Print Edition - 2015-09-06  |  Free the Words

Lost in transition

  • American cities feel strange to me because there are things here I did not grow up with
- Prateebha Tuladhar
I know nothing about this city. I have not got a map spread out before me like most visitors standing in the middle of a sidewalk. I think it frightens me. It’s like being discovered that you don’t belong

Sep 6, 2015-I came to your city unwillingly. I came with my face turned toward the sky because I could no longer deal with a rattling earth. The ground under me shook and shook for days on end and it was having a spiraling impact on my brains—as though the gray matter up there had turned into fine thin strands of overcooked Wai-Wai. Or the Chinese cup noodles, the kind I bring into my room some evenings when the conversion of currency in my head frightens me because food seems to cost a fortune in this country.

I tell you, I don’t like this particular city. It’s marked by skyscrapers glazed in glass that shine when the sun comes out and then dim to a glimmer when the neon lights get turned on. I don’t like these buildings, because something about them feels very distant. Detached perhaps in the way they want to go so far away from their foundation. I came to this city of yours estranged, milled in hurt, as what I was made up of was seemingly crumbling. What the April 25th temblor couldn’t shatter, this city has caused to erode. Yet, I watch it with so much fascination. Just tall glass buildings everywhere, fragmenting the sky. And I turn to my colleagues and ask them, “What is that poem by TS Eliot where he talks about the tall buildings blocking the view of the sky?” It never occurs to me the poem the city reminds me of is called ‘Preludes’ until long after the day is over and I am sitting here in bed trying to recall the lines. But all that comes to my mind is, “the world revolves like ancient women/gathering fuel in vacant lots”.

In the land of dreams

I can’t sleep in your city. The lights dedazzle me. I am awed by how people buy food in paper bags and Tupperware and eat them with plastic cutlery. It reminds me of a certain kind of liberation I once dreamed of—of being the lone woman in a café, populated by men. It seemed like a perfect synonym to emancipation. But it’s probably an idea I picked from the Hollywood movies. I see now that your men and women eat alone because they are busy. Everyone is busy. You know it for a fact when you see people on the street, walking. Walking, with headphone wires swinging from their ears as they wait for traffic lights to turn green. Everyone seems to be going somewhere when you watch people marching like that. Then, there are these other kinds of people who will just sit by the fountain, dipping their feet in the cool, marveling at the white floral sprouts as the fountain kicks up. There are also people who will walk up to your friend and ask for a cigarette. Then those who will say,“Have you got some change to spare?” And you wonder what just happened, because isn’t America the land they told you about when you were six—the land where everyone goes to live a dream?

You walk to where someone points out to you as a ‘poor neighbourhood’ and you see some black children rushing somewhere with their mother. You notice they don’t have the nicest clothes and that their neighbourhood has a liquor store but not a proper grocery. The roads are still wide here and the sky just as clear. But you look for a voice. And somehow, the articulate American voice suddenly seems like a rarity in this locality.

“I wish I could say there is no racism in this country. But it is still very strong in some parts of this country. And that is what we are trying to change through the relationship we’re building with the community, to let them know they can trust us,” says a white police officer. And I think I like him.

Layers of fear

My stay is short. So short that I can only absorb the vaguest of impressions. I haven’t learned much about your city, except that it’s made up of migrants. People of all colours walk your streets, often in the prettiest clothes I’ve ever seen. People of all colours sit around the blocks, holding up placards that read ‘help me’.  

I know nothing about this city. I haven’t got a map spread out before me like most visitors standing in the middle of a sidewalk. I think it frightens me. It’s like being discovered that you don’t belong. Because the nicest thing to do in a place that frightens you is to pretend it doesn’t. Just pretend everything around you are the things you walk past every day. Be indifferent. And your lower lips will even pucker as though you were pouting for a photo when you say ‘indifferent’. So, it can’t be that bad.

Deep inside, this city still feels strange to me because there are things here I didn’t grow up with. There are escalators and elevators reaching up to the sky. There are long queues to be in to buy food, to buy tickets, to use the toilet. I am learning to be patient.

I listen to my colleagues reciting an account of nostalgia. “In my country…,” says she and gives me a long description of how anyone who smokes or drinks or begs ‘cannot have social respect back home’.“Man is honourable,” she says. “If you marry, you take care of cheeldren and wayf.”

I admire her ability to contradict and quietly conceal my own lack of guts. There are no questions I can answer about my country. Only that we had a big earthquake and then hundreds of aftershocks and that we are used to rocking, just like you are, when the draw- bridges shiver if too many people walk on it at once.

When reading labels on items at fancy stores, I feel like saying out loud—none of this matters. Because back home, there are other things that will matter more than a pair of socks from Forever 21. But I say nothing. Only drop the label and walk on, out to the street to stand amid the skyscrapers again. I turn silent. Silent. And people here seem to think I’m sad when I turn silent. But it isn’t that. The times I am silent is when I visit a poem that lives on the other side of this world. While I am on this side of the world, I can hide the poem in layers of fear I have for everything in this city. I guess that’s why, even as I don’t like being here at all, I have the comfort of cupping my hand around the poem right now, as though I had gently taken it off my head for safekeeping in my hands.

Tuladhar is a journalist

Published: 06-09-2015 08:02

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