A Taste of Nepal Comes to Queens

A new wave of Asian immigration has changed the demographics of Jackson Heights and other Queens neighborhoods.

JACKSON HEIGHTS, Queens, NY—With three sous chefs at hand and a transparent hairnet on her head, Sharmila Sherchan, 41, prepared a classic Nepalese dish called Ghoken— a buckwheat pancake, staple in the Himalayan regions of Nepal, served with chicken and vegetables. It was a Saturday evening, and Mustang Thakali Kitchen, a restaurant in Jackson Heights offering Nepalese and Tibetan cuisine, was busy.

“Weekends are normally like that,” said Sharmila, a short woman who wore a black shirt with jeans and a traditional red bangle on her left hand. Looking around at her cluttered kitchen, she estimated that she had cooked for nearly 120 customers that day. Sharmila and her husband, Nabin Sherchan, 44, who arrived in the U.S. six years ago, opened the restaurant in 2008. “Nepalese people from all over the city come here to eat,” she said.

The recession has affected most food businesses in Jackson Heights, but Mustang Thakali Kitchen has quickly emerged as a popular destination for “authentic" Nepalese food. The Sherchans attribute the restaurant’s success to the fact that 85 percent of its clientele is Nepalese, a community that has grown rapidly in New York in the last five years owing to a volatile political situation in Nepal and the paucity of educational and economic opportunities there. Adhikaar, a five-year-old Nepalese not-for-profit, estimates there are 40,000 Nepalese in New York City.

Since 2004, six restaurants specializing in Nepalese-Tibetan food have mushroomed in Jackson Heights. Bhim’s Cafe, Lali Guras, and Tsering Momos are the newest to offer a host of Nepalese snack foods, their specialty being the chicken- or beef-filled dumplings called “momos.”

This new wave of Asian immigration has changed the demographics of Jackson Heights and other Queens neighborhoods such as Ridgewood, Sunnyside, Forest Hills, and Woodside. Mingling with the typically South Asian faces of Indians and Bangladeshis are the Nepalese, with their East Asian features and abrupt Himalayan accents.

Fighting Loneliness by Creating a Community 

When Mohan Gyawali, 48, moved to the U.S. in 1996, he was the first Nepalese person to settle in Ridgewood, he said. An active community organizer in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, Gyawali started bringing his countrymen together by calling people with Nepalese surnames from the Yellow Pages. He relocated many of those he called—over a hundred people, he said —to Ridgewood, finding them apartments and helping them move in.

“I would see the Indians, Koreans, and Chinese. They had made their mini-countries in New York,”  Gyawali said. “I felt bad, and I missed Nepal, so I tried everything I could to bring my community together.”

Seven years ago, Gyawali and his wife opened Mt. Everest Nail Salon on Myrtle Avenue in Ridgewood. They picked the name “Mt. Everes”—the world’s highest peak, located in Nepal— because it reminded them of their homeland.

Since then, several Nepalese entrepreneurs have set up nail salons in Queens and Manhattan. 
Enigma, an upscale Midtown salon, opened its doors two years ago. Its owner is a 25-year-old Nepalese immigrant, Rekha Bhusal, who employs 11 Nepalese young women certified for the job.

“There are so many people from my country who work in nail salons,” Bhusal said. “When I opened Enigma, I knew that I wouldn’t hire people from other countries till Nepalese people needed jobs.”
Forty-four percent of Nepalese immigrants left for the United States in search of economic opportunities, 25.3 percent for university educational opportunities, and 8 percent for political reasons, says a December 2010 report by Adhikaar.

“Everyone wants to come to America, right?” said Phiroj Shyangden, 40, a musician from Nepal who came to New York a year ago and hopes to bring his wife and 15-year-old daughter soon. “You get a chance to have a better job and a better lifestyle here.”

Shyangden, a composer, vocalist and guitarist, blends Nepali folk tunes with rock, jazz and blues influences. His three-piece band performs four nights a week at the Himalayan Yak in Jackson Heights, the first Nepalese-Tibetan restaurant in the city. Large numbers of young Nepalese and a handful of “tourists” – a term that refers to American and European patrons who would be tourists in Nepal – visit the restaurant to enjoy the combination of Nepalese music and traditional Nepalese dishes such as Yak-shya Shyapta (sliced yak meat sauteed with vegetables) and Yak Cheyley (sliced yak tongue,) made using yak meat transported from farms in Waitsfield, Vermont.

Entrepreneurs and self-employed Nepalese form a small niche among immigrants. Most work instead for hourly wages in salons, restaurants, grocery stores, fuel stations, and in the case of women, as domestic help, said Luna Ranjit, Executive Director of Adhikaar, which conducts two-day nanny training workshops to enable Nepalese women to negotiate better wages.

Diversity Visas Fuel Community's Growth

The interest of working class Nepalese in immigration to the U.S. has been stirred to some extent by an increased awareness of the Diversity Visa (DV) Lottery, often called the green card lottery. Each year, the U.S. State Department gives 50,000 permanent visas to people from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. The winners of the lottery are chosen through a random compute-generated drawing.

Official statistics show that the number of DV lottery winners from Nepal has increased six-fold in the last decade. In 2001, 376 Nepalese won the green card lottery; in 2010, the number was 2,132. Nepal is now the third largest Asian exporter of DV lottery winners after Bangladesh and Iran.
Enthusiasm about the “U.S. lottery” has grown significantly in Nepal in the last few years, says Kamal Raj Aryal, 36, the principal of a high school in the Nepalese district of Nawalparasi who arrived in New York with his wife, two young children, and a permanent green card five weeks ago. Dedicated lottery agencies have sprung up and local cyber cafes now offer lottery services such as assistance with filling out e-forms.

“People are looking for ways to leave the country because the political climate is unpredictable and violent,” said Shree Parajuli, 46, a Nepalese immigrant and the President of the Ridgewood Nepalese Society, a cultural organization in New York. A district-level politician in Nepal, Parajuli came to the U.S. in 2000 with his wife and two sons, seeking political asylum. “There is a general sense that the communist force is rising again.”

In the span of only 20 years, Nepal, a Hindu state under a monarchy for the most part of modern history, transitioned to a parliamentary system of government, saw the rise of a powerful and violent Maoist rebellion, endured a decade-long civil war that left more than 12,000 Nepalese dead, and ultimately, relapsed into the hands of a monarch. In 2008, Nepal abolished monarchy and was reborn as a federal republic, but in the last two years two governments have failed, and the office of the Prime Minister remains vacant.

Since the late-nineties, Nepalese who were emigrating in large numbers to India, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, made Europe and North America their new destinations. Ridgewood in Queens alone has 1600 Nepalese residents, according to a 2009 survey by the Ridgewood Nepalese Society. Three apartment buildings on Putnam Avenue are home to over 300 Nepalese.

“Every two weeks, I see new Nepalese people,” said Aramis Lopez, 52, superintendent of building 16-15, where 50 percent of the apartments are occupied by the community. “A large number of tenants move out every few months, and new tenants pour in.” 

With a growing Nepalese population that has arrived in New York to make the city its home, the Ridgewood Nepalese Society is raising funds to build a Durga Temple and Nepalese Cultural Center, a $1.5 million project for a two-story structure which will house a temple of Hindu and Buddhist gods, an auditorium space for events, and a cultural library. In August this year, the society hosted a week-long spiritual event with Nepalese Pundit Deen Bandhu Pokharel, and raised $ 550,000 in donations.

“Little by little, we are growing in New York,” said Parajuli. “We want to build our identity, to make sure that the generations of Nepalese who are born here don’t forget their language, their culture, their religion, their roots.”