An American Abroad

The book that my grandparents gave me

A few years ago, my maternal grandparents gave me a book called The House of Exile by Nora Waln. I flipped through it briefly, but with college papers and readings calling, I stuck it in my bookshelf and forgot about it. When I got back from Nepal, I was sorting through my room and found it again.

It’s an old book, written in the 1920’s by a woman who lived in China when she was a young adult. She moved there after receiving an invitation from a Chinese family and stayed for about 12 years.

As I started to read the book again, I remember why I had put it down in the first place. It’s a very slow read. She describes her life in China with extreme detail. To someone who knows a lot about China or to someone who is very interested in learning about China, I imagine the book could be captivating, but for me, it’s been a bit boring.

However, as I’ve been working my way through the book, I found some passages that caught my eye, made me laugh or reminded me of something from my own experiences abroad…

A Different World

After arriving in China, Nora Waln writes,

From the moment of my arrival…it was as though, like Alice, I had stepped through a looking-glass into another world. The world I left behind became a dim, fantastic dream. Only this in which I entered seemed real (30).

This really rang true. I remember being in Nepal and feeling like the U.S. was so far away, a different world, a different time. Sometimes I’d stop and think about where I was and just wonder in amazement at how different my life had become. This feeling became even more intense when I remembered that only a few years ago, I knew almost nothing about Nepal and didn’t speak a word of Nepali.

Dye Your Hair

As Nora settles into her new home in China, she begins to make relationships with the women in her household who end up teaching her a lot about China. She writes about one of the women in the house,

[She] wanted to dye [my] hair black, as it is the color of the yellow gentian of misfortune. But Shun-ko reminded her that yellow is also the color of the innermost petals of the sacred lotus (40).

This part made me laugh. I’ve had so many people tell me that I should dye my hair black, not because blond/yellow is considered the color of misfortune in Nepal, but just so that I would look more Nepali. I still haven’t dyed it black, although I did go through a period in high school and college where it was pink. Now-a-days, though, my dirty blond hair has grown on me, and it’s here to stay.

What was Missing

Something that was missing from this book was a sense of her reactions to and inner thoughts about her new life. I admit that I haven’t read the whole thing, so maybe she goes in that direction at some point in the book, but in the beginning, where she describes her first days, weeks, and months in China, she doesn’t. This makes the book read like a little like a list of events, rather than an intimate description of her life in China.

One thing that I wish she had elaborated more on was the process that she went through to learn Chinese. At one point, her hosts dress her up in fancy clothing and she goes to meet some of the important ladies in the extended family. After being unable to speak Chinese in front of them, one of them commands her to learn the language. Nora says, “I was not to be presented to audience again until I was sufficiently civilized to hear and to speak for myself” (51).

Later on Nora writes,

Eventually, however, my ear, my brain, and my tongue were sufficiently well versed for Shun-ko to present me…(51).

This is all she writes about her language learning. But I want to know how she learned it, how she felt about being immersed in a new language. Did she have low points and frustrations? Was she as impatient as I was?

All About the Women

Although I didn’t find her storytelling as rich as I hoped it would be, one thing I really loved about the book was the connection and intimacy that she has with the women of the household she lives in. They take her in, find her a place to stay in their already crowded home, teach her how to dress like a Chinese woman would, and take her to get her horoscope read. They tease and joke with her too. Nora’s strong connections with the women of the family is something I could really relate to.

Both while I was studying abroad and while I was living there this year, it was the women in Nepal who I had the closest relationships with. It was women who both loved and judged me, took me in like their own, told me secrets, cared for me, and scolded me when I did things wrong.

Final Thoughts

There are definitely interesting tidbits and quotes that pop out while reading The House of Exile, and there’s whole section towards the end of the book about the changing political climate in China at that time, which I’m interested in reading. However, I wanted Nora to go deeper and describe more of her reactions to China. Without being able to understand her feelings towards living abroad, it was hard for me to relate to more of her story.

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One Foot in Tibet

Friday was Nepali New Year’s Day. Most people in Kathmandu had the day off including us, so we decided to go on a trip outside of Kathmandu. Last month I wrote a post about our trip to bahra bise, which is along the road to Tibet. While we were hiking, some people had been discussing this place called The Last Resort (I love the name!), which is further towards the border with Tibet. It sounded beautiful, and Tri’s cousin knows some of the people who work there, so he suggested that we all go for an overnight stay.

Tri’s cousin mentioned that we would be sleeping in tents, so Tri and I thought that it would  be a very outdorsy trip. Even though the place does have “resort” in its name, in Nepal, that’s no guarantee that there’s going to be running water or even a hot meal, but The Last Resort really was resort-like.

After driving all morning, we stopped at a long hanging bridge. Holy crap. It was quite a drop to the racing river below.

One of the major attractions of this location is the bungee jumping that they offer. No, I didn’t go bungee jumping, even though everyone was pushing me to, but we did get a video of a beautiful flying leap by one brave soul…

Once we crossed the bridge, we were at The Last Resort.

We rested in grassy common area, had lunch, kicked a ball around with the kids, and then settled into our tents.

They certainly weren’t what I was expecting. These were huge tents with wooden floors and tin roofs built over them to protect from the rain. Here’s Tri settling into our luxury tent…

While exploring, we realized how private and hidden the whole place was. From the other side of the bridge, you can only see the tip of a couple of the tents because of the abundant trees and because of the way it is built onto the hill. The area was green and breezy and nestled between two looming mountains. Quite a relaxing atmosphere.

     

Saturday morning we woke up, hung out for a while, and then decided to drive towards the Tibet border. I was reluctant to leave the resort, but I really wanted to figure out how close I could get to the border. After breakfast, we started on our drive.

It took at least another hour to make it to the small town next to the bridge to China. When the microbus we rented could go not further, we all got out and walked. We weren’t sure If I would be able to get close to the border because I’m American. Nepalis used to be able to cross freely and visit a Chinese market in the town of Khasa by showing their citizenship cards, but these days, they need some kind of permit to go. Someone told us that they knew a guy who wanted to cross, but instead of bringing his citizenship card, he brought his Nepali passport. He showed it to one of the Chinese guards on the bridge, but the guard didn’t recognize it, so he threw it over the side of bridge into the water below. Kind of extreme if you ask me.

Anyway, after we had walked a ways through the sloping town, we finally made it to the famous checkpoint. In turns out that Tri’s cousin knows someone who knows Nepali border patrol guards, so he made sure that it was okay for me to pass by the initial guards before we got to the actual line separating Tibet and Nepal. After we squeezed through a small caged in walkway, past women and men carrying Chinese goods, we walked slowly across the bridge that connects the two countries. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us take photos while on the bridge, but here’s a picture of China from the Nepali side..

While on the bridge, I walked slowly up to the line separating the two countries, and then stepped my right foot over into Tibet. There’s something about straddling the border between two countries that’s just awesome. Borders separating areas that have been traversed freely for centuries or more can be ridiculous and irritating, and without humans around, country borders are meaningless, but I still get a thrill out of being in two places at once. As soon as I stepped my foot over the line, a Chinese guard starting eyeing me and walking towards us, so I quickly pulled it back.

So I made it to Tibet. Next time I go I want to put both feet on Tibetan soil and maybe walk around a bit 🙂

After filling our bellies in the town below the border, we went on our way back to Kathmandu.