How do you ask a child: how did your mother die?
Or: did you feel scared when your father was drunk at night? did he hit you?
Do you ask them in a classroom surrounded by their friends? Or on a rooftop, surrounded by Southasian sun and smog? How do you smile back at them as tears well in their eyes? How do you stop yourself from telling them, “I love you for who you are,” when you do not know who they are? How do you let them hug you, then let them go?
The ORC center is much different from any school I have ever seen. Technically, it is not a school, but it is far from any sort of learning institution I could have ever pictured. We had to walk through some man’s electrical repair store front to get there, then we had to climb a good number of steep steps in the dark, until we got to a door with a sign reading, “WELCOME.” Upon opening the door, 22 children, all stood, cramped in a mint green colored room and exclaimed excitedly, “GOOD MORNING MAAM, HOW ARE YOU?” That’s when I realized it was my duty to motion to them to sit down. I was “ma’am.” There was no rhyme or reason to how I began the interviews. I simply remember looking down at the 33-point questionnaire I’d been writing and editing and writing and editing for weeks and turned to the Nepali-born Californian who was helping me with translations and saying, “Would you mind just starting, and don’t be afraid of the more personal questions. I’ll tell you if I think we should stop.” And she began.
There were many moments, especially toward the beginning of the interviews, where I felt myself cringing. Should I really be asking them these questions? They’re only children. But they were so incredibly brave and open about sorts of things I don’t think many middle aged people I know can speak about. The first girl to speak began to answer questions and although I could not understand I saw her casually display a light hitting motion on her arm. And just as I began to write the word “abused,” the translator turned to em and said “her father hit her sometimes,” and I softly said back, “I know.” It became harder to understand how she was so happy and beautiful as she continued to speak about the emotional abuse she received from her employer and how she was constantly scared of his yelling. No matter their conditions in the city, under the roof of their employers, many children preferred the city life to the village life. Though they may miss the opportunity to play with friends and spend time with family, they enjoy knowing that they are working to support their families back home, but more importantly they were incredibly grateful to be receiving an education. So grateful that the next three girls answered, “TEACHER!” in response to my asking what they wanted to be when they grew up. Some of my other favorites were, “Doctor.” And the reasoning was because they wanted to cure diseases and make people healthy. Others said business man, police officer, or security guard.
Basic questions about personal care, daily routine, and overall happiness all elicited the same sorts of answers, but this was what made them so hard to bear. Every child ate twice a day, each time it was the same meal, traditional Nepali dal bhat (lentils and rice). Many children admitted to wishing they could eat different food, like dumplings, chow mein, candy, and one boy who looked very thin even said meat. Every child told that they loved getting new clothing, but each expressed disappointment that they only received new clothes once a year during the festival time. Children bathed anywhere from once to 4 times a week. Some hygienic needs were met, others were not. One boy even said that he cannot brush his teeth because he does not have the money for the toothbrush. All but one child said they had a toilet in their home in the village. The one boy who had to use the public toilet faced much embarrassment and extreme shame and he had to use the toilet outdoors in a public, crowded place.
Three of the children had deceased parents. One two occasions, the parents had heart conditions and the family could not financially support the cost of the operations. On another occasion, the child was too young to know how his mother had died. The children, even those who were still not happy in the home of their employer, expressed immense amounts of joy as being able to spend time with friends for once. One girl even said that she is so happy at the ORC because she had never been able to enjoy laughter that much in her life. Every child said that he or she desired to continue onto higher education, some explicitly stating their desire to one day attend college.
i felt a connection to these children and to their dreams. I remember the last boy I interviewed staring at the ground as he answered “Pilot!” when I asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. Just then a plane flew right overhead. Although he could not understand my English before, I pointed up and yelled “A plane!” He looked up and smiled, his face became decorated by a wide grin. He was satisfied. He would have a future. As you may have guessed, I believe in signs of all sorts, but this one, this was an undeniable sign.