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Neprican voice: Love, life, nostalgia and the pursuit of an American dream

I just love the word Neprican. It perfectly describes my state of being even though it is a word that

Neprican voice: Love, life, nostalgia and the pursuit of an American dream

My generation of Nepali Americans is often at a loss–the loss of a Nepali identity and not being able to comfortably embrace the American one. We often complain about the vacuum, a sense of hollowness.

Bhedetar, a gateway to Dhankuta in eastern Nepal where the author's ancestral village is located.

I just love the word Neprican. It perfectly describes my state of being even though it is a word that is pushed on our generation living in the US rather unkindly. But the word I feel is close to capturing our splintered transitioning identity in the US. I don’t exactly know when I felt my identity was in transition but I started sensing that things got a little different a decade back after acquiring an American Citizenship and legally losing a Nepali for that reason. The real transition probably started the day I left Nepal but I did not realize it till very late. The Neprican identity was a slower shift and is not just a word to describe a stage or a moment but a spectrum that you slowly morph into. I am not kidding when I say it is a slow transition– people often fail to notice as everyone morphs at their own comfort rate.

‘Who are you?

As I was morphing, I needed a word to describe my identity and I found myself introducing myself as a Nepali American–not Asian American but specifically Nepali American–first at my University. Even though Nepali government no longer identified me as a Nepali for the ‘crime’ of taking an American citizenship, which I feel is another intersection of loss and gain with high emotions in itself, therefore a topic for next time, the Nepali that I am culturally, linguistically was not going anywhere just because I got the American passport. The transition to a Neprican identity was the cold reality as the passport of Nepal expired and an American passport took its place. The expired Nepali passport in the drawer engraved a loss of the identity that I was born with. An American Citizenship miserably failed to guarantee the feeling of Americanness in any measurable way right away. Same person, same food, same culture, same language, but just a different passport to travel. Well, it probably should have come with the authenticity boom but it did not because being connected to an identity or leaving one is a process that plays out long term. On top of that people were still occasionally asking me: “Where are you from?”

When I carried my Nepali citizenship, the question did not bother me and I responded with ease but since receiving the American citizenship it started to. The answer was simple– “I am from Nepal but I am an American citizen.” I was one of the 47 million Americans born outside of the country that added up to become 14 percent of the American population. Even when people did not explicitly ask, I felt they in a roundabout way told me that I was different, thus foreign, depending upon the setting and the space of those interactions. Most common–”you have a beautiful accent,” followed by “how did you get that”– I felt they were politely telling me that I must have been from somewhere based on my accent when they could have said directly that my brown face was not American enough. 

At some point in my journey to the Neprican spectrum I felt I needed to kill people’s curiosity before talking about anything substantial as people had this huge Asian elephant in the room that needed to be boxed. Without addressing it, I felt that it was impacting their concentration. I felt like people were busy putting me in different boxes of national identities that they were familiar with and just partially heard what I was saying. It depended on where I was and what national identities the people I was talking to were exposed to– so sometimes I was presumed to be an Indian, other times Pakistani or even a Middle Eastern sometimes but rarely a Nepali and never an American.

Thus, out of sheer necessity, came my standard introduction pitch– “a hyphenated American who was born, bred, and largely educated in Nepal.” My intro as a Nepali American has anchored me comfortably even though some Americans have criticized me for underscoring the hyphenated part and not embracing my Americannes fully and some Nepricans who are struggling with the metamorphosis themselves have criticized me for showing off my Americanness when I “clearly looked and sounded a Nepali.” Since pleasing people is the least of my interest, I have embraced my identity as a Nepali American. Neprican, a little weird to hear, for that matter satisfies me and is close to my mental wellbeing.

Let me just capture the journey in numbers to justify my Nepricanness. After spending almost two decades in the US I must confess the word is tantalizingly close to the dream chaser I was in my mid-20s. I have very strong roots in Nepal and more than the two decades of memory is always pulling me to my country of origin. Even the tree leaves with strong winds in my backyard and the dove calls take me to Dhankuta. The smell of fresh tomatoes, the American soil after rain, you name it, all connect me to Nepali memory lanes including Kathmandu. America reminds me of Nepal every day. But yet the desire for the American dream keeps me going, and this damn dream keeps on shifting the goalposts like a mirage–there it is, almost there, but always fleeting.

Fleeting happiness 

I sometimes feel like we Nepricans have no idea what we want. We want the stuff that others say is the real deal that will bring “happiness” for us and we seem to be unable to assess priorities and set our own dream destinations. I feel like we never question, even once, before we run towards achieving that dream destination. ‘They have it, therefore I must attain it’ is often the driving force. As our time clock continues to tick off, and the mirror reminds us of the fleeting time, we probably will understand better. But we are not there yet. Or probably we are so submerged into the crazy chase of ‘there there’ that we are not realizing that time is ticking away.

I feel like my generation is scrambling to reach the dream land partly because it appears we all have downloaded the idea from somewhere that a ticket to the United States is the first step to make our dreams possible. Mine started at the age of nine when I had a chance to meet the Skaus from Virginia who taught English to the then laid back sleepy Kathmandu. They kept me providing the American story books for kids. They exposed me to American pronunciation. They, in some ways, minted me to dream the American dream through the interesting story books they deposited on my bookshelf. Thanks largely to the new immigration law passed during the presidency of Lyndon B Johnson (LBJ), this land was opened for Asian dreamers a little late in the 60s but very timely for my generation to chase the American dream. Because of that immigration law, dream chasers are hailed from all over the world including Nepal. If LBJ had not carved that path to immigration, I probably would not be writing this. 

I don’t know what Nepali dreamers think they have achieved in the US but Neprican identity is possibly on the list of achievements, if they feel comfortable identifying themselves as one. Regardless, the metamorphosis of the Nepricans is ongoing.

Just last month I met a young Nepali man who was in his late 20s who voted with his feet and crossed dozens of national borders to finally reach his dream land– Boston. He reportedly spent more than 50 thousand dollars to reach this land of dream chasers through the southern border. He is now trying to figure out how to pay back all that loan he took to reach his dream land by working a minimum wage job every day at an Indian restaurant. While he was packing Chicken Tikka and Mango Lassi for me and talking about the asylum application, I can already see his desire of turning into a Neprican even though he is yet to go through the metamorphosis. Not only this Nepali youth, almost every youth in Nepal I heard is scrambling to secure a one way ticket to this dream land and turn into a Neprican. My journalist friends in Nepal report that there rarely are any youth in villages and the colleges in the capital are partially empty. The data on youth leaving should be concerning  for those who are running the country as young dream chasers are voting with their feet and creating a new hyphenated identity for themselves. Sometimes, I wonder how all these global Nepalis are redefining Nepaliness.

Last time I was waiting for my flight in Kathmandu, the entire airport was full of young dream chasers who in some sense were giving up on dreaming at their birth place and unknowingly seeking a hyphenated identity. Most of them I gathered were heading to the Middle East and were returning home and didn’t know how their identity would be different from those who briefly left–like our “Laure Dai” in our villages who never  went to Lahore but out of the national border and became one. Those who were heading to Europe, Australia or the United States clearly will be seen carrying a different identity– “Dollare” if they returned and something else if they failed to. 

Interestingly, with summer entering our doors, thousands of Nepricans with disposable income earned from hard Karma in this “dream land” are also seeking to experience a perfect holiday dream back to the same places they left for the American dream. And these dreamers have grilled themselves for the entire year at jobs that probably are not that satisfying just for a couple of weeks of vacation to the same hills they were born in. Oiling the massive capitalist machine just so that they can have that travel experience to the same place digging into their savings is not a small feat.

Hollowing out emptiness

My America born friends and colleagues are so sold by the beautiful hills of Nepal and the yoga of the eastern civilization that they are ready to pack their North face bags with yoga mats for good, to reach those happy hills to have a glimpse of the Himalaya range just to wake up to enjoy the sun rise with gold snow mountain peaks during their vacation. When they return they can’t stop talking about Nepal and wonder why people are leaving such a spectacular place. I almost feel like these two sets of dreamers are born in exactly opposite places–a mere switch of placement should resolve the issue for both sets of dreamers: Nepricans and Americans.

We Nepricans have no idea what we want. We want the stuff that others say is the real deal that will bring “happiness” for us and we seem to be unable to assess priorities and set our own dream destinations.

Or maybe not! Because, it seems that the markers of happiness are fleeting and keep on changing frequently as dreams are made out of what people make you feel like you need to have. For most of the Nepali dreamers, no matter how they enter the States, with or without documents, dream seems to mean attaining that status of permanency even at the expense of boring jobs of oiling the capitalist machine for life, without any off days for the rest of their lives. But as soon as they land in the land of dreams, the download begins and the download is even expedited as if the dream of Green Card comes with the 5G network. Once permanency is attained, the goal post keeps moving–a better car, a better job, and a house, you name it! Yes, the happiness goal post keeps on moving. The material happiness of more money, more stuff, more land, more opportunity to “passive income” property or the market shares, the markers of Nepricans constantly move.

I always wonder, do we ever ponder on our achievements or just focus on moving our goal posts based on others’ social media posts and selfies of their achievements. Had we taken a moment at assessing our own achievements from our initial point of departure, we probably would have remained a little more humble and content with ourselves. 

Thus, my generation is often at loss–loss of a Nepali identity and not being able to comfortably embrace the American one– we often complain about the vacuum, a sense of hollowness. Many high achieving people have confessed to me about this state of hollowness that attaining multiple moving goals have failed to fill. To omit that sadness we throw more parties and purchase more stuff from Amazon Prime. Yes, that emptiness– like a black hole that devours all the material but still fails to fill up that hollowness with ‘I am content with achieving this happiness marker now.’ And when all that doesn’ t work, like our America born friends would, we go for vacations–often to the same hills we were hailed from without the Yoga mats popping out of our North Face bags! If you find one, ask them if they have ultimately found happiness at their origin. The words they select to describe their state of mind will tell you where they are on their Neprican Spectrum.

Mukesh Baral is the Executive Director of Advocacy for Refugee and Immigrant Services for Empowerment (ARISE). He can be reached at [email protected]