Finding Home at the Exchange House
“What does country mean to you? What does home mean to you?
Binod Paudel, a Nepalese filmmaker asked these questions to myself and my friends while we were hanging out on a Friday night. The room was silent for a minute. I waited to answer until after my friends shared.
Paudel and Yatin Parkhani, an LA-based film editor, came to Akron to collect stories from the Nepali-Bhutanese Americans who currently live in North Hill. The mission of their project was to find stories and turn them into a script and a documentary. During this process, they stayed at the Exchange House, a public space supporting, empowering, and culturally enriching the North Hill community. During their weeklong stay, I helped them by bringing people from my community to the Exchange House for personal interviews. I also recommended they meet with a dance group called Nepali Saskritik Kala Kendra and with community leaders who are volunteering to help others survive in the new country.
During their stay, I spoke with them at length about my life as an artist. I was a co-founder of the Suruwath Theatre back in Nepal where we did more than 20 productions in Shanichar, a Bhutanese refugee camp. When third country resettlement started, we all divided into eight different countries including the United States. My family arrived in the United States safely on September 9, 2013. I started to go to North High School with a dream to continue to work in theatre. The school had a Culture Fair, and my friends and I created an original play. After that, we did six or seven productions from the Suruwath Theatre. Then, last year, I started to work in Gum-Dip Theatre with “Nepali Applause: an open air market / performance festival.”
Because of my background, they asked to meet with my friends and me to discuss our stories. While playing FIFA and eating chatpattey, a type of Nepali food, Yatin and Binod started recording and interviewing us. Parkhani asked questions and Paudel took notes as we shared our experiences.
“What does country mean to you? What does home mean to you?”
This question made me think deeply about my identity because I don’t know what country means to me. My parents introduce themselves as Bhutanese, but I don’t want to because I only know things about Bhutan that my parents and elders have shared with me. I was born and grew up in a refugee camp in Nepal. I lived there for 17 years of my life. My tongue speaks Nepali and Tamang languages, and my body loves to wear Nepali costumes. I am proud to share about Nepal with strangers. I have researched about my Tamang ancestor heritage which started in Syabru Besi village in Nepal centuries ago. After knowing this history, I expected that we would become Nepalese citizens but it never happened. Nepal gave us our identity as refugees. Other than that, I don’t think we got anything from Nepal. I don’t have a country.
Even though my friends disagreed with me about this, I believe that home would be a safe place to live, but we never had that in the refugee camp. I am still challenging myself to consider Akron as home. I am still questioning how I should introduce myself to people. Bhutanese? I’ve never been there. Nepali? They never claimed us. I wonder how many other former refugees here question themselves like I have.
I work at The Exchange House as a bridge for my community. A lot of elders don’t speak English, and thus, every little thing is a huge challenge for their lives. For example, they need a way to understand the basic laws for driving, going to the hospital, asking for water, or using the phone and buying food. My generation of young people is aware of basic information in navigating American culture but doesn’t necessarily use it to their families’ advantage because they have their own problems. Being aware of my own cultural expectations along with new rules and regulations of a new place makes me aware of the difficulties of the older generation in my community. We need more places like The Exchange House so they can find help and make them feel that Akron is also their HOME. —Neema Tamang, Exchange House AmeriCorps VISTA