From Palpa to Cambridge: A Nepali Kid’s American story

At 18, Abina Nepal looks like any average American teenager — wearing a black shirt over a pair of blue jeans, Nepal’s dark and wavy black hair frames her fair-toned round face as pimples on her forehead give away her adolescence.

Currently a senior in her final term at Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, one of the more prestigious private schools in Massachusetts, Abina, 18, is a summer away from packing her bags and heading off to New York to start her new adventure at Columbia University, one of the top universities in the world.

Similar to thousands of her peers, she, too, is clueless about what she wants to pursue in college. At this age, the world is up for grabs for those who dare to dream.

What makes Abina’s story different, and special, is the fact that until she was 5 years old, she lived in Tansen, a small municipality in the hills of Palpa, a district in a hilly region of western Nepal, and barely spoke or understood any English.

“I don’t remember this but my mom remembers that I would come home and be like, ‘I don’t want go to school because I don’t know what anyone is saying, I don’t have any friends, I can’t communicate with anyone,’” says Abina, reflecting on her first days in America as she talks in a flawless American accent sitting comfortably on a couch in her family’s apartment in Cambridge.

The 7,000 miles journey

Adina was born in historic city of Kathmandu, the capital of the Himalayan country Nepal — her last name and her country’s name are the same — where she lived until she was 2 1/2 years old.

He father, Bimal, came to the United States in 1999, leaving her and her mother, Anjana, in Kathmandu. The two then moved to Tansen to live with Abina’s paternal grandparents.

Three years later, in 2002, the Nepal family moved to the United States after Bimal got his green card and was able to bring his family here. Abina’s grandparents returned to Nepal shortly after, but she and her mother stayed with Bimal, and the Nepal family has been in the United States ever since.

Because she was only 5 then, her early American days are blurry, says Abina, noting that she does remember she came to the States in October because the school year had already started. During enrollment, her school tried to place her in kindergarten because of her age, but being a “know-it-all” for her grade, she was enrolled in the first grade.

“The school curriculum in Nepal is really advanced so I was doing multiplication, division as a five year old,” says Abina. “School had already started, so everyone was like, ‘Who is this new girl form a different place? She dresses funny, her lunch is funny.’ I didn’t really know English that well because in Nepal, you know English, but it’s like Nepali English.”

While her first days were a struggle, so much so that she would cry to her mother to not send her to school, Abina eventually adapted to the American norms, she says. Going to a Cambridge Public School, which she notes was really diverse, really helped her in those early years.

“I never felt like I was the only immigrant because everyone else looked really different from me. No one really looked at each other,” says Abina. “At home, we spoke Nepali, we kept our Nepali traditions…I did assimilate into the American culture but at home I retained everything that was valued as Nepali.”

It wasn’t until Abina started high school and found herself among people who she refers to as the “Massachusetts one percent” — her peers at the private school, Buckingham Browne & Nichols — that she experienced her first cultural shock, she recalls, reflecting on her 13 years of being in America.

“Private schools tend to be less diverse because you pay money and unfortunately, income equality also leads into race. So my school was predominantly white. And that’s when I felt like an outsider,” she said. “But I had already, until eighth grade, become Americanized so it didn’t really affect me or my life; it was more like a realization. I went about my way, and I made my friends.”

Becoming “Americanized”

Because she was a young child when she came to the States, she hadn’t been long enveloped in the Nepali lifestyle, which helped her in the transition from Palpa to Boston.

“It wasn’t like I was first Nepali and then I became American,” says Abina, “I just grew up as an American cuz’ when I came here, I was a baby — so dress, following the trends, having the toys or the shoes, or speaking in the accent, like I don’t have one. So people find it hard to believe that I didn’t know English for the first part of my life.”

During her years in Nepal, Abina remembers telling her friends her father was in “bidesh,” which is the Nepali word for abroad. All she understood then was that her father was in America, and that was a “cool factor” among her peers, says the chatty teenager.

Now, she has a much deeper understanding of why her father chose to leave everything behind — his family, his friends, his home in Nepal — and struggle in the U.S.

“It’s the land of the free and the home of the brave, right? People come here for freedom — economic, religious… I think everyone is really accepted for who they are,” says Abina. While she acknowledges that racism and discrimination is still widely prevalent, she also appreciates how compared to other places in the world, America appreciates freedom, liberty and rights of the people. The top-notch education is also one of the biggest pulls for immigrant families, she said.

“My dad always tells me this — ‘He grew up in a really, really small town. So he would walk two hours to get to school. Sometimes his flip-flops would break and he would have to fix them with, like something he found on a bush and run to school, and all these crazy things.’

“And he says that when we drive along the Charles River — between the Charles and Harvard University to go to BBNN, which is a really prestigious private school,” she continued. “And he tells me that story and I think that’s why, so I didn’t have to do that. I’m being driven to school, like a really great school and he, as a child, experienced a totally different education style. so that’s definitely why.”

The American Dream

The importance of education and academic success is highly prioritized in many parts of the world, and it’s certainly true in the Nepali society where, Abina says, “education is the key to everything” because with knowledge, “you can literally unlock everything, and it propels you to be really successful.”

That realization, which is widely prevalent among immigrant families in the United States as well, is the driving factor for parents to push their kids towards education.

“Ultimately, that might be one of the top priorities. I know especially for my parents it was,” says the ambitious teen. “Because first, they brought me to the United States. And the public school wasn’t enough, so I went to a private school. That was enough, but because of that private school, I am going to a really good university, so that was the American Dream for my parents.”

As for what her American dream is, Abina says she is still shaping her future and hasn’t really thought much about that. She’s yet to decide what she will study in college, she says, but she talks about what she aspire to be.

“My American dream is to remain happy or aspire to be happy. Happiness is just a place of containment, where everything is in place. There are no specific things, I don’t think happiness is connected with anything superficial. it just comes to you when you have everything you need in life.”


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