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Sometimes You Just Can’t Win…and That’s OK

Reading Time: 6 minutes

He was new to the class.

A Nepalese couple’s son, he had grown up in Texas, USA as far as I remember. The most obvious sign of his American upbringing was in his tendency to speak English most of the time and his North-American accent. He had ended up with us because his parents had repatriated.

And boy did the students give him a hard time for his accent (and other hints of Americana). He was bullied, made fun of, provoked and baited, which, not surprisingly, he some times took getting him into all sorts of trouble for with fellow students, such as getting into physical fights, for example, as well as getting into trouble with teachers and administrators. (Bullying, no different from in many other schools at the time I am sure, was a problem at both St. Xavier’s Godavari and Jawalakhel.)

The year had been 1981 and we had been in our fifth grade at St. Xavier’s Godavari school.

Little did I know, seventeen or so years later, as an adult, returning to Nepal after spending almost a decade abroad, I would face a similar issue.

 

I spent most of my life as a toddler in my little village of Tangbe in Upper Mustang, speaking only our mother tongue, Serke (The Golden Language). (Serke has absolutely no relationship with Nepali.) When I joined my parents in Pokhara, I had been too young to know and understand all the implications — in the highly stratified Nepalese society — of the circumstances and context of my birth as a Bhote, Nepali for “ethnic Tibetan/someone from Tibet.”

But, little by little, society made sure I was taught — and learned — all about the connotations of being (born as) one and about our community’s lowly status in the social structure of the country.

All the traits associated with being (born as) one was something to be ashamed of, to be embarrassed about, because of all the negative connotations: Bhote is also an ethnic slur.

Many of my parents’ generation living in Pokhara, aware of all that, had taken steps to hide some of the identifying traits and to appear more “Nepali.” They dropped their Tibetan names and adopted Nepali (Hindu) names and surnames; many stopped wearing our traditional attire; some men even started wearing daka topi (traditional Hindu Nepali cap) and daura suruwal (the national dress), the traditional attire of the High Caste Hindu men etc. — to show that they were “Nepali” while being…Nepali!

When I had learned enough, I realized, in order to “belong,” in order to be accepted by the wider Nepalese society, I needed to mask or even lose, if possible, many of the identifying traits — genetic and environmental traits as we scientists like to call them. (Most importantly though, I realized I needed to break out of the “mold”, the stereotype.)

With most of my genetic traits — the flat face, the flat nose, the small eyes, etc. — I could do little about! Environmental traits however I could work on.

One such environmental trait was my accent — my Bhote accent.

As far as I knew, other Nepali people also lived with such shame about their accent, notably other Nepalese for whom the mother tongue was another Tibeto-Burman language; the Madhesis, the indigenous population of the Southern plains; and also, to some extent, the Newars, the indigenous population of Kathmandu valley. (In reality, the shame is NOT ours to carry. Read Social Justice: Caste Away for a description of my logic behind that statement.)

The Khas-aryas, the High Caste Hindus, didn’t have to be ashamed however. The reason is that Nepali, i.e. Khas-kura (literally, the language of the Khas) is the Khas-arya’s mother tongue and, therefore, their accent is the “standard” accent.

I didn’t want to speak the way many in my community of Tangbetanis did. So I went to some lengths to lose my accent and also did what I could to deny — and hide — my linguistic heritage.

One of the things I did to that end was as a primary school student at the residential (boarding) school of St. Xavier’s Godavari. On the one hand, when I would speak to others — friends, teachers and administrators — I would express a wish that my parents would come visit me at the school. On the other hand, secretly, at times I wished they wouldn’t (and they never did) because I didn’t want to be embarrassed by them speaking Nepali in their Bhote accent

Another thing I used to do was to not speak Serke when in a group at a social gathering unless everyone in the group were Tangbetanis. Not out of respect for fellow Nepalese in the group who couldn’t understand it, but out of a sense of shame about my language and, therefore, shame with having to associate myself with a “backward” people.

I even started speaking Nepali to my parents, for example, on the phone when calling them from our hostel in seventh grade, or when we would be at social gatherings.

The child in me carefully cultivated an image of my self as someone who had successfully abandoned, far behind, who and what the society said I was: a Bhote! I did everything I could to prevent that from being shattered!

That was also one of the reasons I rarely invited other Nepali school friends home. By the time I graduated from St. Xavier’s Jawalakhel School in the winter of 1987-88, only about half a dozen classmates from St. Xavier’s had ever been to our place and met my family, mostly during one year at that: 1985.

All those efforts paid off: I lost pretty much all vestiges of my Bhote accent at least a few years before graduating from St. Xavier’s Jawalakhel School!

I couldn’t tell you the accent I had acquired, but part of what I replaced it with was what I picked up in Pokhara, for instance. A couple of classmates, even to this day, make fun of two words I picked up in the city, which, growing up, I must have used often, namely the exclamations khappare and harey!

Of course, I did what I did in spite of the fact that a number of other obvious traits betrayed my ethnic identity, such as my first name, my facial features etc.

Of course, I was also aware that others were likely seeing past all of my pretenses, though, I never admitted that. I was also in denial at times, again of course, especially when challenged. I had a ready-made answer if anyone inquired about the Gurung clan I belonged to, for example. I was “A Ghale Gurung,” as per my father’s instructions! (Even to this day, I have no clue how a Ghale Gurung is different from other Gurungs!)

I was, after all, a boy, just trying to belong, just trying to fit in, just trying to be accepted.

 

Pursuit of further studies then took me to Italy in 1988. There, for the first time, I was commended for my linguistic abilities — I spoke four languages — and discovered my very versatile tongue. Following two years in Italy, I went to the US for my undergraduate studies.

Not surprisingly, within my first year in the country, I lost my subcontinental English accent and acquired a North-American one, which turned out to be a real asset.

It was an asset in the UK in 1993 when I spent a semester there as a study-abroad student at Lancaster University. It was an asset in the countries I worked in after graduating from Grinnell College in 1994: a year each in Italy, Hong Kong and Norway. In Hong Kong the way shopkeepers treated me changed dramatically whenever I opened my mouth, for instance!

Then in the summer of 1997, I returned to Nepal for a longish — about a year-and-a-half — stay in the country for the first time in nine years. In Nepal too, my North-American accent was really useful and, at times, I even took advantage of it!

By that time, I had also finally begun reclaiming — and taking pride in — my linguistic, cultural and ethnic heritage.

I was no longer embarrassed to speak Serke in public (just as I was not embarrassed to speak English with a North-American accent).

While as a student abroad, whenever I had to represent my country, I had always worn the national dress (daura suruwal and topi), after my year of teaching in Italy, I had abandoned that. (I have never worn daura suruwal since giving mine away to a student that year. When I have felt like, since then, I have actually worn a kohn (chuba in Tibetan), the traditional male attire of ethnic Tibetans.)

After introducing myself to fellow Nepalese, whether in Nepal or outside, I had begun to add, just as a matter of course, “I’m NOT a Gurung, but a Bhote from Mustang.”

But, some in Nepal had found a new bone to pick, as it were!

Some classmates and acquaintances in Kathmandu took issue with my tendency to speak English as well as with my North-American accent just as many of us had done with our Texas-raised Nepalese classmate back in 1981, as primary school students!

So…for most of my childhood, I do everything I could to lose my Bhote accent because it was — and still is — viewed as a mark of “backwardness”…and I do!

Then, I return to Nepal, as an adult after nine years abroad (having re-discovered my identity and pride in my heritage, and) with a North-American accent, and the accent — ironically — is viewed as snobbery on my part!

Fast forward to today, interestingly, almost twenty years since, still some classmates and acquaintances — pretty much all middle-aged men — view my tendency to speak English and my accent the way they did in the late nineties! And not a single one of them have brought this up with me directly, not surprisingly, not like how it was with — and at the time of — the incident of ostracism I experienced when we were in fourth grade!

People work in mysterious ways…as does power dynamics! 😀 😀

What do you think?

 

 

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6 comments to Sometimes You Just Can’t Win…and That’s OK

  • Ojaswi Rana

    I absolutely loved this! I can think of so many people who can resonate with this…

  • Swanbau Gathu

    As a Newar whose parents strictly discouraged the spoken use of Nepalbhasa at home because the thick Newar tongue was (and still is) a major disadvantage in maintream Gorkhali Nepal and who has regularly heard racist slurs against Newars who speak with a Newar accent, I find your statement that ‘the Newars, the indigenous population of Kathmandu’ valley’ faced ‘such shame about their accent’ only ‘to some extent’ to be a gross understatement. Newars fear this humiliation. That’s why an entire generation of middle-class Newars stopped speaking in Nepalbhasa with their children in their heartland, and the language is now endangered.

    • Hey Swanbau,

      Thanks for your comment!

      Just to clarify, you say “I find your statement that ‘Newars…[faced] such shame…[only] to some extent’ to be a gross understatement.” The wording I used was in no way an attempt on my part to deny that, that did/does happen with Newars too! Rather, I was admitting to my lack of knowledge about it. I just didn’t know. This isn’t something everyone in Nepal knows, or is it? Without knowing for sure, I didn’t want to be presumptuous and make a blanket statement about most Newars also suffering from that. You get that, right?

      Anyway, thanks for your comment. And sorry to hear that Newari is now endangered. Serke, our language, is also getting there! 🙁 🙁

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