Matt Bergstrom

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MY BLOG: Independence redefined

When I first decided to attend a Bhutanese community gathering I had no idea what to expect. I had only recently been made aware that there was a community of Bhutanese refugees in Salt Lake, and I had only a rough idea of where Bhutan was on the map. I had a lot of questions.

Would I be welcome at this gathering?

What were they celebrating?

Was I going to need an interpreter? After all, none of the attendees had been in the U.S. longer than a few months. I wasn’t sure if any of them spoke English yet.

What I didn’t ask was, “Is going to this little party in Midvale going to change my outlook on life forever?”

As I sat in my car outside the little Indian restaurant that morning my stomach was in knots. There were already quite a few people there, and it felt as if I was about to crash a family reunion. I anticipated a scenario right out of a John Hughes film. The outsider wanders into a party to which he was not invited. A hush falls over the crowd as they stare, unsure how this alien ended up on their planet.

How would this scenario end? Would they be too polite to ask me to leave? Or would I be immediately outed and driven away in some elaborate humiliation like Mad Max from Barter Town? A bit dramatic perhaps, but nervous nonetheless.

Deep breath.

I opened the car door and took only a few steps toward the building before a short, mustachioed man in a denim dress shirt and pink backpack approached me. His smile was so wide it pushed his thin mustache right to the borders of his face. He took my hand and in broken English told me his name was Chandra.

This was the last time my hand would be my own that morning.

Without letting go, Chandra took me to a group of gentlemen standing just outside the entrance of the restaurant. He pulled a younger man, dressed in a drab gray suit, toward me and firmly placed my hand in his.

“Hello,” the young man said. “I am Biren Dulal.”

While still embraced in our friendly handshake I introduced myself to Biren and explained why I was there. His grip on my hand tightened as he led me into the day’s meetinghouse.

The air changed as soon as we stepped inside from crisp, fresh outdoor cool to warm, pungent spice and sweet, foreign perfume. My nerves dissipated as I was steered from one table to the next, introduced to every member of this large family. At each turn I was greeted by warm smells and warm smiles and a solemn, “Namaste.” Like shalom or salaam, the word literally means peace. But more like aloha, it is used as a greeting, a farewell, or an expression of love.

Eventually my new friend and I were able to sit down and chat. We talked about Biren’s strange new world as people came and went. Some came to serve us a meal of fruit, rice and yoghurt. Others were just curious onlookers. All of them arrived and departed with warm, friendly smiles.

By noon both the contents of our plates and our conversation had become sparse. Before we both moved on to enjoy the rest of the afternoon I threw out an old interview standby. When interviewing someone familiar with the American media, this question is akin to just saying, “Well, this conversation is about over.” I asked Biren what his favorite thing about America was so far.

Independence.

I thought I knew what that word meant. After all, we have a holiday named after it, our national holiday even. We have R&B stars who write songs about it. As teenagers we struggle to obtain it from oppressive parents who insist that doing algebra homework will someday matter.

But sitting across the table from this unassuming 26-year-old former middle school science teacher I learned what that word really means.

Biren talked to me about seeing pamphlets for national parks that I have driven through with little more zeal than I have when I try on a new pair of jeans. Someday he would like to visit these places, and now he can. Independence to Biren Dulal means being able to walk out the door and go any direction he wants without someone giving him permission, and without fear of harassment. It means that he can choose to do whatever he wants to with his life, that he can think, feel and love with no need to fear.

On this clear October morning I learned in spite of my anxiety that I was blessed with independence. I am free to feel nervous because I am free to choose to do new things. My fear stems from the unknown, from the great adventures upon which I have yet to embark, not from oppression or fear for my life.

Now that I have this new independence, this new outlook on life, what will I choose to do tomorrow?

 

ABOUT ME:

I’ve always been an information junkie. Any way I can keep as much information coming in as possible, I’m for it. Journalism has become an outlet for organizing and sharing that information with others. Since getting my associate’s degree from Salt Lake Community College in communication I have been working toward a degree in electronic journalism at the University of Utah. This takes a little extra time when you have a full-time job and two kids. But I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. I love my family, I love learning and I especially love writing. The only thing that competes is my love of cartoons. Man, I love cartoons.