Tag: Asia

Out behind the chicken coop: a story from my Sri Lankan homestay

Out behind the chicken coop: a story from my Sri Lankan homestay

I’d like to ask them about the war, but I can’t. Besides, we’ve been advised not to talk politics with anyone. A 30-year civil war is complex and divisive. It’s better to steer clear.

At the moment I’m most interested in where the bathroom is. Someone must have gone, but being in the presence of half the neighbourhood, I haven’t noticed. I’m hoping to see someone drift away, maybe to the back of the property, and deduce where to go, like Nancy Drew might have done.

Instead I resemble a cult leader, with a handful of flowers, linen pants and a group of loyal child followers.

Flowers 2 (1 of 1)

 

Stop. Reverse that. I am following the children; they are not following me. I look around and wonder how things have changed in the past decade, but I don’t even have my bearings in the present.

There’s a small white building behind the chicken coop. It may be the bathroom. It’s getting dark and I hardly want to go wandering in the woods to investigate. I don’t even know what to be afraid of.

(OK, I do, it’s spiders.)

I can hold it. I’ll be fine. It’s not dire.

Before moving here, I read books about Sri Lanka. I wanted to understand where I was coming to, especially with a long war less than a decade in the past. But I do not feel prepared.

When my coworkers dropped me off in the jungle with a family who didn’t speak English I was terrified. The family was smiling, my boss told me I could call her, but the wide valley of not-knowing was all I could think about.

It probably sounds strange, given that I flew for more than 20 hours to come and live here. I’ve survived a huntsman spider encounter, food poisoning and crossing the streets of Colombo in rush hour. But nothing has frightened me quite like my impending night in the jungle.

The family I’m staying with has a snug little brick house with cows in the yard. In the morning, I’ll get photos to show Ryan’s family.

Cow 1 (1 of 1)

As I sit with the children, one or the other will disappear and come back washed and changed into nice clothing. I feel sticky, sweaty and dusty. I consider trying to ask where I can wash. It will probably be near the washroom.

The matriarch of the family motions for me to bring my camera and get into a tuk-tuk with her and four children. We drive off into the dark night. I’m guessing this isn’t the way to the bathroom. Everyone’s dressed far too nicely.

Out of the black evening shine Buddhas and a white dagoba. Monks are chanting as we get out of the trishaw and walk toward the temple.

We place flowers at each statue. We fill small metal cups with oil and light cotton wicks. The matriarch prays. It’s beautiful. So lovely that I don’t lift my camera, I just watch and follow along behind the children.

When we climb the steps to the largest Buddha, one little girl suggests I take a photo. So I do.

Buddha 1 (1 of 1)

Then we go to the monk. He blesses the children and ties a white string on each person’s wrist for protection and good health (I will find this ironic two days later when I spend four hours throwing up in a van on my way back to Colombo).

We head back to the house and they make me a feast. I’m not to help in the kitchen. I know nothing about anything in this place and I would not be helpful.

Then there is curry. Such delicious curry. *

Now I need to go to the bathroom. No more guessing. No more worrying that they might not understand and I’ll have to awkwardly pantomime squatting.

I hope for the best and simply say, “Washroom?”

The matriarch takes me out to an outhouse with a squatter toilet behind the chicken coop, as I expected. The mystery is solved. I’m no Nancy Drew—she probably would have just asked.

 

* I’ve decided retrospectively that this cannot possibly be what made me sick. It was delicious, their hospitality was extensive and I refuse to accept it.

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Of kittens and hagwons

Of kittens and hagwons

Turning my iPod up as loud as I can stand, I’m ignoring everyone else in the staffroom. Realizing that both of my coworkers are staring at me with wide eyes and raised eyebrows, I start in surprise.

“Sabrina,” Kyung-Ha says, “is there a cat?”

Looking from my co-teachers to the cardboard box under Shauna’s desk and back again, I realize that the jig is up.

* * *

“No, Sabrina,” my mom says on the phone. “Don’t do this to me. No. No. No.”

Watching me make my overseas phone call, Shauna’s eyes are round and worried. Not wanting to be involved, Maria and Clare have gone home early. It’s just Shauna, Asia, Emile and me shifting and pacing in a loose huddle. Strangers are barely looking at us as they run up and down the stairs, going in and out of the batting cages.

Just under the steps, someone has laid out a newspaper. There’s a carton of milk and a spoon with just a dribble in it. Not paying the least bit of attention to the spoon or the milk is a tiny orange kitten, no bigger than a ball of yarn, meowing as loud as it can. With distorted K-pop music blaring at each carnival ride, glaring lights flashing and cheap fireworks going off the side of the pier, most people find it easy to ignore.

Before leaving Canada, I promised my mom I wouldn’t acquire any pets. She already has two cats and a dog and she heard a story about a girl who spent hundreds of dollars bringing a dog home from China. Under no circumstances am I to bring this cat home.

“Mom, it’s so small,” I say. “And I’m not bringing it home to you. Shauna’s bringing it home to her mom.”

My mom once nurtured a kitten back from near-death when the mother abandoned it, so I’m sure she can recommend a strategy for saving this one. She says that if we absolutely can’t find the mother, we should check out a pet store and find something called “kitten milk” and feed it slowly with an eye-dropper.

A girl working at the 7-11 generously donates an empty box to our cause and we find a taxi to take us to HomePlus: it’s after nine on a Tuesday and most pet stores are already closed. The kitten mews all through the ride and Emile tries to cover the sound with his own mewing.

Wondering briefly what the taxi driver thinks of foreigners who meow, I remember that my friend Yuri once told me that many Koreans don’t want pet cats because they are considered bad luck. This makes me worry that we won’t be able to find what we want, so I call Chris to see if he can do a Google search on what to feed unweaned kittens. He gives us a short list of ingredients and we head inside.

We quickly learn that HomePlus is not equipped to deal with the rescue of abandoned street cats: there is no kitten milk. Buying the ingredients Chris suggests, Shauna and I wish our friends goodnight and head back to our apartment building. The kitten’s mews are frantic now, but this time neither of us bothers to try and cover the sound for the driver.

It turns out that taking care of a kitten this young isn’t that different from caring for a newborn baby. She needs to be fed every few hours and this presents both the challenge of uninterrupted sleep and going to work. We’ve never explicitly been told we can’t bring pets to school, but it doesn’t seem likely that the kitten, newly named Frankie, will be welcome.

Our office is a narrow room with desks lining the walls. Serving as an irritating obstacle course, a “craft” table and ten chairs fill the rest of the room, forcing seven teachers and the occasional student to navigate with flexibility and gentle pushing. Shauna brings Frankie in a cardboard box and tucks her under her desk without anyone noticing.

For the first part of the day, Shauna manages to time her feedings so that Frankie is asleep while she’s teaching. Once the kindergarteners go home though, she starts teaching her six hour stretch with no real break.

She tries to feed her in the short interval between classes, but it must not be enough because some time after I put my headphones on, Frankie wakes up hungry and probably unimpressed by her cardboard prison. When my coworkers ask if there’s a cat and I hear her mewing, I don’t see how I can deny it.

Kyung-Ha and Helena take turns holding and petting Frankie, who fits comfortably in one hand. When Shauna walks in between classes, she stops, but everyone else coos over the kitten: it’s hard to dislike something so adorable.

For all the problems I have with my hagwon, this is probably the moment when I most appreciate our lack of clear communication. They comment that there is a cat, but no one tells Shauna to take Frankie home. They simply accept Shauna as a working cat-mother, bringing her baby to work when she can’t get a sitter and we simply accept their weirdly progressive views on cat-mother workplace policy.

Art courtesy of Shauna Smith.

The giant blue balloon

The giant blue balloon

Marcelle, Shauna and I are walking together without talking, texting furiously and reading and texting again. Where is everyone? In the Park, still on line two, still on the number one, still sitting in Goose Goose, still somewhere, not answering.

Jill and Asia arrive and we’re surrounded by hipster students and English teaching foreigners wearing skinny jeans and short skirts, tight, flowing, multicoloured arrays of sleek, shiny black to blinding electric yellow and gold mesh, leather, latex, denim, spandex.

I can’t believe I met Jill only a week ago and already we’re hugging and posing for photos like we’re old friends, talking about how we’ll miss one another when she heads back to the States next week.

We’re making summer plans with Asia, the girl who was just a name I hadn’t yet deleted from my phone two weeks ago. She’s smiling and talking to Marcelle by the mojito man and I’m glad it’s such a beautiful, clear spring night.

* * *

On a rainy evening two weeks before, a phone call interrupts the latest episode of Game of Thrones.

“Hi, is this Sabrina?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Could you do me a favour?”

The name on my cell phone screen is ‘Asia’ and I kind of remember who that is. Her number’s been in my phone since we met in a bar last winter and we both promised to hang out. It’s the middle of May, and it’s the first time either of us has called.

Asia says her friend arrived from the US tonight and she’s lost somewhere in Incheon. Her friend has an American cell phone with her, but Asia’s phone won’t call internationally. She wants me to call her friend using Skype.

Typing the phone number into a word document on my laptop, I realize there’s no name to go with this phone number and Asia hangs up before I can ask. The sky outside my apartment is grey and dark.

Paranoid that I’ll type the wrong number in and call a random American at 5am, I cringe, hoping for the best, “Um, hi, is this Asia’s friend?”

Not knowing the person you’re calling’s name turns out not to be important. Asia’s friend tries explaining where she is as the rain starts pouring down on the roof of the supermarket next door.

“The sign says ‘Ganseok Market’ and there’s a Face Shop right here,” she says. Ganseok has a few entrances and Face Shops are everywhere. A Korean couple is helping her, speaking slowly in the background, and she repeats their words back to me.

“Gun. Suck. Shee. Chong,” she says a few times for me. I type this out on my computer in English letters. Reading the location over a few times, I don’t know, at first, what it means.

Gun. Suck. Shee. Chong.

Gunsock shechong

Ganseok si-jang.

Oh.

The name of the market.

In Korean.

I call Asia back and report what I’ve found out, even telling her about the Face Shop.

“I think I know where she is,” Asia says and I wonder if I’ll ever hear from her again.

* * *

Tonight we’re with a group of foreigners from Incheon drinking sojitos, mojitos and other mixed drinks and then we’re in the club drinking buckets of vodka lemonade. We’re dancing, laughing, hugging for hours and then we’re outside, warm without the hot stickiness of summer.

Jill, Asia, Shauna, Marcelle and I arrive in a more deserted version of The Park. Arms are linked together in an act of friendship and to hold one another up.

Shauna is suddenly holding a giant blue balloon.

“Where did you get the balloon?” we ask Shauna and she bounces it in the air.

“It just appeared,” she says, smiling. We all nod and laugh and dance with the balloon and each other.