Monday, March 4, 2019

The Other Normal Place

The view washing dishes at our friends' house.  We go down this road almost every day.  On clear days we can see the nearby mountains in the background.
 The first thing I noticed was the attention we attracted.  We had no sooner exited the international terminal than the sidelong glances and outright outright stares.  People shoved their children in our direction saying, “Look!  Foreigners!  Speak English – say hello.”  As we walked past we heard all the usual, “How cute!  Pretty girls!  They are like foreign dolls!”  People peered into the girls’ faces and took cell-phone photos.

As we boarded our last flight, Nadia was having a breakdown, understandable at hour 20 of travel.  “Mooom, people are staring because she is crying,” Juliana hissed.  “I think they are probably staring because we are the only foreigners around,” I replied.

What surprised me in the first days back was how normal everything seems.  I noticed the differences more, as I remembered how different everything is from America, but it is still familiar.

Bouncing along in our 三轮车 (three wheeled electric cart), we passed the water truck watering the roads while blasting out a cheery chorus of “It’s a small world after all.”  A dozen vehicles almost ran into each other or pedestrians without a single actual accident.  Passersby watched us and exclaimed all the usual, “Foreigners!  How cute!  They look like foreign dolls!”  The streets teemed with people – walking down sidewalks and on the road, weaving through on bicycles and motorbikes, bouncing along in their own three wheelers, and driving their new, meticulously clean cars.

Everywhere we go, people ask, “Are these three all yours?  Three girls? Girls are good.”  Then, “Do you want another one?  A boy is good!”
We are grateful to stay at our friends' apartment while ours looks like this
We parked our 三轮车 at the bottom of our apartment building and climbed up to the 5th floor.  Climbing stair felt more familiar to our minds than our bodies – we were out of breath by the top.  The apartment looked very familiar but also very messy.  The entire living room was piled with boxes, furniture, and pieces of wood that will once again become beds.   The girls played some game involving jumping up and down from the kitchen counter, while Kevin and I moved some furniture and discussed which areas needed intensive bleaching.  This will begin our 5th year in the same apartment – a record by far!
The girls played some kind of game that involved jumping on and off our kitchen counter
We stopped for noodles at our favorite noodle shop, and the owner remembered our “usual” order from a year ago! The noodles tasted just as good as we remembered.  It feels good to be remembered, not just as one of those foreigners, but recognized for ourselves and for our noodle preferences.

With less fondness we were re-aquanted with the pollution that dims the sun and conceals the nearby mountains.  Our first two days included the one water and two power outages.  I remembered the need for frequent laundry – tricky without power or water.  But at the end you are rewarded with a washing machine rendition of "Jingle Bells."

Has it really been a year since I hung wet clothes on a laundry porch and took down the stiff, dry clothes?  I remembered the dust and dirt that cover the girls’ clothes if they so much as step outside.  Of course, they rarely step outside without sitting/climbing/crawling/rolling on something.

Daily we remind our kids, “No shoes in the house! Don’t flush the toilet paper. Don’t rinse your mouth with the sink water. Don’t lean out of the 三轮车.  It is supposed to be nighttime, you need to try to sleep.”

We remember the generosity of friends here.  They have let us stay in their apartment while we prepare our own.  They made us bread and stocked us up with the basics like yogurt, bananas, and peanut butter.  They have invited us for meals.  We have had conversations about things many outside our circle wouldn’t understand but that effect us all deeply.

I feel a deep sense of community and also a sense of isolation.  We are surrounded by millions of people who are all the same (not really of course, but more than you may think) and all different from us.  However much we may try to fit in we will always and forever be obviously different, as we are reminded by every stare we receive and every piece of bread that we eat.  It is tiring, sometimes, being so foreign.

I sense an intangible heaviness, much more apparent after being away for a while.  It is a hard place to live, harder in some ways that we realize.  The heaviness becomes a part of us, a weight we forget influences our everyday lives.  But in that heaviness, more than ever we cling to the rock that is higher.  We know we need strength greater than our own.

Sometimes (okay, a lot of times) I find it easy to focus on the hard stuff.  “These 24 hour trips are ridiculous.  Other people don’t have to do that.  Poor us without our dishwashers or pre-washed vegetables.  Why are we constantly saying goodbyes to friends around the world?”

But I also feel a lot of gratitude.  How great is it to think about all the wonderful people we know in Georgia and California and China and many other places around the US and the world!  Everywhere we go we meet new awesome people.  It is enough to give you faith in humanity.  We live this crazy life of hoping from one side of the globe to another with a mere 24hr trip.  We leave one normal world and another familiar world is waiting for us on the other side.
Re-aqcuanting ourselves with some favorite dishes