My home is not what I remember. Throughout university, I met people who saw the Philippines as a nation of insignificance. As nothing but a remote cluster of islands somewhere in Asia, its churches corrupt and its immaculate waters unknown. During my time in London, one of my students asked about my upbringing; as we munched on butter biscuits by the playground, stale crumbs dusting our laps, I told her about my country. “The Philippines?” she frowned. “Is that in China?”
Those moments of ignorance are now gone. More than three years ago, in a room overlooking the Arabian Gulf, I first feared for my country—what was once nothing to millions of people has been shoved into the spotlight, the pinnacle of conversations among taxi drivers and teachers, misogynists and mutineers, nurses and narcissists, cheaters and children. As I studied literature and theater in the Middle East, tens of thousands of deaths surfaced back home. Until now, the police continue to slaughter Filipinos without trial. Children and innocent people are caught in the crossfire. Human rights activists risk their lives to protest for freedom.
And I am oceans away as my country suffers.
When the media first began broadcasting the deaths, I made halo-halo. In the shared kitchen of my dormitory building in Abu Dhabi, I had one way to connect to my home: by consuming it.
Of all the desserts my country offers, there is nothing I find as quintessentially Filipino as halo-halo, a layered treat made of shaved ice, evaporated milk, and mix-ins of your choice, from plantains and tapioca pearls to jackfruit and sweetened beans. There’s no set method for making the perfect halo-halo—as its Tagalog name implies, you mix whatever you have layered in your serving glass, and somehow, as if by magic, the random assortment works. Throughout my childhood, I constantly craved the crunch of sweetened ice, the sugary red beans between my teeth, the explosion of jackfruit on the tip of my tongue. My parents would order their halo-halo with a piece of leche flan and a scoop of ube ice cream on top—now, I cannot have it any other way.
Although it is a staple Filipino dessert, halo-halo is most likely an indigenized version of kakigōri. Before the Philippines’ war on drugs and long before World War II, Japanese migrants brought this dessert to my country. The kakigōri in Japan consisted of shaved ice sweetened with syrup; the addition of fruit preserves and other mix-ins occurred after Japanese farmers settled in the Philippines and began experimenting with local offerings. Over time, Filipinos threw in other ingredients, from creamy caramel custard to bright purple ube ice cream. Nowadays, you can find variants of the same dessert in different Philippine provinces, from a version in Pampanga with creamed corn and pastillas de leche to a “spicy winter” halo-halo in Laguna topped with jackfruit and chili peppers.
As I crushed ice that day in my dormitory’s tiny kitchen, I contemplated these versions of halo-halo, how they had changed over time and taken on unexpected new flavors. In that moment, I thought about the version of my country that not everyone gets to see: a Philippines untainted by war. The Philippines I love is congested cities, chocolate hills, and rice terraces carved by farmers and the palms of God. It is hours of traffic and electricity cuts and the rice cooker’s song when dinner is ready. Fried fish balls sold by street vendors and jeepneys with a smiling Jesus painted on each side. Finding a sewing kit in a cookie tin and frozen leftovers in an ice cream container and leaving your shoes by the door before entering a room. It is remembering home every time I dig a spoon into a tall glass of sweetened ice.
The day after I made halo-halo, I taught a friend how to prepare it. We layered the ingredients while discussing the dessert’s origins. My friend, who had grown up in Seoul, mused on the similarities between halo-halo and patbingsu, a Korean dessert made of shaved ice, sweetened condensed milk, and red beans. We ate near a television in the student lounge, the afternoon news droning on behind us. As a report of the latest deaths in the Philippines appeared, my friend struggled to speak, pity painting her face. I stared at the remains of my halo-halo, now a soupy mess of milk and melted ice. I wondered if other people would act this way around me. Would I change the topic if someone asked about the current events of my country? Would I feel ashamed to mention my origins, aware of how my country has changed since I left?
No. My home is not what I remember, no longer insignificant to the world. Despite my country’s flaws and my fear of returning to a place where no one is safe from a stray bullet, I am still Filipino. I admit there is a certain nostalgia I took for granted, a simpler time when my country’s name inspired curiosity, not sympathy. For someone like me, so far from home, my emotions are now as layered as my favorite Filipino dessert. I am glad the world has shown concern for the Philippines. But I am heartbroken too, for my country’s name has become synonymous with violence, a human rights disaster in the making. Fear trickles into my frustration. I am useless to my friends stuck back home. Guilt seeps into my shameful sense of relief. I am privileged to be somewhere safe with my family. As the daily news reports on the latest turmoil, I watch events unfold from afar, my despair mixing with a never-ending sense of helplessness.
These feelings consume me as I consume my country. I fear that the world will always see my home as a place of violence and nothing more. I will speak with anyone willing to discuss its current state, and I will try my best as a Filipino who hasn’t been home in half a decade. But I cannot stand and watch as the Philippines is typecast yet again—I must continue to talk about my country, a beautiful mess beyond the ongoing chaos. The Philippines is my homeland, the only one I will ever have, and it is more than the fleeting topic of some short conversation. It is more than a trend or a news headline. Countries are always more than the wars that plague them.
Every time sweetened ice crunches between my teeth, I will think of the last time I visited my hometown. With the familiar drizzle of evaporated milk, the distance disappears and I return to the Philippines I remember. To the afternoons on my front porch with sliced mango, hands stained and the air sticky sweet. To the mornings preparing pineapples and papayas in a warm, hazy glow. To waking up in the middle of hot summer nights, shirt clinging to skin and throat aching for halo-halo.
My first supper in America was a bowl of ramen. It was January, and New York a freezer. Tucked into one of the city’s box-like compartments, hidden by scaffolding beneath another shop in the Midtown area, was a crowded ramen place found via Google search. My roommate and I went there together. We did not know each other or America yet. Inside the small, bustling restaurant, alive with customers, steam clouds, pan sizzle and impatience, she told me it was her first time having Japanese food. I took a picture of her slurping noodles to send back to her boyfriend in Morocco. Do you like it? I asked her. She said it was interesting, and she giggled, slightly bewildered by her mouth, as her face reddened from hot broth, and her glasses assumed the look of a sauna.
I thought a lot about ramen after leaving New York, where I initially only spent three weeks doing a jazz studies class at NYU. I didn’t necessarily think of the thickness of the broth, or the level of heat rouging my lips, or the varying satisfaction of saving the soft-boiled egg for last, but I always remembered the choking hazard poster. In every restaurant I ate in, most of which were ramen spots near campus, I was mesmerized by the often elaborate, even beautiful illustrations of an asphyxiation taking place on a poster somewhere inside the establishment. I had never seen this anywhere else before. Was there a choking problem in New York? What was so hard for Americans to swallow?
There is a boy I knew who spent a lot of time talking to me about ramen. A few years ago, I had felt that America had swallowed him, and I could not reach my arm into the country’s throat to fish him back out. I resented his foreign chatter on the phone about the “fall” season, about brick buildings and buses to Boston. They were not mine; I was unfamiliar. But I loved it when he talked about ramen. In my off-beat time zone, first in my childhood bedroom and later, my college dorm in the Gulf, the thought of him bent, often alone and perhaps thinking fleetingly of me, over a large round bowl, swollen with noodles and broth and vegetables and meat and the hot, bright happy running out of an egg yolk, comforted me a lot.
Like any complex meal, ramen is built much like a furnished house. Upon a foundation of meat-based or fish broth, the cook scaffolds with what is usually a Chinese-style wheat noodle, paints the walls with soy or miso, adds fittings of chashu (pork), nori (dried seaweed), menma (bamboo shoots) and/or other vegetables like scallions, and finally, decorates with seasonings and a classic boiled egg. Enjoying a bowl of ramen, to me, feels like investing in a relationship – unpacking a suitcase and settling in for a bit.
Since that first winter day in New York, I have returned to the city twice more, over the summer and now for the spring. Over lunch with my friend the other day, I talked about how my experience of consuming New York has largely been shaped by Asian hand. That morning, we had gone to Brooklyn to visit the Museum of Food and Drink, or the MOFAD lab. They were running an exhibit on the emergence and presence of Chinese food in America; walls had been constructed out of stacked Chinese takeout boxes, an enormous fortune cookie machine stood majestic in the corner, and a whole wing was dedicated to displaying taxidermy models of the various breeds of chicken used in Chinese-American cuisine. I was impressed by the thoroughness and thoughtful clarity of the exhibit’s curation. During my sophomore year of college, I had taken a curatorial practice class in the art department, and since then had developed a deep fascination and respect for the curator’s task of shaping a clay-like historical narrative, using both text, found objects and physical matter. I began to see curation as a similar process to writing and editing; both worked with the raw material of narrative and history. Both had to take deft scalpels to stories, which together, like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, eluded a singular truth, and subsequently perform a surgery from which a complex storied product had to emerge.
What this exhibition specifically got me thinking about was the curated chronicling of hyphenated histories. While reading up about ramen earlier at home, I had learnt that its origins lay, much like most origins do, in a migration route between two (or more) cultures. It is widely believed that ramen was actually adapted from the Chinese, and brought over into Japan by Chinese immigrants. The first specialized ramen shop was only opened in 1910 in Yokohama, Japan, after decades of history in which it was primarily a Chinese offering, sold simple-style in small restaurants and mostly at portable street food stalls catering to local workers. Today, ramen has been developed, even arguably perfected, by Japanese chefs, and is, for the most part, considered a staple and highlight of Japanese cuisine.
I initially imagine that migration route between China and Japan as a hyphen, the same kind of hyphen that lies between Chinese and American in the MOFAD exhibit’s title. I’ve been thinking about the symbol of a hyphen a lot lately, now that I have spent a significant amount of time in the US. It often seems to me that America is choking on this hyphen. But the hyphen itself as a term can be contested, an unequal see-saw between two identities, those identities themselves clouded with ambiguity – after all, what is an authentic Chinese identity, let alone American? The hyphen hides, too, or rather sidesteps, the historical shifts and differences of power dynamics between the identities being hyphenated, and how those change once joined together by the hyphen itself.
Before arriving in New York in that snow-full January, I had never really reconciled the “hyphens” of my own existence – born as an Indian citizen, I grew up entirely in the southern African capital of Botswana, eventually moving to Abu Dhabi for university at the age of 18. I knew I had grown up and formed a slow identity while straddling more than one culture, both of which I had not really learnt to accept or love, but just sit in, perplexed into a discomfiting stasis between them. Going to America has burst that still yolk of a bubble, and I find myself thinking almost incessantly about the routes, the thread-lines, between these different locations and identities, that exist and connect simply because they do so inside me. I initially imagined myself as a collection of hyphens, but due to the slipperiness of that term in today’s age, I am forced to reconsider the structure of how the places that make me me, actually connect with each other, both within and without me.
This spring, I worked as an editorial intern at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan. AAWW began in a basement beneath a Gap store on St. Marks Place in 1991. Frustrated with having to explain and unpack their work and identities to a largely ignorant mass of white literati, a small group of Asian-American writers formed a new, magical subterranean world in which they could collaborate and validate each other’s creativity and hyphenated states. Over 30 years later, the problem of the hyphen remains just that, even within this essay: a problem. But the community that carries what America has deemed for them a scar, an unhealed wound, the eternal mark of an outsider, has grown bigger and stronger.
I worked for two of AAWW’s literary magazines: A World Without Cages, which documents writing by incarcerated Asian-Americans, and Open City, a journalistic initiative documenting New York’s immigrant neighborhoods. It was quite late into my job that I sat down to read the novel that I assumed the latter magazine was named after: Open City by Teju Cole, published in 2011. Not a long read, I gulped it down quickly, in a matter of 2-3 days. Since then, I’ve been thinking about it quite incessantly.
Open City is really an opening into the mind of
a Nigerian-German psychiatrist named Julius. I would describe Julius as a
cosmopolitan. The entire book is an act of both literal and mental roving –
Julius spends a lot of time walking around New York, and for a brief but
powerful segment, Brussels, and lets his mind travel with him, crossing the
borders of the present into the past too, which is Julius’ childhood in Lagos,
Nigeria. Both these physical and intellectual wanderings are colored with
Julius’ heightened intellectualisms and intense philosophizing. For instance,
seeing a disabled man within the maze of New York City prompts a long-winded foray
into Yoruba traditional myths and fantastical interpretations of the disabled.
Because I, as a reader, spend so much time absorbed in Julius’ headspace, the
act of walking through New York is shaded over with his presence – I become Julius. Not necessarily a
biracial psychiatrist of course, but a cosmopolitan, and educated, mind. While reading the novel, an instance of eating the
infamous Brooklyn Blackout at a bakery, voted the best chocolate cake of
America, triggers an absurd thought of my brain itself becoming the sponge
cake, eager to absorb as much sweet lushness from the layers and layers of
culture and diverse narratives from the palimpsest that is the ‘cosmopolitan’
It is true that I
often feel a kind of desperate hunger to understand any cosmopolitan city I
inhabit. There is a strange urgency in me, like the persistent press of a full
bladder, to visit every single neighborhood, to understand the inner workings
as quickly as possible, and to feel the security of knowledge, of yes, I know
this place, I know the subway routes and the odd stories of a local or two, I
may even have written it down and immortalized it, and therefore, I can lay a
claim of belonging to it, somehow. This logic is faulty, of course. But
although I have become aware of this, and learned to curb myself, the hunger
itself still stays. It is a hunger to resolve the tensions of differences,
sometimes so disparate to the point of inconsequential or bizarre, within my
own brain. Or in other
words, I seek for hyphens to make connections between things that don’t
reconcile within my head. In this way, I also become Farouq, the
Moroccan clerk-cum-political philosopher that Julius meets in Brussels. Farouq
is enchanted by Edward Said, and his fantasy, or dream, is to figure out how
people from different places can live together while keeping their own values
Near the end of Open City, we learn of a disturbing ‘plot twist’ and our perception of Julius, and the thread letting us dangle as marionettes within his brain, is suddenly, violently snapped. It feels as if I cannot trust my own mind and its machinations anymore. Because I realize I have become not Julius or Farouq but the cosmopolitan experiment, and in one small shocking instant, it has failed. A sour, almost metallic taste fills my mouth, such a vivid physical sensation, as if to counteract the abrupt mental upending that has just occurred. As the sun spills onto the Bowery, as if from an upset jug, I walk down the street combing over the entire novel in my mind, simultaneously using and questioning the critical toolbox I carry with me, one constructed and afforded by elite education, the same kind that gives Farouq and Julius their Paul de Man, Said and Derrida. Farouq and Julius, to me, are failed cosmopolitans, and seem to mask this failure with the very theoretics that enables their cosmopolitanism to take shape. And if they are failures, I re-arrive, finally, at the question that keeps frothing inside me since I’ve come to this country: what am I?
Open City is also a novel full of silences and gaps. Recently, my friend Jiun, who is a history major, wrote a piece about how stumbling upon the history of mi koo buns, her Malaysian childhood breakfast dish, prompted her to think about how people, and bodies, carry layers of both loud and mute history, and are thus, archives. What was to her just a nostalgic traditional food, actually carried a violent history: “Decades ago, a young man who joined the Malayan Communist Party’s guerrilla army was caught by British soldiers and sent to prison, where he was tortured into a coma. His mother prayed for him every day at the River Goddess Temple on Temple Street, offering lotus flowers with incense sticks. One day, all the florists in town were out of lotus flowers. Desperate, the mother baked some Mi Koo buns, carved flowers on them, and presented these at the altar instead. The boy survived his coma.” The palimpsest of historical meaning within the “mute mi koo bun” has led her to a research process that reveals more silence and censorship than she could have initially imagined. And she is recognizing how much this silence speaks about our failures in history. In Open City, Julius spends much time discussing the histories that are both literally and metaphorically buried in New York City: Wall Street sits atop a mass grave of African slaves – an event an academic friend describes as a “double burial.” Another day, I learn at a poetry reading, where I have come to engage with a specifically literary, creative-critical crowd, that that site of the Bowery Poetry Club sits on Lenape land, forcibly taken from Native Americans, another buried history that Cole mentions in his novel.
Open City sees Julius discussing how everyone views their own selves as the center for calibrating what is ‘normal; in other words, we are the heroes of our own stories. It reminds me of the Rashomon tale and our inability to arrive at, or simply the non-existence of, truth when there are multiple narratives of the same thing that all regard themselves as the center, the right, the truth. If I am trying to become a cosmopolitan, to string my hyphens together into something meaningful and ideal, and accepted first of all, then how do I reconcile the Rashomon effect with my quest? How do different people who all think they are right and splinter in the face of difference, live together successfully while still retaining the shifts and differences in their identities all bumping together constantly? How can my cosmopolitanism work when it must face history, and engage with the violence that is so often silent, so often buried, within that history? How does cosmopolitanism not worry itself to death when history is always hovering over its neck?
One day at the AAWW office, my fellow editorial intern holds a ramen night to use as research for a piece on the significance of instant noodles in contemporary life. A bunch of us, each carrying purses of different hyphenated identities, bring in a variety of noodle brands, from Mama to Maggi, and sit for three hours boiling water and exchanging bowls of disintegrating noodle bricks. The office sputters with the hissing of kettles, and the slurping of broth. Over discarded plastic packets, strewn books and stray chopsticks, we talk about the role ramen has played in our lives. I tell them Maggi was an occasional childhood luxury whenever I visited India, and that I lived off ramen when I ran out of all my money while living in Paris. I had spent several days in an utter daze, thinking only of food and the want for filling myself. Later as I go home on the 6, lips scarlet from heat, I realize that, in a way, my hunger has never left.
My mother held my hand as we shuffled through the crowd.
“Be careful,” she said, noting the murky puddles of cooking oil and cabbage shreds on the ground.
The square was busy that morning, bustling with peddlers hawking their wares on the street, wagon conductors touting cheaper fares and bigger trunks. The sun was hardly bright enough to mark the day’s start, but people from around the town had already gathered here to conduct their various affairs. There was the rice cake uncle busy serving someone in the corner, the butcher aunty chopping chicken feet and throwing them in a bag, and me, trailing behind my mother as she cleared the way to the bus station, declining the many offers being pressed upon her.
It was July 2006, and I was on my way to visit my grandmother in Pasuruan, a five-hour bus ride from my tiny hometown Caruban. Every school break, my mother and I spent a few days in the countryside. My father took us to the square, dropped us off at the gate, and reminded me, while my mother was busy buying snacks and water for the ride, to protect her and myself on the bus.
“You’re a big boy now,” he said, fastening the straps of my yellow Pooh overall, “you need to beware of strangers, you understand?”
Before we made the journey, my mother always made sure that I brought a gift for my grandmother. It didn’t have to be anything big or expensive; a handwritten card or a drawing from my art class would serve the purpose.
“Old people love to be remembered,” she’d say, while also packing a few things: boxes of ginger tea and shredded meat, curry paste and tomato powder, and bags of red rice that she claimed would be good for my grandmother’s health.
I always looked forward to these visits and wondered what my grandmother would do if I was not there, helping her feed her ducks, walking along the riverside before dusk. My grandmother lived by herself on the outskirts of Pasuruan, where geraniums grow in the colder season. My grandfather, once a revered general in the army, had passed away in a war long before I was born. The idea of a time when my grandfather was still alive, a time before I knew what time even was, before my grandmother acquired gray hair and cloudy vision, always made me feel uneasy. I couldn’t imagine my grandmother being anything other than old. I wondered if she’d come to this world with wrinkles already, and sunspots across her face. The fact that she had once been a pretty lady, that she’d had plum cheeks and full teeth and fallen in love with a soldier younger than herself, I couldn’t begin to imagine.
At the station gate, my mother and I looked around to spot the green bus that would take us to Pasuruan, the one that had the word “Suryapati” printed all over it. One would imagine, since it was a fairly long ride, that Suryapati buses would be big and comfortable. But instead, these buses were often tattered and small to fit the narrow winding road uphill. The seats were grubby and had deflated foam. The windows were always foggy because the air conditioner was too cold. There was no toilet inside, so every now and then the driver had to stop at the petrol station or mosque or the side of the road to let passengers out.
Still I loved these long bus rides, loved watching the driver hoisting my mother’s packages onto the roof, strapping them safely under the tarpaulin. I loved the chatter between bored strangers, how I could sit back and see an endless expanse of paddy fields with cows chewing lazily on their cuds, crows brawling for fruit peels thrown by lunching farmers. I loved the fresh air and the anticipation that the journey brought for my grandmother’s sweets—sesame balls and coconut pudding and star-shaped cookies.
“Front seats, please,” my mother told the driver once we found the green bus.
“Ah, yes, Ma’am,” he said, his eyes flickering up and down her frame. “Two, but separate rows. Okay?”
My mother peeked through the doorway at the two empty seats, one on the left row, next to hands of bananas that couldn’t fit on the roof, and the other on the right, a single seat next to a window. She looked at me, debated for a while, and eventually said: “This time, Dayin will have to sit on his own,” referring to me in third-person to signal her trust, to accord me the respect of a grown-up and make me feel capable of being on my own.
She mounted me on the single seat next to the window, fastening me with a scarf around my waist. I looked at my mother as she settled herself in her seat, clutching her black handbag where she’d stored my gift for grandmother, this time a snippet of a poem that I’d written for my Bahasa class. There were many passengers behind us, and the one sitting behind my mother was a man, perhaps as old as my father, with a mop of curly hair and a dragon tattoo on his neck. He wore a pair of jeans and a sleeveless shirt, the kind that my father would wear while doing dirty work, either fixing his motorcycle or pruning the garden. The man looked at my mother, then at me, with his big, cunning eyes, and in an instant threw his gaze out the window, as if startled by my staring.
“Clear the way!” the driver shouted at passersby, cueing the bus’ departure.
The machine began to gurgle, and everyone recited a prayer under their breath. I watched my mother solemnly close her eyes and raised my own hands to pray.
“Ya Allah, I hope I don’t get too hungry or get kidnapped. I hope Uti is baking cookies right now.”
At that point, being a nine-year-old, I had heard enough stories about child kidnapping and been trained by my parents to avoid risky situations with strangers.
“Don’t take any drinks from them,” my mother would say.
“If somebody approaches you after school and offers to drive you home, ask them what Baba’s last name is,” my father would chime in.
“But Baba doesn’t have a last name,” I’d protest.
“Exactly my point,” the quick reply.
In Caruban, children went missing for days, only to return at the end with a scar across their stomachs, one kidney gone and sold by the kidnapper. Some came back only years after they had been forced to beg on the streets, their bodies skinny as straws, legs amputated to prevent them from running.
My parents never held back on telling me the gory details of these stories. They brought me news cutouts and turned up the television so I could see the danger threatening nine-year-olds like me across the country. Although they were persistent in convincing me that people were not always good-natured, they never told me that crime could afflict adults too. I was small and still oblivious to what people thought of women in our society: how they saw them as easy prey.
In the beginning, everything went normally. The bus pressed onto the uphill route, and my mother took out the sweet corn that she’d purchased from the square. Usually, we talked a lot on the bus: about my father and his work, about my birth and what I had been like as a baby. We discussed trees and bees that helped pollinate flowers, interesting lessons and teachers at school. This time, because we were sitting in separate rows, we had to make do with smiling across the aisle. She resigned to look at whatever she could with the bananas blocking her window, and I enjoyed my lovely views of the forest.
After my mother had fallen asleep in her seat, I began to notice something very strange about the man behind her. From time to time, he’d look over my mother’s shoulder, as if trying to peek at something that he couldn’t quite see. As in the case with my mother, who was sitting by the exit door, the window seat next to the man was also loaded with bananas, blocking his view of the forest. Whenever he looked over my mother’s shoulder, I tried to pinpoint what exactly he was doing, sticking his head out like that. Did he feel uncomfortable in his seat? Was he trying to keep an eye on the road? But why would he want to do that?
As we went deeper into the forest, we passed by the usual petrol station. By then, the bus had grown much quieter; most of the other passengers had fallen asleep. I steadied myself, still fastened to my seat by the scarf, and suddenly noticed the driver from the rear-view mirror blinking at me, then doing an elaborate gesture with his hand. I turned around and was rather surprised to see that the man behind my mother was also doing an elaborate hand gesture, his eyes flickering to my side.
In movies, a surreptitious sidelong glance like that was never a good omen. There was something going on. The man and the driver were onto something; otherwise, why wouldn’t the bus stop at the petrol station?
I shifted my body to the side so I could scope out what was happening. Still, as though he did not see me as a threat, the man behind my mother looked over her shoulder. What do you want to see, strange man? I asked myself. Then, as I recalled how kidnappers in movies often ask for ransom from parents in exchange for their child, my eyes landed on what I believed was the cause of the man’s curious behavior: my mother’s handbag.
Containing money and my gift for my grandmother, the handbag was not securely placed under my mother’s care. I looked outside and saw the trees running past me, as if the world was going backward. How would he do it? I asked myself. If the bus was moving this fast, and we were in the middle of the forest, how would he plan to escape after he’d stolen the bag? I glanced at him again; he was still trying to avoid eye contact with me. Maybe the driver will stop, I thought. Maybe he will run downhill to his hideaway place. But where would such a place exist? In the middle of the forest? Why?
I tried to recall all the things that my father had told me about forests.
“You see, if you turn your back on a lion, the lion will come and eat you,” his voice suddenly echoed in my head. “You need to keep facing the lion. Look him in the eye,” the voice said.
I couldn’t recall the occasion that had warranted such advice from him in the first place, but I turned my head anyway, aiming a steady, penetrating glare at the man. I felt the strong urge to wake my mother up but thought of how tired she must have been after staying up the night before to make tomato paste for my grandmother. I thought hard, while still keeping an eye on the man with the cunning gaze, about what I could do to prevent the crime. After ruminating for a while, I went with what I thought was the best action: rest my legs on my mother’s seat and use them to trip the man.
The bus suddenly took a right turn, and I saw vague impressions of buildings in the distance. The driver, snapping his finger, again used the rear-view mirror to communicate with the man in their secret code. I thought to myself: this is the time, this is where his hideaway place is. The driver had given him a clue that a village was near, that he could simply take my mother’s handbag and run away. I prepared myself as the bus decelerated, the man again looking at the exit door. Houses and lampposts were flashing past me, and my legs, resting on my mother’s seat, were as stiff as wood. As the bus eased to a slow halt, the man, putting his cap on and fixing his hair, rose from his seat and drew his backpack from the overhead compartment. He turned his body and saw my legs blocking the aisle. He crouched, put on a smile, and stroked my shins, looking at me straight in the eye. I glared at him like I was trying to threaten another kid in the playground.
“Hey, child,” the driver called.
But I didn’t flinch. I didn’t want to take my eyes off the man and give him a chance to slip by me.
“Oy!” The driver called out again.
The man, looking up at the driver, did another one of his elaborate hand gestures.
“Oy, boy!” The driver shouted even louder, startling my mother, waking her up from her sleep.
“Let the man out!” the driver called.
My eyes were still on the man, who then laughed, a rather gentle, innocent laugh.
“Ma’am!” The driver called my mother, who was fully awake now, rousing in her seat. “Your child is blocking the aisle.”
“Dayin, your feet,” she whispered, tightening her grip on her handbag. “Get off the seat.”
The man smiled at her.
“Sorry,” my mother said, apologizing to the man, who only nodded and produced a sound that I couldn’t quite comprehend, turning his one hand into a fist and sticking out his middle and index fingers, like a peace sign.
Seeing that I was still not willing to stand down, my mother pushed my feet off her seat and let the man out, the driver shaking his head and laughing behind the steering wheel. I watched him get off the bus and walk into a house with a huge mango tree on its patio.
“What was that?” My mother asked. “It’s not nice, what you just did.”
“He was trying to mug you! I saw him looking at your bag!” I replied.
My mother hushed me, showing a stern, reprimanding look.
“You’re being silly. The man was just trying to get out.”
The driver, who couldn’t stop laughing at our conversation, said, “My boy, my boy,” as if I was his own son. “Your son is funny, eh, Ma’am?”
My mother nodded her head and smiled.
“Sorry. He’s just a little tired.”
“No, I’m not!” I protested. “He was trying to mug you! The driver was in on it! They did the thing… the thing with their hands. He kept looking over your shoulders.”
The driver kept laughing, and my mother, too, somehow joined him.
“He was deaf, Dayin, he can’t hear,” my mother said. “You heard how he just spoke? That’s how deaf people speak.”
“He was not checking your mother, son,” the driver chimed in, “he was looking at the road to see if he’d arrived.”
Seeing I was not convinced, he added: “He was sitting next to the bananas, you see? He couldn’t look through the window. I just happened to have a deaf sister, so I know how to speak sign language.”
Instead of relief, anger boiled inside me. I felt betrayed; I felt like everyone was trying to make a mockery out of me, robbing me of my heroic moment.
“No, he’s lying, Ma. He was trying to mug you, I swear!”
“Hush,” my mother said. “What did I tell you about swearing?”
For the remainder of the ride, my mother and I stayed awake, me looking out the window and reflecting on the crime that had only occurred in my head. The driver glanced at me every now and then and chuckled, perhaps, at my misplaced suspicion. I wondered if he thought I was just overreacting. I wondered if he knew where I’d gotten all of my suspicion from.
Jollibee is more than just a Filipino fast food chain. It is to me what McDonald’s is to many of my friends from other places—a staple. I have known Jollibee, both the chain and the mascot, since I could barely eat solid food. I’ve attended birthday parties, caught up with family and friends, and reflected on my personal growth with Jollibee. This bee might even have brought me closer to God. When I was in grade school, my sister and I convinced our religious mother that Sunday lunches should be at Jollibee. Her conditional “yes”—Sunday lunches could not always be at Jollibee—was the motivation we needed to wake up and get out of bed early for the 10:30 am Sunday mass at a Catholic church that was an easy walking distance away from a Jollibee outlet.
Last Sunday, I followed a similar itinerary, except this time, I was not with my mother and sister, but my friend; we were not in Cebu but New York; and Jollibee was, due to the weather, not an easy walk from the church. I had no need to convince my friend to grab lunch at Jollibee because, as she pointed out, I had mentioned the place to her in a previous conversation in Abu Dhabi, which is where I study. Some days when the craving for crispy, juicy Chickenjoy alongside a gravy-covered hill of rice—my personal twist—comes on so strong, I leave campus to find a Jollibee, however far away it is.
The only Jollibee outlet in Manhattan is in Times Square. As my friend and I walked there, we dealt with an added challenge—our limited knowledge of the area. I knew, however, that one must only look for a red-and-yellow-striped bee in a blazer, bowtie, and toque. I told my friend this detail and we soon found ourselves approaching my favorite bee. Standing in front of the store, I noticed the cultural sandwich that Jollibee is a part of. On one side stands IndiKitch, a casual chain that serves Indian food; on the other side is Arby’s, an American fast food sandwich chain. Across the street there is Kung Fu Kitchen, a restaurant serving Chinese staples.
What stood out more to me, however, was the absence of Jollibee’s statue outside the store. In the Philippines, a Jollibee statue always stands outside by the door. Its smile is big and camera-ready. Its arms are kind. It gestures people to come inside: Everyone is welcome here! One day, in the summer after my sophomore year, I laid my hand on the wrist of Jollibee’s extended hand, pressed my face close to his, and contained my excitement in a smile. A friend captured the scene in a photograph. I moved to check how I looked and another kid immediately took my spot. I was home. In the Manhattan outlet, the same statue exists, but it stands inside the store, by the waiting area. I guess Jollibee, too, could not stand the cold weather.
While my friend and I stood in line to place our orders—two 2-piece Chickenjoy with a side of white rice, pineapple juice for me, water for her, please—my worry outweighed my excitement, wondering what she would think and say about my favorite Jolly meal. When we finally got our food, we sat ourselves a table away from the Jollibee statue. Then, to her prompting, I showed her my way of eating Chickenjoy: with bare hands. She did the same. At some point, I was probably too obvious with my concern because she commented that people tend to want others, especially their family and friends, to at least like what they love. I still kept asking her what she thought of the fried chicken.
Eventually, as I watched the transient inhabitants of the place I called Jollyland, my worries ebbed. Like in my local Jollibee, I was surrounded by couples, kids, students, and workers—people from various walks of life. The difference, though, was that they were all eating a piece of my home. Jollibee, after all, represents Filipinos’ resilience and unapologetic love for our culinary culture. Some people say that Jolly Spaghetti is too sweet. It is, but in such sweetness I remember happy memories of eating meals at Jollibee and seeing the look of satisfaction on my older sister’s face. The generous sprinkle of cheese atop the ground beef-garlic-onion mix always elicits a contented sigh from her. Traces of the tangy sweet banana catsup-tasting sauce frames one side of her mouth, sometimes both. Beside her, mama slices her moist beef burger patty into bite-sized pieces using disposable cutlery that bends and breaks usually before she gets to taste the first chunk. She pushes her sliced gravy-coated button mushrooms to the side. My sister and I take it as a cue for a brief fork fight, although we usually end up splitting the already small portion into half.
The sweet-style spaghetti, too, represents Filipinos’ resistance at a time when sugar consumption was restricted to the upper class by the upper class colonizers. The Philippines’ Spanish, and 333 years later, American colonizers enjoyed the abundant sources of natural sugar in the land. As a result, several Filipino desserts were named by the Spanish or the Americans. When the mass production of sugar began, which meant cheaper costs, the Filipino people started adding sugar to recipes. Now, many Filipinos tweak dishes to suit a national predilection for sweets.
Despite my nostalgia, I did not feel completely at home in that Jollibee. The atmosphere was different. Perhaps I was too aware of geography and my status within it, or I was still being bothered by my tendency to please. The second time I visited, I was alone. I felt as if I was inside a bubble looking at life as it unfolded outside the window. For a while, I felt invisible. It took three gushing women wanting a picture with the Jollibee statue Uy let’s take a selfie! and an equally excited crew member, who suggested different poses to them Okay 1 2 3 Say cheese! for me to remember where I was. A wave of something warm crept into my system at the familiarity of a language I had not heard for a month now. When I looked back from my seat, my eyes met those of the manager, and he offered me a smile that recalled the image of a father, kind and hard at work. It was an acknowledgement. I am not at home but there are pieces of it wherever I go.
Today, we are having galnish. My dad, giddy like a child, teases my brother and I, while laughing at YouTube videos and simultaneously WhatsApping them to his friends, accompanying voice note explaining why exactly the video is funny. We all love galnish; I loved it more as a child, when I didn’t have to help clean up the kitchen afterwards. But I confess, there is something special about helping my mother out in the kitchen. Intuitively, I know what utensil to hand to her before she asks, or when to give her the salt or to check that the heat isn’t too low or high. I feel useful, and hungry.
Garlic, heavy salty bone broth, steaming pasta-like galnish and tender lamb: the way to any Chechen’s heart. Nothing feels more like home than galnish heaped high onto plates, with thick broth served in earthy mugs on the side. The galnish are skewered onto a fork, two or three at a time, and dipped into a garlic sauce which stays in the hollow center of the galnish. The slightly chewy texture of the galnish, the spice from the garlic and the hearty broth create a pleasant fullness and comfortable warmth in the stomach.
The meal is not even ready yet, but we are aware that for the next week, the garlic smell will linger. It will stain our hands, clothes, breaths. Just like a cloud of hotpot smoke stalks you home, or the stench of burnt popcorn persistently haunts dorm kitchens, anyone whose food demands submission to olfactory power knows there’s no point in trying to conceal the…fragrance. You learn to embrace the acridity, and possibly, love it in secret because it will mean you have eaten well.
Galnish, like its lingering smell, has followed Chechens around the world. I have had galnish in Grozny, Moscow, Zarqa, Los Angeles, Hamilton, and Abu Dhabi. I will find it in Paris during my semester abroad and wherever else I live after that. Galnish is delicious, yes, but it represents something deeper. Eating galnish and speaking Chechen are the two most consistent acts of rebellion that almost all Chechens incorporate into their daily lives. Holding on to such ancient traditions is open defiance against three centuries of attempted colonisation of the “free people” in the Caucasus, oppression that includes Joseph Stalin’s horrific mass deportation of Chechens to Kazakhstan from 1943-1957, which the European Parliament declared as a genocide in 2004. Speaking Chechen is becoming harder and harder with subsequent generations of diaspora dispersing across the globe. Thus, cooking galnish is the most powerful way for Chechens to reconnect with their homeland.
As my mother recounts her university days in the nineties, I peel the garlic. Apparently, all the residents in the Moscow State University dorms instantly knew when Chechens were cooking – when the smell of crushed garlic seemed to invade the entire city. But the Chechens did not shy away – they owned it. This smell became a vital link to a home that, at the time, was being bombed and depleted of every source of sustenance.
Chechnya’s situation has changed but the largely unwelcome scent of garlic has not. And neither has our food, which is still trailed by a potent odour. This stubbornness mirrors our love for our shared identity, and how confidently Chechens identify themselves as such, especially as a minority in Russia, where garlic in cooking is used with much less gusto.
Living mainly in the mountains, Chechen tribes used to perceive snakes as a serious threat, and believed that smelling like garlic would help deter the slithering predators. The garlic represents our national pride in that it does not come from a place of arrogance, but rather self-preservation and communal protection. The Chechens at my mother’s university were a diaspora, one of many navigating potentially hostile environments, such as their university or perhaps Moscow in general.
Unfazed by the ignorance or racism of outsiders, they focused instead on the beauty of their culture, despite it seeming dangerous, or unwarranted, or unbelievable to those around them. They played eshars on car radios at full blast, did the traditional dance, lezginka, in the metro, and they ate galnish. Many Chechens were forced to leave their home, but they refused to bow their heads or allow themselves to be belittled.
I turn the stove on as my mother kneads the dough with assured pride. Making galnish counts for me as a religious process, partly sanctified by childhood sentiment and partly due to the awe I feel when watching someone make dough. The biblical example of Jesus transforming water to wine does not seem so far-fetched after having witnessed someone take flour and water then miraculously make a wholesome meal out of it, seemingly from thin air. I let the dough set. My mother rolls every fat little finger of dough into a gal. I imagine how many generations of women have cooked this recipe with their daughters.
Dinner is ready – after hours of preparation, when the chefs (read: women) are all but about to collapse. We begin by serving the eldest guests. Respect for our elders is a cultural cornerstone, which could also be gleaned from seeing me trying to watch television at a relative’s house. Every time someone older than me enters the room, I must jump to my feet and wait until they are seated or I have been told to sit down. Although resembling an unnecessary exercise to the untrained eye, it is actually a traditional exercise of memory. It demonstrates the value we place on respecting our elders.
Respect also extends to our ancestors and their struggles. One difficulty that we thankfully no longer face is famine. It was not that long ago, however, when a working man’s daily wage included a mere glass of milk and crust of bread, as my grandma recalls. Or when under Stalin, my great-uncle remembers working at a flour mill, no longer able to bear his neighbours’ starvation. He ended up stealing all the flour and bread he could, and distributed it in his community, for which he was imprisoned for twenty years. The struggle of our ancestors is given the utmost respect, which can be witnessed in our kitchen. The traces of dough that form on our wooden table are scraped off with a knife and added to the rest of the flour – not a single speck is wasted.
Memory is important. Our language has been butchered, the books burned down and land-mines placed in our mountains; the construction of collective amnesia is centuries in the process. We hold on to whatever we can. Such as the story of Chechenits, a Chechen painter who was raised by a Russian general after his family was killed, the boy who despite his bizarre upbringing and lack of memory about his roots, held onto the threads of his identity, renaming himself Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenits. Chechenits is the Russian word for the Chechen; my last name, Shishani, also has the same meaning in Arabic.
When I was little, I would wish off the fuzzy dandelion heads, before blowing away the seeds to scatter elsewhere. I often feel that my family and other waynakh are like those wispy white dragonflies, having been blown to different corners of the world. One way back to our roots is though our food.
I am finally seated. I look around the table and I am grateful for what my parents have taught me about what it means to be Noxchi. I dig my fork into the galnishand dip into the garlic sauce. The first bite is always the best; a wave of doughy goodness and warmth . We enjoy the taste, but there is also a sense of responsibility within – to eat it often, and to always remember where we come from.
“You mustn’t mess me about. I know I may look like a rhinoceros, but I’ve got quite a thin skin really.”
-Benny Hogan, Circle of Friends, Maeve Binchy
I was never the kind of girl who liked staying home from school. I loved books and learning, the soft pretzels they sold at recess (when all the operatic drama happened), and even the small wooden school desks with their deep secretive drawers. So if I stayed home, it meant I was really sick. I remember one such time, I was in the fifth grade, the year I got my period, the year I started to “fill out”, and I was marooned in my parent’s giant waterbed, sick as a dog, watching morning reruns of ER. My dad, my first fan and defender, was a bartender and worked mostly nights, so he would have been home too, resting probably, on the couch downstairs. Flicking through the channels, I landed upon the then-popular Jerry Springer Show, a talk show which promised belligerent guests, fistfights, abusive name-calling, and every kind of juicy love triangle. Springer even began the show by sliding down a stripper pole! This was the 90s, this was scandalous stuff! The episode that aired that day was about men who date fat women. Always having been the biggest girl in my class, I immediately tensed at the word fat.
I can still see the soft face of a woman with thick blue eyeshadow as she sobbed into the camera, wiping tears away with her stubby hands, and told the audience—and me—“Men who date fat women aren’t to be trusted. There must be something wrong with them. Just look at me! No one normal would want me.” This woman, who was fairly overweight, broke-up with her boyfriend on-air. At first, the boyfriend seemed like a normal guy to me. He pleaded with her to reconsider, but as the episode continued, I began looking at the boyfriend with a new vigilance too. What was wrong with him? Another woman told the audience—and me—that men only date fat women if they have a “fetish” and never for real love.
In those months, I had been reading through the Brontë and Austen canons, a lot of Maeve Binchy, Betty Smith, and learning about first love through books like Judy Bloom’s Forever…, where the protagonist Katherine is taught how to correctly rub “Ralph”, her boyfriend’s penis. And while I was self-conscious at that age like most kids, I hadn’t realized before that Jerry Springer episode that none of my literary heroines, who were intelligent and independent beings, were big girls. I had always identified with them, their bookishness, open-mindedness, and in many cases, love of walking, but now there was a disconnect. Despite various hardships, personal failings, or lowly circumstances of birth—I’m looking at you, Elizabeth Bennet—extra weight rarely seemed to plague any of them. Benny Hogan in Binchy’s Circle of Friends was my exception, but her beautiful and lean friend does ultimately come between Benny and her man. Thus, a bad seed was planted in me: you could be imperfect or poor or plain (“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!” –Jane Eyre) and still be lovable to men. The only inconceivable thing to be wasfat.
I’d like to say I met a wonderful guy during my teenage years who disproved this notion, made me feel lovable, or that I somehow reached a higher level of consciousness between bell choir and Latin class and decided it was enough to love myself. I didn’t. It would take about fifteen years, when I moved outside of the United States, for a significant shift in my thinking. During the in-between years, despite beautiful friendships, academic accolades, and moving to college in New York City, my weight consumed me. I have always been amused by facts like ‘a person sleeps for approximately 1/3 of their life’ or ‘the average American will spend about 300 hours driving a year’, but I’d hate to think how many hours of my lifetime has been used thinking about the number on a scale. I won’t say ‘hours wasted’ because I do believe in prioritizing being healthy, strong, and active, but for a long time, weight was wrongly fixed to my lovability, not health. I once watched an interview with Lee Kwan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, where he coyly said that The Singapore Girl, the iconic flight attendant who always wears the form-fitting sarong kebaya, had to be on the “right side of thirty.” Or what? She was worthless. There was no question what side was the right side. While this example stinks of agism, that is how I felt about the number 200 – pounds that is. The further away from 200, the more worthy I felt. When I edged close to it, I’d stop eating, then binge, then over-exercise, stay away from parties and friends and dates, and instead walk for hours and hours from the bottom to the top of Manhattan. And when I would go over that number, everything in my life felt like a prop on a set for my reallife, when I was doing the exact same things I was doing then but only, I was thinner. I remember how in college, a woman in an intro writing course told our class that though she was a skinny child, she wanted to be fat so she wouldn’t be raped. I could write a lot on this period of my life, but I’d prefer to focus on how it changed for me.
I never believed my self-worth was completely tied up with my body, but I did believe that people could only love me despite my body. A different article by a different person can go into obesity and its link to health; I’ll only say that mental health matters too. And a childhood and early adulthood of being shamed for one’s body, constantly dieting, and obsessing over numbers, is unhealthy and unproductive. You can read the studies that say fat-shaming doesn’t work. It’s true. For me, what worked was a constellation of changes. First, moving away for college allowed me to finally be in control of my own nutrition, and while I sometimes lapsed, I did start to understand how my individual body responded to different foods. I also read about nutrition and exercise; I started eating differently than how I was raised. I lost weight. As an emotional eater, I have gained weight time and again after a loss or a period of “the mean reds” as Holly Golightly would say, but I have the tools to get back on track now. In graduate school, when my father was ill, I began to read a lot more about health in general, and started to understand how other factors outside of our control contribute to our health and weight, things like environmental stressors, the tentacles of the processed food industry, and poverty. In US American culture, there is an inflation in the credence of self-reliance. This is one reason why the States doesn’t have universal health care and affordable higher education, and also why we see being overweight as an individual’s moral failure. These realizations were the foundation of a change I would have with my relationship with my body. The next stage came from stepping out of my own culture and seeing that the kinds of pervasive messages I grew up with about bodies were just ideas–not universal truths.
While I grew up knowing ideas of beauty were different in ancient cultures (Rubens’ paintings, Tang Dynasty’s plump princesses), these messages did little to empower me as a young woman, because White America is a forward-oriented society, valuing the new and progressive, while mostly denouncing what is old and traditional as either backwards, quaint, or fleetingly interesting like the fun facts on the lids of Snapple bottles. In societies sure of their own exceptionalism and superiority like White America, ideas of beauty from other time periods or other contemporary cultures will always be inherently inferior. This is why it is impossible for me to discuss my understanding of my young adult body without mentioning race. I grew up in Philadelphia, in a racially mixed neighborhood which was in a state of flux, moving from a white space to a black space, as defined by sociologist Elijah Anderson. As more people of African, Haitian, Arab, and Latino descent moved into my neighborhood, even as a child, I felt the tightening of ranks by the white families who stayed and smelled my first whiffs of racism from the exhaust fumes of the white families who fled. My family stayed and therefore during my girlhood, I was privy to eavesdropping on the gossip of white women appraising the new women of color in the neighborhood. Time and again, their conversations, imbued with both amusement and envy, would return to larger black women’s “confidence in their bodies” and “black men liking curvy women”, simultaneously implying that this was impossible in white culture, and internalizing for their younger white daughters that non-white (and non-white love) was “other” and therefore, “inferior.” Considering her white boyfriend, the question the larger white woman on Jerry Springer had asked was: “What is wrong with him?”. Now, considering our neighbors who were women of color, some of who were thick or large, the message I received from the adult white women in my neighborhood was: “What is wrong with their non-white men?”. For the majority of these white mothers and eventually their white daughters, there was also a lack of motivation to get to know these women of color as individuals and understand the complex relationships they most likely were having with their own bodies, including issues of race and oppression. I will always feel there was a missed opportunity for all the mothers and daughters in the neighborhood to understand each other and the intersectionality of oppression before intersectionality was even a household word.
At this time, I’ll admit, my external behavior was mostly no more enlightened than my neighbors and I believed the skinny white girls who took Irish dance classes and cheerleading were the beautiful ones and everything else was “other” and “inferior”. Though, internally, as an avid book reader, I already felt something dishonest in these ideas of beauty and race. It would not take long until I chucked them. I distinctly remember an episode at recess in the seventh grade when a close friend, a white male classmate of mine, remarked on the sexiness of a black female classmate’s legs. This has stayed with me not only because even in the late-nineties, in my working class neighborhood, interracial dating or “crushes” were irregular, but also, because this girl was not tiny like the white Irish dance girls. She was shapely and her body echoed my own in that it was already metamorphosing into a woman’s body, and like me, I now imagine, she was already beginning to understand how it felt to be sexualized by men. If our social circles had not been self-segregated by race, maybe she and I would have been able to connect on this in ways that I could not connect with some of my white friends who were still waiting on the arrival of their period and womanhood. So, this was the village I was born into, but something told me it did not have to be this way, and that I could eventually, once I was free, create my own village. And this is exactly what I eventually did, starting with moving to the United Arab Emirates when I was twenty-three.
At that time, I was taking beginner’s Arabic and reading a lot about regional and Islamic culture, including the essay “Size 6: The Western Women’s Harem” by the Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi, in which she details an eye-opening experience she had during her first trip to a department store in the United States. At the store, the saleswoman tells her, “Deviant sizes such as the one you need can be bought in special stores.” Mernissi is dumbfounded for as she tells the saleswoman:
“I come from a country where there is no size for women’s clothes,”…I buy my own material and the neighborhood seamstress…They just take my measurements each time I see them. Neither the seamstress nor I know exactly what size my new skirt is. No one cares about my size in Morocco as long as I pay taxes on time.”
She goes on to compare how western men use time (and weight) to restrict and oppress women the same as how the Muslim man uses space (the harem). She says, “When a woman looks mature and self-assertive, or allows her hips to expand, she is condemned as ugly. Thus, the walls of the European harem separate youthful beauty from ugly maturity.” In the United States, isn’t it true that the damning messages we receive about our bodies start to proliferate just as we are coming into womanhood? As it had for me during the year I first got my period? I knew Mernissi was onto something, and I began to question the motives of a society that would make me feel unlovable just because of my size. Mernissi became part of my new village.
Then, I met a man in the UAE. Actually, we met while we were both traveling solo in Turkey, but soon discovered we lived as expats in the same country. This man was kind and smart, and though I’d had boyfriends before, he became my first adult love. On our first night together, my head was full of what he would think of my body. I wondered would he still, as Carole King sings, love me tomorrow? He would. I learned too that he wanted to save “going all the way” for marriage as he was religious, but I also learned there are so many ways to be intimate when you are loving. He constantly told me how beautiful I was and how much he loved my body, and I eventually believed him. There was no “despite my body” anymore. The woman on Jerry Springer had been wrong and I felt bad for her and for my many many girlfriends who still felt that way. This man and I would eventually part ways, but there would be other important men in my life, almost all of them not from the United States, who also made me feel lovable. I don’t want to give myself or the men or Mernissi all the credit; meeting so many women with different understandings of beauty in a small country like the UAE, during graduate school, and throughout the world has also helped me tremendously. My new village is wide and colorful.
In general, it might seem like the world is still stacked up against big girls, and in many ways, it still is. But the climate is a lot more diverse now than ten, twenty years ago. Every day, through various media forms, I see bodies of different colors, abilities and shapes in ways that weren’t visible when I was growing up. Social media, especially Instagram, can be damaging to people’s self-esteem, but it can also be empowering through the right kind of searching. You can find folks like Jessamyn Stanley (@mynameisjessamyn), a black American woman with curves, who doesn’t look like the typical yogi, but she is—and she is phenomenal. In her profile, she writes things like, “yoga is for every body” and “I see with my soul instead of my eyes”… a line Jane Eyre could get behind. There are also prominent body-positive women like Roxane Gay, Ashley Graham, and South Korea’s Vivian Geeyang Kim. There is more representation in traditional media too. Leaving Lena Dunham’s other issues aside, it was exciting to see her body on television, to see her mother’s body on television. Also, while plus-size clothing shopping used to be very limited and expensive, now there are more options, both in stores and through online shopping. Though, I still think Mernissi would feel restricted in American shopping malls for our insistence on arbitrary sizing of fast-fashion clothing.
This is a difficult essay to end because my knowledge of the body is constantly expanding, and my own relationship with my body and food is evolving. So I’ll end where I began, as a fifth grader reading. Another favorite childhood heroine of mine was Harriet the Spy. At one point, Harriet tells her nanny, “I want to see the whole world and I want to write down everything.” I might not have much in common with my fifth grade self anymore, but that fifth grader and my current self still want the same things Harriet wanted. And for this reason, I refuse to spend the hours of my life focused on making myself smaller, in body or soul. There are so many things to see and know, but we can’t do that if we are spending one-third of our lives sleeping and another third in our head obsessing about our body. It is our responsibility to not just accept what we are given, messages or ideas, but to keep taking from different places, further and wider. I also don’t espouse any kind of “real girls have curves” mantra; it is divisive and wrong. We are all real.
I wish I could close with the same soaring chords as “My Body is a Cage”, a song about a person who can’t be with the one they love because of their body. We don’t know if its because of sexuality, anxiety, disability, or physical appearance. We only know that the singer says, “we take what we are given.” But we don’t have to accept what we are given forever, because it isn’t the body that is ever really the cage. Society is the cage. And since we are society, we can change the shape of our bars, and we can let different people, villages, and ideas in or out.
Nostalgia can be one hell of a drug, and leaning on old habits and traditions to cultivate nostalgia can be especially tempting during the holidays. No matter what you celebrate (if you celebrate anything), it’s hard to avoid the traditions that shape the winter season – a season that comes with way too much stress. So why do we participate when high expectations can crush the relaxation and joy we could be feeling instead?
During the wintertime, everything from lighting candles to baking cookies brings warmth to both one’s body and heart. There are so many tiny little things that make the season spectacular. Yet we tend to pay attention to only the big moments, or the tragic memories, and wipe out the small serendipities. Without access to a time machine, there is no way that we can recall all of the tiny actions and moments that accumulate into vivid memories and feelings with hindsight. So we put pressure on the “big” moments, and this pressure suffocates them.
Sometimes breaking the mold can lead to a more joyful and stress-free time of year. As much as I want to feel like a five-year-old running down to open presents, I know it’s not going to happen. Trying to recreate the joy from our youth never lives up to expectations. Letting go of the things we “think” we need to do can create more reasonable expectations. It’s also unwise to use the holiday season to try and fix your less than fond memories from your youth. The past cannot be smothered by new recreations of the same season. All that will do is bring excessive amounts of stress, making yourself and everyone else miserable.
This will be the first Christmas I celebrate as a 30-something married person. My partner and I both come from families that have a plethora of traditions and celebrations that shaped our holiday seasons as children. We still participate in many of these, but we have also created ones that involve just the two of us.
Traditions can be very emotional and complicated. It might be difficult to abandon certain practices due to familial obligations and/or feelings of guilt. It’s important to remember the past but we should not be bound by it. New activities at different places with different people can seem like abandoning ‘how things are done.’
But focusing solely on the past prevents any chance of creating new (and possibly better) traditions with friends and family.
When a tradition feels like an obligation or a chore, there should be some reevaluation of why you’re continuing it year after year. Just because it happens every year doesn’t necessarily mean it should continue. When there is no obligation or expectation, this time of year can become joyous and fun again for adults.
If a tradition is binding us, it may be time to let go.