1992 was a big year for me, I was born—Ezra Leslie, son to Keith and Shakun Leslie. My mother, Shakun, is a Nepali fashion designer/political activist, taught by the nuns, raised by her culturally rich mother, inspired by her worldly father, and is best described as “the most Jewish women this side of the Himalayas.” Keith, my father, on the other hand, was raised in upstate New York by his Jewish parents (both in the medical field)—he went to Amherest, immediately followed by a stint in the capitol with Senator Percy, and ended up traveling the world for roughly twenty-five years. He, as opposed to my mother, can be described as “the most Nepali man this side of the Atlantic.” This is where I start to get confused—if all of the above is true than I am a Nepali-American Jew, who was bar-mitzvahed in Israel, but has been raised in Hindu-Buddhist Nepal, and now goes to boarding school in Massachusetts—oh and I almost forgot I was born in Thailand. In other words I was marked the second I was born—marked with a crisis, a crisis of identity
My story is like any other, I was born on June 28th and after picking up my passport at the American Embassy in Bangkok flew home to Nepal with my parents and older brother, Josh. I grew up in a simple household that played stage to development workers, fashion designers, philosophers, writers, poets, gardeners, activists, Americans, Nepalis, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists—all of these roles excellently played out by none other than my parents. Quite simply two parents, who as wise, kind, and intelligent as they were, still found themselves trying to figure out who they were and what they were doing here. As I said I was marked.
At the time I didn’t realize it, but life was getting complicated. My mother’s strained relationship with her family, not of any fault of her own, but rather as a tributary to her own river of a search for self identity, resulted in a strange relationship for Josh and I with our home country, Nepal. A relationship best described as two boys living in a rented house; you refer to it as yours, it is yours, but the landlord never treats you as if it is yours or accepts that it is yours. As a result we associated with Americans, international Americans who were happy to accept us as one of them. It seemed to us a minor detail that we had never lived in the country we called our ‘other home’; it was just nice to have one.
I started my first year of formal education at a community driven school called Lincoln. The next five years at cosmopolitan Lincoln passed in relative ease, but starting in middle school my thoughts began shifting across the Atlantic Ocean to my yet unlived in home, America. The departure of some close friends and a desire to challenge myself were partially the fuel, but in retrospect there was a certain part of me that was just searching for an identity. Personally, I had never doubted my Nepali identity, or my American identity, but it was much harder to be accepted by my compatriots and as I reached an age where I could finally see the manner in which the Nepali people viewed me I became scared. I avoided having to deal with them in groups where it would become apparent that I was not, in their eyes, one of them. Instead I emanated my Nepali patriotism and pride through my interactions with the ‘common’ Nepali. The Nepali people who amused themselves to think that that they shared the same blood with this ‘kuire’ (the derogatory word used in Nepal for foreigner) and so accepted me blindly. Not as a fellow countrymen, but as a spectacle, an item at which they would amuse themselves by humoring it.
Being young, and confused I longed to see if I possibly belonged somewhere else and naturally my inclination was towards America. In my heart I knew I was ‘100% American and 100% Nepali.’ Sadly I had very little say in the two-way street that is acceptance so it was no coincidence that at the end of my 10th grade I decided to pack my bags and follow my brother, who had been called by what he hoped would be greener pastures a year earlier, to Northfield Mount Hermon in Massachusetts. Full of hope I arrived in America, and where should I find myself, but at international orientation, a place where non-American students can be assimilated. Starting off just where I left off—a foreigner in his own country. I quickly realized this year would be no different from Nepal except the countries and the faces had change. It is my bane not to have a home, but a bane I bear proudly; knowing that whatever challenges I shall meet I can pull from the best of both worlds. It is a fate that I will struggle with on a day-to-day basis, but I have also quickly realized that the strength to fight that struggle will come from within. My dad has always said, “there are three truths: my truth, your truth, and then G-d’s truth,” and so I walk out of my door everyday comforted that although other people may not understand who I am and where I have come from, I know and G-d knows. And that is good enough for me.
Ezra Man Leslie
NMH April 2009