Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had. – Richard Rohr
My sense of the self I try to project, the name I hope to make for myself, started to unravel one day when I was deep in my own thoughts, walking down Road Number 5 toward the market. I reached into the chest pocket of the bag where I kept my small bills, a habitual response to the rhythmic cry of “Allah, Allah” from the lady hunched over by the mosque entrance.
She smiled her crooked smile and started to say a prayer of blessing for me when I felt eyes on me besides hers. Four men sitting across the street, prayer mats neatly tucked under their arms, had their gaze intently fixed on me.
Their stares following my every move jarred me out of my daze and I looked up around at the bustling street. My mind started racing and I felt a flutter of worry. What did they see when they looked at me; what did my interaction with this woman who was begging communicate about me? What about all those times I was in too much of a hurry to stop and walked right by someone on the street? People were watching then too.
After that day I noticed it everywhere like that tiny loose thread on a sweater that turns into a hole once you start picking at it. I would often get in a rickshaw that would turn down our street before I said the directions; most people knew where the white family lived. I became acutely conscious of the assumptions people made about me and knew everyone was watching.
I also noticed my reactions to the attention —the way I could craft what they thought about me by the local clothes I chose to wear or the kind of places I frequented. I knew just how to act to be what people expected me to be in my various identities: non-profit worker (do-gooder), a follower of Christ (devout), family member (devoted), writer (deep), and on and on.
But there were only a handful of people who really knew all of me. It felt terribly lonely.
All of our lives are on display everywhere. From the people who interact with us at stores and on the street, to our online profiles, and in our own homes, everyone is making assumptions about us. And we are busy carefully molding our identities in their eyes by the choices we make and the things we say, by the parts of us we allow to be seen and the parts we keep hidden. We’re busy making a name for ourselves...
There’s something inside you waiting to unfurl. It is quietly growing beneath the surface. You can feel it gathering itself up, the momentum of its growth building. How it began is a mystery. What it will become is yet to be seen—even to you. But in its time, if you nurture it well, it will bloom.
“I understand now,” she said slowly. My mom sighed deeply and shook her head like she was trying to shake off the realization that had settled over her. “Seeing the way you interact with the people, seeing how you are here…” her voice trailed off as she gestured toward the old city street bustling locals and tourists entering shops. “You’re different somehow,” she finished after a pause. “You come alive,” she said as she placed her drink down on the table, every move deliberate as if the words pained her.
I wasn’t exposed to much diversity as a child in the middle-class Bible belt of suburban Georgia. I don’t know why this hunger had been churning and rumbling inside me or why it founds its place of rest and belonging the moment I stepped off a plane onto Asian soil.
I was twenty-one before I ever traveled outside the borders of America. It wasn’t for lack of trying before but my parents said no to that trip in high school and my college study abroad plans fell through. I couldn’t name this burning desire that had always been germinating inside of me. It longed to connect to something I couldn’t see—somewhere out there. As soon as I could pay my own way and had the chance, I was gone.
In the next ten years, I traveled to eight countries and lived in South Asia and the Middle East. I dragged my mom to Hindu temples and Bollywood movies. She came to watch my classical Indian dance performance and listened to me practice my broken Arabic with at the Lebanese restaurant where she warily tried shwarma. But she never connected with the cultures for which I had an insatiable appetite. I was growing in a direction that took me far away.
My first Bharata Natyam teacher explained my immediate aptitude for the complex Indian dance form as something I was born into. “You must have been a devadasi (Hindu temple dancer) in a past life.” My South Asian friends laugh sometimes at my ready acceptance of their culture—“Sister, you are more Bengali than we are.”
Fourteen years after my first steps outside of my home country, my mom and I sat together in a café tucked inside the ancient cobbled walls of the Arab Quarter of old Jerusalem. It was her first trip overseas in her adult life and my first chance to show her the world I loved. I knew the admission pained her, to say that she finally understood it, in her own way. It was a relinquishing of sorts—releasing me to something that threatened to take me (and my family) from her side...
I noticed the Krishnachura trees in early Spring. It was hard not to notice the fiery blossoms that colored the streets. Green is not hard to come by in this country. The reason the background of the flag is green is that this land of many rivers has an abundance of the color in its countless river deltas and rice fields. But the vibrant blooms of these trees is quite unique. They reminded me of the Bradford Pears of my beloved Georgia home. Like the Bradford Pear trees, I noticed this tree was full of blossoms for a short time and then the petals became a shower of red bursting forth in the wind and trickling down to the street below. I asked around and discovered the name of this tropic tree and enjoyed its blooms for a short while.
For months my heart has been downcast and so have my eyes. As my spirit fell low, my gaze followed. My walking can only be called trudging for the past few months. It wasn't my surroundings that brought the pain. I am no stranger to these feelings of anxiety. But in the midst of a downward spiral, I stopped seeing any beauty around me. The heat bearing down on me, the crowds pressing in, the broken sidewalks occupying my vision—I watched my feet going places I didn't want to be.
Last week I walked under the Krishnachura tree that looms overhead every time I walk to the market. I walk under it often but haven't really seen it in months. I felt a rare gentle breeze and I stopped to notice it again. Its red blooms have long since fallen off but it is still one of the most beautiful trees I've ever seen. It shades the entire street under tiny leaves that weave together to make a tapestry of color above me. In that breeze and in those leaves I felt the tingling tendrils of something else wrapping around my heart—joy. It was as if God was saying, "Hang on. It's coming like the cooler weather" (that is still three months off here). It was in those moments of the walk, when I looked up again, that I decided to do what I could to find my way back to joy step by step.
It is easy for me to only see concrete in this city. We are a good thirty-minute drive by public transportation to a decent stretch of land on which to play. I miss walks and playgrounds and riding bikes. And on hard days all I can see is overcrowded and unsafe roads that my kids can't play on. But on a good day, on a day in which I decide to look for it, I see green everywhere. In this city of 12 million people scrambling for any patch of land they can get and buildings going up on almost every square inch of it, there is still green everywhere. It is creeping through the sidewalks and up the side of buildings, hanging over verandas, and shading the streets. All this green is telling me that life finds a way no matter the surroundings, the difficult circumstances. Joy can find a way too. So today I'm looking up.
When we first moved I intended the "Life in South Asia" section of this website to be more of a fun section where I would write about culture or what I was learning, how I was listening for God in this new place. But life happened. Transition happened. I didn't write as much at first because—well, uprooting a whole family to the other side of the world takes a lot of time. Then I felt I needed to lay down my writing for a while. Then intense depression happened and my writing became much more serious. I felt the freedom to pick my writing back up and a responsibility to share what I was going through. I have had some incredible connections with people that have said, "Thank you! I know I'm not alone because of what you have written."
When I first experienced anxiety 12 years ago, (well, I am coming to see I have always had tendencies towards anxiety but didn't have a name for it until I was 25 years old) I thought it was just circumstantial. Life changed and my anxiety or depression dissipated for me. But then it reared it's head again during our move to the Middle East, again two years ago, and most intensely in the last year. I now know that like Lauren Winer says in Still:
"As far back as I can remember, anxiety has been my close companion, having long ago taken up residence in the small, second-floor bedroom of the house that is my body. Sometimes my anxiety takes long naps. Sometimes it throws parties. But I don't imagine it will ever tire of this neighborhood and move out for good."
I feel like I'm past the worst of it this time around. I want to say I'm "all better," that I see fruit and new life everywhere. Not yet. Grace P. Cho put the perfect words to the season I am currently in today:
"He is never annoyed with the slowness of transformation but always delights in the intricate care of redeeming burned things. And He is not done with us in the midst of fallow seasons...He burns away the old with fire and cultivates the land for the new things He is doing in our lives, allowing light and water to reach down deep, awakening and breaking open the seeds that have laid dormant before to thrive in the soil He has made good. What will come is a mystery, and we gain nothing when we rush into seasons we’re not ready for. So sit with Him, rest with Him, watch Him do His good and holy work while the land still lies fallow."
I am learning to be okay with this fallow season, trusting I've gone through the fire and that new life will come but that I am still in process. I'm asking for help. I am spending more time reading and seeking silence, working my muscles until they ache and feeling stronger on my mat every day. Playing. Praying. Working. Waiting. I am looking at my kids. Stopping and really seeing them. I see such beauty in my children, see God at work so much in them and in me as I mother them. They are helping me find my way back to joy.
For a while, I said I lost prayer during this season of fire and wilderness. I am realizing I didn't after all. It just didn't look like a daily examen or a war room or a prayer list, however you've come to expect prayer to look. As I read over my journals over the past few months, I see them as prayer. As I walk down the street to the market and notice the unfurling of the Krishnachura leaves and take a deep breath and thank God, I know it is prayer too (more about that one later this week). I am seeing God in things I haven't in a long time. I am noticing. As I walked slowly to the market today I stopped to take several photos. I heard Him speaking. I listened. I prayed "God, give me eyes to see what you want me to see and show me what you want me to share with others." I felt a long still stirring in my soul to write it all down...
So, I am finally getting around to writing here in a way that is less structured (as opposed to my essays for places like SheLoves Magazine and The Mudroom). I'll post pictures of things that speak to me and moments of finding God in the noise of this crazy city. In everyday beauty. I may notice five things a week and write about them. I may not see anything that inspires me for a while. I'll just take it as it comes. I am asking God to open my eyes to see Him in this season. There are ways I can see Him in South Asia that I couldn't anywhere else on earth. And I don't want to miss them.
So, from the land that is the contradiction and meeting place of 700 river deltas and also the most crowded city on earth - I am listening with you. This is where God is showing up for me in South Asia.
It’s so much to take in—the cacophony of sounds that is never-ending in this place. There is never silence in our swelling, overcrowded city. The sounds are becoming familiar to our Western ears these days.
Allahu Akbhar. The musical nature of the call the prayer lulls the children to sleep.
Briing. Briing. We have come to expect the jingling melody of bicycle rickshaw bells. We hardly notice the yelping of the street dogs anymore, the clanging of aluminum rice pots in the early mornings. These are the sounds of life in the most densely populated city on earth. We feel our place amidst the noise, but a speck in this teeming sea of life.
But it is when I try to fill this space with my presence that I become even more aware of my smallness. The language I long to speak sounds like just another noise to my untrained ears. This language has existed in some form for thousands of years, descendant from one of the most ancient tongues on earth. This language is the pride of its people, shaped the very foundation and form of this nation.
Friends who’ve learned what feels impossible to me know tell me the first step of learning the language is listening, teaching your ear to recognize the rising and lilting sounds of Bangla. They call it the listening phase. For the first couple months full comprehension isn’t the goal, but recognition.
I hear a word that stands out in a string of melodic words, can recognize one or two and fill in some of the rest based on context. I know enough to get around town (sometimes) and talk to our house helper (about some things). I stumble my way through a sentence or two. A glimmer of joy passes through her eyes when she feels understood and our normal communication of gesturing and sounds becomes something a little bit more.
Dhonnovad. Thank you.
Onek Shundor. Very pretty.
I recognize so little. Understand even less. I long for my listening to produce the fruit of knowledge, of separating noise from language. I want to cross the bridge into familiarity instead of everything feeling exotic, unknown, other. But it takes time. Lots of it. It takes discipline, work, repetition—and always listening.
I’ve been working for years to understand another language, the language of the Spirit. Silence. Communion with God. I’ve been struggling to separate God’s voice out of what feels like the din that is ever-growing around me. Sometimes I feel a glimmer of recognition. I feel progress in hearing, experience His Presence. Other times His voice seems as unrecognizable as the curls of the Bangla script to this bideshi’s eyes...