The Four Words for Home

Excerpt

Prologue:

Six Syllables

In Kabul, we napped every afternoon, a two-hour siesta that made up for rising before dawn with the mosque loudspeaker’s first call to prayer. As with most things in Afghanistan, naps were easy to enter, difficult to get out of. The soft breathing of the women beside me kept time, as their headscarves lay neatly folded next to them and their black hair tumbled over their pillows. Late-afternoon light filtered through gauzy curtains. The slide into sleep was liquid, unknowable.

Waking was another matter. The women tried to rouse me gently: A soft nudge on the shoulder. My name, in Pashto-accented English, as if murmured through cotton batting. By then the nap never felt right, like I had gotten either too little or too much sleep. A dizzying chemical taste reminded me that I was on malaria pills. I always forgot where I was. Was I really in Afghanistan? Or at home?

Where was “home,” exactly?

It was 2004, about three years since I had first met the Shirzai family in Portland, Oregon, the Afghan immigrants who had brought me to stay with their relatives here in Kabul. My deepening relationship with them had been, in many ways, easy to get into – the outcome of my newspaper editor’s post-9/11 assignment to find a human face for Afghanistan. The Shirzais’s invitation to travel to their birthplace a couple years later was an affirmation of my evolving role: first, as journalist; then, as friend and confidante; and finally, as good as family.

Two days before I had left for Afghanistan, my mother had called me, in tears, to tell me she was divorcing my father. It was a final acknowledgement that my parents’ American Dream, which had begun in Taiwan decades ago, had buckled under the weight of my father’s undiagnosed mental illness. I was only too eager to do what I always had done when conflict arose in my own family – detach myself and run. This time, to another country, another family.

I felt safe and nurtured among the Shirzais’s female relatives in the family’s compound-style house. These women had treated me like a sister since the moment I had arrived. We cooked together, stayed up late talking, and laughed until we couldn’t catch our breath.

But outside the home’s walls, the city was hard on the senses and psyche, a swirl of dust, diesel residue, odors from the open sewers. Amputee landmine victims and dirt-caked, sickly children begged for bakhshesh; widows in filthy blue burqas silently extended hands out from under the veils. High school-aged boys, giddy with post-Taliban freedom, harassed women in the streets: Marry me, beautiful. Please marry me. Even the catcalls still had fundamentalist overtones. Being out and about felt dangerous; although the Shirzai family treated me as one of them, I was still an outsider here.

The disorientation of waking from Lariam-riddled naps, in a place that felt startlingly unfamiliar all over again, made me wonder what I was doing in Afghanistan, with the Shirzais. I wanted to be more than an interloper, more than an escapee from a fractured family. And why could I not, just once, wake from a nap and know where I was?

Then one day, I did.

It was a voice, not one of the women’s, that brought me out of sleep that afternoon. It was faraway, male, chant-like in cadence. It got louder, then softer, then louder again. He sang the same six syllables over and over again. What was he singing? Why had I not noticed this voice before?

I had forgotten to wonder where I was. It didn’t matter now. The women stirred, looked at me quizzically through sleepy eyes. Somewhere between quietly getting up, wrapping my headscarf around my head, finding my shoes in the pile outside the bedroom, tiptoeing across the courtyard, and cracking the courtyard door open to sneak a peek, the thought – Oh, right, I’m in Kabul – flickered across my consciousness. The voice grew louder. He was coming around the corner. In time with the chanting, cart wheels squeaked and strained. Something made a whipping sound, like sails in the wind.

Then, licks of blue, gold, fuchsia, and white teased the dusty sky and dun landscape like flames. And he was on our street. A pushcart full of fabrics – billowing from poles, folded in neat rows, nearly engulfing the wiry man behind it all.

Chador au chadori … Chador au chadori.

He was selling chador, headscarves, and chadori, burqas. On each corner of the cart, a post held a chadori, striated by dozens and dozens of tiny pleats, billowing in saffron, snow white, and dusky blue, the most commonly worn shade. The veils filled with hot Kabul air to assume the ambiguous forms of their future wearers. I studied the oval mesh face-screens at the tops of each one, as opaque and inscrutable as they were when actual women were behind them. The borders of the screens were embroidered with repeating floral patterns, works of delicate craftsmanship. Then the wind picked up, and the hanging ghost-women evaporated as the veils became flags, horizontal in the breeze.

Chador au chadori …”

The walnut-skinned man wore a white prayer cap. His baritone was languid, his R’s liquid, and the rising and falling notes of his tune so familiar. Had I heard him before, in my sleep? As he approached, I slipped behind the front door – a scarf and veil salesman surely would expect female modesty. But just after he passed, one more look.

Chador au chadori …”

As he disappeared from sight, the voice faded. I had heard the tune before. My grandparents lived in Taoyuan, a mid-sized city in Taiwan’s north. It was near my mother’s birthplace and the city where my father had grown up. I had visited this area intermittently since I was two years old. I had been born in San Francisco, but Taiwan, more than I realized at that time, was part of who I was: The damp, tropical air; the people who spoke Mandarin with accents like my parents’; and the bitter scents of Chinese greens and ferric waft from organ meats at the outdoor market.

For as long as I can remember, every morning in Taoyuan the same chant rang out over and over, carried by a tinny amplifier, often muffled by rainfall. The voice was female, and I can’t say if it belonged to the same woman for all those years. But the words and the tune were always the same:

Man to bau, man to bau . . . Man to bau, man to bau

The woman pushed a cart full of man to, steamed rolls, and bau, stuffed breads, around the perimeter of the outdoor market. Her deep voice rose and dipped, stretching out the round vowels. The chant faded and grew as she made her way around the neighborhood. I saw her once, in a conical straw hat and with a weathered face the color of weak Oolong tea. Her cart was packed with round, stacking stainless-steel containers full of those creamy white rolls, each as big as a fist. The steaming dough trailed milky-sweet clouds in her wake.

Man to bau, man to bau . . .

Chador au chadori …”

The six-syllable, rising-and-falling cadences of her cry and his chant were echoes of each other. Different languages, different products; same song, same notes. Was it just that these two countries, in their varying trajectories toward modernity, still had economies that supported chanting, cart-pushing street vendors? Perhaps.

But to me, those six syllables were about one thing: home. As my childhood home was divided by my parents’ impending divorce, I finally felt at home in Kabul. I could link the scarf-and-veil salesman’s chant with something familiar, something essential to who I was, to the family and culture that defined me. Taoyuan, Taiwan, was not my home, had never been, any more than Kabul, Afghanistan, was. I wouldn’t have called Portland, Oregon, home either, though I lived there at the time, and the San Francisco Bay Area might have been the closest, but I always had hesitated to claim it as my own.

In that moment of coinciding and connection, I could hear both street vendors so clearly in my head they could have both been just outside the door. In my remaining time in Kabul, I heard the scarf and veil salesman a few more times, always upon waking from my nap. Once, I peered out the front door to get another glimpse of him; the other times, I just languished, half asleep. I never again woke up feeling dislocated in Kabul.

I returned to the United States knowing I had to mine that connection – to know where Kabul and Taoyuan, Taiwan, the Shirzais and my own family, intersected. As the Shirzais themselves struggled to resolve dissonances between homeland and home, Afghanistan and America, I faced my own ragged edges, between being the daughter of immigrants and the inheritor of my Chinese family’s American journey. In telling these two stories, of the Shirzais and the Chuangs, I came to better understand Afghanistan, America, myself – and my own limitations as a storyteller, friend, and daughter.

I came to see that home was not a place on the map. It was a state of being, of connecting. I ultimately had to get as far away from home as I could in order to truly find it, reflected in a family who opened their lives, their hearts, and all of their homes – in America and Afghanistan – to me.