Being a new American it sounds odd, and to some-unethical-to talk about the Bhutanese identity. While the hyphenated term has become a new normal to identify their respective origins and culture, it’s natural to humans to ascribe various forms of identity as it starts with a ‘name’ when we first arrive here! We are firstly Americans, and to trace our recent arrival and integration we have to tell our stories as all immigrants have been doing so since the 17th century. We are also witnesses to various immigrants and ethnic groups, who have made the United States their new home, preserve their own unique identity or roots without any conflict of loyalty to their new country. A natural melting pot environment and individual freedom have allowed various groups from preserving their own unique cultural traits in the form of food, language and arts, and some in the form of unique dress code, enriching both the cultural and business world of America.
The Bhutanese Community, who have made America their new home since 2008, bring their former Bhutanese nationality as a form of official identity from overseas for many legal, political and technical reasons. Legally and technically, we bear the Bhutanese tag, otherwise we would not have been allowed to be resettled in the United States without that tag and with an evidence(both documents and stories) supporting that very tag, that comes from our long stay in the refugee camps in Nepal and our political stories of sufferings in Bhutan under its politically motivated policies of ethnic cleansing. Linguistically we are identified as Nepalese since Nepali is our first language and we, of course, share many of the cultural traits with the Nepalese of Nepal. Our ancestry hails from Nepal, however, unlike their parents, most of our kids born during our long stay in the refugee camps in Nepal, relate more naturally to Nepal as their former identity and less to Bhutan.
So, even though we speak and dress like Nepali, especially elders, and our young kids born in the refugee camps naturally call themselves Nepalese, we are uniquely Bhutanese in roots despite all these seemingly Nepali cultural traits. The majority of our Bhutanese population identify with Bhutan as their origin and call themselves Bhutanese-Americans, though Bhutanese rulers themselves don’t like to hear this!
We believe most of the cultural practices in the world are ethnic in nature but political power dictates the narratives of what is a national culture. Bhutanese-Nepali culture is a mix of both Bhutanese and Nepali. All speak Nepali language, because the official Dzongkha language of Bhutan was superimposed only around the late eighties, and some elders wear typical Nepali hats but it’s fast getting eroded among the younger generation. Our food consists of rice and lentils,curry-vegetables, dairy and meat but different ethnic groups have different sub-cultures, dialects and variations in costume and food. Momo, ema-dachhi(green or red peppers cooked in cottage cheese), gundruk(fermented and dried spinach) and goat meat are typical Bhutanese menu at the dining time. While no one is vegan we do have vegetarian families and individuals based on certain religious norms and values the family adheres to. Greetings consist of ‘namaste’ or ‘namaskar’ with both palms folded and heads slightly bent. We go by the last name during the greeting process and ask each other about our place of birth or ancestry. We take big bellies with pride as a sign of health and prosperity and not as a sign of obesity! Please don’t get offended by our remarks!
We regard guests as ‘gods’ and entertain uninvited guests equally and keep the house doors open for that reason(we don’t do it anymore in the US!). Arranged marriages are the traditional norms of the community but with education this is no more valid, and parents are now consulted by their sons and daughters for arranging a formal wedding which usually takes place at the girl’s house. Though child marriage was prevalent in early 20th century and during the time of our parents’ young age, it is no more acceptable. We regard all those above 50 years as seniors or elders since during the farm life that was how the young members were handed down the responsibility of the household early on. Our seniors have a tendency to feel retired early on compared to the general US norm and retirement criteria. Knowledge seeking through regular reading and writing is not very popular among our senior population and that is partly due to illiteracy among them as they never got a chance to go to school.
Large and and joint families are quite a norm but parents with many married sons can choose to stay with one of them. So single families are a new normal even in our community. Senior center or community living has not been a faint idea in our society. The sons are obligated to take care of their aging parents and perform death rites. The seniors look despondent due to the fear of being neglected by their children at their deathbeds. The community organizations and the educated members of the community have a role and responsibility to bridge this widening gap between the older and the newer generation.