NEW YORK—The kiosk at the corner of 74th Street and 37 Road in Jackson Heights, Queens, has a three for $5 deal on $2 phone cards. Across the street, two phone accessory shops have the same deal. The five phone shops on the short adjacent street do not advertise phone card prices, at least not in English.
Although the Nepalese community in Queens is one of the smaller ethnic groups, Amit Shah, president of the Nepalese American Foundation, estimates 25 percent of the phone cards are bought up by Nepalese. “Every week I talk with my family at least 30 minutes,” he said.
The community lives between two worlds. “Most of the people who live in the United States, most of the family is in Nepal,” Shah said. “America is one of the dream countries for most of the people.”
Like many in New York’s insulated ethnic communities, the Nepalese are trying to integrate into the mainstream American society while not losing their identities. Shah, whose organization is trying to bridge the gap between the Nepalese and the rest of New York, said “it’s a learning process.”
Sunday was a milestone. The first Nepalese American Festival was held on 37 Road. The event was intended to let the rest of the city know of the Nepalese in New York, and to show off Nepali culture.
Sonam Lama, the 1st Nepalese American Festival Organizing Committee event coordinator, said close to 70 Nepalese organizations in New York City were part of the event. He said “Although we are all together, we never did a festival, all together, all organizations.”
The event started at 11 a.m., and most people showed up at 11 a.m. to set up booths. Pockets of people could be seen talking. Some pressed their palms together to greet friends. They smiled broadly at each other, yet spoke softly.
Things started really moving around 1:30 p.m. when the whole area filled with people. Flute and tabla music played through speakers while a large crowd of people at the foot of the main stage danced while waving Nepalese and American flags.
A Growing Community
The Nepalese are a kind people caught in the middle of global politics, with Nepal being a haven for Tibetan refugees escaping China. They value education, yet years of war and internal conflict has denied many opportunity in their own country.
Former president of the American Nepal Friendship Society Dr. Tara Niraula says that Nepalis are coming to the United States for several reasons. Education and opportunity are part, but many people fled when the Chinese communist regime began pressing its influence into to the country, Niraula said.
“When the Maoist insurgency began in 1996, they came here for security reasons—to save their lives and their families,” Niraula said.
He added that when people are spread around the world, like the Nepalese have been, it is challenging to retain tied to Nepal while also getting involved in a new society.
“One thing we do is to be a part of the American society while not losing our identity,” Niraula said. “Because that’s what makes this country great—every cultural community, every linguistic community, every nationality has a unique identity here.”
He said it’s often easier for the older people to hold onto their traditions, since “the adjustment is not very easy.” For younger people, becoming part of the local community is much easier, since “most of them will be educated here, and they become part of the larger society.”
“We want to not only bring the community together, but also promote the culture and strengthen our community capacity for political voice,” Niraula said of the event.