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From Kathmandu to Kunshan: A legacy of education

Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University in China are contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle to be published every other Friday.

I never met my maternal grandmother, but whenever I ask my mother to tell me about her childhood, she talks to me about the strongest woman she has ever known. Descriptions of my hajuraama’s lustrous, dark hair and large eyes soon give away to formidable stories of fortitude and sacrifice. 

Hajuraama never got to go to school herself, but that was not going to stop her from making sure her children got an education. After losing two of her children to diseases that could have been treated easily had the village had good healthcare, she made a firm decision to move the family to Kathmandu. 

When she faced resistance from Grandfather, who would have had an easier life in the village, she said sternly, “I have borne the pain of losing two of my children already. I cannot let my other three meet the same fate.” And thus, they packed their bags, traveling along the dusty roads to Kathmandu where hajuraama dreamed of keeping her children safe and sending them to good schools. It was monumental for her to have realized this ambition of giving her children a better life, when much of the country still upholds patriarchal values. 

Finding a place to live in Kathmandu was just a tiny step in fulfilling her dream. You can get to a city walking or on a bus, but children need to be fed and tuition needs to be paid. While the family eked out a living off a small farm in the village, hajuraama needed some time to figure out how living in a city worked. Moving her family into a tiny thatched-roof hut close to the center of the city, she finally found some semblance of a foothold in the city. Leaky roof or not, a home is a home, and before getting better settled in the city, this was where my mother spent her nights as a child—sleeping on a long wooden plank with the rest of the family. Hajuraama ultimately set up a tea shop in front of the house, and Mother still remembers pottering around the tea shop on chilly mornings before running off to school. 

With a bittersweet smile, my mother recalls finding hajuraama skimping her meals to pay for her children’s school tuition, and if they were lucky, some new clothes for Dashain. Disjointed stories—losing a sister to pneumonia and watching her classmates treat as necessities what to her were luxuries—make a lot more sense to her when she fits them into the frame of scarcity that seemed to mark much of her childhood.

Within the span of a few decades, all three of her children went on to build lives for themselves that would have been beyond hajuraama’s wildest imaginations. Mother was so scared of having to get into a rented car for the journey to Kathmandu (at five, it was the first time she had ever seen one) that hajuraama had to coax her with an armful of candy. She must have woven dreams of a brighter and safer future for her children, but the bumpy road to a life in Kathmandu could hardly have shown that her children would not have to skip their meals to feed her grandchildren and send them to school.

I think my mother realizes how she is upholding this legacy in her own way today: Apart from spending the majority of her life working to improve education in far-flung corners of Nepal, she has done her very best to ensure that her own children’s education is not in want of much. As I grow up and understand more of my own story in the context of hers, I realize the days and weeks she spent away from home, the evenings I cried or panicked because she came home deep into the night, were spent not for some obscure worrisome cause. They were so she could give as much as she could not just to her own children but children all over the country. She tells me stories of how she used to run to the school in the village just to see what it was like although she could not get enrolled. I think much of why she has been driven is because she does not want to see that happen to any other child.

I often think of what it means to be another woman in the progression of this story hajuraama began writing. When thinking of how many more opportunities I have encountered because it became such a massive driving force in my mother’s life, I am also compelled to think of how much more privilege I have had in the pursuit of my academic passions. Even contemplating studying abroad would still have been an impossibility when my mother was my age. 

However, apart from the gratitude that I have been so lucky merely by virtue of birth, there is often a deep anxiety that anyone else could be doing much more in my position, that I am squandering all of the opportunities being given to me. That a liberal arts education has given me the ability to explore my interests seems positively extravagant, but in the end, I also feel a deep responsibility of making the best I possibly can of this relative freedom. I cannot help but think of how at my age, hajurama was already raising children, looking forward to a future that was largely defined by what she could do to make their lives better. She was already laying the foundation for a legacy of education when she decided to move the family to Kathmandu, and two generations later my life could not be more different than the one she led. She built for her children a future that would allow them to pick from a panoply of options, create a life and passion beyond home, while her own life was limited to her duties as a mother and a wife.

While my mother always encouraged my passions, from art to writing, and was in complete support of my decision to pursue higher education in China, I wonder if anyone ever asked hajuraama what she wanted to be. 

In the looming shadows of the future my grandmother built for my mother and my mother has built for me, the possibility of being unable to reciprocate what I have been given—not just to my parents, but also being unable to create a positive effect in Nepal—is terrifying. Given the childhood my mother had, a little bit of family pressure and concern that I choose a path that—in their eyes—will make an easier future for me is something I completely understand. The possibility of making light of everything I have because of the strength of people before me is growing into a pulsating new fear.

But I think this recognition and gratitude are also teaching me to be hopeful. Perhaps my personal aspirations and academic interests, on the outset, may seem wishy-washy in light of all the opportunities I have had. Or perhaps they fall right into place. Whatever the case, I have to remember that I am but a continuation of the story my grandmother started writing almost 50 years ago, and the luck I have had and the choices I make should translate into something good for Nepal. It can be a small way for me to thank hajuraama for where I am today, even when she could not quite be all the things she wanted to be.

Anisha Joshi is a junior in the first-ever graduating class of the Duke Kunshan campus’s undergraduate program, located outside Shanghai, China.

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