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September 2009 – Southwest England
“Miss Devvie Nathan?”
Mrs. Williams, a lady in her late 30s with a big chin and a scarf at all hours, is starting her Geography class with a register. I try and guide her phonetically, but she just repeats what she said and moves on. Yeah, they weren’t perfect in Toronto either, but at least they tried to say Devananthan properly there. It wasn’t an uncommon name. I think there were a few Devananthans from a few blocks away; one too many massacred pronunciations and it would have been the teacher ending up in the principal’s office.
To be fair most of my classes back in Canada were full of ethnic kids. Scarborough is Toronto’s Immigrant Central. It was entirely normal for me to hang out with the Chois from Canmore Boulevard one day, the Ekes from Euclid Avenue the next, and the Aslams from Devonbridge Crescent the day after that. And this isn’t even including the vast number of Suntharalingams, Sebastianpillais, Kumars, Amirtharajas, Koneswarans…There are more Tamils in Toronto than anywhere outside of Sri Lanka. There’s a reason they call Scarborough Little Jaffna.
Mrs. Williams starts talking about weather patterns, the differences between low- and high-pressure systems. She talks to us about the seasonal shift of warm air from the Indian Ocean to the peaks of the Himalayas, where it condenses and forms the deluge of the monsoon. She talks about tropical cyclones and their naming institutions, the ecological and economic impacts of flooding on low-lying places like Bangladesh. I just get on and make notes, but whenever she mentions these places, there are one or two heads in the class that point in my direction. The vibe is very different here. Kids aren’t as raucous; you can actually hear the scribbling of each pen. I always thought the people making that noise were so obnoxious back in the day, but in a way, I kinda miss it. The noise is a welcome distraction from curious eyes – eyes that clock me as the only brown girl in my entire year group.
“How are you finding things Miss Devvie Nathan?”
She calls me up at the end of the class to talk. The other girls slowly file out, some of them writing up their homework and packing things away. I’ll admit there’s been a bit of an adjustment period. It took a while after our move to actually settle in and find a school, but with these being my first few days in an English school, I haven’t really gotten to know many of the locals yet. I appreciate then that it occurred to Mrs. Williams to ask after me. Even if she can’t say my name for shit.
You can call me Gaia,” I say. At least that name is not easily manhandled.
“Okay. Well, Gaia,” she says, sitting on the edge of her desk like she’s expecting a visitor right about now. “What did you think of the lesson? I hope I’m not repeating anything you already know.”
“Oh no,” I say, “this is all pretty new. I think we talked about how hurricanes and stuff formed, but we never really talked about the impact on people so much. This is all good, thanks.”
“That’s the thing about Geography,” Mrs. Williams says. She seems to like the sound of her own voice, so I let her talk. Our new place is only a few blocks around the corner. Blocks? I mean roads…Either way, I can spare a few minutes, especially if it makes life easier for the exam at the end of the year. “It’s more than just colouring in like the scientists say it is. You get access to faraway places, different cultures and landscapes, and all from the comfort of your own seat. The learning never ends, even for us teachers. I think my favourite part from this curriculum was learning about the Bangladeshi carabao markets…Who knew there were so many types.”
Carabao…The way she says it makes it sound like caribou. Very different animals, those. Caribou are reindeer, carabao are water buffalo. I see pronunciation is a running theme with her.
“Oh cool, we get those in Sri Lanka. We don’t call them that, though. We call them erumai.”
“Sri Lanka of course!” she says, as if I’ve suddenly slapped a reminder into her. “The Tamil Tigers really roughed up the place…Hope the war’s end means we can all go back and visit. I’ve always wanted to put a turtle back in the sea, apparently you get sanctuaries all along the beaches. What do you think of all that?”
She says this with a genuine sense of jolliness, not even making proper eye contact. I realise she made her own connections the minute she saw my name on the register. My tongue ties.
“…Um…,” I reply. I sneak a look over my shoulder. Where’s the door? Oh, thank God, three steps. I move one step back. “I mean I’ve never been there myself, but the turtles do seem nice? I’d like to see leatherbacks, too, one day.”
She then turns to me with her hawkish green eyes, looks at me much longer this time. I smile like you do in those awkward cartoon moments, try and distract from the giant, sweating elephant that now sits in the room. This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. Just before we left Canada, when the war was crashing to a close, people would whisper in class behind my back. Assume. Couldn’t even go out and get a smoothie without someone making a comment, looking at me through the sides of their eyes. Asylum laws that provided Tamil people with an escape were only so meaningful when the government proscribed the LTTE as a terrorist group in 2006. Despite our presence as shop owners, doctors, nurses, friends, the only time the media ever mentioned the word Tamil was in the context of the Tigers. In one fell swoop, an entire people got boxed into the very corner they had once sought as sanctuary.
As an acid bubble wells in my stomach, I realise it’s happening here, too.
“Right, well,” she says, slapping the table. “Bucket lists for both of us then. See you next week, Miss Devvie Nathan.”
I cannot get out of there fast enough.