The World’s Greatest

“I am a mountain! I am a tall tree! O-o-oh, I am a vision; I can see clearly!

Tiny arms and hands waved all around me as two hundred voices sang – practically shouted – the lyrics to “The World’s Greatest,” arguably the most coveted and joyous part of every Teen Club meeting. For those three minutes – or rather, 6, or 9 minutes, depending on how many times we hit “repeat” – those children soar. They are a mountain, and a tall tree. For those brief moments, they can see clearly.

The potential of Teen Club had always been obvious to me, ever since I first started attending as a volunteer in August 2009. I arrived on that first chilly, sunny Saturday morning to find a huge number of children outside Baylor clinic spilling onto the lawn, playing games, shouting, and laughing with each other. There were some clusters of children who seemed to be inseparable, and others who floated without direction around the yard, some observing and some taking part in the games, but not seeming to truly belong to any one group. They seemed to be having fun, but the structure was not quite there yet. It was like having all the ingredients to a wonderful recipe, but leaving them unassembled and unorganized on the kitchen counter.

Since that time, a lot has changed. With each Teen Club meeting, there is more structure; more empowerment of the children who come; more meaningful interaction between volunteers and participants; and a specific learning goal for each meeting.  There are more volunteers, and everyone knows what he or she is supposed to be doing. Everyone has a role to fill, and the details of the day are never overlooked. There are orderly lines.  Spreadsheets. A picture ID card for each child. Things seem to flow more and more seamlessly each time I attend.

But as much as these improvements have helped maintain the sanity of the volunteers and administrators, the true impact can be seen at a much more important level: that of the children who make up the Teen Club.

“Who are your biggest supporters?” I asked a group of eight or so children who were huddled around me for a discussion. The theme of the day was the importance of building meaningful and supportive relationships, and we stood outside in the soft breeze after completing a larger group activity.

“My mother,” offered one soft-spoken young girl, gazing up at me with serious eyes. “Friends,” whispered another girl as she tugged the sleeves of her shirt over her hands, her eyes darting around the circle and then to the ground. “Teachers,” said a little boy after shyly raising his hand to speak.

“It’s you,” said one of the older boys, looking at me and then around the courtyard at the other volunteers. “It’s our aunties. You are our biggest supporters.”

During another session, we had gone around in a circle to discuss different emotions. The children took turns rolling “emotion dice,” and they told the group about a time when they had experienced the emotion that they rolled. Unfailingly, every child who rolled “happy” said that they are happiest when they are at Teen Club, their faces lighting up as they spoke. Some even described their “sad” times as the time they spent not in Teen Club.

These children are not merely experiencing positive emotional gains from attending Teen Club; they are also learning. They are learning about supportive relationships, good nutrition, the importance of drug adherence, disclosing their HIV status, and peer pressure, to name a few. And beyond that, they are discovering how to express themselves creatively.

“I am Dr. Garlic!” shouted one girl as she strutted down the makeshift runway of our Nutrition Fashion Show. I looked at her, slightly shocked at the transformation. In our smaller group session for the older youth just an hour earlier, she had been shy and soft-spoken, barely audible. Now, her voice rang out clearly, even over the murmur of the crowd of children. “If you eat me, you will stay very healthy. And by the way, if you are HIV positive, eat two cloves of me per day to help fight off new sicknesses!” The applause from the crowd almost pre-empted her big finish and she sailed back to her place in the crowd, her grin practically taking off from her face. Incidentally, she was crowned Ms. Nutrition later that day, defeating Hot Meat, Perfect Pizza, and Awesome Apples by a narrow margin.

While walking to town from work one day, I ran into one of the girls who attends Teen Club every month on her way home after school. We caught each other’s eyes as she walked towards me, and I smiled at her and waved.  held out my hand, and she grasped it with hers, pressing my thumb with her own in the Swazi style as we greeted each other. “I’ll see you on June 19?” she said with a hint of question in her voice, peering up at me.

“Absolutely,” I said. “I will see you then.” She gave me another shy smile and then continued on her way down the hill. I watched her retreat. June 19 was still weeks away, but the date was etched into her mind.

And that is what Teen Club means to these children.

I’m that star up in the sky; I’m that mountain way up high; hey I made it! I’m the World’s Greatest. I’m that little bit of hope, when my back’s against the ropes. Hey I made it – I’m the World’s Greatest.

Every month, the voices swell around me as they sing, and feel, the lyrics. Every single adult sings – and dances – along with the kids. The song ends, and the split second of silence that followed is immediately drowned out with hundreds of desperate pleas to play the song just one more time.

It is difficult to describe just how that song makes us feel. But the beauty of Teen Club is that there, every single person, whether adult or child, can be the world’s greatest, and can soar out of themselves for those minutes and hours and experience true, unmitigated joy, no matter how brief or fleeting it may be.

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Misplaced Montage

I stared at the changing scenes in front of me, fixated and unable to move. A brilliantly blue sky glowed behind a craggy, breathtaking row of mountains, the bright green grass stubble butting up against the sheets of dark rock that lined them. The colored houses that dotted those hills looked like rare gems, shining in the sun.

Next, I saw Siphokazi, the little girl who lived near the children I visited. She tugged at my hand, and I looked down at her. Her wide-set eyes gazed at me steadily, expressing a kind of unspoken wisdom and knowledge despite their few years. She squinted in the sun and crinkled her face into a smile that melted my heart. I could almost hear her voice telling me many stories in Siswati, and felt my head nodding along, pretending to understand what this tiny child was explaining to me. Next to us, a cow shifted lazily to another patch of grass to graze. I breathed in the warm air, savoring the occasional soft rush of wind, and carried Siphokazi around the homestead, her young ramblings filling my ears.

Suddenly, thousands of women were lined up in front of me, wearing brightly colored emahiya (traditional outfits). They stomped their feet in unison, and their voices rang out into the air, chanting ancient songs. The breeze carried their voices up to me and noise surrounded me, pushing me down and lifting me up at the same time, as they sang to the King, who was seated mere rows away from me and looked on at the festivities stoically.

And then, without warning, I was standing in the kitchen of the guest house with Sandra, Sindi, and Celiwe. The three of them shrieked with laughter at a private joke, and I smiled even though I could not understand what had been said in Siswati. Justice was there, and he grinned as he used a long, slender lighter to light the two tea candles that sat atop my birthday cake. They sang unintentional rounds of ‘Happy Birthday’ in an effort to take a perfect video of the moment with my camera. We sat around after the singing, the sound of forks scraping against the glass plates the only sound as we savored our cake. Justice laughed hard at something that Thomas said, and the mere sound of his contagious and cheerful laugh sucked us all in, one by one, until we were all almost rolling on the floor, rocking with laughter. And we had no idea why.

“Hey umlungu!” I heard a small voice say from far away. It was a boy who went to school at the preschool next to my house, his face pressed up against the grates of the fence as his hands gripped the bars. He was often there early and stayed late because his mother was a teacher at the school. He grinned up at me silently, his face scrunched unnaturally to fit into the small frame of the diamond-shaped grate, and he waved furiously at me as I made my way down the dirt path to catch my kombi, moving further and further away from him. I turned just before I crossed the field to the road and waved back at him and could make out – just barely – the movement of his own tiny arm.

I turned my eyes back to the road and found myself instead sitting in the back of one of the Save the Children trucks on the way to Nkonjwa, a fairly remote community about one hour from Siphofaneni. All around us were plants struggling to survive in the drought. They had taken on a sort of faded, but desperately defiant, green color, as if they’d been put through the washer too many times. The unpaved road was perpetually bumpy, and I grasped the door and seat next to me with both hands to keep from shifting right off the seat along with our belongings. No music accompanied me and my colleagues; our companions were merely the rush of wind past our windows, the sounds of disgruntled cows in the road, and our occasional, unforced conversation. I looked out the window as we crossed a narrow dam to see a group of women washing clothes, the water around them catching the sun and illuminating their laughter as they stood wearing only underwear, the river gliding gently around their ankles. A young boy, completely naked, glided silently through the water along the rocky riverbank.

The women’s laughter morphed into a long, slow song, and the faces of the women in the water drew nearer to me and changed. I was standing in the cement kaGogo center (main administrative building in a community), watching the opening to a community training I had helped organize. The people in attendance – mostly women – were swaying softly, many of them with their eyes closed and brows furrowed in concentration, as they sang a song from their ancestral memory. Their voices ebbed and flowed together in unison, swelling and then becoming softer, a joyous yet sober sound. My colleague Bonkhe nudged me and whispered something in my ear. I laughed softly.

I laughed softly at something that Papa said, a gentle joke meant only for my ears as we stood in the kitchen watching Thulani cook dinner for the rest of the family. “Siphiwe, are you eating with us?” asked Papa. “Tonight we are having rice and some beef mixed with soup.” My heart squeezed painfully as I thought of the selfless generosity of these young people, living alone without parents and offering me some of their precious and very limited store of food. It would mean them having smaller portions that night, or running out a bit earlier at the end of the month. I politely declined, and sat in aching awe of the sacrifices people are willing to make for others in the face of having next to nothing to give.

“Hey, what are you looking at?” my friend asked me, leaning over to see the pictures which were flashing across my camera screen.

I jolted and looked around, feeling a bit dazed to have been so suddenly ripped from my thoughts. No longer was I in the mountains of Hhohho, or with Papa and the kids. Instead, I sat in a hard metal chair in a dingy, damp room with many others who were waiting for the last train back into Beijing. People sat drowsily in their chairs, some nodding off and others looking bleary-eyed after a day of sight-seeing and traveling. A few children ran around the room, weaving in and out of the rows of chairs and squealing while the adults looked on wearily Grayness and humidity permeated the air. The colorful scenes from moments before were nowhere to be found.

“Just some pictures of Swaziland,” I said. “Do you want to see?” I asked, holding out the camera to him.

“Oh, maybe later!” he replied.

I looked around. I felt misplaced.

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Autumnal Spring

The air in Swaziland these days has a duality about it.

On the one hand, it is suggestive of the winter months that are ahead, hinting that colder days are coming. There is a nearly-tangible crispness, and chilly intimations that we are on the brink of something new. The mornings are blanketed in frost, frost which stubbornly clings to the grass even after the first sunlight has climbed the mountain and has finally reached Mbabane. The sun, which in the summer invites one only to sweat and suffer in its unrelenting, penetrating rays, now offers welcome relief from the cold. And just as the frost blankets the ground, the people here have begun to blanket themselves in layers of multi-colored sweaters and coats. “Eesh, this cold!” they exclaim, shaking their heads, as they huddle into themselves, arms crossed and heads down. The old women tie an extra cloth around their waists and wear blankets like capes as they sit at the market, selling avocados, pineapples, sweet potatoes, apples, and oranges to morning commuters. There is a sense of imminent ending in autumn, and an atmosphere of nostalgia – of warmer, better days that are now gone.

On the other hand, that warmth which we recall is still lurking under the surface somewhere here. It hibernates most of the time, sleeping unseen and unknown. But every so often, it wakes up. I feel it in a passing breeze, and as I breathe in that particular gust of wind, I sense that summer – that warmth - has not yet completely relinquished its hold. It will not quite release its grip on us yet, and it evokes a rush of a renewed sense of beginning; a renewed sense of hope.

I feel myself torn into two pieces – pieces which I hope I can reconcile somehow within myself as I return to America. Although I have had moments, days, and weeks where my feelings of frustration, sadness, and loneliness have soared to unprecedented levels here in Swaziland, I find myself almost on the brink of tears at the mere thought of leaving this place. Swaziland has burrowed deep inside of me now, and I shudder to think of what might shatter within me as I depart.

So there I sat, feeling both renewed and discharged, warm and cold, not really needing my coat but unwilling to free it from my hand’s grip. Unwilling to let it go. I was squeezed into the back corner of the kombi to Thembelihle (my neighborhood in Mbabane), and the sliding window next to me stood slightly ajar, inviting part of the noisy bus rank into the already-jammed backseat with me. And all at once, everything surrounding me seemed to magnify so intensely that tears almost escaped my eyes in that of all places: the back of a dirty, crowded kombi in the middle of the dirty, crowded bus rank. As the smallest of breezes hinted at me through the window beside me, a sense of overwhelming beauty swept over me along with it. I closed my eyes and felt the warmth in that breeze even as I shivered from the physical chill in it. I heard a voice from outside the kombi shouting “airtime! airtime!” and without opening my eyes, saw who it was: the familiar young boy wearing a faded yellow vest and jauntily perched hat on his head who wanders from kombi to kombi in the hope of a sale. The cries of the young men indicating various kombi destinations rang out around me, overpowered only by the softer chatter within the kombi itself. I opened my eyes and saw the late afternoon sunlight lighting up the faded colors in the cloth wrapped around the head of a very old Gogo (grandmother) who was sitting in front of me. As I focused my eyes on her head, she turned her head around and looked me straight in the eyes, smiling curiously at me. Over and over, she turned around to sneak another glance at me, always with a smile on her lips and in her eyes. A schoolchild climbed silently into the kombi, surveying the available seats. Pursing her lips, she unfolded the seat in front of me and propped herself in it and then remained perfectly still. The people sat in silence, waiting patiently for the kombi to fill up so we could leave the bus rank.

Time left me, and it seemed like only moments later that the last person was climbing into the kombi, and the driver revved the engine and shocked the kombi into instant life. We pulled out of the parking spot around a seemingly impossible corner, which the kombi driver navigated with ease, and then we barged out of the parking lot ahead of a long line of kombis and onto the main road to Thembelihle. The sunlight, once stationary, now danced across all the other passengers sitting in front of me, and the window allowed the tiniest of cool breezes in to rush at my face. The others sitting around me shifted silently in their seats, no one speaking as we sailed out of town.

“Stesh!” called out passengers along the way, and the kombi ducked to the side of the road as they climbed their way to the front, holding out their payment of four rand. “Stesh!” Stop! Another four passengers climbed out of the vehicle as we pulled over next to a large church.

“Stesh!” I thought to myself. I need a more metaphorical stesh right now, as I feel my departure barreling towards me at an alarming speed. I do not feel ready for it. Stesh!  This place has not yet let me go, even as my future is taking a firmer hold on me. I am making plans for when I go back, people I will see, apartments I could rent, classes I will take, new friends to meet. But I am not done with this place yet, my subconscious screams at me. I am still here, now. I am pre-empting myself. A simultaneous mood of nostalgia and anticipation, of wistfulness and excitement, hangs over me like a bright cloud, shielding me from the sun yet threatening rain at the same time.

All emotions are inside of me right now. I am sad to leave, and excited to leave. I am nervous to leave, and confident to leave. I am happy at the thought of seeing all the family and friends I have missed so much, but afraid of how I will relate to them, and my culture. I am ready for a change, but feel a sense of enormous loss at what I am leaving behind.

In all honesty, I do not know quite what to do with myself. I feel stuck at the middle of the rope in an equal match of tug-of-war.

I suppose that seasons are like that, though. We relish the last waves of warmth even as we know another season is upon us. We long for the heat of summer in the dead of winter, and on the hottest days of summer, wish only for cooler weather again. We look up one day to find that it has suddenly become an entirely different season without our noticing.

To think that we can climb onto a giant metal bird, watch several movies and eat several meals, and find ourselves in an entirely different world, never ceases to amaze me. In a matter of one day, I can be back where I started from, even though I now feel worlds apart from that place in so many ways. But that place will always be a part of my journey; a part of what brought me to where I am now. Places can loop back into your life like that, just as people can. The story of a place, or a person, or a time, can crop itself in and out of the picture as you move ever forward.

This transition is a painful one, with many goodbyes – goodbyes that could easily be forever. But I hope that that underlying warmth from this season, soon to be a past one, will still come to me in a passing breeze every so often, and I will remember another time, and another place.

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A Strong Wind

A strong wind has uprooted me, and I cling to my roots, desperately trying to avoid being completely blown off into an angry sky. As I look up, a single ray of sunshine breaks through the storm clouds. Moments later, another appears. And then another. I am reminded of hope once again.

This is the best way I can describe this year of living in Swaziland.

That’s the thing about living abroad, and especially about living alone in a developing country and a culture so different from your own. There are moments of intense isolation, and then there are moments of feeling connected to others in a way you never have before. Of feeling unsurpassed happiness and joy. And there are times when you feel so despised, misunderstood, and hated that you sometimes forget for a moment who you really are outside of that context. There may be a place carved out for you in this culture, but it is a triangle and you are a square, and no amount of pushing will get you to fit into that space. You may lurk just outside of it or hover just above it, but you can never fully occupy it.

So who exactly was I this year, if I wasn’t myself and I wasn’t who Swazis wanted me to be? What makes up our identity to begin with? Is it comprised of those core parts of our personalities that will shine through no matter where we are in the world, and no matter which context we are in? Or is it in those parts of ourselves that we share only with a trusted few?Are we defined more by what we express, or what we are able to suppress in a given situation?

While I came to Swaziland independently and do not have to follow the rules of, say, the Peace Corps in terms of what I am and am not allowed to do or say, this issue is still one that I have struggled with constantly. There are so many attitudes, norms, and perceptions in Swaziland that fly directly in the face of some of my core values; attitudes towards women, children, and homosexuals, for instance. In order to be able to function in Swaziland, I have had to keep my opinions to myself on many occasions to preserve my credibility. If I were to reveal these core beliefs, I might not be accepted in Swaziland, and I would no longer be able to work.

So should I be more defined by my cultural sensitivity in keeping these thoughts to myself, or by my willingness to suppress beliefs that I consider to be at the core of who I am, and for which I want to be an activist?

There are times when I look around and think to myself, What the hell am I really doing here? Is this really worth it? There is a certain guilt that comes with leaving a place where you are rooted; of leaving behind people you love and who depend on you. Of choosing to go work with other, new people you don’t know yet, many of whom do not seem to care that you are there once you arrive. Why would anyone choose to do that? Why did I choose to do that?

Intense moments of beauty and appreciation for Swaziland come, and just as quickly, they go, slinking silently off to where they came from, to be seen again only at unpredictable moments. I leave one conversation feeling happy and energized, only to be left frustrated and angry by the next. I feel a real connection to my closest friends here in Swaziland, but have just as often felt used and taken advantage of by many others.  My life is comprised of stark contrasts, conflicting attitudes, and by radically varying black-and-white emotions. This causes the entire experience to take on an indefinably muddled grey color in my mind. It makes it one big margin.

Perhaps life is always like this, but we don’t see it in our natural contexts. Maybe I came here looking for these differences, and looking for all the nuanced ways in which I do and do not fit in. And I found a deluge of them, waves which swept over me, engulfing me like a high tide.

I know, however, that there are people I have genuinely connected with here. I know this because they have told me so. There are some who care that I was here.

Of course, in any year of our lives – and not just the ones where we are removed from all that is familiar – there are good and bad things we go through. But, in fact, nothing can be as straightforward as being “good” or “bad.” It is all relative to that moment, the context, the place you are in emotionally and physically, and things that happen later. Later, when removed from the context, a different type of reflection is possible, and we can suddenly see the good that came out of something which, in that moment, seemed almost unendurable.

In the end, what I remember mostly are the good things. Sometimes, it is just a matter of surviving the worst moments so you can make it to the other side of memory.

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Siphiwe, you are welcome

Papa was waiting by the side of the road for me as always as I hopped out of the car and onto the craterous dirt road. “Siphiwe,” he greeted me, calling me by my Swazi name, and held out his hand for me to shake. “You are welcome.”

He immediately reached out and took my bag from me and carried it as we walked together down the path and turned off onto the vaguely carved dirt driveway to the house, which was overgrown with long blades of tall grass that leaned into the road until they were finally trampled into the ground. Stray corn husks and other discarded items (a torn, dirty shirt crumpled into the path; a left shoe with the flap dangling like a numb lower lip; and a twisted plastic bag) littered the path, and the field in front of the house stood lonely and barren now that the peanuts and maize had been harvested.

Papa removed his shoes and stepped onto the stoop, opening the door for me. We walked across the cold cement of the floor into the living room, passing Thulani – the youngest in the house – in the kitchen chopping vegetables. “We take turns making dinner,” Papa explained. “Tonight is Thulani’s night.” I asked if he enjoyed cooking, and he scrunched up his face and said, “No, I don’t like it at all. I hate when it is my night to cook.” I looked at Thulani, who was now using a large, sharp-looking kitchen knife to wedge open a can of vegetable curry, and made a mental note to ask for a can opener for them. Papa read my thoughts and said, “Oh, Siphiwe, our can opener is up there with my grandmother because she needed it. But we’ll have it back soon.” He stepped over, took the knife from Thulani, and took over cutting open the can for him, putting his weight behind the serrated edges of the knife as it sliced through the top of the tin can.

I asked Papa if he had any homework he’d like me to help him with, and he told me that he was giving a presentation in class the next day, and could I help him prepare for it? The class had been divided into two opposing sides of a controversial argument, and he was to argue for why schools should distribute condoms in schools.

“So what do you think would be the advantages to giving students condoms in schools?” I prompted him.

He thought for a moment, flicking his eyes up to the ceiling and tapping his fingers on the arm of the chair.

“I think….” he began tentatively. I nodded encouragingly. “I think that a lot of people at my school are having sex, so maybe we should give them something that will help protect them,” he finished, searching my face for validation.

“That’s a great reason,” I agreed. “What else?”

He considered carefully again and then said, “I think it can also prevent more abortions, because not as many girls will get pregnant if they use condoms.”

“What else would the students be protected against besides getting pregnant?” I asked.

“HIV,” he said right away. I nodded and continued to look at him expectantly. “…and some other sexual diseases?” he asked, again with hesitation.

I nodded. “Do you think that many people in your school have sex with more than one person at a time?”

“A lot,” he said right away, nodding.

“That is a big problem, because it puts them at higher risk for passing on HIV,” I said.“You see, if I am sleeping with someone – maybe his name is Wandile – and Wandile is also sleeping with Sibongile, and Sibongile is also sleeping with Vusi, and he is also sleeping with someone else, and if even just one of us has HIV—-“

“It’s a chain, and you will get it also,” finished Papa, shaking his head.

“Yes, I could get it too, in that case,” I said, watching his thoughts pass over his face.

He paused and ruminated for a moment. “For me, if I can just have only one partner someday, that would make me happy,” he said after a moment. I looked at him and felt a glimmer of hope at hearing this.

“Anyway, I think I have to marry someone from another country, Siphiwe. Here, people just want money – they don’t want love,” he continued. “I know this place very well, and I know the people here. I don’t want that. A woman will only marry a man that is rich, with a fancy car. So who will marry me? I don’t have money.”

I was not sure how to respond to this one, not wanting to give false hope but also not wanting to cosign the idea of love in Swaziland being reduced to such materialistic pessimism. We sat in silence for a moment, thinking about this, before I decided to change the subject.

“Can I ask you, since you are talking about poverty – do you think that most people really love the King?” I asked him, watching his face closely as he answered.

He contemplated for a moment and then said, “No, I think most people don’t really love him. But when you have a King like us, Siphiwe, there is no freedom of expression. No one can say anything bad about him or maybe the police would come and lock you up.”

“Did you know that Swaziland is not poor?” I asked him. He looked at me for a moment, unsure of how to respond. “It’s true,” I continued. “If you look at how much money is actually in the country, it is not as poor as you would think.”

“But most of us who live here, we are poor,” he protested. “Exactly,” I replied, looking at him. “What do you think about that?”

“I think most of that money, it must be with the King,” concluded Papa after a moment.

“What do you think about the way the King spends his money?” I asked.

“Ah, for me, it is not good,” he said, twirling his cell phone in his hand as he replied. “You see, he has something like thirteen wives, and he spends a lot of money on them. Most of his wives don’t love him really, but they just wanted money and that’s why they married him, I think. They wanted fancy cars and big houses.”

Or they didn’t have a choice, I thought to myself. The King chooses his wives; they don’t choose him.

“Siphiwe, when you leave in July…” started Papa, abruptly changing the subject.

“Yes?” I encouraged him.

“When you leave in July…when will you come back?” asked Papa, his eyes avoiding my face.

I looked down at my hands. “I don’t know, exactly,” I replied truthfully, looking up and searching his face. “I hope I can come back someday to Swaziland. For now, I just know that I will be going to school for the next few years in the U.S.” I continued to look at him as he digested this.

Papa continued to look down at his hands, at his cell phone, at the chair. I felt helpless to make the situation better. It had been my choice to leave and to go back to school, and I could see that this was a painful decision for him to swallow.

“I will write you a letter when I’m back there, and send you pictures of where I am living. Would you like that?” I asked.

A small smile formed on Papa’s face. “Yes, sisi, please do that,” he said as he started twirling his cell phone again. “But we will miss you,” he added softly, finally looking up directly into my eyes, the bill of the tilted baseball cap on his head casting a shadow over his eyes and face.

For the next moment, we were both silent. I thought, how strange to live both in the moment and the future, and to be missing a person or a place before you’ve left. And how lonely to be with someone you already miss.

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