The onion

There seem to be layers to my problem.

They are all about culture. They are all about who I am and how I perform the fact of my “I-am-ness” in a social context. Peter Berger writes, “Identities are socially bestowed. They must also be socially sustained and fairly steadily so. One cannot be human all by oneself and, apparently, one cannot hold on to any particular identity all by oneself.” I think he’s right. He’s also pointing to what all the layers of my problem have in common. I cannot maintain a consistent identity here and it’s painful.

At assembly one morning last week, the Staff-on-Duty reminds the students not to lose their identities. I think this was probably said in the context of boys keeping their hair short or girls not wearing fancy clips. I can’t claim I was paying terribly close attention. But it struck me very deeply.

Most of the time, I feel like I am losing my soul here. I am losing my identity.

I try to think what that identity is or what it was. What am I so afraid of losing? I peel away the layer of having grown up in a very specific border culture. I peel away the layer of having grown up in close contact with the border’s criminal culture and my father’s psychopathy. (Why is it a student once asked, in all seriousness, if I was in White Fence, a gang in South Central Los Angeles? Oh, that’s why….) I peel away the layer of having acculturated to India.

There’s one more layer maybe I forgot about. I grew up in a cult.

Country-Xers are loud. Not all the time or in all contexts, and there are quiet Country X-ers, just as there are quite Americans—although Americans are also very loud. But I find myself in situations where someone shouts a question at me from some distance away—across the room or from down the street—and it feels so emotionally painful for me to be loud that it feels like something terrible is happening to my insides. I cannot shout. I have done it twice and lived to tell about it, but the way I felt afterwards was simply awful.

They are blunt. I think actually they are blunt about some things and not others, but I haven’t sorted this out yet. However, for the most part, they are fairly direct. There isn’t a heavy layer of subtext to decipher. And I am not used to that either. Mostly, this is a bad thing. I am very often terribly confused, finding myself responding to an unspoken message that was never intended—and doing that in an indirect way that is either missed entirely or is puzzling to others. Yesterday, it was a good thing. I lost patience with a teacher—he’s always trying to prove his intelligence, so let’s call him Smart Sir—who asked me a question in Hindi in a lousy accent that didn’t make any sense. He does this just to see if I really know Hindi. I am not fluent, in fact, so the point of this remains a mystery to me. I said, “I understand you are trying to speak Hindi.” If he’d been in the habit of looking for subtext, he would have realized I had insulted him. He continued unruffled.

There are other things, but maybe you get the idea. I need to change some things to function here. I need to be loud. I need to be direct. (I can, actually, be direct about work matters. It is the personal end of things that gives me trouble.) I probably need to be more interested in clothes.

And then there is this matter of coming to terms with being different and being an outsider. And I need to accept my limitations. That I cannot really be considerate of others or anticipate their needs because I don’t know enough about them. I can’t be perfect.

I wonder why these things give me so much trouble and why I wake in the night feeling so much pressure inside I want to cry. Then I remember. I was raised in a cult.

Growing up in a cult is like growing up in another country. There are differences in values, communication strategies, language idioms, metaphors, and social practices. They may not be the same across different groups of the same cult, but they are distinctly different from the mainstream culture. This happens because of the intense isolation. Even if you don’t grow up on a commune, in contact with only other members of the cult, a distrust of outsiders prevents the kinds of connections from developing that would allow a cultural exchange. As a 2×2, you meet outsiders, you talk to them, you might even be friends with them, but you assume they will not understand you and you will not understand them. Not unless they convert. So you don’t take on any of their values or practices. You learn only those of the cult.

For me, growing up in the 2x2s was like growing up in a village. Although large by 2×2 standards, our church was small. We were very, very close. Everyone knew everything about each other. We saw each other often. And we helped each other. At times, I thought the help wasn’t real help. It was only skin-deep. But it doesn’t matter. Helping was a general practice for us. So there was a strong element of interdependence that is unlike the general WEIRD-culture bias towards independence.

It was also strongly hierarchical. “Friends” or “saints” (laymembers) deferred to the “workers” (ministers). Women deferred to men. Younger people deferred to older people. New members deferred to long-standing members and to those “born-into” the 2x2s. Ordinary “friends” deferred to “elders” (those appointed to host church services in their homes and do many other things, not all of them publically known.) Without any discussion, I think we all knew exactly where we stood and who had more or less status than we did.

More status meant you had the privilege of being right. You could criticize others’ lack of religiosity, their manner of dressing, or their hairstyle. Within a group, you might also be allowed to have the final word on interpretations of Bible passages or questions of doctrine. What I remember is that a person with less status did not ever directly disagree with someone of higher status. I could say, “I have been having doubts about this….” There were other stock phrases, but I don’t remember them just now. But you did not criticize or contradict. Then you were reminded, “Judge not that ye be not judge.” Judging was the province of higher-ups.

I also remember that part of the role of those in the higher echelons was to keep those of lower status in line through criticism—either overt or implied. So an older woman might give a younger’s short hemline a long, disapproving look. Or she could directly make a comment. I think we all remember those disapproving looks. When you have such a small world to live in, the disapproval of even one person—especially a person respected in your community—is very powerful.

And I remember some of the values we shared: serving others and preserving the unity.

Together, they meant you needed to watch and listen to see what the group seemed to want to do. You needed to see what you could do to help move the group move in that direction. You had to be good at anticipating the needs and preferences of other people. Otherwise, you were selfish. I don’t think we said selfish. I think we said, “Not mindful.” Or maybe we had some other stock phrase—”the wrong spirit.” It’s been a long time. But you certainly didn’t look after yourself first. You always thought about others before you thought about yourself. It wasn’t at all in line with the general WEIRD-culture emphasis on individuality and achievement.

Some would call that not interdependent, but co-dependent. However, I’m not convinced that there is anything inherently harmful in prioritizing the needs of others. I am not even convinced there is anything wrong with having a very hierarchical culture. Many cultures are also very hierarchical. They also place a high value on thinking about other first. They aren’t all disproportionately affected by abuse, child-maltreatment, or substance abuse. But families with various kinds of untreated mental illness become highly interdependent in order to cope with the stress of the mental illness in the family.

“Modesty” was big too. Outward, “being modest” for females meant wearing a lot of ugly clothes and styling our hair the way ladies did a hundred years ago. More importantly, it meant being quiet and unassertive. Unless you had more status. Then you could be a jackass. It all depended. But if you are a child in the cult, you have no status. You must be quiet, you must not speak up or speak your mind, you must take the criticism of your elders quietly. You cannot argue or defend yourself or become upset. You must be gentle. You must be soft-spoken. You must not complain. You must learn to exercise self-control.

The main value was this: We needed to try to become perfect. So, “Jesus was our perfect pattern.” We needed to become “more perfect in the sight of God.” There were other phrases. Perfect was definitely a big deal.

Given all this–interdependence, hierarchy, anticipating the needs of others, and being perfect—many of us kids growing up in the “way” became highly anxious. I pick at the skin around my nails. It isn’t “perfect.” My niece pulls her hair out. It isn’t “perfect.” A childhood playmate compulsively washed her hands. They weren’t perfectly clean. One boy was hospitalized for a bleeding ulcer at 17. There were so many things we needed to be perfect at, and so many of them were so difficult. It was easier to wash your hands.

If we weren’t “perfect enough”—something we could never know—we couldn’t be “saved” from hell. We would burn forever. And even if it didn’t come to that, the workers might give you one of their looks. And that was bad enough.

When I broke away from the 2x2s, I thought I was breaking away from all of this. But it is still agonizing to be loud or direct about personal matters with anyone I don’t know very, very, very well. I have to change.

What’s interesting about this is that I don’t feel guilty when I break these old rules. I feel ashamed. Being loud is more like having a bowel movement in public than having an affair with my best friend’s spouse. Aggressiveness is like leaving the house dirty and unwashed and with my clothes on inside out. It feels more like a lack of self-respect than anything else.

But it’s nice at least to get a handle on this. Maybe I can change. Or at least sleep at night again.


A meander: identity, culture, perspective-taking, lunch and the Regional Language

Today at lunchtime, I sat with Madame Kay in her staffroom. I don’t do this every day. Most people have a set routine. I wander. Sometimes my staffroom, sometimes hers, sometimes the IT lab where Madame Cee eats with Miss Japanese. I have only so long to get to know all of them. I don’t want to miss out on anything.

The dynamic in Madame’s Kay side has changed since the beginning of the year, because there was a quarrel. Maths Sir was very harsh with Maths Ma’am—to the point of rudeness—and for no good reason. So Maths Sir stopped eating with her. His wife did too.

Now there are five people eating on Madame Kay’s side at lunch, and only three on my side—not including me, since I change sides. It’s louder on Madame Kay’s side now. Further, they speak the Regional Language most of the time. Before the addition of Maths Sir, they used to speak the National Language.

Unfortunately, although I understand a little of the National Language, I comprehend almost none of the Regional Language. So sitting on Madame Kay’s side for lunch has become somewhat pointless for me, and I do it less as a consequence. But I went today.

I always listen to these conversations. I listen even when I don’t want to. In some way, I find myself mesmerized.

But as I listened today, I also thought about how I felt listening, and I thought about how the others must see me: someone listening, but not talking, not understanding. What do they think about my presence? Both generally and in that moment at lunchtime.

For me, I had a sense of being both inside and outside, of being a part of things and a stranger, accepted and ignored. And that’s probably how others see me also–in-between. In addition, there is a sense of being continuous in some way—of being myself perhaps—that is new for me. It is as if until now my whole life was here. There was no future and no “I” beyond this experience. Perhaps Country X is simply that all-consuming or maybe it has something to do with my attitude toward time and connection and I know now that being here is one piece of my life. Other things will happen. Meanwhile, I will continue to be myself. Or maybe—and this seems the most likely explanation—I was uncertain how much of myself would change here, either because I am in the process of integrating my personality or because I need to change in order to adapt. And now perhaps there is some core part of an “I” that I can anticipate will not change or at least will not change entirely.

I have had a bit of a crisis recently. It’s interesting, because the hard part about adapting to a new culture is not that you don’t like that culture, but that you don’t like who you are in that culture. What you can do is different: there are many things you don’t have the skills to do or you don’t have the resources or it isn’t allowed or there is no space for it to be done. How people see you is different—and they don’t usually see you in the same way as people saw you in your home culture or in the same way that you once saw yourself. So I haven’t liked myself very much for a while. My dislike for myself has been excruciatingly painful.

First I felt inadequate, then I felt stupid, then I felt selfish. All of it was really horrible.

None of those things would hurt so much if I had seen myself in those ways before coming to Country X. My flaws I can accept. But those things are in conflict with my old view of myself. In general, I am competent, I am smart, I am at least adequately thoughtful. But here there are so many things I can’t do, so many things I don’t understand, so many ways in which I cannot consider the needs and desires of those around me. I continually fall short of my own standards for behaviour.

I cannot take the perspective of those around me. I don’t know how others here see me or how they see other things. I don’t know enough about them to be able to do that. So it’s hard to maintain a consistent sense of identity—even without all the complications of being in parts. A part of my crisis was about grasping for a perspective I could not locate. Sometimes, wrong information feels better than no information. And thinking we know how others see us even when we don’t starts to feel easier than leaving an empty space in our heads.

So I began to imagine others saw me as selfish also. They do not. I don’t know how they see me, but selfish is not it. Selfish is how I see me.

This idea of the blank space in my self-image interests me because I grew up urgently needing to take the perspective of one person in particular—my psychopathic father. He was the one most in control of my life or my death. Consequently, it was his mind I had to be able to see in order to keep myself safe. However, his mind is different than almost everyone else’s.

For many years, the minds of average people were like a blank space to me at least in terms of how they saw me. Trying to take their perspective was an endless source of confusion to me. Being in parts didn’t help, but all of this makes me think now that the blank space was more about having only one model for a mind—and having that mind be highly unusual.

I don’t know exactly what to say about that. Just that the whole world has been something of a foreign country to me.

Two extra hours

I woke up at 2:30 a.m. this morning. I haven’t been sleeping well. I haven’t been sleeping well and I haven’t been eating well. I am too wrapped up in my own internal drama to attend to normal life. It is all I can do to manage my emotions, get through the day, and create some appearance of normalcy. I can’t also make dinner or relax enough to sleep.

I know I woke up because some part of me believes that I need two extra hours to think things through before it is time for school and having to face the world. And maybe that part is right.

The issue is still culture shock, but it strikes me sometimes the challenge in my life most of the time is about identity. I am in parts and have a dissociated sense of my identity. In the process of integrating them, I have to re-assess my identity repeatedly. And then there is this—adjusting to a new culture—which leads to changes in identity also. Culture shock may not be very much different.

But I can tell you, these days, I feel like I’m losing my soul.

It’s terrible.

I want to be someone who can live here comfortably, who can understand the culture I am in well enough to get through the day without confusions or misunderstandings, but I also feel afraid of what that might require. Who will I be if I do that? I liked who I was before I came here. Do I want to be someone different? I don’t know.

Yesterday, it occurred to me that to some extent I know how to do this. I have done this before. I know how to build bridges with people who are very unlike me. And a part of what you have to do is be very direct. The more confusing things feel, the more direct you need to be so that things are completely clear.

And you would think I could do that. The United States is a very direct culture. This should come very naturally to me.

But I can’t. I feel horrified even thinking about it. Being direct makes me feel like I don’t have any manners. And feeling I have no manners makes me want to cry. Many things make me want to cry these days. They are all like that. Behaviours that might help me in one way except that they make me feel bad because of the meaning they have for me. Or behaviours other people have that might mean one thing to the doer and make me feel bad because of the meaning they have to me. Or might have to me.

I am often not very sure.

So, mainly, I think I’m painfully confused about how I got here. Why am I this person who holds this set of meanings for behaviours? They are the wrong meanings, or they feel like the wrong meanings. The behaviours that hurt the most to relinquish are not from my home culture. They are from my adopted culture. They are Indian behaviours, derived from Indian values.

A new teacher here sees me writing in Hindi one afternoon and is shocked. “I’ve never seen a foreigner do anything like that. They are our neighbors and we can’t read or write in Hindi.” I don’t say, yes, I’ve been involved with that culture for 20 years. I thought it made sense to become literate in the language I most commonly hear and see. You are neighbors, but you are not involved. I am involved.

National Language Ma’am’s husband says, “You’re more Indian than Western. I’ve never seen that before.”

It opens up an old wound for me. A wound I haven’t resolved and don’t understand. Or didn’t for a long time. Not until this morning, after my two extra hours.

Because re-entry shock after my first trip to India was really, really difficult for me and from what I remember, never entirely went away. What I did was learn to cope. I found ways to retreat into myself or into some forms of Indian culture that gave me some relief. What I am experiencing now in a culture foreign to me is what I have experienced at home. I am all wrong. Or I feel all wrong.

Except I was raised in a cult. We weren’t on an island or commune or in an isolated village. I went to public schools. I played with the neighbor kids. Nonetheless, I spent the majority of my childhood in the world of the 2x2s, the sex trafficking world of my father, and my father’s bizarre personal cult at home.

I left home at 18, spent the next two years separating financially and interpersonally from my parents, and then I went to India. So the first culture I had the psychological leisure to adapt to was Indian. Neither the United States nor India nor Country X are my first cultures. Madness was my home culture. The pain of that has kept me from adopting the attitude of interest and curiosity necessary to fully enter into it. I have moved substantially past the pain—enough to see that this has happened and why it has happened. And so for the first time in almost a month, I feel substantially clear on who I am and how I got to be this way. Because of that, I feel a little less “wrong.”


La Frontera

Being in a new culture forces you to reconsider your home culture.

Lately, I have had an insistent sense of loss and confusion. Who am I anyway? Or at the very least who was I before I became this, this whatever-it-is that I am? Culture shock is not really a problem with the new culture. It is a problem with the self.

Even if you don’t intend to and don’t realize you are doing so, you adapt. You change. And to some extent or another, you become a different person. Or at the very least you become someone you see differently. The problem within the self is about the clash of those different ways of seeing oneself—the old way and the new way.

Because I’ve done this before, it’s not just one old way and one new way colliding in my head, but three or four. Whatever someone does or says, whatever I do or say, I can interpret as having three or four different possible meanings. Sometimes, I know which is the most appropriate one, and I choose that and life is simple, happy, and easy. Other times, I find myself seeing things—including myself and my own behaviour–in two or three different ways simultaneously. And my head silently begins to implode on me.

My head did that this morning. It was ugly and messy and I cried for a while. Then I pulled myself together and did rounds at our holy site, while praying the typical Country X prayer. Following that, I went to visit Japanese Miss, who has been very sick lately but was recovering beautifully when I saw her. I was just a little bossy and scoldy in a desi aunty kind of way. Finally, I came home and tried to make a Mexican-style curry. Which, surprisingly, did turn out to taste a little like Mexican food. And was very, very nice.

These days, a little voice in my head says I’m losing my identity, and it feels very sad and upset about it. I suspect this is actually a Country X voice, because Country X-ers value their own culture very highly. They want to enter the global economy and the 21st century as people who remember who they are and where they came from. And this voice is not very happy that I don’t really know who I am and I can’t really remember where I came from

It all seems so long ago since I left there and so many things make it painful to remember. But the other night, falling asleep, I began to remember what it was like in the small town where I grew up.

I hate that town with all my heart and soul. For me, it represents evil personified, deceptively papered over by a small-town mask of innocence. I remember in high school that the thing to do on the weekends was to cross the border into Mexico and get wasted, because there you could get away with it at 15 or 16. And I remember that the economy floated on crystal meth and human trafficking, that all the hardest work was done by undocumented workers for shamelessly low wages, and that family friends once had their house broken into and robbed—and the thief stole all the underwear.

Still, at night, I fell asleep to the chorus of coyotes howling at each across the hillsides. When I walked through the fragrant chaparral, flocks of quail would race into the bushes ahead of me. I remember lizards puffing their throats up as they soaked in the sun and I remember always watching for rattlesnakes. I miss that.

That is gone now. The town where I grew up is built up now crowded. The beauty I remember of the place is no longer there. But that is what I grew up with.

And it made me realize I didn’t grow up squarely in Western or American culture. I grew up in a border culture. That is where I am from. I am from a region that is situated in every sense between two nations and two cultures. It is not entirely one or the other. Its history is as mixed as its present: first Spanish, then Mexican, then American. Following European conquest, my town has been a part of three nations.

In a border culture, positioning yourself in relationship to the other is a primary psychological task. You can be hostile and defensive, trying to keep the other at a distance from yourself and protect yourself from a cultural pollution. Or you can be open. Some of us were the first way and some of us were the second way. But those are really the only two choices. You cannot live only within your own culture as if there is no other. The other is always there, in front of you, demanding an opinion, a relationship, a response of some kind. You must provide one.

In the staff room here in Country X, mostly the conversation occurs in the regional language. I can sit and have lunch with my friends and finish my food without having understood anything. This confuses me. Both what this means and how I feel about it confuses me—because of the mix of cultural perspectives in my head.

From a Western perspective, the meaning of my colleague’s behaviour towards me—to leave me almost entirely out of the conversation—is that I am not welcome or wanted. And what I should probably feel is hurt. So sometimes I do feel hurt. From what Madame Kay tells me, the Country X perspective is that what is being said would not be of interest to me anyway, so in a sense they are being considerate and saving me the trouble of listening to nonsense. Maybe then I should feel grateful. Or perhaps just bored. From an Indian perspective, they are being inconsiderate of me, and what I should feel is a little indignant. From the perspective of my home culture—the border culture—the meaning of this is that they feel comfortable enough with me to speak their mother tongue or something close to their mother tongue even though I am there, so then what I might feel about it is a sense of ease and relaxation and feeling of being welcomed. And sometimes I do feel that way.

All of these meanings are incorrect to one extent or another. I am not unwelcome or unwanted. Madame Kay is wrong in thinking that I am bored by Y-town goings-on and probably the rest of my colleagues are too. They are not being inconsiderate of me—my colleagues are trying to consider my feelings, but they don’t know what those feelings are. And it is not an expression of comfort or ease with me: they would speak a language I didn’t understand even if they didn’t like me or feel comfortable with me.

But at least I know what perspective I began with and, in a sense, what my cultural home once was. And it makes sense that what I do in response is to listen and try to understand.

Because where I am come from, if you aren’t a jackass, you try to enter into the culture of the other in whatever way you can, to whatever extent you can. I am not a jackass.


Culture shock/self-shock

So it turns out that culture shock comes in waves. I knew this, but then I forgot.

When we returned after midterm break, I was almost immediately grumpy for what seemed to me to be really trivial reasons. Because I had forgotten about the whole wave-thing, I thought I was just being my normal, somewhat confusing self. After I felt fine again the next day, I was reassured. All was well.

But the grumpiness came back today, and I know this grumpiness. It is culture shock.    

I’ve never been anywhere outside of my home country for this long, so I haven’t experienced a second bout of this before. I think I had imagined that culture shock would be more like chicken pox—you go through it once, get it over with, and are fine again. At least until you develop shingles 50 or 60 years later.

But it is not like chicken pox. It is more like an especially persistent case of malaria. You get sick, then well again. You are well for a while, get used to being well, and then all of a sudden you are not well. You are just as sick as you were to begin with.

So I came home tonight feeling miserable, cried for a while, and then went to see Madame Kay. Who did not understand, but cheered me up anyway. As a foreigner—for me, anyway—what is most uncomfortable is that sense of not being normal, of being somehow uneasy or confused in the world, and being uneasy in my own skin. And she made me feel a little bit normal again.

When I came in, Madame Kay was cleaning her ear with a dangerous-looking gold pin. Then she went for the cotton swabs. I guess for the fine touches. That was only after dragging a nasty bit of skin and earwax out of her ear canal. But there is something about being greeted by someone who is rubbing a foreign object around in her ears that makes you normal again. Or maybe it’s something that has only become normal to me after living in Country X for five months. Sometimes it’s difficult to quite know.

In the staff room today, I was thinking very hard about some changes I wanted to make in the rules and procedures of my classes and my eyes wandered to the doorway. But directly in that view was a colleague. I think we’ll call her National Language Ma’am. National Language Ma’am was reaching under one layer of her national dress and picking her underpants out of her butt crack. I didn’t particularly notice this. I was just thinking about how best to express some thoughts to the students. But this is partly because my sense of decorum has changed and National Language Ma’am was among friends at that moment—and free to adjust her underpants all she wanted. At least in my view.

And I guess the ear-cleaning made me feel better for that reason. For Madame Kay, semi-public ear-cleaning is a normal activity. You should probably stop doing it in front of important guests, but you are free to dig for gold all you in front of your friends. I felt the same way. At last—a shared meaning. Because it is the lack of a shared meaning for behaviours that makes for the most upsetting culture shock.

There was something else that cheered me up too.

First of all, what makes me feel the most not-normal here in Country X at the moment is not understanding any of the languages spoken. I can understand a little bit sometimes—mostly because they use English words—but not most of what they are saying and only with great effort. So I can break my head trying to understand and still not really succeed—which makes me feel stupid. Or I can not understand and then be left out of most social interactions. And instead feel lonely. Not understanding the languages that people feel most comfortable speaking makes it very difficult to be a part of things or to enter very far into the culture or the community.

Tonight, in the national language, Madame Kay told her daughter to prepare tea for me. And I understood.

Later, a colleague came to the house with fabric and they got to talking about national dress and fitting and some other things I didn’t quite catch. Also in the national language. And the colleague said the national dress she was using as a model was too big and Madame Kay said it was fine. And I understood that too.

So then I began to feel a bit of hope for myself. Sometimes, I do understand what is being said. It may be possible for me to learn to understand at least some things in the course of the next year and half that I intend to be here.

I began to think I can do this. Or as my blogging friend Ellen says, I can do some of this. That’s a start. Isn’t it? Some of this is something.

Fate, Charlotte, and Madame Kay

Today started off badly.

I think it began with the mice two days ago.

My resident house mice, I have determined, are out of hand. There are too many of them and they are too bold and, although I like mice, they are not sanitary to have in your kitchen or, indeed, in your living room. So I have been systematically murdering them.

A colleague told us about his homemade mouse trap, which can be either lethal or non-lethal. Mine is lethal, because I’m not sure what the point of taking a mouse outside would be. It’s not like mice can’t find their way home again.

The trap drowns them, which is not the most painful way to die, but it is terrifying. I know this and am horrified at myself for doing it. Twice, I could not bear to see a drowning mouse succumb to the water, and I hit it with a beer bottle to save it from prolonged suffering.

It is really and truly awful. And I would like them all to die fast so I can get this over with. There are five of them at least. I have killed three. The other two have become cautious and I don’t see them as much. But they are still there.

This has triggered a horror at myself and at what I am capable of doing: there is an obvious parallel between bludgeoning a mouse to save it the terror of drowning now and strangling a kitten to save it from the pain of my father’s torture decades ago. What kind of heartless monster am I anyway?

Yesterday, I managed to do my marking, get through the day, be kind of normal. But then I couldn’t keep it together any longer. This morning, I was first in a mental fog and then in emotional anguish. Again, I felt worthless, useless, ugly and inadequate. I know I can’t just keep pushing those feelings away. But once I feel them, I don’t know what to do with them either. Mostly, I cried and wasted my internet balance surfing. I don’t really know if that helped or not.

Charlotte finally said, “Let’s make a cup of tea.”

Charlotte usually says, “Let’s make a cup of tea.” According to Charlotte, there is no problem that cannot be sorted out better with a little sugar and caffeine: she is firmly of the “tea and biscuit” school of psychotherapy.

Charlotte is an old part—old in the sense of elderly, or at least she seemed old to me when I was a child. Now, it’s possible I am almost her age. She is not motherly so much as spinster-aunt-like. And she has all the compassion some of me lacks and so much of me needs. She likes opera and classical music and, oddly enough, has a sense of style—which none of the rest of me really has.

So she made a cup of tea. And I did actually begin to feel better. I swept the house and made lunch at long last—at 3 pm. Things started to feel a little bit hopeful. I’ve been wrestling with this sense of contempt for myself and then Charlotte popped up with a bit of compassion. I let all of this sit in my head for a while and stew.

And suddenly I started thinking about sex. Which I normally avoid doing very much of. I’m not sure it’s relevant to my life these days in Country X anyway. But I came around to something important this time.

When you are trafficked by your parent, first of all, you very often have to look and act like you want what your abuser wants. You aren’t trying to please your abuser because you have a personal relationship with him. Many times, you’ve never seen your abuser before and you will never see him again. But you don’t want to be beaten afterwards or, in my case, put in the freezer. Your abuser is a customer, and the customer must be kept happy. If you don’t, your parent will do something terrible to you. It’s not that you have to make the people close to you happy. You have to make everyone happy. Anyone who wants something from you.

So you don’t have choices. You don’t even have the choice about how to feel or what to want. You have to want what near-strangers want. In every sense, your body is not your own. It belongs to everyone but you.

So I grew up in a condition of slavery. I didn’t have choices. I didn’t have choices about my body. I didn’t have choices about how my body felt. This wasn’t legal, but it was reality. I have choices now. I can choose what I do with my body. I can choose who can touch me and how. I can choose how I feel about these things or at least I don’t have to feel whatever someone else wants me to feel.

I was thinking this when I looked at my feet at the end of the couch from me, and it was like looking at a newborn baby. Yes, those are my toes. I have toes. I have a body. This is my body.

In other words, I had a sense of possessing myself.

All my life, I have felt like a ghost, because my body did not feel like my own. It is mine now. This feels a little bit wonderful to me.

It also made me think about how this started, because I didn’t do this alone. I work hard at healing, but none of it is entirely my doing. I have had a lot of help from a lot of people—you included.

It began with Madame Kay. Madame Kay is affectionate with her friends. When we first began to be friends, she was very affectionate with me. Very. She isn’t now. She is just normal. I don’t know why that changed or if it means anything much that it has. I don’t understand a lot of things here, so although sometimes I wonder what happened in her mind to alter her behaviour, I don’t wonder about it too much. If I did that, I would be wondering for a long time.

In Western culture, only your parents and your lover ever touch you that much or that intimately, and I had parents so very, very briefly. It made me feel differently about myself to be touched by someone who was neither. It made a difference that I was touched by someone who was only a friend. The walls came down in my mind. I wasn’t afraid of what I might have to want and so I could let in something of how she saw me.

Madame Kay saw me as someone you might want to touch—in other words, as someone who isn’t disgusting—and she also saw me as someone who has choices, who isn’t here to be used or exploited and who isn’t an object. I know this because it is how I felt when I was with her. I felt wanted, but not possessed. I felt that I had choices about what happened to me and choices about what didn’t happen to me. I felt I had choices about the body she was touching. It’s not that no one else has felt that way about me or seen me that way before, but touch reached me in a way that nothing else has. And maybe I was also just ready to be reached.

Every day, I am grateful that I came here—not just to Country X, but to my beloved Y-town. I have come so far because of it. I have come so far because of Madame Kay and Madame Cee and even Madame Tee. Maybe I cannot really credit them for any of it. They are just doing what they do and living their lives the way they live them. But I am just so very grateful.

Inadequate and ugly

The day before yesterday, Amit (who is not really named Amit, but reminds me of a Hindi film star of that name) asked me what the greatest challenge was. I wasn’t sure at the time. The challenges change. In the beginning, the biggest challenge was daily life. I didn’t know how to do anything. I didn’t even know how to buy vegetables. I still think I will probably not be able to manage having my national dress taken in because I shrank out of it since I bought it in January. Work is a challenge: People do speak English sometimes, but Country X English is a dialect unto itself. Someone commented on a friend’s Facebook page yesterday: “They are competing with age.” What does that mean? I have only a vague idea. Five months in, I am trying to sort out interpersonal relationships and communication.

But the same challenge that was there in the beginning remains: Country X makes me feel inadequate and ugly.

In my home country, in many respects I am average or at least I feel I am average. I am not typical, I suppose, but I am at least average. I can do some things better than many other people and other things I am considerably worse at. It balances out. Here, there is not a single useful task that ten-year-olds can’t do better than me.

I can speak and write in English better than anyone else here, that is true. But since no one would understand my beautiful English if I used it to its full potential, this is not useful either.

I am also better at engaging and supporting all students in the classroom, but since no one cares about engagement or supporting struggling students, this is also not useful.

The one thing I can do well is fold the collar of my national dress, but the charm of this is beginning to wear thin.

The list of things I suck at would be long, but here is a sample:

I cannot cook Country X snacks or dishes.

I cannot carry 50 kg on my back.

I cannot garden.

I cannot weave.

I do not know proper social etiquette.

I might be able to pray correctly. But that’s up for debate

Oh, and I do not have black, straight hair or smooth, even-toned skin. Instead, I have a horrifying mass of frizz I cannot sort out and freckles. And I turn red in the heat.

I am ugly.

And useless.

Being in a new culture is uniquely humbling. Sometimes it is difficult to remain quite so humble all the time.