This is a photo story about Nepali-speaking Bhutanese families in Austin, Texas, where our interaction began in 2010. These images document the lives of a multi-generational community who arrived in the city with refugee status, and who now have added Austin as another place they call home. While I am not Bhutanese or Nepalese, I was drawn to this community because there are certain rites of passage that all non-white newcomers to the United States go through.
Themes that emerged from our interactions over the years include: the beauty of interdependence and relying on community as a form of resilience, the inter-connectedness of Asian culture, and evolution of identity.
Nepali immigrants’ settlement in Southern Bhutan dates back to 1620 as Bhutan invited foreign laborers to work its food production region. Over the centuries their numbers grew to one-sixth of the population. Irresponsibly feeling threatened by their flourish, Bhutanese government sought to preserve its national identity by enforcing ethnic discrimination and violence to this group, eventually forcing them out in the early 1990s. Over 100,000 of Nepali-origin Bhutanese people were expelled and the majority of them were displaced to refugee camps in Nepal. Fast forward, the U.S. and other governments offered resettlement in 2006.
Many elders of this Nepali-origin group I met in Austin, Texas identify closely as Bhutanese as most of their lives were lived there.
Young adults remember living in Bhutan as well as two decades of living in Nepali refugee camps, therefore experiencing "both-and" identity even before adding the United States to where they now have citizenship.
Many hope that their children growing up in the United States have a flexible identity through which they're welcomed in the new land, while also remembering their roots through languages, foods, cultural practices, and more.