“I will show my culture during cultural events in school, from our national heritage, to festivals and foods.” When I was answering questions during my Fulbright selection interview back in Nepal two years ago, I was aware that one of the expectations of participating in the Fulbright Foreign Student Program is to fulfill the role of cultural ambassador. But little did I know that the role is not limited to festivals and events, but includes my day-to-day interactions with people in the United States.
Whenever I speak with people within my host institution, the University of Washington, or outside, I realize that not only do I represent myself, but my country as well. During dinners I would say “Sorry, I don’t eat meat, I am a vegetarian”, and the next question would be “Are most people in Nepal vegetarian?” Sometimes, even with strangers, when I am not talking about myself, I would get questions such as “Do people in Nepal speak English well like you?” I appreciated these curiosities and clarified, in my response, that many people in Nepal do eat meat, and not all Nepali speak English. Initially, I didn’t notice this much, but the pattern continued. I would say something about myself and then get asked if I represented a “typical Nepali,” and in most cases my answer was no.
Then, I wondered if a “typical Nepali” exists – I don’t think so. Nepal is a diverse country, made up of different cultures, religions and landscapes. The people differ in how they behave, how they think and their lifestyle and abilities. When I see myself, of course, I represent Nepal, but I also represent Nepal’s diversity. While I have many things in common with the majority of Nepali people, I also differ from the majority in many ways.
With this introspection, I have also become more able to see the diversity of people of different nations as well. This experience has made me realize that every one of us is different. We are shaped by our nationality and the environment we were raised in, but apart from that, all of us are different, and no one is a “typical” example of their nationality.
Sometimes I look back and think, “Would I be able to see and appreciate the diversity of people if I had stayed at home in Nepal?” I doubt it. Back home, I held stereotypes about people in different regions of the world. Now, I see how many of my assumptions about different people were wrong. Being in the United States has definitely helped me meet different people from across the globe and challenge my assumptions. At the same time, I find myself challenging assumptions of other people about Nepal as well. Being in the Fulbright Foreign Student Program has allowed me to experience not only an educational exchange, but also a cultural exchange, and has afforded me the opportunity to understand and experience diversity.