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Poems and Prose
by the students of Haidee Dehner
who teaches grade 10 English
at the American International School in Dhaka

Haidee Dehner teaches grade 10 English at the American International School in Dhaka. For the last three years she has spent one semester of the school year working with students to produce a portfolio project in the form of a book. Most of the chapters of their books are drawn from a series of writings done over the course of the semester, usually in relationship to the literature they study. Ms. Dehner has selected the literature because it fits the archetypal journey laid out by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero's Journey. As global nomads, her students follow this very journey: departing, going through amazing adventures and returning home with new wisdom. She shares here some of the writing that appeared in the tenth grade books this past year, each prefaced by Ms. Dehner's brief introductory commentary.

Aliya Rao created a book titled Uprooted. Her introduction below explains her theme, one most global nomads can relate to. Her name essay gives some insight into her travels. In a multi-cultural classroom name essays reveal layers of beliefs and rituals. Some students were given names to grow into, names that mean "perfection" or "God's gift" when translated. Many students were given names by astrologers or Mullahs. Names can also come from ancestors and open up history that many are unaware of until they begin the paper by interviewing parents. The last piece that I've included from Aliya's book is an excerpt from her boast, modeled on those of the warriors in the epic Beowulf. Aliya chose it for her book since it also shows her identity, an identity many global nomads can relate to.

Uprooted

I have been "uprooted" from my mother-culture, hence the name of my book. Having spent a significant part of my life in cultures other than my own, I have acquired these cultures while retaining parts of my own. I have been uprooted in the sense that I don't have the opportunity to observe the traditions of my culture as closely as other people who still live in India. This doesn't mean that they have more knowledge than I do of Indian culture, however, because I do retain interest in my native land.

The theme of my book, Uprooted, is my identity. The way I think, the way I talk, just who I am is largely Indian. But I have left my mother country and the experience of being a global nomad, a third culture kid, had also helped shape me into who I am today. My book shows how the union of these two identities is reflected in my personality and in my writing.

 

A Parade of Nick Names

"Aloo, I've gotta go now, but I'll see you tomorrow, OK?" Navine said into the phone.

"OK, see ya," I replied. During the 15 years that I've been alive, "Aloo" has been my most consistent nickname, derived from my name, "Aliya." My parents started calling me this when I was a baby, and since I could not protest against this then, I was stuck with it, and still am. It's not that I don't like having a pet name, it's just that one that means "potato" in Hindi is less than desirable. My name is can be mispronounced in an infinite number of ways and inspires tons of other names. Over the course of my life, I have had many names, some that I liked and some that I didn't like. All of them have, however, had two characteristics in common: they have all been interesting and unique.

When I was younger one of my aunts went one step further with my nickname of "Aloo"; when I was sick she would call me "aloo bukhara," which is the Hindi word from "sweet potato. "Bukhar" also means "fever" so it was relevant. Never mind the fact that I detested this name. Unfortunately for me, it caught on.

At the different stages in my life, I've had to endure people pronouncing my name incorrectly. For the three and a half years, when I lived in Geneva, Switzerland, I was known as "A-lee-ya" as opposed to "Aa-li-ya." This bothered me in the beginning and I corrected people. After living there for six months, however, I realized that even when I corrected people they would still pronounce my name the way they wanted to, so I gave up.

During this three and a half year period, I was fortunate enough to encounter people who took great pleasure in twisting my name, always in an uncomplimentary way. Some of them were most ingenious in this art. Whenever I heard a "Hey, A-liar," (followed by "A liar, get it? Ha ha ha") or "Hey, Alien," I could be certain to see one of my pleasant acquaintances looking at me with smug smirks lighting up their faces.

When I moved to Dhaka, two and a half years ago, I finally met people who could pronounce my name correctly, possibly because they're more familiar with it. However, the friends I have here also like playing with name and coming up with new nicknames for me, since they know it annoys me. "Al" was a name given to me by one of my friends; it was one of the names I was strongly averse to since it's also a guy's name. Seeing that I was so strongly opposed to it, this name wasn't used much, except when someone wants to get me riled up. Another name I acquired in Dhaka was "Oooliya." I wasn't, and am still not, against this name, since it's not for the opposite sex, and it's not insulting in any way.

I have also obtained a long list of pet names that have nothing to do with my real name. People just got into the habit of giving me names and gave me many just to irritate me. For example, my friends might come across a word such as "Putrid," and kindhearted as they are, they will decide that it suits me and so I will be knows as "Putrid" for as long as they think it's funny. By now, I have learned not to mind this much.

 

"Aliya," is Arabic for "superior and mighty." In the olden days it was used in Arabic countries to address the royalty. The meaning of my name and the fact that it was used for royalty is the main reason that my first name is a favorite of mine. However, even if it didn't mean what it does, I'd still like it. I was an infant when it was bestowed upon me and I didn't care what anyone called me. But now my name has become a part of me. It's a part of my identity, it's a part of who I am. I would be lost without my name.

Aliya

I am Aliya, descendant of the warriors who came to India
From the western land of Afghanistan
And Rajput warriors who inhabited the central part of India.
I, Aliya, reached the top of the world during my first year as a teenager.
I survived the long and arduous trek of the Annapurna Range.
I exist today to tell the horrifying tale of this Massive Ordeal.
I rose at dawn, freezing in the cold mountain weather, walking
Each day for six and sometimes seven tortuous hours.
I am Aliya, the superior and might traveler of the world.
I have helped the less fortunate than myself.
Many mornings have I spent teaching the illiterate,
Mornings when others were drowning in sweet slumber.
I, helper of the poor, have also spent scorching and smoldering
Days, lifting burdensome baskets of sand and
Stacks of bricks with my bare hands, all for the good of humanity.
I am indeed a true philanthropist.
I am Aliya, descendant of Great Leaders, and
I will lead the world as my ancestors did before.

Katherine Guy is also a tenth grader and hails from Canada, a place she describes as a foreign land. Ironically, she just found out that she will return there next year and finish out her high school career in her no-longer-home city. The circle, then, is complete. Her book is titled Into the Unknown and is beautiful covered in silk from the Far East. The handmade paper pages tell a story of gradual empowerment.

The Unknown

I went to school—
My last day of school.
I cried my tears—
Tears of leaving my home.
I said my good-byes—
To the friends who'd kept me safe
I packed my bags—
With all of my memories
And then, as if all alone,
I set off towards the unknown.

 

The Foreign Land

"It's so clean." I said. We had just landed in Calgary Airport. It was summer vacation from school and my family had decided to go back to Canada. We hadn't been back for a few years and I was full of anticipation as to how it would look and what it would be like. I looked out the window again, completely mesmerized by the freshly cutgrass and the pale gray cement with perfectly drawn yellow lines down the middle. It was completely different from what I had grown used to, wild grass, dirty oil stained runways and fading yellow lines. I was so excited to be back in Canada, a place I was supposed to call home, but half of me felt so disappointed in what Canada really was- a sterile hospital.

We stepped off the plane and walked towards the Arrivals section. Everything was organized and the signs were in English and French. Unlike Asia, we only waited five minutes for our luggage to come through. I started to wonder what was wrong with this place- why was everything done so quickly and why was everything so clean??? I followed my parents, looking around for the luggage porters and for the gates keeping people from barging into the airport, but I didn't see them. I wondered why.

I was so relieved when finally we got to our rental car and drove away from the airport. It was so strange and empty. I was still so puzzled about the airport that I didn't notice the big wide highway until we were about ten minutes into our ride. When I did I almost died. It was just like the South Super Highway in the Philippines, only it didn't have a traffic jam. Now I knew Canada was definitely strange. I tried to keep my mind off this different scary place by listening to my parents.

My mum and dad were talking about our plans for the summer, which kept me interested and my mind off the highway. But when my mum started to say "Isn't it wonderful to be back in Canada?" I felt my pulse get stronger and my mind started racing. What if this was a conspiracy? What if they weren't my parents? Surely they must think that Canada was as strange and I did. I decided that I had heard wrongly and continued to listen to what my parents said. But it didn't help, because my mum kept going on about how organized and clean it was- AND SHE SEEMED TO LIKE IT? I thought she must definitely be kooky in the head, at least my dad didn't seem to be. Then my mum turned to me and said, "Oh Katherine, don't you love how fresh the air is, and how the roads are easy to drive on with no traffic, bicycles and carts?" I was so shocked. I stared at her aghast and replied "It's too clean and too quiet."

My mum looked at me a minute then burst out laughing. I was still shocked that she would even like it here. How could anyone like a hospital??? I hated hospitals and any place like a hospital. My dad, sitting behind the steering wheel of the car, was laughing so hard that I was sure we would have an accident. I was scared. These people definitely weren't my parents! "Calm, Katherine, Calm", I repeated to myself until I had stopped panicking.

We pulled into the driveway of the house where we were staying. I was calm to the point of sedation. I gathered my stuff together and walked with my parents towards the house, "I'll be perfectly fine," I told myself. I everyone?? We rang the bell and I hoped and prayed so hard that the person who answered the door would feel like I did about Canada. But she didn't. My parents recounted the whole incident and she, like my parents just laughed and told me I was cute. I was definitely going into a nut house.

Soon I began to realize why my parents had thought it was so funny. It was because I really didn't feel Canadian - I was more Asian on the inside. I felt that noise was and had to be a part of everyday life. I felt that an open sewer on the street was perfectly ordinary. I even felt that to fall into the sewer, like I once had, was part of life. I also felt that I had to be able to see at least fifty people on the street for it to be normal. Anything less I began to wonder who had died. And every summer since, the story of how I thought Canada was too clean and quiet and too boring is recounted and still people laugh, but I don't mind because its true! I may be blonde and green-eyed, but I do feel Asian and thrive on the crowds, noise, dirt and chaos around me. Canada is the foreign land!

Jean-Pierre Rousseau was viewed as an Arab terrorist when he returned to the United States and entered the unfamiliar territory of the American public schools. This year he found out that his family is being posted to Morocco where his French accent won't be considered so abnormal. His book is titled One More Stamp in my Passport and I am sure he will have many more. He is a seasoned global nomad at sixteen and was very much at home in the Model U.N. gathering in Nairobi this year.

The "Egyptian Terrorist with a French Accent

Who am I? Am I American, French, Egyptian or Armenian? I got my answer on my three-year journey to America. I discovered that I was none of them, and that I was a citizen of Earth, I was countryless. Coming to America I expected to be around people like me: people who have traveled around the world, spoke several languages, and were in possession of several nationalities. I never expected to be labeled as a malaria-infested foreigner. Coming to America was not coming home; it was leaving the home I had for 12 years in the Middle East.

Homesick, I gazed out of the classroom windows towards the East looking past the gray landscape and thinking about the memories I had left behind in Tunisia. Suddenly awoken form my daydream, I was back in reality, my first day of school in a country which I visited, but never lived in. Our teacher asked us to rise and recite the "Pledge of Allegiance." Even though I had no idea what she was talking about I rose, but I looked in shock as the students were all turning towards an American flag and reciting words of praise to it. To me it sounded as if they were worshipping it. I stood and started at the students. They seemed hypnotized, however they did notice that I was not reciting. Immediately thirty students plus a teacher turned toward me and gave me an icy glare. The flag no longer was the center of attention. For the rest of the recital I was being reduced to pond scum by their stares. It seemed understood that every one should know this pledge, and that I was leading a protest against the country with my silence. In no way did I mean to be insulting to their culture, but the fact is that I have never recited a pledge to any of my four countries of nationality.

Soon after the pledge incident I was asked to present myself. I got up and started walking towards the front of the room. The students had not gotten over the fact that I did not know how to recite the pledge. I felt like what Bill Clinton would feel on Rush Limbaugh's talk show. After presenting myself as being an Armenian, Egyptian, French and American, hands shoot up in the air. "Are you related to Sheik Abdel Rahnman?"* Another asked, "Why did you come here, and what ulterior motives do you have?" I bet her parents worked in the INS. Still another asked, "Are you somehow related to Jack Kevorkian?" I did my best to answer their questions. I tried to make it clear that I was neither a terrorist nor an illegal immigrant, but by the questioning looks on their faces they were not convinced. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. I felt hurt that my nationalities were stereotyped in this way, but I also wanted to laugh at how casually the students were asking those questions. I felt like I was in a courtroom, the students the jury, and I was the convict awaiting the punishment. The students soon knew me as "the Egyptian terrorist who has a French accent and practices euthanasia, claiming to be an American."

My nationalities were not the only thing that stunned the students. The students seemed to be appalled that I had a French accent. The teacher seemed especially taken aback. She thought I had a speech problem! She was so concerned that she got a school speech therapist to come and do some tests on me. After about half an hour of imitating different sounds, the therapist concluded that I had no problems with my speech. The teacher was not so convinced, and tried doing some tests herself.

After the day of hardship was finished, I ran to my barren, furniture-less room to pour out all of the news to my parents. I cried and begged to be sent back to Tunisia, where I was respected for who I was. My parents convinced me to give the school another chance. Although there was not much change in the students' attitude, I became less bothered by it. I was too proud to change my way of speaking or to denounce my other nationalities and experiences.

What happened in America would have happened in any of my three countries. I do not feel any more at home in France, Egypt or Armenia. I was lucky enough to travel and live in many countries. I would never trade this in for a home somewhere in the world. I still do not have a home, but maybe sometime in the future I will find a place which I can call home.

*the Egyptian who is blamed for blowing up the World Trade Center

Navine Mendes is a Canadian citizen of diverse descent. She is torn between worlds on a daily basis. The language at home is English, but she considers herself a "Desi". She wrote the following poem to describe the multitude of images she associates with home.

A Diverse Heritage

The overwhelming aroma of spices
The lingering taste of sweet rich maple
A cool swim in the Buriganga River,1
on a topical afternoon,
The victory celebration of the Raptors
on the streets downtown at dusk,
The sour yet tasty crunch of
a boroi2 between my teeth while
I impatiently wait for a rickshaw,
The gentle breeze on a late Saturday morning
holds my family together as
we enjoy crimson, sweet strawberries,
My Nana Mona's faint chants of Orpontgithi3
while she sits on a pati
with a rosary intertwined in her
delicate but powerful fingers,
My Granny's loud Irish laughter heard from miles
while she stands holding onto a pew of the new parish,
talking to her friends about
who fell asleep during mass,
Snuggled under a Nakshikantha4
my sister sleeps, oblivious to the buzz of mosquitoes
circling her head,
Caramel Correttos keep me warm
as I sit in the backyard of my townhouse
surrounded by fireflies
Their luminous tails provide just
enough light for me to see the
radiant faces of the ones I love,
My dads childhood stories of Ocharmat,5
My moms childhood stories of Armenia,
Places of diversity
Places where I'm from

1Ganges River
2Tropical light green fruit
3Christian Bengali hymn
4
Art done on cloth with thread
5
Village in Bangladesh

We welcome your comments, and we invite you to share your own experiences of international mobility through poetry, stories, or other prose.

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