A foreign language and a piece of raw fish

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is just a short memoir, capturing my frustrations and eventual adaptation to the local culture of the Marshall Islands, where I was called to serve as an LDS Missionary

Submitted: June 30, 2014

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Submitted: June 30, 2014



A foreign language and A piece of raw fish

A Memoir – by Vimal V. Kumar



Some one once eloquently stated that there is no problem too great that whining about it will make it any better and no place so dark where God cannot see and watch out for you. And there was no better way I could have learned  of this heavenly truth than as a young naïve nineteen year old LDS missionary in the Marshall Islands, the last place on earth I wanted to be in (at least then). The beginning of my mission was filled with uncertainty, lots of homesickness and feeling of isolation from self and deity and family.

I thought to myself this was not the type of place I wanted to be in. Elder Hansen my trainer said “this is the best area you will ever be in”. Jenrok was like the slum town of Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands. And now I was supposed to learn Marshallese. I was not told even at the MTC that I was to learn a new language and certainly I had no intention to do so. As a matter of fact when I had submitted my papers to the big guys in Salt Lake City, I was praying so hard that I would not be assigned to a place where it would require me to learn a foreign language. Upon arriving in the Marshall Islands a day earlier, I was caught with a surprise when I was told that I needed to learn a new language, from scratch, it’s like driving without knowing how to drive. The sun was mean; it seemed to me that it was enjoying beating down on my already brown skin. My first day was miserable, I went around with a small card with my testimony on it in Marshallese, written by Elder Hansen, I could not even say one word right on that card. What was more disappointing was that I went around the whole day not knowing what anyone one was saying. During the discussions, I only nodded or did what I could do best at least then that was to fall asleep. Elder Hansen had done most of the talking, and he occasionally called on me to read a few scriptures in Marshallese. Reading even the smallest verse from the Book of Mormon seemed like forever, I felt that by the time I concluded Christmas would arrive, which was four weeks away. It would be my first Christmas away from home. I felt homesick. This was my first time away from family and friends. As I read, the investigator would look at me all confused and then remark to my companion “He doesn’t know Marshallese!” Hello I just arrived and it’s not simple as learning ABC’s I wanted to yell. Somehow the people did not make the connection that when new missionaries come to the island for the first time they did not know their language. The only word I knew was Iakwe, the Hawaiian equivalent of Aloha, and that is what I said all day long. I hope they knew how hard it was, to learn a new language. But my companion was kind enough to let them know that I was learning, which I had not interest in doing at all. I spent the entire day complaining about the stench, the heat, the language and everything else. This was not what I signed up for. Language study time was the worst, the one hour time allotted to the study of Marshallese seemed like 400 hours to me, even Columbia could take a trip from earth to the moon and I swear that this one hour was still ticking, adamant not to end. I just would try to read from the Marshallese version of the Book of Mormon but I could not make sense of what I was reading let alone reading a word right. I prayed continually that somehow miraculously I would speak the language today (Day 3) in Majuro. The first week passed by slowly which I thought was a disaster. Elder Hansen was very supportive.  I felt really inadequate and rather stupid. There was so much I wanted to say and tell the people, but I felt restricted in my words. I felt like a baby, only able to make cooing sounds, to the ears of the natives, as I tried my best to roll my tongue to make the right type of sound to match the word I was pronouncing. What made it worst was the food especially eating raw fish, which I had never eaten in my life. I am not a big fan of eating raw flesh. Eating raw fish flesh for the first time was the hardest thing I had done so far. This encounter with raw fish feasting happened at an investigators house. They bought in a plate full of rice, followed by a bowl of freshly slice fish flesh. I was hungry, but just seeing the sight of the raw fish made me lose my appetite. How was I going to eat this thing? Prior to coming to this home, Elder Hansen had instructed that it was customary to accept and complete whatever was placed before us to dine on. I held my breath in an effort to kill my taste bud from savoring the taste of the nasty looking bone filled flesh. I took every bite of the fish with water. And the water that we were given to drink came from a very nasty drum that caught rain water which rushed from a battered rain gutter. We drank from a cup that was not washed properly. I could see clearly the oily residue float on the top. I tried to finish the huge piece of raw fish. I tried to put the piece in my mouth, but the smell was appalling, and I felt like throwing up. My hands started to shake because of the pressure to finish the smelly fish. My hands developed automatic seizures almost like I had Parkinson’s disease. As I bought the smelly and bloody flesh close to my mouth it fell off my fork onto the floor. I looked at the man of the house and he signaled that I did not have to eat the fallen piece. He offered me another but I said I was already tight in the stomach.  My companion whispered to me ‘you are smart’. He thought I shook my hands on purpose to make the fish fall off my fork, which was not the case. I could see that he was struggling to eat the raw fish as well. I was so relieved that I did not have to finish that huge piece of smelly raw fish.

A few more days went by and I felt very useless, Elder Hansen would teach the lessons, I would share my monotonous written testimony, and often doze of to dreamland. The food was very foreign to my taste buds. I felt so homesick. I missed my family, the food; I missed just talking to people and conversing with them, and actually understanding their words. I prayed many nights that somehow my tongue would loosen so that I would fluently speak the language. People seemed to laugh at me when I tried to speak their language, which to them sounded gibberish. I was discouraged. Why did I ever decide to come here? Two weeks passed without much progress. I continued to feel homesick and lonely. I wanted to return home, where I belonged. I missed the food from home, I missed almost everything. The feeling of inadequacy overwhelmed me and I was in a dark deep hole, without a ray of hope. One night while saying my prayers I expressed my frustrations to God. I told him how lonely I felt, I told him that I am wasting my time and that there were some other better things I could engage in. If he wanted me here, then why was I not making any progress? I shed many tears that night; I swear the volume of tears I shed was enough to fill a cup to the brim. I wanted out. At the conclusion of my prayer, I heard something tell me “Vimal you are in the right place. Go and do and I am with you”. I knew that my prayers were being heard, I went to bed that night without thinking much about that message. I had a sincere hope that morning would not come. That somehow the sun will forget to rise, but that would be useless, because Elder Hansen’s alarm clock would go off, at 6:00am, and I hope somehow all the alarm clocks in the world would stop ticking but of course my wish was vain. The next morning during personal study time, my scripture opened miraculously to a passage in the Doctrine and Covenants 121:7-8 and the words art thou greater than he-struck me. I realized why I was feeling homesick, and not making any progress. I had forgotten that there was someone who had it much harder than me, and that was my Lord. I told Elder Hansen that morning that I needed to fast, which I did. I made a goal that day that I would smile every time I felt discouraged. I made an effort to learn twenty Marshallese words in a day, and incorporated them into my monotonous testimony. I decided to laugh with the people when they laughed at me when I made an error in speaking Marshallese in a grammatically and phonetically correct way. I noticed gradually I became happier. I liked the food, which required a lot of work, but I thought more about the peoples hardship and their poverty, and yet they were kind enough to share with me their scanty meal, and that naturally made my taste buds adapt to raw fish flesh taste and the heat of the sun was like rays of hot hope for me. Within a month I was able to alternate my testimony, and I slept less during lessons, but the truth is that teaching a lesson by the beach, and feeling the soft breeze brush your skin has a good as effect like sleeping pills. People weren’t as confused as they were before when I read verses from the scriptures. I was not lonely anymore; well that would be a lie. I was feeling lonely but I lost myself in learning the language that my mind had no idle space to think about home much. But that loneliness flooded my mind almost always on Pday’s when I send emails home. This was the beginning of my greatest adventure. I had come to learn that it was no use whining over my problems. It would have just been there bothering me the entire two years I spent in the islands and as a result my experience there would have been the worst disaster of my life. The day I decided not to feel sorry for myself, was the day when a new foundation was laid whereon my future life was to be mapped out. I endured, and I fought through it and was victorious. I remember my mission mother, Sister Bleak when once giving a training describing a phrase which went something like this: I can do hard things. I have adopted this line in my life. I can do hard things, come what may and I will conqueror.

© Copyright 2019 Vimal Kumar. All rights reserved.

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