When I first told my mom that I would be living in Nepal as a Princeton in Asia fellow, she lifted me up and spun me around our living room. It was welcome news after sleepless nights, days of stress eating, and checking my email too much. After I wiped away tears of joy and blew my runny nose, I realized that despite my preliminary research, I knew little about Nepal. I only knew Nepal as home to some of the world’s tallest mountains and Buddha’s birthplace. I needed to learn about the place I would call home for a year.
This was not my first rodeo abroad. I had traveled to Europe, visited relatives in Ghana and South Africa, studied abroad in Tokyo, and backpacked through Southeast Asia. I experienced the various ways sexism, colorism, and racism manifest in everyday institutions. Yet Nepal was unknown to me. So when I left for Kathmandu on a 16-hour flight one muggy August day, I decided to have little expectations and discover for myself.
Prior to my arrival, I heard an NPR interview with Shonda Rhimes. She talked about her book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person, and opening up to opportunity simply by saying yes. As I embarked on this yearlong journey, I, too, decided that my fellowship would be a year of yes. So I said yes to fostering a new community and embracing the unexpected.
When I arrived, there was a certain familiarity. The unpaved alleyways, the hawkers, and the eager bus boys pushing passengers into crowded microbuses reminded me of Accra, Ghana. Yet Kathmandu’s beautiful chaos was different. It was rooted in blended cultures, peoples, Hinduism, Buddhism, and more. Multicolored concrete buildings, earthquake-damaged temples, and historic Durbar Squares marked the city landscape’s unique tug between new and old. On a clear day, the Himalayas peeked through the clouds, emanating a natural radiance around the Kathmandu Valley.
There was also unfamiliarity. Transportation seemed daunting. Pollution enveloped everyone, wherever they went. Wedding bands marched through streets. As I adjusted to my new home, I learned about the culture, built a community, and developed a routine. Soon, daily bike commutes on dusty roads transformed into races to out-cycle wild dog packs. Morning teatime evolved into lively debates with work wives about feminism and whether the Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan is relevant (he’s relevant, so fight me).
Along the way, I realized I did not have to search for commonality to establish cross-cultural connections. I grew up eating spicy food with my right hand, calling family friends “older brother” or “Auntie”—similar to some Nepali customs. However, to my close Nepali friends, my differences in religion or political beliefs were as important as my similarities. Over time, I challenged my perspective, developed lifelong friendships, and understood how to appreciate life’s unintended moments.
Yet one aspect that I didn’t expect was the unwanted stares, hair touching, and questions. People asked me if I was a Black celebrity like Serena Williams or if I could speak “click language.”
I was called “Africa” or “Negro” by passing strangers. When I responded in Nepali that I was an American, people scratched their heads in disbelief. I knew people were generally curious. To some, I was the first Black woman they had ever met, but I grew weary of constantly educating. It was no different with foreigners from North America, Europe, or Asia. My skin was an edible commodity, like chocolate, or undesirable. My presence was described with coded language like “urban” or “soulful.”
Whenever I am made to feel like an outsider, I find like-minded outsiders. As a nerd, I was drawn to Kathmandu’s otaku and anime scene. Nerdy spaces allow me to express my love of Sailor Moon or Saga without judgment. When I learned about Otaku Jatra, an anime and geek convention in Dhumbarahi, Kathmandu, I had to attend and find my people.
In a crammed banquet hall called Celebration Heights, I stumbled into Naruto cosplayers with hair-sprayed neon wigs and onlookers who danced to One Piece’s theme song. I worked my way through hundreds of sweaty bodies to watch cosplayers grace the runway. Competitors showcased their unique twist on famed characters like Ulquiorra Cifer from Bleach. Between cosplay competition sets, the host ushered K-pop performers onstage to dance. I was so excited to be in a welcoming space with fellow nerds, but in one second, that excitement turned to disappointment.
I watched a performance group repeatedly rap the n-word in a song. I looked around the room, desperately searching for a familiar face. I saw enthusiastic faces clapping and repeating the word. I had never felt so lonely in my life.
I rushed out of the banquet hall and contemplated my options. Should I leave? Should I say something?
I walked up to the performance group after they finished.
“Do you know the meaning of the n-word?” I asked the lead singer.
“Yes, we know what that word is, but it was no offense,” he said.
“But do you really understand the meaning and consequences of using that word?” I said.
He bit his lip and shrugged his shoulders. “We won’t do it next time,” he said. I scowled at him one last time and left.
My heart raced during my taxi ride home. Confrontation and its repercussions are uncomfortable for me. Yet my chest pangs were not rooted in anxiety, but in relief. I felt the weight of silence dissipate from my body after confronting the singer. Even if the singer says the n-word in the future (and I’m not there to catch him), I know he’ll think of my scowling face. Speaking up, finally, felt comfortable and just.
In that moment, I understood that my fellowship year would also be the year of no. No, I did not have to take unwarranted violations against my body. No, I did not have to sacrifice my own comfort for others.
Lastly, if a space did not value me, I could create a space with other like-minded Kathmandu-ers. From restarting a podcast club to joining a band with local musicians, I learned to find others looking for representation too. In these friendships, I found laughter, karaoke nights, futsal matches, and people who defended me.
In 52 weeks, I faced fears, survived giardia, and ate cheeseballs, but most importantly, I discovered a newfound love for myself, and for a country as unique as I am.