In October I found an unusual white envelope in my letterbox. Our address, written with a pencil, was spelled out in block letters by an unsteady hand. The sender’s address, pencilled in a similar but smaller script at the top left corner, solved the puzzle: it was my nine-year old nephew in the US. In his hands, Heidelberger Strasse had become Heidelburger strasse, a charming little slip that brought to mind his insatiable appetite for fast food. Opening the letter I found – on an A4 size printed page with his handwritten words in the beginning, next to the salutation, and at the closing, signing off with “love…” – a request to help him with a project at school.
This fall, as a fourth grader at xxx Preparatory school, I will be studying my background and my family. As part of our project we are writing to relatives to find out what their lives were like when they were our age.
My letters will be part of my Ethnic Pride family scrapbook.
Please write back and tell me about your earlier years. Where were you born? Who were your family members? What are your memories of school? Games? Toys? Pets? Chores? Vacations?
Please write back by November 26th. Thank you for your help with my project.
Your nephew R.
Some weeks later I sat down to compose my reply. I had no experience writing to a nine-year old. I knew some of the books my nephew had read – children’s classics by Roald Dahl, E.B.White, J.K.Rowling – and on many occasions I had been struck by his wit and his understanding, so I decided not worry about writing down to his level of awareness. Just keep it simple, I said to myself, and write as though you were writing a memoir. Wishful thinking, I learned. It is not possible, in a letter, to ignore the reader, to not think of who you are writing to. And that knowledge changes everything.
Thank you for writing to me. Your letter led me deep into my memory chest, to those days in Nepal where I spent my early years, from first grade to fourth. But Nepal came later in my life – in the beginning there was India, and then Ghana.
I was born in Tiptur, a small town not far from Bangalore. My mom’s parents lived there, in a large house with rooms for all her eight siblings. I am a first born; my sister arrived six years later, when I was in first grade. I spent my first four years in Ghana (West Africa), and my parents tell me that I had for friends a bunch of Dutch boys and girls. (My dad worked for a Dutch company.) I had learned to speak some Dutch in those years, but I lost that skill after we left Ghana.
In Nepal I joined an Indian school, where all my classmates were Indian. Each morning at 8 am I walked half a mile to the bus stop, and then rode for three quarters of an hour to The Modern Indian School. I don’t know what was “Modern” about the school – it did not even have a canteen. My mother packed lunch into a small box each morning, and at school we sometimes shared our lunches, picking dishes out of one other’s boxes. I did not like rice mixed with plain yoghurt, a dish my mom packed each day (among other dishes), and I always tried hard to get others to eat it. Returning home with food remaining in my lunch box was strictly forbidden.
I loved to play cricket. (We had no video games those days, no Nintendo DS, no Wii, no Playstation – we played only physical games, in the playground, or board games at home.) We would form teams at school and play cricket during the “games” class or even during lunch breaks, after quickly finishing lunch. Cricket is a popular sport in India, a bit like Basketball or Football in the US, and my love for the game began early.
At home mom often asked me to run errands for her. On her request I would run across the street to the small general store (there were no supermarkets in Nepal then, in the 1980s), with a list of things to buy and some money mom had put into my pocket. The shopkeeper collected these, picked out items from his shelves, and put them all in a bag for me to carry back home. On some days, when he was in a good mood, the shopkeeper would give me a candy. I liked bubblegum better, but he never gave me bubblegum.
For vacations I travelled with my parents to India, where I spent time with my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, both in Tiptur and in Bangalore. My grandparents in Bangalore lived in a two-storied house, and along its boundary ran a wall that seemed to grow smaller each year. And, on these visits my uncles and aunts always remarked how much taller I had grown since last year. It took me some years to put the two together and solve the mystery of the shrinking wall. (Didn’t get it? You see, the wall grew smaller each year because I was growing taller!)
I returned from vacations in India with a lot of sweets from my relatives. These sweets – ladoos, pedas, halwas – would last many weeks as my mother kept them hidden and offered me and my sister only one each day. I remember fighting a lot with my sister. Not big fights, but small ones, over a toy or something dad or mom had given either one of us. As the elder sibling I was supposed to let my little sister have whatever she wanted, and I never understood why. (As you do not have siblings, you get to keep everything – how lucky you are!)
I hope this letter has given you a glimpse of my childhood. In a way, my childhood in Nepal was very different from the one you are going through in the US, but like all childhoods the two are also similar, with school-days, vacations, games, fights, strict parents, and chores. Your Ethnic Pride family scrapbook will perhaps contain more similarities than differences.
Good luck with your project!