My father usually carried a somber demeanor but that December evening he was excited when he came home from the Indian grocery store. He had an impromptu rendezvous with another Nepali, Ramu Tamang, at the store and had invited Ramu and his wife for dinner. It had been a few months since our arrival in the United States and apart from seeing the fluffy snow and devouring junk food, we hadn't been quite as excited. When Ramu uncle showed up with Nancy, my sister and I were puzzled. Before we left for the US, our relatives had warned us of all the complications of marrying a foreigner. We had been told that everyone divorced in America and people married one another for selfish reasons such as money and short bursts of happiness that never lasted because that kind of happiness never lasts. I was 11 and my sister was 12 and what we saw was a taboo in front of our eyes. As the evening progressed we learned that Nancy was a professor at the University that my dad attended. She had met Ramu in a trekking trip to Nepal and from what we could gather, had fallen in love for a simple-minded tour guide. What made it more taboo was Ramu was married, had a few kids and would frequently visit his family, who had come to accept Ramu’s relationship with this foreign woman.
After the Tamangs left, it was pretty evident that night that our parents were as stunned as we were. My mother thought of their relationship as no more than an old lady’s desperation to find a companion. “She must be at least 15 years older than him,” my mom commented. My father nodded. “See, money was the only thing that could make a man who spoke broken English to go live in another country. He’s a Bhariya and she has a PhD. It will never work out,’ she said.
My father was a graduate student at the university while my mother was struggling to find odd jobs. My mother had one goal here in the US, and that was to finish up building the half complete one-story house we had left in Kathmandu. She found a job taking care of the elderly at a nursing home and though she would rather be doing something than help old people poop, she loved the pay. Every month she would allocate my father’s modest stipend towards our household expense and save to the penny everything she earned. As time went by, my parents became closer to the Tamangs. The Tamangs would take us grocery shopping, donate furniture, help us move to a new apartment and until other Nepali students joined, were the only people who conversed in Nepali with us kids. My sister and I looked forward to the grocery shopping every Saturday morning when the Tamangs would pull into our university housing parking lot with their green Honda accord. My mother would suggest Nancy on what grocery store carried bargain deals and Nancy, a child psychologist, returned the favor, advising my mother on the importance of feeding kids and even letting them indulge before taking them shopping.
Ramu uncle had one of the warmest personalities of anyone I had met. What he lacked in certificates, he certainly made up in charisma. He could captivate us about going to the mountains and visiting all the beautiful places in Nepal we hadn’t seen. He told us stories of walking in the most remote place of the world, hours at a length, carrying heavy loads while the khaires groaned about the steepness of the terrain. After a hard day’s work, his team would set up tents to sleep at night, cook food and eat like a bear. Then they would drink beer, play madal, dance and retire for the day. He enjoyed what he did and I wondered how he’d settled into the less adventurous but comfortable life in a university town where the closest thing to a mountain was a sizable jade green hill he dismissed didn’t deserve a nomenclature of being called a mountain.
Lucky for us, Ramu uncle brought his celebratory spirit along with him. Whenever there was a Nepali festival, we would all gather up at the Tamangs. While our parents drank and talked about politics, we would play games with the other kids. Every now and then the adults danced and we kids laughed, jealously witnessing the aftermath of alcohol and bursting of the bubble encapsulating the structured busy life they mostly lived. Through the times, our friendship with the Tamangs got firmer, albeit my mother’s opinion remained unchanged. Every now and then, she would bring up the morality of Ramu and Nancy’s relationship. My father, a rural sociologist, voiced that polygamy was still prevalent in Nepal and accepted in Ramu uncle’s culture. ‘If Ramu’s family doesn’t object, who are we to judge others?’ my father defended. “Besides, Nancy is helping his family. She has learned their native language, put Ramu’s five kids through school, treated them like hers and built a house in Kathmandu.” My mother still maintained that their relationship was Bhariya love and wouldn’t last long.
I gave little thought to the Tamangs' relationship and seeing people of various races bonded in matrimony, I had unconsciously accepted such ties. Besides, the Tamangs were a godsend in my eyes. When Nancy took us to the public library in the summer and got us memberships, I discovered the power of self-learning. I had been a terrible student and an obnoxious kid in Nepal. I would hardly study for exams and my rankings would go from awfully good to awfully bad. The greatest thing about the US education was I never felt I was compared to my fellow classmates. Nor did my teachers tell me what I was doing wrong. I would get smiley faces when I aced a test, and even when I didn’t I would get kind words to do better. They didn’t post a sheet at the end of the term to let you know everyone else’s grades. So, an amazing thing happened as a result of this. I started reading books, starting with fairy tales, and then I would read more books, fiction, science, science-fiction, algebra, programming, soccer, chess, and anything that interested me. For the first time in my life, I wanted to learn to excel myself and not compete with others. My parents were mostly apathetic to my reading binge. Nancy would call to tell them that she saw our names in the honor roll in the newspaper but my parents were happy as long as I stayed out of trouble and maintained decent grades.
Ramu uncle had only grade school education and he worked at odd jobs. From being a clerk to a delivery boy, he had experiences in various places. But doing 9-5 repetitive tasks wasn’t his idea of work. He would tell us about the monotony of working at a grocery store. It wasn’t unusual for Ramu uncle to spend few weeks at a job and quit after he became bored. My mother would lament how she couldn’t afford that luxury. Even though I knew my mother worked very hard, I never had the guts to tell other people that she worked a full shift in McDonalds and part time at the campus café. One day Joshua, a kid from my neighborhood, asked me why my mother worked at McDonalds. I couldn’t come with a reason because I didn’t feel particularly proud of what she did. Soon enough Joshua started making fun of my mother’s job as I kept quiet, until one afternoon while playing soccer when I asked him to pass the ball, Joshua joked, ‘and you want fries with that?’ The kick that landed on Joshua’s stomach came as fast as the remorse I experienced when Joshua started crying and ran away. When I went home that night, my father was fuming with rage. Joshua had dialed 911 and a cop had come looking for me. For the next few weeks my father scared me with how we were going to get deported when the cop returns.
After staying for three and a half years, I left the US. My father would be finishing his PhD in a year and he had no intention of staying in the United States after that. He wanted to return to Nepal and spread the knowledge he had acquired. My mother was happy that she had saved enough money to finish the house. I was confused about my situation but my parents decided that I should return to Nepal and start 9th grade while my sister was going to move to another state to live with my uncle’s family until she finished high school.
And that was the last time I saw Ramu uncle. My mother was right about the Tamangs splitting up. Unfortunately, Ramu uncle died of brain hemorrhage after he fell off a ladder while renovating their newly purchased home. I had just completed my 11th grade finals. We were all reminded of how fleeting human life is. Ramu’s body was sent to Nepal for the last rites. Nancy came to Kathmandu for the mourning period and my parents went to meet Nancy at Ramu’s house. After she returned my mother was at a loss of words. Seeing Nancy cry, she must have sensed the love Nancy had for Ramu and the family. Later, my mother confessed to me that one day she had become depressed working in the US and she went to the Tamangs asking for help to book a ticket to Nepal. Nancy and Ramu uncle had convinced my mother to hold it together for her family.