A TASTE OF CURRY
I. Foreign Objects
When I was in my 20s, I added two piercings below my lower lip to the one I had acquired a couple of years before. At Cactus Tattoo, Brandon instructed me to lie back on the cushioned table. He leaned over me, long needle poised, his dreadlocks held back in place by a thick rubber band. One needle punched through my skin. I felt the sharp pinch, then the pain was gone. He did it again, on the other side. Needle punch, sharp pinch, then gone.
“OK, all done,” Brandon said. “Sit up slowly. I’ve had plenty of people pass out.” He helped to ease me up, taking my elbow gently.
My head felt light, but more from adrenaline than from pain. By now I was used to the needle-to-flesh process: I had a belly button ring, nose stud, and labret, along with a tattoo on my ankle, one on my upper left arm, and one across the small of my back.
I studied the silver round studs in the mirror Brandon handed to me. I ran my tongue over the soft tissue on my inner lip, the back of the studs cool and smooth. I pushed on them with my tongue, making the studs dance.
I lived in a southern Minnesota college town, and tattoos and piercings were not uncommon. But most people played it safe with a small flower, or Chinese symbol, or barbed wire etched onto a muscled bicep. A few girls sported either one nose or one eyebrow piercing, rarely more. My trio of labrets set me apart.
But I wondered if my four facial piercings would be enough to satisfy an insistent desire to stand out, a desire I could not ignore, which seemed to rise from somewhere deep and primal. Would I always be searching for more? Even on that day of new piercings, I thought I might.
Her name was Oripin Kunatharasak. I listened to my mom, dad, and sister stumble over her name with their Midwestern tongues.
“That’s OK,” she said in faltering English. “You can call me Cheem.” Which we pronounced “Jean.”
My older sister, Renee, had signed up to host a foreign exchange student through American Field Service. In the fall of 1981, when I was seven years old, Cheem arrived from Bangkok, Thailand and landed firmly in the cornfields outside of small-town Waseca, Minnesota.
I fixated on Cheem’s glossy, straight black hair and her dark, almond-shaped eyes—darker hair and darker eyes than I had ever seen. Mom’s hair was a deep chestnut brown, as was Renee’s. Dad, my brother, and I had sandy blond locks. All of us had blue eyes except for Dad, whose were hazel peppered with strange, red flecks. I knew only one Asian up to this point—my classmate’s younger brother, Ben, adopted from Korea.
Cheem brought gifts. I got a pick-up game made of colored wooden sticks. She brought a bright silk scarf and purse, the turquoise and pink standing out against the drabness of this place.
And she brought curry.
I leaned in to smell the orange, powdery substance that looked like it belonged on another planet, and the odor burned into my nostrils. I wrinkled my nose and turned away. “It’s really hot,” Cheem said. Nothing stronger than salt and pepper had ever graced our food. But Mom and Renee were eager to try the curry. They made a Thai soup with Cheem’s help.
Dad, my brother, and I would not try the soup. We were like stubborn children, arms crossed, faces puckered. So Mom had to make two meals, defrosting the red meat that we ate nearly every night so the men and I could have hotdish sprinkled liberally with salt.
At the table, Mom, Renee, and Cheem sipped the soup. “It’s good!” Mom said, looking at those of us eating meat and buttered bread. “You’re really missing out.” I didn’t mind missing out. I shoved more hotdish into my mouth, the comforting, bland blend of noodles and meat and ketchup floating over my tongue.
* * *
In our house, we fought a silent culture war most every day. Mom and Renee had a curiosity about what existed beyond our small town. Mom was well read, checking out two or three books every couple of weeks from the Waseca Public Library. She subscribed to magazines such as Metropolitan Home and read issues while sitting in our neat but modest double-wide trailer, envisioning how people in New York, London, and Madrid lived and wondering if she could bring a little of that here. She played piano, organ, and violin. Renee was a good student in school, excelling in subjects such as English, history, and languages. She took German classes starting in ninth grade and quickly became fluent. If she was going to be stuck in Waseca for a few more years, she figured hosting an AFS student could bring a piece of the world to us.
On the other hand, Dad and my brother had a curiosity about the world that was at an inverse proportion to Mom and Renee’s. My brother, especially, seemed purposely contrarian, disavowing Mom and Renee’s interests just to be disagreeable. Mom and Renee wanted to try things such as curried food, therefore he adamantly and resolutely would not. Even then, as a young teen, he was showing favor toward our town’s beer drinking, country-music listening, redneck partying ways that would later define him. Dad was quieter in his stubbornness. If he didn’t want to try anything new or didn’t want to go anywhere, he didn’t mean to offend anyone. He simply liked routine and habit. Curry was neither.
As the youngest in the family, I didn’t know which side to choose. I was too young to form opinions of my own. But my routines were becoming inflexible. Already I didn’t like to try new foods. A bowl of Froot Loops each morning. A ham sandwich, grapes, and a cookie in my brown bag lunch each day. Meat, potatoes, and milk at night. By the time Cheem came to live with us, I was identifying with the ways of my dad and brother. The scales were tipping in their favor.
* * *
A few weeks after Cheem arrived, it was family picture time for the St. Joseph’s church directory. Dad donned a suit, Mom wore a black turtleneck and plaid blazer, and I put on my favorite outfit of that year: a green velvet jumper dress with white shirt underneath. Mom insisted that Cheem be in the portrait, too.
With Cheem either in or out of earshot, I’m not sure which, I asked Mom, “Why is Cheem going to be in the picture?”
“Because she’s part of the family,” Mom said firmly.
I didn’t understand. I knew we would get this picture back, and instead of three kids, there would be four. That wasn’t reality. Mom and Dad had three kids. I was afraid that people would look at this picture and wonder who the fourth kid was, this Asian teen. Even though Cheem was with us for only a short time, this picture would preserve forever an untrue version of our family. That this picture would become part of the historical record didn’t seem right. My smile in that picture is forced, frozen, my eyes tight.
* * *
When I was about four years old, I showed my newest Barbie to Grandpa Zimny. Grandpa lived in the house next to ours, and it was like my second home. This was 1979, and my Barbie was black. I loved Black Barbie as much as my others, and I loved Barbies very much. She was as beautiful as the other Barbies, in fact a total copycat in terms of facial features and a buxom, leggy body. The only difference is that her body was painted black and she sported an Afro. I was proud of Black Barbie, and this was the reason I showed Grandpa.
It was a glorious summer day, and summer days like this we spent outside. On Grandpa’s front steps, I thrust Black Barbie in his direction.
“Do you like her?” I asked.
“Where’d ya get that n---- doll?” he asked with a laugh, his trademark wispy “he-he-he” that he exhaled.
I didn’t know what a “n-----” was, and I didn’t know why this would make him laugh. I brought Black Barbie in toward me, held her to my chest. She was different. She didn’t seem safe out there in the world.
* * *
The slurs continued throughout my childhood. I was exposed to a wide variety of terms for “the other”: chinks, japs, spics, fags, and wetbacks. The giant rocks that had to be lifted out of fields before spring planting were called n----- heads. Brazil nuts were n----- toes. I didn’t hear the words often, but they peppered conversations on occasion. The words came from Dad and my brother and other men, like neighbors and uncles. Always men. The women didn’t talk like that.
If these terms slipped out at home, like at the dinner table, Mom quashed it quickly with a harsh glance or a “don’t say that that,” with a nod of the head in my direction.
Dad took the hint. He had enough respect for Mom to keep his mouth shut, at least around her and around me. But my brother was always testing the limits, testing our patience. So he continued with the slurs just to be a jerk, to see if he could get a rise out of us. One day he was bemoaning the “wetbacks” coming into southern Minnesota to take the messy jobs at canning factories.
“Why are they called wetbacks?” I asked.
“Because they have to swim across the river in Texas to get here,” he said, buttering his bread. “Their backs get wet.”
Or, when watching a football game on TV: “Do you know why the black players on the sidelines always say ‘Hi, Mom,’ to the camera?” he asked me.
I took the bait. “Why?” I asked.
“Because they don’t know who their dads are.” He laughed. A wispy “he he he.”
* * *
Cheem arrived in a place that was nearly homogenous. People’s ancestry here stemmed from northern European stock—Scandinavian, German, and Irish. Diversity meant you either went to the Irish Catholic church or the German Catholic church. A “mixed marriage” was when a Swede married a Norwegian.
Homogenous as in white, and homogenous as in Christian. There were no Jewish families in town, and certainly no Muslims, Hindis, or Buddhists. Richelle Wahi’s dad was from India, but she and her siblings were raised in the Catholic faith of their French-Canadian mom. They completely erased anything that would have made them “ethnic.” Richelle ate the same red meat as everyone else in town, wore the same Guess jeans, listened to Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. They kept their saris and tandoori behind closed doors. To the public, the Wahis—who owned a busy convenience store and gas station—had successfully molded themselves into a WASPy, American dream ideal.
Or in Waseca’s case, a WASCy ideal. This was a town that Catholics ruled. The bankers, the doctors, the business owners all attended Sacred Heart Catholic Church. All of the popular kids, the ones who dominated the hallways and playground, the ones who set the standard and the ones that were to be followed, were Catholic. I admired the confidence they exuded, their perfect hair, the way they were thin and athletic.
* * *
When I was in middle school, Wednesdays were different than other days. Buses dropped us off at school, as usual. We stopped at our desks, put our books and backpacks away, but then congregated outside where we had been dropped off just minutes before. We formed groups not by bus route, but by religion. We Catholics boarded one bus, the Methodists another, and the Lutherans went to their respective synodical churches—ELCA, ALC, WELS. The First Congregationalists had a short walk to their church across the street. Wednesday mornings were reserved for religious instruction. After about an hour, the buses delivered us back to the middle school, where each class had a shortened schedule for the rest of the day in order to fit everything in.
Sometimes I was on the first bus back. At these times, I got a glimpse of the very few students who did not go to release time. The classroom was nearly empty save for three or four students sitting quietly at their desks. The teacher sat at her desk, grading papers or prepping for the day. For those who didn’t go to release time, these Wednesday mornings were treated as an extended study hall where they could finish their homework or read a book.
These kids seemed to shrink when their eyes met mine. They were different, the small minority who had no church, and they knew it. I judged them immediately. They were to be pitied. Many of these kids were transient, had no roots in Waseca. Some were foster kids or living with just a mom or dad in Vista Villa, Waseca’s trailer park on the west end of town. I equated not going to church with lack of family. Equated it with dysfunction. These kids didn’t stick around for long. On to the next town, in some cases on to the next family. To a new town where there, too, they would not go to church. They came and went, shadows in our town, our school. Theirs was a revolving cast, always on the margins.
These kids didn’t look any different, not like how Cheem looked different from us. Their differences were internal, in thoughts and actions, not outward appearances. If you could judge someone on how they were different from you internally, the limits were endless. You could always find something to condemn. Or, you could choose to see similarities, because they were there, too. For me, at this point, the scales hung in perfect balance. Which way would they tip?
* * *
One evening, as I walked down the hallway at home, I heard a soft crying coming from Cheem’s room. The door was open, so I walked in.
I wasn’t used to such emotion—I’m not sure I had even seen anyone cry up to this point in my life. No one cried in my family, no one yelled. In true Midwestern style, we were even-tempered—any true feelings ran beneath the surface, an invisible riptide below a calm sea. All I knew is that I wanted Cheem to stop; I wanted everything to be OK.
“What’s wrong?” I asked as I stepped toward her.
She wiped her eyes and tried to smile. “It’s OK. I’m just a little homesick, that’s all.”
I nodded and smiled back, and left the room.
Shortly after that, Cheem left our house. She had been with us just three months; she was supposed to stay one year. I asked Mom why Cheem was leaving. Mom said because we lived eight miles outside of Waseca, Cheem thought that was too far and she wanted to be closer in order to be more involved in school activities. We helped Cheem move to the Bakers’ house, a couple of miles north of Waseca on Highway 13. The high school was a five-minute drive away. The explanation made sense to me, and I didn’t question it. No one mentioned Cheem after that. I didn’t see her again.
* * *
Two years later, our family hosted Uta Bipp. Uta was from Karlsruhe, a small German town near the French border. Uta was to stay with us three months. She came in the fall of 1982, and Renee would go live with Uta’s family in the spring of 1983.
Uta had dark hair, a quick smile, and unshaven legs, which was all right since it was fall in Minnesota and she had no need for shorts. Besides the unshaven legs, she looked like any one of us, like anyone in school. Uta was like a long-lost cousin and as a result, fit in perfectly. Her English was nearly perfect, having spoken the language since she was a small girl. We welcomed Uta with open arms. I don’t remember Uta crying. Uta didn’t go to live anywhere else.
The first day of my sophomore year, I stuffed books and my backpack into my locker at Waseca High. I heard an uncontrollable, high-pitched laugh next to me. I looked over and saw Ben Erickson practically doubled over from laughter at the locker next to mine. Jocks and pretty girls walked by, some shooting dirty looks at Ben.
I had known Ben, my classmate’s brother from Korea, all my life, but not well. Now on Ben’s first day of high school, I discovered he was my locker neighbor. He continued his explosive laughter. “This will be a fun three years,” I said sarcastically.
But I was right.
We laughed so hard in classes at private jokes that Ben fell out of his chair and rolled onto floor. We conducted experiments in our lockers, leaving grapes and bananas in there the first day of school and checking on the rotting progress throughout the school year.
Ben was different. Not only was he Asian, but he also was forthcoming in his lust for boys—the handsome exchange student from Spain or the star football player. Ben opened a new world for me. An urban, liberal world, where men could love men and women could love women and everything in between. I was enthralled. When Ben turned 17, we celebrated by going into the back room at Video Update. The back room, with its swinging saloon-style doors, housed the NC-17 and soft-core porn videos. We walked in and were transported to a sexy and fetishized and exotic world.
We scanned the videos. “Let’s get this one,” I said, plucking one from the shelf. On the cover, the back of a man in a fedora, pinning a woman up against a wall. The woman’s legs wrapped around the man, her skirt high enough to reveal a white garter holding up a black-ribboned stocking. Henry and June. Tagline: “A true adventure more erotic than any fantasy.” Women who love women who love men.
* * *
Paths start to diverge in high school hallways. There’s the homogenous path, where so many choose to stay, or the path that forks far and away, the path of the different. What leads us down the paths we choose? Something as simple as your locker neighbor?
Perhaps it was the undercurrent of meanness and hate. The withering looks cast upon the poor by girls who wore Guess, Benetton, Esprit, and the pushing of boys like Ben into lockers. I felt toward Ben what I felt toward Black Barbie all those years before. I wanted to take him into my arms, hold him tight to my chest. I wanted to protect him from the big, mean world. I knew I would never be pushed into lockers for how I looked. I felt compelled to protect the ones who would be hurt by people who looked like me.
Or perhaps it was because I was growing older and getting to know my brother better, and the vile hate that spewed from his mouth cut me deep in my gut. We represented to each other what we most feared. To him, I was the scary liberal, headed to college in the big city. To me, he was the redneck with spouting racist jokes. We repelled each other like the two same ends of a magnet.
Or before that, maybe my path was decided when I saw Cheem crying in her room. I knew it was my family who had made her so unhappy. And even though I was little, that didn’t exempt me from blame or guilt. To Cheem, we looked like one unit. One racist, redneck, white-bread unit.
Or way, way back, maybe it was Black Barbie who decided my path.
My two labrets didn’t last. Just days after I got the piercings, my skin around the studs grew red and sore to the touch. The inflamed tissue pushed on the studs, and they kept popping out. I put them back in, but the pressure and constant touching kept the puffiness in place. After about six weeks, my body expelled the foreign objects for the last time.
Two faint scars remain below my lip. Slight, tiny indentations from the piercings that my body rejected. A reminder of what once was.
I wonder about other scars, those unseen. Below my inked and pierced skin, I’m afraid other impressions from the past remain. The inclinations of Grandpa, Dad, my brother, that which drove Cheem away. Do their dispositions reside in my genes? I once leaned in their direction—at the supper table eating meat and potatoes, in the classroom judging the students left behind during release time. I have since turned away, but do those tendencies remain imprinted in me?
If you removed my piercings, erased my tattoos, stripped the maroon out of my hair and restored it back to sandy blond, and then put me next to my brother, little would set us apart. He’s taller than I am, and broader, but people would believe we’re brother and sister just by looking at us. The same light hair, the same fair skin that crisps to red in the sun, the same pale blue eyes. I would look in the mirror and in the reflection see every other white girl in southern Minnesota.
The drive to be different compels me to modify my body. I need a visual reminder when I look in the mirror: I am not the people I have come from. I am not the people who have driven “the others” away. It’s like a mantra I whisper to myself, and I keep talismans of metal and ink to ward off the past.
Right now, I can hide what sets me apart if I choose. I can easily cover my tattoos and take out my piercings. So I plan more ink; one day I will not hide what sets me apart. I may have chosen to override my family’s genes long ago, but now I want people to clearly see that choice. I dream of a sleeve on the right arm, shoulder to wrist. When I should be working, instead I browse the Internet for photos of flowers on arms, pinks and yellows and reds, with plenty of “white space” for this graphic design girl. What appeals to me most is a vaguely Oriental design. Maybe the lovely yellow leaves of the cassia fistula, the golden rain tree, symbolizing Thai royalty.
Or to me, atonement.
Rachael Hanel is a writer and assistant professor of mass media in Mankato, Minnesota. Her memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter (2013, University of Minnesota Press), was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award. She has written several nonfiction books for children. Her essays have appeared in online and print literary journals such as Bellingham Review and New Delta Review. She is completing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.