Jul 4, 2015

1: Nurul

The kids will see a new face today. My black Outward Bound polo tee and three-quarter jeans - "cover the shoulders, cover the knees". The power has been out for a few hours. The air is hot and pregnant with water vapour; our living room is dark. I sit still on the couch, doing nothing, trying to forget the fact that I'm wearing pants. When you're calm you'll naturally feel cooler: 心静自然凉.

Cue Emily's cheerful, chiming voice, a plump little Indonesian girl clinging closely to her. Emily encourages Nurul to say something to me. "Ask, 'what is your name?'" Nurul timidly echoes, with awkward breaks between each word: "what is your name?". Immediately looks away. "I'm Karen, what is your name?" After more encouragement from Emily: "My name is Nurul."

Emily asks Nurul something in Malay, and Nurul nods. "Karen, Nurul wants to play with you," she translates. Nurul goes to get a puzzle, then comes to sit by my side. She seems content to just have me watch as she assembles together the colourful pieces of Canada. "Nurul's a little slower at learning, so she needs more attention," Emily tells me as Nurul obliviously works on the puzzle. "But she's very sweet. She doesn't seem to mind if you don't understand what she's saying. But she's very sweet."

I ask Nurul how old she is. She puts up her fingers: eight. "Eight? Lapan?" She sullenly nods. We sit awkwardly beside one another. I try to get her to say something. I point at the different parts of the puzzle. "Orange?" A pause; a nod. "Red? Merah?" She nods. "Which is your favourite?" She doesn't understand. "Pink?" Silence: I've run out of words. After a while she says two words in Malay, quietly. I don't understand, but I think she doesn't understand when I say I don't understand. Eventually I shake my head. She seems a little sad. So I nod. She brightens up and overturns the puzzle again.

Later, I am called to observe a class. The architecture undergrads from China are teaching the children how to draw a cube, with shading and all. Some of the kids are doing impressively well. But Nurul can't seem to get the lines right; shades in all the wrong places. She grasps an ochre colour pencil. She asks for an eraser. She rubs and rubs and rubs, gets the lines wrong again, doesn't understand why it isn't looking as it should. The teacher keeps going with her pencil, her shading makes the cube look magical; the little boy Michael is doing a really beautiful job; and here sits a slouching Nurul, her paper an ochre mess, her cube never looking like the others' no matter how much she erases and tries again. Nurul is sniffing.

When the rest are almost done, she leaves her stuff aside and runs out to the porch, where Emily is setting off on her motorbike. Nurul continues to stand there even after it has left. She is carrying her schoolbag. I leave the art class, put on my shoes. I approach Nurul from behind, put my hands on her shoulders. "Are you okay? Okay?" She turns towards me and nods, looking down. After a while she says something in Malay and takes my hand and leads me back into the living room. She continues saying things I don't understand and she goes back to the games rack and takes out the same Canada puzzle. Sits on the floor. She overturns the puzzle; the big wooden pieces click against the rough tiled floor; she puts each piece back where it belongs again, with more speed. More intentionality.

She cannot draw a cube or speak English, but she must prove herself, find comfort in the one thing in which she is confident. She is done. She overturns it. Does it again. A young boy deliberately runs into the puzzle and knocks it all over. She shouts, indignant, but soon calms down again as she falls into the rhythm of the puzzle. Another boy comes over, one who speaks to her kindly, and she responds with friendliness. The third time, she passes it to me. It's my turn now. It's a challenge. I know because the boy starts to chant in support: "Ka-kak! Ka-kak!" I smile, and still take my time with it anyway. Nurul helps me out. Saskatchewan is a lovely indigo. Nik's hometown. Toronto is represented with the CN tower. Ottawa. Quebec. All these things that make no sense to Nurul, but it doesn't matter; she knows the shape and position of each piece like the back of her hand, and they are friendly to her.

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