Recently, visiting Los Angeles, I went walking through the neighbourhood of Venice and saw a restaurant called Mao's Kitchen, and at that very instant tripped on the sidewalk, twisted my ankle and fell with a thud on the curb. I lay flat on the asphalt, stunned. Mao's Kitchen? There was a long queue outside. The interior was decorated with posters of rosy-cheeked factory workers. Customers, blithe and jovial, huddled over Gang of Four Fried Shrimp and Model Citizen Noodle Soup.
I got up, brushed myself off and took pictures to show the folks back home.
The day before I had attended a 'Friends of Nepal' potluck at the house of its president, Jo Anne Pandey, in San Fernando Valley. There had been only a little talk about the Maoists back in Nepal. At a time when Nepalis are leaving Nepal at record rates, the destination of choice is America. The numbers of Nepalis in LA has grown exponentially in the past few years. Yet there is not much nostalgia for the homeland. To me, most people seemed busy shoring up their positions in America, as though they knew they were lucky. Their problems-of long work hours, of mouthy Americanised children, of the health/home/car insurance blues-seemed minor, even to them.
Long-time residents estimate that there are now about 10,000 Nepalis in Southern California, of whom a couple of thousand live in LA. In a metropolis of 15 million, such a small migrant community is almost invisible. It does not help that Nepalis easily pass for Chicano or Central American. Many Nepalis also blend into LA's Punjabi and Bengali enclaves, working at Indian restaurants, renting from Indian landlords and living in Indian neighbourhoods.
Almost 200 Nepalis live in LA's 'Little India' in Artesia, in cosy apartments splashed with hand-carved wood, hand-woven carpets and even odd-shaped Nepali flags.
In between taking in LA's tourist sites, I went there to talk to families who had come after winning the 'green card lottery'. The State Department's Diversity Immigrant Visa Program gives out over 50,000 green cards each year, over 5,000 to Nepalis. For most winners, the move to America-though much desired-proves unexpectedly difficult.
Durga (who asked that I not use her real name) was seven months pregnant when she and her husband came to America on the green card lottery. "A lot depends on whether you know anyone here," she said to me, sitting with her son, now two years old. "We didn't know a single person when we got here. We didn't know the language and we didn't know how anything worked. And there was no one to explain things to us."
A new non-profit centre-the first Nepali non-profit in America-has opened in Artesia to address exactly this problem. Kiran Upadhyay, the executive director of Nepal Sewa Centre, says it was launched after three incidents.
The first was the discovery, by prominent Nepalis here, of a 67- year-old Nepali woman who had been physically abused at an Indian restaurant where she worked. The second case involved a Nepali man who lost his sanity, unable to adjust to life in America. And in the final case, a Nepali couple nearly lost custody of their daughter because they did not know where to obtain medical care for her when she fell ill.
Though individual Nepalis helped out as best they could, they recognised the need to reach out more systematically to those in need, explains Upadhyay. "The South Asia Network and other non-profits do help," he says. "But they are dominated by Indians and Pakistanis and we come from very particular circumstances.
Trafficking is a problem for us: our own middlemen swindle new immigrants, charging for services that should be free. And our people have a very unreal sense of America, they have no inkling of the way things work here. I haven't met a single Nepali who hasn't at some point cried, overwhelmed, wanting to go back."
Upadhyay and other members of the Nepal Sewa Centre counsel new arrivals, setting them up with jobs, orienting them to schools and health services, and even helping them to seek professional training.
This has made adjustment easier for recent arrivals. When Karma Raj Sharma landed in LAX with his family last May, they took a taxi straight to an apartment in Artesia.
"We thought America would be very alien," his wife said, laughing. "But that first evening we had a home-cooked Nepali meal. The next day, the Centre showed us the neighbourhood and took us to the grocery store. And the day after they helped my husband find work." She too has since found work and is learning to drive, preparing to take the test in Hindi.
In any immigrant community there is, of course, economic disparity and social tension. The better-off Nepalis in LA-white-collar professionals-need less community support and they tend to keep aloof from the newer arrivals.
"We who live in San Fernando and San Gabriel, have our own circles," a software expert had explained to me at the Friends of Nepal potluck.
Another professional had said, "We earned our green cards working for years on an H1. The DVs just win their green cards in a lottery and all they can do with them is wash dishes at a restaurant." He shook his head. "I don't know why the American government makes it so easy for them and so hard for us."
Yet it was obvious to all of us that as long as Nepal continues to self-destruct, increasing numbers of our compatriots will come to America with peace, rather than prosperity, as their main goal.
At the very fringes of the Nepali community here are the political refugees, who are fleeing Maoist persecution at home and the undocumented workers, who are fleeing hardship and poverty. These are the Nepalis whose personal stories one doesn't inquire about in too much depth, lest it feel like prying. One man I met told me he was applying for refugee status, and talked about his case, then begged me not to identify him. "It's sensitive," he said. "It's risky. We have to be discreet."
The Nepal Sewa Centre is now starting to help refugees and undocumented workers as well, arranging pro-bono legal services. Lamu Stadtler, the organisation's board president, says the need for legal counseling is urgent and growing. Word of the organization's work has spread through the Nepali diaspora through the US, and requests are pouring in for help in setting up similar organisations elsewhere.
I ended my tour of LA at a Nepali restaurant off Venice Boulevard. Though not ultra-hip (like Mao's Kitchen), the Kathmandu Kitchen has a cheery d?cor and reasonable prices. I got off on the wrong foot, though, offending chef Premu Rana by asking if the food was actually Nepali (as many 'Nepali' restaurants in the US serve Indian food).
"Oh, it's Nepali," he snapped. "Real, 100 percent authentic Himalayan cuisine."
I mumbled a hasty apology.
It was indeed very authentic. It was also very good. Polishing off plates of spiced soybeans and lamb kabab, I realised that I had rarely had such tasty Nepali food even in Nepal.