The receptionist looks over the waiting room, clipboard in hand. She is a middle-aged woman, dusky, of unreadable national origin: the face of multicultural Canada. She stammers: ‘M-M-Man-Manjorie. Manjorie Tapas.’
‘Yes.’ I stand up.
She flashes me an anxious smile. ‘I’m not sure I got your name right.’
Having grown up with a funny ‘foreign’ name, I understand her anxiety. I feel it my duty to quell it. ‘That was perfect,’ I say.
‘The doctor will see you now, Manjorie.’
It was the early 1970s in Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Canada, my father was working at a think tank, and my family lived in a sleepy hamlet in Ottawa, where everyone was friends – or so it seemed. I was three years old. For a year, I stayed home as my older brother and sister trotted off to school every morning with the neighbour girl, Dara: she of the oblong face, blue eyes and straight blonde hair, and a desire to make us children feel at home. Dara and the other kids knew me by my family nickname, Sanu – little one. ‘S’nu.’
I spent the days watching Romper Room, a children’s programme, picking up language – peanut butter were my first English words – and, when I was not bothering my nanny, a wizened Nepali widow, I played with a deathly pale French-Canadian three-year-old, Cathy. We did not have a language in common – or much language at all. Our friendship took place in a solemn pantomime: You want a Coke? Yes. Look, my parents have a fridgeful of it.
By the time we returned to Nepal, two years later, I was fluent in English, fluent enough to flirt with Tom, a nine-year-old, my first crush. But my main memories of that period revolve around the benign muteness of a foreign child in an open-hearted land. Being led around by Dara. Drinking Coke with Cathy. And, when I finally got to school, going up to the teacher – a plump, pretty, white lady dressed in pink – and nudging the back of her chubby, shiny, pantyhose-encased thighs till she turned and saw me looking up, lost. And found. I remember the powdery scent of her perfume as she knelt down to communicate with me.
It was the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States, Marion Barry was a mayor, and his city, Washington, DC, was known as the homicide capital of America. There were parts of town you did not go to, but my family lived in a ‘good’ part – near Embassy Row in the northwest. Proof that this was a good part of town? Just one block away, across Massachusetts Avenue, at the Naval Observatory, lived Vice-President George Bush.
We, however, inhabited our own little Third World, in a creaky, mouldering building that had been condemned by the government, but that lay outside its legal jurisdiction to shutter. The warped interior smelled of dereliction. Outside, the window sills were chipped, the walls were crooked, the tiles on the roof were loose. The building lowered the tone of the entire neighbourhood. A carpet of tacky green Astroturf covered the rotting front stairs, and led to a door with a brass plaque that announced, a bit audaciously: Royal Nepalese Embassy. Just as bold was the sign next to it: Service Entrance at the Rear.
My father was the Royal Nepalese Ambassador. Though the job entitled him to live at the embassy’s chancery, to have three paid-for household staff, and to be ferried around town in a chauffeur-driven Cadillac, his salary was below poverty level by US standards. (By Nepal’s standards, of course, it was extravagant.) For the first time in our lives, we were poor.
But my parents were ambitious. My mother – a public-health doctor barred from working by US visa regulations – poured her fierce energies into bettering the embassy. She exterminated the mice and cockroaches as best she could. She consulted Better Homes and Gardens, a magazine, moved about the furniture and dragged her daughters – my sister and me – to lighting shops in Maryland, to Ethan Allens in Virginia, to gardening centres in DC. ‘Being poor forces you to be creative,’ she would say with her characteristic positivity, as we floor-lit the plants so that the long, sharp shadows hid the fustier corners of the blue-and-gold-wallpapered living room.
I was untouched by my mother’s positive attitude. A shy, self-conscious child, I spent my first year pining over the Lhasa Apso and the life we had left in Nepal, gaining weight on junk food, and watching The Brady Bunch and MASH on TV, trying to decode the United States. At school, for convenience’s sake, I shortened my name to Manju; yet my teachers and classmates called me Mon-ju, or Mahn-ju or, at an extreme, Man Jew.
Man just could not rhyme with fun.
My parents wanted only the best for their children. They packed my brother off to college on scholarship; and a year in, on the guidance of their American friends, got me and my sister admitted, on scholarship, into a top-notch school, a pricey Episcopalian all-girls school.
At school, the talk was of beachside and ski vacations, summer camps, hayrides and dances, all of which were alien to me. (I am still not quite sure what a hayride is.) My home life was decidedly Nepali. My sister and I dressed in identical silk dresses for parties, played the sitar for guests, then sat by coyly, in a model display of pleasing Nepali girlhood.
We were meant to follow my mother’s shining example. She was, at the time, an explosive mix of Western feminist and proper Hindu lady. (She still is, though her Hinduism now borders on iconoclasm.) Boyfriends were out of the question for my sister and me; we were to marry high-bred Nepali boys upon completing our studies, and only after making these boys wait for us, as she had made my father do. A triple-crown badminton champion, she encouraged us to jog on the streets and play tennis at the public courts. But Western girls’ forms of independence struck her as mere enslavement. She staunchly disapproved of make-up before marriage, drinking before marriage and sex before marriage. ‘Sex between married people can be a beautiful thing,’ she once announced to us, apparently with good intentions. But mostly, she avoided the topic of the body.
A school friend took pity on me, and taught me how to shave my legs and underarms. (My mother disapproved; this was mere enslavement.) When I had my first period, I had no idea what was happening; but afterwards – apparently on the advice of Dr Spock, the childcare expert – my mother had me sit on my father’s lap, and had him announce to my grossed-out siblings that I had become a woman. We might as well have been announcing that I had genitals. My mortification was complete.
I was too hapless to understand the reasons for my misery, but miserable I was in my half-Nepali, half-American life. Tortured.
I took refuge from it in art. When I did art, I did not have to be in society, Nepali or American. I could just – be. I learned to mix colours, to draw likenesses, to steady my hand. I learned to use pencil, charcoal, pastel, watercolours, acrylics, oils. I went to the National Gallery and copied Picassos. I painted from life. I painted from my imagination. Fruits, glasses, portraits of famous people, self-portraits, portraits of my own hands. I painted.
But art did not exempt me from all obligations. Though we belonged to the impoverished underbelly of DC’s diplomatic world, we did go to the White House, and every now and then to black-tie galas or balls. Once a year, the embassy hosted a National Day reception in a hotel basement, where professional gatecrashers would come for free drinks and a meal. Also once a year, the embassy hosted a Dasain party at the embassy, which overflowed with suited-and-booted men and sari-clad women. There was the occasional meeting of Friends of Nepal and Nepalis in America that we kids had to go to. I also remember my sister and I having to parade ourselves in identical bukhoos at some fair run by the diplomatic wives.
None of this constituted my idea of fun.
During spring and Christmas breaks, the embassy turned into a boarding house, as Nepali students – the children of family friends – came to sit out their school or college breaks. Girls would share my sister and my room in the attic. Boys would share my brother’s attic room. My parents’ room, below us, was off-limits; extra guests would also be put up in the official guest room, and even in the ‘Royal Guest Room’, which was no less derelict than the rest of the embassy.
One year, a Nepali student who boarded with us took it upon himself to pursue me. I was an ungainly 14-year-old with lank hair and large eyeglasses. The boy was 20. He told me he loved me, and kissed me. His lips were faintly repulsive, like warm milk. I remember being baffled.
After he returned to college, we talked, a couple of times, on the phone. When he broached the subject of marriage, though, I decided to end our – whatever it was. Our baffled romance.
He protested: ‘But I’ve already told my parents we’re getting married.’
‘I’m 14 years old,’ I said.
‘We’ll wait, of course,’ he said.
‘No,’ I said.
‘Don’t you love me?’ he said.
‘I don’t think so,’ I said.
Some days later, he had his roommate call to say that he had been hospitalised after a suicide attempt.
Distressed, I confessed all to my sister. She advised me to confess all to my mother. Even more distressed, I confessed all to my mother.
Came my mother’s swift verdict: ‘No Nepali boy will ever marry you now.’
Then, with a few quick phone calls to the boy and to his parents in Nepal, she and my father made the whole thing go away.
I believed my mother. No Nepali boy would ever marry me now. That belief set me free. If no Nepali boy was ever going to marry me, why not, I reasoned, actually be worthy of rejection?
Why bother to be a good Nepali girl? Or any kind of girl at all?
For a stormy year and a half I wore my hair short, dressed in lumberjack outfits, walked with a manly swagger, and rejected everything to do with pleasing Nepali girlhood.
I wanted to be a boy. And not just any boy. I wanted to be a free-born Western boy. Not just any free-born Western boy. I wanted, specifically, to be Bjorn Borg, the Swedish tennis star.
Bjorn Borg: that brooding intensity, that headband, those wristbands. That two-handed Western backhand, that blond hair and those blue eyes. Those long, muscular legs in those white, white shorts. Those socks and K-Swiss shoes. The V-neck vest and the shirt underneath. The gaze. The steadiness. The resolve.
At the tennis courts, I emulated him. Off the court, I pored over articles about him, worrying about his rocky marriage to and divorce from Mariana Simionescu, praying for him to believe in himself, and railing, railing, against the rise of John McEnroe.
I once wrote him a letter, and his secretary sent me a signed black-and-white photograph of him. Bjorn Borg forever. It occurred to me very slowly that I did not want to be like him; I loved him.
He was not the only free-born Western boy I loved. I also loved Rod Stewart, the British singer.
My love for Rod Stewart was more exuberant and joyful, though, and this was apt, as I had found out, a bit late, what sex was. Through my baffled romance I had had no understanding of what sex was. When I did find out, I was horrified, horrified.
And yet, by the time I fell in love with Rod Stewart, I had come around to being intrigued by boys. I had stopped dressing like a lumberjack and had begun to experiment, cautiously, with being a girl again.
And I had found it enjoyable.
Rod Stewart! Yes, my young heart beat free tonight. Yes, time was on my side. No, I wasn’t going to let them get me down, as he sang, I wasn’t going to let them push me around. I wasn’t going to let them ever change my point of view…
I followed Rod Stewart out of my half-Nepali, half-American life into the world.
And there, the influences of school took over.
By the time I was 16, I was sneaking behind my parents’ back with my first American boyfriend. I was an artist. I was free. There was no bridge back that I did not set out to burn.
I was done with being Nepali.
It was the late 1980s, I was in art school in Providence, Rhode Island, and given to dressing in all-black dresses and combat boots from the Salvation Army.
I did not keep in touch with Nepalis in America, and in fact avoided them. I felt constrained by the presence of other Nepalis.
It was bad enough that I had to visit ‘home’ every summer, doing darshan to hundreds and hundreds of relatives, looking askance at local customs, and confirming the essential lack of freedom in Nepal – before rushing off to where my parents now lived, in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, to restore my spirit in the neither-local-nor-foreign expatriate limbo that I had grown accustomed to.
In Providence it was easy enough to avoid Nepalis, as there were none around.
But at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, one day, I entered a room full of Hindu statues to see an elderly couple admiring the art. The man was wearing a dhaka topi and the woman was wearing a Newari teen-taha khasto. A twenty-something man – their son – was showing them around.
Lest I be recognised as a compatriot, I hurried on to the next room.
It was the late 1990s in Seattle, and I was at the end of my twenties, having spent the better part of the decade in Nepal, battling, it felt like, for some personal freedom. I had – more or less – gained it. I had worked in and outside of Kathmandu, I had found my calling (writing, not art), I had successfully avoided marriage, fallen in and out and in and out of love, and I had even, for brief spells, lived alone in rented apartments, escaping the exhausting sociability of Nepali society. I had been able to make a – conflicted – home in Nepal.
In Nepal I switched back to using my full name, Manjushree, as it induced anxiety in no one.
In Seattle to study creative writing, I reverted, again, to Manju.
In some ways I was more at home here than in Nepal. I relished my personal freedom and was, again, reluctant to meet other Nepalis – though not for the same neurotic reasons as before. I felt I already knew too many Nepalis in Nepal; why not, while in America, get to know Americans instead?
Yet for the first time in my life, I willingly attended a Nepali function in America. This was a Dasain party at the house of a compatriot. There I fell in with others of my own half-Nepali, half-American background; and in the following months, we formed an easy circle. One of us would call the other around nine at night, and say, ‘Hey, what are you up to?’ and soon we would be gathered at a pub, shooting the breeze.
I learned from them a lesson that has stayed with me:
There are Nepalis who form my community, and there are Nepalis who do not, and it does not matter whether they are in or outside Nepal.
It took me thirty years to understand this.
Nowadays I go back and forth between Kathmandu and Toronto, at home – and not – in both places. I have settled into being a permanent insider-outsider.
Some people call me Manjushree, others call me Manju, others call me versions thereof:
Hello,’ the doctor says as I enter the room. She frowns at the file in her hand. ‘Ma-ma-ma – .’
‘Manju,’ I say.
‘Man Jew,’ she says.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes. That’s me.’
~ Manjushree Thapa writes fiction and nonfiction, and is the author, most recently, of Seasons of Flight. She is based in Kathmandu and Toronto.