Don’t default to ethnic profiling

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I didn’t set off fireworks for Diwali. I don’t dance for Namaste. I have never even eaten curry. Contrary to popular belief that one’s skin tone dictates their nationality, I am not Indian. I was born in Nepal, and I’m proud to call myself a full-blood Nepali.

Nepal is a tiny country fitted snugly between two Asian powerhouses, China and India. Because of its central geography, the people and culture of Nepal offer a blend from the north and the south of the continent. Consequently, it shares a few religious holidays and some aspects of its many languages with those of China and India. That being said, Nepal also has a culture that’s uniquely its own.

With unique celebrations ranging from Dashain, Tihar and Teej to Buddha Jayanti and Lhosar, it’s a country where Buddhism and Hinduism coexist peacefully. More than 60 ethnic groups, its flag and, of course, its mountains are really what set Nepal apart from India and the rest of the world.

Ethnic profiling is not limited to my personal experiences. It’s not uncommon to see Koreans mistaken as Chinese, or Cambodians mistaken as Vietnamese. With approximately 58.2 percent of the Jefferson population identifying themselves as Asian of one sort or another, it’s easy to lump groups of a certain skin color together.

In fact, in a recent study detailed in one of Columbia University’s graduate school publications, Stanford and Columbia researchers seem to have found a reason for this common tendency to generalize about ethnic groups with some common characteristics. Scientists identified the hippocampus and the midbrain dopamine region as the controls for a process known as memory integration. Memory integration links memories together and causes a typical human brain to make instantaneous generalizations. Perhaps it would be fair to call what we do “human nature.”

However, just as there is a major difference between Canadians and Americans, there are also major distinctions between other seemingly like groups around the world. Assuming an individual is part of a group is naïve and unwarranted.

No country that borders another can be assumed as highly similar. Although there is social and economic overlap, there’s also could be substantial hostility between bordering countries. In fact, the common ancestry of Semitic peoples could result in a casual observer mistaking an Israeli for a Palestinian.

This type of enmity rings true between Nepal and India as well. Indo-Nepal relations have been strained in the last 50 years due to border disputes, Nepalese relations with China and economic issues. Though, in recent years, negotiations on hydro-electric projects and trade barriers have encouraged friendlier cooperation, a sense of distrust still lingers.

It’s not necessary to stay on top of the ever-changing world geography, but it is important to realize that people may not be what they seem. What may be a meaningless label to one person could come across as a bit annoying to another. And though it may be easy to tell Hanukkah from Christmas, think twice before wishing your Nepali friend a happy Diwali.

(This article originally appeared in the December 21, 2012 print edition.)