A Nepali woman struggles to find community in a city strikingly different from her home country.
The first time Sangeeta Pandeya met Kapil Khadka, she didn’t even like him. The second time Pandeya met Khadka, it was their wedding day.
“It was like I saw him for the first time on my wedding day, because I forgot his face,” Pandeya, 26, said, a smile on her face as she thinks about the way she and Kapil met and learned to love each other. She knows that Americans find arranged marriages odd, but they are so common in Nepal that she never expected anything else.
Pandeya’s marriage is just one item in a long list of things that make her different from the typical Fayetteville resident. She spent her first 24 years in a small town in Terai, the lowland region of Nepal. She is a practicing Hindu. Pandeya is a minority even among the minority population, but in the past two years she has done her best to carve a place for herself in Fayetteville among the immigrant and Nepali communities and through her volunteer work.
Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, looks down on Pandeya’s living room from a painting perched in the far corner, suspended above figurines and drawings of various Hindu deities, including Ganesh, one of Pandeya’s favorites. There’s a stack of folded dollar bills and a few coins placed as offerings to the gods. This is her place of worship, and outside of a small Hindu temple in Bentonville that is too far away to visit often, it is the only one available to her.
Still, neither Pandeya nor Khadka think it is very hard to be Hindu in Arkansas. People are generally nice and understanding, but Pandeya has made some changes to her religious practice so her interaction with the community is easier.
According to Nepali tradition, she should be wearing a bright red mark on her forehead, called a tika, because she is married.
“If we wear tika here, everybody say, ‘What happened? You have blood!’ So I gave that up,” Pandeya said.
Luckily, there is a small Nepali community in the area with whom Pandeya and her husband can celebrate their heritage and Hindu festivals, and the group often hosts potlucks – an exciting thing for Pandeya, who has yet to find any American foods that she really likes. She misses Nepali restaurant food, like dumplings and chicken chili.
There are only about 60 or 65 Nepali people in Northwest Arkansas, Pandeya said, and she is proud to know them all. She is extremely excited to celebrate Dashain, an important Hindu festival, with the group in a week’s time. In April, they will celebrate the Nepali New Year at Walker Park with the Nepali Association of NWA, Khadka said.
But that sense of community didn’t exist for Pandeya when she first arrived in the U.S. on Aug. 1, 2015, just three months after she got married. She does not have a work permit, so she spent the first weeks of her time here holed up in their apartment, often crying because she was so lonely. Khadka, who will graduate with his doctoral degree in biological sciences in December, was concerned.
“Those first few months, I was worried about her,” Khadka said. “The culture shock, the language (barrier); I worried she would not be comfortable here.”
Although Pandeya learned English in school in Nepal, it was rarely used for everyday conversation; she and Khadka speak Nepali at home. She didn’t like to go out alone because she couldn’t communicate.
“Whenever I go to shop, I never understand anything,” Pandeya said. “They would say, ‘is everything alright?’ I say ‘yeah,’ and then think, what are they talking about?”
It was time to make a change. Pandeya and a friend hopped on the UA Transit red line, armed with only a map and a determination to find the Ozark Literacy Council, which she heard offered tutoring services. When they finally found it, they were given an English test. By the next day, they were attending the OLC regularly.
Pandeya’s teacher, Paul Johnson, who’s been working with her since the beginning, adores her; she’s a willing participant in class, always engaged and ready to learn. She started at the intermediate level and is now an advanced student. Johnson noticed that she always made an effort to get to know her fellow students and the instructors on a personal level.
“She’s just a delightful person,” Johnson said. The OLC rapidly became another community for her, another group where she can laugh and talk and be without being the odd one out.
Lately, she doesn’t feel the need to attend as often because she is much more confident in her English abilities – the OLC was “her lifesaver,” she often says – but she still pops in for field trips and classes occasionally to learn more and see the friends she made there. She knows better than anyone the importance of having a group of people to rely on.
When asked what her favorite thing to do is, Pandeya sits pensively for a few seconds. She seems hesitant to answer, but then softly says, “helping people,” followed by a quiet giggle – the way most of her sentences end.
Her answer is evident in her schedule. Instead of attending class for the past few weeks, Pandeya has been helping at a local sushi restaurant, filling in for a friend whose mother recently passed away. She wakes up at 6:20 a.m. every weekday and works till midday. She also volunteers at the Fayetteville Public Library every Wednesday, which she loves because it allows her to talk to all different kinds of people. She was always willing to help out at the OLC, even filling in for the administrative assistant for a few weeks. Helping others is the best way she knows to spend her time, and working in the community allows her to meet new people and practice her English, something that impresses Khadka.
“The credit goes to her,” Khadka said. “She explored, she Googled what could be the potential things to do … The credit goes to her.”
One day, Pandeya would like to be a nurse. Her bachelor’s degree in hospital management won’t transfer from Nepal, so she’ll have to start her education all over again – but money is too tight for that right now. She would love to visit her family in Nepal eventually, especially during one of the big Hindu festivals. Maybe sometime, far into the future, she and Khadka will adopt children.
For now, her life is a waiting game. She is waiting to take the International English Language Testing System exam on Oct. 14, which will allow her to study here. She is waiting for December, when Khadka will graduate. She is waiting to learn if he will find work here, like he would prefer, or if they will return to Nepal soon. Pandeya is waiting to find out where her home will be – in this community she has built, with her OLC, Nepali and library friends, or back in Nepal, with the family, culture and religion she misses so dearly. But she is not anxious – she has two communities that she loves, in two beautiful places, and it is enough.