Madame Kay reminds me of Lala.

This has been niggling at the back of my mind for months now. She reminds me of someone, she reminds me of someone…Who is it and is that important?

Yes, it’s important. She reminds me of the person who loved me most in all of my young life and of the person who helped me more than anyone. And she also reminds me of the person it hurt the most to lose.

Lucey I have been able to remember. I could remember his scratchy beard and his snuggles. I could remember he read books to me and that I tried to climb him like a tree. But Lala has been a shadow for me. Or, it was as if my memories were pictures with a face cut out of them. I remembered her only vaguely, because remembering too well hurt too much.

It still hurts too much.

Sometimes, I sit next to Madame Kay in the chair she keeps next to her desk because her feet hurt—she likes to elevate them to relieve the pain. Her feet and I share the chair. Sometimes I talk to her, sitting there, and sometimes I come intending to talk and then find I no longer can.

Those are the times I become Ghost, who is unable to speak. In the same way that Lala never pushed me to speak, Madame Kay doesn’t either. If I talk, she listens, and if I am silent, then that is okay with her too. With Madame Kay, I can just be there. She accepts me however I am. Or she seems to.

That is what reminds me—her patience as I struggle with what I need to struggle with and the fact that she sometimes knows when I’m struggling, but says nothing. She cares, but she does not push. I can tell her my secrets. I can keep my secrets if I’d rather do that instead.

Recognizing what she reminds me of breaks down a wall in my head, and it’s time now to rearrange the furniture in the room. This is making me a little bit dizzy. I know first of all why I treat her a little differently than I do my other friends. To the rest of me, she is my friend. To some part of me, she is my mother. Knowing this explains some of those weird little idiosyncrasies that one is bound to have when one is in parts. That is a bit helpful. Confusing, but helpful.

At the same time, there is also something about the resemblance that just makes everything feel more real. I don’t know that it’s terribly logical, but that’s the healing part. The fact that Madame Kay exists somehow makes me think that Lala existed, and if Lala existed then everything I learned from Lala must be true. First of all, I am a person. And second of all, people can be good. Not all people are good—my dad is not good—but many people are good. Being a person is mostly a good thing to be.

Next, I am loved. I was loved and I am loved. I will always be loved. She said so. Even now, she loves me. She said that. And Lala always told me the truth.

And it also means I have a home to return to, even if that home is a place I can find only in own mind. I was home once. I had a place where I was safe and I was loved and once you have that place you can carry it with you always—you can go anywhere. Your home will always be with you.

This means that I won’t always have to be sad. I don’t always need to be homesick for a place I can never return to. I can feel better.


Country X update #2

The Class 6 maths midterm exam is tomorrow.

At 8:30 p.m., the naughtiest boy in in my classes came to the door for the second time. “I have doubt, Madame.”

Because that’s what they say, “I am puzzled,” and, “I have doubt.”

Tee-Tee (let’s say) has a learning disability. I’m quite sure of this, although he has no diagnosis and I am not an expert. I’ve just been teaching a few years, and I’ve seen this before. If I had to guess, I would say he has an auditory processing disorder and a visual processing disorder. His auditory processing disorder is more severe. So if he can understand what he is seeing, he can manage. If he doesn’t understand that either, he becomes a royal pain in the ass. Like all kids, he wants to do well. He wants to learn. When he can’t understand, he expresses his mental anguish by inflicting that same kind of anguish on me.

In his English class, he does nothing at all. The English teacher says his mark is so low it might as well be zero. Maybe she said it is zero. I can’t quite remember. But he is passing maths. If he can read his exam tomorrow, he will pass it. He might even do well.

Although my usual bedtime is 8 pm, I helped him. I can’t really not help him. He needs help so badly, like I once needed help so badly although in a different way.

Sometimes, I remember what I didn’t get from my family, and I also remember I was helped by other people instead. There was so much I didn’t get and so much I was given. My life has been such a mix of generosity and deprivation, cruelty and altruism.

Tonight, Ghost wanted to send a text to Madame Kay. There is something he has been wanting to say to her for a long time, but I haven’t let him. “Thank you so much for everything you have done,” he wrote. “You have done more than you will ever know. I will never forget anything.”

He’s thinking of it tonight—and I am thinking of it tonight—because one girl who, after leaving my following the afternoon study session I allowed only because of exams—said, “Thank you, ma’am. We will never forget.”

If she can show gratitude, so can I.

There are two thoughts foremost on my mind today: One of them came to me while I walked alone around the chorten. People have helped me because I am worth helping. Worth in that sentence means something different than I used to think it meant, and something different than I can really articulate. Worth in this case means something like being kind. It means I am able to be a person. I can reciprocate. I can be generous in return. It means something like I’m not a jackass.

I pushed the thought away because it hurt too much. But it’s something I should return to when I can. What does that idea mean? I have doubt.

And then I am also thinking I am so very, very grateful for so many things, so many acts of kindness—many of them small, some of them big.

Because really much of the dilemma for me about existence is that I am not sure that being human is such a good thing. I have seen the worst of human nature. Do I want to be human? Maybe not.

But I have also seen the best of it.

What Madame Kay has done for me that is so hard to articulate—and what so many people have done for me—is to live in a way that shows me that being a person is something worth doing. It’s something I want to do.

For my regular readers, this includes you. When you read and follow along with the course of my life here, I feel less alone. I feel supported. And in that way, you help me. When I can share the burdens of some of my secrets with you, I feel less alone also. I feel supported then too. When you encourage me, I feel it even more so. Reading, in my case, feels like an act of love. Your love nurtures me.

And that makes me think it’s worth being one of you. It’s worth being human.

Thank you.



Friday, I decided to learn to read the National Language.

I was at Madame Kay’s house. She hasn’t been going to the holy site this week—her children are supposed to be preparing for exams right now and, if she isn’t home, they don’t study. So she stays home, cleans her house, and supervises her children.

Friday, her oldest son was studying for his National Language midterm. Or he was supposed to be. Madame Kay quizzed him a little. “He doesn’t know anything,” she said. But I was looking over her shoulder. Those look like letters to me, I thought. I can learn that.

So Saturday I made Madame Cee write the alphabet for me and I tried to learn it while I proctored an exam. But her writing was messy. I couldn’t recognize the letters when I saw them in other places. After we did rounds together at the holy site, I made her write them again more neatly.

And Monday I borrowed National Language books from the school store—I had no duties at all today, and although I could be tidying up my gradebook, I can’t concentrate at school. Country X-ers are the loudest people on the planet, and these days they have very little work: they are free to relax and make noise. Also they are all bringing their screaming nursery school-age children with them. It’s better not to fight these things. It just ends up driving you mad. Or it drives me mad anyway. So I didn’t try to work.

Instead, I worked all day at reading. Now my head feels like it will fall off. I can’t seem to stop though. There is a beauty to the printed word making sounds in your head that is incomparable. I feel like a small child again, excited at the magic of learning. And it is magic, I think. This word thing that human beings have done is nothing less than magic, nothing less than exquisite.

I’m doing it now for practical reasons—I’ve been looking at National Language materials for long enough that they have begun to look like letters and words to me. And I’ve been listening to it long enough that the spoken language more closely resembles words than noise. But my vocabulary is exceedingly small: I would guess I know only about 15. Reading expands the possibilities for learning new ones.

That is the practical end of it. But this is also the outcome of my sadness. Very often, language is closely related to cultural identity. Here, the National Language is a part of their national identity. For me, investing in language skills indicates my willingness to begin to adopt parts of a cultural identity. It means, although I am aware that entering into the world around me will inevitably lead to pain, I am willing to do it anyway.

It means also that, although I may not be here much longer, this place and my friends here will remain a part of me. What I am taking on now as a new part of my identity will remain with me after I leave. When I go, the loss of this place and who I was here will not be complete or permanent. I will remain Miss Ash, the teacher of class 6 and 7 maths, who developed a Country X accent and wore the national dress even in her house.

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, the author remarks that the hardest part of farewells is that when you leave a place behind, you also leave the person you were when you were there. In a new place, you must become something of a different person. And I think that is a part of my sorrow here and a part of my ambivalence. On the one hand, I don’t want to evolve. I want to be the person I was before. On the other hand, I don’t want to become a person I must later leave behind.

However, I’ve started to think that I don’t have this quite right. The person I was before I came here will remain to a large extent. I am not starting over. I am just refining, adding bits here and there, shifting a bit. It’s a make-over, not a personality transplant.

And when I leave, I will still most likely be able to return here, and I most likely will.

I have been returning to India for 20 years. The connection I formed to the place and to the person I became there was not severed the first time I boarded a plane back to the US. It remained, grew, deepened. I know much more now about India than I did the first time I left that place. I am more acculturated now—more Indian—than I was then. The person I was there did not just shrivel and die.

There isn’t any real reason to think that won’t happen in this place.

Maybe I was confused because of what seems to be the experience of the other volunteer teachers: they seem to me to be like tourists on a long holiday. Yes, they are working and serious about their work. Yes, over time, they become attached to this place. But to many of my colleagues, novelty seems to be a big part of the draw and a bit part of their experience here. They seem to hold onto a sense of being someone apart, someone outside of the life in their villages and someone who remains at a distance from their Country X neighbors and colleagues. The teachers who have come to my village in previous years only rarely keep in touch with the teachers here. They have instead returned to their own lives with their year in Country X as a kind of long, exciting story to tell

I am not like that and I know it. I will miss Madame Kay the way I might miss my left arm if I lost it. Being without my holy site will break my heart. I haven’t kept myself at a distance despite my ambivalence about entering fully into my life and to life here. I have let everything into my heart the same way I would if I were planning on living here forever. As frightening as that is to me, I have done it. I suppose I have done it because, despite the pain of it, entering into life enriches you. And I know this too.

So I might as well be able to read the signs over the shops. Or at least learn a few more words.


Looking century

“You look century,” she said. This was one of Madame Kay’s friends, whose English is sparse.

What she really meant was you look very, very sad. She didn’t know the real meaning of century or that she was suggesting I looked a hundred years old. She’s right though–I am sad these days.

My sister asked me to call a few weeks ago—I haven’t spoken to her in four years, but she messaged me on Facebook and for once a message from Facebook downloaded on my slow-as-molasses Internet connection. So I’ve gone back into the burning house after her: I called her. I am in Country X. I feel safe here. So I felt I could.

I’m probably sad for other reasons also.

In fact, I think it is probably five or six things together, none of which I feel capable of sorting out at the moment.

Mainly, I think it has to do with my ambivalence around connection—not just connection to people, but connection to this place, connection to myself and to my own life and feelings.

I’ve managed to get through the day for many years by disconnecting. Denial and dissociation are a way of life for me. But they aren’t my first choice or my first instinct. All other things being equal, my first choice is to enter fully into whatever I am doing and to connect to whoever I am with. So at the moment, I want to connect to all of this.

I want to connect to the clover growing around the holy site that the children make wreaths out of. I want to connect to Madame Kay and her hard-drinking friends. I want to connect to my students who call out to me from far away, “Good morning, Madam,” and “Good morning, Miss,” because they want for me to notice them.

I don’t want to miss out on a second of this.

I don’t want to miss out on a second of any part of my life, and yet being fully connected to myself and the world around me means opening up to unbearable pain.

Life isn’t supposed to be that way. It’s supposed to hurt sometimes—we all have setbacks, disappointments, heartbreaks—but it isn’t supposed to hurt all the time or to hurt so much. What I lived through, and the reason I still hurt so much, is really outside the normal range of human experience.

I don’t really know what the line is between normal suffering and unthinkable suffering, but mine is in the second category. Other people have to deal with unthinkable suffering also—I am not alone in this—but what I am saying is that our species didn’t evolve to cope with this. We aren’t set up for it. To do it—to be both connected to myself and my experience of life—I have to be something that is more than human. I must be extraordinary. I am not always that extraordinary.

The end result is that doing what I want to do—connecting to life and to myself—involves pain. A lot of it. Almost constantly. And so it’s natural at some point that I might again feel the need to draw back from life. Everything hurts or it reminds me of something that hurts and sometimes that is just too much. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to draw back. But I wasn’t designed to cope with so much pain. I am not completely superhuman.

And I think my sadness lately is about that reality. I cannot quite have everything. I can connect more to my life—I am in less pain and so sometimes the level of pain involved in connecting is bearable—but it’s not uncomplicated. Very often I can have one pain (the pain that comes with connection). Or I can have a different kind of pain (the pain that comes from disconnection). But I cannot live a life without pain—not yet, at least, and probably not for a long time. My choices often come down to what kind of pain I would prefer to have.

I think this happens in the healing process sometimes. You turn a major corner in your work and you think to yourself, Okay, now life is going to be okay again. Life will be manageable. But for those of us with very severe traumas to deal with, life remains very difficult to manage for many years.

You turn a corner and what you should realize instead is, Okay, now I am strong enough or I have dealt with enough of the pain already that I can afford to feel the full brunt of my agony. I can stop dissociating or numbing or denying enough to just feel excruciating pain. In between bouts of agony, I might even feel a few moments here and there of joy and wonder. I will be able to feel real sometimes, and that will be nice. But many things will still hurt. They will still hurt a lot. Sometimes unmanageably so.

Life still hurts a lot for me. Sometimes unmanageably so.


There is another foreign teacher where I work. She is Japanese and teaches PE. We will call her Miss Japanese, which some people actually do. (I am Miss Foreigner, incidentally.) Miss Japanese and Madame Cee are very close—in fact, the best of friends. Miss Japanese is in her second year here and has had time to get to know people better than I have. But mostly I think she knows Madame Cee.

Friday, the three of us were walking together for a while, a little ahead of our drunken friends. Madame Cee said then that after the two of us leave in December, she won’t be friends with any of the other foreigners who come here. What she meant is that we will leave her broken hearted. She would not be want to be broken hearted again.

I have been thinking about that, because I will be broken hearted leaving here. Whether I feel anxious to leave when the time comes or not—exhausted, wanting a hot shower and a washing machine and a mattress that is more than two inches thick—or whether I will leave reluctantly is less certain. But later, I will miss this place that has become my home. And it will hurt. I am fairly certain it will hurt very badly.

And because of that I unconsciously hold everything here somewhat at a distance from myself. I want to be a part of the place, and yet I don’t. I want to be involved, but only a little. Not too much. Not so much that my heart breaks.

Graham Greene has a short story about two characters who are foreigners in a country during the outbreak of a revolution and civil war. In the beginning, they both feel safe. They are not involved, they tell each other. They are not engagé. So nothing will happen to them. In the end, of course, something does. It turns out you become involved whether you want to or not. We are drawn into the world around us and we find that, whether we intended to or not, we begin to care.

I think I am not involved here in Country X. I think I am not engagé, I think I can hold the world around me at a distance and in that way protect myself from the pain, but I cannot. I am involved. I am engagé. And later this will hurt. The distance I am trying to keep between myself and the world around me only dampens my experience in the present. It will do nothing to help me in the future.


When people are drunk, they start speaking more and more English. I thought Madame Tee didn’t speak English much at all. She said exactly two sentences to me the first three or four times I saw her. Then she got drunk one afternoon and became close to fluent. Now she talks to me. But before that, she was too shy to say very much.

Generally, people won’t speak English unless they are speaking directly to me. If I’m out with a group of people, they will speak the National Language or the Regional Language. Sometimes, they will speak Nepali, which I understand maybe a fourth of. I know ten words of the National Language now, and maybe three of the Regional Language. I don’t understand much unless they start throwing English words in, which fortunately they sometimes do.

When I am with other people, I become silent. I am listening. Every outing is a language lesson. Sometimes I learn from it. Sometimes I don’t. I have this idea that if I keep trying, I will succeed. So I keep trying.

It means my experience of being around Country X-ers is very different for me than it is for them. They are listening. I am mostly watching, trying to catch the context, trying to grasp the emotional content, so that I can decipher a little of what is being said.

But my silence reminds me of being selectively mute, and to some extent I revert to that state when I’m in that situation. These days, I think a lot about words and about language.

Language signals identity for many people. When I taught at a Latino-dominated school, language was a social divider. There were the children who were not fluent in English and the children who were more or less bilingual and the children who only spoke English. The English-only speakers had forgotten their heritage. The English learners were backwards. The bilingual children were the group to belong to.

The fact that I don’t understand what is being said positions me as an outsider, and yet I don’t entirely feel that way. I just feel different.

But speaking language at all is another dividing line. People speak. Animals don’t. As a child I stopped speaking both because I didn’t want to be a person anymore—being human was too terrible to endure—and because I didn’t feel I was a person anymore. I can’t say what I thought I was, but what was going on in my house wasn’t human. It was demonic. Even if I wanted nothing to do with any of that, I had to. In those days, I didn’t have any choices.

Every time I am silent, these ideas return to me. What does it mean to be human? Am I human? Do I want to be human?

There are times when it seems to me I am afraid to try to belong—not just here, but anywhere—because I think I will be found out. Someone will notice that I am not a person like other people. I will be caught and sent back to that place I grew up in where people who weren’t people but instead were something demonic lived. It isn’t rational, but then a lot of things aren’t.

I can write. There seems to be some other box in my head for that and writing doesn’t raise so many questions. Speaking is fraught.

I am trying to convince myself that being human can be beautiful. Words can also be beautiful. They do not need to be used to hurt others. That is, after all, much of the reason I write: to remind myself that amidst all the horror of my life, beauty remains. My dad was never so powerful that he could make all of life ugly. He could only destroy his only little corner of it. The butterflies still flew, the sun still shone, the grass grew, and people loved each other and were kind. Words are a part of that beauty, or they can be. If you make them that way. I don’t need to be afraid of them. They do not have to hurt.

I can speak.

Friday God

Friday was a holiday. Almost all of the holidays here are religious. They are either religious or an important person’s birthday, or an important person’s death anniversary. So we went to a temple.

The temples here are mostly built on hillsides, and a trip to a temple usually means a steep, strenuous hike.

We left at five in the morning. I don’t talk at five in the morning. My mind cannot organize itself to speak at that hour, so on the way up was very silent for me and more than a little confusing—all that speech, all in languages I don’t understand. I walked up mostly alone, between the group that had gone on ahead and the group that was falling behind. I looked at the butterflies scattering up from around my feet, the rocks, the plants growing up out of the sides of trees, while the rest of the party played music on their Ipods, chattered, sang.

Country X-ers don’t like walking for the most part. Walking is a way of getting from one place to the other, and while they occasionally notice the beauty of their environment, mostly they don’t care to walk through it or to notice it. My friends were looking for ways to make the walk more pleasant, and that involved making a lot of noise I wasn’t ready to hear.

For me, the walk was pleasant. It felt good to be using my body, to be alive in that way. And it felt good to be out of the bazaar.

We reached the temple at half past nine. I had some thoughts there, as I worshipped along with the Country X-ers. I don’t think God really needs our worship. Maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t. But I think we worship because we need to. We build temples and churches, create rituals and pass them down to our children, because we need to remind ourselves of our faith. Otherwise, we would forget. Worship reminds us, first of all, of the wonder in our world and it also reminds us of our smallness in the face of that wonder.

When they pray, Country X-ers pray that all sentient beings will be released from suffering. Their prayers remind them to be compassionate, that we are all in a state of suffering, and that we need to remember to be kind to one another. Christians pray for other things, but they also are reminded to love one another. That is the greatest commandment. Generally speaking, worship reminds us not to be jackasses. We need that reminder.

Maybe we shouldn’t need rituals and prayers to do that, but I think most of us do. I think many of us need more reminding than we get.

After lunch, we walked down again. This time, Madame Cee and I—we’ll call her that, but it’s not her name—walked together. We were walking at a faster pace than the rest and left the group behind for most of the way. Madame Cee is observant. She believes very sincerely. She said on a day like today—an auspicious day—we should not waste time. We should pray. So for a half hour or so, maybe longer, the two of us prayed as we walked.

When I pray, I am reminded that I am free.