When I first moved to the States, I saved all my pocket money to buy myself a $45.00 Jansport backpack and a $20.00 Aeropostale hoodie. These two items in my teenage mind were crucial elements that made up the magical ‘American’ cloak that would allow me to seamlessly blend into High school. In reality of course, those items did nothing to hide the fact that I was an unusual looking brown skinned girl with a strange accent in a neighborhood that was mostly black, white and Patel. Nonetheless, I persisted. I’d watched all the episodes of the Mary Kate and Ashley show and read all the sweet valley high books. I knew by heart what Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield wore, ate, and read. I was ready to blend in and not stand out. Basically, pop tarts and cream cheese bagels in, bhuteko bhaat and mulako achaar out.
I began living a dual life where I oscillated between two different versions of myself. At home, I was Nepali Priyanka, I loved my Nepali songs, shed a few tears to parelima on the regular, and even had a big red Nepali flag (#truestory) hanging on my bedroom wall. But when I stepped outside, I stayed under the radar, hoping I’d blend in and not draw attention to myself. Aeropostale sweatshirt, Jansport bag, bagel in hand, and the latest Avril Lavigne cd in my discman. The message I hoped to convey was, “even though I may look different, I’m actually exactly like you”. I suppose this was typical behavior for a sixteen-year-old seeking inclusion and wanting to just fit in. I instinctively repressed certain parts and characteristics of my culture that were innate to me because they made me stand out. If someone asked me what my favorite song was, I probably said “In da Club” which I liked, when the truth was parelima had my heart. I was aware that I was different but trying my hardest to be like everyone else.
Through the tumultuous years of high school, the freedom that came with college and starting my own professional career, I still struggled with fully owning my authentic self and identity. I always tried hard to blend in and fit in, when my friends who grew up here shared jokes and references that went over my head, I laughed in the moment and then quickly googled it later to learn more. I kept the Nepali side of me separate and private, close to my heart for fear that the others wouldn’t understand or that showing that side of me would result in excluding myself from the norm. When I accidentally dropped a book on the floor, I looked around first before discreetly putting it to my forehead in an act of respect as I'd been taught to do. I resisted the urge to eat rice and curry with my hands in the way that felt most familiar to me and my packed lunches to work were always sandwiches and pasta when really, I would've happily eaten daal bhaat every day. The issue of carbs and logistics aside (too many containers and the possibility of daal leakage), the possible smell and the (assumed) peculiar looks were enough to make me reach for my frozen lunch instead.
I thought blending in would make my life easier and make me feel more included and while that did happen, I also realized that I ended up repressing a part of my authentic self. I had succeeded in conforming with the crowd but that had left me unnoticeable and left nothing noteworthy about me. I had deluded myself into believing that I had to repress my true authentic self in order to fit in and contribute my talents to the world.
I began to notice friends and coworkers from different cultures who owned their identities and displayed them proudly. Colleagues who didn’t feel the need to confirm and proudly brought in exotic cultural dishes to the potluck amidst the sea of salads and pastas. They wore their African best to the Christmas party instead of panicking about not having an outfit that was the right combination of red and green (#truestory).Instead of being embossed as I would’ve, a friend openly posted a humorous and heartwarming video about her mom packing her favorite Filipino dessert Turon (deep-fried bananas) in a Michael Korr’s shoe box! These and many more experiences opened my eyes to the fact that I had self-excluded myself because I was waiting for others to include me. But there was another way. I could force myself to include myself.
Through growth, realization, and life experiences, I’ve slowly learnt to stop resisting and start existing as my authentic self. With all the conversation today about diversity and inclusion, I’ve begun to realize that it's my authenticity and my identity as a Nepali in a largely American organization that makes me unique. It's ironic that in a world where everyone wants to stand out and be different, I spent a lot of time trying to fit in. My years in the States adjusting to a different culture, life as an international student, and the struggles of getting my green card are all aspects of my personality and character that make me unique. It shows grit, determination, flexibility, and the ability to adapt and persevere. I now realize that I can offer a different perspective and culture and that is my advantage. I now regale my colleagues with stories from Nepal, the good, the bad, and the funny. Stories of how a friend recently had to marry a plant before he could marry his wife to ward off evil superstitions, my struggles as an international student here, and the elusive green card quest. I now proudly wear my kurta to work as if it were no less than a business suit, and if I'm feeling especially daring, I might sneak in some mulako achaar into my lunch box.
Now when there’s a potluck at work, I no longer stress over the fact that I don’t know how to make apple pie or a fancy salad, I proudly take in momos or choila as my contribution and pray that no one suffers from too much heart burn the next day!
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