Last year I attended one wedding reception in the U.S., two in Nepal, one bachelorette in Mexico, one mehendi and a wedding ceremony in Nepal and another in the U.S.. That statement in itself isn’t strange at all; the catch is that all those seven events were for the same couple!
I was recently introduced to the word “Bi-cultural”. Bi-cultural people simultaneously identify with two cultures, the culture of their home or heritage country and that of the country they now live in. It’s only natural that we want to imbibe the culture, festivals, and cuisines of the U.S. but we also don’t want to let go of our festivals, pujas, Bollywood movies, and Dal Bhat Tarkari. As a result, we find ourselves trying to haphazardly over-compensate living out the best versions of our American lives whilst also tightly holding on to our strong Nepali culture and values. This merging of two cultures is increasingly becoming the norm for many Nepalis abroad as we try our best to straddle and embrace the best parts of the two different worlds and cultures that we now belong to. This is a tremendously beneficial trait that makes us more flexible and creative in our thinking. It allows us to experience the best of both worlds but it also brings with it confusion and complexities as we try our best to keep up with two cultures simultaneously.
The desire to adopt also stems from wanting to fit in and feel a sense of belonging on both personal and professional levels. No parent wants their child to be the only one who didn’t bring an egg to decorate to school for the big Easter egg hunt. No one wants to be hanging around the water cooler at work at a loss for words when everyone is talking about the big football game. The running joke at my work is that my American culture level is that of a fifth grader and my colleagues regularly gasp when I tell them I haven’t watched (or even heard of) the movie “Old Yeller” or know what a “Kazoo” is (google it). A year or so after I first moved to the States, I memorized the entire lyrics to Journey’s Don’t stop believin’. I’d been to a Karaoke bar the night before and witnessed the whole bar passionately sing along to every word of the song while I sat there dumbstruck and oblivious to this key piece of American culture greatness. Had it been a Narayan Gopal song, I’d have joined in word for word, but Journey just hadn’t made that strong of an impression on me growing up in Nepal. That memory of feeling out of place in what was then a foreign culture still stands out fresh for me but now, whenever Don’t stop believin’ plays on the radio, you better believe I’m there singing along word for word at the top of my lungs.
It’s this natural desire to fit in and emulate the surrounding culture that has manifested into the seven-event wedding phenomenon. Other cultural appropriations include, elaborate “bridesmaid proposal” boxes sent in the mail prior to a wedding, fancy bachelorettes in foreign destinations, and we absolutely can’t forget the expensive diamond wedding rings complete with romantic tearjerker proposals. However, since our heritage/culture doesn’t really allow room for spontaneity because culture dictates the need for blessings and permissions. There are surprise proposals that are planned for “already scheduled” wedding dates. So while there is no actual “surprise” in the act, this is important because it’s one of the many tenets of the American life. The same goes for the single-family home, the family SUV, baseball games, and pumpkin spiced lattes.It’s keeping up with the Joneses whilst also simultaneously keeping up with the Subbas, the Shresthas, and the Rais! A friend’s mom came up with an ingenious way to tackle both, she strings up her Christmas lights in October and takes them down in January, thus tackling both the Tihar and Christmas birds effectively with one brightly covered house stone!
On a deeper level, living bi-culturally also brings about many tough and complex issues. A friend of mine recently shared with me the deep sense of guilt she felt and continues to feel when she opted to move out of her parents’ home in the States. There is a huge cultural stigma attached to that in Nepal but is considered the norm abroad. In fact, tell your colleagues you still live with your parents and that will get you some strange looks! One big cultural adjustment my friends and I’ve made and initially struggled with is to go against our Nepali habit of insisting on picking up the dinner tab for the group. I’m sure this made many Nepalis abroad very popular and liked amongst their American friends and colleagues. It’s taken us many years to get to the point where we can now comfortably and without hesitancy take out a calculator and total out the exact amount we owe for our meals when dining out with friends.
I think it is natural that as we begin to spend more time in the States the ties that bind us to our heritage cultures are slowly going to loosen up. We might not understand the deep cultural significance of thanksgiving and possess non-existent turkey roasting skills but have a big turkey and mashed potatoes on our beautifully decorated thanksgiving table, we will. I’ve seen many Nepali families grapple with this in particular. Parents trying hard to strike a balance between making sure their children fit in within the American educational and cultural system whilst also doing their best to ensure that certain values are passed on. This becomes increasingly difficult as first-generation Nepali children grow up abroad since it’s so much easier to identify with Thanksgiving and Halloween than a festival like Dashain or Tihar which seems (literally) thousands of miles away.
We will of course try as hard as we can to hold on to those ties and our families will initially play a big role in that, but I wonder how that will evolve as those ties too eventually begin to wither away with time and age. How much longer till the culture of the country that we’ve now spent more than half our lives in becomes stronger than that of the country we were born in?
Finding the right balance in the midst of embracing two cultures can often be challenging. For a long time, I was desperate to accept the west and fit in and after spending more than half my life here in the States, I now proudly own the aspects of my culture that make me unique. I’ve chosen to take the best of what both cultures offer. I enjoy the adventure and charm of the cultural west whilst holding on to my cultural identity. For Nepali parents who are now just beginning to raise their own families here, I suspect their work has only just begun. I for one, finally feel at peace with where I stand on this cultural spectrum.
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