On a path to greater learning and understanding

I was brought up in a family which placed a lot of emphasis on service, and while in high school, I volunteered regularly as a Candy Striper at the local hospital. I still remember at least one aspect of my training:  the particulars of how to make a bed military style. What really stayed with me was a strong belief that helping others is an essential aspect of good citizenship. Happily, many schools are recognizing this as well and now require students to devote a certain number of hours to community service prior to graduation.

In order to fulfill this requisite, Peter wanted to volunteer at a local animal shelter, where his time would have been spent cleaning cages. I felt there was potential for a more rewarding experience, and continued searching until I found a notice from an organization called New American Africans. They were looking for volunteers to teach ESL, or English as a Second Language. Peter and I both submitted applications (if I was going to provide the transportation, I figured I might as well participate) and we went to Concord for an interview with Honore Murenzi, the director of the program. And then we got started.

The students are primarily political refugees from Bhutan; ironically, I wrote a now seemingly naive post about Bhutan and Gross National Happiness  three years ago. At the time I was unaware that Bhutan is a place with a complicated history, and that not everyone has equal access to happiness, as demonstrated in this nuanced article by Kai Bird from  the March 26, 2012 issue of The Nation. The author addresses the forcible expulsion in the 1990’s “of an estimated 80,000 Bhutanese of Nepali ancestry.” Most of those expelled as a result of poorly disguised ethnic cleansing languished in Nepalese refugee camps for almost two decades. The United States (and a handful of other countries, including Canada) ultimately agreed to accept a significant number of refugees, and between March of 2008 and September of 2012, 60,000 Bhutanese resettled in the US.

It’s daunting to think of what these people have already faced and the challenges that still await them, starting with the difficulty of adapting to a foreign culture where you don’t speak the language. Those who come to ESL class range in age from perhaps twenty to sixty five. Many of them have never been schooled, and progress is slow. However, their tenacity is inspiring, and Peter and I have enjoyed getting to know these remarkable people.

Unfortunately, once I started chemotherapy, I was unable to maintain our weekly schedule. However, we hired a young woman, Abbey, to help out with transportation occasionally, and she has enabled Peter to honor his commitment. Now he sometimes leads a class of more than a dozen students by himself.

Last week I felt well enough to take Peter myself. After class one of the students approached me to ask if Peter and I could come to her house for dinner that night. This was not the first time she had made this invitation, and although Peter needed to get home to work on an assignment, it was clear that we needed to honor her request.

And this is why:  many months ago we had taken several families from our class to the grocery store—which meant walking a mile each way—something they do on a regular basis no matter the weather. Our intent was to show them how to use coupons. Ultimately, our effort was misguided, as the coupons were for significantly more expensive brands and therefore of little use. However, Peter and I helped identify cheaper products that were on special, and we loaded up a cart. As it turned out, there was some confusion at checkout regarding vouchers, and I ended up charging quite a few of the groceries to my credit card.

The next week, everyone shyly paid me back, but one woman was several dollars short. I told her not to worry about it, that she could have us over for dinner some time. The woman was the same one who had repeatedly asked us to come to her home for a meal, and although I had made the comment about having us over for dinner in an offhand way, that is not how it had been received. It was my turn to learn something.

And so our friend, named Phalguna, got in our car and we rode together to the apartment complex where many of the refugees are housed. When we arrived, her husband was resting on the couch, but he sat up and indicated that we should sit next to him. He spoke very little english, but we did our best to engage in small talk as Phalguna busied herself in the small kitchen. I was interested in the ancient sewing machine that sat next to the table, and with the help of his ‘third daughter’, Phalguna’s husband explained that he was a tailor. He rose to fetch some examples of the clothing that he made; saris and men’s button down shirts.

And then Phalguna set glasses of water and two L1020894steaming plates upon the table and invited Peter and I to sit down. “Namaste” she said, and as the three family members watched, Peter and I ate the dumplings stuffed with cabbage, onion, ginger and cilantro that Phalguna and her husband had made earlier in the day.

The dumplings were delicious. After we had eaten our fill, Phalguna placed a generous helping in a plastic container for us to take home and Peter and I said thank you and goodbye. The entire experience had been unexpected and just a little bit of awkward but a whole lot of wonderful. And, just as we have throughout our time with New American Africans, we felt as if we had gotten back far more than what we had given.

21 responses to “On a path to greater learning and understanding

  1. Good story! Thank you for sharing. Glad you were well enough to have that experience with Peter.

  2. That’s a very interesting story. As Diana said, it’s good to know you were feeling well enough to do that. Also good to know you have help with transportation! What did Pete think of the whole experience?? xoxoxo

    • Cristina, Mr. Pete is on board with most experiences, and he thought this was pretty all around amazing. Right from the start, he has looked forward to what began as a community service requirement but which has become so much more.

      Linnea

  3. Love it – and am fascinated as we went to Bhutan just a year ago and you are certainly whisked by those refugee (labour?) camps mighty quickly, and discouraged from asking questions. It is a beautiful country and the ancient Buddhist temples are deeply moving — but what a lesson that nowhere perfect or anything close exists, and we have to keep remembering, every day, one and all, to turn and face the light. Thanks again, Linnea.

    • Liz, how fascinating that you traveled there. And, as always, there are multiple facets to every story. It’s only natural to take something at face value but if we have cause to poke around, we may see a slightly different viewpoint and be (picking up on what you said) further enlightened.

      Linnea

  4. What a beautiful story. And, the beauty of Phalguna’s gift to you is infused in my being. How generous she was, to share what she and her family had in that way. And instead of saying, “We have so little, we have to hoard it,” they shared what they had, so openly and generously. Do let us know if there is a way that we can help them, even a small way. I can’t imagine the acclimation, and yet, they do it.

    • Marie, generosity is certainly not bound by ability, as sometimes the most giving people have the least (and vice versa). You could see if there are Bhutanese refugees in your area—(or other political refugees)—all of them face extreme challenges and frankly, too little in the way of community support.

      Linnea

  5. Beautiful story. You and Peter are so kind and loving to help those in need. Amazing Linea! BTW, can you write to me your email? Thank you.

  6. It sounds like it was a learning experience for everyone. How lovely that you could all share of yourselves and show appreciation for that, too. I love learning about all the things you are involved in!

    • I just cannot imagine anyone ever being bored—there is always either something new or a different way of looking at the familiar.

      Linnea

  7. What a wonderful life experience.

  8. What a wonderful story Linnea. Isn’t always the way that when we give we get so much back in return. I need to be in the “third world” sometimes to be in touch with the simplicity of life. It is good for my soul. I am glad that Peter was able to share this experience with you. He is going to grow up to be a fine young man.

    • Beryl, sometimes we need to shaken out of the complication of our own lives so as to see those parts of the world we may have been missing. And you would like Peter very much, and he you.

      Linnea

  9. Though I never met anyone from Bhutan, I always feel close to people from other Asian countries who look like me. Thank you so much for helping them re-establishing their lives in the United States. You are so kind.

    • Hello Yuki—you have more experience than most people with adapting to a new environment and culture, and I can only imagine how daunting it must be.

      love, Linnea

  10. Linnea, hoping all is well with you and your family tonight.. Peace after a terrible week in Boston and the US. Hedy

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