Between snacks I visited classrooms, more as guest speaker than teacher. At home I would have been just another twenty-something, but, here, where I drank tea with the men instead of working fourteen-hour days like most women, I was a celebrity and expert teacher by virtue of being an American. The students fired questions at me that reflected their education system’s emphasis on rote memorization: What is the national bird of America? What is the national dish of America? What is the national dress of America? What is the area of America? They asked me how there could be no water buffalo in America if it was such a rich country, and whether if they went to America their skin too would turn white.
Sometimes S. Niroula marched into the classroom in the middle of this barrage and asked the eight-year-old students who I was.
“Annie,” they would say in unison, having been forced to memorize my name the day before.
And what country does she come from?
And America is a very what country?
And I, a sweaty white woman in Teva sandals, always nodded.
After my two years in the Peace Corps, I moved to Los Angeles to teach at a public high school. Why do you want to teach here? my students in South Central asked, sensing something self-serving in my professed altruism, perhaps suspecting even more than I did how much I craved outsider status. They seemed to be asking: What is it that you came here looking for? How do you think it will change you? I openly admit that joining the Peace Corps was a selfish act, but I’ve never admitted that a similar motive spurred my move to LA. Maybe that is because what I gained in LA was not pleasant, not a nose ring or another language or the imprint of blue hills undulating before me. What I gained in LA, even more than in Nepal, was an uncomfortable recognition of the kind of American I am.
My students in Nepal had known all the Hindu gods, the latest Bollywood songs, when each type of mango ripened and the best way to eat it. My students in LA knew which streets were red for Bloods and blue for Crips for miles around. They knew where drive-bys would occur before they happened. They knew who had guns at school that day and what period everything would go down. They knew they would get jumped if they walked down Denker Avenue carrying a backpack, so they rolled up their school papers and stuck them deep in their pockets. Once I asked my ninth graders to define bravery, and a 14-year-old wrote, One time when I knew my friend was brave was when he killed a person.
Our school was in an older, established neighborhood that looked innocuous to my untrained eye. When I parked on the residential street across from the school for my interview, I thought, “This is South Central?” The sun shone there. The stucco houses were painted cheery shades of peach and aqua. Later, when I started teaching there, I began to notice the bars on all windows and doors, the 15-foot spiked fence enclosing the teachers’ parking lot, the bullet-proof glass on the drive-through window at the nearby Taco Bell. In the morning, traffic backed up for an hour because many parents would rather have their children miss first period than walk through the streets. Once I had taught there for a year, I knew that most of the surrounding streets and a few corners of the school had been the scenes of drive-by shootings, because they had all happened since I’d arrived.
My future husband also taught at the school. He and I traded anecdotes and paraded versions of them in front of friends who never ventured near South Central. One night he told a group of us this story: “So I’m in the middle of class, and Raylon just stands up and starts walking around, acting crazy. I of course tell him to sit down and be quiet. And he says, ‘Man, you always telling people to sit down and be quiet! I bet you go to your mama’s house and tell her to sit down and be quiet!’ Which was funny, you have to give him credit. So then I say, ‘Well, Raylon, except for a few similarities, you and my mom are very different people.’ That gets a laugh, too, but then Carlos pipes up and says, ‘What are the similarities?’ I say, ‘Well, you see those letters shaved into the side of Raylon’s head? My mom’s got those, too.’ And Raylon goes, ‘Yeah, I saw her getting ‘em done down at the barber shop, and I thought, yeah, that looks tight. I’ma do that, too.’”
We laughed, and a lawyer friend said incredulously, “That is so witty! These kids are so smart. Any one of them could be a lawyer.”
“Yeah,” we agreed glumly, staring into our drinks. “They’re smart all right.”
And they were. They were witty and clever and observant, keen readers of people. They were survivors, and survival had taught them a lot of things. The problem was that so few of the things they knew would help them make any money—and they all wanted to make money.
Their Life Skills teacher began the semester by asking how many of the students wanted a big house. What about a nice car? Jewelry? Swimming pools? These kids who might be evicted from their family’s apartment at the end of the month but sported $140 sneakers raised their hands. The teacher made them write down specifics, exactly what they wanted to own when they were 30. Then he had them draw it. Where would the house be? How many rooms? What shape for the swimming pool? What kind of cars? With what kind of rims?
When he had them good and salivating, he asked how they expected to acquire these things. Blank stares and silence followed a few jokes about a gold album, or the NBA.
“Things are what these kids want,” this teacher explained to me with an evangelist’s enthusiasm. “When they realize that whether they get these things or not is up to them, their grades and their actions, then you start to see real progress. You start to see behavior change.”
I stood silent, skeptical.
There are two words in Nepali that mean love: maya and prem. Maya is the kind of unconditional love a parent has for a child, whereas prem is romantic love. But neither word can refer to objects, only people. In Nepali, you could never say that you love books or rice, or gold rims or swimming pools, only that you like them very much.
Everywhere I have taught my students feel sorry for me. In Nepal, they wondered how I could possibly go to the bazaar wearing a maxi, the long housedress Nepalis wear as Americans might a bathrobe. They asked what I paid for everything—my bag of lentils, my bicycle, my made-in-Nepal Goldstar sneakers—and clucked with dismay at how I’d been cheated, though all of it seemed cheap to me. I didn’t understand Hinduism; I could not keep Ganesh and Hanuman straight; I insisted that a temple could not be both Buddhist and Hindu, but should be one or the other. Oh miss, they laughed at me.
My American students pitied me because I never went to the club, didn’t eat meat, and was obsessed with whether people took off their hats. When I mentioned one day in class that I didn’t have a TV, Juan, stricken, said, “Do you have a phone?” as if I might be Amish, or just very, very poor. He offered to take up a collection of black market federal free lunch tickets to buy me a TV.
In both places, I hoped to be seen as more than a sightseer. In Nepal, I saw myself as a certain kind of American, one who had joined the Peace Corps with no grand notions of changing the world, only herself. Nepalis did not deal in these distinctions. I was an American, and my belief that I could shrug off that status was only another sign I did not understand how privilege works. Similarly, I’d thought showing up in South Central every day would prove I was a certain kind of white person, but being white and middle class there marked me as an outsider worthy of suspicion and disdain, a far cry from the curiosity and adoration I had met in Nepal. My place in American society, which was immediately visible to my students, I saw at last with new clarity.
When my students in Nepal and LA asked me why I’d come there, my answers sounded sanctimonious and simpering. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to give something back. The truth stank of ingratitude. When I played Barbies as a child, nearly all my games involved packing their clothes—fake fur coats, tiny plastic heels—into the pink Corvette, driving it 12 feet across the rug, and unpacking everything against the opposite wall. Looking back, I can cast this game as indicative either of the incipient traveler, always on the move, or the quintessential American, obsessed with amassing inventory. Maybe both are true; maybe neither. I never told my students that despite all I’d been given, I had felt a great emptiness and left home to fill it up.
My eleventh and twelfth grade students at Shree Gograha biked to school or walked or took the city bus, which had no doors. The girls wore burgundy kurta surwals, long tunics over pants with shawls draped over their arms. They carried washcloths to mop their brows in the heat. The boys wore olive green dress slacks, white button-down shirts, and ties. They held hands—boys with boys, girls with girls—and sang or chatted as they walked. Many of them lived in Biratnagar, our city of 230,000, but some came from surrounding villages. One student, explaining how he had come to the city to study from a tiny village, wrote, “My father sold his water buffalo so I could come to school.”
The school’s name, painted along the top of the building, was flanked by a tilted swastika on one side and the Star of David on the other. Eventually I learned these were ancient Sanskrit symbols of health and education, respectively. The school was built of whitewashed concrete, with different lengths of rebar protruding from the flat roof, suggesting another level might be added any day now. There was no electricity. Before class we pried open heavy wooden shutters to let in the light. All eighty of my students stood up when I entered the classroom and namasted me in unison. When I asked them to read aloud and do group work or perform skits, they politely refused, the girls hiding behind their pilled washcloths, the boys studying their notebooks.
“Please, miss,” one boy finally said. “Write a summary of the story on the board and we will copy it to study tonight.”
“Don’t you want to read the story together and talk about it?” I asked.
They shook their heads.
After class, these silent students gathered in the schoolyard to clap and sing show tunes from Bollywood films, hips sashaying and wrists flicking under the dusty leaves of the mango tree. The girls brought me candies wrapped in squares of fabric. The boys brought me home to meet their mothers, who fed me plate after plate of rice and lentils. My students showed me where to buy flour for the best price and combed henna through my hair to redden it. When we parted in the bazaar, they left as one large group on their bikes, smiling and waving goodbye, everyone, it seemed, friends with everyone else. At Christmas they gave me hand-lettered cards with messages like, “May Santa Claus bring you the eyes of Lord Buddha.”
The nationally mandated curriculum required that I teach The Great Gatsby to these students who barely spoke English. One day I said to them: “At the end of chapter eight, Nick is standing in Tom’s yard. Gatsby is also there, waiting for Daisy. So, at the end of the chapter, where is Gatsby?”
No one answered.
I repeated: “Where is Gatsby standing?”
A full minute dragged by.
“You guys. Please. What is Gatsby doing here?”
At last Dhiraj shouted, “Cooking chicken curry!”
We all laughed, and then I pantomimed beating myself over the head with the book. I said slowly, “Gatsby. Never. Cooked. Chicken. Curry.” On the national exam, there would be a question like, “How does Gatsby represent the American dream?” and my students would write:
Gatsby was born to poor farmers and worked his whole life to earn money and move up in society and he became very rich and he never cooked chicken curry.
In Los Angeles, we read Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun. A few days into the play, I handed my students this prompt:
In Act I, scene ii, Beneatha tells Asagai that nothing is wrong; she is just suffering from “acute ghetto-itis.” In this assignment, I want you to consider what she means by this phrase.
“First, there’s the diagnosis,” I said. “What does it mean to have ghetto-itis, in plain English?
“It’s being ghetto!” Jakira yelled.
“Okay, well, what does that mean?” I asked. “How do you define being ghetto?”
“Being hood,” Rosa suggested.
“You guys are giving me synonyms, but I want you to define it. And remember, Beneatha is saying this is an illness. It’s something that’s wrong with her, something that’s making her feel bad.”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with being hood!” Laura said. A chorus of students affirmed this, while a second group refuted it loudly.
“Okay, okay, quiet down! I want everyone to take a few minutes to write down what you think it means to have ghetto-itis. What is Beneatha sick of? Then keep going. Write down the symptoms of ghetto-itis. Think about the characters in the play. What are some of their traits? How do they feel about where they live? And finally, think of some things that would help the characters feel better about themselves or their lives.”
I knew the students would do a better job on the assignment if I talked them through it with a real discussion. But I couldn’t run a discussion in that class without it veering off track, so most days I asked them to write down their answers instead. The room always felt like a pressure cooker rattling, soon to be hissing. Sometimes we got through the period without an explosion of profanity and anger. Sometimes we did not. When I picked up Javier’s paper from where he’d left it on his desk at the end of the period, I saw he had not written anything under “Diagnosis” or “Symptom,” but under “Cure,” he had written: smoke more weed!!!
In Nepal, when you give something to another person, you hand it over with your right hand, your left cupping your right elbow. The sentiment is that you are giving this object with your whole person, no tricks behind your back. The gesture felt forced and melodramatic at first, as loaded as wearing the native dress of another country. It seemed wrong to do it and wrong not to. I did it anyway. I stopped noticing people do it when they handed me a kilo of potatoes, a copy of The Kathmandu Post, my change in wilted rupees.
I often listened to the radio while sitting on my cement patio, papered for much of the year with bougainvillea’s pink tissue carcasses. The leaves of date palms and banana trees husked in the breeze. I drank tea spiced with ginger and cloves left for me by the daughter of the family whose house I lived in. They were a middle-class Nepali family, one that displayed drawings torn from a Walt Disney coloring book and plastic dolphin figurines on their shelves.
As I sipped my tea, I would watch the street: the hawking and spitting group of men out front, the ring of boys holding toothbrushes, the ox cart thumping along on wooden wheels in the dust. Down the road, when the temperature dropped at night, a family began tying shawls of floral rags round the shoulders of their baby goats. These goats clambered up on woodsheds or benches like sentry grandmothers to stare a few inches ahead into the fog.
One morning, a woman in a faded sari balancing a basket of cow dung on her head wandered over to peer at me. I waved and smiled. The woman beckoned me over.
She asked if it was true I was from America, why I was so tall, and if I’d take her back with me. Henna stained her hands in bleeding patterns of flowers, curlicues, and checkerboards. The dust of the dung she had collected to dry and burn as fuel caked her left hand. I told her I wasn’t going back for a long time, two years. She dismissed this. When you do, she said.
When I came home from abroad, well-meaning friends and relatives asked about my experiences. I relied either on platitudes (“I got more than I gave. The people I met were incredibly friendly and welcoming. They treated me like family.”), or statistics (“Many Nepali families live on just $200 a year. There are no curbs, no sewage system, no public bathrooms, and no trash collection. It is not uncommon to step over human feces in the street.”) My well-meaning friends and relatives would shake their heads and say, “Those poor people.” Then I would call another former volunteer, and we would talk for hours about our memories, like the time a man-eating tiger was loose in his village and a multi-day hunt ended with it strapped to the front of a bulldozer, orange fur matted with blood. Or my desperation during the festival of the tuber, when I had been invited to so many houses and fed so many potatoes and yams that I resorted to scraping them from my plate into my backpack whenever my host stepped out of the room. We ached to go back. Nepal seemed full of life and community and hope and culture, whereas America was lonely and sterile, devoid of sounds or smells. For a time I clung to this belief, even though it was as simplistic as an eight-year-old Nepali’s faith in America’s riches.
Now I live back in North Carolina a few miles from where I grew up, in a neighborhood of older houses, where people still sit on the porch and watch their kids bicycle down the street. I teach in a different neighborhood, one of subdivisions that did not exist when I was a child. Most of my students come from money. One summer afternoon, I drive through their neighborhoods and do not see a soul. The new mansions mushroom from thick red squares carved out of the earth by prehistoric-looking diggers. Realty signs dot the landscape. Clubhouses behind gates boast Olympic-sized pools that sit empty, stirred only by the wind. The nets on basketball courts hang limp. In driveways boats float on air, beached in the precious sunlight.
My current students mostly drive more expensive cars than I do. Many of these students feel sorry for me, too. They look at my diplomas and say, like disappointed parents, “You could have gone to med school.” They can’t understand why a person with options would want to be a public school teacher. These students have different problems than my students in LA or Nepal. They are stressed about getting into college. Their parents do not always understand them. Sometimes they cut themselves, or bully each other. Most of them own lots of things—and by now, so do I.
Former students and colleagues in Nepal still write me emails asking how I can help them get to America. I want to write them back, It’s not what you think. To do so, of course, would be impertinent. How dare I tell them not to come? I am surprised to realize I would rather have been born poor in Nepal than in America, a thought experiment that seems in the end just another luxury. If I had been born in Nepal, surely I too would be trying to get to America. And perhaps I am wrong, wrong about it all, because after years of trying, my Nepali language teacher from Peace Corps finally did get a visa through the Diversity Lottery program and settled in Florida. This man, who is fluent in multiple languages, went to graduate school, and worked for international development organizations, now wears a paper cap and serves coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts—but his son, who is on the honor roll in middle school, will not.
I no longer feel the urge to move somewhere new or define myself as the outsider. This doesn’t mean that the dark clouds of want, loneliness, and restlessness never descend on me—only that when they do, I am now forced to admit what both Gatsby and Nick learn by the end of The Great Gatsby: There is nowhere I can go to escape the complications of my own identity.
Sometimes I see myself, fifteen years ago, standing in those classrooms of Nepalis, their slender brown hands thrusting notebooks and pens my way. We all wanted something from each other. Instead of agreeing that America is a very rich country, I wish I had told them, It’s complicated. But “complicated” is not a word I ever heard Nepalis use. Most days I left S. Niroula’s school feeling lonely and splintered, my brow knit in concentration as I biked past lolling water buffalo with muddy rope threading their nostrils. Those children in blue and white uniforms, though—they left together, arms draped around each other as they balanced on bicycles inches apart, dusty feet in plastic sandals pedaling furiously, their voices rising in song.