Words by Katherine Smith, Illustrations by Dorothy Hoeft
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]wenty-two roses: One for every year they were apart. Anita’s heart was beating so fast; she thought it was going to explode. There he was, Deo Karan, waiting to reunite. He had been living just two hours away in Eugene, Oregon all of these years. “It was like we were 16 years old again,” says Anita. “We were so overwhelmed with emotions; all we could do was cry together.”
Anita is from Fiji and of Indian heritage. When her parents told her she was forbidden from seeing Deo, she accepted their decision. Instead, she had an arranged marriage — a common tradition in her culture — in 1984. While she found the boy that she wanted to marry, her family had found another boy for her: the boy she was expected to marry.
After hesitating and pondering where to start her trip down memory lane, she tucks a piece of long black hair behind an ear. It’s one of her many free-spirited locks, fighting the expectations of her loose braid. Naturally and elegantly, the braid is wrapped from one side of her head to the other, over her shoulder and down to her navel. Her personality, her smile, and her elaborately braided hair all share a common characteristic: beautiful defiance. Her tiny body explodes with melodic rhythm on the rare occasion she takes a break from chatting and socializing. She sings everything from Whitney Houston’s hits to Ganesh Arti’s powerful Indian mantras. She giggles and grins when she speaks of her true love.
There are so many phases of life that don’t seem to make sense, Anita explains. Actions, people, and feelings don’t always work out ideally. That’s why you prioritize genuine kindness. “If you are kind, then kind things happen to you in return,” she says.
Her kindness is reflected every night, Monday through Thursday, while working as a custodian at the University of Oregon. Her goal: to provide love and comfort for students dealing with the stresses of school and feelings of homesickness. “These are all of my kids,” says Anita. “I really connect with all these students. They need lots of hugs and talks.” Her impact on students is motivating and inspiring according to various students who regularly study in her building: Lewis Integrative Science Building.
“People who work in the backgrounds of our academic experiences — people like Anita — bridge the gap between school and community,” says junior and biology major Nelson Perez Catalan. “Anita usually channels her internal-mother and says things ranging from: ‘have you eaten dinner yet?’ to ‘make sure that you sleep today!’”
Anita believes she was born with a gift from God: the ability to help students navigate the natural twists and turns of life as a young adult, while also connecting with them on the dynamic feelings of cultural displacement.
Her love for the students is shown every time she interrupts her current conversation to say hello to a student or faculty member passing by. “If I’m going to ignore these kids while I work and not say hello, then somebody might do the same to my kids,” says Anita. “It goes both ways. I always think about them all the time. They call me ‘mama.’” She knows them all by first name.
Timid is not a word in Anita’s vocabulary. She gracefully interrupts a student sitting alone to ask where they’re from or how they’re handling the stresses of college. She’s not scared to share personal stories and ask about students’ traditions from their home cultures in return. She believes she’s doing her part in the world by taking the few minutes each night — while on the job — to bond with these students. So many aspects of your life change during this period of life, as a young adult. It is important to remind these students that someone is thinking about them and there for them whenever they need, Anita explains.
Dealing with cultural displacement while also grappling with common hurdles of life is nothing new to Anita. When she lived in Fiji, she practiced a different culture; the culture of her lineage was originally displaced when the British brought slaves over from India to Fiji. And again, when her parents demanded her relocation across the world, from Fiji to Oregon. Not only does Anita understand cultural hurdles of the world, but she truly understands heartbreaks of the world. Especially when it comes to her first love.
Anita was born and raised in Fiji. Deo grew up in the same community, two blocks away from her. There were no phones, no texting, and no calling. They shared their love through written word: love letters.
When her parents said she couldn’t be with Deo, she had no choice. That’s the Indian culture, Anita explains. Similarly, when her parents asked her to move to Oregon from Fiji, she did just that. “We do as our parents say out of love and respect for them.”
However, Anita lives a life of optimism. “I truly believe there is always a good reason for everything,” she says. “I always thought, if he is mine, he will come back to me. Let him go.” Not only does she treat life this way, she strives to teach students similar lessons. Everything will work out for the better, as long as you’re optimistic, patient, and kind.
In 2008, she was living with her family and working at the Doubletree Hotel in Portland as a housekeeping supervisor, when her sister called her from Fiji. “Guess whose phone number I have!” Anita’s sister screamed over the phone.
Three days later, Anita found herself lying to her family, sneaking out, and driving to see her first love, whom she hadn’t seen in 22 years. After all of this time, they were living a mere 100 miles away from each other. He had moved to Oregon, from Fiji, in ’87 and was newly divorced. It was meant to be.
The following year was filled with transitions. Anita explained her choice to her children and divorced her first husband; her parents were supportive this time. She finally had the traditional wedding ceremony she had once wished about, with the man she always dreamed of.
Looking back, Anita has zero regrets, especially when it comes to applying for work at the University of Oregon. “This is something that I wanted,” she says. “I wanted to be around kids. I understand the feeling of being away from your family.” Anita says life is filled with personal battles every day. How you handle these battles reflects your true character. Whether it’s exhaustion from studying for a midterm or nursing a broken heart, as long as you focus on being the best version of yourself, everything else will fall into place.