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“Chiya” in Chi-Town with Bhutanese Refugees

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“Kami” kindly declined my offer of Chai and syrupy Jalebi, a delightful Indian dessert. After I persisted she took a sip and her eyebrows quickly rose. “Good. How you know to make?” she questioned, in broken English. Together, we put away the henna ink and bottles, since she had just finished designing the hands and feet of ten American kids at an Indian-themed birthday party by Chai Town Tea. I drove her home that evening, the two of us struggling through her broken English to communicate. She had taken English in British schools and also studied through World Relief Chicago’s program, but her Nepali accent thickly muffled her pronounciation.

I learned about her family and the hardships they’ve had in this country as new refugees. Her parents had health problems that made it very difficult to get around town, especially without a car and through the harsh Chicago winter. Her brother’s meagerly income as an English tutor to Nepalese/Bhutanese-speaking children in school was barely sustaining her parents and siblings. She also shared some of the Hindu celebrations they had in their country and ways that tea had been a part of their lives. With a sweet, shy smile she told me that she doesn’t like to drink it. I asked to meet her family and she welcomed me to their home.

The building door opened and a bright-blue eyed, young man with cocoa-colored skin greeted me enthusiastically. As they guided me up the carpeted stairwell, my senses grew overwhelmed by the aged aroma of spices that had infiltrated the walls over time. Year after year, refugees flood into this northern neighborhood of Chicago, where they find themselves clinging to a sense of home knowing that at least one of their neighbors will be able to speak their language.

At the threshold of the apartment, rice sacks were neatly laid out for all to remove their shoes. Politely introduced to all the members of the family except one sibling who was out for the evening, the young man translated for me. Their mother was a slight, dark woman. Her hair pulled back in a ponytail, she wore a t-shirt with a long sari cloth wrapped around her. She offered an apology, “Sorry, no Englis’.” To which I immediately replied, “Sorry, no Nepali!” In relieving laughter, we awkwardly approached one another, not knowing the correct way to greet. I leaned in to kiss her on one cheek, which seemed South-Asian appropriate, when she grabbed a hold of me. She held on longer than I expected and then offered me a seat. I was ushered to a low couch in a living room with a mattress in the corner and another couch facing me. There was one bedroom and one bathroom with six family members living together; all adults.

When the father entered the room, I forgot I was in Chicago and wondered how they had transported us to the Himalayas. A broad, toothless grin filled his face, compressing the deep wrinkles up into his tired, smiling eyes. Barefooted, with a simple, short, white cloth around his waist and a plain shirt, his small frame was topped with a turban that wound its way around his head. We shook hands and he planted himself with thin, dark legs crossed, on the corner of the mattress.

I begged for their story. Over 18 years before, they left Bhutan due to political distress. Bhutanese refugees in Nepal were at a peak in 1992, the same year that this family arrived there. In Nepal, they struggled to make a living. Kami’s mother was a tea harvester in Nepal. Kami remembered going to the garden as a child. The hours were long and the pay was insufficient for their family’s needs. Her father was already in poor health and could not find employment. They had no access to health care and other social hardships. After 18 years of struggling as refugees in Nepal, they were given rights to enter the U.S. and World Relief Chicago helped them get settled with furniture and language tutoring, but they continue their struggle. Her brother remarked that they moved here with high hopes only to find themselves in a neighborhood concentrated with crime. At least their extended family and Nepali friends live in the surrounding buildings, providing them a vital cultural anchor in the midst of severe culture shock.

The youngest sister came out with a rich, sweet cup of steaming chai. I asked to see the tea leaves used to make it. She brought a yogurt container filled with tea out of the kitchen. Immediately recognizing the tiny pellets of dark black tea, I commented “CTC” (Cut-Tear-Crush). They echoed me and nodded with excitement that “CTC” was the same terminology in America as it was in Nepal, something they knew a lot about, it seemed. I wished I could speak Nepali or Bhutanese.

As I drove home that night, I was deeply moved. The $100 she received for henna tatooing was 1/6 of what her brother would make for the month. I had read about a Nepalese tea garden where the workers protested the owner and took over the administrative offices. It was surreal to meet a woman who endured the working conditions that direct and fair trade tea purveyors hope to change.

This week, one of our favorite suppliers announced that they have a new relationship with a Nepalese garden that is intentionally giving women opportunities to grow in the business. This news was so refreshing. You can read more here: http://www.nepalitimes.com.np/issue/2011/01/28/Nation/17890

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