The Foreigner In The Corner


I am the quiet one in the crowd with an approving nod and a warm chuckle, the one who just smiles at whatever you say. Looking spineless and overly agreeable, I give affirmative responses to most questions and suggestions while appearing to be afloat in my own world. To an outsider, it is one that seems to be without many words.

Except that mine is actually the opposite, though far away, where roosters crow from the roofs of neighbors who keep them not for food, but to tell time. I grew up with the nearest telephone being a thirty minute walk from our house, where my childhood summer entertainment consisted of evading grownups on my bicycle and hanging out watching water buffalo bathe in mud and bask in the sun. I would wait for the dirt to dry on their backs and crack into chips that fell in diamond-shaped patches, the end of the day leaving giant hoof prints surrounded by an assortment of clay shapes on the ground.

I don’t tell you about any of this because it always seems so odd and self-serving. In a crowd discussing television shows and restaurants, a story about livestock is just random, strange, and is easily misconstrued as an attempt to vilify the only life that you know – the same one I’m trying to fit into and make familiar. Worse, it makes a spectacle of what seems to be the pitiful backward existence of my past. I’d rather not draw attention towards some obscure land that’s so different from the universally appreciated topic at hand, even though I am pretty sure at one point in the conversation I was actually asked where I was from.

By asking maybe you didn’t need answers, you were just trying to be nice. I tried once, at a restaurant, to say that a dish reminded me of my childhood. The moment I said its name your eyes didn’t shift but its focus turned inward, instead of the story I wanted to tell.

And so I didn’t tell you about kare-kare, the oxtail stew that my beloved nanny used to make each year on my birthday. Early in the morning, grains of rice would be roasted and browned before she sat on a stool and ground it into a powder by hand. I wanted to tell you how the rice thickened the sauce and gave it a distinct flavor, whose aroma alone made the entire day’s labor worthwhile. I wanted to tell you how, the day I was able to replicate it in this country, I cried. But before I could start you said, “Ox…TAIL?” and wrinkled your nose, and that became the end of that.

I don’t tell you about the annual floods that submerge cities and mark the years on the walls of houses whose inhabitants have come to embrace the entry of sewer water as part of the season. I never mention the skewered green mangoes bobbing in brine sold outside churches, alongside prayer books and handwoven straw fans. When we eat a small and pricey sliver of fish at a fancy restaurant, I’d rather not spoil it with stories of mornings on the shore of my father’s hometown, where young boys helped pull in the nets that their own fathers had cast into the ocean the night before. The children would wade into the water with pieces of nylon string tied to their waists. They attached one end to the net and pulled it with their bodies, the bite of the string on their skin cushioned by coral-colored flipflops pressed against their backs.

I’m afraid my own savored tales of eating whole fish or sucking on a strange fruit would be met with indifference, and maybe even aggression. I’m not trying to be exotic, I’m just missing home. I want to tell you that this is not a comparison with or a preference for that from which I’ve been severed, but merely a keyhole peep into a world I’m both trying to leave and take with me while attempting to navigate a new one.

The next time I nod and respond with a smile, I want you to please look again. You might notice that my silence is thick with a life that goes on within me even if it’s all so far away. It’s a movie that plays behind me as I watch the unfolding film up front. One day I hope to achieve a melding of the two in a continuous set of frames I cannot differentiate: the life of my past in the smells and sights of fields and food, interspersed with an equally storied present I might eventually begin to describe on my own.

Until then I might have to resort to my own way of unpacking myself like a suitcase of selected outfits and personas from my homeland, to test one by one for reactions in the  new set of faces I’m trying to know. Forgive me for a while longer while I keep mostly silent, maybe talk about the weather or a news event, and when really, really pushed, say  something non-threatening that cannot be misinterpreted, such as my craving for pancakes, or my love for pastrami on rye.

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image – Helga Weber