Last week, I took Rasmi* to the library for the second time. It was an unusually warm spring day, the kind where everyone stuck inside working asks if you’re out enjoying the weather.
She hands me a bar of coconut ice cream and a Red Bull. Something about that bar zips me back to the porch of my grandma’s bungalow on Chicago’s South Side. Whenever the ice cream man pushed his cart by her house, excitement erupted. Flavors were called out. Crumpled dollar bills were unrolled and counted. One of us would bolt from the porch to catch up to the guy, who would be down the block by then.
I can’t tell Rasmi that she found the ice cream of my childhood.
Rasmi is Nepali, a refugee from Bhutan. I volunteer to help her and her family through their first few months in the US. I read their mail and take them to the doctor’s and try to help find english classes and jobs.
There are a lot of people like Rasmi in Seattle. Newcomers shakily trying to navigate our complicated and expensive way of life while maintaining their traditions, holding on to things that remind them of home, a place they probably won’t see for years. And they encounter so much impatience, ignorance, apathy day-to-day.
Rasmi lived in a camp before she came here. Rasmi doesn’t have a computer, or an email address. Before here, I don’t think she had electricity, or a stove, or a washing machine.
It’s easy to dwell on what she doesn’t have, what she’s never had and how it’s unfair. (And it is. It disgusts me how unfair it all is).
It’s better to focus on the task for the day. Go to the library. Get that email address.
It’s better to focus on her family, her brothers and sisters and the revolving door of neighbors, cousins, and friends, all there to help each other through their transitions. Rasmi will be ok without me. I don’t want to fool myself into thinking I am her savoir. I don’t want to pity her because pity diminishes pride.
I’m there just to be her friend.
Rasmi wears a short sleeve shirt with a floral print and gray straight-leg jeans. She has a butterfly tattoo on her arm. I also have a tattoo, on my back—a monarch butterfly I had done when I was nineteen and because I wanted a tattoo, any tattoo. I won’t show her that though. I want to ask about her tattoo and what it means to her. Is it a regrettable symbol of teenage rebellion like mine? Or something else?
Instead, I eat the coconut ice cream bar, piloting the car one-handed. The windows are down and a cacophony of birds, dogs, kids, and bass rushes in.
“I like this.” I remind myself to annunciate and speak slowly.
She smiles. I am not talking just the ice cream. I want to tell her I like this whole experience. That it makes me nostalgic for driving around in summer with my best friend. Rasmi is only a few years younger than me. That means we were growing up at almost the same time. That’s something. I want to know about her home, her friends.
At the library, a man openly checks her out. Rasmi is cute. Her hair is twisted into pigtail braids, fastened with bright-red bands. He asks about her tattoo and she starts to respond. I usher her forward.
All of the rows are packed with people clicking or typing away. She pulls up a chair and gestures for me to sit. “We’re going to set you up with Gmail,” I declare. I type in Google then pull up the account page. Her name is already taken. There’s another Rasmi. “It’s not working, someone has your name.”
She doesn’t understand. I say it again, shaking my head no. “It won’t work.” After she plucks each letter, she looks at me expectedly. I click enter, knowing it won’t be accepted, that she needs to pick another name. Her brow furrows in frustration. I tell her we have to add numbers to her name. I add the required numbers and write the address down on a piece of scratch paper.
Then there’s the password, the verification code, the pop ups. I take over to get us through all the prompts and legalese I wouldn’t have glanced at twice before. “Yes, Yes, Accept, Yes…” Too many times in Quebec, when they didn’t have a translated version of a form available, I would sign it in French, not knowing if I just agreed to sell my kidney or if I was getting a phone contract.
I was lucky because many people speak English in Quebec. I don’t know what it is like to make a home in a place where no one but your family members and a few neighbors speak your language.
Only later, when driving home will I realize that maybe I could have had Chrome translate the page to Nepali.
She writes her first email to me as she doesn’t have her friends’ email addresses. I watch over her shoulder as she types a message to me and shakily clicks send.
You are good. You help me therefore thank you very much.
I sort it into my “Emails You’ll Cry At Later” box.
When the session is over, we go to the reference section to check out English Learning DVDs. Rasmi wants a movie and writes it down, but the librarian and I have trouble figuring out what she means. The librarian tells us they have a call line for interpreters. Rasmi brightens at this. In three minutes, she’s speaking to an interpreter in Nepali. On the phone, her expression changes from tense to open and friendly.
“She wants a horror movie,” the Librarian tells me and pulls up some titles. This new fact fills me with delight and surprise. She informs us that the library doesn’t have many horror movies. Instead, Rasmi selects a classic black-and-white, a movie about a farmer and his wife.
Inside the car, away from the public, she becomes brazen with English. She says many people are afraid of horror movies. Not her. I notice she’s smiling more these days, almost making sentences. I met her four months ago. The first few times she came to the door and said “hi,” shyly or went into the kitchen. The first time we drove somewhere together, she barely said a word.
I want to thank her English teacher, even though I don’t know who s/he is.
I want to thank the Librarian for finding out that Rasmi likes horror movies.
I want to tell her she’s brave and strong and smart, but I just turn to her and smile. There’s so much that can be said this way.