The human population is increasing, yet the world is becoming smaller. A global movement is accessible to more people, yet the circumstances behind movement create divisions in how we see ourselves and how others perceive us. I have become well accustomed to the fine art and agony of global movement from a young age. My 24 years on this planet have been divided between three very different places: nine years in Nepal, eight years in Australia and seven years in the United States of America. Now I live the life of a nomad without a permanent address.
My status as a child immigrant and an adult traveller were conscious choices made by my parents and I. I am not a refugee or an asylum seeker. If I wanted, I could return ‘home’. As an immigrant and traveller, I could never understand what it feels like to have my home destroyed or to have to leave my country and family for fear I could lose my life.
Despite my cultural ambiguity and lack of strong patriotism to any nation, I am very proud of my Nepalese roots. Travelling for the past four months I have noticed that my confidence in expressing love for my culture publicly has been increasing. But it took a long time to get to this place of self-acceptance.
Our insecurities and judgemental attitudes are rooted in childhood experiences. I was an outsider three times, at the ages of seven, fourteen and sixteen. Those experiences of feeling different stay with me even as an adult. When you are an immigrant moving to a strange land where you have to absorb new cultural facets including language, food, fashion, and pop culture very quickly, you often experience shame for holding on to your past.
Why can’t I assimilate more easily? Why do I stand out so much? How can I minimise my differences?
I think we strive for uniformity in unfamiliar circumstances because we see that as the least painful way to gain acceptance into the society, and humans desperately want to be accepted.
I spent a large proportion of my youth feeling embarrassed and ashamed for South Asians in America and Australia who spoken broken English, had a heavy accent, who still oiled their hair and wore kurtha-surwals in public. I sneered at them because I was thinking only of myself and I was afraid of rejection. I felt that their representation of my culture made me look bad, painted me in a certain light to my new society, to the people looking for any hint of difference to not accept me. And I was not them. I had great English, no South Asian accent. I didn’t want to oil my hair or wear kurtha-surwals. I had a side swept fringe, I was effortlessly tan and I had a wide range of Western interests. I was a cool immigrant and I demanded belonging.
“The difference between being an immigrant and a traveller is that as a traveller I don’t feel the slightest pressure to minimise the facets of my culture. Travellers are not expected to hide their cultural identity, but rather, share all complexities of it with those they meet in their journey. This is the true meaning of cultural exchange.”
I used to feel embarrassed when a Hindi song come on my iPod around white people, to upload Dashain photos to Facebook because when I was thirteen a white girl at school saw my family photo and told me our tika looked like we got shot in the head, to admit that yes I did love eating curry because when I was younger my friends told me with mild disgust that my house always smelled like curry, and I became so conscious all the time when I went outside that my clothes reeked of curry.
I am discovering as a traveller that these are the exact same things people find fascinating about me. Travellers from all over the world and natives of countries I visit want to hear the music I like, to learn recipes and ingredients of Nepalese traditional dishes, to learn our language, to understand the meaning behind our festivals, and how arranged marriages and casteism operate.
Characteristics of my identity I desperately tried to minimise as an immigrant growing up, I finally feel free in stepping into fully. When people ask me where I am from, I no longer feel uncomfortable explaining my history of migration. “I’m from Nepal, but I live in Australia, and I used to live in America”. I am not an expat; I am an immigrant. I have lived in, understood, and thrived in three cultures, across three continents. I have so many perspectives to share with you, and I want to learn everything about you.
As with migration, travel also gives birth to personal challenges. My love for exploration has taken me to thirteen countries but I still often feel seven years old and lost. I am still not one of those people open enough to talk to a complete stranger entirely through hand signals and revel in it. Maybe I will never be one of those people, but does that make me any less of a “true” traveller? My style of cultural engagement is unique, as shaped by my life experiences. I thrive in one-to-one conversations and enjoy forming deep personal relationships.
I am currently volunteering at an English language school in a small city in Morocco, in North Africa. Recently a Moroccan teacher and I bonded over Hindi music videos. I had no idea Bollywood was so popular here. I beamed, dancing in my chair and singing out loud. The three Anglo-Saxon men sitting with us went quiet. Two moved away and one laughed in a patronising way at our enthusiasm. But their reactions did not phase me, and I pitied that they experienced such severe PWMS (Privileged White Man Syndrome). I continued singing proudly, ecstatic that I was able to connect with a woman who lives on the other side of the world through our mutual love of South Asian music.