By Elizabeth Enslin
Speaking in our private, mixed language had been hard but precious–perhaps the most intimate time we would ever have aside from pregnancy and breastfeeding.
My six-year old’s wooden arrow arced toward the sun and nailed its mark: a yellow nylon kite. Both fell into the sawdust of the beachside playground.
Amalesh had whittled the arrow and bow from sticks he’d collected during our hikes around Whidbey Island. I had reluctantly let him bring both to the year-end kindergarten picnic because I couldn’t imagine such a crude bow propelling a heavy arrow any distance at all.
For a few seconds, I froze, replaying the event in my mind and marveling. Then I noticed many eyes turned our way.
Once again, my parenting skills were in question.
Since I’d separated from Amalesh’s Nepali father four months earlier, I’d been learning to bear such judgments alone. That, plus the inquisitive stares and mostly silent questions: A brown-skinned, brown-eyed, black-haired boy with a White, blue-eyed, blondish-haired woman? Where does he come from? Is he adopted?
I shook off my dreaminess and scanned the crowd: the child–not from our group–cradling a torn kite, his mother and father comforting him and glaring at me, other adults edging closer as though to intervene.
I took Amalesh’s hand and dragged him over to the now-crying child and told him to apologize. He mumbled a quick, “Sorry.” I made an apology to the parents too and offered to replace the kite. The parents said it wouldn’t be necessary and turned away. I took Amalesh aside. Grinning, he refused to look at me. His eyes beamed back and forth between his bow and that victory spot in the sky.
Before I had a chance to scold, he said: “Ma bow shoot garnai parthie. Ani ma target hit garye!” Since we had left Nepal, I had grown accustomed to sentences made of two languages and understood: “I had to shoot the bow. And I hit the target!”
* * *
Up until that point, Amalesh had spent nearly half his life among his father’s extended family in Nepal. I had given birth to him there, so Nepali was the language he’d heard more than any other during his first six months. Then we moved back to the U.S. for three years, where he spoke his earliest words in English, the language his academic father felt more comfortable using when not in Nepal. For several years after that, we lived between two countries. Every move required an adjustment in language. Talkative and outgoing, Amalesh usually transitioned well.
The family farm in Nepal was the most permanent home Amalesh had ever known. Homes in the U.S. had been temporary–graduate student housing at Stanford University, various rental homes for my postdoctoral position in Iowa City and his father’s professorship in Syracuse, New York.
Our last stint in Nepal had lasted eighteen months. Amalesh had been surrounded by grandparents, aunties, uncles, numerous cousins and even neighbors who spoiled him. As they doted on everything he did and said and excused his tantrums and mischief, he became fluent in Nepali. Now I had wrenched him away from that language of unconditional love and adoration.
* * *
“Kina angry hunuhuncha?” Amalesh asked.
Why was I so angry?
Early June sunlight shimmered on Useless Bay. Snow capped the Olympic Mountains behind. Amalesh skulked off to sit alone on a log in the sand. I decided to gave him his space so we could both cool down. I mingled with other parents in his class, attempting feeble explanations and apologies for my son’s behavior.
Amalesh’s kindergarten teacher took me aside. “It wasn’t right for Amalesh to do that, of course,” she said. “But I had to keep myself from smiling when he brought that kite down. He had to see if he could do it, and he did. No one but you understands his words right now, but we can understand when he aims an arrow and shoots a kite down so skillfully. He’s speaking to us with his actions.”
* * *
When Amalesh and I had arrived back in the U.S. in February, my parents were getting ready for an extended RV tour of The Southwest and invited us to live in their house on Whidbey for as long as needed. I figured Amalesh might adapt better if I put him in a local kindergarten. I would have some time to update my resume for college teaching positions, and he would have playmates to help him ease back into American culture.
I began my inquiries at the nearest public school.
“He doesn’t speak English right now,” I said. “He understands it, but he chooses to communicate mostly in Nepali.”
“Don’t worry,” the woman at the front desk told me. “We know what to do. We have ESL teachers. They can straighten him out.”
Sure that I did not want my son “straightened,” I thanked her for the information and drove down the road past llama farms and into a forest to check out the Waldorf School. I didn’t know much about it then but was enchanted by the curved walls and toys made of wood, stone and natural fibers.
School had just let out, so I was able to meet the kindergarten teacher, a soft-spoken woman about my age. I explained the language issue to her.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll find other ways to communicate with him.”
I enrolled Amalesh the next day.
Except for occasional outbursts in Nepali, he remained mostly silent in his class that spring. For a boy who usually chattered from waking until bedtime, that must have been tough. Unable to make himself understood through language, he often squabbled with classmates, threw fits or pouted more than expected for a child his age. But his teacher guided him without words and often calmed him better than I could.
A few weeks before the June picnic, Amalesh’s teacher told me he had finally spoken English in class. It had happened during a forest walk. He touched Douglas fir trees of various heights and announced their relationships: “mother, father, brother, sister.”
After that, he used some English words at school. But he still didn’t speak in complete sentences with anyone but me since those still came in a mix of Nepali and English. By the time I picked him up each day, he had a lot to say and talked for hours.
* * *
Two days after the kite incident, we sat in the living room of my parents’ house. Drained from single parenting, I stared out the window at the ferry gliding back and forth between Mukilteo and Clinton. Amalesh drew stick figures on drawing paper strewn across the carpeting. He pushed some drawings and a crayon into my hands.
“Book banaundaichu, Aama. Tapai write garnos, huncha?” I’m making a book, Mother. You write it down, okay?
“There was once a girl who was the spirit of the whole world,” he began in his usual mix of Nepali and English. “That is, until the evil giant decided to trick her.”
Translating into English, which was easier for me to write, I scribbled quickly to keep up.
“He brought her a beautiful gold coin that he had stolen from a magic box. It was so beautiful that she wanted to taste it. But the moment she tasted it, she fell down and died. She was on the very top of a tree, so she fell down far.”
I continued writing as Amalesh described gnomes and fairies who were sad to see the girl fall but too scared of the giant to get involved. Then, came a giant who could see for millions of miles, even across the Pacific Ocean.
“Don’t write this part, Mom. But remember how we flew across the Pacific Ocean when we came back from Nepal? It was pretty far, huh?”
“Very far,” I said.
I thought of all the ways that distance would grow now. Over the months since leaving Nepal, I had reassured Amalesh that his father would soon return to the U.S. But he may not have understood that we would no longer all live together. He and I would make our home somewhere in the Pacific Northwest while his father lived three thousand miles away in Syracuse.
“You can write again now,” Amalesh said.
Working with the thick crayon, my hand began to cramp. I shook it out and tried to keep up as he described the hot lava–a popular theme in his stories–and the girl falling toward it. Then the fairies reappeared, caught the girl’s body and brought her back to life with a special potion.
Finally, the story returned to a giant. This one was good and wanted to help the girl.
“He gave her a sword to cut her in two so that she became two spirits,” Amalesh said , then stopped, put his fist to his chin and looked over his drawings. “Maybe you shouldn’t write this part,” he said. “But one was Jesus and the other was Buddha.”
I didn’t write that at the moment, but—please, forgive me son–how could I not remember and write it down later?
“We made a book, Mommy,” he said and hugged me. “I’m going outside now to play.”
I watched him from the window and read what I had scrawled. It may have been the first story he ever told that had a beginning, middle, and end. I sensed something else important in the narrative but didn’t realize what until a few minutes had passed.
It wasn’t that his father’s family was Hindu–not Buddhist–and that my family never went to church and rarely talked about Jesus. Nor was it the violence, magic and hope. It wasn’t even the imagery of being divided by an ocean or a sharp blade. It wasn’t the content at all. It was the transformation in Amalesh as he told it. He began telling the story in Nepali grammar with mostly Nepali words. By the end, he used all English grammar and English words.
Squealing and laughing outside, he chased my mother’s dog in circles.
Speaking in our private, mixed language had been hard but precious–perhaps the most intimate time we would ever have aside from pregnancy and breastfeeding. I tried to commit to memory his lilting, singsong way of speaking Nepali. Pakka Nepali, our neighbors had called it back in the village. Perfect Nepali, indistinguishable from the Nepali other children spoke. He even ornamented it with the same head bobbles and hand twirls.
Now he shouted commands at the dog in English. I could still hear a faint Nepali accent, but just barely. Maybe he’ll weave some Nepali words and phrases back in once he gains more confidence in English, I told myself. Surely, this won’t be the end of his birth language.
But in many ways, it was. With his father and other Nepali relatives living so far away, he never did speak that pakka Nepali again. At age nine and again at fourteen, he returned with his father to the family farm for a few weeks and re-learned some Nepali phrases. He went on his own for nine months after high school and six months after college and became fairly fluent in speaking and understanding. Yet even I can hear his American accent.
Elizabeth Enslin is the author of While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal (Seal Press 2014). She has published literary nonfiction in The Gettysburg Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Raven Chronicles, Opium Magazine, and other journals. Currently working on a sequel to her first book, she raises yaks on a farm in northeastern Oregon.