It is a hot summer day downtown and i am sitting on the steps of a building on Main Street, waiting for a TANK bus to take me home to Northern Kentucky. If I were in Jakarta, the city where I grew up in Indonesia, a security guard would probably shoo me away. I am glad that no one has asked me to leave; it has been a tiring day. This is my first trip downtown by myself. There is a car in my driveway, the keys are on the counter, but I am not ready yet.
Just a few months ago I moved to Cincinnati from Jakarta to join my American husband. Being here as a resident feels so different from the time I spent here as a visitor: I am no longer seeing this place as an outsider. I like to describe it as being reborn, planting my feet in a different culture, breathing in a new climate. Getting to know this new place and making friends are at the top of my plans but living in a suburb and not driving makes this difficult. It seems that everybody must have a car to get around. Inefficient, to my way of thinking, but that is how it works here. I have become dependent on my husband for transportation as I still need to learn to drive on the “wrong” side of the road. Being dependent makes me crazy. Or at least it does until I figure out the TANK bus schedule.
On my route in Independence, the buses run only in the morning and afternoon, taking people to work and bringing them home. It means that if I go downtown in the morning, I must wait until 4 o’clock in the afternoon to return home. I do not mind waiting; the idea of taking the bus sounds good to me. So I have decided to go to the library in Clifton. Why the library? Because libraries in Cincinnati are more than just buildings filled with books. There are programs for people to develop their skills and indulge their hobbies; there is even a program for immigrants to practice their English. Working on my English with people like me—people who are trying to fit in—sounds like a good idea.
The group meets at 1 o’clock every Thursday. If I take the last morning bus I will arrive four hours early. But I have a better idea. My husband doesn’t start work till noon, so he can deliver me there in the morning. This still leaves me with an hour and a half to kill in Clifton, so I sit down on a bench in a tiny park by the street. I like this neighborhood. People pass by on the sidewalk, interesting people of all different colors. Restaurants serve food from Italy, Mexico, India, and China. There is even a store named Toko Baru, which means “new store” in my native language. I wander in, look at some fashion accessories, and learn from the clerk that the owner sometimes visits Indonesia.
But there is something else that reminds me of home. I see a lot of poor people in this neighborhood. Some just walk around, while others hold cardboard signs asking for people’s generosity. There are millions of poor people in Indonesia, but in America I don’t expect to see a man sitting by the street begging for food. It makes me sad.
Finally the library opens. The lady at the front desk tells me that the discussion leader won’t be here today. She suggests I wait for the others and see if we can have a conversation by ourselves.
There is a small, round table reserved for us in the area between the bathroom and the children’s section. A waist-high partition gives us a little privacy. A middle-aged lady is sitting there already, but I am not sure if she is part of our group. With her blue eyes and blond hair she looks like a typical American mom. When I have a problem opening the bathroom door, she quickly helps me with the key. I say “thank you” and she smiles a little smile. We begin to chat, and I realize that she is one of us after all. She has a difficult time constructing a sentence in English with her limited vocabulary. I am shocked. When she helped me with the door, she looked me in the eye with confidence and did not act like she would have any trouble speaking the language. It makes me think that sometimes it is best to talk just with your eyes. I wonder aloud what it is that has kept her here for so many years. Family, she tells me. Her son studies here and she will likely stay here. Those eyes, so full of confidence a few minutes ago, are suddenly teary when she tells me how much she misses her homeland.
Soon two other women join us. They are from Southeast Asia and both look like me: short, with darkish skin and long black hair. They moved here because their husbands attend the University of Cincinnati. We find we have many things in common, and our conversation ranges from similar taste in foods to the tsunami that hit our countries in 2004. One of the women has been here for more than four years, but speaking English is still a problem for her. I am surprised to hear that she has never been to Fountain Square. She does not tell me why this is so and I do not want to pry.
The last member of our group arrives, another middle-aged lady; she does not look like a foreigner, either. Her clothing and jewelry are tasteful and understated; she is friendly and smiles a lot. Her husband’s job brought them to Cincinnati in 1998, she says. Still, even after all this time, English is an issue for her.
“You must not want to come back here next week,” she says. “Your English is very good. It must be boring for you.”
“Of course I’ll come back,” I quickly reply. They don’t know how much I want to have new friends and how glad I am to meet them. It feels a little awkward knowing that I am the only one who seems passionate about settling down here, but we each have our own way to enjoy our presence in a new place.
It is interesting that all of us, coming from thousands of miles away to Cincinnati and despite our limited English, can still enjoy a conversation. The human capability to travel and to adapt to new environments is amazing. When I was in Indonesia, my job required me to travel a lot. Sometimes I went to places that had no electricity or running water; other times, I found myself in spots that were every bit as modern as America. It’s fascinating, this world. We can never get too much of it. At least I can’t.
My day in Cincinnati almost over, I am standing at Government Square. I still have to wait 30 more minutes for my TANK bus. A woman in a nice business suit passes me by; she looks like a foreigner to me. Maybe she comes from India. Her face shows the weariness of someone who has had a long day at work. She walks slowly toward her car, a new BMW. I become curious. Is she new here, like me? Or has her family been part of this country for generations?
The TANK bus finally arrives. It is much more crowded than the Metro bus that I took before. As I am squeezing into my seat, I reflect on my trip today. What will I do in this new place? I was not born here, I did not study here. On the other hand, I am not one of those who barely speak English. I am somewhere in-between. But still I am squeezing in among nearly two million people in this metro area. I have survived Jakarta, a city with four and a half times more people than Greater Cincinnati. Where will this new life take me, a newly reborn girl from a third world country?
I look around the bus. People are busy typing on their BlackBerrys, reading books, daydreaming. It occurs to me that is how a human being fits in, no matter where they come from. Each of us will always try to find our place, whether we are in a new city, in a new country, or just riding a bus. It is an endless journey. I realize that I have no reason to be in a hurry.
Almost there. The bus drops me at the Park and Ride, but I have no ride. To get to my house I still have to walk for two miles, most of it up a ridiculously steep hill. It has not been an easy day. My confidence sags a bit. Maybe my new friend at the library is right. Maybe I will not come back next week. Not because of my English, but because it feels like forever to get there and back.
I am just about to drag my feet up the hill when a lady driving a car stops and calls out to me. “Oh gosh, are you going to walk up this hill?” she says. “Do you want me to drive you?” I say yes, certainly. I thank her for making my day, and I climb in. I’m not home yet, but I’m getting there.
Photo by Jonathan Willis
Originally published in the June 2011 issue.
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