1. Native Habitat
Inside this dark wood and glass café, at the table next to mine, I watch as the ESL student struggles in the quagmire of “bother” and “brother.” She clasps and unclasps her hands over her skirt, bright turquoise beaded with red flowers. She ignores her sandwich — bacon and provolone on focaccia bread. Food can wait. She adjusts herself, the hard bench making learning harder, more uncomfortable.
Her tutor rubs her hands—chipped yellow nails, band-aid around the right thumb—and tucks them into the pockets of her blue jeans. She changes tack. Says, “Let’s try something else. Repeat this after me: Betty bought a bit of butter but the bit of butter turned out to be bitter so Betty bought a bit of better butter to make the bit of bitter butter better.” She repeats it, slowly, then writes it down in her student’s notebook, word for word, sounding out “b” after “b” after “b.”
In her patience, the tutor reminds me of my mother, and how she was when teaching me English. I am transported from this American café in a small, university town, to Calcutta, where I lived for the first few years of my life. Shortly after my fifth birthday, Ma began teaching me English. It made zero sense. Least of all, the words “he” and “she,” because in Bengali, my mother tongue, nothing and no one has any gender, and if you say “he” and “she” quickly and together, the resulting word “he-she,” means to piss, something Ma had taught me just a few days ago to not shout out loud, especially when we were in public, but to come to her side and whisper. And yet, here she was flouting her own rules, telling me these words were not only okay to say but that without them I would never learn to speak English. What did that even mean? Why did I need to speak in English? What was even English?
From my spot in the café, I watch the tutee pick up the notebook. Like a miracle, like the sweet gift of sugar settled at the bottom of a lassi glass, she reads out the words, one “b” sound after another. She gets them right the very first time, and looks up, her eyes wide and sparkling.
They clap their hands. They jump up and down. That hard bench now the world’s bounciest cushion. I try to remember but can’t, how my mother and I crossed the seemingly-insurmountable river of “he-she.” How did we celebrate our safe passage? I imagine she clapped too. Perhaps, at the dinner table that night, she announced it so everyone—my grandfather, grandmother, father, and aunt—was in the know.
I imagine that’s the moment I too stopped resisting English. After all, what greater nourishment does a soul need other than the attention and indulgence of loved ones?
The electricity bill suffocates inside the Amazon box that once delivered your Economics textbook but now serves as your dining table, as your coffee table, as the thing that contains all your other things. Like thousands of others, you too came to this Pacific Northwest university town with hope in your eyes, fire in your belly, and relief to finally be away from your parents’ home in California, and be an independent adult.
Was that only two years ago? Why then does it feel like a lifetime has elapsed?
Because the MBA dream is on hold for now, because money is tight, and in this town with too few jobs, everyone’s overqualified. So, you ignore the slight of being thrown off your brother’s phone plan, the howling mouth of your empty Wells Fargo account, and the Costco membership card that won’t slide through the machine anymore.
Steps from your door, a new café opens. Your roommate—the woman from India—goes there every evening. You too go in once, but you have to walk past it every time you go anywhere, while patrons eat cake, sip holiday coffees, and their laughter ekes like steam onto the icy street.
Yesterday, the barista you like surprised you with a latte and a wink. For hours afterward, you felt seen. You were like a present, trussed up in shiny paper and a silver bow, until you returned home. Then you remembered the electricity bill, and the wrapping fell apart to reveal the joke, like the Economics textbook you can’t bear to look at anymore.
3. Alien Abroad
My first winter of grad school in Idaho, I cannot do my homework. A child of sub-tropical New Delhi, I am always cold here. The minus 16 degree Celsius burrows into my skin, gnashes at my bones. When the first paper is due, I confess to my professor, “I can’t do it. Please, I’m not making excuses. I am sorry. I am just so cold here. I can’t do it.”
He leans back in his chair to study the green carpet of his office, dust motes strung in a haphazard necklace from the window to the floor. I have read my professor’s biography on the departmental website. I know he has taught for over forty years; he knows deadlines better than me.
I can hardly believe my ears, when he looks me in the eye, and says, “You may have two extra days.” I rush first to the library, and then loaded with books, to my neighborhood café, where my gratitude tastes like a freshly brewed mocha, one of my favorite things about America thus far.
When I hand over my essay, he accepts it without a word.
I don’t know this about him yet: that he and his wife regularly host international students. That they have spent long months teaching abroad. Perhaps, unbeknownst to me, he recognized in my eyes the same bewilderment and suspicion he’d experienced in his own travels, the rootlessness of breathing unknown air, that bone-chilling hunger we call homesickness.
Image: “Street 14 Coffee, Astoria” by Sam Beebe, licensed under CC 2.0.