August 8, 2012

Starting life again with respect and dignity

Chanda and Tika Timsina
Chanda and Tika Timsina resettled to Lancaster, Pa. after growing up in a refugee camp. Photo: CWS

Chanda Timsina often gets asked why she is still living with her parents. Her American-born peers say, “You are 24 now. Don’t you want to get your own apartment?”

For her, the choice to stay home is clear, this refugee from Bhutan replies. Solidarity with her family is more important right now than asserting her independence.

“We just came to this country in 2009,” said Chanda, who lives with her grandmother, parents, brother and two sisters. “We know how we lived, how we survived together for 17 years in a refugee camp in Nepal. We want to stay together for now.”

In a recent interview, Chanda and her sister Tika, 20, talked about this and other acculturation challenges, which involve so much more than just choice of clothing, language and food.

These young women clearly love the United States and the opportunities it offers to – as Chanda put it – “start life again with respect and dignity” and to advance one’s education and career at any age. They look forward to applying for U.S. citizenship in two years.

“But I don’t want to go enroll in someone else’s culture and then forget mine,” Chanda said. “That would make my parents feel bad. I don’t have to act like I am from here. I already have my own culture.”

Chanda and Tika said they cherish their family’s rituals and routines, including starting each day together with a prayer. “We have our own calendar at home,” Chanda said. “Our father keeps track of all the festivals we used to celebrate.”

Lancaster’s Nepali Bhutanese community is close knit. Now numbering between 750 and 1,000, it has grown large enough that “they are now opening some stores with cultural and religious things we used in Nepal. It’s easier for us to keep our culture and we are proud of it.”

Chanda and Tika’s parents are strict vegetarians, and forbid alcohol, drugs and tobacco. They don’t want their children going to dance clubs or parties or staying overnight with friends. Respecting their wishes means sacrificing certain opportunities to socialize with peers.

But their parents welcome their children’s friends to their home. “They love our mom’s delicious cooking,” Chanda said. For her part, Tika has learned from some American friends how to make pizza and cookies.

Chanda graduated high school and completed one year of college in Nepal. Tika graduated high school in Lancaster last year and is in college. Their brother and other sister also have graduated high school.

Chanda would like to continue her college studies eventually, but has deferred in favor of working to help support her family. It took her eight frustrating months to find her first job, in the corner convenience store. Then she was trained as a certified nursing assistant and found work in a nursing home. She has a second job teaching preschool-aged children of migrant workers.

“Now I want to become a registered nurse, but I don’t know when,” Chanda said. “The good thing here is that it’s never too late, you’re never too old to go back to school.”