuts deeper when it happens within Nepali community. I grew up in an old house in Kathmandu where four generations of my family had lived. We cannot trace our lineage to anywhere outside the valley. Yet, because of my melanin-rich skin, I too am constantly asked by fellow Nepalis to prove I am Nepali or outright told that I am not one.

Nepal is a very diverse country where more than one hundred and twenty languages are spoken. However, with the “one-language, one-people '' policy imposed during the period of autocratic monarchy (1960-1990), Khas-Nepali language and Hill Hindu upper caste norms became the de-facto “Nepali” identity. The one-language policy systematically suppressed languages and literature of indigenous communities until they disappeared, the food, culture, and stories along with them.

The caste system is then layered on top of this ethnic mosaic, further complicating what constitutes Nepaliness. Caste system was the law of the land, encoded into the penal system as Muluki Ain in 1854, and pervaded every aspect of people’s lives. Although legally abolished in 1963, its remnants continue to rear their ugly head to this day. Centuries of graded inequality have resulted in a country where a small minority of Hill Hindu upper caste men, along with a small group of Kathmandu elite, are overrepresented in most public spaces in Nepal and disproportionately able to pursue opportunities abroad.

When I arrived in the US, I thought I had left behind my baggage of caste and ethnicity. My last name was just a string of letters, no longer a signifier pegging me to a caste and ethnic hierarchy. For almost a decade, this remained true as I lived in places with few Nepalis. Our shared identities trumped any differences of caste or ethnicity. Then I arrived in New York, where the Nepali community was growing rapidly and the fault lines from back home were taking root. I went from being surrounded by Americans who were unable to locate Nepal on a map, to being told once again by fellow Nepalis that I do not “look Nepali.”
Some of the paperwork required for the author to come to the US — I-20 form from the college, copy of the first US visa, and the Nepali passport. Last year Nepal changed the color of its passport from green to brown.
As an organizer trying to build the political power of a new immigrant population, I sometimes made a conscious decision to project a “Nepali” identity to outsiders, while remaining cognizant of the intra-community diversity. In a country where Asian America is struggling to gain recognition and a foothold, there is not much space to lift up smaller fragments. The risk, of course, is that when we flatten ourselves to fit into Nepali or South Asian molds as needed, our nuanced stories get lost.

In the United States, dominant narratives of South Asian immigrant communities have long been nostalgic renderings by those of privileged class, caste, and ethnic backgrounds. They do not capture the full picture for those of us who were living with multiple marginalizations long before arriving stateside. South Asian literature in English is filled with mangoes and monsoons. Rare are depictions of Muslims in India, Madhesis in Nepal, northeastern Indians, or northern Nepalis, who have to constantly defend their cultures and languages, or Dalits facing daily acts of discrimination and violence, in their own homelands. When such issues are mentioned, they are portrayed as history, and rarely as something happening amongst us now.

There is a growing chorus of South Asian American and Asian American voices contesting white supremacy and examining the challenges of belonging in the US, particularly after the spate of violent attacks of the pandemic times. It is important to assert our rights here, but it is not enough. We need to examine nuances of class, caste, gender, and other identities within our communities. We need to discuss how power patterns and ensuing discriminatory behaviors “back home” are replicated in the diaspora, rendering many within our communities invisible.

Slowly, small spaces are opening up within our communities. Although dominant cultural groups have not yet ceded power, Dalit, bahujan, adivasi activists and storytellers from India and the Indian diaspora are carving out spaces to tell their own stories. Some of us in the Nepali diaspora are making use of these emergent frameworks and spaces to add our own stories, with our own nuances. As our numbers grow, as we find each other, as we learn to tell our stories, we are starting to see more challenges to the unitary Nepali identity.
Author (L) with a cousin on the roof of their ancestral home in Kathmandu. The cousin's parents still live in one section of the house and another part is vacant, waiting for renovation.
These conversations are still new, and sometimes fraught. In the summer of 2020, amidst the backdrop of uprisings in the US and violent caste killings in Nepal, some young Nepalis studying and working in the US organized online conversations discussing caste and ethnicity, alongside anti-Black racism, in our community. In the conversations I followed, many acknowledged that it was their first public conversation about caste and ethnicity, and most touched only the surface of the issue. Unfortunately, even these limited conversations have now petered out.

In my SAADA Archival Fellows project, I am seeking to question and complicate the Nepali identity by documenting stories of Dalit, Janjati, and Madhesi communities. My interview subjects are Nepalis whose voices have been silenced because of their caste or ethnicity. This is not an attempt to build a comprehensive record that encompasses the diversity of all Nepali and Nepali diaspora issues–that would be impossible. This project is an attempt to stir the nascent conversation and help it grow into a groundswell. It is a start.
Luna Ranjit is an organizer and a writer committed to lifting up silenced stories. She writes across and between boundaries of personal and political, state and society, US and Nepal, poetry and prose. For her SAADA project, Luna will work with Dalit, Janjati, and Madhesi communities in Nepali diaspora to document stories of people have been marginalized within the Nepali spaces because of their caste and/or ethnicity. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).