During my trip to join the Fellowship program, I needed to board a flight from the Philadelphia airport to St. Louis. This being my first visit to the United States, I wanted to make sure that I was in the right terminal.
The help desk already had some people in queue, so I looked around. About 15 people were sitting on a bench. Among them I saw an elderly woman who had a cane in her hand. I decided to ask her for help.
“Excuse me, ma’am, could you tell me whether I am in the right terminal or not? I need to go to the St. Louis airport.”
I noticed her charming eyes and the wrinkled skin around her face.
“Oh, yes darling,” she replied. “You are in the right terminal. I am also going to the St. Louis airport. By the way, are you from Pakistan?”
I wondered why she thought I am from Pakistan. I replied instantly, “No ma’am. I am from Nepal, which is not that far from Pakistan.”
Her response to my answer was overwhelming. She stood up from her seat and hugged me.
This is a kind of a cultural shock for me, a very unexpected thing to happen. In Nepal, even between family members, relatives and friends we are not that comfortable to hug each other. This elderly lady, whom I just met, hugged me so tightly.
She might have noticed that I felt shocked. She told me that she had been to Nepal, last October.
“People are very friendly there,” she added. “They are very warm and kind. Even if someone is a stranger, they treat the person very well. The Nepali people made a big impression on me. Look, I also have the a bookmark showing Mount Everest. I always take the warmth of your country with me.” She showed the bookmark to me.
I smiled back and hugged her. This was how America first treated me. I regret that I forget to take a picture with her. I think of her time and again. I may never meet her again. How does some stranger make space in our minds and hearts?
A week after I met her, when I was in Columbia, Missouri, my friend Ashley Lime from Kenya said she wanted to go to a nearby church, on a Sunday. By religion I am Hindu, but I always look forward to seeing the sacred place of other religions, where they worship their god.
I wore a headscarf and went to a mosque. I went to many monasteries in my country. But I had not been to a Christian church, so I wanted to see how people worship there. I saw them only in movies.
So, Ashley and I were walking along the road to go to the church. But we didn’t know the shortest way possible. We met one woman who was crossing the same road and was waiting for the “go” signal.
We introduced ourselves. She is from Trinidad and Tobago and she is getting a Phd in Public Policy at the University of Missouri. She told me that some Nepali students are also getting Phd’s in her department. I gave my email address to her and asked her to give it to them so that we could meet.
The day after that I got an email from Hari Poudel, one of the people she was talking about.
Even if we didn’t know each other and we were total strangers he invited me for the lunch in his house.
I was so excited to meet his family. I had lunch in their place. They made Nepali food — dal, bhaat, tarkari, achaar. Another Nepali man also came there to meet me. His family invited me for dinner. I went to their place, too.
They invited me for lunch and dinner because I am from Nepal. My friends also were amazed how the Nepali people invited me without knowing me. They also invited me to come for a visit when I return to Columbia the last week of June.
The warm welcome from them reminded me of that woman I met in in the airport.
When returning from the dinner, I said to myself, “Yes, ma’am. You are right. Nepali people are very warm even to strangers. And you were equally warm.”