New American Series: the Bhutanese-Nepali

Here continues a series on the five largest ethnic groups the Refugee and Immigration Center (RIC) has resettled in Sioux Falls recently.  Upcoming blog posts will focus on the following topics: Conflict History, Cultural Differences, and New American Success Stories.  Please join us as we learn together about our new neighbors and their courageous stories.

New American Series: The Bhutanese-Nepali

 Cultural Differences

After interviewing Kalyan, Deo, and Thag, three Bhutanese-Nepali caseworkers at the RIC, my goals for this blog topic seem wholly overestimated.  I had wanted an easy and clear—think bulleted or numbered list—of major cultural differences that would be helpful for medical and school staff and community members to know about the Bhutanese-Nepali, but my furiously scribbled, barely decipherable interview notes tell a vastly different story.  What I learned most from talking with Kalyan, Deo, and Thag was how richly diverse are the Bhutanese-Nepali.  While all can speak Nepali, there are several different ethnic groups within the Bhutanese-Nepali each with its own dialect.  A feeling of brotherhood and fraternity exists between all the ethnic groups even while several different religions are practiced including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Kirat, and other ethnic religions.  Strict adherence to cultural practices can also differ between different generations of Bhutanese-Nepali with the younger generation often acting “more liberal” than its elder generation.  Even as Bhutanese-Nepali integrate into their new home in America, a cultural shift is happening as women—who historically worked only within the home in this patriarchal society—are now working outside the home and families are adapting to their new economic and political realities.

While the hope of a nice bulleted list of cultural differences has now been abandoned, there were several cultural tenets that arose from our conversation.

Showing respect and reverence to the elder generation is very important.  Casting the eyes down when talking with elders, avoiding the use of their first names, addressing elders as “grandfather,” “grandmother,” “uncle,” or “aunt” are some ways respect can be shown to the older generation.  I was told, “an elder is revered as a god.”  The “traditional nuclear family” that many Americans consider as including the father, mother, and children is broadened in the Bhutanese-Nepali community and includes a larger network of extended family.  “This is preferred by many.”  A married Bhutanese-Nepali woman can often be spotted by the green-beaded necklace adorning her neck and the red vermillion tika mark on her forehead, though this practice is not universal.

Historically for the Hindu-practicing Bhutanese-Nepali, an intricate caste system existed with binding rules and regulations for each member.  This system still exists for some, but seems to be softening in certain ways as adaptations are made in their new home in America.  While in Nepal, state laws forbid the eating of beef, while law in Bhutan permitted it.  For some, the cow is considered a mystical creature.  The men I interviewed advised school staff (in the case of school lunches) or community members to simply ask parents or individuals their preference as; again, the eating of beef depends on one’s religion and possibly their age.

In the end, I believe “simply asking,” is the most helpful advice anyone can follow when trying to navigate the choppy waters of cultural differences respectfully.

Better than a bulleted list is a kind and curious question. 

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