The Lunar New Year just passed. The Old Lunar Year was replaced by a New Lunar Year. This one is called the Year of the Snake (as I wrote in my last blog), which happens to be my year because I was born in a year of the snake. I would warn you all that this is the year I will really get going, the year I do BIG stuff because it’s MY year, but it hasn’t started on an auspicious note. So I will tell you all about its start instead.
The ending of the Old Lunar Year was pleasant enough: my friend Chris visited me from his home in the capital of UB for a few days, during which we took turns napping on my twin-sized bed, ate from the limited selection of restaurants in my town, and otherwise spent time how we would if we were in his apartment, which is to say, we read, checked our emails, and talked occasionally. I think we both would say it was a visit well-spent.
On his last day there, we took the train together to UB so that he could go home and so that I could get on another train in UB for my host family’s home up north. The train from my soum to UB is 15 hours, and the train from UB to my host family’s is 10 hours. After 25 hours on the train, I was picked up by my host father (Aav) and taken home, where my host mother (Eej) told me we would be going to UB the next day to her mother’s. Feeling only slightly cheated of information that could have prevented my spending so much time traveling, I went to bed, determined to enjoy what I could of the experience. (Having my four-year-old brother narrate his actions on the Lego Star Wars video game he was playing in my room helped with that.)
We spent much of the following day going to my Aav‘s parents’ home in our town and to my Eej‘s brother’s. Only late in the afternoon did we get on the road in a packed microbus for the capital. I was wearing my Eej‘s coat because, although oversized, it apparently looked better than my own fitted coat which was covered in coal soot. Also, my Eej had given me some of her own non-insulated, undersized boots for me to wear to UB because mine were ripped and dirty. Ger life is hard. Just look at my clothes.
Despite the discomfort of sitting half on the seat and half on the air beside the seat, the micro ride wasn’t so bad. Until the micro broke down. The five hour ride took about 8 hours because the gear shift stopped working, so after a couple hours of trying to fix it, we had to drive in first gear the rest of the way to Grandma’s (Emee’s) apartment. The woman in the passenger seat had already traded boots with me by then because either a) her empathy is beyond comparison, or b) my misery is not well-veiled. It could be both. Regardless, I arrived to Emee‘s with fairly thawed feet.
After they made sure I was fed, my Eej made up a bed for me in the apartment’s one bedroom, the space I would be sharing with my Emee and my Eej‘s only sister. The rest of the family would spread out in the living room. As the first one to go to bed, I was woken up around midnight by a bright light and much grunting: Emee was now getting ready for bed. And clearly my comfort was not on her priority list. Honestly, I just wanted to stay out of her way because I don’t think she’s ever paid me back for a major misunderstanding that happened over Pre-Service Training two summers ago. First, there was the pinky leg massage. She seemed to like that, though, so I consider myself acquitted for any cultural faux pas I committed at that time. However, not much later, there was a second much more serious offense.
Allow me to digress: I was in my room (two summers ago) when Emee walked in, carrying what looked like a notebook. It had a stamp on the front and words in Cyrillic that didn’t mean much to me at the time because I was still learning my alphabet. She was saying a word that sounded like, ‘Kart! Kart!’ I thought she might be practicing a surprising knowledge of English by saying an accented, ‘Cut! Cut!’ but simply didn’t have to materials to carry out this request herself. Just to make sure I was understanding correctly, I made scissor-cutting motions with my hand, raised my eyebrows inquisitively, and asked, ‘Cut? Cut?’ She nodded. I took the card. She left my room. I took out my scissors, wondering how she knew I even had some, and started cutting. But before I did, I noticed that the stamp on the front of this item looked pretty official, and official things should not be cut sloppily. So, I proceeded to cut it like I would a credit card: into small, thin slivers. And then I went on with my life.
The next day, Emee was yelling something to me from the kitchen. I had no idea what she was saying, especially when she started drawing rectangles on the kitchen table, so my sister had to come in and translate, which, in our pidgin language, meant looking up words in the dictionary and pointing. The first word she pointed to was the one for ‘card.’ Yea, I don’t know what she’s talking about. I don’t have cards. And the second one was ‘hospital.’ Right, what hospit…. And this is when I realized my mistake. She hadn’t been practicing any English, and she certainly hadn’t asked me to cut anything. She had simply been telling me in Russian that she what she was holding was a card. Her hospital card. (At least I was right in thinking it was official.)
My eyes got big. I looked from my sister to my Emee to my trash can. I pulled out bits of the paper I had cut and asked, ‘Do you mean this hospital card?’ My sister gasped, Emee looked upset, everyone stood aghast. They ordered me to bring it into the kitchen. I bundled up all the slivers I could into my arms and carried it like I was walking a death march, putting it carefully onto the table, afraid that I could start crying at any moment. No one breathed. As I straightened back up, my Emee let loose loud, undeniable laughter, allowing everyone else to giggle what they had been holding in. I laughed, too, but still felt incredibly guilty. Later that day, when no one was around, I saw my Emee weeping at the table alone, and while I hoped beyond all hope it wasn’t my fault, I still have no idea what the reason was for her tears.
For this reason alone, I will allow my Emee all the ‘misunderstandings’ and ‘cultural faux pas’ she can muster because maybe I am partly to blame for her bad back and leg. So, last week, after much ado, she finally went to bed in our shared bedroom, but she was up before anyone the next morning, when the light came back on, more grunting ensued, and things started falling at my feet and hitting my head. I really don’t know why she was throwing stuff, but even if she was only getting even for my cutting up her hospital card, I could live with it. She left soon, and I got to sleep in in peace.
The rest of the day went uneventfully. People grazed on food, the cousins played games on smart phones, and it felt more-or-less like holidays spent with my family back in the States. I liked the feeling. My sister, Eej, and I took a bus from UB that evening back to our home, where I slept my last night there before heading back to UB the next morning. I only had to return to fetch my embarrassing coat and boots. And I also just wanted to say goodbye to my parents without feeling rushed.
While I got to spend two nights in UB, more in one place than I had spent in the previous week, I still had to leave UB relatively soon to head back south. A trip that I had intended to be low-key and low-stress was actually the opposite with all the back-and-forth and on-and-off of public transportation there was, but I don’t regret going. I spent the time with people who have meant something to me in my time here, and I was taken care of the whole time. If last week at all resembles the rest of this year, then I am in for a ride. But if I’m in good company, I won’t have to worry.