By Akhil Sud
“They must have butchered my last name!” said Sampada, a Junior from Nepal, as we sat across each other at a table by the window, in a noisy Starbucks.
She noticed that I had spelt her last name as “Kc” – which is how it is spelt in Yale’s official records – whereas her actual surname is meant to be abbreviated as “KC”. She said that at some point in history, the British must have anglicized her surname (explaining the abbreviation), and at present the Office of the Registrar seems reluctant to answer her emails (explaining the misspelling). In fact, moments before, when we ordered coffee, she mentioned to me that, whenever asked for her name by a Starbucks cashier, she simply gives “Sam”, since “Sampada” is usually greeted with confusion, and needs to be accompanied with its spelling (if not a story of her origins). I feel her pain – but unfortunately “Akhil” doesn’t have a convenient short form. “When people ask me ‘Can I call you Sam?’ I say ‘No, not really, because I already have a butchered last name, and so I don’t want you to butcher my first name as well.”
The first thing Sampada declared, even before we began our discussion formally, was that she doesn’t like introductions. “When you interact with people, they ask your name, and I always have trouble saying my name because they don’t get it, and then they ask you where you’re from, and then you say Nepal. Lots of people don’t know where that is. Those who know think that it’s all mountains, that it’s very cold, and that it snows all the time.” She then went on to talk about her experiences with the “many culturally imbecile people” she’s met. “If your skin color is brown, you may be Nepali, Sri Lankan, or what not, but you are from India – that’s what the assumption is. They only classify you into two groups – India and China. Everyone with mongoloid features is Chinese, and everyone with brown skin is Indian.” This made me think of the plight of people from North-East India, who are often labeled as Chinese by Indians themselves (those in other parts). “I find all these terms like ‘brown’ and what not all very offensive. It’s a part of campus culture, and people say ‘We’re not really being mean or anything’, but the very fact that you use it so loosely means that you have internalized it so much that you don’t even bother to think about it.”
It was at this point that I realized how masterfully Sampada had evaded the introduction part of the interview. She had set such a wonderful rhythm even before I began with the questions I had prepared, that it would be foolish of me to stop everything and go to my first set of questions. Well played, Sampada! You just destroyed my planned three-part format.
As I found out, it was all for the better. Our conversation was an uninhibited and candid one, and will make for a wonderful read – so keep reading.
We discussed some of the commendable work Sampada did in a village in northeastern Nepal during the summers of her freshman and sophomore years. “I had always wanted to go there, because it’s my mother’s ancestral home, but I had never been. Her family house is there, but no one actually lives there. They have a caretaker who takes care of the house. I had wanted to go and see the place, because I had grown up hearing stories about how wonderful life in the village was. It was monsoon season, and my mum wouldn’t let me go, because I’d have to take the bus and then walk for five or six hours, up a hill. My mum didn’t agree to it, but I went anyway.” On the way to her mother’s ancestral village, Sampada saw another village, which had a school that she noticed was in a shambles – it didn’t have enough classrooms, cattle grazed freely in the school grounds, and it lacked any semblance of proper infrastructure. Given this sorry state of affairs, parents felt reluctant to send their children to school. Sampada decided to team up with fellow Yalie and Nepali, Priyankar Chand, and apply to the Davis Projects for Peace. Their proposal won them funding and the chance to return to the village the following year, and get to work. She spoke of an old man in the village who couldn’t read or write, but was able to assess the dimensions of the buildings, and calculate the quantities of building materials needed. They built five classrooms and a fence. “It’s still a very unsettling feeling,” said Sampada, explaining that, in the long term, a sustainable community needed to be created in the village, so that children wouldn’t feel compelled to drop out of school hastily – something they did in order to find jobs in cities, since the village offered no viable means of livelihood.
After tenth grade, Sampada applied to Ruthin School – a public school in North Wales (established in 1284) – and was one of ten international students admitted. “Here’s an interesting fact for you: Elihu Yale’s father, David Yale, went to my school, and Elihu Yale is buried in Wrexham, which is twenty minutes away from where my school was!” At Ruthin, Sampada was involved in Combined Cadet Forces, for which every student had to choose either the navy or the army, and participate in related activities every Friday. Sampada chose the army, and, among other things, took part in parades, did night patrolling, practiced shooting, and learned how to clean and manage weapons. She remembers that the navy would be involved in much more civilized activity. “We would be outside in really cold weather, doing parades, and the navy people would be inside, working with map and compass. For summer camp we would have to live in bunkers out in the forest, and the navy people would live in a ship, and have a wonderful time on the beach!”
When I asked why she hadn’t chosen navy, she said, repentantly, “I didn’t like the navy uniform”. She added that she doesn’t easily give up something she has started – and that the same held for her time in the army at Ruthin. After Ruthin, finding the financial aid situation at universities in the UK to be unsatisfactory, Sampada applied to Yale.
It was here that I decided to sneak in one of my introductory questions. “Do you have any pet peeves?” “Elbow patches. Specially the ones that are a different color from that of the shirt or coat you’re wearing. I really hate those!” After a quick glance at my elbows to check if I was in the clear (which I was), I asked her my next question, which was about society and lifestyle in Nepal. Life in Nepal revolves around family, to the extent that it can sometimes stifle individuality – something Sampada feels is absent in the US. A vast array of festivals serves the purpose of nurturing the familial bonds so integral to Nepali society. She also described the chaos of the traffic and marketplaces, and went on to say that while she used to find that annoying, now – as an “insider looking from the outside” – she finds that “the chaos is beautiful”. According to Sampada, Nepali people suffer from pessimism, which holds them back from utilizing their endowments to tackle the very problems that they are pessimistic about. She feels that there is room for reform in this aspect of Nepal.
What would you say is a key difference between the cultures you’ve witnessed – those of Nepal, the UK, and the US?
Sampada answered by describing the way in which each culture perceives foreigners. She said that it is much better to be a foreigner in the US than it is to be one in the UK. “The nice thing about America is that when people ask you where you’re from, it’s a very general question – you say you’re from California, you’re from Nepal, and so on – but when people in the UK ask you where you’re from, they always expect an answer that you’re from a foreign country that’s not the UK.” As for Nepal in this regard, hospitality is a significant part of its culture. The same is true for India, and so I could relate well to what Sampada meant when she said “Nepal loves foreigners”.
At Yale, Sampada plans to double major in South Asian Studies and Economics, and is troubled by the lack of choices in the Economics department. She feels that this problem is part of a bigger, more pressing picture: as Yale makes strides in spheres of strategic importance, “other things are being lost”. Her favorite classes at Yale so far have been South Asian Social Worlds and Himalayan Languages and Culture. Her favorite spot on campus is Beinecke Plaza at night.
We then discussed momos and mountains. “What stereotypes about your culture have you faced?” “Mountains! That I would have climbed a mountain, since I’m from Nepal.” Interestingly, Sampada has indeed climbed a mountain – but the mountain was in Wales, and so I suppose it doesn’t really count. She added, “No one has the money or the time to go climb mountains!” When I asked her about what oddities she found present in American culture, very much in keeping with her hatred for small talk, she said that the people on campus spoke in a way that was overly effusive and polite – to the extent that she wonders whether the emotion that should logically go along with such effusive expression is genuine or not. “There’s a lot of sugar coating going on.” Having spoken to Sampada often, I know her to be one for plain speaking – and I also know that she doesn’t care about the opinions others form of her. “But I guess these are manners.” In this context of the amusing ways in which different cultures interact, our conversation turned to momos.
Momos are a primarily Nepali, Tibetan, and northeast Indian delicacy, akin to the dim sum the west knows and loves. On behalf of both Sampada and myself, let me be as clear as I possibly can, that momos are not the same as dim sums, and that (particularly with the classic red chutney that goes with them) momos are better than dim sums. Okay – I’m glad I got that out of the way.
A conversation Sampada had with an English Yalie at OIS sums up the way I see her – unabashedly confident in her own (“brown”) skin. “A friend of mine here at Yale comes up to me and says ‘When I was in Nepal last winter, I found it really weird that all the super markets in Nepal have skin whitening creams’. In reply, I said ‘Yeah, I also found it really shocking when I was in the UK that they had all these tanning creams.’” I wonder how he felt after that biting (but fitting) retort. I hope, for his sake, that we wasn’t wearing complimentary elbow patches.
Akhil Sud ’16 is in Silliman College. He writes regularly for the Vicarious Globetrotter blog. Contact him at email@example.com.