My Baby

Saturday, in the morning, I was walking to school, and I could see the students from the higher school walking down the hill. The monks are reciting a prayer a certain number of times down at the holy site right now. It’s an annual thing. Anyway, I knew C must be walking down, and yet I could not stop to wait for her and see her. I had this terrible feeling, knowing she was so close and yet I couldn’t see her.

I don’t know why it was so intense, actually, and I did not have much time to think about it. In the afternoon, some of the higher school students were still there. I thought they would be there, so after school, I went. But I could not see her. I didn’t know if she was there or not. I don’t really know the other boarders, because they are mostly the ones who are not from here. I am not going to see them wandering around town. I know the day students, and really I only know Class 9 and 10 students, because those are the students who were at the lower school when I came. Because of that, I did not even really know if there boarders sitting and listening to the chanting, or the day students. It was an odd feeling again, not knowing if she was there or not. I always used to know where she was, because she was at my school. I knew what their activities were and I knew her routine at home. I knew where she ought to be.

It’s something I will have to get used to: this idea that I won’t know her every move. Maybe that’s all I’m working through at the moment. I am not sure. But it was so intense, that terrible feeling of being unable to find her. Missing her, and being unable to locate her.

It’s hard to get across how my thinking is so different now. I don’t mean my particular thoughts, but the way of thinking. It’s much less methodical and linear. It wanders down strange alleyways that are not clearly germane to the point, but seem to be necessary to get somewhere. I have a series of intense feelings and I have to work out what they are, but then I don’t necessarily know why I’m having them or what they connect to.

It seems to be fine in the end, but thinking has become a much messier enterprise than it used to be.

I wanted my baby. It came down to that. All of that longing and looking for her. I wanted my baby.

The thing is I had a dream a few nights ago that C was missing her family very badly and couldn’t stand to stay here. In reality, she probably is. The first few days of something new, you are taken up with learning about that new thing. Then once you’ve gotten a little bit used to everything, you start to miss the old things. That happens sometimes anyway. I am sure that is on my mind. My baby is sad, and I am not there to hold her and rock her.

Only my baby is 14. It’s confusing. Teenagers still need adults, but it’s different. There are new ways that holding and rocking look, and I don’t quite know what they are or if I am doing them.

The other things is I saw her friends walking home from school yesterday. The first thing D said was, “You aren’t meeting C?” There was the presumption that maybe something is wrong. I have no idea when she might have imagined I could have met C. Possibly, Tuesday—the boarders might have come down to the Holy Site again. I didn’t go, because I was totally exhausted, but maybe I could have met her then. I told D I was going to go on Sunday.

C’s friends are always concerned I am not seeing her enough, and I am not really sure why. D also thought C ought to be staying with me during the winter. Then C’s footballer friend, TY, felt worried C was not taking my calls. When I saw TY on Monday, she asked me right away, “Did you meet C?” I don’t know why it worries them so much, but it makes me think C might also be worried. If D wonders why I am not going to meet C, C might be wondering why too.

Later, I began to have an idea. On Sunday, I did meet C and I spoke to her for maybe 5 minutes. A little while later, I saw her two best friends. They aren’t seeing much of C either. D explained to me the reason for it, and I’m not sure I quite understood. She said C needs to be with the boarders. It isn’t required, but these are the girls who will take care of C. C needs to be with them. I guess.

But I think D also misses C and feels worried about her. She is older than C by about two years, and it might be that D has a kind of big-sister feeling for C. The other friend is almost exactly C’s age, but D is older.

So I have these couple of worries. My baby is homesick, and there is this other ill-defined expectation that I ought to be seeing more of her or talking more to her (people here will use “meeting” to refer to any contact—call, online chat, face-to-face).

Then it’s been almost a week. Maybe after a week, I just miss her.

Then also I was so close to her. If I had better eyesight, I probably would have seen her walking down the hill this morning.

Then maybe there is a different baby I am reminded of. One of our teachers was pregnant. She gave birth to the baby last week two months premature and the baby immediately died. I had a miscarriage as a teenager. I suppose I am reminded of that: holding that tiny little fetus in my hand.

Oh, and there was a kitten in the staffroom today. My baby was about kitten-sized. Very small kitten-sized, and this was a somewhat bigger kitten, but the kitten might have reminded me again. The weight of it in my hands was very similar.

I suppose I have been thinking a lot about separation anxiety and wanting my mommy. Then C called me mom to her friends. I suppose I am reminded of the baby that never lived to call me anything. It’s not that closely connected, but this seems to be how it all works. Your mind just kind of wanders. Stuff gets worked through. It’s confusing in the middle, thinking how does this all relate? But it works out in the end. I usually feel better in the long-run doing this.

First of all, it’s a somewhat different feeling, the sense of separation from a parent vs. the sense of separation from a child. It is similar in some senses, but different in others.

When I think about C, and when I miss her, it’s a different feeling than missing someone else. I didn’t realize that until late afternoon Sunday. I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, but I met her at the Holy Site again and a few hours after that I took a nap. A little while after I woke up, I had that same feeling, like an urgent need for her. It made me suddenly realize they were leaving the Holy Site. I had heard the end of the ritual without consciously being aware of it, and I knew that meant she would be leaving to go back to her hostel. I think feeling might be normal, it’s just I have these other traumas and I haven’t been able to really accept how I feel anyway, and so the feeling ends up in my stomach like knives.

I had that feeling for Nata, I realize, when she died. It’s about wanting to protect someone. It’s a recognition of separation that has a sense of needing to protect someone. You can feel separation from a protective figure too, and that also might feel like knives, but there is something adult to this feeling, as though I have power. The knives must be fear, and yet there is also a feeling of power and an urge to do something proactive, a wish to help or hold or defend someone.

It’s different in some ways and the same in others.

It’s a different feeling because it has to do with making sure C is safe. I hadn’t realized it was a different feeling, because I hadn’t fully connected it all. Yes, it’s kind of like separation from anyone important, but it’s also different. It is the same feeling as losing my own baby, the pregnancy that never fully developed into a child. I could not protect that baby, but the urge to protect it was so extremely intense. I don’t know why it died. I really don’t. I don’t know if it died the way fetuses do sometimes die or if some form of abuse helped it along. But that’s why my feeling of needing to protect C never fully gets processed. I have that feeling and get stuck thinking this just isn’t reasonable. I can’t work out why I’m having it. I can’t work it out because so many things remain too raw: the trauma of the miscarriage, and lots of other “baby” memories (Nata’s brutal abortion, Veroushka’s removal for adoption). They are processed enough that I could recognize them, but not so processed I could connect that this is the same emotion.

Some part of me knows, and yet my conscious mind can’t process it all. The information is not getting there to be processed. The feelings are being enacted or they are being suppressed. But they aren’t getting processed.

So I suppose I will do that now.

There was the miscarriage, with this sudden, brutal feeling of helplessness and despair—I instinctively wanted to protect that little, kitten-sized baby and yet I could not do anything. There was the sense of loss that was so extremely physical, because she had been in my body for four months. She was a part of me.

And then there was also Nata’s baby, who lit up every part of my heart the way I think only a child can. She wasn’t really my baby. She was Nata’s baby, but she felt every bit mine also.

As I got to know C, in retrospect, I must have had feelings I didn’t realize were familiar, because I knew but had forgotten the feelings that went with being a mom.

I was a child “mom.” I’m sure there’s a lot more to that to make sense of. The first bit of it being that as a child trying to care for a pregnancy or for an infant, you really have very little power. You want to have power to protect your baby, and yet you have so very little.

You cannot adequately protect that baby. You don’t have adult rights and you don’t have adult power or experience. If you are in an abusive environment, as we were, you really cannot protect them.

First of all, I think I need to grasp that my own baby died, because I am not sure that has completely and fully registered. I feel, in the present, as I remember it, just a terrible sense of confusion. That must be how I felt when it happened. This fetus cannot be on the outside of my body. This can’t be happening to me. And it also can’t be the little life Nata was trying so hard to save—one of the two lives she was trying to save, her little family—is dead along with her. It felt so cruel, and as though we were both so doomed.

Then also, I think I need to grasp that Nata’s baby is, very likely, fine. That baby was probably sold, but sold in a shady adoption to some well-off, white couple desperate to have a baby with a matching skin tone. Veroushka, I guess, would be 35. I don’t have any idea what she might have grown up to do. Maybe she’s a doctor or a lawyer, someone that would make a high-pressure couple with money to spend on an illegal adoption happy. She probably gets manicures and goes for acupuncture. She might get skinny lattes. She didn’t get sold into slavery. She got sold into having a normal enough life.

It’s somehow a lot to take in. I think it might be a lot to take in that I have feelings, just as other people do. They are all out of whack because of decades of unprocessed associations, a lot of them traumatic ones, so they are intense and many times I can’t make sense of them. But other people have these feelings of wanting to protect their children. Other people have the feeling that this child who has been given to me by God to take care of is absolutely precious. Other people are in awe at the way they make your whole heart light up sometimes.

I am not the only one with feelings, which I think is how growing up with parents who lack empathy tend to make you understand yourself. You are the space alien with all of this internal life. As an adult, that seemed to have morphed into this idea that I have feelings because of trauma. I have feelings about the trauma. Therefore the feelings themselves must be a result of trauma, and because I can’t process the trauma, I persist in being the space alien with feelings. If I could just process the trauma, I could stop having feelings.

Indeed, that is not it. Other people have feelings too. They have, in fact, more or less the same feelings. They can just make sense of theirs, and mine are only just now floating up from the murky, deciphered depths of sensations that were never integrated into my conscious awareness of the world.

I have a present. I have feelings about the present and in the present. They are connected to the past and sometimes made more intense by the past, but this is about the present even if everything inside me is still a little bit jumbled. I still have some kind of life.

It is getting dark now, and I miss C. Missing her is like knives. It is like partly because of the past: Dark is this terribly dangerous time in my memory. And I am supposed to make sure she is safe at home, only now I can’t, because there is no contact except in person. Her phone is with her uncle, and I call her or look at her online behaviour or otherwise deduce where she is or what she is doing.

Only I know the hostel matron must be watching them. She is not as safe as I would like her to be, but the worst cannot happen. That is why I made sure she was in the hostel. That is why she is here.

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Complicated

I think there is a bit more to add on to the last post.

Life is more complicated than we sometimes think it is and complex social problems don’t have anywhere near the neat and clean solutions we would like to think they have.

As a prime example, all of Western society seems to believe it knows how to address terrorism, and yet everything nations have typically done has worsened the problem and has also flown in the face of much of the academic research about what we ought to be doing. It might be our solutions make us feel better to imagine and that’s why we think, or that really solving problems is hard. I don’t know. But the fact is most people have only the vaguest of ideas how to really address complex problems, but we persist in thinking we know what to do.

I am imagining people driving down that street and seeing me, as this little child all dressed up in provocative clothes, obviously being trafficked and suddenly being faced with a decision about what to do. And everything they might once have thought would be the right thing to do no longer seems viable, because it was never viable.

What do they do? Nothing. They don’t know what to do, and so they do nothing.

They keep driving.

Later, it’s possible they feel so ashamed they did nothing they avoid thinking about the situation. They never think through what they could still do, because they can’t deal with the discomfort of being abrupty faced with their ineptitude in the face of a complex problem.

Or, they do think about it later, they discuss it with their friends, but they never move past merely processing their own horror. They might return to grasping at simple solutions, or things other people ought to do—what the police should do, what my parents should do, what the neighbours should do. They never progress to that point of thinking, what can I do? Because it’s not their child. They are not personally invested in what happens. I am not the only child in the world in this situation and it’s hard to think about. It’s hard to think about, we don’t like to do hard thinking, and they have their own problems to solve.

And they still never do anything.

That’s why. That’s why I was left on that street corner. It was hard to think about. Too hard. And they felt no personal connection to me. There was nothing to motivate them past the inevitable lethargy of “this is hard to think about.” So they didn’t.

Trafficked

I haven’t really been able to write most of the week. I don’t exactly have time—daily life is more demanding—and my thoughts are not proceeding in an organized way. More importantly, it doesn’t seem to be necessary for healing at the moment to force them to be organized. It used to help me a lot to do that. I organized them for a reader. This organized them for me. It helped me to have organized thoughts. Now they drift quite a bit, and it seems to be beneficial to allow it to remain that way.

My thoughts have mostly been about feeling ashamed. It’s getting triggered a lot for me. There are two things that seem to be major triggers at the moment: car engines and any kind of high-pitched noise.

The car engines are an issue because one of my neighbours is a truck driver and these days, he seems to be making a run somewhere or other every day, and this necessitates him idling his engine for between 10 and 30 minutes immediately outside my house. This doesn’t seem to happen at a set time. He starts up anytime between 5:30 and 7:30. So it’s not like I can plan it so that I am not in the front room of my house or the toilet where I can hear it better. I just have to deal with.

It seems pretty clear I am triggered by car engines as a result of the trafficking. There was a lot of roadside soliciting involved, and the sound of an idling engine was the sound of a car pulled over with a potential john inside. The truck is very triggering because it’s loud. It matters how intense the trigger—how strong the sensory input is and how close it is. It’s loud and it’s right outside my house.

I can’t do anything much about it most of the time. Frequently, I am in the middle of taking a bucket bath or I urgently need to get dressed for school then and there or I will be late. I can’t just leave the room.

There are also quite a few taxis—these are mostly “Boleros,” which you have probably never seen if you haven’t spend a lot of time in Asia. So they are basically jeeps. They are also loud. I suppose they park and idle their engines, waiting for something or other, because people have hired them to pick them up from the shop downstairs. I mean, they are picking up a fare who is taking home a box full of 40 ouncers of beer and a 50 kg sack of rice and some other stuff. Or they have come here because there is a bit of a parking lot. In other words, there are quite a few vehicles idling outside my house throughout the day. The truck is the hardest to deal with because it is very sustained, but I find myself feeling suicidal and suddenly realize there’s a taxi outside. Oh. Yeah.

The other trigger comes mainly from the Holy Site. It’s some kind of festival, as I might have mentioned. It involves saying a prayer a certain number of times. There is a lot of stuff going on down there, including broadcasting of recorded music and chanting. One of them is what I think must be Tibetan singing bowls. It’s some very high-pitched noise that is kind of like a beep only different and it goes on for hours. It also starts up around maybe 5 and runs until around 10 or so. It is interspersed by chanting in a growly kind of voice we usually associate with men’s sexual flirtation.

The singing bowls probably sound lovely and soothing for a few minutes interspersed by mellow, instrumental music. For hours at a time, it’s painful. I guess everyone else likes it or they wouldn’t be playing it, but it terrifies me.

The good news, I guess, is that I am not totally shut down when they happen. I don’t get all flat and glass-like. I feel afraid. Terrified, actually. I eventually shut down when I get to school and can’t cope with both trying to be a normal, social or working person and also terrified, but for a few hours, I can still keep having feelings even if the feelings suck.

This was, I admit, a bit mysterious to me. Then I started to put it together: any high-pitched sound scares me. We have these voting machines they use for captain elections to teach students about voting and they make a beeping sound when the vote is cleared and ready for the next person. They terrify me too. I recall being terrified every year on captain election day for 3 years now. The Japanese PE teacher who was here the first two years I was here had this high-pitched whistle she used to teach and I would get so rattled I could barely teach.

Whistles are high-pitched.

When you are standing on a street corner soliciting men for sex, people whistle at you, and it’s scary.

It’s scary and it feels shameful.

There is something about being trafficked that hit me really only just now. Living out men’s sexual fantasies is no little girl’s dream. However you want to look at it, no 8-year-old wants an adult man touching her in sexual ways. No little girl wants to dress up in a way she is old enough to understand as being slutty and then pretend she wants to have sex with men. A little girl wants to imagine much kinder, gentler things for herself.

The fact that I was out there doing what I had to do and my school friends were playing with Barbies and putting on pretty dress-up clothes begged the question, “Why me?” What is so wrong with me that I have to do this? Being trafficked must be one of the lowest positions on the social ladder. “Why must I occupy it?”

I doubt I could have articulated it in that way, but I know I experienced it as the emotion of shame.

From about 2nd grade, they gave assemblies and presentations and showed videos on “safe touch.” The idea is that some adult will protect you from unsafe touch.

Why did no one else protect me? When you are standing on a street corner, everyone knows what is being done to you. I mean, not people who knew me personally—this happened in a different city than where I lived—but society at large is aware there is a small child being forced to have sex with men. It’s not rocket science. Anyone driving by can work that out for themselves. There is no need to shout no and run. Everyone can see. If they don’t do anything to act when they see it, telling them personally is probably not going to make much difference.

They kept driving. I was not worth protecting. Why?

It’s an unanswerable question. I couldn’t answer it then and I really can’t answer it now. As an adult, I can understand that my parents were primarily responsible for protecting me and they were too selfish to do that, for different reasons. The police didn’t perhaps because they had “larger investigations” to carry out and the welfare of a single child couldn’t be allowed to impinge on their success. Yuri was probably a small-time criminal compared to his other “associates.” He may not even have been a target. They might have been much more concerned with combatting Mexican drug lords.

But what about everyone else? What about the family driving to the grocery store? Did ordinary people never drive down that street? It must have been a major street. There is a particular street in that city with a long history of being used for soliciting. It wasn’t some side street decent people can avoid driving down because they don’t want to see.

I suppose even decent people don’t imagine how a child in that situation feels underneath the mask she needs to wear. I suppose they assume the child simply doesn’t know enough to feel ashamed of what she has to do or is so badly broken inside she no longer feels it.

But I did. I think every little girl in that situation does, whether she feels safe enough to share that feeling of vulnerability with others or not. She feels deeply ashamed.

Today, the singing bowls have stopped and there was no truck, but they are back full-tilt to using power tools. Why did my dad have to abuse me so horrifically that ordinary, daily life is always torture? Why did he have to make me terrified of everything? My life never needed to be like this. Why did he do it?

I know the answer, but it’s hard not to keep asking the question. He just really didn’t give a shit how his choices affected me or anyone. I am like this because my parents truly had little or no capacity to care, and I was too little to make them care.

Oh

I have a different underlying premise to my work than I think most other people do. Maybe anyone.

One of them is that I think your mind will make you happy. I believe it is wired to do this. I believe this because of Dan Gilbert’s research on happiness. This means I don’t believe we sabotage ourselves. I don’t believe we have poor self-images or low self-esteem or whatever, think we don’t deserve good things, and so don’t give them to ourselves. I don’t believe in that.

I believe, instead, we can’t regulate. The mind works properly only when we can regulate. Too hot—too emotional—and we are impulsive and act without taking all the facts into account. At other times, we shut down emotions and since emotions tell us things, we are again operating without all the facts. I think people with traumatic histories have these difficult later lives because we are basically never running on all four cylinders. We are either too hot or too cold. Too analytical or too overcome by emotions.

Certainly, there are particular moments when one of those emotions that is too strong is a sense of worthlessness or guilt. And at those times, we might punish ourselves and do things that hurt us. But that’s not what is going on all the time. We are just making poor decisions because we can’t think properly.

Essentially, I think if you can regulate, your mind will come around to its own happy ending. I don’t think you need to concern yourself with that. It will happen. What you need to concern yourself with is regulating, and then trying to decipher what you are thinking when you regulate. Not alter it. Not coming around to seeing things in any particular way. Just regulate and decipher.

The thing is this is scary. It’s scary to try to heal from a completely different premise, because what if I am wrong? It seems to me I am getting better, so then maybe I am right. But I am taking on all this responsibility this year. If I am wrong, if I am not getting better, then this is going to be too much. I won’t be able to handle it, and I will let people down. Namely C.

That is how I woke up this morning.

I woke up and quickly began feeling worthless. So I had this idea worthlessness is part of a train of thought I need to complete. Okay. Just try to regulate. Don’t argue with the worthlessness. Concentrate on regulating. I didn’t learn how to regulate as a child. That takes deliberate attention. But my brain knows how to think.

Then I had this sudden idea that I am not the worthlessness. I am the person who feels the worthlessness. I was the person who felt the worthlessness when I was being abused and sometimes feels it now.

Oh.

This is me. Not the feeling, but the person having the feeling.

Oh.

The reason this came to mind is that C is talking about me as “mom.” She wouldn’t be doing that if she didn’t want me to be mom. It’s not part of what she is required to do or expected to do. It isn’t manners. The only reason to call me mom is that she thinks of me as “mom.” She thinks of me as mom because she wants me to be mom. She was hoping for it. I bought a bucket and a mattress and some other stuff and the material transaction—plus maybe going before the admission committee on her behalf—made it seem she could depend on me as mom.

It’s a pretty high honor.

Your kids want you to be their mom if you are their mom, but they kind of don’t have a choice. C has a choice. She is just adopted, and not in any legal, permanent sense. How mom and daughter she wants to take it is up to her.

She’s choosing me. I chose her and she is choosing me.

I am worth something to her.

And this has been clashing against that feeling of worthlessness in my head for the last two days. It can’t be me she calls “amma.” I am worthless. If I am “amma” then all of the bad stuff didn’t happen and nothing makes sense about my life.

It’s a dilemma. But if I am the person who feels the worthlessness, then I can also be the person C values. I can be one and the same person. I can be someone who has different feelings at different times. I am allowed to remember the worthlessness I felt when my parents abused and neglected me, and I am also allowed to be awed with the privilege of being a child’s mom.

Oh. Yeah. It’s like that.

Meeting C

I think I’ve got a huge backlog of stuff going on in my head to process. It seems like everything is kind of half-processed, but not fully worked through.

I saw C yesterday. On special days, the boarders come down the hill in their school uniforms to the Holy Site and do rounds and pray and get blessed if a blessing is in the offing. I was thinking on Sunday, after our school program was finished, of going up to the school. Then Maths Ma’am said probably the boarders will come down. Oh, yes, that is true. I was kind of agonizing about it, and that relieved the agonizing.

Yesterday turned out to be more overwhelming than expected (a videocamera was involved—I went to the toilet and cried for a bit). I was thinking of just staying home. How much does she really need to see me? I’m tired. I’m not sure I’m coping that well. I was just sitting in a chair, staring, having decided it was okay not to go. Suddenly, something happened. I suppose I noticed something. Something being broadcast from the Holy Site or the quantity of the foot traffic walking down there. Something. Abruptly, I had the thought in my head: Go. Now.

I took a bath quickly (dirty hair), got dressed, and went down. C was with her friends gathered around a bench near the entrance. She was standing behind the bench when she saw me. She saw me right away. I think she must have been waiting for me, sort of secretly. And that was part of the thought about going. IT Ma’am has told me this before on special days, “She’s looking for you.” Yes, she is.

She smiled a little, but the look in her eyes was fear or maybe uncertainty. I am not sure. It was the same look she had at the hostel, when she had gotten close to me. Then, it made her drop her eyes down to my chest. I don’t know why she is so afraid exactly, but she is afraid of something when she sees me. It isn’t the shyness another child might feel meeting a favourite teacher. It looks different. Her look is truly fearful. It is probably, “Do you want me?” But I am not sure. I think it is actually a positive sign that she shows it. I think she felt it before, but she shut down so completely her face went blank.

She looked beautiful in her school uniform. It is almost another whole post just described how that felt to me, this clear and definite proof that she has reached the next level. She is in class 9 now. She is wearing different National Dress. It is pink and navy blue, instead of green and red, and it feels like a miracle to see her in it.

I think there is a lot to that moment for me, and it is going to take some time to work through it.

Anyway, I went directly towards her. She was standing, and when she saw me coming, she went to sit down. She looked at me uncertainly, and then sat down with her friends. I suppose she was wondering if I would come or not, or if I would walk by without saying anything beyond hello. I came and she slid off the bench immediately. Her cousin was sitting on the other side of the bench, and she scooted off too, so I was me sitting on the bench, with these girls clustered on the ground below me and I had this uncomfortable sense of being expected to tell a story.

Well, they are supposed to do that. A student cannot just sit with a teacher as though they are equals. This is part of showing respect. C is showing she respects me to me, but she is also showing that to everyone else. In other settings, she will sit with me, but not when the whole world has gathered and is looking and judging and discussing.

I tried to get her come back and sit with me: I don’t find it all that comfortable, even though I understand their intentions. I suppose when I do that, I am also showing my love for her. She insists on showing respect. I argue she can be close to me. Overall, there is an interchange of warmth and affection. I suppose.

I pulled on the sleeve of her National Dress when I did that. It seems to me now it felt unbelievable to touch it: the new fabric, still stiff with starch, still very thick. Completely unlike the sleeve of her old uniform, which was probably two years old and worn thin with weekly scrubbing. She’s really here. She really has a new uniform. I am not imagining this. I bought that uniform for her last Wednesday. I bought it at TD’s shop two streets up from me. I am not imagining any of this, or making any of it up. I cannot name why that is so emotional for me, but it is. After a while, I think I will know why. I will get it sorted, instead of just crying as I think about it. But for right now, it’s just emotional. It’s overwhelming.

I asked C a few questions. How is the hostel? What elective did she choose? What section is she in? She said the hostel is okay. I think she lied about her elective, but I don’t really know. It seemed like she had her lying voice on. I am not sure why. Maybe she thinks I might disapprove. Anyway, that used to really trigger me. Now, I am okay with it. I understand, for one reason or another, she might have gotten very scared. Either she thought I wouldn’t like the elective or her friends would criticize it, and a lie just came tumbling out. Later, when she is not scared, she will tell me the truth. Whatever the truth really is. I don’t need to get upset over it. So that is one very good thing. I just looked at her and said, “I’m confused.” “I changed.” Okay, fine. “Confused” is a good de-escalating word. I wish I had remembered to use it when we had the conversation about whether she needed to buy a new uniform. Because I think she knows I am getting distressed. My distress will make her distressed and, if she is lying, it’s because she already feels distressed. “Confused” gives my distress a name. No, I am not angry at what you are saying. I am confused. Words are really helpful, and I should probably make better use of them.

They were talking about getting lunch. I caught the word for money, and it seemed they must be talking about food. I was quiet now, just listening to them. They had stopped looking at me expectantly and had moved on. I think I often have a way of talking to C that feels very private. I am not including anyone else in the discussion, and their opinions and experiences are not called for. I think it has to do with the intensity of my gaze on her. It is the way a kindergarten teacher looks talking to a small child, like no one else exists in that moment. If I am talking to her friends, then I am talking to the group. If I am talking to her, I am talking to her. Or maybe it’s the intensity of her gaze back on me. Anyway, I had been talking to her and they were excluded from that. They began their own discussion. They were discussing lunch and money and then someone on my left side—it might have been C—said, “Amma shekpala.” Which means mother is here. More discussion. Her cousin said, “Amma shekpala.” More discussion. “Amma shekpala.” They talked about other things after that—somebody’s kira, somebody’s dad. They were looking at the crowd walking by and making fun.

It didn’t register until I got home later they were talking about me. It didn’t register that a shift had occurred in C’s language, and she is not talking about me as “madam” anymore, at least not among these particular friends. In the past, I would certainly have heard, “Madam shekpala,” or at the very least “Roka shekpala,” (which is just she is here). It didn’t register either that she didn’t address me as ma’am at all. I am sure I will have some thoughts and feelings about this, and these will need to be worked through. Just now, it’s not really happening though. I only know that something important has happened.

I wanted to give her money. She has money. Someone sent her to Y-town with 1000. When I left her after the shopping, I gave her 300. She still needed to buy her notebooks which would cost at least 200, and she had school fees, which are 400. She might have 5 to 700 left. The girls wanted to buy momos, which are 50 a plate and C can easily eat 2 plates of them. She has enough for momos, for sure, but I feel better if I think she doesn’t have to ask, because maybe she won’t ask. Maybe she will feel too shy to ask me. I mean, maybe later she will run out of shampoo and just borrow from her friends until the next time I give her money. It’s not really that rational, but I feel that way. I feel better if she has money.

Nonetheless, I am not that comfortable giving her money in front of her friends. I am not sure why. I guess I don’t want them to think, because of me, she is rich and they can start expecting her to give them things or treat them to lunch all the time. I want it to be something she can decide for herself about, because she is not the kind of person who wants to flaunt wealth to other people. She doesn’t demand things from her parents the way her sister does. She isn’t a flashy kind of person.

I told her to come with me, walking around the Holy Site. She didn’t seem to understand at first, or maybe she didn’t hear. She looked at me uncertainly. “Goodbye.”

“I said come.”

“No.”

I looked at her.

“Wait.”

There was more discussion. C said something like let’s do one round and go. So they all came together, C arm-in-arm with 3 of her friends. They walked just behind me. I am a teacher. They are not supposed to walk next to me, like we are friends. My students do sometimes: I went on Saturday, and my students from last year all came running in a group to walk with me and we discussed their classes this year, which teachers they have, and someone’s brother who is in Class 3. But they are younger, and less aware of eyes on them and what other people are thinking.

After a while, we ran into C’s old neighbours, her two best friends, so she ended up breaking away from the group of hostel friends and went with these two friends. We said a few things, her friends and I. Then they saw a woman they knew in the grass. I have no idea who she is. We were not introduced. I sat for a while as the woman and the three girls talked. Then I began to talk to C. There were things I wanted to tell her, and I had been waiting for the right moment. It seemed perhaps it had come.

“C, VP Ma’am was telling you I am doing a lot of things for you.”

She smiled a little. It must have made her happy to think about it.

“So now you need to prove you are worth.” (Country X has made many a transitive verb into an intransitive one. Don’t get upset about this. Just go with the flow here.)

She looked apprehensive.

“You don’t need to prove anything. You are worth.”

I didn’t think she had quite taken that in. She rejoined the conversation with her friends.

“C, look at me.” So she did. She looked directly at me. “You are worth. Just try your best and it will be enough.”

That seemed to make her feel a little bit lighter. I think I stroked her hair. “You are worth.” I might have said it again. I am not sure. I remember stroking her hair though. Maybe not at that point. At some point in this short little exchange, I did. I usually do, and I hadn’t. Her hostel friends were there. I didn’t want to treat her like a baby. It’s a weird balancing act. She needs these things, but she also needs to be treated like someone on her way towards adulthood. I think she loves being treated like a baby, but not in front of other people. She has her pride too.

One thing about Country X is that adults are not autonomous here. Teenagers are not aspiring to have their little separate bubbles like teenagers in the West do. They are not wanting Western adult rights to independence and autonomy, because they will never have them. They will always be deeply embedded in their families, and they will spend half their lives being told what decisions to make. They will be in their fifties before someone stops telling them when and how to make dinner, who to marry, what jobs to take or not take. But teenagers still want mastery. They still want others to appreciate they can do things themselves now. It’s an odd balance for me to grasp and keep.

When kids are little, we instinctively understand how proud they feel that they can button their own shirts or tie their shoes. We encourage their growing mastery over their worlds, but teenagers scare us. It’s a different kind of mastery, maybe, and one with greater consequences when they make mistakes. No one dies over a mistied shoelace, but car accidents can be fatal when a teenager makes a driving error.

Anyway, it’s something to think about. C has her pride, but she wants so much to be babied. She didn’t get to be held and cuddled enough when she was little—I feel sure of that. She needs it now, both physically and more symbolically. But not in a way that makes it seem she can’t take care of herself emotionally. The cuddling cannot be there for everyone to see.

I remember the first time I touched her in a really intimate way. It was back at the end of September, the first time I went to her house, but before I had met her mom. Her mom had gone to Timbuktu to help her dad set up the new house there, and C was taking care of her sisters alone. I stood in the doorway, about to leave, and I turned back and stroked the side of her face. As soon as I did that, I panicked. What am I doing? She’s a student. I think I hadn’t adopted her yet, but certainly it could be misinterpreted. I asked her about it later, something about whether it was okay to do that. I couldn’t really get a clear answer from her: I made the mistake of describing it in a negative statement, and it was impossible to figure out whether she was agreeing or disagreeing with what I had said. But I called her, and the tone of her voice, in retrospect, was very clear. She loved it. I have asked her how she feels when I hug her. She says, “soft.” “I mean, how does your heart feel?” “Soft.” She loves it. But she has her pride too.

We talked a little bit after that about my coming on Sundays to teach her. I explained that she can get passing marks without my help if she studies (I hope this is true), but that if she wants good marks, she will need my help. At the same time, I don’t want them to tease her that I am always there. If kids are teasing her, she is going to get really stressed and that will make everything worse, which is part of what happened last year. She felt better I was there, and also more stressed because kids were teasing her. It probably about balanced out to 40s (barely passing).

We agreed I would come on Sunday in the afternoon. I told her to tell me her feelings though, as time goes on. I said I won’t be hurt.

The thing is on Thursday when I went to the school to see the admission committee, some of the Class 9 boys were really rude to me, like greeting me in a very joking and rude way. And I thought right away, those boys will tease C. They will be merciless. And I felt I wasn’t sure what to do.

As I sat in the grass with her, I quietly got money out of my wallet and handed it to her. “No, I don’t want.” She jumped back a little. I looked at her and she took it. Then I left, making an excuse about meeting a friend—I did actually want to meet that friend, but as soon as I left, I decided not to look too hard for her. I hadn’t seen her. She was probably busy. She often is at these things. And I was tired.

That was Monday. Today is Tuesday and still a holiday. Wednesday we have school again.

It’s so many things.

Lost

Special days are always surprisingly difficult. I expect them to be easy because there is not any teaching, but they always end up being emotionally challenging. Not always for the same reasons, but for some reason.

The music and the dancing do something to me, I realize. I am not quite sure why. They are nearly always the same songs, the same dances. Country Xers like sameness, and there is also not usually enough time to prepare. So it is always the same 3 songs with more or less the same 3 dances. In some cases, it might be tradition. In other cases, I think it might just be convenience. We know this routine. We’ll keep doing it. Anyway, I have been here for 2 years now, and I have seen the same songs and dances on four or five occasions each year, so they are echoes of one another. Yesterday’s dances were echoes of the dances at the end of last year, when I knew C was graduating from our school—which only goes up to Class 8. Last year’s dances were an echo perhaps of the first year I came, the first February, and the first time I saw them after I arrived.

They make me very sad, and I don’t know quite why exactly. I have always seen C in these dances, until this year, because she has been in the dance group since I came. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it. I think it might. She’s a very expressive dancer. I might have noticed her that first February. I can’t really remember it.

But I think these programs remind me that I am here. Much of the year maybe I am just teaching. I forget about the National Dress. I forget about the National Language and all the other languages. I forget that I am taking a stick to class and using corporal punishment. I forget my life is in so many ways radically different now. Important days remind me. I am here. I have arrived at something.

There is, I know, the pain of all the people I lost: I am reminded they are not here with me, or not at home waiting to hear all about it. There was never anyone back in the United States to joyfully describe all my new experiences to. That is one part of the sorrow. I think there is something else though. Something to do with my worth.

I have been acting to protect C, in the one way that I can, which is to get her here into a boarding school environment where she can study and maybe also where the rules will be consistent and predictable and she won’t always feel she is walking on eggshells the way she does at home. I am here because people in my childhood consistently acted to protect me. Without them, I think I would probably be dead. I am not exaggerating that. I think it is quite, quite true.

So if I am sitting with Country X teachers, looking at one of their traditional dances, then I know I am there because many people acted to protect me over a number of years. I cannot sit there and not have some feeling about the human spirit or avoid any emotional contact with the idea of the persistence of love in the face of evil. Because of C, I am now also aware that none of these protective people were my own mother. I am protective towards her in a way she understands as “mother” and a way I also understand as “mother,” but my mother did not behave that way.

I have a little voice that comes out sometimes at night—night is a big trigger—and it says it wants its mommy. I never have a clear picture of who “mommy” might be, but I think I am remembering that desire for “mommy”. I wanted to go to that warm, protective parent when I was scared, and there was sometimes no one to go to. There was sometimes no one around who behaved like a mommy. Mommy was a time-share concept, not a fixed position. There was someone I called “mommy,” but she wasn’t a real mommy. She was a pretend mommy. She and I just pretended. Mommy was anyone who behaved in a nurturing or protective manner and not a particular person.

The mommy position got left empty a lot of the time, and I think this has really given me a sense throughout my life of not belonging to anyone. My own mother did not protect me. She was not my “mommy.” I think also some of that sense I have of people being lost is of my being lost, in those times when I could not locate a protective figure. I can’t find a mommy. My mommy got lost and I cannot find her, but it isn’t a certain person who has been lost. It’s a person filling a position. As a three and four-year-old, I will understand it only as a feeling of being lost. It seems the same as a geographical sense of being lost—this is why Charlie loves maps and loves knowing where everything is. Then we can’t get lost. But the lost feeling is really a relational sense: I cannot locate anyone protective in my environment. There is no one around who seems willing to take care of me.

When C feels “lost” to me, when I don’t know where she is or who she is with, then I have that same sense of there being no one in her environment to protect her. My job as her mom is not always to be there, but to make sure a suitable substitute is available. She should be with her grandmother or the aunt she is really close to or the uncle who seems like he’s raising good kids or with her own mother. She should not be with someone who won’t look after her. When that happens, or when I don’t know where she is, I think she is “lost” and I get really worried. There is all this “lost” feeling related to dismemberment, but the trauma feeling is also about this feeling of being relationally dislocated. It’s scary for me when she is “lost” because terrible things happened when I was “lost.” I think it is not so terrible for her, but I don’t think it is necessarily good either. I think she feels “lost” at those times also, but for her it probably doesn’t feel like “lost.” I think it feels “bad,” because she does not have the maturity to always handle all of the responsibility she has or all of the decision-making she needs to do, and she fails at doing what others expect her to do. I think she feels anxiety about impending shame. She feels insecure, but it manifests itself as a different emotion for her: maybe because she feels even more alone than I did. I was never parentified, or expected to take on adult responsibilities. I didn’t let people down all the time. I just had to keep an eye out for someone to take care of me. I felt lost. She feels scared she is going to be “bad,” as though badness is a kind of virus. You can just catch it. It comes over you suddenly, and you become powerless within its grip. Then nobody loves you. Your mom gives you the silent treatment or she beats you or both.

Country X

More stuff happens in my head now. It’s interesting.

Anyway, because of that, I recently had the sudden idea that Country X is actually quite materialistic. It is a materialistic culture and an indulgent culture. You don’t notice this, because there are hardly any consumer items to buy. What people have instead are things that Westerners don’t realize are markers of financial status. Like dried meat hanging everywhere. But there is a great deal of emphasis on possessions and on money. Parents expect kids to grow up, make money, and buy them lots of stuff. When kids can’t do that because the job market sucks, they complain to anyone who will listen about what their kids have failed to provide for them.

If you go back to visit your village, you are expected to bring stuff for everybody. On any special occasion, money and alcohol and packaged food is brought to the house. Generally, there is great discussion about what stuff is bought. Inadequate gifts are criticized soundly. I don’t know that everyone is like this, but it happens enough that I have been informed of it. Every item I have given to C’s mom has been tallied and discussed by all the neighbours. Luckily, I got a positive result. The clothes you wear on holidays are also discussed and appraised. Like meat, these are also markers of financial status.

There is a reason the King would like to de-emphasize a focus on materialism. As more and more consumer goods hit the market, this country will spiral out of control. When there was nothing much to buy, a little meat hanging from the rafters and a few extra bits of cloth were not a big deal, but when everyone needs an SUV (and there are suddenly a lot of them in Y-town), a materialistic approach to life is going to be real problems. Especially when driving 10 meters is part of displaying your status. Which it is. No one who has a car walks anywhere. They drive the 10 minute walk to school in the morning. They drive home for lunch. They drive back to school at the end of lunch. They drive home at the end of the day. I don’t know if petrol is subsidized or what, but when there are more vehicles on the road, they might stop being a carbon sink.

You don’t notice the indulgence either because it’s not exactly like there is a spa. What you see instead is a lot of walnut-eating and sitting in the sun. Having a good time is highly valued. Goals and hard work are not, and any chance to not work is usually seized upon quickly. This could be why the leading cause of death in Y-town seems to be cirrhosis of the liver. A significant minority of the population is literally drinking themselves to death: most people think of happiness as forgetting your problems and having a good time in the moment. They don’t understand it as an overall, long-term satisfaction with life because your life gives you meaning and purpose. And this is probably one reason why young people who could work don’t take the jobs available and Indian nationals are hired to do them instead: it’s easier to coast between the floors of all your relatives rather than do work you don’t like.

The reason this suddenly fell into place for me had to do with C. First, C’s grandmother was really impressed I bought everything for C to go to her hostel and she was bragging to somebody I didn’t know about it. Then I bought about 4 dollars worth of biscuits and soda to give to the high school Vice Principal when we went to ask him whether she could have a place as a boarder and VP Ma’am made sure to tell C this. Well, these things are the easy part. I have a decent salary. It is not going to cause me worry and grief to buy a 2-inch-thick foam “mattress” and a bucket and a school uniform and some other stuff. Some biscuits and soda are hardly going to set me back. The hard part is trying to support C emotionally, because I can’t always figure out how to do it, because it takes effort to understand her, and because it takes time. At some level, I think C actually understands that and appreciates it.

But everyone here, I think, understands “adoption” as basically being about money, which is something that had almost entirely escaped me. When I said I would pay for all her school expenses, then it really counted for something. However, the idea that the hard part was convincing her parents to send her here. That, I think no one but my good friends grasp.

And I imagine C is not quite sure what to expect. Her culture says “adoption” means I will give her money and erratic attention and mostly forget about her. My own behaviour says I will look after her emotional needs. We will have to thrash it out.

At the same time, maybe that’s why there is still such a sense of our relationship being private, even though most people know she’s adopted. The depth of feeling involved is not average. The usual relationship is not so emotionally close: as I said, money, some affection, but it’s more that you feel sorry for a kid and want to help them out with their money problems. I mean, you like them, but it’s not deep. No one is saying, “You are my mom, like real mom, and I cannot hurt you.” What C and I are doing is different. It can kind of squeeze itself into a Country X box uncomfortably, but it isn’t the same.

I am working stuff out now. Things are going on in my head.