I may or may not stalk other Nepalis. When I see a racially ambiguous brown person with a South Asian name or hear the slightest hint of a Nepali accent, my mental gears start turning. I don’t always say hi, sometimes I just sit nearby and hear the soft hum of Nepali families in action. Sometimes I just wonder about how many degrees of separation exist between them and me. But when I do pounce, I’m flawless, I have a 100% success rate in identifying Nepalis—in the U.S., Germany, United Arab Emirates, Thailand. I never miss my mark.
I mean, until 2000, there were less than 9,000 of us in the country, can you blame me?
Anyways, when you’re a Nepalphile like me, one thing you’re always in search of when you enter a new city is Nepali restaurants. They’re like a lighthouse beacon shouting out, “We exist! You didn’t make it up! There are other Nepalis out there!” (except for you Momo in Berlin, you suck, go away). That’s how I became fascinated with Himal Chuli—the oldest Nepali restaurant in the U.S.—and it’s manager, Jamuna Shrestha, in Madison, Wisconsin.
One summer many moons ago, Himal Chuli became my place of refuge, and now, after six years, I’d be back in Madison to celebrate my friend’s wedding, and I knew I’d need to meet with Jamuna. Jamuna Shrestha is a slight Nepali woman with an easy smile and kind eyes. When she speaks, she’s forthright, open, and incredibly sweet. It’s a goodness that comes with the forceful generosity that marks Himalayan hospitality, where hosts bend over backward with a tender goodwill to make sure their guests are fed.
Jamuna immediately puts me at ease and welcomes my broken Nepali without hesitation, but we quickly switch to English. We start off by talking about the history of the restaurant. Her sister opened it over thirty years ago, and when she became sick, Jamuna took it over. Jamuna’s sister-in-law is there too, wearing an “Equality” t-shirt with a rainbow flag on it.
I pepper Jamuna with questions about what the Nepali community in Madison looks like. When I was there in 2012, I was amazed at how integrated the Nepali community was with the Madison community at large. Growing up in suburban San Diego, the Nepali communities I witnessed only came together at each other’s houses in largely insular gatherings, so when I first came to the small city of Madison, I was shocked by how different the Nepali community looked. Jamuna shared how the Nepali community had grown from a little over two hundred in 2012 to somewhere between three and four hundred people in 2018.
I ask her how the community has changed. She mentions how, before, it was a little nicer and more helpful. She mentions too how the Nepalese Bhutanese community first joined the Madison Nepali community, but now has splintered to form its own community. Now there are Nepali classes, and Dashain celebrations, and the youth get together to volunteer.
“There’s a lot of Nepalis in San Francisco, Texas, and New York,” Jamuna offers. “In Boston too!” I add quickly, remembering how on my last trip there I spent the whole day traveling the Boston metro area meeting with different people in the Nepali community, from folx who worked at convenience stores, to highly educated undocumented Nepalis, to Nepali Americans, to even those who were married to Nepali immigrants and were raising mixed kids. Each intersection creates a slightly different understanding of what it means to be Nepali in America.
We talk about the waves of immigration. Nepali Americans are the fifth lowest earning ethnic group per capita in the USA. It’s very common for Nepali immigrants to work in gas stations, as taxi drivers, in Indian restaurants or in convenience stores, with 21% of Nepalis working in the service occupations and another 20% working in production, transportation, and material moving occupations.
Much of the differences between immigrants has to do with when Nepali immigrants came to the U.S. and also the location of where we live. Older immigrants from the seventies and eighties tend to be more assimilated, they’re often highly educated, and have a tendency toward more entrepreneurial occupations, while some work for universities and others are retired government workers. Others came to the U.S. in the nineties and early 2000s, to be software engineers, first attending a four-year university and then gaining employment or taking on a masters degree. They now have young children and are navigating many of the same questions many families worked through fifteen to twenty years ago.
Few families are like Jamuna’s, which can count three generations of life in America. Even still, she prefers life in Nepal: “When I go to my country, I feel like a different person, I feel like my heart belongs there; I’m here because I have to work.”
We talk about the politics in Nepal, and the importance of being politically engaged. Jamuna tells me, “There are so many women in politics in Nepal. More than in the U.S. but there isn’t respect. We have to fight for ourselves. Starting from the house.” I’m curious what that looks like. I ask about the changing mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship and how men can show up in the household. We agree that things are changing.
Jamuna mentions housing Pushpa Lal Shrestha, a political leader of the Communist Party of Nepal. She’s impassioned when she talks Nepali politics and is outraged by the corruption in Nepal, asking for accountability for the funds that came in from all over the world to rebuild Nepal following the 7.8 Earthquake in 2015. We talk too about brain drain and remittances. Currently, ten percent of Nepalis live abroad. “All the young people are leaving,” Jamuna says. This, of course, has to do with the lack of jobs, especially high paying jobs available to youth, be they educated or uneducated.
Offhandedly she says, “You’d never think Nepal is poor if you see their weddings.” She’s right. Most weddings I’ve been to have a guest list ranging from five hundred to one thousand people, and are decadent affairs that stretch on for many days. I quickly ask her to tell me about her own wedding.
“I had a simple wedding. It was in a courthouse.”
She tells me about the construction of her family, meeting an American anthropologist in Madison, and struggling to get her mother to accept him into the family. After many years, her mother eventually relented, and, after some time, grew to like him. I stay quiet as she speaks, but I can’t help but think of my own challenges with interracial and interethnic dating, and merging American dating norms with that of my Newari family.
“If I had married a Nepali I wouldn’t have been successful because I’m so independent,” she tells me. Even after getting married she insisted on keeping her name and citizenship.
She challenges me too, asking about my experience growing up as Nepali American, reminding me that I too have the right to write about my experience. I pull out what now feels like a well-worn story, that if I’m being honest, still stings to say.
My family in Nepal has always been clear with me that I am a Nepali, and that our home in Thamel, is my home. Unlike many Americans, I can point to a spot on a map, and say this is where I’m from. More than that, when I go home to Nepal, I return directly to my indigenous homeland. Despite my cousin’s joking that every white or East Asian tourist is one of “my people,” my being Nepali and this being my home is something that has never been up for debate.
I appreciate my family’s adamance, but still, I tell Jamuna, I face the insecurities of many hyphen Americans: it’s hard because there’s so much I don’t know, there are so many gaps in my knowledge.
As I speak, I go back and forth, interweaving my and my parents’ personal experiences with my learned knowledge about the Nepalese diaspora. “My dad came in the seventies and until ‘96 there were less than one hundred Nepalis coming to the U.S. per year. It was very small. It was very tiny.”
Jamuna chimes in saying that she too came in the seventies. But whereas she had her sister, when my father came here, he had no one.
We ponder about how hard that must have been “to survive in America when you don’t know that many people.” I think about how his quiet introversion must have really taken shape in his twenties and coalesced into character in ways I’ll never know. My mom came to America in the eighties before she ever met my father. She worked in Dayton, Ohio, and San Francisco. Sometimes when I’m in walking around San Francisco I think about my mother walking down those same streets, making sense of herself as a young person in ways similar and dissimilar to me.
My voice quickens and soon I’m spelling out my own experience of being Nepalese American. “I think that being Nepalese American at that time and place. No one had done it before yet. Like some people had kids, but no one knew yet like, ‘Oh, we need to have Nepali schools, we need to have Nepali dances. We need to have our festivals in this way.’ Everything was for the first time.”
“I think that was a hard thing. My parents were just immigrants. They’re just people. They were not necessarily thinking like, ‘Oh, I need to recreate a whole culture. Or translate a whole culture.’ and so I think that I grew up feeling like a lot of times I had to figure out a lot of things on my own. I think maybe that’s also just me being independent. Because I see some other folks who are Nepalese American and I see that there’s a lot of expectations about how they behave that I never felt with my family.”
Jamuna agrees, “I had no restrictions growing up. I was a tomboy.” And soon we launch into a discussion about gender, passivity, and the ‘Nepalese mentality.’ Jamuna tells me about how she grew up as highly independent tomboy in Nepal. “I used to fight boys and win. I never touched a doll,” she tells me. I ask her about how her family took that, and how they made sense of how she moved through the world in such an uncommon way. But she tells me it was never a problem or point of contention. I repeat back to her, “Your family made space for you to be different”.
We go back to talking about marriage, a major defining life event for many Nepali women. Jamuna tells me about how she never planned to get married because of her independence. Jamuna used to cause a lot of trouble for her suitors whenever she was set up she’d make sure to do a make-under and would lie, saying that she was already married but that her husband was out of town. Later on, the same men would come to her and ask, ‘Where’s your husband?’
I think about words my own mother, another independent Nepali woman who married very late in life, has told me when you get married: “Everything is about jhoysab (son in law) [for your family].” Of course, my mother is also pretty clear that she thinks I’d make an awful Nepali wife. I don’t like being told what to do. I fall in and out of love quickly, and profusely. I don’t quite have the temperament for compromise or servitude. To be clear, the Nepali mentality is about more than that, it’s the graceful ability to anticipate the needs of the situation around you and to address them immediately and without the expectation that someone other than you should do it.
We quickly move into the discussion of religion, and eventually to LGBT rights. When we spoke, my installation on Queer Nepalis was just about to go up, and I’d been spending more and more time challenging myself to talk about queerness within my actual community. In all my interactions with Jamuna, a tacit support for LGBT rights had been clear, from her sister-in-law’s “Equality” t-shirt to her own daughter’s visible queerness. It was something I’d never seen before in the Nepali American community. Her daughter was the first openly queer Nepali person I’d ever met, and I think in many ways, I think that’s what drew me to Jamuna, and the story of Himal Chuli.
As we spoke about her journey to understand queerness and her eventual path to acceptance and support, I found myself saying again and again, “It’s hard,” “it’s challenging,” “it isn’t easy.” She expressed such deep regret for not understanding sooner. “What changed your mind?” I asked. “Everyone told me I was wrong,” she told me without hesitation. •