Category Archives: Moments

Moments: Anoo, nande ikimasu ka?*

Ha Noi, Vietnam, (Bui Duy Thanh Mai)

*(How will I get there?)

I awake to bright sunshine filtering through the curtains beside my bed. Stretching and allowing myself to sink into the mattress, I grin. I could not have wished for a lovelier homestay: my own spacious room, windows opening up onto rice paddies and the neighborhood below, children laughing in the streets and my own soft bed. My reverie is interrupted by Tamiko-san, my host mother, calling from the kitchen downstairs, “Sutefuanii!” (Stephanie in Japanese).

I leap out of bed and grab my towel and shampoo. The night before (my first in her home), Tamiko-san had briefed me in her rapid Japanese and broken English that we would be going to meet the rest of the family at her grandson’s Sports Festival, a day of competitions and performances put on by the elementary school. I could only imagine how nervous she must have been, trying to speak English and hoping that I understood. My own Japanese still quite minimal, I had nodded and smiled and attempted to make conversation about the meal and about what was expected of me.

Dousing myself under the showerhead, and then dashing up to change, I emerge several minutes later greeting Tamiko-san in the kitchen, “Itadakimasu!”, and the two of us sit down to miso soup, fried egg and salad. One thing had been troubling me since I learned we would be going to the school…how was I going to get there? I feel very nervous, fumbling with my Japanese and my head still foggy from the early rising. Tamiko-san scurries around the house like a bee, with me at her heels trying to help and catch what she’s telling me. Finally, my arms full of clothes and lunchboxes, I ask her, “Anoo, nande ikimasu ka?” (How will I get there?)

She leads me over to the screen and I behold the oldest, most rickety-looking bike I had ever seen. This apparently was the neighborhood bike, and for today I was kindly given permission to borrow it.

Since arriving in Japan several weeks ago, bicycles have been a common sight—everyone seems to ride one, whether commuting to work or school or going to the supermarket. And the Japanese ride with inhuman skill. Dodging in and out of heavy traffic, maneuvering tight corners and crowds of people, I had already begun to enjoy this lifestyle, and it was much easier than waiting for the bus. However, today would be a little different. Tamiko-san disappears to change, putting on a lovely skirt and hat. Then the two of us, weighed down with bags, slip on our shoes and head outside.

Tamiko-san does not own a car. Instead, like many older Japanese, she rides a motorbike. Despite her small frame, she confidently and gracefully maneuvers the bike out of the tight space and through the tiny gate. Having just met her, and unsure what is expected of me, I stand by awkwardly as she loads the bags onto the bike, puts on her helmet, and starts the engine. Glancing at Tamiko-san and looking at “my” bicycle, I almost laugh; here is this tiny woman, dressed to attend a formal dinner, mounting this motorbike as if it were the most natural thing in the world, revving the engine and looking back at me expectantly. I hop on my bicycle and shake my head in resignation, prepared to follow.

And we are off. I think I am going to die. Never in my life have I felt this insecure. My brakes do not quite work, and as we ride through the town, Tamiko-san is speeding ahead around corners and up hills. I keep to the sidewalk believing I will survive this ordeal and will soon be enjoying lunch. However, once we make it out onto the highway with traffic speeding by, my bravery wanes slightly and it takes all of my will to not laugh hysterically. I distract myself with the surroundings slowly materializing before me. I am on the open road, the wind in my hair, bicycling beside breathtaking scenery and having a near-death experience. Taking my eyes off the tiny figure ahead of me on a motorbike, I behold the wilderness. Japan is a beautiful country. Amidst fields of swaying green grass and rice, mountains in the distance, there is a quiet spirituality about the landscape. An awesome majesty, with the expanse of skies overhead feeling so close.

Twenty minutes later, I slide off my bike bedraggled, windblown, and sweaty, my hands shaking slightly as I lock the bike beside Tamiko-san’s. Giving her a quick hug, and gathering the bundles, we hobble together, Tamiko-san with her arthritis and me with my wobbly knees, towards the field behind the school. There I am greeted warmly and enthusiastically by the rest of the family. Smiling, feeling quite safe and contented, I know from this moment on that my stay with Tamiko-san will be special.

—Stephanie Merritt

From Aleph 3

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Moments: Jaay ma Suukër ak Warga

MOMENT n. a very brief period of exact point in time; a particular stage in something’s development

In The Aleph’s vernacular, Moments are stories that focus on a discrete episode of study abroad or cultural immersion. While these stories don’t aim to communicate the whole experience (that’s not possible even in much longer pieces) they do suggest the essence of experience.

Pirogues belonging to the fishermen of Saint-Louis, Senegal line the shores of the Langue de Barbarie (Christa Levesque)

I anxiously walk into Pathé’s room, prepared with warga (tea leaves) and suukër (sugar) in hand. He greets me with the common salutation “Yaa ngi si jàmm?” Do you have peace? I reply, “Jàmm rek, alhomdulilah!” Peace only, thank God! Two months ago these words had no meaning for me, but now they envelop me in peace and happiness. I feel at home.

It is my first time making attaya all by myself. Making tea is about being social. My friends and I talk as I try to concentrate on the art of attaya.

Pour water into the kettle and plug in the hot plate. Wait for water to boil. Add half a packet of warga and wait for the water to boil again.

“A woman sat on me today!” My friends in the room look at me strangely and I willingly explain my funny story.  I was in a car rapide, a common mode of transportation that can sometimes transport thirty people at one time. I was sitting on a bench that usually fits six people, but has a maximum capacity of five when the people are a bit larger. We squished as much as possible and only got about a 6-inch space in between me and a woman sitting next to me. A woman about twice my size got onto the car rapide and thought that she could fit herself in this little spot. I looked up at her, she looked down at me and proceeded to sit right on my lap!! I burst out laughing and then said “Bonjour!” and the whole car rapide burst out in laughter. We had a little conversation in Wolof, eventually a spot opened up so the woman could have her own seat, and then I got off and we went our merry ways.

Add in sugar. About 18 cubes. Pour tea into glasses and pour back into kettlemixing all the ingredients. Let boil.

As the laughter dies down from my story of the woman sitting on me, the subject changes to cultural differences between the United States and Senegal. Here in Senegal, the emphasis is placed on the social. Pathé explains that if a friend comes to visit you, you talk with him or her even if you have a lot of homework. You would never turn someone away because you are in the middle of an assignment. This person chose to spend time with you; how could you turn him or her away? My thoughts turn to HWS and how I am always busy, how I could never take three hours out of my afternoon to make tea. I sigh and wish our two cultures were not so different.

After tea has boiled for fifteen to twenty minutes, pour one glass almost to the top. Attaya can continue to boil as the glass of tea cools. When cool enough, start making mousse by forcibly pouring tea from one glass to another. It takes a lot of practice to make good mousse.

As I sit making the mousse, my friend Demba asks me why I am not married. I wonder why the conversation always turns to marriage. It just seems to be one of those “hot topics” here at Université Gaston Berger. I ask my own questions. What is your opinion on polygamy? After all, polygamy is perfectly legal in Senegal. “I am not opposed to it, but I could never do it,” Demba replies. If you did have more than one wife, would you have them stay in one house or would they have separate houses? “Same house,” he answers quickly. “So the children could all play with each other.” Clearly he has thought about his options. Do you think it is unfair that women can only have one husband but men can have four wives? “No. If a woman had more than one husband, how would you know the father of the child?” Huh. That’s the first time someone has given me a sensible answer to that question.

When the mousse is finished, serve the attaya. Share with friends and neighbors.

They ask me about my teaching in town. I tell them about how I am teaching at an all-girls high school, Ameth Fall. I do not really enjoy teaching English; I have found that I do not have much passion for the language. However, my girls are hilarious. One conversation I had with a class was particularly funny—it was on the topic of marriage. We were talking about traditional marriage ceremonies in Senegal—I learned a lot and they practiced speaking in English. Then we talked about the roles of husbands and wives. The girls thought that roles for a wife included cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children. Roles for a husband included working, sleeping, eating too much, watching tv, and doing nothing! I like teaching in an all-girls school!

Deirdre Wholly (far left) and Christa Levesque (far right) pose with their Senegalese roommates, Bineta Ndione and Mariama Bodian, during a spring break visit to Dakar, Senegal.

Start the second glass—add the rest of the warga and twelve cubes of suukër. Bring to a boil.

As I start my second cup, I develop this aching feeling that I might never see these friends again. It scares me and I start to tear up. It’s not like my friends at HWS where I only have to drive six hours to see them… The Atlantic Ocean divides me and Senegal. Pathé notices my change in mood and starts explaining how Senegalese people do not usually leave their homeland. Families live in the same villages, in the same houses, for years and years. I think about my first days in Senegal with Professor Joseph. We were walking through the busy streets of Dakar, near where he used to live, when he saw the same man who used to clean his car each week. The man was in the same neighborhood decades later and recognized my professor! I did not appreciate what this meant at the time, but this exchange gives me hope. People never leave Senegal. All I have to do is physically come back and keep the phone numbers of my friends and I will see them again. Insh’Allah, God willing.

Make mousse again. Serve attaya and share with friends and neighbors.

I talk about the things I will miss about Senegal. The warmth of the people. Taranga—the hospitality the Senegalese show.  The cows, donkeys, goats and horses roaming around campus. The call to prayer five times each day. Senegalese music. The endless expanse of stars in the night sky. Philosophical discussions with my best friends as we share tea.

I start cleaning up my materials, dumping the used warga in the trash and rinsing the glasses.

I miss the warm smiles that wished me goodbye. I will think of them every time I make attaya in the future. Ba baneen yoon, Insh’Allah.

—Christa Levesque

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