Nepalis abroad are often asked if they have climbed Mt Everest. It is the number one question a Nepali national is asked by a foreigner.
Following closely is the assumption that the country is all mountains and hence Nepalis should be used to winter.
To be sure, it is impressive that a relatively insignificant nation in Western eyes has made a mark on people all around the world. If the roles were reversed and I was asked about a faraway tiny country, my knowledge of its geography or culture might not be as accurate.
We are also often asked if we are Hindu or Buddhist or if we grew up doing yoga and meditation in nature as a child. I did grow up watching my grandmother do yoga every day but I started only in March of 2020 when the pandemic had taken over all our lives.
I have lived away from Nepal for over 20 years and in all these years I have come across a wide range of perceptions and assumptions about Nepal and Nepalis, from how we look to how we speak.
When I first asked my partner what he knew about Nepal, he knew more than most people I have met. He was aware that Nepal had undergone a Maoist war and it was still affecting national politics.
He was well-informed about the Gurkhas due to his military background, and how Nepali history was influenced by British India. And of course, he knew about Mt Everest.
One thing is sure, Nepalis are bound to feel either proud, confused or shocked when hearing foreigners’ take on Nepal and its people. Some are mindful of the words they use while others have no filter, coming across as ignorant, rude or condescending.
Let’s start with the positive ones. My friend Shailu, who lives in Canada, has always had a cheerful demeanor and can make friends easily but even she was surprised when she was asked if people had fridges or have eaten pizza in Nepal.
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Others asked her if she had to carry a large backpack up and down the mountains to get to the school. She would say she didn’t but many children in remote areas still do.
“But all in all they were fascinated by the Himalaya and want to visit Nepal,” she adds.
My friend Alina has encountered people who thought that Nepal was a part of India or China because, in their words, Nepalis “look like either Indians or Chinese”.
Most people also assume that Nepalis cannot speak English because they come from a developing country. They are shocked to find that they can.
Admittedly, it is hard to know much about a foreign country when you have no personal attachment or have never visited.
“After meeting me, my foreign friends now want to visit Nepal and experience its rich and beautiful traditions for themselves,” Alina says.
Another friend of mine didn’t have the best experience. Milan lives in the southern United States and was shocked when his educated first-generation American coworkers asked him if Nepal was a part of India “like the Maldives”.
One of them went a step further and asked him if he would come to work in a salwar kameez on Diwali.
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Alisha is tired of people assuming that she is Indian, and it always ends up becoming a geography lesson. Other than that, people are surprised by her grasp of English, to which she has to explain that it is not the case for everyone in Nepal.
But she has had a generally positive experience with people telling her that Nepalis are friendly and get along with others. She says this perhaps has to do with the fact that an average Nepali grows up around people of various castes and ethnic groups, making them more accepting and open-minded about differences.
Such upbringing is especially helpful when you go abroad and meet people from diverse backgrounds.
The general consensus is that Nepalis are welcoming, they always have a place for you at their home and they treat “guests as gods”.
Nepalis are indeed known to be excellent hosts, and while most of us at some point have had to struggle explaining to others about Nepal, we are a friendly bunch that gets along with people of all backgrounds.
Our welcoming nature has earned us a reputation as the folks who love inviting people over for momos. Perhaps the most important element of Nepal’s international “brand” are Nepalis themselves.
Some names have been changed.
Anjana Rajbhandary writes this fortnightly Nepali Times column Life Time about mental health, physical health and socio-cultural issues.