Letter to my kindergarten daughter

Photo: T P Mishra

Dear छोरी,

Congratulations on starting a long and exciting journey by beginning kindergarten today. It was lovely to see you so excited when we dropped you off at school this morning. 

My own excitement is a bit subdued due to my concern about the Covid-19 pandemic surge in America. I know you will feel uncomfortable wearing that mask all day, but it is necessary to help reduce the risk for yourself and those around you.

The environment and circumstances of my school days back in Bhutan were so different from your first day at school today. I was only six in 1990 when I and one of my six siblings were enrolled in the Dokap Primary School near our remote village of Indrachok in Bhutan. 

My eldest brother, who never had the chance to go to school himself, carried me on his shoulders during the monsoon when the trails were slippery — 30 minutes downhill and 45 minutes uphill. 

I would hold on tight with my hands wrapped around his head as he pushed his way through shrubs and bushes. I would arrive in class bleeding with leeches on my head. I had to pluck them off by sprinkling salt on them. During the monsoon, we always carried pouches of salt in our school backpacks. 

At home, we did not have a table, and sat on the floor to eat. I was the youngest, and my job was to feed the family dog, टिके.

Thankfully, you have an air-conditioned school bus that pulls up outside our home, ready to take you to your school, which is within easy walking distance here in North Carolina where we are now settled.

In elementary school, some of the Bhutanese teachers treated me harshly. They used to beat me with sticks because I struggled to learn Dzongkha, the national language. Sometimes they made me stand on one foot with the other foot crossed over the knee. 

Classmates were encouraged to laugh at me. I am glad you will be studying in a supportive environment without any such childhood trauma.

In 1991, when the Bhutanese regime evicted the Lhjotsampa, my family along with thousands of others were taken by trucks across India and forced into Nepal. 

Our refugee camp was on the banks of the holy Kankai River in Jhapa where we spent the next 20 years. Many Bhutanese refugees lost their lives over the years to malaria and other diseases. Two members of our own family died, and I will tell you about them when you grow older.

Later, we were moved to the Beldangi-II refugee camp and we could attend school again. The classes were out in the open, in the shade of a large tree. Once, during a storm, a branch fell on my head and I had to rush to the health post for treatment.

Corporal punishment was a part of everyday life in the classroom. The intention of the teachers towards students was not bad, it was just the way schools functioned in those days in Bhutan and in the refugee camp in Nepal.

Our large family lived in a bamboo hut, the roof leaked, and did not have electricity in the refugee camp. We did our homework on the floor next to kerosene lamps. 

We used to have lots of homework. We had to memorise long paragraphs at home and then recite them when we were in the classroom the following day. 

As a refugee child, I did not have shoes. My parents could not afford them, so I wore flip-flops to school.  Always remember that it is not what you wear on your feet that allows you to take steps in life, it is your inner determination.

As a new American, you have a place to call home. You should always be grateful to this country where you were born. The United States gave your parents a chance to build new lives so that you, too, can enjoy the freedom and citizenship that was denied to us, and to many other peoples around the world today. 

Freedom does not mean that you are free from obligations and responsibilities. Never take your freedom for granted. Unlike your parents when they were your age, you will have a roof over your head, you will always have enough food, health care and a sense of belonging.

There may be classmates who may be having a hard time, who cannot afford lunch, or who are from refugee families trying to heal from the trauma of war.

Your compassion and love will help them as they struggle to make a life in a new place. Share what you have, but do not humiliate others with pity. 

Now that you are outside the home, you will probably see things from a different perspective. That is completely normal. I hope you will soon learn to take a stand if you or your friends face bullies. Be kind and generous to others. 

Never discriminate against those around you because of the colour of their skin, ethnicity, creed, or any physical difference that sets them apart. 

You are starting school even as the people of Afghanistan, especially women there, fear for their lives and are under threat of losing their fundamental rights. I hope you will grow up learning to become the voice of those who cannot speak up for themselves.

Culturally, we in Bhutan treat teachers as our second parents. I hope you will carry on that tradition here in the US. We will continue to abide by the language rule: Nepali at home and English at school.

As you grow older, I hope the situation will change in our motherland Bhutan, so we can go back to trace our ancestral history in the forested mountains of Dagana.

When we fled, I hid a plastic bag with my school supplies inside our house because my mother promised we would return home soon. Thirty years have passed, and while we were in the refugee camp in Nepal we learnt that the regime had burnt down our home in Bhutan. That plastic bag with my books must have turned into ashes. 

I am sharing these stories from our past for one reason alone — I want you to know where you come from, so that you will make the best of the opportunity that has come your way. 

"I will be fine," you assured us right before we dropped you off at your school today. Keep rolling, girl. We cannot wait for you to come home and tell us all about your first day at school. 

With unconditional love, 

Your बाबा 

T P Mishra is the Executive Editor at the Bhutan News Service and is one of the 90,000 Bhutanese refugees resettled in the United States. This article first appeared in Let’s Rethink This, and is excerpted with permission.

Read also: Elderly left in Bhutan refugee camp, Mukesh Pokharel