I sit studying the tiny chestnut-colored roach for a long moment, a mix of revulsion and irrational fear prickling across the back of my neck. When I see its’ antennae twitching, I realize it is studying me. We are joined in a contest to see who will move first. It stays frozen to the pale green wall, just above the white ceramic tile with its stained and yellowed grout. I tighten my hands into fists and will my foot not to tap on the floor.
I decide to concentrate on why I have such a strong emotional reaction to this tiny bug, not more than the size of a thumbnail. Unlike me, it is no threat. Packed inside my response to this tiny creature, however, is a dark abyss of fear and guilt.
Roaches have managed to sustain their species for more than 320 million years and have existed in human lore since classical antiquity. This little one, generally gregarious by nature, is probably desperate to escape and return to its multitudinous kin who, I’m certain, inhabit the warmer areas within the walls throughout the tenement building that I’m currently calling home. Like the varied immigrants who live here, roaches are popularly depicted as dirty pests and difficult to get rid of, though the great majority of the species—like the majority of immigrants—are inoffensive and live in a wide range of habitats around the world.
My roach doesn’t move, save for an occasional spasm of its antennae. The bathroom light is on, and it’s waiting for the cover of darkness to escape. Perhaps it doesn’t want me to see the doorway to its route. In any case, my fear subsides and my thoughts turn to the connection of this creature to the financial and physical poverty of the home where I’m a guest.
My senses recreate the clash of smells in the halls at dinner time—pungent curries, savory soups, fresh bread and hot cooking oil— seeping through the thin doors of the more than fifty apartments on each floor of the eight-story building. I hear the loud scraping of furniture on the floor above being moved by its occupants from one corner to another as beds and tables are rearranged in preparation to sleep or eat in their tiny efficiency. I think of the tinfoil sheets Sonam and her neighbors hang to protect the kitchen walls from the grease of the cooking oil that’s used to make almost everything the families in this building eat. Finally, I picture the gray streaked windows, muddied with smog from the heavily traveled city street below.
My attention returns to roaches, like this one, which are not just a synonym for poverty. They may be ubiquitous in old, run-down houses like those in this neighborhood, but they live lives parallel to the humanity that also inhabits these dwellings. Roaches have an intricate social structure involving shared shelter, social dependence, communication and kin recognition.
When Karma Woeser was born a few years ago, the family gave up the tiny room that had been used as a shrine to the Buddha and turned it into a second bedroom for the little boy. The three girls, now well out of their teens, still share the larger bedroom—leaving Sonam and her husband, Pasang, who work opposite shifts, to sleep on a couch amidst the clutter of the sitting room.
The dining area is devoted to Karma’s toys, bikes and strollers as well as kitchen supplies. When most everyone is home, the couch and settee are heaped with many arms and legs, each set of hands holding some sort of small electronic device. The flat screen TV shows only Netflix and YouTube, as no local channels are available.
An iPad, propped up against a book, is continuously connected to Sonam’s elderly parents’ home in Kathmandu so that anyone can chat as the urge strikes. Occasionally there is a squeal of laughter, some jostling so that an iPad or phone can be passed around and lots of elbowing before everyone gets comfortable again, using each other for warmth and connection.
Rice and a stack of flat bread are in bowls. Dishes and spoons, scrupulously washed a second time when taken from the cupboards, lay haphazardly on the bench that serves as a coffee table. The fragrance of sandalwood wafts through the apartment as incense smoke curls up from Buddha’s shrine, which now occupies a quarter of the sitting area. Karma complains, “Smells like bug spray.”
I am with them, and I am apart—half family member, half guest. I am mostly with them during family discussions and games or endlessly playing with Karma. I’m a guest when the next day’s chores, schedules and responsibilities are assigned. When we go to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s winning of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, still a cause de célébration twenty-seven years later, I wear clothes in colors most like a Tibetan monk’s robes, orange and magenta, but my round eyes and light hair give me away.
Tomorrow I will leave them. Sonam already insists that they call Uber to take us to the Toronto airport, although I know the family will return home by trolley and a couple of busses. Still needing to be frugal with every penny in the communal pot, the children’s lives, full of hardships, don’t appear to be much different from the pretty girl with a quick smile and flashing eyes whom I met weaving rugs at the Tibetan refugee camp in Nepal. But they are. Gayki already has an RN degree and Tashi, the image of her mother as a young woman, is a semester away from graduating in hospitality management. Dechen, a typical college sophomore, still flounders between her passions and the practicalities of life.
The room seems brighter than when I first noticed my quiet companion. The roach has not moved, as if it’s glued to the wall. I gather a paper towel into a ball, screwing up the courage to squish it. Its antennae twitch. A signal for help? For compassion? At that moment I think of all those strident anti-immigrant comments around the world including the USA. Those who buy this rhetoric would squish this family in the same way that I’m contemplating killing this bug. So I don’t do it.
Fun fact: Roaches are a really, really, old species. They have been around on Earth for as long as 360 million years ago.