Coming to America

After living a year in Sri Lanka, New York is almost too much to take in.

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It was my husband, Morgan who first noticed that we lost all of our Sri Lankans in Abu Dhabi. None of them, we realized, would be following us past the Middle East. We would be traveling to Paris alone, with French people, and some Americans. We must have traveled for 30 hours, sleeping and waking, occasionally being served some variation of tomato and eggplant, which we were given over and over, in a variety of shapes.

We hadn’t gone to Sri Lanka to do anything in particular. We would spend a year there, on the offhand invitation of Sri Lankan friends. We would write, of course. But we hadn’t gone to Sri Lanka to write. Throughout the year, many Sri Lankans asked us why we had come to Sri Lanka. Some days we asked ourselves that too. Then it was over. We were flying home.

Our brother-in-law picks us up from the airport, tells us about his work, tennis, etc. He is happy to see us. He drives us to the apartment in Harlem where we will be staying for the next two weeks, takes our bags up four flights of stairs. Inside, Morgan’s sister is watching the Olympics on a big TV. It had been a long time since I’d seen a TV like that. I hug her several times, feeling like Rip Van Winkle. Mostly we chat about this and that, our flight, their low-carb diets. My sister-in-law notices the new freckles on my face — I never had freckles before. The freckles are a symptom of daily, relentless sunshine, a sunshine that, if you exist in it long enough, no longer falls on top of you, like a holiday glow you can bring back home as a souvenir, but rather shines deep inside of you, and expresses itself out, sometimes in the form of freckles, sometimes in fungus. If you exist in it long enough, it will shine right into the central nervous system and change the very way you move. Nobody talks about Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka just sits in the room with us, quietly. Soon after our arrival we fall into a deep sleep. I have weird dreams, but I don’t know if I am sleeping or waking. I feel like I am nowhere and everywhere.

The next morning Morgan and I wake early. I look out the kitchen window onto a school sports field where the words

I WAS BORN FROM GREATNESS

THEREFORE THAT MAKES ME GREAT

are written. As an American, I take messages about innate greatness as a norm. But not all countries take the greatness of their citizens as a given. In Sri Lanka, many people just sit on the side of the road. Are they fulfilled doing this? I don’t know for sure. They do it, though.

We have coffee with almond milk and agave syrup rather than buffalo curd and strong tea and decide to take a long morning walk to integrate back into New York society. The Harlem apartment is right on Central Park. Living in Brooklyn, we don’t often get a chance to stroll through this famous place. It is raining just a little, which makes the city feel that much more surreal. Right away I notice how many ducks there are — big fat American ducks, they are so wonderful, trailing along in a row along the algae-topped lake. I notice all the bird sounds and look at the trees in a new way. Even the pigeons look beautiful. Two people behind us speak Spanish and I think it’s nice to hear people speaking Spanish. I like this language. There are people wearing expensive shoes picking up their dog’s poop with little blue baggies on their hands. I try to picture Sri Lankans doing this and cannot, no matter what kind of shoes they wear. A young woman in a button down shirt and tall rubber boots paces past us. She listens to music on her iPod and has her nose down, reading a daily paper. She does all this without falling, without slowing. It is like a circus act.

Morgan takes us to a nearby church, which is empty, save a handful of early morning nuns. The church is lovely, a beaux-arts thing with stained glass of Victorian women posed to look like the Virgin. I sit behind Morgan, close my eyes and listen to the sound of a choir practicing far away, and the sounds of the subway rumbling underneath. Then we part ways on the subway. Morgan is going to work for the day, I to the Rubin Museum. I get on the subway as I have thousands of times before, but it feels like I am in a dream. My clothes are too white, maybe. I realize I’m staring at people. Everything jumps out at me — I become obsessed with the specific feel of the cold aluminum subway pole. The curl of hair on the nape of a neck of a woman yelling into her cell phone is painfully lovely. I suppose it is a mix of culture shock, jet lag, and the mood I inhabit. I feel like I am on drugs.

The month before I was due to return to the U.S., I had written an essay about the problem of street animals in Sri Lanka and India, namely monkeys but also cats and dogs, about how they are everyone’s and no one’s responsibility at once. And then, a week later, Morgan and I found ourselves followed by a starving dog and her two traumatized puppies, the only survivors (we learned from a man on our road) of a litter of five. The dogs were being driven out of the neighborhood by another pack of dogs who were there first and were also hungry and also stray. Every day we had passed mangy, desperate dogs on the roadside. But these dogs were different, because they were right in front of us and because we understood that they would probably die. Suddenly, we cancelled all last-minute travel plans, all last-minute pretensions about a final holiday, and took these dogs into our home, nursing them to strength, knowing them day by day. For some reason, as a stranger in a strange land, I had spent a year pulled back and for the between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, hardly ever feeling a part of either. Now, I was beginning to throw down roots just as I had to leave. A week or so into the dogs, I got an email from the Rubin Museum of Art in New York asking if I would talk about a documentary film they were showing about the relationship between animals and people in India and Sri Lanka. They didn’t know that the event would happen on my first day back, that I would have been traveling for 30 hours or so, that they were asking me to say something about Sri Lanka to New Yorkers when I wouldn’t yet (or maybe ever, I feared) know what to say. The last time I had been to the Rubin Museum was right before I left New York. I remembered staring at the illustrations of the hand signs of the Buddha, trying to memorize them, imitate them, wondering what it all meant. I had wondered how much it would matter if I understood or not. In the end, it did matter, and did not matter at all because, as an American in Sri Lanka, I mattered, and mattered not at all.

At the Rubin Museum, the film curator greets me. He is wearing a fancy suit and has a fancy English accent and makes witty quips to which I once knew how to respond. But now there is just a blank space in my mind where a clever New York City remark once was. He didn’t understand that I just arrived from Sri Lanka yesterday, after an entire year. He is genuinely surprised I came. I tell him I feel very honored and thank him. He orders me an edamame Momo from the café menu — five dumplings that are the price of week’s worth of groceries purchased from the farm stands at the top of Wewa Road outside of Colombo. I inhale them, and am still hungry, but then it is time to watch the documentary about animals in Southeast Asia and speak to New Yorkers about them. For an hour I watch film footage of monkeys and water buffalo and Yala and Pollonaruwa — animals I had lived with, places I had been. I recognize the sound of barbet birds in one clip. I just heard them yesterday in my fig tree. There is a short story about a starving she-wolf who is trying to find food for her puppies and I burst into tears. I have actually been on the verge of tears since I finally stopped crying at Bandaranaike Airport.

After the film, I take the stage and the mic with the other moderator, a playwright who has written a play about the monkeys of Pollonaruwa. When I talk, I feel like it’s in metaphors and loops. When he talks, it is in answers and information. He is so clearly in the habit of this life, and I am so clearly not. But it doesn’t matter much. I want to talk about Tagore and the monitor lizards in my front yard. Someone in the audience asks me how deep the tanks are and when they were built. Another man in the back asks what Sri Lankan food is like. I assure him it is excellent. Then I get my honorary museum membership and am deposited back on the streets.

It is sprinkling outside — people carry huge umbrellas and wear giant boots. I have no umbrella; my white pants drag on the ground. I wander through the drizzle, pick up some toiletries which cost a third of my Sri Lankan rent. I have some time before I meet with my beloved friend Funky, so I buy a tea and sit on a bench in the East Village and watch New York life. Everyone is funny here, this is a city of freaks, brought together by the force of their freakiness. It is nice to see people who are openly, ordinarily gay. The women are stylish and robust. But they walk so fast you can hardly get a look at them. A woman I know who runs a gallery on the Lower East Side passes me, sees me, but does not stop, she is walking too fast. To stop she would have to do something drastic with her body. A young man with a dyed red afro passes by. He is walking with a friend. He says, “I was so high earlier…off of anxiety!” And a woman wearing jean cutoff shorts and rubber boots eats her lunch from a box as she walks, hunched over her fork. Funny people. Some little sparrows hop over to me, out of the foot traffic. Hello little sparrows, I hardly noticed you in the old days, I’m sorry but I see you now, I do. I realize that I am staring at people again and I am smiling too much. If I closed my eyes I would fall asleep and wake up in another day.

A young woman appears in front of me. She is very large and asking something of passersby. A woman this large in Sri Lanka would be quite rich. But she is asking if anyone would buy her a sandwich. No one stops. I say to her, I will buy you a sandwich. I stand from the bench and ask where we should go. She takes me to the University diner on the corner, and as we go, I pull all the green dollars out of my wallet, separating them from the orange rupees. Inside, the woman orders baloney and cheese, I think, or tuna fish, I cannot really pay attention. I haven’t been inside a place that looks like this for what feels like a long time. There is a noise I do not recognize — what is it? The whole restaurant is operating at an unfamiliar frequency. And then I realize it’s the cutlery: The clanging of fork upon plate upon knife upon plate. For a year I have been going to restaurants where people eat with their fingers. The woman wants to know if she can get fries too. Of course, I say, order the fries. How much attention would it take to really hear the soft smush of fingers upon plate? I had really practiced the art of hand-eating, leapt into it hands first, feeling with every meal that I was breaking bread with the majority of Earth’s citizens, who are not interested in eating with forks. In the deli, the cutlery rings out a shimmering symphony. But when I stop listening, it sounds like a wretched screech, like a food factory mechanically feeding its diners. I pay the cashier and wish the sandwich woman a good day.

In the Union Square Park I wait for Funky near the Ghandi statue, which I remember being covered in snow over two years ago during a storm that delayed our first trip to Delhi. Funky is taking time from his two jobs to see me for a coffee after I called him in the morning to say, I’m here. The Farmer’s market is happening today and I wait among the squash blossoms and organic gladiolas and wild blueberry jam and goat products. Everything is presented for maximum deliciousness. A man wearing a Yankees cap and a huge t-shirt inhales a summer peach so lewdly I can hardly watch. He sucks the pit, sucks his fingers. It’s likely he just ate the best peach ever and now it’s gone.

And then, like a beacon, I see Funky walking toward me. He gives me a big embrace and we make our way out of the market. I say to him, There is such wealth in this city. And he says, Yes, it’s insane. There is just a huge abundance everywhere. Yes, I say. Though, I say, there is an abundance in Sri Lanka too. It’s just not an abundance of biodynamic alfalfa. There is an abundance of fruit and birds and…. something else… I don’t know exactly what, I say to him. An abundance of something I don’t know what it is. But it’s different. 20 September 2012

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.

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