Dean Thapa made his way here from Nepal and now operates his own convenience store.
Story and Photographs By John Murray
A Google image search for Tanahun, Nepal, reveals a spectacularly beautiful village surrounded by terraced farms carved into sides of mountains in central Asia. This is where Dean Thapa began his improbable journey towards Waterbury, and like thousands before him who have come from England, Ireland, Italy and Lithuania, Dean Thapa clawed his way across the earth to reach a place where hard work promised advancement.
Thapa finished high school in Tanahun, and at the age of 17 he moved to Kathmandu to become a waiter in a small cafe where he began meeting tourists from all over the world. For eight years Thapa stayed in Kathmandu working in the tourism business, eventually securing a job in hotel management. “I was very happy but not making very much money,” Thapa said. “I used to hold up an American dollar bill and ask myself how this dollar was able to buy so much.”
At that time Thapa said the exchange rate was 70 to 80 Nepalese rupees to one U.S. dollar. “Our money was not worth very much,” Thapa said. “But the American dollar? Wow. I left Nepal to come to the best country in the world to work for that dollar. Everybody in the world wants to come to America to explore opportunities. I came for a better life.”
Thapa arrived on a tourist visa in 1998 and began working as a chef in a hotel in West Haven. The United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) categorized Thapa as a skilled worker and gave him a green card that allowed him to establish permanent residency. In 2005 Thapa met Kim Chantara, a Cambodian woman living in Waterbury. “She came to America one year before I did,” Thapa said. “We are both Buddhists, and we both made it to Connecticut from very far away.”
Thapa and Chantara dated for five months, married, and now have two children ages three and five. After the marriage Thapa moved to Waterbury and continued to work in West Haven until he was laid off in 2010. Unable to find a job in the midst of a vast recession, Thapa collected unemployment until he saw an empty store on Watertown Avenue next to Frankie’s Hot Dogs. Where some people saw an empty building, Thapa saw an opportunity.
He negotiated a deal with the landlord, built the inside counters and shelving himself, and on May 13th he opened Thapa’s Convenience Store. Five months into his new venture Thapa continues to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week. “I am working very hard, but I am building something,” Thapa said. “I feel very lucky.”
Spend a few minutes with Thapa inside his store and the exceptional customer service he learned in the tourism business in Kathmandu is on full display. He knows most of his customers by their first names. He knows the numbers they pick for their lottery tickets, and the brands of cigarettes they purchase every day. “I like to talk to my customers,” Thapa said. “And after five months I am breaking even. Maybe next year I can hire someone else to work here and I can go home and play with my children.”
His wife and kids come down to the store every day to eat dinner with him, and Thapa’s work intensity is fueled by the knowledge that his children will not have to endure the hardships he experienced to live a slice of the American dream. “I feel so happy that my kids will have all these opportunities that I did not,” Thapa said. “I don’t mind paying taxes. The services are great, my kids go to great schools, why not pay tax?”
One of the things Dean Thapa loves most about his new home is the extraordinary diversity in Waterbury. “In my hometown everyone was Nepalese,” he said. “In Waterbury the people are from everywhere.”
And they are.
A month ago I wrote a Facebook post that called Waterbury one of the most diverse small cities in the world. While some agreed, others were stunned at the statement and accused me of gross exaggeration. I stand by that statement. Having travelled through 45 countries and all 50 states I have yet to experience a small city as diverse as Waterbury.
There are now two popular Albanian festivals each year in Waterbury, which is home to one of the largest Albanian populations outside of Albania.
Consider that when you travel to Japan the vast majority of the residents are ethnic Japanese, in Thailand they are ethnic Thai, in Mexico they are a mix of Spanish and indigenous native people. If these countries were salads they would be a bowl of lettuce with an occasional tomato and cucumber. America, however, was built on immigration, and diversity is a cornerstone of our country. Our salad would be eight varieties of lettuce and spring greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, onions, olives, spinach and artichokes. Take everything from the garden and hurl it into the bowl. America was built on ingredients from every corner of the world, and the new diversity in Waterbury is astonishing.
Dean Thapa is from the Himalayan Mountains, but I have encountered two brothers from Bangladesh running a Subway store in the Brass Mill Mall, a friendly young man from Fiji running a liquor store on West Main Street, a Russian geologist on the Waterbury Green, a Pakistani sandwich maker, an Iranian chiropractor, an Indian dentist and a Palestinian refugee. These are the new Waterburians and the city’s future will soon be in their hands.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census data, Waterbury has a population of 110,336 people- 58.8% white, 31.2% Hispanic, 20.1% black and a smattering of Asian, Native American and Hawaiians. That adds up to more than 100% because some people identified themselves in multiple categories. No matter how you slice it, Waterbury is now comprised of 50% minorities (black and Hispanic), who will soon be the majority. Additionally, Waterbury has one of the largest populations of Albanians outside of Albania, and the largest percentage of Italian-Americans in any city in North America with a population of 150,000 or less.
Expressing great pride in his heritage this young man rode his bicycle up and down Baldwin Street waving flags during Puerto Rican Day in 2010.
Tell me where there is a city of 100,000 that has the diversity of Waterbury – Italians, Irish, Lithuanians, Albanians, African-Americans, Lebanese and an extraordinary mix of Latinos from the Caribbean, Mexico and South America. Add in the new wave of immigrants from Myanmar, Russia, Thailand, Fiji, Palestine, Nepal, Bangladesh and India, and about the only thing missing is penguins from Antarctica. The largest number of Hispanics in Waterbury are Puerto Ricans, who are not immigrants, since Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and every child born there since 1917 has automatically been a U.S. citizen. But for many Puerto Ricans the challenge to assimilate into the fabric of America is no less daunting than what faces a recent arrival from Central America.
Dr. Paul Sequeira is an assistant superintendent of schools in Waterbury and was born in Nairobi, Kenya, to parents from Goa, India. Sequeira finished his high school education in Kenya before attending college in America, and his background exemplifies the diversity in Waterbury’s public school system which now teaches students who speak 36 different languages – Albanian, Arabic, Bangla, Bengali, Burmese, Cantonese, Chinese, Creole-Cape Verdean, Creole-Haitian, Dari, Farsi, French, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Karen, Khmer (Cambodian), Kurdish, Macedonian, Mandarin, Mondingo, Montenegrin, Pashto, Pilipino (Filipino), Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Tamil, Thai, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese and Yorubu.
Waterbury has always been diverse, but it is now a microcosm of the world itself. It was the Irish and Italian immigrants that fueled the brass industry 100 years ago, and it is this new wave of immigrants to Waterbury who will have to hit the replay button to forge a new identity for the city.
In February 2012 Dean Thapa became a United States citizen, a moment he said is among the proudest of his life. Thapa works unimaginably long hours – 112 hours a week – but he is deeply satisfied.
“This is not a hard life,” he said. “We have food and we get whatever we want. Back in Nepal the people don’t have the opportunity to work. There is no law and no opportunity. Waterbury is now my home, This is my city, my place. My kids, my family are all here. I am very lucky and very happy. I am in America.”