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Neighborhood of Nations: Exploring Culture Without Leaving Home

Article and photos by Ashleigh Bugg

Manuel from Nepal plays in Texas.
Manuel from Nepal plays in Trinity Park, Texas.
“The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is…”  — Marcel Proust

A young woman went one day to the village elders and told them she wanted to leave her town to see the world.

“I want to travel. I want to taste new foods and encounter exotic cultures, to cast myself into the current of the unfamiliar and savage and strange. I want to sleep in train stations, run barefoot through parks, steal food off café tables, and wake up in 100 different cities. I want to conquer the world, to leave no country left unexplored.”

A great grumbling came from among the elders, for no one had left that village before. Finally, the wisest of them came forward and told the girl: “It will be as you say. You may travel fast and far through many lands unknown to you. You may see everything and cross off every experience from your list. However, when you are finished with these places I want you to come back and tell me what you have learned.”

The young woman left her village and went to many different lands. She saw the grandest sights and wonders of the world. She visited every must-see tourism destination. However, on certain days when she was standing in another museum full of priceless works of art, listening to people speak in a language she did not know, she realized she was alone and that there was no one with whom she could talk about her experiences. She came back home tired and dismayed, believing no one in her village would understand.

She went to speak to the great elder, but when she tried to explain the significance of her solitude and lack of knowledge about the grand things she had seen, her throat closed up, and she was unable to speak.

“Come with me,” the elder said and led her to the other side of the village, a place she had never visited before. It was a less wealthy side of town, and it had people who did not look like her, who had come from other countries and did not speak her language.

“These people are not like us,” the members of her village would say. “They’re here to steal our livelihoods and butcher our traditions.”

The elder left her on the other side of town with a family very much like her own. She lived and worked with her host family, and they spoke to her about their customs and cooked their most marvelous foods. After a while, she learned to speak to them in broken phrases, creative hand gestures and many, many smiles. After a few weeks, she was dancing with them in their festivals and could recite their history more clearly than her own. When the month was up the elder came to see her and asked her about her experiences.

“Dear child,” he said. “You have seen many wild and wonderful sights this past year. When did you feel like you had most immersed yourself in the life and current of travel?”

The young woman thought back to all she had seen: the grand works of art and palaces of gold, the mountaintop temples, and rushing rivers. Finally she spoke: “I felt like I was learning the most when I was sitting on the floor of the house with my host mother, sharing a meal, and talking about nothing in particular.”

The elder smiled and said, “You have understood well, dear child. For the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.”

* * *

“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” — Dagobert D. Runes

It’s 9:00 p.m. on a Thursday, and the neighborhood is rubbing the sleep from its eyes and casting off fatigue from another scorching Texas afternoon. Barefoot children born on the border of Bhutan and Nepal play with pink bouncy balls in front of their duplexes while Congolese grandmothers water their gardens of corn and potatoes by hand. The city of Fort Worth has banned the use of garden hoses in the face of continuous drought.

Sarah, an elderly woman from Liberia, is one of the few residents of the apartment complex to live alone, and she hobbles forward with her walker to call to the passersby, “God will bless you!” A gap-toothed grin, teasing and sweet fills her cheeks, masking years of exile and ache. She must forget the children who disappeared in the jungles and were replaced by hard men with machine guns. She has trained her mind not to think of the girls who were sold like bags of rice and never played in the shade of childhood. She nods to the Nepali children as they zoom past in their tiny motorized toy jeep. “God will bless you!”

Sarah from Liberia.
Sarah from Liberia gives her signature grin.

Refugees come to Fort Worth, Texas for various reasons: complicated motives like ethnic cleansing or genocidal warfare. Political jargon that doesn’t quite get to the heart of having baby cousins who are missing limbs from drone strikes or never seeing your mother again because her application for resettlement didn’t go through. The apartment complex is made up of over 100 home units; the U.S. government issued these duplexes to the arrivals, but they must pay a percentage of the rent. Within a few months of coming to America, they are expected to have a job and be on their way to self-sufficiency. They cannot return to their countries no matter how much they miss their families or the beautiful landscapes of their past lives. They are forced to carve out a new home for their children, knowing this is the opportunity for a world without bombs and boundaries.

I met my new neighbors after accepting an internship with an organization that serves refugees as they assimilate to the United States. In reality, they were the ones who helped me adjust to the neighborhood. From the first day, my friends from Nepal were inviting my partner and me over for elaborate meals and to watch Texas Ranger baseball games on TV. Nabeha, an Iraqi mother and former translator for the U.S. army, taught us how to make dolma and other Arabic specialties while her young daughter Hanin led us in Justin Bieber sing-a-longs. During the course of that summer, my partner and I took the children on field trips to parks and art museums. We watched the wide Texas sky with a fresh perspective as some of the Nepali boys saw their first Fourth of July show at Trinity Park. The boys were mesmerized by the explosion of colors and chemicals as the fireworks cast bright reflections over the park’s river. Some of our Iraqi friends gave us lamb wraps and bottles of Coke, and we settled along the bank to oohh and ahhh in unison.

Neighbors from Iraq in Texas.
Neighbors from Iraq enjoy a sunny day in Texas.

When people visualize Texas they see ten-gallon hats and cowboys herding steers across dusty trails. They don’t see teenagers from Burundi in bright, patterned skirts singing in Swahili or Burmese women with rice paddy hats working in the garden. They don’t see Iraqis celebrating the wedding engagement of their daughters or hijabs mixed among the ball caps and cowboy boots. Even though native Texans may not notice at first, the peoples of the nations are coming to their neighborhood.

Burmese woman planting flower.
A Burmese woman plants flowers in Fort Worth.

For my partner and me, it was a summer of celebration and survival. We learned about family, resilience and how to move forward no matter the obstacle: whether it was tricky English words or stacks of government paperwork. People from over 15 countries lived together in one tiny complex. They came from different walks of life and social situations. Some like my Iraqi neighbors came from large two-story homes with fruit orchards. Others from Bhutan were raised in camps along the border and never had plumbing or utilities. Some were completely fluent in English; others had never learned to read or write in their native tongue, much less ours. It was an adjustment for all, learning the everyday rituals of life in inner city Fort Worth. A new language was born as children who spoke five different dialects incorporated urban Texas slang with local village vernacular. Y’all was heard in the same conversation as As-Salaam-Alaikum.Namaste was incorporated with a joke about Taylor Swift. The Congolese grandmothers mixed up a giant pot of cassava and folk stories, and everyone was given a spoonful.

The hospitality of this mini United Nations huddled in the heart of cattle country is unparalleled. When Americans or neighbors of different nationalities come to visit, they are treated like honored guests. Large trays of Arabic delicacies, Ethiopian flat bread, or Nepali spiced tea are presented to visitors on literal silver platters. Every family serves differently, but they always share their best. Time slows and settles in to stay awhile as the children play in the street and visitors sit with people from Eritrea, Pakistan, and Rwanda and talk about the weather or their families back home. Life can be slower, but it’s also felt more intensely. My neighbors are the ones who know the exact price of peace.

Sometimes people spend thousands of dollars on travel or volunteer experiences to engage directly with different cultures. They want to try new things. They want to give back. Yet, we don’t always realize there are nations of dreamers in our backyards: struggling and surviving, dealing with culture stress and PTSD, navigating the nuances of a new place. They work hard for a future that is uncertain, missing a past that cannot be replaced. These beautiful and resilient huddled masses are mapping out the true definition of the American Dream. They share what they’ve learned with anyone who is open to listening to languages without words and seeing lands with new eyes.

As my young neighbor from Nepal might put it, “the light within me respects the light within you. Namaste, y’all.”

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