Learning from New American Neighbors

By Anne Mocko

unnamedI am someone who believes in learning by doing, and I think experiential teaching is especially crucial when trying to teach Hinduism (a tradition that is not just unfamiliar to students, but which prioritizes practice over text and theology). When I was hired to teach Asian religions at Concordia College, therefore, it was crucial for me to explore the resources in the area would be available for exposing my students to the lived traditions of South Asia.

By good fortune, the small city of Fargo/Moorhead, where my college is located, happened to be one of the two main refugee resettlement cities for the states of North Dakota and Minnesota. While Minnesota has primarily resettled Somali and Sudanese refugees in town, North Dakota has primarily resettled Bhutanese refugees—over 5,000 between 2008 and 2012, equivalent to roughly 4% of the city of Fargo. These Bhutanese refugees are Hindus, and ethnic Nepalis—and so match perfectly to the language and cultural expertise of my doctoral fieldwork.

These local Hindus, whom I was now hoping to introduce to my overwhelmingly white, Protestant students, ended up in Fargo/Moorhead based on an ethnic cleansing program in their country of origin. In Bhutan, the majority of the population (the ‘northerners’ the Ngalops and Sharchops) speak a Tibeto-Burman language and practice Tibetan Buddhism. The minority population, the Lhotsampas, or ‘southerners,’ were largely Nepali-speakers and Hindus; some were people whose families had drifted into the region long before the solidification of national boundaries, while others had made their way into the country far more recently.

In the late 1980s, around the time a national census revealed that the ‘southerners’ now comprised a threatening 45% of the population, the Bhutanese government embraced a “One Nation, One People” policy. They enforced a new national dress code (based on the clothing of northern populations) and disallowed Nepali language in schools; the government then cracked down on ethnic Nepali protests and ‘freedom fighters,’ making it increasingly untenable to live in Bhutan as a Nepali Lhotsampa. Many ethnic Nepalis fled, while others were deported. This situation resulted in a documented refugee population of over 100,000 in UN camps in eastern Nepal by its peak in 1996, plus undoubtedly many other migrants who resettled in less formal ways.

While Bhutan eventually repatriated a fraction of these people, the overwhelming majority of refugees remained in the camps for the next decade awaiting either Nepali citizenship or third-country migration. It was not until the end of the second Bush administration that the UNCHR finally completed negotiation and screenings to begin sending these refugees to the US and elsewhere.

The Bhutanese refugee population in Fargo was thus quite recently transplanted when I arrived in town in 2012, having only begun to arrive in 2008. Many were still monolingual in Nepali. They were just beginning to organize as a community, and did yet not have official community or religious spaces established—though they did have a Himalayan grocery store. Unlike the professional-class Nepali emigres I had encountered in Chicago, the Bhutanese refugees came to the US as full extended families, and retained an undiluted, unselfconscious rural-Nepali approach to the world. It was the closest thing I could possibly have gotten to cultural immersion without returning to Nepal, and a remarkable potential teaching resource.

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As I was gearing up to teach Hinduism for the first time in January 2013, however, I had been so swamped for months (between my new teaching load, and being a new parent) that I hadn’t had any opportunity to reach out to the Bhutanese refugee community yet.  Nevertheless, I optimistically marked down Sunday March 10 on the syllabus for a class puja for Maha Shiva Ratri, and assumed I would be able to meet some local Hindus in time to pull it off.

January and February sped past me, and as March arrived, I still didn’t really know any Hindus in town—much less any Hindu priests. So finally I pulled my exhausted self together enough to just show up at the local Himalayan grocery, and see who I might meet. I asked (in Nepali) if the men hanging around the store knew any priests for a ritual I wanted done. Several of them just looked at me blankly, but a man named Tirtha, who lived in a West Fargo apartment with his wife and extended family, seemed to be delighted to meet a white woman who could speak his native language. We exchanged phone numbers, and he promised to set up a priest for me.

I went ahead and booked a room on campus, and told my students we were ready for the program. We would be gathering together for some Nepali tea and a small puja to a Shiva image (I was still working on that part); I would bring some clothes and jewelry for them to try on, and we could try some henna. I thought it would probably work fine.

The day before the event, Tirtha texted me to ask if he could invite his brother, and maybe a few other people. I said, ‘Certainly.’ I thought this meant there would perhaps be three or four Bhutanese Nepalis at the event. The next day, however, Tirtha showed up with the priest, his brother—and about 30 other people. Tirtha’s huge extended family had piled into three minivans, and was now pouring into my event, chatting to each other in Nepali, taking pictures of each other dressed up in saris and kurtas and topis. The women started grabbing my female students and dressing them up like dolls in the clothes I had brought; the men started setting up the ritual space, and instructing me on how to comport myself as the patron of the ritual. Someone decided the flowers we brought weren’t right, and went back to the grocery to find something better. Little kids were running around, an elderly man was intent on teaching one of my male students a Nepali song. It was chaos of the best and most culturally authentic kind.

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I realized afterward that the event that I had accidentally put into motion was far superior in every respect to the event I had planned. What I had thought I was putting together was an event not just for but mostly about my students, in which they would be the white, English-speaking majority observing a few brown men perform a foreign culture. What I got instead was a legitimately Nepali event, a brown-majority, Nepali-speaking, Hindu holiday, family party that just happened to include my students.

I came to think that this dynamic was pedagogically fundamental, placing my students at the margins of an event that was theoretically ‘for’ them. Especially when teaching students from the dominant culture, I have decided that it is critical to decenter them, to teach them how to enter into other people’s spaces not as the self-assured norm, but as ignorant, disoriented, and yet respectful guests.

The dominant population in this country normally encounters diversity when presented with a marginalized individual/practice/food, delivered in otherwise non-threatening ways. It is rare for the dominant population to be helpless due to their native language, or to lack the cultural knowledge to be able to participate in a public event. White people tend to remain in their comfort zone even when they eat at an Indian restaurant, watch a subtitled ‘foreign film,’ or interact with a token Black colleague. Christians tend to set the conditions under which they will reach out to Muslims, or to do an interfaith service (often in a church) with a rabbi or a Lakota.

My Hindu ‘guests,’ though, had turned themselves into the hosts. This was, as it happened, an excellent opportunity for them. Despite the thousands of Hindus in town, there is no Hindu temple in Fargo/Moorhead: many of the people who came that day hadn’t participated in a puja or celebrated a Hindu holiday in months or even years, and they were delighted to have the opportunity to connect back to their histories and homelands. They weren’t performing for me or my students; they were gladly accepting the space and time (and priest) I had arranged, as a chance to enjoy their own tradition in their own way and on their own terms.

 

Following the Shiva Ratri event in 2013, I continued to arrange celebrations of Hindu holidays with Tirtha’s family for the next three years—and I purposefully framed future events by providing the time, money, and space, while handing over the planning and execution of the event to the Bhutanese Nepalis. The following year, I held another Shiva Ratri event; then when my class switched from Spring semester to Fall, we collaborated for Dasai and Diwali.

The results could be a little unpredictable, but in ways that were inevitably interesting and helpful to talk through with students. The first year that I hosted Dasai, for example, I had cleaned and prepared a location in my house that I thought would be suitable to set up the Dasai ghar, but when the Nepalis arrived, they vetoed my space (on the grounds that it was against a north-facing wall), and started moving my furniture to create something more appropriate. Later that day, the priest rushed the end part of the ritual (because he had been fasting since the night before, to be maximally ritually pure, and was getting hungry), yet he refused to eat the fruit or yogurt or tea that I had carefully prepared, because he couldn’t risk eating from a non-Hindu kitchen. The second year that I hosted Dasai, the priest had to cancel the day before one of the rituals, because his daughter-in-law had had unexpectedly her baby three weeks early, and his whole household was now under ritual pollution. These were considerations that it wouldn’t have occurred to me to talk through in class, but which became crucial ways to engage with Hinduism as a lived tradition, a practical tradition, a contextualized tradition.

By last year, it started to be harder to coordinate with Tirtha’s family. Tirtha and his brother-in-law had opened a business in town, and they had a lot less flexibility in their time; several of the women of their generation had started working in the local hospital, and the elderly relatives were getting involved in English classes, the community garden, and other local community activities. So last fall and this fall, I celebrated Diwali instead with the Nepali international students at Concordia and Nepal Students Association of the local public university, MSUM. The effect is still quite similar, with Nepali Hindus typically outnumbering my students, and immersing my students in an unfamiliar language and set of traditions—though the international students tend to be more cosmopolitan and English-fluent than Tirtha’s family, and are somewhat more self-conscious about explaining their culture instead of simply being themselves.

 

img_19561I think the experiential learning that I have developed these past several years may offer some useful insights about working with a local marginalized community. First, it is not enough for the dominant population to be well-wishers to the marginalized population. They have to be prepared to enter into the spaces and practices and assumptions of the people they want to engage with, and do more listening and following than talking and directing. Second, and relatedly, marginalized religious traditions are unlikely to fit tidily into the boxes that are set up (usually unintentionally and non-maliciously) by people in power, including me, and it is important to be willing to hand over the rules and parameters to the people you want to help flourish.

Third, since the word “religion” tends to attach to the practices, ideas, and ideals that are most valuable to a community, it is a particularly valuable gift to create space for a marginalized community’s traditions to flourish. Hinduism, for example, is a religion that very much lives into a place: gods, goddesses, times, and temples are deeply particular, and divine power never comes into the world in the exact same way twice. So for Hindus to come into a new place, they need more than permission to follow their religion. They need spaces and days set aside to celebrate the world, and they may even need to discover or invite gods and goddesses in/to their midst.

Finally, it is one of the great privileges of being an academic to be able to build bridges between dominant and marginalized communities, and to ask the dominant community to listen to and empathize with their newer neighbors. It has become common in the past year to demonize refugees, to ask ‘who are these people?’ and insist ‘we know nothing about them.’ But refugees are vetted more carefully than any other category of migrant, and the Bhutanese refugees waited for 12 years or more to come to the United States. They are profoundly grateful to be here, excited to put down roots, eager to own homes and start business and grow their own food—and they are ideally positioned to challenge the ignorant insularity and xenophobia that has washed over this country. We as scholars and teachers are in a position to insist that our privileged students pay attention to them and take them seriously, and if we can do that well, we will form a better next generation of citizens.

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