From One Universe to Another
When the Dishes Crashed Against the Floor
Danny Caceres got all of our attention when he wrote about the family dinner that changed his perspective about his father, and when he interviewed his “Uncle Z.”
“This is not a life you choose,” his uncle told him. “It chooses you and it doesn’t come cheap…”
Many people come to America with their new lives fully planned out and others have to wing it. No one seems to anticipate the struggles like learning a new language or finding a good-paying profession with a decent salary; this is the promised land after all.
Growing up in a traditional Dominican family came with many obstacles. Protecting our identity as Dominican-Americans was a major priority for my parents, and they took many measures to strengthen our connection to our heritage. At home we primarily spoke Spanish, and when speaking English, slang was strictly taboo. Throughout my entire childhood and adolescent life, I spent every summer vacation in the Dominican Republic. The only downside that came with being so tightly rooted to Dominican culture were the outdated ideals held by that culture, machismo especially. The idea that a man holds unquestionable power is an idea that hopefully will never stand with me.
I was ten years old when I lost my innocence. It was a summer night, when the dishes crashed against the floor. My father had just arrived from the grocery store down the block from our house (he spent most of his evenings there after work). He walked into the house, finding my sister on the phone with her then boyfriend. Unaware that my sister had a boyfriend, he leaped into action, shoving her into the wall furiously yelling, “You are only thirteen years old, how dare you disrespect my home?” As I ran into the kitchen my sister responded, “I am twenty years old, you drunk!” Angry and in shock my father struck her to the ground.
That was the moment Superman was no longer super. That was the moment I learned I would no longer give respect upon command. That was the moment I began to lose my innocence.
The following morning, there was an odd stillness in the air. My parents spent most of the evening arguing about what had occurred, but when we all awoke and met at the kitchen table for breakfast it was as if nothing had occurred. Growing up within our traditional home, we learned at a young age that going with the flow of things would help prolong peace for as long as possible. Our mother worked extremely long hours; she and our aunt had successfully created a small chain of restaurants called “La Estrella.” It was safe to say that we knew how blessed we were due to her success, but we also learned success came with a price. For my siblings and me, our silence was always due on the first of the month.
Uncle Z is one of the greatest hustlers. To hustle means to do anything you need to do to make money, be it selling cars, drugs, your body. If you are making money, you are hustling. Society doesn’t take to kindly to hustlers, who might have a money above everything else mentality. However, Uncle Z was a stand-up guy; he was the neighborhood watch patrol and the parent that spoiled the children rotten. Z lived his life straight out of a 1920’s mob novel series; , he handled all his business in the shadows, and while in the sunlight he was everyone’s go to guy. Back in the late 70’s, there were many choice words used to describe my Uncle Z; I guess it all just depended on the time of day in which you saw him.
In a recent sit down with Z, I was able to get a little more candid about the things that inspired him both now and back when in the day. He began with saying, “People always assumed I was evil, but I was just a regular guy who did what he had to do to survive.” He went on to tell me about how different things were back then. Money basically littered the streets, you just had to earn it.
“The cops and laws were not so heavy; they were only after you if you were hurting other people.” I did not intend on asking him specifically what he did, although part of me already knew that answer, but the curiosity got to me.
“I sold weed and coke. Sometimes I’d sell pills and other stuff, but the most demand was for weed and coke,” he said. He doesn’t sell today because it’s the kind of job he would only recommend for short periods of time, but he did admit to still making some sort of profit. “I don’t touch any of that stuff anymore besides what I use myself, but I do connect the right people to each other.” When asked to elaborate, he basically went on to say that being in the game for as long as him gave him an extremely large phone book; he makes sure the right people hear about certain business opportunities. It’s one thing to have heard what someone you admire did in his past, it’s another thing to begin hearing actual details from the man himself.
As the conversation continued on, I got to hear about my uncle’s dealings with the family and how he’d make sure to give everyone the chance at setting themselves up for a brighter future. He refused to see any of his sisters having to depend on a man financially. He helped them buy the restaurant they worked in (that’s how my mother got into the business). He said, “I knew when it came to their love lives I could not do anything because that would only make me a hypocrite, but I would do everything I could to make sure they had opinions and tons of respect from everyone.” Over the years, my uncle saw the decline in business in the streets as Giuliani came into office. He began to invest all his money in little businesses, both here and in the Dominican Republic. In the Dominican Republic, he focused on real estate buying lots and building beautiful condos. He said, “I’d walk into real estate agencies on my trips to California, have them show me apartments and grab brochures and I’d take it all to DR where I’d replicate it.” My uncle knew what it was like growing up with nothing. It’s pretty clear that he would rather die than go back to that. Z is sixty-seven years old, and still gets up every morning at 6 a.m. for his morning run. By 9 a.m. he’s on the road off to collect the interest on the loans he’s currently owed on the streets.
Towards the end our conversation, I asked if he held any regrets. As he began to talk he became somewhat emotional.
“This is not a life you choose; it chooses you and it doesn’t come cheap…. You come across scammers and people who challenge your honor. In this game you cannot allow that to happen because it makes you weak,” he explained. He spends every day trying to make amends whether it be within his own community or amongst his family. Suddenly, it all made sense to me within our family my uncle is the first man to scold you if you aren’t doing well in school and also the first to reward you if you are doing well. He was the one person in the family you did not want to disappoint because it could cost you a lot. I think I am going to start referring to Z as the Godfather.
* Danny Caceres studied psychology at Lehman College and helped found and run a wholesale real estate company operating out of Baltimore, Philadelphia and New Jersey. Correspondence should be sent to Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2020 Danny Caceres. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.
My Slipper Floated Away
[“This is a picture at the refugee camp in Thailand. My dad is on the left, My mom, my second brother (John), the little red head is me and a friend of the family stand behind me.”]
The title of this book comes from Steven Ngin’s story about his family crossing the Mekong River, from Cambodia to Thailand, when he was four years old. They were fleeing from the Khmer Rouge (soldiers of Cambodia’s totalitarian regime) in the late 1970s. Steven’s struggles didn’t end when he came to America. His family lived in a dangerous Bronx neighborhood, his father could only find minimum-wage jobs and Steven had a tremendous amount of responsibility, taking care of his four younger brothers. But Steven’s dogged perseverance was moving. His description of how he tenderly took care of his daughter makes his love for her palpable.
I was born just as Cambodia’s civil war started. My mom told me I was lucky to be alive because I was born only two pounds and had to be in the incubator, connected to tubes for a month. In the middle of April 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over the country, and they were shooting and dropping bombs near the hospital I was in. Everyone was running out of the hospital and taking cover, but my mom was running in to find me. She was so scared, not of what was happening, but afraid that if I was still attached to the machine, and we had to leave quickly, she wouldn’t know what to do with the wire and tube they had me hooked up to. Fortunately, the nurse had already removed everything before the fighting started. I was too small to carry and run because my mom might have dropped me, so she wrapped a long towel around her neck over one shoulder and put me into the fold. She wore a shirt over it so no one could tell she was carrying a baby with her.
My dad wasn’t there during the time of my birth, because he was in Phnom Penh studying to become a math teacher. There was no phone during that time and the form of communication was through snail-mail. However, the mail wasn’t being delivered because everyone was scared of getting robbed or killed by the Khmer Rouge, who were monitoring the roads. The fighting was even worse where my father was, in Phnom Penh because it was the capital of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge were rounding up all the educated people, teachers and government officials and executing them or forcing them to work in the rice fields. They burned books and destroyed school systems. The Khmer Rouge managed to set Cambodia back hundreds of years in their short reign of terror from 1975 to 1980.
My mom wasn’t able to breastfeed me because she didn’t have milk and was malnourished. Fortunately, she escaped with someone who also had just had a kid. Seeing how small I was, the woman felt sorry for me and helped my mom out. My mom was able to find some grains of rice and made porridge out of it and fed me. She was always on the move because it was the only way to avoid being captured.
When I was about three years old, my mom and I were separated and I stayed with my grandmother and uncle. I remember playing hide-and-seek with my uncle. I got scared of being left behind and just sat there and cried until he came out. One time he climbed up a coconut tree and got some honeycomb from a beehive. He tossed it to me and told me to be careful because there might be a stinger in there. I said okay and without hesitation I took a bite out of it. I started to cry and my inner cheek began to puff up. He laughed and said, “I told you to be careful.”
My last memory of my uncle was when he found out where my mom was and he decided to take me to her. I can’t tell you how long it took but he put me on a bicycle and we rode all day and most of the night. I was sitting on the back with my arms around him, trying not to fall off. At night he asked me if I was tired, and not wanting to be inconvenient, I said no. Looking back, I wish I’d said yes because he must have been tired of riding for such a long time. The reason why he must have pushed so hard was because he wanted to reunite me and my mom. REGRETS are what I am feeling because I never got the chance to say “thank you” and “I love you” to him for all that he did for me. His name was Uncle Ley and he was killed while collecting landmines to help support my grandmother in 1982.
After I was reunited with my mom, I was alone at night all the time. I was scared because of the rattling of the tin roof, and the rain hitting it sounded like gun fights and bombs going off. I could do nothing but hide under my blanket and wish for daylight or my mom to return.
Another house I was left alone in had a cemetery in the back. I remember lying on the floor, scrounging into a ball under my blanket and placing the pillow on top of it for extra protection. Morning never came fast enough and nights were just too long. My memories of that ordeal are more vivid than what I did last week.
The third house was next to a river and I only remember the night. One night while I was alone, an old man came by and begged for food. I gave him what little I had in the pot and when morning came my mom asked where the food was and I told her what happened. I was in trouble because we didn’t have much to eat and she was hungry.
The reason why we lived in so many houses was because we went wherever the Khmer Rouge put us. I was left alone at night all the time because they forced all the adults to work at night in the rice field and those that didn’t were killed.
I met my dad for the first time when I was about four years old. My mom called me into the house and there sat a man who I’d never seen before. She told me to call him "Pah," which means dad in my language. I hesitated because the word felt strange to me and I’d never used it before. I finally did, and she also wanted me to give him a hug. It was one of the most awkward moments in my life. I was always a shy person and expressing myself to my parents was never one of my strong points. My way of showing my feeling was always helping out or doing things that needed to be done.
One time my dad and I were crossing a cold river to escape the Khmer Rouge. He carried me on his back. The reason why that sticks out in my mind was because during our crossing, one of my slippers floated away. I remember trying to get it but couldn't do much but watch it float away.
Another time we rested at a place and a man took someone’s baby. I could see and hear a mob of people chasing after him. They caught him and he was killed. That night, a dog was howling as if he saw a ghost and I laid under the cover shivering and trying not to breathe. It was a long night but this time my parents were by my side and eventually I fell asleep.
We made our way to Thailand and stayed in a refugee camp for almost a year. My second brother was there and I remember helping my parents take care of him. I would get on the hammock and place my little brother on my chest and swing him to sleep. One time, as he lay on me in the hammock, he had diarrhea. Unfortunately, with a cloth diaper it seeped through and got me on my stomach. I almost threw up, but was able to clean it and change him. We were trying to live a normal life because there was no more running for our lives, but every time it would rain, the sound of thunder and lightning scared me to death because I got it confused with bombs and bullets.
Being in the refugee camp was hard but it was better than where we had been. I went to school, but I didn’t like it because if your nails were dirty or long, you got hit on the hand with a ruler. They usually checked at the end of the day. Sometimes I bit my fingernails because I didn’t have a nail cutter. Sometimes I still got hit, so I got smarter and ask to go to the bathroom before they were about to check. The good thing about school there was that it wasn’t monitored well, so sneaking home was easy. The bathroom was a large outhouse, so I just crawled out of the hole in the fence and ran home.
One thing I admired about my dad was that he learned a lot of different languages. He spoke Cambodian, French, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and English. He always liked to help people and when we were at the refugee camp he would translate for people who needed help and filled out paperwork for visas. The day we got our visa to come to America he was arrested because he was defending a woman from a Thai guard. Fortunately, the people that he was helping were able to convince the officer to release him.
I got married in 2000, to a girl in Cambodia who was my dad’s friend’s daughter. It was an arranged marriage. To marry the person your parents thought was perfect for you – for some people, it’s easy to say that it was stupid, but when you’re raised in a traditional culture and want to please your parents, it isn’t so stupid.
On December 25, 2009, my life was turned upside down because my nine-year marriage came to an end and I became a single parent.
The best thing that came out of that marriage was my little girl, and having her by my side made me forget all the pain. She was only five years old at the time and no matter how hard things got or how tired I was, her smile always gave me the energy to move on.
My first job, as a Ramp Agent at JFK, required me to leave the house at 4 in the morning due to the two-hour commute from the Bronx. After I was done with that job, I went directly to my second job, with the U.S Census. I finished around 6 or 7 in the evening, but I never neglected my little girl.
Almost every night we walked to McDonalds on Fordham Road and Davidson Avenue. She got her Happy Meal, either a plain cheeseburger or chicken nuggets, and I just got a cup of coffee to stay awake. We usually stayed for an hour or two because she loved to play in the little playground. Most of the time I told her we could only stay for a little bit, but I never had the heart to end her fun. When there were no other kids for her to play with, I played and chased her around until my coffee wore off. When there were other kids, I just sat and watched her. I admit I dozed off sometimes as I watched her play, but it was only for a couple of seconds. The only time I could get her to leave early was when I told her we had to walk to Blockbuster to get her a cartoon. That was our daily routine and the best part was tucking her in and kissing her good night.
On October 25, 2010, I woke up my baby and gave her a big hug and a big kiss and told her how much I loved her. She responded, "I love you too daddy." I could feel the tightness in my heart and the air was choked out of me. I fought back the tears and told her, "Daddy is going to work now and I won't be back for a long time. You be a good girl and stay with Grandma and Grandpa okay?" "Okay daddy, I love you." She was only five years old and I knew she did not fully understand the concept of time. She was used to seeing me leave to work early and come home late.
That day I left with a heavy heart and not to my regular job, but to Basic Training. I had joined the Army, as I was tired of working two jobs, not having enough time to go back to school and barely have any time for my daughter. I wanted something better for her, but I had to make the toughest sacrifice of all, to leave her temporarily.
Basic Training was four months with no phone call to family. The first two months were hard because it was the first time that I was away from my daughter for so long and she was always on my mind. I didn't know how she was doing or how she felt not seeing me come home. My biggest fear was her thinking that I had abandoned her.
In the middle of basic training we had a two-week break and everyone got to go home. I was excited and nervous at the same time. When I got home I surprised her by picking her up from school. She was so excited and I was very happy to see her. We didn't go straight home that day. We took the D train to 42nd Street and walked around. We took pictures and I had one of those wacky drawings done of her and then we went to Dave n Buster to eat and play games. We ended the night with a movie on 8th Ave. I don't remember what time we got home, but time always flies when I'm with her.
The two weeks did not last long at all. When it was time for me to leave, she came along and dropped me off at the airport with my mom and dad. This time when I told her that I had to go back to work and wouldn’t be back for a long time, she began to tear up. I reassured her, "I will be back soon and when I come back, I will take you with me. We will be together forever, ok?" She hesitantly agreed and I kissed her goodbye, not letting her see the tears in my eyes.
My parents drove off with her and five minutes later I received a phone call from my mom. She told me that Celeste was crying and not stopping. I asked my mom to hand her the phone. "Hey baby, daddy's here." I could barely hear her say, "Hi, daddy. I miss you and love you...” She continued to cry; it was hard for me to comfort her because I was getting choked up. I paused for a bit and told her, "You are going to make me cry, hon, and remember we are going to build a tree house right?" All I could hear was "uh huh." She sniffled and wiped her nose.
She loves tree houses and I distracted her with questions of what kind she wanted to build, how big, and what color. She began to calm down and thought about all the questions I asked her. She began to describe the tree house and when she said she wanted to paint it pink, I exclaimed, "PINK?" "Yes, daddy." I told her pink is such a girly color, how am I going play in it? She began to laugh. We talked for forty-five minutes until she became quiet. Then my mom said she fell asleep. I told my mom I love her and asked her to take care of Celeste for me until I got back.
The second half of basic training was even harder and I almost didn't finish because I missed her so much. Lucky I have friends in basic training that reminded me why I was there; to give up would have meant it was all for nothing.
Coming from a country of war, I am definitely grateful to have an opportunity in America. My dog tag will always remind me of my daughter. The pain she felt and the strength she gives me when I believe all hope is lost. This dog tag gave me the opportunity to give my daughter a childhood I never had. I rarely take it off because it is a reminder of something I earned with her.
[At Binghamton University playing volleyball]
* Steven Ngin is a US Army veteran and a single parent. He is working toward his degree at Lehman College. Email: email@example.com
© 2020 Steven Ngin. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.
Alfiya, a nurse and mother, has a gift for description that mesmerized us in the summer 2016 memoir class. She is Russian, but grew up until she was a teenager in Kazakhstan, where Russians are in the minority; her family faced life-threatening, sometimes fatal, prejudice. Her writing about the fierce way that she and her little sister played with their knock-off Barbie dolls perfectly captures their fraught situation. Then, after Alfiya’s parents moved to the U.S., before they were able to send for her and her sister, things got even more intense.
There is no stronger bond than that of sisterhood. When I was ten years old my baby sister, Elina, was born. I think it was the happiest moment in my life because I realized I would no longer feel lonely or, that at least, we could be lonely together. Spending time with my sister became my favorite thing to do. Giving her all the attention became my mission. I wanted her to have what my parents seemed to deny us – affection. I would sit through my classes, only half listening to my teachers (which often got me in trouble in school) because I was making grandiose plans about how I was going to entertain Elina when I got home.
Every time my mother would ask me to take her for a walk I would get so excited and overjoyed that by looking at my face one might have thought I had won the lottery. I would get all dressed up; after putting on my best dress, I would sneak into my mother’s room and apply her red lipstick or borrow some of her jewelry. I was thinking, or at least hoping, that adult clothes and makeup would make everyone think I was a responsible adult. Such mischief, of course, was not left unpunished. One time my mother got very furious because I took something expensive from her jewelry box. When she was screaming at me the only thing I could think of was: "Wow, her face is like a red balloon." Since I was trying to figure out if her face was going to explode, I pretty much missed everything she was saying about why taking her jewelry was wrong. And so, right after she dismissed me from her room, I dismissed whatever she said because I continued to sneak her things out of her room every once in a while.
It still puts a smile on my face when I imagine my ten year-old self-dressed as an adult woman, pushing that orange stroller at least twice my size, with a proud and serious expression on my face. It was not an easy job for a ten year-old, especially given the worn-out, bumpy streets of my town. Yet there was nothing I would rather do. At those moments I felt like there were not two other people closer than Elina and me. I believed that nothing would ever be able to tear us apart and that we would be the best sisters and friends and partners in crime. Alas, when she turned two she was diagnosed with malignant liposarcoma. Just like that, our lives changed once and for all.
I was twelve when I first felt the weight of the world on my shoulders. My beloved, precious sister was diagnosed with cancer. My parents, who were never there for me to start with, now seemed to be lost for me forever. From ignoring parents they turned into neglecting ones which made me feel I no longer existed. I felt invisible. I was wishing it was me who had cancer because not only would that save my baby sister, it would also make my parents care for me.
When chemo and radiotherapy were no longer enough and Elina required surgery, many hospitals declared my sister’s tumors inoperable; others bluntly told my parents she was not eligible because she was Russian. Meantime, her tumors were growing with spreading metastasis.
After a year of being denied treatment, being referred to other hospitals and given multiple crappy reasons as to why my sister can’t have the surgery there was one hospital, in Almaty, where the doctors finally agreed to do the surgery. How relieved and happy we were! My mother ran and hugged my father and said, “I can’t believe it!” It seemed that all our problems would end right then and there.
But this moment of happiness was not to last long. After the surgery had begun one of the surgeons stepped out of the OR. He said to my mother, “If you want your daughter to live, you will have to pay.” I don’t think I entirely understood what he meant by that but I remember seeing my mother’s face began to skew as if she was having a stroke.
That same day my parents were making millions of calls to friends, relatives, acquaintances and banks to get the money the surgeon demanded. They had eight hours, the length of the surgery, to find the money.
I was sitting in a small waiting area outside the OR, confused to see my parents so concerned and worried. I was sitting, praying and hoping my sister would be all right. There was a nurse, wearing all white, sitting next to me. She was Kazakh. I did not trust her, in fact I think I was afraid of her. But she was just sitting there with me as if she did not have anything else to do, and somehow, her presence, the presence of another person waiting for the verdict made things different. Occasionally she would gently smooth my hair with the palm of her hand or put her hand on top of mine, look at me with her big, light-brown eyes and say in reassuring voice, “Everything happens for a reason, and there is no reason for your sister to suffer. Let’s pray she will be OK.”
And she was OK. In what seemed like ages, my parents got back. I don’t remember what happened after, other than my father storming past me toward the OR. What I do remember was my mother’s feet. Her black shoes she had put on for the first time that morning looked like they were a few decades old: they were dirty and dusty and had holes in them. Through the holes I could see blood on her toes and blisters next to her heels.
It wasn’t until I got older and we all lived in the United States that I asked my parents to tell me about what happened that day. My mother told me that the surgeon wanted money in exchange for my sister’s life and even though he never said it directly, his words made it clear that what he meant was, “If you don’t pay, she won’t make it through the surgery.” My father explained that the reason they were so worried and anxious and why they left me with that nurse was because they did not have the sum of money the doctor required. So my father was trying to sell some of our property and gave our house and car to the bank in exchange for cash. Meantime my mother was trying to sell jewelry. My parents raised enough money with the help of friends and relatives, and my sister’s surgery went well.
After the surgery my father sold the rest of whatever little property we had left, borrowed more money from friends, bought fake documents, and just like that, he was gone. The year was 2005. We did not see him for the next five years.
My mother, my sister and I were living (or rather trying to survive) together in our house, which wasn’t technically ours anymore since it belonged to the bank. My mother had to work hard. She worked days and nights to pay money to the bank so we wouldn’t end up on the streets butt-naked. In the daytime she would cook for restaurants and cafeterias making a variety of dishes; at night she would transform into a dressmaker, sewing black and white uniforms and prom dresses for schools.
While our father was fighting for us to come to the United States and our mother was working to the point of exhaustion, the bond between my sister and I was growing stronger. Chemotherapy and radiation made it impossible for her to attend any daycare centers, pre-K or kindergarten because something as minor as a sneeze could be lethal given her compromised immunity. So it was just us. I was teaching her how to read and write, she was showing me what it felt like to be loved.
I remember the first time our father sent us money. My mother took some to pay the bank and gave the rest to us, saying, “Go, treat yourselves for being nice girls.” Elina and I exchanged looks and instantly, without saying it, we knew what we wanted. I grabbed the money and then we ran. Her short three-year-old legs were moving with unbelievable speed. In about ten minutes we pushed through the doors of a pathetic version of Toys “R” Us in the town we lived. (Well, we didn’t know then how pathetic it was. To us it was colossal and magical). We went straight to the section where Barbie dolls were sold. We had never owned a Barbie doll but we always wanted one. We would often come to that store and stare at the dolls for hours. But Barbie dolls were very expensive. In a country where the monthly salary is a little more than a hundred dollars, a doll that costs $50 does not make any sense. But, oh well, neither do a lot of other things in that country.
These Barbie dolls could probably be stars in Chucky horror movies. Their plastic hands and legs, unlike the dolls in the U.S., were empty on the inside, could bend and break easily and were of different lengths. Their hair was the color of vomited bile, let alone the fact that there was barely any hair at all. Their clothes looked like these Barbie dolls were in some serious economic situation and were homeless. But we loved them. To us these dolls were beautiful. After the purchase we stormed home. We tore our dolls out of those carton boxes like two hungry savages. That day we never went to sleep. We played and laughed, cooked imaginary dinners and saved imaginary lives, and yes, I was thirteen and I played dolls but I felt happy and I did not care if someone found out.
I still remember how excited I was when I heard people calling my name on the street. We did not have doorbells then, so any visitors had to stand by the gates shouting a name of a person they came to see.
“Alfiya, Alfiya,” they called. Barefoot, wearing my mother’s old robe, overjoyed by the thought of finally having some visitors, I ran outside. That evening was unexpectedly cold for July and the moment I stepped out the door I felt series of goosebumps spreading all over by body.
When my parents left to the United States, my sister and I had to move in with a man we barely knew. There was an agreement between our families that while he fostered us, my parents would let his wife stay with them in their apartment in New York. Because this man lived far away from where my sister and I lived prior to our mother’s departure, I lost my friends. I also lost connection with my classmates because my sister was sick and I had to drop out of school to be with her. I was longing for some friends, for any kind of human contact, for anybody to talk with.
As I opened the door I saw a group of girls, squatting across the street. Evening darkness, combined with clouds of cigarette smoke, made it difficult for me to see their faces. They appeared to be in a middle of a heated discussion, using the most vulgar vocabulary I ever heard. They yelled and cursed at each other, only stopping if they had to spit or to take a pull from their cigarettes. My intuition told me to stay where I was, to stay by the gates, in the safe zone but my desire to talk to someone silenced it and so I made a step toward them.
It was not until I got close to them and too far from the gates that I recognized them. They were older than me and they were dangerous. I remembered them from school days when they used beat younger kids to take away their money or to humiliate them. I made a step back, thinking of how I could get away unnoticed, but it was too late. One of them grabbed me by my hair. I began to struggle to worm my way out but then I saw another one taking a knife out. They were saying something about my parents living the United States and having a lot of money, promising to set my house on fire and giving every detail of how they would kill my sister in front of me if I was not going to give them what they asked for. But I was too preoccupied with survival to be listening to what they were asking for.
In what seemed like ages, I wiggled myself out but found myself unable to run. I felt piercing pain in my right side, followed by a burning sensation in my lower abdomen. My mother’s robe felt wet and sticky in those places. I looked down and the last thing I saw before I drifted into world of peace and darkness were rivers of blood that looked black under the moonlight. My eyes closed and I hit the ground. Last thing I heard was their laughter.
* Alfiya M. is a registered nurse and mom to a toddler. Correspondence should be sent c/o Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2020 Afiya M. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.
My World, My Air and My Life
Early in the semester, Ali wore his hoodie with the hood on, in class, and sat quietly along the wall. Within weeks though, he became kind of radiant, and the class was riveted by his incredibly dramatic story and his recital, by heart, from the Qur’an in the mellifluous West-African singsong style that he was taught. Ali was born and raised in the Bronx, but his parents sent him to Gambia when he was nine to study for six years at an Islamic madrasa. To say that he experienced culture shock does not do justice to what it was like for him.
I made my mom promise to take me to the movies for my seventh birthday to watch the new Power Rangers movie, Lightning Speed Rescue. She, my aunt and my cousin Saikou went to the Concourse Plaza movie theater on 161st Street in the Bronx, pretty close to my house. I was amazed to see so many fast food restaurants and stores. A guy was selling t-shirts and Pokémon cards at a stand and my mom bought me the cards because most of my second-grade classmates had them. Saikou got some too.
Downstairs my aunt bought us some popcorn and I had a big cup of orange juice, while Saikou had a Sprite. We didn't eat the popcorn as much because it made us dehydrated. We start screaming a little when the lights dimmed down for the movie to start. The best part was the ending, when the white ranger rescued the other rangers. Everyone in the crowd was cheering and clapping at that part. "This is the best birthday gift," I told my mom as we left the movie theater, and I hugged her.
Upstairs we ate my usual meal at McDonald's, a cheeseburger with fries and drink. It was our first time going to the movies together; I was cheesing so hard and thankful that my mom kept her promise by taking me to the movies.
When we got home that night, I overheard my dad tell my mom that he was sending me to Gambia to become more disciplined and learn about Islam and the culture.
I was not aware of what to expect. All I knew about Africa were some of the stories my mom use to tell, and what I'd seen on the Discovery Channel. I assumed Africa was just filled with wild animals and people living in trees.
My parents were living paycheck to paycheck in the Bronx. I used to look at my friends at school wearing the latest Jordan sneakers, brand new clothes, and always having lunch money. I didn’t see that my mother was doing the best that she could. I was ungrateful, or maybe I was eager to be living in the materialistic world.
In Gambia, the last thing any kid worried about was what brand of shoe they were wearing. I saw kids walking barefoot, and still happy. Living in Gambia made me feel so free and open-minded. It made me look at the world differently. When I was living in the Bronx, I was never hungry, had a place to sleep, clean clothes to wear, but I wasn’t satisfied.
I spent about a month living with my aunt and a lot of family members in a huge two-story house, a big compound. I had a hard time communicating with my family because I wasn't fluent in the Soninke language and they didn't speak English, but after a month I picked up on the language.
One morning after eating breakfast my father called to say that I would be joining my cousin Ebrahim at his boarding school, Ibn Masood. When my aunt told me the news, I was scared, because I’d heard scary stories about the boarding schools in Gambia. It helped that my cousin Ebrahim was there. My uncle told me to pack my belongings because we were leaving at five o'clock. My heart was beating so fast. I slowly put on a short-sleeved shirt, Nike shorts and slippers. I carried my luggage to the car and while I waited for my uncle, all I thought about was my mother. Tears streamed down my cheeks as we drove off and I slowly waved goodbye to my aunt.
We had six to eight bedrooms at Ibn Masood, each bedroom housing fourteen to eighteen students. At meal times each room received just one bowl of rice. Our Dean was stocky, bald-headed Mareco; I used to hate him. When it was time to eat he would go through all the rooms yelling, “Everybody come out! It’s time for dinner.” On my first day I was confused to see everyone rushing out from their rooms. A boy tapped me and said, “Hey if you want to eat you better hurry up or else you won’t be eating for the rest of the day.” So I followed him, running out of my bedroom. I was in such a hurry, I forgot to wear my slippers. The boarding school was a massive compound, and we ate outside of the house. We joined our roommates around two bowls.
Our room leader, who was the oldest person in each room, took the plate covers off the bowls. They had cooked fried rice that day with two skinny fried fish. As we sat down I was confused as to why no one started eating. I tried to put my hand in the bowl, and Musa held my hand back. “We have to wait for our room leader Haji.” Haji took the fish and started dividing it into pieces between all eighteen of us. It was obvious he would get the largest share. I kept quiet like the other kids. It wasn’t normal for me to eat fast and I wasn’t too good at eating with my hands. But I was so famished that I ate it in the blink of an eye.
Ebrahim showed me around the school. “There are no showers or toilet seats,” he explained. “You must learn how to bathe yourself with a bucket of water and use a cup to pour water on yourself.” We had limited water, so every pour counted. Otherwise, you would have soap stains left on your body. The toilet wasn’t the most comfortable. You must know how to use it, and you couldn't depend on a toilet seat. You had to learn how to control your balance because there’s a little hole where you bend your knees and crouch.
We were pretty stressed because of the struggle that we had to go through living there, so every student was always looking forward to our mini vacations. Throughout the year, we only had two short vacations at the boarding school, for the holidays of Eid ul Adha and Eid ul Fitr. We were grateful for them. Although I loved the vacations, I also hated them. They reminded me of how much I was missing out on during my childhood. However, they also motivated and encouraged me to graduate faster, so I could live life in the real world.
On these two holidays I went home to my extended family. Ramadan is when we fast for the whole month from sunrise to sunset. We are usually sent home by the 20th day of Ramadan, and come back a week and a half after Eid ul Fitr. In my boarding school life, nothing felt better than leaving and going to my Aunt Mahoreh’s house. The night before vacation no student thought of sleeping. Everyone would be up washing their dirty clothes or planning how they would spend their vacation. In the morning every student would be sitting on top of his beds, excitedly waiting for his parents to pick him up.
Nothing felt better than hearing “Tomorrow is Thursday,” the day we were allowed to go outside the school. As Muslims, we pray five times a day, and when we prayed in the boarding school, we prayed together in one large group. The first prayer of the day, at 5 a.m., is called Fajr. Usually after Fajr prayers we went back to sleep. However, on Thursday mornings, most students did not go back to bed. Some of us went back to our rooms and talked with our roommates, in soft low voices. If you ever got caught talking by Dean Mareco, you would get punished. Some students would go outside, near the bathrooms, washing their socks for our soccer game later on that day. Thursday mornings were joyful for everyone. You would wake up and see the happiness on everyone's face.
By 7 a.m. everyone was up putting on their sports gear. Most of the students couldn’t afford a soccer uniform or soccer shoes. They would wear any shorts they had, and any clean or unclean T-shirts they could find. By 8 a.m. Mareco made us stand in two straight lines by the entrance, and gave his little annoying speech. “If we go out and you misbehave, you’ll regret it when we get back.” So we would leave the compound, marching towards the soccer field, about 10-15 minutes away. Just being outside the school, looking at other kids playing in the sand outside the streets, running in and out of stores, and watching grown men argue, was exciting and a relief to see.
Those who didn’t want to play soccer would just walk around the track or play hide and seek. The rest of us divided into two groups, one with the younger kids, and one with the older kids. I was a part of the younger group. We would play for about two and a half hours. If you scored an excellent goal or did an impressive trick with the soccer ball, that would be the highlight of your day. We would be talking about it when we got back to school. After we arrived, we took our showers, ate breakfast and laid down in our beds. “Till next Thursday again,” we would say to one another.
I received the worst beating of my life in boarding school. One day we were sitting in our study circle memorizing our Surahs [chapters of the Quran] that were given by our teachers. I was sitting next to my friend Hajie and instead of studying we were talking and play fighting. Mareco came in while I was twisting Hajie’s arm. He told me to stand up and commanded me to wait for him in his room. The room was dark; he had one big mattress on the floor. He walked in with the wire from a machine hair cutter. He grilled at me while he was taking his shirt off, only having his tank top on. He told me to take my shirt off and I took it off. Mareco was a big stocky guy--he wasn't that tall but had huge arms. He raised his arm high with the wire and brought it down on my back with force. Not only my back, but arms, legs, and my whole body. He wanted me to feel every painful strike of the wire, and I felt each one of them. After the punishment I was not able to wear my shirt because of all of the blood on my back. I went to my room, lay on my stomach, and cried myself to sleep hoping I would feel better before class in the morning.
Out of all the teachers in the boarding school, I liked my “Ustaz,” (teacher) the most. His full name is Jibril Tall, but we called him Ustaz Tall. He’s from Senegal, bordering on Gambia. Ustaz Tall had a dark complexion, about 5’9, and he had a beautiful voice. I've always wished I could recite the Quran just like him. Most regions have their melodic way of reciting the Quran, and Ustaz Tall made me fall in love with the West African melodic voice
One day he was a bit late to class, getting dressed in his room. At that time I was leaving the bathroom heading to class and saw his window was open. I hadn’t memorized my surah that day, so I thought if I read out loud by his window, using his African voice, he would be so impressed that he wouldn’t punish me in class. Once I reached the third line, he looked out the window saying. “Ay, don’t you know class started, and you’re still out here. You better have memorized your Surah today." I think he figured out my plan and sadly it didn’t work. I went to class without having the Surah memorized, and I had to monkey dance in the corner, although I still to this day appreciate him.
He was fair to the students. Don't get me wrong, he would beat you if you continuously didn't memorize a Surah. Compared to other classes, though, we had it more relaxed. Every Saturday morning we would always hear kids screaming and crying from the other classes. All you could do was feel bad for them and thank Allah for being fortunate not to be placed in any of those classes.
At boarding school I lived without my family, got whipped every day, had to ask my friends for a piece of their breakfast bread, wore the same outfit for the whole week and worried about students stealing my clothing. I would say maybe life in prison would have been simpler. I couldn't wait to gain back my freedom and reconnect with my family. After six years of struggle, that day finally came when my uncle Ala came to pick me up on my graduation.
I graduated with three other students. We didn't sleep for two straight nights because of our excitement. The night before my graduation I had a visit from all the students at school giving me letters for their family and friends. That same night I remember hopping the fence to go and buy a pack of juice powder. When I got back, I found a pocket of water and poured the powder into it. We only had one cup, and it used to allow all the students to drink from it one by one. I spent that whole night with my roommates sharing our future plans after boarding school. I shed a tear while I was leaving the boarding school when I looked back and saw my friends faces. I told them, “In sha Allah we will see each other again.”
Coming back from Gambia in 2006 was one of the hardest times in my life. It was my first year of middle school, and the school I attended had a lot of gang members. That's why I found myself having to deal with the bullies. Every other day after school would lead to a fight, and sometimes it would cause me to get into a fight with more than three people. I had to fight for my respect because telling my teachers or the principal would just cause more problems. I felt alone since I had just arrived back in America. Even though I was quiet, I did not tolerate anyone who was out to bully me; I fought back every time. That was the only way to solve the issue, and it worked.
One day after lunch we were sitting in the school auditorium, and I was sitting with my new friend Morris waiting for the talent show to start. That’s when the two teens behind us began mocking Morris, saying how short and fat he was. They kept on going for an extended period, so I finally got up and asked them to stop and then Pierre a light skin Puerto Rican who played for the school football team, told me, “Shut the f*&$ up and sit down.” I responded, “Come make me.” As I was sitting down, he went around and tried to swing at me with his right hand, and that's when I blocked him and punched him back and slammed him against the floor and sat on top of him and continued to hit him. The security guard came over and broke off the fight, taking me back to the office, where I was suspended. I tried explaining to them that I was the victim but they didn't believe me because I was the kid on top. But after that occurred, I gained respect and was no longer bullied. When I returned from suspension, I was shocked to see Morris hanging out with Pierre. I tried to give Morris a hand shake but he ignored me. Our friendship was broken.
My Qur’an, my everything, my world, my air, and my life. The Quran is the holy script book for Muslims. The Qur’an guides me in life so I can be successful in the afterlife. The Qu’ran is a book that contains the word of Allah. It advises me how to live my life and tells me what is permissible and not permissible to do.
Till this day I carry my boarding school Quran with me everywhere I go, because my Quran became a part of me. I always keep it on the side of my backpack. My small, pocket-size brown Quran, with leather covers that makes it feel so vintage. It has a little zipper I open and close every time I recite. My Quran, I love it with all my heart. I recite it whenever I'm feeling down, depressed or stressed. It always changes my mood into happiness and joy. The recitation is so soothing. I feel it in my heart; it brings light to me, and everything becomes clear.
Writing about my childhood and past is so precious and brings back so many old memories that I forgot even existed. I am writing this for the readers who went through a struggle similar to mine, to guide and motivate anyone that wants to make it in life. I have a fascinating life to tell, and this is only the beginning.
* Alibamba Sillah (Ali to his friends and family) graduated from Lehman College in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. He’s working towards his master’s in education and plans to run an after-school program in his community. Correspondence should be sent to Email: email@example.com
© 2020 Alibamba Sillah. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.
Emotions and English
Nabeela Van grew up in India and moved to the United States after her mother died when she was 16 years old. Nabeela is a poet and her writing about her mother was passionate and heart-wrenching. For Nabeela, bearing witness, artfully, about her mother’s anguish was essential.
My mother was educated but not in English. In Mumbai, where I grew up, English worked like cash. Cops made an effort to be helpful if the person filing a case spoke fluent English. While performing her daily housewife chores, my mother ruminated about the lingering British influence on Indian citizens, even 50 years after Independence from the Britishers. The impact was so powerful that my mother, a Hindu woman, felt under-educated just because her degree was in her country's national language, Hindi.
My mother grew up in a simple wooden house. When it rained, scorpions, mice and insects sought shelter in her house, entering via the open, glassless window frames. She was thrifty and managed to complete her education in commerce, for it was my grandmother’s wish to see at least one of her five daughters earn a bachelor's certificate. The appetite in the culture for English motivated her to take English classes after college graduation, after work. Unfortunately, the course she could afford wasn't serious, and focused on reading alone.
The grip of poverty on my mother loosened as she started working as a secretary for a diamond firm. Then she fell in love with my dad, her boss. In their three years of strained marriage, my dad taunted her, saying his previous lover deserved him and his money more than my mother did. I believe this was the root of her insecurities. It is the nature of roots to grow deeper. So when my dad divorced my mother to marry his ex-lover, a woman with a graduate degree in English literature, it only added fuel to my mother’s doubts about her own worthiness.
Though I remember her trapped in her own tears after the divorce, she didn't let the vacuum of her sadness and low self-esteem suck my brother or me in. We meant the world to her. Usually while preparing the dough for roti from wheat flour like any other ordinary housewife in India, she would have us recite science definitions and math tables. She was strict about our studies, and would not only keep a tight rein on us until we finished our homework, but also strained her every nerve to teach us. Once she pronounced ''goat'' as ''got'', and my brother let out an involuntary snort of laughter which ended up with her breaking down into tears. She screamed in Hindi with her wet eyes and frustrated face. ''Yes, I cannot speak English,'' and continued to cry with those tears streaming down her cheeks.
In the early 2000's, our relatives, permanent residents of New York, came to visit us. I felt her heart pounding as their footsteps entered our house, and later her euphoria when she said, ''Nice to see you,'' without any hesitation. After they left, I couldn’t count the number of times we retold that moment.
English was turning into the drug she craved more with every passing day. Being able to speak a few common phrases right was her stimulant, and the extreme worry of not being able to do so was her depressant. For some reason, the irrational fear of embarrassing herself had settled on her like footprints on wet concrete. Maybe I was a part of that reason. In the ninth grade, she saw me bend down a little to the culture's demand. It was a week before my friend Nikita's birthday, and her mom was planning a surprise party for her. My friends’ parents were invited to Nikita’s party, and I asked timidly if their parents spoke English. When my friend replied back, "Yes, of course!" my worry over this fact became contagious, and unintentionally transmitted to that one person who was paranoid over the whole English speaking thing. It stressed her so profoundly that by the time the party invitation came, she had eaten up her nails to the flesh.
Rehabs exist to save people from drugs, but not from swamps. This mangrove swamp of anxiety pulled her in completely. I observed it when she had to talk to my high school principal concerning one of my teachers. As soon as she entered his room, her fear of not being able to handle the conversation made her sweat, stutter, and act hesitantly. She ended up crying.
After her death in 2010, I moved to America. In spite of America being an English-speaking country, I noticed that many immigrants struggle to communicate in English, and many natives misuse English. In fact, here I’ve met several people who are fond of Indian culture, colors, clothing, and especially the Indian poetic language, Hindi. So maybe all that English craze was unnecessary, and thus the fear totally irrational. She could have lived more happily, if she hadn’t burdened herself. Blinded in emotions, I still try to collect and preserve English, because to her, my mother, to be able to speak those words correctly was all that was needed.
* Nabeela Van is a chemist by day and poet by night. She is also a court-appointed special advocate, providing emotional and administrative support to youth in, and aging out, of foster care. Email: Nabeela.firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2020 Nabeela Van. This is an open access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution—Non-Commercial—No-Derivatives License (CC-BY-NC-ND), which permits use, distribution, and reproduction, of the full, original text for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and source are credited.