Anglo Adventure

Travel with a sense of humor

travel-friendship-voluntourism


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The smiling language of butterflies

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.

travel-friendship-voluntourism

Rhododendrons. Nepal’s national flower.

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.

*Name changed


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My Impossible-to-Escape Turkey Day Tradition

Turkey Day, Seattle

This is what November looks like here. Isn’t it pretty?

I did it. I finally made a turkey. Ok, my husband did most of, ok all of the gross stuff like stuffing it with apples and herbs to make it aromatic and piercing the thigh with a meat thermometer every hour. I participated by inspecting the meat to make sure we weren’t giving all of our friends food poisoning.

I know what you’re thinking…Thanksgiving is a couple days away.

Being nomads, we’ve never done a true Thanksgiving. We spent our first Thanksgiving married in a Shari’s Diner eating half-frozen turkey sandwiches with blobs of cranberry sauce on the side. I cried.

I vowed never to let that happen again, so for the next few years we found a fancy restaurant and dined there. Still didn’t feel right. No football, no drunk cousins, no Cool Whip? Something about the white-linen tablecloth made me feel awkward making a mashed-potato volcano. Too fancy, no family. And I cry again.

Thankfully, a friend took me in the next year, when The Husband was in Quebec and I was in Seattle. No crying and I am still grateful. Be supportive to your Thanksgiving strays, they’ll remember it.

Canadian Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Poutine

Poutine and plastic fork. Even Elwood realized it wasn’t Thanksgiving.

Then came the Quebec year. Thanksgiving isn’t a big to-do in Quebec like it is here.

First, their Thanksgiving (L’action de Grace) takes place before Halloween. That’s strange. It’s like eating dessert before dinner. And most people, at least in Quebec see Thanksgiving as a day off to cover their pools and construct their carports. Most people I knew didn’t even eat turkey.

That’s right: Thanksgiving in Belle Province is pretty much relegated to a labor-day type of holiday. Which is fine, they have plenty of awesome holidays and at the time, I thought I could use a break from American-style gorging. Continue reading


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Be Magellan, Not Columbus: Treat People Right When Traveling

overseas travel tips culture expat french learning

I love you all for realz.

I spent the past year and a half in intensive French class, in a classroom that acted as a patchwork quilt of countries. I learned the language with people who were very different from me. People who had never even seen one episode of the Daily Show or Desperate Housewives or Mad Men. People who preferred veggies to cheese and chocolate.

How the f was I ever going to find Common Ground?

Some of my fellow immigrants (the term applies loosely to me, I know this) hailed from the kind of countries where food is a luxury. And there I was with my Honda CRV and Betsey Johnston wallet. They weren’t learning French for funsies; they had to do it to get jobs, so that they could feed their families.

I have never met more beautiful, humble people. I say that without an ounce of exaggeration. Or naiveness. People suck all over. I get that. My classmates didn’t suck.

My French teacher lectured me long before the first day.

“They are not you. They are immigrants, but it’s not the same. They are refugees. You live here by choice. You’re not struggling. We have people here from everywhere. You have to be very respectful. It is not hard for you. You understand?”

I nodded when she said it but left her office defensive.Who was she to tell me that I’ve never struggled?  I was raised by a single mom with five kids in a house with only one bathroom in a neighborhood where garbage bags blew down the street like tumbleweeds. Sure, I could walk to 7-11. But you should have seen the dandelions springing up from the sidewalk cracks! The chain-link fences! Those mean boys who hurled rocks and insults at us.

She was 100% correct, that’s who she was.  Continue reading