How Manchester’s Burgeoning Bhutanese Population Is Pursuing the American Dream

An unlikely place for immigrants from central Asia, New Hampshire is an ideal adopted homeland

Fold the momo and pinch it closed. (Jessica Scranton)
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In fact, what was most remarkable about the outpouring of vitriol was that few of the commenters seemed even to have read the article, which pointed out that in three years most of the Bhutanese had secured jobs, that they were less likely to be on welfare than the Manchester population as a whole, and that their children were graduating from high school at a far higher rate than the native-born population. They were, in other words, the kind of people that Americans like to imagine themselves to be.

"Our children are doing straight A-plus,” says Chura Mani Acharya, 50, who taught school in Bhutan, where he lived for 29 years, and then in the camps, where he spent nearly 17 years. “When we first came, they underestimated our children and put them in ESL classes. Soon, though, they promoted them to a higher grade. Last year 100 percent of our high-school students passed. One has a scholarship from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to Vermont Technical College. We came here for our children. We’re so proud of them.”

Even the adults seem obsessed with learning. We sat in on an English class with elderly Bhutanese, mostly women who, judging from their leathery faces, had spent most of their lives in the fields. They wore bindis, the forehead dot of a pious Hindu, had gold earrings and nose rings, and were concentrating intently on simple words: clock, pencil, table. “They ask us for homework,” says Sister Jacqueline Verville, a 77-year-old Catholic nun who opened a center for refugees about the time the Bhutanese began arriving. “Some of these people didn’t even know how to hold a pencil. They never went to school. They were farmers. The women put the children on their backs.”

Sister Jackie has gotten hate mail for her efforts, but says she hopes the resentment isn’t widespread. “People think they’re on welfare, but that’s not true. Our own people use it more.”

Not every Bhutanese is succeeding, of course. In fact, nearly 20 of the 70,000 refugees in the U.S. have killed themselves, a large enough number that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control commissioned a study to determine the causes. The findings were grim but also expected: echoes of trauma from home and difficulty finding social support in their new homes. Here’s Budathoki’s take: “We almost all had land in Bhutan, we almost all had our houses, we used to grow things ourselves. We were the owners of ourselves. Now every month there are bills. We had never heard about rent. We were in the 17th century and now we’re in the 21st century.”

For almost every immigrant the question is how much to embrace the new world and how much to hang on to the old. And it’s a question that hit the Bhutanese particularly hard, as they arrived very suddenly in a place where there was nobody like them. They know they need to fit in, the young people especially: Subedi announced over dinner that the Red Sox had “won this award and so we had a party at our workplace,” the award being last fall’s World Series.

But they’ve also learned quickly that not every last thing about the U.S. is worth emulating. Budathoki explains why Bhutanese community leaders were setting up a school to teach their children about the culture they’d come from. “When you meet our seniors, there’s a different way of respecting them: saying ‘Namaste,’ for instance. But children who were brought up in America know that they’d just say ‘hi.’ And I can’t call my father by his name: That would be disrespect. We want to preserve those relationships. When we were younger they helped us, so when they’re older, we help them. Here it’s different. When you’re 18 or 20, you leave your family, and eventually you put the old people in nursing homes. In five years no one from our community has gone into a nursing home.”

Three times a day, of course, that question of blending old and new gets settled at the dining room table. At first, it was almost impossible for new refugees to get the food they were used to. But as the community began to prosper, a small grocery store opened. The Himalayas General Store made its debut on a slightly seedy stretch of Manchester’s main drag last year, and if you’re from southern Bhutan, it must be deeply relaxing to walk in. You’re surrounded by the stuff you know.

Some of it is beautiful, exotic: piles of lentils for making dal—bright orange, vivid green, deep brown. Cracked corn, to be boiled and mixed with rice or yogurt. Flattened rice, gram flour and dozens of kinds of pickle: radish pickle, gooseberry pickle, mango pickle, jar after jar of gundruk pickle. Some of the spices are familiar: cumin, coriander. But there are also bags of amchur powder, shiny black kalonji seeds, ajwain seeds. “When ladies are pregnant, and after, when she has a baby, if we eat a soup made from ajwain seeds, it will give us breast milk,” says the store clerk, 25-year-old Tila Bhattarai, who had arrived in Chicago when she came to the U.S. but soon met a fellow refugee from New Hampshire and made the move. Does the soup work? “Oh yes,” she says: Her 2-year-old is thriving. His name is Allen.

She showed off big bags of dried radish and stacks of pimpled bitter-melon gourds, and powders for decorating the forehead for Hindu ceremonies. Some of the stock reminded us that India dominates the Himalayan region: There were tubs of ghee and a shelf of “India’s number one cockroach chalk, Laxmanrekhaa brand.” Other items recalled the not-very-distant days of British colonialism: Britannia brand chocolate-flavored cream biscuits and “Woodward’s Celebrated Gripe Water, useful during the teething period.” In a back room, bright Nepali versions of saris and wedding day clothes for brides and bridegrooms hung on hangers; up front, you could buy a Bhutanese drum and a harmonium, the accordionlike instrument at the heart of the region’s music. And that day by the cash register, a steady stream of customers made themselves paan, the mildly stimulating treat of betelnut and lime paste spread on a green leaf and chewed like tobacco.

There’s no Bhutanese restaurant yet, but a couple of entrepreneurs are preparing a business plan. In the meantime, says Budathoki, he’ll sometimes go to a nearby Indian restaurant. “Or to Margarita’s,” he said. “Mexican food—very spicy, which is what we like.”

About Sue Halpern and Bill McKibben
Sue Halpern and Bill McKibben

Sue Halpern and Bill McKibben live in Vermont, where they work at Middlebury College and write books and articles on subjects ranging from therapy dogs to climate change. Being good Vermonters, they make their own granola and try to eat three meals a day together.

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