On commonalities

I keep seeing ads for CNN’s new “Crimes of the Century” programs. This week they’re highlighting a woman I remember really clearly: Andrea Yates. And I keep remembering the time, twelve years ago this month, when Newsweek threw me headfirst into another Cultural Collision.

The federal Powers That Be worried that volunteers abroad would be isolated from American culture, thereby limiting their ability to act as cheerful ambassadors of American Awesomeness. Actually, I was kind of surprised at how true this was, even back in 2001 (although I’d imagine the prevalence of mobile devices makes it less true now). I could tell you what happened on “The Bold and the Beautiful”… five years earlier. Occasionally, the Israeli networks would invest in a very nearly new series. But for the most part, our cultural exposure was pretty limited.

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On modesty and weather

It’s not a good day teaching-wise, so I am holed up in the tiny kitchen with my janitor-friends, The Tea Ladies. Joining us for a quick cup between classes is Hiba, the excitable chemistry teacher, and her best friend Yasmeen, the gym teacher.

The Tea Ladies are busy exclaiming over Yasmeen’s new scarf. The scarf is significant because Yasmeen has only just started to cover; previously, she wore a modest long-sleeve shirt and loose slacks to work every day, but after months of gentle harassment from fellow teachers she has arrived today in the coat-dress jelbaab and with her hair covered. All things considered, I think this transition is probably to the detriment of her usefulness as a gym teacher, but as her students are all similarly covered — and, usually, wearing atrocious platform footwear entirely useless for athletics — it probably doesn’t make much difference.

Nonetheless, I am uncomfortable with the subject, as the number of teachers in our school with uncovered hair has now gone from four to three. Miss Sara, the principal, also doesn’t cover, but her social status as our boss and her undisputed purity as a fifty-year-old virgin seem to make this okay. Sana is a Christian, respectably married with children, and as such unlikely to cover or tolerate conversation about it. And then there’s me. The direction of this conversation seems inevitable.


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On threshing wheat

One day I waited for my tutor at her home. I sat on the low stone wall along her garden — one eye alert for the angry rooster — and watched her mother threshing wheat.

Um Asad stood there, improbably sturdy for her frail frame, gnarled hands grasping a flat, shallow basket full of wheat.  She threw the grain up into the air.

Shush, the wheat said, falling tidily back, as wispy flakes of chaff blew hither and yon on the olive-scented breeze.

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On itching

Last week I did some creative work outside. Because I am an idiot, I decided the short period of time I was going to be outside didn’t merit bug spray. I don’t like the way bug spray smells and I didn’t want to scrub it off me.

This moment of idiocy gave me the opportunity for another flashbacky revelation. When I hear mosquitoes, now, I have two reactions. First, I think “Yuck, a mosquito,” like a normal person. But simultaneously I am overcome with the strongest wave of nostalgia. They say scent is the sense most closely related to memory, but I’m telling you: that mmmmmmmMMMMMMMMmmMMM whine gets me every time.


Every now and then, the scientists studying interesting things will publish some new finding about why some people are more attractive to bugs than others. It’s the diet… the blood type… the hormones… whatever. Doesn’t matter. Whatever it is: I’ve got it.

And when you take that propensity for being an insect-Siren and transport it to a different continent containing bugs with venom entirely new to your immune system, you’re asking for a disaster.

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On writing

I remember when my parents decided to move to Mississippi. It was the year Mississippi Burning released in theaters. Coincidentally I had just finished reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It’s safe to say we all had some preconceived notions about the move. And it’s safe to say now that we have a bunch of funny and not-so-funny stories about how wrong and right those notions were, because that’s how preconceptions work.

But that’s not what keeps coming back to me now, as I poke at these particular memories. What I remember is that at the time (I was eleven) I thought of myself as quite a budding author, and I was absolutely convinced that what was finally going to make my novel take shape was a better setting. A hot, Southern setting, with snakes and mysterious woods and thunderstorms that heard your cries.

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It’s not China, that’s for sure

In the end, as it does for so many of us, it all comes back to my parents.

Not in the When a Man and a Woman Love Each Other Very Much sense, but in the way they mold us, the way we mold ourselves, twisting around them. To be them, or to piss them off; to make them see us, or to make them let us go.

So it was the complicated path of two decades of twisting myself that led to that dinner, in that restaurant, that day. Between me and my parents lay a piece of paper, and on it was written the wisdom of the federal government, which had seen fit to offer me two years’ worth of not having to figure out a career.

I had narrowly avoided my mother’s major, and while I had majored in my father’s field it was only a convenience of paperwork. I had specialized in Asia, a region in which neither of my parents were experts. I had forced myself through the mnemonic-foiling horrors of Mandarin. And the government had heard my pleas and accommodated my wish to be sent to Asia, where I would not become my parents. Which is why the paper between us said Jordan. Because Jordan, according to the federal government, is in Asia.

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