Perspectives on Religious Identity, Caste, and Culture for Bhutanese-Nepali Refugee Families in the United States
Starting in 2008, Bhutanese-Nepali refugee resettlement began to the United States, with approximately 60,000 individuals having moved to American cities since that time. The question of how to maintain Nepali and/or Bhutanese identity is at the forefront of dialogue by the majority of Bhutanese-Nepali refugee families, whose identities are complex, counterintuitive, and based in part upon country of birth. The community follows a diverse set of beliefs and behaviors related to which traditions (for ex., celebrating festivals, cooking cultural foods, childrearing practices, learning dance, etc.) are important for each group and how their family members should maintain them. This dialogue is complicated by various factors including religious affiliation, former caste membership, and level and type of contact with local American people. The research question of interest is, 1) What are Bhutanese-Nepali refugees’ perspectives on family identity as it relates to religious identity, caste, and ideas about cultural maintenance and change? 2) How does this understanding compare across different types of families? 3) How prevalent is the role of caste in refugees’ decision-making about cultural maintenance and change?
This paper presents the results of an ethnographic study of five extended families who live in a community of 400 Bhutanese-Nepali refugees who were resettled to a small city in upstate New York between 2010-2017. The author’s focus on comparison of the family units makes this study unique. The sample is a diverse group in terms of religion and is representative of the larger group of Bhutanese-Nepalis in the city. Two families are Christian, two families are Hindu, and the other family is Buddhist. Membership in religion can affect decisions about cultural traditions and their desirability, as can former caste membership that affects many relationships within the community. In some families, some individual members worship different religions or attend different churches from their siblings or parents. In all five families, men and women share responsibilities but play different roles in terms of helping the younger generations maintain Nepali and to a lesser degree Bhutanese culture.
Theoretical considerations include the consequences of forced migration across social class and caste and the tensions between maintenance of cultural traditions and the desirability of cultural adaptation to the host culture. In addition, there can be either added advantages or vulnerabilities due to former caste membership that nonetheless endures in the new environment, and choices about religion. This study is promising for its potential contributions to ethnographic study of Nepali peoples in the diaspora, refugee studies, and applied anthropology. Many of the patterns seen in the Bhutanese-Nepali communities mirror the social problems also found in the early stages after arrival by Southeast Asian refugees groups since the early 1980s, and the more recent conflicts and expulsion experienced by ethnic minorities such as the Karen from Burma (Myanmar).