Tales from abroad: Doha
Think about the sound a slab of marble makes when it slaps a stone floor; the thud of a granite rock falling onto concrete; the boom a second after lightning strikes 1,000 feet away. Now think not of the sound, but of the feeling it gives you: the jolt under the breastbone; the tingling in your fingers and toes; the shaking under your ribs, your body resonating to the deep thrum of an impact. The flat crash of marble against stone, the dry crack of granite on concrete, and the slamming of close thunder are not sounds, but vibrations. When they pass away, my molecules will never align in quite the same way again because of their passage. I feel internally changed by them. This is the feel of culture shock.
The feeling of culture shock is not related to the shock I feel when I jerk back upon touching a live wire. Culture shock is not my disorienting realization that I haven’t been threatened by a cloud in a week and that I am the one who needs to learn the language and dress differently. It is my internal experience of massive change: I am changing in how I see the world. To me, culture shock is the sneaking suspicion that I will never be the same because of what I now know. The sound of thunder is not it rolling around me, but rolling through me.
Hospice for a budgie
I was happily ensconced in my first day after the end of classes, 30 hours before I left Doha, watching a Supernatural marathon, when I got a phone call from a friend: “I need your advice. I found a bird on the grass, and I think its wing is broken, and I was wondering what you thought we should do.” By the word “grass” I was out the door of my room, shuffling my shoes off my shoe-rack and across the white tile floor, throwing together a bird rescue kit, cell phone pressed to my shoulder. I collected a terrycloth, an apron, the birds’ nest I had found on the lawn during finals, and my wallet, keys, and cell phone. I found the cluster of Carnegie Mellon women in the lee of our building, crouching around a cardboard box.
They were trying feed to cooked rice to a fluffy white bird with smudges of blue on his crest. I reached into his box, having checked him superficially for sores or parasites that could make me sick. I checked his eyes and vents and feet, cradling him loosely. When a sudden gust of wind ripped over us, he straightened his whole tiny body in my palm, leaned into the wind, and flapped up. We froze, watched him, and scrambled up as a group. I shucked my floppy shoes and bolted barefoot over the pink sandstone courtyard.
He swerved like a white paper airplane, larger in flight than on the ground. He tried to land on a palm tree in a rose bed, bounced off, and landed in the bushes. I waded in, my diaphanous mid-length skirt clenched in a fist. I saw his white body dangling from two toes on the bottom branch of a thorn bush.
Because we are Carnegie Mellon women, once we got the now safely boxed bird into the Carnegie Mellon-Qatar building, we found a computer to do research. He was a white budgie; his blue highlights probably came from the dyes traders use to turn drab parrots colorful in the souq here. We had a decision to make: We knew that most rescued birds will die. My job, as a person who could do so, was to give it a place where it could die in peace, unpursued by cats and unbaked by the merciless Doha sun. We divvied up the jobs — I would take him for the night; another woman would buy budgie food; another would take him the nest day if he survived.
We decided to name him, to give him a personality to come home to if he made it back from halfway to bird heaven. After some more computer time, we settled on Thanh, which means “color of the sky” in Vietnamese. It has been overcast in Doha this week, the sky a constant smudgy white with streaks of blue. It reminded us of him.
I spent my last night in Doha doing hospice care for a budgie, because in my family, we take care of stray things. I remember a dove my mom and brother and I watched smash into a bank building’s window months after the divorce when we were quite small. No one, in Qatar or the U.S., is willing to take an injured bird; no shelter, no agency. They have no value to anyone in charge. But, even with two of us in tow, Mom found a box for the injured dove and kept it in her room until it died of its injuries. Sitting on my couch, I peeked at Thanh twice an hour, checking his bedding for spilled water or a lack of seeds. I felt connected lines running through me, from my childhood and to the home I was scheduled to leave, return ticket unbought but yearned for.
Thanh died at about 12:30 a.m. that morning. I waited an hour to be sure, then snuck him outside and buried him under a fragrant flowering bush in the garden between the women’s and men’s dorms. I am never sure where my burial rituals come from, but I wound him in white tissues and brightly-colored sewing thread. RIP Thanh.