Since I have been living with my Bua (aunt) for over a week now, we have had the chance to chat and reconnect after a long year of distance due to COVID. Her family includes herself, her husband and their 16-year-old son and my first cousin, Aaryan. We stay up till late in the night, snacking and sharing anecdotes since both, Aaryan’s school and my college are on summer break. Last night, while reminiscing on easier times and laughing at how gullible each of us were as children, we landed upon the topic of foreign visits. I’d love to share one touching and one hilarious episode I could recall.

·         When I was 10 (exactly a decade ago) I visited Australia. I went as part of a student-exchange program and lived with an Australian family for 4 weeks. Those were some of the best days of my life and I am still welling up a little as I write this story. One night after dinner as Emma (my host), Kirsten (her 12-year-old sister) and I sat in the living room watching MasterChef Australia, the topic of conversation somehow shifted to fairytales. We were 3 young girls and although there was an obvious cultural gap between us, Beauty and the Beast, Aladin and Sleeping Beauty had the power to unite us and get us excited in equal measure. I sat toying with a tiny pink purse Kirsten had bought just that day while returning from school and listening to their take on Cinderella’s missing slipper.

“…those stepsisters were wicked. You know, Ben and Sam are our stepbrother and stepsister,” said Kirsten nonchalantly mid-conversation.

Benjamin (20) and Samantha (21) were their siblings who also lived with us, making a total of 4 children in the house. We didn’t get to interact much though since they were busy with college and saw us (or at least me) as children.

“You shouldn’t make that joke, Kirsten” I said looking up.

I am from India and I’m pretty sure most of you already understand the moral qualms my 10-year-old self would have had with such a distasteful joke.

“I’m not joking, our fathers are different” she chuckled.

But after seeing the obvious confusion on my face she blurted “I’ll give you this purse and 50$ if I’m lying. Go ask mom.”

I rushed to my host mother in a state of utter confusion and said, “Kirsten says…umm- I-“ even the word was unutterable to me.

“I just told her Ben and Sam are our step-siblings. She’s not believing me.”

“Yep, she’s right,” said mom but I kept looking at her without blinking.

“What- what?” is all I could manage.

“My first husband, Ben and Sam’s father died 15 years ago. Some years later I met Collin and we had Kirsten and Emma. They are all my children, don’t worry” she said lovingly but I was already sobbing inconsolably.

“I-I’m sorry,” I said and hugged her and began weeping loudly as both mom and Kirsten looked at me in amazement.

I later found out that my host mother called my mother back in India that night and told her that she had a very empathetic and sensitive daughter. This incident might not amount to much but it brought me so much closer to the entire family and for the first time ever actually made me experience what we call ‘poignance.’

·         On a much lighter note, I was almost 14 when I visited China on a school trip for 8 days. Being a vegetarian, I’d always have a hard time trying to find anything edible that also didn’t once move. After 5 consecutive days of French fries and a Coke at McDonald’s, I got frustrated.

“I’ll try to find something vegetarian here,” I decided, how hard could it be?

I walked up to the counter of a restaurant and since no one there understood the word “vegetarian” started a long game of dumb charades while speaking in the funniest of accents.

“No chicken,” I said.

“Pork?” was the reply from the other end of the counter.

“Ugh. No chicken. No pork. No lamb. No beef.  No duck. No turkey” said I, breathless yet proud at how well I had explained myself. My aloo tikki burger wasn’t far away.

“Fish?” he asked with a smile.

“Just French fries and a coke, thank you,” I said with a sigh.

I have so many more stories from all the mess-ups I made overseas but after going back to the first story I shared, my heart is heavy again. Do let me know if you’d like a part 2!      

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Viveka Goswami

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