Despite finishing a bachelor's degree in Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior; and despite finishing high school and middle school; the hardest year of school was kindergarten.
I was five years old and had never been around people who didn’t speak Nepali.
But that day, I had to navigate a different terrain than the one I grew up in.
I moved to this country officially when I was 4.
With my mother spending so much time studying, and my father constantly working at his new job, my grandmother spent most of her time raising me. She was the one who scolded me for not eating my vegetables, and leaving my trash everywhere, and she was the one who walked me all the way to school. Her limited English literacy consequentially led me to have limited English proficiency.
My outfit for my first day was blue jeans and a white chiffon shirt my dad bought for me with a purple backpack. Going down the outside staircases, entering a line of unfamiliar faces, and seeing white kids in such proximity, and not on TV, I froze.
I remember seeing all the kids just naturally connect; they would swarm together and remember the time they spent in preschool together.
If you know me now, you know that I talk a lot, and am good at making new connections. But I didn’t speak a word that day.
My peers talked about their time at the water park or their birthdays at Chuck E. Cheese and Libby Lou.
My birthdays weren’t rented out at expensive clubs but spent sitting on a seat cushion, doing puja (religious or faith-based ceremony), and wondering why I had to have a red yogurt mixture on my head. It was throwing flowers and rice on fruits, and then receiving my gifts at the end. It was bowing to my elders, not knowing that I was getting their blessings.
Despite just feeling different, I was genuinely confused half the time.
I knew mamu, ma, and papa. But I had no idea who mommy, grandma, and daddy were.
I remember the first book that my teacher read to me on the first day, The Woman Who Swallowed a Fly, which was about a woman who ate different animals. I was honestly just appalled by that book, and stricken with fear and anxiety.
The books my parents chose were The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, and Three Little Pigs- the basic nursery stories. I remember kids on the playground playing house, but they said things like “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” But I have never even heard of those words.
My parents had an arranged marriage, and my aunts and uncles had an arranged marriage, so hearing kids say I have a boyfriend and girlfriend who I “like-like”... was honestly so confusing.
In addition, if you reread the nursery rhymes I mentioned before, none of them ever say boyfriend or girlfriend, furthering the novelty of this.
In terms of my performance in class, I fell behind in class. I didn’t know what was going on, because I didn’t understand my teacher.
I struggled with reading so I was below everyone, and therefore spent extra time with Ms. Ermitano, the teacher’s aide. I didn’t feel as smart as the other kids. I remember kids talking about how they could count up to 100 easily, and then hearing people spit out what they had read and words like it was nothing.
Not only was I confused, failing kindergarten, I was alone.
Kids knew each other, parents had large enough houses to bring people over. I was not going to fit a classroom of 20 kids in my 2-bedroom apartment.
In addition, my dad was very untrusting of strangers inviting me to their homes, which in retrospect, was very fair, but I was livid.
My 5-year-old self was depressed.
I remember sitting on the rocking horse, looking at the tanbark, and crying while swaying back and forth. I was dreading lunch because it meant eating sandwiches and cold milk, none of which I had ever eaten before. I had lentils, rice, cut-up franks, and saag (a leafy green vegetable dish with spinach, mustard greens, and other greens)
While I understand most of this is complaining, being able to be a child was genuinely hard at that time.
I don't remember kindergarten as a time of playing house and having fun at recess, but more of a time when I was the odd kid out.
Today, I have done well for myself. I finished UC Davis early with a pretty difficult degree.
I successfully conquered the MCAT, and I am doing research at one of the top universities in the country.
I write these accomplishments blatantly because I at times still struggle to believe I am brilliant.
I feel like I am that 5 year old kid in class, falling behind, and dealing with cards that led me to be different from everyone.
I appreciate the beauty of how I grew up because it's such a huge part of being culturally competent, but the downfall of being different is that the model of success doesn’t look like me.
I have come to terms with the preconceived notions of what a successful person comes from, looks like, and acts must be deconstructed. There is so much room for so many people from different upbringings and identities to be successful and brilliant, and I hope that in my journey navigating my own goals, I uplift people around me.
(c) Deeya and (c) Gulabi Stories (2023)
Deeya was born in Kathmandu, Nepal but moved to the Bay Area at the age of 2. She finished her bachelors from UC Davis, and has dreams of becoming a physician who advocates for with vulnerable communities.
West Coast, United States