Keenan and I are eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kathmandu, Nepal. We are on a roving exchange programme together, exploring human rights across different contexts.
But right now, we are eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kathmandu.
The chicken pieces are far smaller than we are used to, him used to the large chicken tenders of Gambier, Ohio, me used to the swollen drumsticks of Singapore. Nepal’s relationship with meat is more sustainable than our worlds, knowing the value and energy required for rearing animals for culling and consumption.
The spices taste different. There is a harsher tone to them, an overly salty tinge. The wings are red, not the usual tan of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Singapore. The coleslaw is the same.
We are a group of thirty college students in this moving program, studying comparative human rights across the globe. Nepal is our second stop; our first was New York, our next will be Jordan and we will end in Chile.
In New York, we were lectured on the follies of nationalism and gentrification, then returned to the pastel-colored walls of our hostel in Brooklyn. The exterior was covered with a floral, jovial mural, with hardly a smudge. Part of the wall was adorned with a decorative sheet of corrugated metal, with a kaleidoscopic pinwheel painted onto its ridges. A girl from Brooklyn in the group refused to sleep in the hostel, frustrated by our participation in her neighborhood’s unwanted transformation.
I had flown the farthest, coming from Singapore, but Andrea from Hong Kong was a close second. I tried to connect with her over our shared distance, but throughout New York, she remained feverish, jet-lagged, reluctant to make conversation.
A hint of a rift already starts to show in New York along racial lines, extrapolating into political ones. One of the three white men on the course complained to Keenan and me that he could not tell the difference between two of the students. He waited for us to laugh. Neither of us did, Keenan unamused by his bigotry, myself confused why he joked with me, brown like the students he mocked.
Nepal is the first place where I forget my skin. Every other place I have been, I have been made acutely aware of my difference. I have grown accustomed to people clutching their bags tighter, checking their pockets, being taken aside for airport security. In Kathmandu, in the filter of dust, a dust that looks like turmeric against the black of my boots, I disappear.
In Nepal, we stay in pairs with different families. Some students struggle with the language barrier; others with the food. Like many of the others, I live with vegetarians. Dinner is usually white rice, daal, pickled vegetables; breakfast the same but with a boiled egg, a warm cup of milk, the thick membrane of dairy that coagulates atop the milk, mixed into the white rice. Keenan lives with a chef, Taral, who cooks him momos, Nepalese dumplings, his first night in Kathmandu. The next morning, he gushes about the flavor, and how lucky he feels not being compelled into vegetarianism.
Early on in Kathmandu, the group has a conversation about our imposition. We agree we need to put an end to ‘The Blob’. Whenever we are in transit or awaiting instruction, we cling to one another, forming an impassable human shield, blocking sidewalks, crosswalks, roads. The Blob still recurs, but inevitably, someone in the group will shout, “Don’t blob!” and we disperse.
Another debate starts about picture-taking; whether one student should take all the pictures and share them with everyone, whether the extent of our invasion would be lessened if only one camera was clicking. There are deeper questions on the ethics of photography: is it right for us to shoot landscapes as if we own them, to photograph people who will become neat stories in our memory cards? Some people vehemently disagree; they are the first person in their family to have left the United States, the first passport within the family, the only member of their family that can leave without risk of deportation. They are here as avatars, to allow their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles to live vicariously through them and their photographs.
On the second day in Kathmandu, I go with a group to a supermarket. One student exclaims loudly.
“They have Kit-Kats here!”
The others rush over to see that, yes, indeed, Nestle has a foothold in Nepal, much like it has in the rest of the world. While it pilfers water from Nigeria, Nestle generously sells milk chocolate wafers in Kathmandu.
It irks me to see the other students in such wonder. They have come halfway across the world to be in awe of a chocolate bar that paved the way before them. I wonder what they will think of my city, whether they will see it as a contradiction of the Global South. But I remind myself: travel is a privilege.
Before leaving Singapore for New York, I renewed my passport. The Singapore government decommissioned my expired passport, a single hole punched through the corner, piercing through visas, stamps, records of entry from Egypt, Russia, France, Malaysia, the UK, Croatia, and Singapore.
When I was little, travel meant sitting still on a long flight, the AA batteries for my Gameboy Advance slowly depleting, to arrive in a place I am told is home. A bi-annual seventeen-hour transit, from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, through Frankfurt Airport, into Singapore’s Changi Airport, greeted by a dank waft of air that rushed through the airport’s sliding doors. Travel was normal. All of my friends in the Anglo-American School of Moscow flew to their ski resorts, their island paradises, and occasionally, their homes. And inevitably, everyone flew away. My best friends swapped in and out, as their parents were posted to somewhere else in the world. Nothing unusual. Travel was hardly unusual. Travel happened.
On our third day in Kathmandu, we are given a crash course on Nepali. We learn how to say hello, thank you, please. I scribble into my notebook, telling myself I will etch these phrases into my brain over the next month. Crumbs of dark chocolate Australian Tim Tams, which Andrea and I agree are far superior to American Kit-Kats, smudge the blue lines of my pen. My host family tries to teach me more, and though I study my notebook each night, nothing more than ‘please’, ‘thank you’, or ‘excuse me’ have any sticking power.
When leaving a restaurant, I hold the door open for another student. Without looking at me, she says, “dhanyabaad”. “Thank you”. She turns back and realizes that I am not a waiter but her classmate. She apologizes profusely, hoping I am not offended to be seen as one of the locals, the natives.
I am constantly mistaken for Nepali by the Nepalese. The locals will look to me to translate my fellow students’ questions, and I will murmur “Hajur”. “Excuse me”. They hear the intonation of my voice and realize I am not from here.
There is seldom a chance to be alone, our days packed with NGOs and lawyers and professors and activists, hoping we will do more than extract their knowledge. When we aren’t in meetings, the Blob reforms at bars, restaurants, cafes, craving familiarity over reckoning with difference.
When I grow tired of hearing about how unlike the United States Nepal is, I go for a haircut. In one month, I go for three haircuts, each time to a different barber. There are barbers everywhere in Kathmandu, young men with salons below their families’ apartments, indicated by the swirling red and blue barber’s lights. In ten minutes, they shave my sides, trim the top, neaten the fringe, without me saying a word. They know my hair; it is like their own.
At the end of each haircut is a short massage. One barber asks me to rest my head on the counter and drives his fingers into my shoulders. Then he takes a hold of my neck and exhales deeply. He twists his wrists and my neck cracks. It is a deep, satisfying quake. It releases the tension in my spine, a tightness that developed over the months. It costs three dollars, and each of them is the best haircut I’ve had in my life. Dhanyabaad, I say as I walk out.
We move out of Kathmandu to head to the Terai valley, which borders India. In the last thirty minutes of our eight-hour drive through mountains and cliffside roads with no barriers, our bus driver takes a wrong turn. Keenan, verging on motion sickness, checks his GPS to see whether our driver is going the right way. He declares to a mostly sleeping bus: the people on the back of the bus have crossed the border. Half our bus is in India, the other half across that soft line is in Nepal.
While in Terai, we meet a group of citizen-less men, men whose families have been in Nepal for generations. Their great-grandparents shifted through the map’s lines and resettled. But they did so without documentation: why would you need documentation to move into your backyard? All of the men have been without paperwork their entire lives. They are blocked from jobs, from education, and unable to vote. They are refused at all citizenry offices, despite having known nothing other than Nepal their entire lives.
My great-grandfather moved to the Malaysian peninsula to work on a railroad. The railroad connected Singapore and Malaysia when they were still a single colony. The distance that the train ran was the same as Portland to Seattle, Berlin to Hamburg, New York City to Baltimore. The train station has been shut down; the line no longer operating. The border that the train crossed hardened. How many rode along those tracks without papers? When did my great-grandfather become an official resident? What would I be if he was never recognized?
The questions in my head are interrupted by our translator announcing we have time for one last question.
Someone in our group asks the citizenless men, “What can we do for you?” The question is meant to be an offer of kindness, but it is also laced with the sting of reality. The “can” for us is small: we are students, we are foreigners, we are not from here. One of the men answers in Nepali, his words flowing from him – an uninterrupted river. Another translates. You can tell our story.
We leave the men and take our bus back towards Kathmandu. In less than a week, we are boarding at Kathmandu airport to fly through Dubai and arrive in Amman. We are only halfway through the semester.
Travel is a luxury.
Our makeshift classroom in Amman is surrounded by a bevy of incredible food options. Kebabs, falafel, pita, shawarma. The group is ecstatic; some tired of the imposed vegetarianism of Nepal.
Keenan and I stay with an older couple in Jordan. Over time, we realize we are the only students staying with a non-Muslim family in Amman. We struggle to place their identity, each week discovering new clues, clues like their love of Utah, their souvenirs from Salt Lake City, and the diplomas for their daughters from Brigham Young University. I don’t put it together; Keenan has to tell me that we’re living with Mormons.
Our host mother leaves feta cheese, pita bread, za’atar, olive oil, and salami on the table every morning. She teaches us to dip the pita into the olive oil and then into the za’atar, letting the glaze catch the spices before sliding in some feta and salami into the pita’s crevice. The za’atar is a mixture of contradictions; it is nutty, woody, tangy, and spicy all at once. Keenan gets sick of what he calls ‘pepperoni’, but never stops eating the za’atar.
On our first taxi ride to our temporary home, Keenan and I see a Kentucky Fried Chicken just a short distance away. We decide. We will have Kentucky Fried Chicken in every country.
Neither of us has been to Kentucky. Keenan has lived his entire life in Ohio. He is a first-generation college student and, as my classmates say, ‘one of the good white boys’. He is sensitive to the racial dynamics of the group, much more sensitive than the other two white boys, one of whom presents as a proselytizing missionary, the other a pseudo-military contractor, convinced he possesses the solution to the occupied territories of Palestine. Keenan has no such pretenses; he is aware of how little he knows, and how little he will still know by the end of this experience. Keenan and I talk about ignorant we remain about Nepal even after our month there, how unfamiliar we are with some of the people in our group even. We are all a blend of tourist and student, classmate and friend, expat and foreigner, American and international.
We order the chicken tenders from Amman’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, hesitant after the tiny boned wings of Kathmandu. The beige of the batter rings familiar. But they only have ketchup. They do not have Singapore’s chilli sauce, a tangy, sweet, gooey mixture that probably has never seen a chilli seed in its life cycle. It is a sharp orange, unlike deep red ketchup. It is the missing ingredient in Jordan’s Kentucky Fried Chicken. The coleslaw is the same.
We often studied at that Kentucky Fried Chicken, as our home has no internet. During our first week, we wandered out of our home towards what Google said was the nearest mall, to buy a portable Wi-Fi hotspot. Quickly, we understood why our faculty told us Amman is not a walking city and why we were given money for taxis or Ubers. We were beside the highway, wondering at what point we give up, as cars burst by. The sunset tinged peach, then orange, over the horizon, thousands of short houses in view from the expressway.
We finally reached the mall after walking down a steep exit ramp. It was glassy, chic, modern. But the store didn’t have what we were looking for; their services are catered towards new homeowners and we were not looking for a two-year plan with home installation.
We left the store, defeated, stubbornly committing to our walk back. As we braced ourselves for the walk back, we were approached by a woman. She’s U.S. Navy. She heard our accents and was delighted to see some Americans. She talked at us for thirty minutes as we walked back up the slope towards our home, unbothered by the rushing cars. I cannot remember a thing she said. I only remember the coldness of our walk after the American sailor had peeled away, Keenan and I quiet after the surprise encounter. Perhaps we were silently reflecting on the American military’s destructive role in the Middle East. Perhaps it was the fragility of male vulnerability after Keenan tells me he has developed feelings for a woman in the course. Perhaps it was my shocked shame, realizing I didn’t even try to correct the Navy woman, to tell her I am not an American.
Keenan and I often stay at the KFC late, occasionally moving to the Starbucks next door. During the twenty-minute walk back, we talk about our research, what we hope to learn in Jordan and Chile, what we regret from Nepal. Keenan tells me one day during our sunset walk that Taral barely fed him in Kathmandu. After the first night of momos, Taral served him a bowl of white rice and, from time to time, an egg. Taral gave Keenan his bed while he slept on the couch, his aging, dementia-addled mother in the only furnished room. She would stumble out of bed long before sunrise, occasionally shouting at Taral about things Keenan could not understand. Keenan says he didn’t want to complain to me or anyone else. If Taral had to go through it, it was the least he could do, suffer silently. Every family we stayed with was given a weekly allowance to cover our room and board. Some families went beyond, taking students on weekend excursions, to meals of their choosing. Some families could barely afford to host a student at all.
Sometimes, I eat dinner alone at the Mormons whenever Keenan joins the others at a wine bar in the Boulevard, one of Amman’s premier shopping establishments. Whenever anyone suggests Uber-ing to the Boulevard after class, responses vary between enthusiastic and accusatory, starting conversations about integration, escapism, privilege. I avoid their debates by stating that I don’t drink.
In Jordan, there are no barbers. So when the friction within me grows, I go to the movies. I watch five movies, bouncing between our classroom and the nearby cinema for movies I never would have watched at home. I watch ‘Tomb Raider’, ‘Pacific Rim: Rising’ ‘A Quiet Place’, ‘Game Night’, ‘Ready Player One’. I draw the line on ‘Sherlock Gnomes’, though I still see the trailer five times. In Singapore, I went to the movies alone. But here, Andrea also needs the break from the group, both of us increasingly uncomfortable with our own Americanization.
The cinema is like every other cinema in Singapore; only the pre-show ads are in Arabic. They don’t have the mid-show intermission like the cinemas of Nepal.
Travel is a luxury. We sit in an empty theatre and watch the screen flash.
Sometimes, we meet marginalized people, vulnerable communities who don’t want to be swarmed by thirty Americans. So we split into three groups one day, each group meeting a different set of refugees, migrants, lost families, spread out across Amman. I am sitting with an Iraqi family in the community center where they hold their weekly meetings. All of them are not allowed to work full-time as per their refugee status. They have been living in Jordan since the first Gulf War and have had to subsist on meager part-time wages to feed their parents and children. For over a decade, the United Nations has told them that a permanent home would be found soon. But they think the United Nations, Jordan, the world, are all merely waiting for them to die. A student asks the same question.
“What can we do?”
They ask us to tell their story. If we know anyone connected to any state department, to let them know. They just want to work. They just want to live.
Our next flight is meant to take us through Paris before we change flights to Santiago. But the week before, workers at Charles De Gaulle Airport announced a strike. Air France employees are walking out on the day of our flight.
Two days before we are meant to leave, there is a message in the group chat.
We are not flying to Paris. We are waiting, three more days in Jordan without an itinerary, before we fly to Rome.
Some students are annoyed, drained by the conservative standards imposed by our Jordanian hosts coupled with daily catcalling. Others are eager to go to a country that speaks their language.
One of my classmates cries. Her mother was going to meet her in Paris.
Our semester was spent discussing human rights, labor practices, injustice. Not once does anyone express solidarity with the Air France workers, who protested because their annual pay was increased by 1%, below the rate of inflation, as the company reaped an increase in profits of 41.8%. Falling asleep in our shared room, I say to Keenan, “I’m kind of glad we aren’t flying to Paris. I needed the break”. Only now, three years later, does it occur to me to look up why the workers organized.
Santiago does not welcome me warmly. The dominance of English in the rest of the world has forced the average Kathmandu or Amman resident to understand some English if they want to interact with tourists, expats, or the unlikely student. Chile has a different colonial imposition: Spanish. And Spanish, with its global ubiquity, does not need English.
Chileans look at me, irritated that I can’t respond to their questions.
Chile is a blur. Our coordinators are overwhelmed by their meticulously planned schedule being shaved by almost a week with our travel delay. They shift around classes, re-coordinate bus timings, to salvage the time we have.
On our first free day, Andrea and I stumble into Cero Santa Lucia, or Santa Lucia Hill, in Santiago’s city center. It is a park built on high ground, overlooking the entire city. It is an old structure, atop the remnants of a volcano that the conquistadors used as a lookout spot.
Near its end, there is a fountain with Neptune holding a great trident, as the water splashes around him in a great arc. Barely a week earlier, Andrea, Keenan, and I were standing before Oceanus in Rome’s Trevi Fountain, his chariot heralded by two stone horses.
Our twenty-hour layover in Paris was hastily transformed into twelve hours in Rome. We were drenched by a torrent of rain, pouring down nonstop for all twelve hours. We looked at Trevi fountain, overflowing as a stream shot upwards, that stream lost in the downpour of rain. My fingers pruned, trying to grip onto our umbrella, useless under the weight of the water.
Keenan, Andrea, and I wanted two things: pizza and pasta. It was hours before our first meal. Every place was either full, already stuffed with damp tourists, or refused us entry, not wanting to sop up the puddles of water we would leave behind.
When I visit Keenan in DC three years later, he tells me he is considering applying for EU citizenship, tracing his Italian roots. He studies Italian and has connected with his recalcitrant father over their heritage. He plans to take his girlfriend to Rome after he graduates from law school, and hopefully see the fountain as it is meant to be seen, not as some portend of a flooding apocalypse.
Travel is a luxury because coincidence becomes consumed by meaning.
Though we were meant to settle in Santiago for two weeks, our delayed arrival forced us to relocate within days of arrival to Curarrehue, to stay with farmers, indigenous folk who tend to their own land. I never pronounced it right, and still struggle to spell it correctly. The indigenous people we stay with are Mapuche, people who have lived on Chilean land since 600 BCE, before they were raided by Spanish conquistadors and later, the Chilean military, both eager to poach their land for profit.
Keenan and I stay at the same farm, with two of his friends, one of them being Lea, who Keenan has flirted with since Nepal. One night, they get drunk and stumble into gossip. Lea declares Keenan has a crush on Andrea, something I didn’t realize I also had until that moment. The next morning, the three of them, hungover, ask what they talked about, and I tell them I don’t remember either.
The next day, we are gathered in a shed, heated by a central fire, speaking to Mapuche organizers. They tell us how they have been villainized over the years, the state media presenting them as radical terrorists, when in truth, they are the owners of the land. They have debased signs, sabotaged pipelines, stalled constructions, as contractors attempt to steal the land from beneath their feet, in a sale that never consulted them. Unlike the men in Terai or the family in Jordan, they do not want us to tell their story. Their story already exists. But it is a collection of falsehoods. They ask us to correct the narrative. They have tried the courts, the laws, the institutions, and are blocked at every turn. Violence was not their choice. It was forced upon them as the only way to protect centuries of their culture.
We stop in another hostel before returning to Santiago. Unable to fall asleep, I text Andrea, asking if Keenan has said anything to her. She says no.
Keenan and I have our last bout of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Santiago. It has been tense between us, or rather, tense within me. I swallow my chicken sandwich almost instantly, barely tasting its flavors. I ask him if he has feelings for Andrea. He says yes. I nod. I think about telling him about how I feel. I don’t. The coleslaw tastes the same. We leave.
The rush of Santiago leaves me with barely any time to escape. During the one free afternoon, I go to an internet café and play video games, call my friend in Singapore. Andrea leans on the chair behind me, confused by my bursts of laughter, as my drunken friend stumbles through games and sentences.
When our program nears its end, I am convinced I will never see any of these people again. Keenan says he will visit Singapore, but when he checks the cost of a ticket, his eyes darken. “Maybe in a couple of years.” It reminds me of leaving Moscow when I was thirteen. All my friends convinced we would be our little tribe of nerds forever. Today, I don’t know what countries most of them are in.
A friend who did the program the year before said she struggled to stay connected with her cohort after departure. Distance and the resumption of normalcy stood between them. At the end of her semester, her professor forbade the students from saying goodbye. Goodbyes were a privilege not accorded to many they had met over the semester, forced to evacuate before they could say farewell. Travel is a luxury for the students and not a necessity.
As the time on our last week in Santiago ticks down, I tell myself that if I cut the ties quickly, the pain goes away faster. The only person I know I will see again is Andrea. We have planned a trip for me to visit her in Hong Kong.
We leave our Santiago hostel in two waves. Keenan is in the second wave. Andrea and I are in the first wave. I hug Keenan, slapping his back as men do, and say we will see each other soon. While I say goodbye to the others, I can’t help but watch Keenan and Andrea’s farewell, to see if there is a whispered word, a shared secret. There is nothing.
Andrea and I are both on a flight to Austin; she going to Boston, I on my way back to Singapore. We wait until the last minute to board our flights, clutching each other tightly, our words ignoring the space between our bodies.
I saw Andrea in Hong Kong three months later. We went on a long hike up a hill, looking out at Kowloon, like we gazed down on Santiago from Cero Santa Lucia. We ate at a dim-sum restaurant, unencumbered by the budgets imposed on us throughout our prior semester. We kissed for the first time on a loft bed, neon peeking through a high window, before pulling back almost immediately.
It soured our friendship, which became bound by miscommunication and jealousy. After four months of calling almost every day, we stopped speaking completely after I stumbled over how to tell her I’ve started seeing someone.
Keenan called me intermittently in the year after, often very drunk. I was shocked by how close we remained, despite his inebriation and the distance. Each call, I thought of telling him about Andrea. In the end, he brought it up. He texted me out of the blue. He had feelings for Andrea, but he didn’t know what to do with them. After he and his girlfriend broke up via phone call in Nepal, he looked for comfort in Andrea. But, those feelings displaced into feelings for Lea, who he had already told about Andrea. Lea latched onto it and held it as truth.
I told him about Hong Kong. I apologized for keeping it from him. He told me I didn’t do anything wrong. He asked me how Andrea and I are doing. I told him we’ve stopped talking.
Two years later, I’m flying to DC to stay with Keenan for a weekend. Like two old men who had been to war, we sat outside an Italian bakery, where the baker knows his name, and reminisced. We asked each who we still talk to, if the other could remember who started the argument about reparations, about the time Keenan was stopped by security after sneaking under a fence in Amman, the way our beards, unruly and haggard, grew over the months, the time a spider crawled on his crotch in Curarrehue, and I smacked it full force with my slipper. We talked about how the four months were so full, we will spend years remembering things we have forgotten, each day dense with experiences we are likely never to have again. He asked if I would ever try writing about our time abroad. I told him I wouldn’t even know where to begin, how to do justice to the people who shared their homes, their traumas, their lives with us. How so many of my memories are obscured by the conflicts and dramas of the Blob, imposed over a rotating backdrop of injustice. How to remember what really happened, what we heard, and what I rewrote, with my imperfect memory. How I still feel guilty over the ways we came and left, travel treated as humdrum rather than pivotal. How difficult it would be to honour the stories shared with us, the families we lived with, the people we met, as foreigners who spent no more than four weeks, often less, in their kitchens.
We sat there, he and I talking, him now a vegetarian, eating his pesto panini, oil dripping onto his plate, and me holding a chicken parmesan together, the layer of cheese crumbling beneath my fingertips as the bread breaks apart with each bite.
Photo by Palash Jain on Unsplash