Saturday, February 4, 2012

Selina Smiles

Selina looked around her. She looked at herself. She looked back. She had fought. She had fought hard to make it in the States. And she had made it. She had survived. Yes she had struggled. And look at where it had brought her. She spun around in her white nurse’s suit with her arms out, the way she used to dance when she was a little girl in her father’s house in Kathmandu.
This is where she wanted to be. The plushness of a white collared job in the medical profession. She was no longer working in a school with dysfunctional children in Nebraska. Those were tough days. The pay wasn’t great, the commute was long. And she was battling kids who didn’t want to be in school. Some days it felt thank less. What was she doing all this for? Wasn’t there a better way to spend your days than to be listening to American kids cussing her out? It was then that she had started to look for other options as a career. Nursing had caught her eyes.

She had made it through her first education degree waitressing. She had great people skills and it had paid off well. She had made great friends with people in Nebraska. She was a natural socialite, loved parties and entertained every weekend. Her cooking skills were excellent and people would come to Selina’s dinners leaving their meetings early.
She had a knack for people and wasn’t afraid of pursuing friendships with people she was interested in. Socially tactful and sensitive to the cultural around her, her sense of humor and gift of gab allowed her to warm up to people quickly. In this way, she slowly had made a place for herself in the States.
That is not to say that she didn’t have her challenges. There was a time she had slept in her car the whole summer. Finances were low and she was in the mood for adventure. Looking back she shrugged. It was fun in its own way.
Selina went on to marry an American. He worked in a law firm. They dated for a while and eventually had a western wedding, white dress and all. She sent the wedding video back to Nepal, nervous how her traditional mother who didn’t like wearing any other color sari other than red, would digest the whole thing.
Like every marriage Selina’s had it’s ups and downs. But she accepted it for what it was. She knew she couldn’t ever marry a South-Asian, what to speak of a Nepali. She had done that once. And it had been a disaster. She just couldn’t go through that again.
Leaving Nepal for the first time after her first marriage didn’t work out, was a huge step for her. But her father was a man ahead of his time. He had sent his oldest son for education to the United States when the boy was merely 17. And now he had sent his daughter in her mid-twenties. Selina had been determined to make it in the States. She knew there was no future for her back in Nepal. A girl whose marriage did not work out was seen as an unfortunate burden to her father. Selina was too proud to have made it on her own so that her father had nothing to regret. She knew that he had wished her the best in her first marriage. Her way of saying thanks to him was by recovering gracefully from that disaster and going on to stand on her own feet.
Selina had done what it took to adapt. This was the year 1979, long before the exodus of Nepalese would flood every major city in the United States.
She was a fighter that wouldn’t take nonsense from anyone. In one of the houses that she lived in, the land lady’s adopted son drank her groceries and milk. Selina wrote up a list of the items and presented to the land lady for reimbursement. She understood quickly how America worked. You had to step your claim to this place and not let anyone push you around. Once people got the message that it was ok to step on you, the rest was down-hill in this country. Selina fought to get her respect and to keep it.
Selina made some great friends with Debra. They were in the same educational programs. Used to hang out together. And during exam weeks, they used to spend huddled over books in places like Ihop, with a pot of coffee besides them to keep them awake through-out the night.
Selina was snapped out of her day dream by the voice of an assistant nurse asking her advice. The nurse was standing in front of her desk, her hands extended towards Selina with papers. Selina leaned over to look at the report and the adjoined documents. “Give the patient these medicines,” Selina pointed out. The assistant nurse nodded and exited.
She had made it. Today she sat in her plush office suite. Ok, ok, it was just a cubicle. But so what? Here she was treated with dignity. Here she had the respect of colleagues. She had a career. Most importantly, she felt good about where she was. She slept well at night and she could plan for the future.
Selina peered into one of her dual monitored screens. All she had to do was go and read Nepali online newspapers like Republica or to see what the pain of other Nepalese in Nepal.
She pursed her lips and shook her head. She had put a distance between that pain and herself through her hard work. But she knew it would be arrogant of her to only credit her success to her own wits and work. There was definitely an element of luck and other people's support that had come to play. She had adapted. She had played the game. Made the right connections. She had worked her butt off after her father’s death to get her nursing degree. She was in her 40’s then. But she did it. And all that hard work had paid off.
Selina knew that she had to. For a woman coming from Nepal, she knew that she couldn’t rely on societies support. She had to stand on her own feet. She had seen her mom, sister’s and nieces struggle because they were Nepali women. Selina’s heart went out to all of them. Whenever she came into contact with them, she would do what she could to encourage them to get their act together so that they could stand on their own feet.
Surviving on the streets of the United States took an agile foot. She had befriended people from from all walks in the United States in the process. Sometimes she learned the hard way to keep a distance to some while getting close to others. There were Nepalese she had gotten close to in America, from villages and towns far from Kathmandu that she wouldn't have given the time of day to if she had been back in Kathmandu. They wanted to be close to her. But she had become very wary of them. She didn’t come all the way to the States putting such a distance from her family in Nepal to again get into the petty minded Nepali ways in America.
Wiping one of the tables in the restaurant, Selina would sometimes think that back in Nepal this is the work that the servants did. She came from a well-to-do family in Nepal. But here in America, she was no body. She who was used to servants and the priviledges of upper-middle class lifestyle in Nepal. There was no place for her showing off of feeling better than other people here. She could strut her stuff on the streets of Kathmandu. An avid movie lover, she wouldn’t miss a Hindi movie playing in the theatres, no matter if her father screamed or yelled. Here, no one would tolerate her antics.
Selina had learned that she better suck it up and work for a better future. And count on your fellow friends in college. She had a coterie of immigrant friends.
During those days, working long and hard hours, putting school in between was tough. There were times she was finishing her math homework on the dashboard of her car, taking a bite of a cold sandwich and a sip of old coffee. Snow outside around her, the vibrating of the sputtering old car keeping her warm. Coming to school like this without having slept all night from studying for her other classes was tough. She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, trying to focus on the bleary numbers and letters on the notebook in front of her.
Sometimes it felt hopeless. Hopeless. And she would want to shade her eyes and cry. But she thought of her parents and how much they had sacrificed to send her here. Yes life was bad. But it could be a lot worse. It was times like this that she would go to write a long letter to her father or make a long distance call back to Kathmandu. She always tried to sound cheery and positive, but sometimes she couldn’t help but pen some of her bitterness on paper.
But what could her father do all the way from Nepal?
So she would turn to the friends around her. And they in turn would empathize. They were in the same boat as her. They would say, "Selina, we have been there where you are. We have gone through what you have gone through. Hang in there. It will be ok in the end." And as much as Selina wanted to believe them. It was so hard. It seemed like her struggle in America would never end. Never end.
And in Kathmandu Selina was used to walking around all tall and mighty. she wore the latest fashion, her shoes always polished. She had her own style and didn't talk to other pakhe types who she didn't consider to be at her level. But here, hers was another immigrant tale in the land of the melting pot where millions of other immigrants had come and adapted and survived like her. So was she that special? Did her pain give her the right to feel any more self-righteous than anyone else?
Selina looked at the floor of her cubicle. She spun herself around in her chair. She looked at the sleeves of her white medical coat. She stared up at the dual computer screen. Wow. How far she had come from those days. Now she was the one offering encouragement to the friend’s in her life. She was the one offering encouragement to her newly arrived Nepali relatives.
They would ask her, "Didi, will this struggle in the United States ever end?"
And Selina would nod to herself, her lips pursed in determination as her hand extended out to type. The light of the blue computer screen in front of her reflected off of her face as she hammered out the words, "Yes, bahini, hang in there. Trust me. Yes, it does end."

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