None of the ladies in my family shrink back. Distinctly southern, full voices fill the room when we enter. We’re known for our loud laughs and warm embraces. We aren’t afraid to speak our minds and take the lead. We see a space and fill it. We see a need and fill it. I never grew up with the misconception that, as a woman, I wasn’t capable.
I grew up with a mom who worked equally as hard outside the home as my dad to provide for our family. She worked full-time as well as nights and side jobs at various points in mine and my sister’s childhood. Despite that, I remember her being present at every event. Each dance recital or band competition, game or school function. She showed up. She volunteered. She was known and beloved by all my friends. She appeared to do it all with ease.
I’ve always prided myself on being part of a line of strong women. It wasn’t until I was a young working mom myself, wracked with anxiety brought on by all the things I believed I should be doing but couldn’t manage, that I realized a weakness I inherited, too. The waters of all the expectations I placed on myself were rising higher than I could swim. I was going under.
When I started admitting my feelings of failure, the women around me echoed back my anxiety. “Why can’t we do it all?” we said. We all felt weak, believing the strength of a woman meant being all the things to all the people all the time.
My mom admitted the disquiet she lived with as well. She never let us see it as children, but she struggled to keep her head above water, too. When I looked at her as a real person and not just Supermom, I saw the crack in the facade, the weak place I’d missed before: her inability to rest.
Just like the women before me, I was weak when it came to caring for myself...
You’d think she was a celebrity, the way I watched her from across the room. I tried to work up the nerve to speak to her but the taste of salt in the back of my throat gave me pause. I didn’t want to embarrass her and I didn’t want to cry. But I wanted her to know what seeing her in that place meant to me.
She was just like every other woman at the conference that weekend. They were the farthest from celebrities you could get. Many were known only to those inside their villages. They had come together to encourage each other, some of them the only followers of Christ in their home area. I heard their stories over the span of those few days, the depth of their hardships and the hope they clung to in the midst of them.
I watched her quietly as she listened to the speaker. Her eyes sometimes closed as she savored the Scripture being read. Other times she leaned forward in her seat. She would tuck her headscarf behind her ear and laugh. I strained to get the joke, my feeble Bangla skills failing me.
The first time I’d seen her face was on my computer screen. My husband and I were sitting in our bedroom over 8000 miles away from this place. We’d been planning for over a year to move to India to work for a non-profit focusing on education and economic development. We had visas in our passports that gave us permission to go. Our house was about to go on the market. I had already quit my job. And then the organization we were going to work for found themselves facing issues with obtaining the permissions to have foreign workers. We were left asking God, “what now?”
Another organization expressed interest in having us work with them. They were located in India’s tiny neighboring country, Bangladesh. We were especially moved by the idea of empowering vulnerable women with skills to provide for themselves and their families.
They sent us a video about the work they were doing with child brides who were suffering from medical issues that arose from pregnancies their too-young bodies couldn’t handle. Most were then divorced and ostracized from their families. Once the women received surgeries that allowed them physical healing, they attended tailoring classes that gave them a marketable skill.
We watched this woman in a remote area on the other side of the world talk about how her life had been changed by the program. When she was asked about her plans for the future, she laughed. She said her plans were just to make clothes for her family and have a good life, a simple life. A life that honored God.
We sat silently for a few minutes after hearing her story, afraid to say the words that marked the finality of what we knew would come next. This was it. We would be moving to Bangladesh...
I didn’t want her to see me fumble around with the spices she effortlessly wielded. She had been making these dishes her whole life, learning at the side of her Amma. This was my second attempt at making the fancy chicken roast and fragrant pulau, Bengali staples. My friend says they are her comfort food. They are mine, too. The fragrance of ginger, garlic, and onions sautéing on the stove smells like home to me, taking me back to the year and a half we lived in Bangladesh.
I had tried to gather all the right ingredients and tools. She looked around wondering what she would mash the daal with. I didn’t have the flower-shaped wooden utensil perfect for making the lentils into the creamy, yellow goodness we’d pour over rice. She asked for a spice in Bangla and I couldn’t remember the translation. Was that cumin or coriander?
I worry every time I write. What will people think? It’s obvious my faith has been changing over the past few years. How could it not? I’ve been immersed in the wide, beautiful world of the global church. I’ve taken beautiful things from the various traditions I’ve been immersed in and my practice has become a smorgasbord of diversity.
I’ve sat cross-legged on the dirt floor of an Indian slum church and passed chai between us like holy communion. I’ve prayed with monks and Coptic priests, and with women who found Jesus after they were rescued from sex slavery. I’ve worshipped in a room full of countless languages intermingling at once. Between the Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Coptic, Pentecostal, Catholic, and house churches (not to mention the temples and mosques) I’ve been able to visit—I couldn’t tell you what I claim as my own.
I’ve also been a part of such a diverse global sisterhood through my writing. My eyes have opened to things I never thought of in connection to my faith before like systems of oppression, racism, immigration, poverty. I tip-toe around conversations involving politics or church, about faith in connection with activism. I believe the two go hand-in-hand; they must. But I don’t want to offend. I want to know the perfect way to do this.
We were planning for lunch but, as always, a feast like this takes longer than we expected. That is why I had always been afraid to do more Asian cooking; I wanted to know the perfect way to do it before I tried. We had to peel the ginger and garlic, chop them, and blend them into a creamy mixture. We added spices from canisters strewn all over the counter, cashews, and yogurt in the blender to make the base of the perfect gravy for the chicken.
Presentation is vital, too. The rice must be a perfect mound inside the serving bowl with crispy onions dotting the top. The rest of the dishes should be kept warm so that the host can serve everyone in the right order, with daal and white rice for the end of the meal. Our table looked stunning.
The kitchen was another story. Bright yellow turmeric streaked the counter. Oil splatter covered every inch of the stovetop. The sink was overflowing with every pot I owned.
The meal was perfection. I watched my daughter scoop handfuls of rice into her mouth with a sigh. Each taste reminded her of the land she loved and the people she missed. We laughed around the table and chattered with our friend, Bangla words we hadn’t spoken in months tasting as sweet on our lips as the food. This kind of meal takes a lot of time and even more mess. Every bite, every laugh together is worth it...
I don’t remember your name. I do remember your laughter, your patience when you helped me with my pronunciation of sounds that are difficult for the English-trained tongue.
I never saw you again after our college Arabic class ended but the look in your eyes has remained with me all these years—the fear and sorrow I saw there when your entire existence was reduced to stereotypes. I realized the distance between you and me was greater than I had imagined. It was September 12, 2001, and on that day the only thing people saw when they looked at you was the headscarf you wore. It’s still the only thing many probably see. But I saw you.
You were the friend of a friend and I could only speak to you through her translating. When I first saw you, we all looked the same under our colorful headscarves and baltos, the long, black dressed that covered our clothing. Over tiny cups of strong coffee, we were able to remove all that kept us hidden from the eyes of men on the streets. I laughed to find you in jeans and a tank top underneath, surprised at how young you looked though already a bride.
Years later, I still kept the small piece of knitting you gave me in the curio cabinet in my bedroom. I would touch the woven white and blue yarn and breathe a prayer for you. I would remember your story and the ancient smell of incense in your home. You were the second wife to a man you rarely saw, living a few apartments away from his first wife. You handed me a pile of knit pieces to choose from, evidence of just how much time you spent alone. The distance between us is many miles and I don’t know if your house in the war-torn Yemeni capital is even still standing. But I remember you.
You made me feel your home was mine. Every time I visited, you had a gift for me. Sometimes you would open your jewelry box and let me choose a bangle. I remember the way your voice would rise with as much passion when we talked about the Egyptian TV dramas you used to act in as when we discussed the differences in the Qur’an and Bible.
You shared all you had with me. You let me see your pain and you carried mine. You cried when we told you we were moving back to America. When you became our landlady, we had nothing in common. We were from different nations, religions, and generations. But I called you friend. I still think of you when your teal and red bracelets clink on my wrists...
After eight months of slowly dipping my feet into the churning sea of my adopted South Asian home’s culture, I’ve barely gotten past the surface. This country is much less diverse than America in terms of a melting pot of many nations. Our white faces draw crowds wherever we go because seeing foreigners is less common than in other more touristy locations in Asia. Yet, the diversity within this single culture is so staggering, I can’t navigate it well enough to place my finger on generalities.
One friend was married at age 13, a common practice in many villages. Another is still single nearing 30, her parents constantly trying to arrange her marriage. This girl covers her head while another wears jeans and a t-shirt. That woman wasn’t educated past third grade and can only write her name while yet another runs a school teaching the language to foreigners. One fasted the entire month of Ramadan and has been on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Another casually claims Islam but isn’t really observant. She has never left the small radius of her village. She is one of the few women in the capital city to drive a motorbike. She attended a small madrasa. She studied at the top international school in the country. All of these women are just as “normal” as the next, breaking the molds that try to contain them as women, as South Asian and as Muslim.
A co-worker has lived in this country for nearly a decade and has been outside of her passport country for 20 years. I thought surely she would have a good grasp of cultural norms and so I looked to her for guidance...