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Sometimes you need to borrow a little courage. Because sometimes the new sewing machine in the small, stuffy room is just too frightening to touch. The NGO staff is telling the class how learning to sew can change your life, but you’re wondering how fast you can run away from the black, manual monster.

Sewing is like a door to saving and making money unlocked, if only she could gather the courage to push on it. But the dastardly sewing machine foils all her attempts – lurching backwards when she wants it to go forward and leaping forward when she’s sure she’d sent it backwards.

She looks at me furtively while she giggles self-consciously at the frightened girl of two months ago. I am the first person she’s met whose skin isn’t a rich brown and whose hair isn’t a glossy black. She stands just far enough away to keep my oddness from smothering her confidence. I ask another question and she steps back into the crowd of shy friends hiding their nervous faces in the scarves we all drape across our chests.

“Are you still afraid of the sewing machine?”

She pulls herself up to full height and steps forward. “Of course not. I know how to sew now. It just takes practice. My teacher told us every day we just have to practice. It’s not hard and we could learn it.”

I think of meeting girls in their first week of class and still terrified by the sewing machine and of talking to the strange foreigner who somehow knew their language.

“Were you afraid to talk to strangers like those girls?” I ask.

She smiles slyly and, instead of answering, lectures the group behind us, “It’s not difficult to talk to new people. You can do it, you just have to try.” She sounds like her teacher and I can see through the quiver of her squared shoulders that her own courage is just beginning to bud on the trellis provided by her sewing teacher. Borrowing a little courage until hers can stand on its own.

She’s slid closer to me now and sometimes our arms brush as we sit in the circle while I answer the usual questions posed by people meeting their first foreigner. They ask if I’d like to marry a South Asian and what kind of crops we grow in my country. I ask what they do when they’re not learning to sew and they tell me about village games they haven’t really played since they started studying.

She draws the game – a South Asian village version of hopscotch – in miniature in the dust on their front porch and I beg to be taught the game. She recoils slightly, the borrowed courage shrinking at the thought of playing me in font of all her friends. But I prod and plead until she rises slowly, self-consciously, to draw the game in playing size in the dirt. We take off our shoes and I try to hop and land and one-footed kick like she does, but I lack her years of practice.

She takes pity on me and ignores the five outs in a row I accumulate – after which I finally get my first ten points. She doesn’t take enough pity, however, to let me win. When it’s time to go, she waves and calls after our jeep, “Go get fit and then come back to see if you can beat me,” she says. I laugh and agree to try.

This was one of my favorite days during the six weeks I spent interning at a rural South Asian NGO, whose staff lends courage, instills dignity, and encourages empowerment every day with grace, stamina, and tirelessness that I wish for half of. 

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