An extended family of six gather in a circle for a cup of chai following a full day of fasting. Three sisters and their adult children share wildly different experiences straddling the world they left behind for the lives they lead today. (Fiction Writing Exercise)
“It was hard at first, trying to understand what the doctors were saying about Dad in the hospital,” Shaun remarked.
He leaned forward and picked up a steaming cup of chai from the mismatched arrangement on the coffee table. Ceramic bowls housed numerous Lipton tea bags and a plethora of Splenda packets; it was a do-it-yourself situation.
“They just talk so fast,” he continued. “I had to use an interpreter every time.”
Ma nodded, smiling. “It took us years to catch onto what people were saying. The English medium courses in Bangladesh weren’t nearly enough. Even now, when Americans speak too quickly, it’s difficult to follow.”
She followed suit, delicately lifting a stout mug off of the table and sagged back against the worn gray couch, gently blowing over its surface.
Three decades had passed since she had moved to the US, yet Ma spoke of Americans with an otherness that confirmed that no matter how many years she’d spent in this country — raising children who identified strongly as American over their ancestral roots — she would never come to think of it as home.
Aunt Naz piped in. “The hospital system was the worst part! When I was pregnant with Zed, I nearly had heart failure during every prenatal appointment. I couldn’t follow a word they were saying.”
I hid a smile behind my own cup of tea and glanced at my cousin Zed. Though his eyes were glued to his phone, he wasn’t scrolling, and appeared to be paying rapt attention to the conversation.
It was a striking discussion to listen in on. Zed and I were both born and raised in the United States. Our mothers were best friends, and spoke often of the early trials of navigating a new country without learning its tongue, and with newborn children in tow. It was a challenging experience to say the least, and an ongoing on at that.
We were witnessing Aunt Dee, their third and eldest sister, face the experiences that Ma and Aunt Naz had years and years ago after having immigrated to the US recently — but this time with many more resources than her sisters had, institutional knowledge in tow, and an adult son who hoped to sponsor his wife and child to arrive as well. To watch a new generation begin its journey as our own lives continued to unfold was remarkable.
Aunt Dee, her husband, and her son Shaun were residing in the very apartment that my own family and I spent years living in. Rent stabilized apartments were a rarity, so rather than letting them succumb to the exorbitant rent prices that dominated our city, we passed the coveted lease onto their family before moving out.
It was a peculiar feeling, being back in the apartment. The atmosphere was notably cheerful. Rather than the persisting loneliness I often felt growing up within these four walls, the apartment was now bright and welcoming: it felt like home.
Shaun looked at me, grinning. “What do you think?”
I was confused. “About what?”
He nodded towards the corner of the living room. The rest of the apartment was in something of a disarray, but the space he pointed out was empty, save for a large easel that propped up a blank canvas.
“That’ll be the little one’s play area,” he said. “What do you think I should get him?”
Shaun’s excitement was palpable. My heart caught in my throat, and I went momentarily mute as a vision of my two-year-old nephew came to mind.
Because of the state of Shaun’s immigration status, he could not be there for the birth of his son. The child had spent two years, an immensely critical period of childhood, without the physical presence of his father.
I imagined the life he would lead, my nephew, in this new world. A new beginning, one that mirrored my own journey. How astonishing it was to watch the same voyage unfold time and again, each dotted with unique experiences that dictate its trajectory. Watching parent and child undergo the same hard-knock life, but with their prior life experiences playing a role in how they chose to navigate the hardships that came their way.
What sort of life would my nephew lead? To be candid, the conversation inspired a twinge of envy, as I knew my cousin Shaun to be a doting father with a kindly nature. I understood that that loving demeanor would pay dividends in his son’s relationship with life.
The chattering between the sisters had lulled to an end. Ma had been beaming throughout the evening, engaged in conversation and eagerly offering unsolicited advice, but as the room settled into a calm silence, the worn lines on her face became more pronounced. Her resting expression was one of deep sorrow, and I could only imagine the clutter that took up space in her thoughts.
We were at Aunt Dee’s home to make amends for havoc that had recently transpired between Shaun and my stepfather; his unbridled rage, even well into old age, was a consistent theme that marked our experience in the US.
He and Ma had met when my sister and I were just three and five years old, after my biological father had disappeared one night, unable to withstand American life. According to Ma, my father had resisted moving to the US in the first place, and was deeply unhappy here. He lasted three years before returning back to the old country, and cut off all contact with our family.
My grandmother frantically made arrangements to have my mother re-marry my stepfather, who had recently become a widower.
She could not have known that in her haste, she betrothed her youngest daughter to a lifetime of unhappiness.