Which is to say, “Bhutan was very good,” according to Phul and Gopal who related their memories to Sam and I as the four of us shared a plate of sliced apples and bread on the couple’s carpeted bedroom floor. Our refreshing snack must have sparked the involved discussion that ensued as the couple began to describe the peaceful landscape of a previous life. Phul and Gopal explained with great effort, detail, and persistence an impossibly complex process that Sam and I ended up guessing was probably the cultivation of wheat or a similar crop and its subsequent baking. There was grass everywhere, we learned, and the family lived on flat land, far from the mountains. The food was good and abundant. “In Bhutan,” Gopal explained, “every fruit and vegetable was available except ungoor—“grapes;” (and a particular vegetable that I’ve forgotten at the moment). But that could hardly have mattered, it seems. The calm that enveloped Gopal as he merely reflected on his Bhutanese memories suggested that they occupied a part of his life-history that was deeply missed. Phul was equally moved and began to speak quite rapidly and eagerly (as she often does) in pure dialect for a few minutes on a subject of which I haven’t the slightest idea. I didn’t catch a single phrase or even a word of Urdu, though I longed to comprehend her story.
We decided this would be a good opportunity to work on our “grocery store” vocabulary, since they were interested in learning the English names for the various fruits and vegetables they had been describing to us. Gopal was particularly keen on learning how to pronounce “mushrooms” correctly (he pulled out his container of mushrooms from the fridge just to be sure). On a previous visit, we had taught the couple the English word for elaychi—“cardamom,” a popular plant that is dried and chewed on by many adults, and/or is added to a variety of South Asian cousins—including chai. I was pleasantly surprised that Gopal remembered how to pronounce “cardamom,” a word that I often mispronounce myself
Eventually, the topic of the family’s resettlement to Chicago came up. Gopal, as with any subject it seems, had much to say about this. This was actually a pretty comical narrative at certain points, especially when Gopal relived his horror of interacting with a bhoth’he mota, “extremely fat” policeman which he assumed, at that time, was a manifestation of the policeman’s extreme strength. Apparently, policemen pathleh hai—“are thin”—in Nepal and Bhutan, hence Gopal’s shock. Sam and I explained that his apparent overweightness was a result of his eating too many sweets, not of his supernatural strength; he seemed to register the concept, and was finally at peace with the situation.
We also learned of Gopal and his family’s experience at the airport and the tremendous confusion that is felt at both ends (both for the refugees and the various airport personnel trying to assist). I was disappointed to learn of the great ordeal that refugees go through at airports and the fact that all staff members aren’t properly briefed on how to deal with newly-arrived refugees, or at least on which direction to point them toward. Anyway, Gopal said that the moment he saw his son (who had come a few months prior) and Binod from the ECAC waiting for him “downstairs,” his anxiety diminished and he was “very much happy” (as stated in English). He says he is truly happy to be here, but that the only problem is that he can’t speak English. Before leaving we tried to convince him that English will come to him sooner or later, we promise. With his diligent personality and passion for learning, I don’t doubt that it will.