I was watching a rerun of “I love Lucy,” on our tiny black and white TV when I heard footsteps outside and a loud knock on the door.
“Shela, Shela, open the door. It’s Gulshan Bai! Open!” My aunt at eleven O’ clock on a Saturday night? “Jaffer Uncle and I had gone to a dinner in the South and I thought we are not far from here, so we thought, let us say hello to you both,” my aunt chattered away. “ I brought you some fruit,” she said moving to the kitchen and putting a large bag on the counter.
“This is not a good area! Why are you living here? I said I would help you find an apartment but you and Rasul found it so fast without me.”
“Well, it’s near school, I can just walk to class.”
“You have a car. You know this area is not safe at all. Only black people live in this area.”
“Well our complex has all Vietnamese people,” I answered though it was true that the area was mostly black.
I didn’t tell her the truth. Rasul’s girlfriend lived in the same complex and since the apartment was cheap and near school, he had signed a lease for a two bedroom place. There was a small pool but it was green and slimy, I never saw anyone swim in it. Old Vietnamese women dressed in black gowns sat on low stools sifting rice in the outdoor hallways. We would smile wordlessly at each other.
Having grown up in Kenya, I knew nothing about American cities and happily walked around Houston’s Fourth Quarter on Sundays admiring the small houses with flower filled gardens and old cars in the drives. I was surprised when my brother’s friend Manny told me this was a poor area. They had cars and houses, small houses but still real houses with running water and electricity. The mostly African-American people smiled and nodded at me on the quiet streets. This wasn’t a poor area like Mathare Valley in Nairobi, a slum without running water or electricity where people lived crammed into tiny shacks.
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Author: Shelina Shariff- Zia grew up in Nairobi, a tomboy who climbed trees and was always getting into trouble. She is the fifth generation of an Indian family who moved to Kenya from Gujarat. She attended Loreto Convent Msongari, a convent school run by Irish nuns. The author grew up speaking English, Gujarati and Swahili.
At nineteen, she moved to Texas to study Literature at Rice University. After an M.A.in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, she went back to Kenya to work at the Aga Khan Education System. Moving back to New York, she became a Wall Street reporter covering chemicals and finance.
After living in Nairobi, Kampala, Karachi, Toronto, Cincinnati and Miami among other cities she has settled in New York with her family. She teaches English at the Bronx Community College.