Black sheep? He was hardly even a sheep. As one friend said, boundaries did not apply to him. My uncle traveled more miles, encountered more scandal and embarked on more adventures by the time he turned 18 than most people I know have in a lifetime. Sadly, I no longer have the chance to hear these tales from his own mouth.
One out of four sons in a litter of seven, nature won out over nurture with my dad’s brother. My grandfather’s near-asceticism didn’t keep chachu from literally marching to the beat of his own bass drum (music was strictly forbidden in the household, so you can imagine the fury unleashed when my grandfather spotted him rolling with the marching band on the street). My grandmother’s nerves were apparently fried worrying about chachu, especially when he ran away at 13 without a trace. Several years later, she found out from other relatives that he somehow worked his way to Kuwait via India and ended up in Sweden.
I didn’t realize just how much love he had for family until I noticed how he had pictures of each and every one of us, his nieces and nephews, alongside black and whites of him and his siblings, snaps of children and grandchildren; weddings, graduations, candids, the home a visible record of the Choudhury clan.
Among these is a photo in the dining room I try to sear into my mind: him and my aunt perched on a rooftop with what I imagine to be Stockholm in the background, embraced in a kiss with her long blonde hair and his thick black mane flying as if he had just pulled her in as the shutter flashed. It was young, unapologetic love like I could not imagine from someone in my family. That’s right: my Bangladeshi uncle married a Swedish woman, in the seventies. He was decades ahead of the interracial curve. On top of that, they had my Jenny apu before getting married. Sex–and therefore procreation–out of wedlock was and still is virtually unheard of in South Asian circles, so there’s another mold broken. We tend to forget all too often that the elderly were in fact young at some time and had lives as pressing and developing as ours feel now.
I see a sitar sitting in the corner of the living room and ask my dad if chachu played. No, but know what he did play? Harmonica and banjo, metal picks and all.
I had no idea about this uncle for the longest time. The uncle I saw at dawats was norom, soft and stout from age and poor health, who brightened up whenever I came to say hello. The last adventure I saw him pull was running his own Indian restaurant years back (which of course was still a feat). Sure, my aunt stands out in a sea of brown, but I got used to it and never questioned how they met. I hear tidbits now about how much she helped my uncle become successful in Sweden and how they struggled together to build a good life. This part is vague since these pieces, along with the majority of his life, are still missing to me. It’s not that my uncle has kept his life a mammoth secret from everyone (although some parts still are). He is a family favorite and his reputation for wilder days is well-known to most. I just never bothered to ask and find out for myself. Fortunately, he had been working on an autobiography recounting his experiences before passing away. Unfortunately, the ‘manuscript’ is rough– out of order in trying to recollect increasingly distant memories and written in broken Bengali. Several relatives have mildly attempted to get his work published before, but the pages remain uncomposed, put off and off for another time.
Going to his house tonight reminded me of how long it’s been since the last time I came, even though he often asked me to visit. He had my graduation picture on the kitchen counter and I can count with half a hand how many times I came over. woulda, coulda, shoulda, didn’t.
As I begin to learn about my uncle’s life far too late, he has shown me the truth of cliches by breaking rules and wandering willfully. He lived YOLO before Drake’s parents even thought about conceiving him.
Life is too short. Just do it. Live your bliss.
I miss you for the brief moments we had and for all the ones we never did.
“They took away our peace,” my mom said as we walked back from the mosque. “Shanti niyegese.” We have been going for the tarawih prayer that takes place during Ramadan almost every night, but especially since tonight was presumed by many to be the holiest of nights, Laylat al-Qadr. “I used to feel such peace coming to pray at the mosque, and now…” she trailed off.
Just as the last set of prayers (10 sets of 2 rakaahs) was about to start, the imam announced that there was an “incident” at the Carrollton mosque where brothers and sisters were forced to stay inside…potentially a hate crime. That last bit caused a stir and rippling gasps with what, I imagine, were flashes of images and stories most of us had seen of buildings vandalized with xenophobic smears, angry protesters turning violent at the assumed breeding grounds of terrorists. Carrollton is only about 20 miles away, well within the metroplex. It was an attack on our brothers and sisters, potentially loved ones, and it could have easily been us.
This on top of the armed hostage situation that shook up Dhaka just this morning, and is in fact ongoing. The one that, apart from scores of isolated, brutal assassinations (read: hackings) of controversial bloggers and religious minorities, was unprecedented. Around midnight, a group of attackers stormed into a popular bakery in the diplomatic zone of the city, taking a number of patrons–including many foreigners–hostage, and throwing grenades at the police.*
As one security expert on CNN would explain and certain friends confirmed, however, it was not a surprise. Trouble has been brewing just under the surface for years, and recently the bubbles have been beginning to break. Despite the government’s denial of any big league terrorist presence in the country, Bangladesh has been known as a regular pit stop for the likes of Al-Qaeda and its millennial startup, ISIS, with its own local chapters of each; not to mention incredible tension between the opposing political parties tinged with religious extremism.
I know that bakery. Holey is a sleek yet cozy gem in a city that is still trying to get a solid footing in Western/European dining and coffee culture, beloved by expats and locals alike. I was just there. Or at least it feels like it, now a whole year ago since I worked at BRAC for my practicum–during Ramadan no less. Friends and I would treat ourselves by cabbing all the way there for one of their delectable (cringe, but most appropriate adjective) pastries at expat prices. Gulshan, the residing neighborhood, is known to be the most well-off and safest in the city. My parents were relieved that I was stationed there of all places in Dhaka. So many late nights buzzing around in rickshaws from houses, parties, salsa class, live music, restaurants. Just like this night.
Facebook feeds bludgeoned with shock, disbelief, desperate prayers, reeling…pain at recognizing that living in the city “won’t be the same” after this.
I’m not exactly the most orthodox Muslim, but I do experience a sense of calm and peace praying in the soft-open room, moving in unison and shoulder-to-shoulder, letting the ground absorb all tension with every bowing touch of my forehead.
Extra holy nights mean extra (long) prayers, but we decided to go home for the last part. It didn’t seem likely that our mosque would be victim to an attack any time soon, and several friends stuck around (I wanted to try out the extra set for once), but hearing about Carrollton just ruined the mood and made my mom restless in a way she said would spoil her undivided attention to God.
The “they” that tainted our peace tonight are the ones that claim to be batting for our team, ridding the world of corruption for heaven on earth. These are not good people, let alone good Muslims. How can they justify being so when they deter observers from the mosque and drive some to tone down their practice so as not to attract attention; oh, and the whole “killing one equates to killing humanity” part of the faith they consistently neglect…during the holiest time of the holiest month (twisted extra credit?!).
I would like to say that love and humanity will overcome, that this evil can’t last; I pray for lack of any other viable option to change things. But right now, at the risk of letting the terrorists win, I am struck by the consistency with which fear, violence, and ignorance trample any flowers that threaten to bloom.
*Since this was initially written, the outcome of the attack was the death of 21 hostages including native Bangladeshis, police officers, Italians, and Japanese patrons. Cause of death: not being able to recite part of the Qur’an, a fact that shatters my heart. More wrenching is the fact that one victim who was initially allowed to go, Faraaz, refused to abandon his friends whose dress was considered ‘too Western’. That is true heroism that terrorists cannot comprehend.
“This is the last time you will be performing this play, probably for the rest of your lives. After all those rehearsals, doing it over and over again, going scene by scene, for just 30 minutes on that stage…one last time.”
A pep talk from our director that was more grounding than lifting our spirits, but it hit me hard and sank in. Two months of 2+ rehearsals a week, couple hours each, then almost everyday, hours stretched; all for a “Silly Shakespeare Short” rendition of The Tempest. To think of where we started 8 weeks ago– barely knowing each other, barely knowing the script, and morphing each scene into the final interpretation– it’s kind of special all that came out.
Then there’s what the director calls “postpartum” after the last fadeout and final bow, when the set gets broken down and the cast say their goodbyes. What do I do now? All that time and energy pushing for something and then suddenly the weight is gone. Did all that even happen? Thankfully there are pictures to prove it did.
Poetically, that dovetails into my last few days in Hanoi–and abroad–before flying back to the States. bitter.sweet. surreal. Now every xe om ride feels like ‘the last time’ I’ll fly through these streets and sights, so I peel my eyes open and crane my neck every which way. Because as much as I want to come back to Vietnam and Hanoi, I truly don’t know if or when it will ever happen. And it certainly won’t the same experience as I’ve had these 12 weeks living in my Ba Dinh bubble with a rooted work schedule. If I come back, it will likely be leisure based, which is entirely different from actually living in a place. The street I’ve lived on constantly shifts to a different one each time I look a little higher or a little closer around. Twelve weeks sounds shorter than three months, and time does a funny dance with memories where yesterday feels like weeks ago but has it already been months since I moved in in September?
Not only the sights, but obviously the people I’ve met along the way. Soaking in hot tea, toiling away at backstage ‘refugee camp’, a drink after, a smoke, over hot pot, cruising the bay, countless rides to rehearsal, arm-in-arm in Old Quarter, lunch around the office table. Good, great, bad, meh; and it continues to amaze me how we wouldn’t have met under any other circumstances (yes, platitudes platitudes, but that doesn’t mean the sentiments aren’t real).
Of course, as I’m writing this, D reminds me:
“Ah that’s wonderful (that I’m blue)! Doesn’t that mean that you had a good time while abroad, and that’s why good byes are so so hard?”
Okay, enough of the syrupy stuff. It’s been a ride, Vietnam, and em yêu anh* for it.
*If you couldn’t guess, “I love you.”
When you meet me, and see how I act how I speak, please know that I am an odd bird.
Please know that I know I am an odd bird. And I am not saying that just as an excuse although I’ll say that I did warn you.
Please know that it has taken me a long time to come to terms with that idea, that I had been fighting it for so long, trying to convince myself–and others–that it isn’t true and I am ‘normal’ like everyone else.
Know that I have tried and tried not trying, and that each way felt like a Herculean effort (had to think about how to type that one, it should be Heraculean btw).
I have met people on the way who have made it easier to accept that, my self, in its unrefined.
Please know that it is far easier said than done to “just be yourself,” at least for me.
Just? Honey, maybe being is one thing, but having that accepted is entirely another and that has a cyclic effect on how much of “yourself” you are being.
“You want people who do accept you the way you are,” and darling that’s true.
But when you strike out 8-9/10 times out to bat, you’re going to rethink your strategy and if you’re a ballplayer to begin with.
But enough about the general ‘you’ and back to me. As I was saying,
What else do I want you to know, near stranger?
That I check every reflection in reflex because most times my outside appearance is the only thing I feel I can control whereas my personality and mannerisms I cannot.
I don’t say all this in apology, I try to let that habit go (and realize that that statement and the other qualifiers present here suggest otherwise, but it’s a tectonic slow process). Rather I say it for your information, so before you may or may not dismiss me as someone you do not want to get to know, because of barriers that offput me to you, that you see a bit of what lay beyond.
So when you find yourself asking, “what is she doing?” “who is this chick?” know that, hell, I’m not quite sure either.
So: Hi, it’s nice to meet you. Maybe you’ll learn to say the same.
Last week, four of us from the office took a trip to the Son La Province for routine financial monitoring for the Enhanced Homestead Food Production (EHFP) project that is being piloted there. The province is situated about 150 km (~3 hours) west of Hanoi and is known for having one of the highest rates of poverty and malnutrition in Vietnam.
We started from the HKI office at 6AM (crack of consciousnesses for me, but prime time for jazzercize and badminton for the rest of the neighborhood). One breakfast pho pit-stop and 2 hours of snoozing in the back of the van later, I awoke to see that we were surrounded by layers and layers of hills, jutting limestone cliffs, and dipping valleys. Yes it was all very green, but a different kind of green than I experienced in Bangladesh; while Sylhet was lush and dense, here the green was open and dynamic, a more varied landscape and seemingly random patchwork texture (intentional and not) from myriad plants and crops.
It was about 11AM by the time we arrived at the project site and we were greeted by the district deputy. P and Q, the financial team at Hanoi, did most of the talking while T (the other intern, a local) and I sat back. Same goes for the meeting at the local HKI office with people I frankly don’t know about financial matters I frankly don’t know about. I did get to look around the clinic that the office is housed in– a modest but clean facility a couple of examination rooms and a few patient beds, the only one of its kind for surrounding communes– and stare at the landscape while fumbling through conversation with T (thank god for the Notes app).
After lunch at the only restaurant in the village, we all attended a cooking demonstration in Diet Village. Today’s lesson was on preparing pork meat and tofu spring rolls with herbal leaf, a nutritious dish that would be palatable to young children. It was encouraging to see how engaged both the facilitator and audience were in the process. The facilitator, an HKI field staff member, pulled some of the mothers to carry out the steps she was explaining, and other family members present asked questions about what was good and bad for children (“Why is MSG bad? We grew up with and we turned out alright.”). Everyone could sample the dish once it was done and most importantly, the children seemed to find it delicious–fried meat roll, who wouldn’t? More good news, a mother we later spoke with showed interest in being a facilitator herself for the next demo!
We traveled to three more villages after that, winding through narrow mud tracks on foot/motorbike/van and through vast open fields bathed in the golden late afternoon sun. I’m sure I looked like an idiot, but I couldn’t help walk around wide-eyed and mouth agape, in awe of each painting unfolding before my eyes and gratitude for the opportunity to experience it all. I am sap personified.
According to Q, things were carrying on rather smoothly and with impressive progress since the check-up in July. Not everyone was experiencing the same success with the project, though, as we saw when we visited to the poorest household in one of the villages. Atop a hill, a family of five lives in a sparse one-room wooden shack, virtually empty save the cups of tea the wife, Thi E. laid out on the floor for us. Her twin sons, quiet and slight for 3 year olds, eagerly sucked down the sugary orange drink P handed to them. A pig stays in a tiny pen and a couple ducks waddle around out front, but this is barely enough to sustain the family. As the wife put it, they cannot afford to plan beyond today and tomorrow. While they are dedicated to project activities, some families such as Thi E.’s are still struggling to climb out of poverty.
Our hotel was 25 km away from the sites, and on a side of town that was basically a ghost town of vague buildings and empty streets. We found one restaurant that was still open and ordered boiled duck. As we sat in this warehouse we had to ourselves, save the owners, we talked about breakups and true love. I joined P and Q in teasing T about having just gone through a break up and who kicked whose ass*. Now, the ladies at HKI are friendly and chatty, but they are some years older than T and I, married, with kids, so I wasn’t expecting that we’d all be getting along quite like this. T, one of two guys in the office and always the gentleman (pulls out chairs, puts food on my plate, etc.), generally shy and reserved, was laughing and dishing out dirt right back; P told us about marrying her first and only love; Q explained her more… efficient method for deciding on her now-husband; I even opened up some about my take on love. Away from our office desks and family obligations, we were more like a few friends on retreat.
We walked off some of the duck strolling around a micro amusement park nearby that only fit in to make the ghost town feel even more eerie. Luckily, my coworkers craved sweets as much as I did and we ordered che from a small cart. Che is basically a sundae made of crushed ice, milk, and a variety of mix-ins; mine had pomelo, red beans, peanuts, and what looked like rolled oats: surprising, refreshing, satisfying.
Day 1 covered more ground than expected, so we were expecting to wrap up and head back to Hanoi by lunch. First up, attending an early morning in a village where a VMF farmer from a different village was instructing residents on how to plant the right seedlings for the approaching winter season. I was later told that the residents of this village are predominantly Dou (pronounced zhou), an ethnic group known for its strong communal bonds. When the EHFP project first initiated in this village, it didn’t quite take and participation and individual behavior change was low. Once community members began working on the gardens together and instructions were translated into their dialect, the project gained major traction.
In addition to selling surplus vegetables as encouraged by HKI, we found out that many households were also selling bio-compost to their neighbors for profit. This was a happy surprise because it was completely out of the participants’ own initiatives and a hopeful sign for the project’s long-term sustainability.
Last stop was the home of the community leader for the village, a young man in his 30s whose fresh thinking completely turned the community around economically. After studying in Hanoi, he came back to his village and realized that government money granted to the poorest households could be much better utilized by younger people than the elderly who usually received it. So, he designated people like the poorest elderly’s children to receive the money instead (unless they had no children, in which case they keep it), who then invested in farms and other profitable ventures, bringing up the standard of living for the entire village in return. Simple, works.
As planned, we boarded the van around noon and rode back in near silence as the two-days’ exhaustion knocked each of us out. I had trouble falling asleep so I kept my eyes peeled on the rolling landscape outside the windows, trying to stare it into my memory. Besides witnessing the natural beauty and tangible impact the project had on villagers, I would hold on to the genuine camaraderie we four shared and was already starting to miss it as we reached closer to the city. Warm fuzzies remain.
**Apparently in Vietnamese, when you ask about a break up, you ask if he/she kicked your ass or you kicked theirs. Love it.
In today’s installment of cliches that applicably hit in an epiphany-like fashion and remind you why they exist: If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.
In this case, it’s about my lack of direction as far as “passions” I want to mold my life’s work around. Furthermore, it’s about my jumping the gun in posting about articles that catch my eye and punch me with rage or joy before getting the full story, AKA being a “basic bitch.” Sigh, it happens with such intensity that it feels it MUST be right, that my feelings and immediate opinions are justified and everyone else on my feed simply NEEDS to know.
One humbling experience happened today when I saw a post a friend was tagged in about my school defunding the family practice department while Harvard just opened a center dedicated to it. Based on my very recent and limited experience, this is a hot issue as there seems to be a disconnect between how much primary care docs/centers are needed and how little attention is given to them in favor of higher-paid specialists. Anyway, this revved me up and I proceeded to post the article both on the group page for my public health class AND as my status (because, you know, there would be people left out if I just picked one…) with a quip about how capitalism should push my school to take Harvard’s lead via competition/rivalrly/etc. I thought it was timely, appropriate to my field of study, and generally showed awareness outside my individual universe AKA a “basic bitch” rationale for posting anything remotely political or humanitarian. Mind you, I am genuinely frustrated (my go-to emotion) about the issue, but I’ll be honest about my slightly ulterior motives.
A member on the class page then replied with a knowledgeable mini op-ed about the complex state of primary care and that capitalism had no role in what’s going on at Harvard– basically a wealthy dude doing it for his own reasons–that it’s not a matter of the tired and overlysimplified argument that there need to be doctors, and went into detail about task-shifting to other practitioners…he explains it much better. He didn’t outright put me down, he didn’t fully agree with me, but he did school me. He clearly had more awareness and insight into the issue than I did, and I thanked him for it. Maybe no one else sees it this dramatically, or maybe my sentiment is spot on, but it did act as a quick reminder.
I can get passionate about things, but I am still struggling to find my passion.