200 North, 300 East, Provo, Utah (or thereabouts)
I like rice. Rice is great if you’re hungry and want 2000 of something.
For part of my sophomore year at BYU, I was the only “white” girl in a rented house full of Latinas. My best friend and housemate, Amy, was half Ojibwai, and although she was white suburban grown, she had an affinity with these girls that was new to me. They were theatre, and we were the audience in a huge rattling white Victorian, where every Sunday, ten Puerto Rican, Brazilian and Venezuelan girls would gather and cook for their boys.
Everything was pork; everything was beef.
In junior high, we had known an exchange student from the Dominican Republic who had the best name we’d ever heard: Jackie Llenas. Oh, we thought that was funny. And she had no idea and never got it. But she was long and lean, blonde and tan, and loved us. And we loved her. We met the same type of girl in our Casa Blanca – Lorena, a tall, voluptuous, life-loving Brazilian girl with long, blonde hair, brown skin and a huge white smile. The other Latinas were short and stout, with big smiles and colorful skirts. And they all were joyful, almost caricatures of what I expected from the women of their countries.
And I was a caricature of mine. They lived life large and loud. I felt smaller, controlled. They filled the kitchen with boisterous noise, lilting Portuguese and chattering Spanish, rhythmic singing. I sang alone in my room, listening to Joni Mitchell. They cooked peppers. I cooked potatoes. They made tortillas, I made bread. They made salsa, I made Mormon gravy. I cooked noodles, they cooked rice. And rice, and more rice. Spicy rice, dirty rice, rice and beans, beans and rice.
I felt separate, apart from these girls, and Amy was somewhere in the middle. We had both grown up in Mormon families, spending our high school years two blocks from each other. But I was the last of seven, and my parents were in their sixties. When Amy came over for dinner, my mother always made cauliflower with cheese sauce specially for her because she knew Amy loved it. It was always just the four of us at the table, in tempered, quiet conversation.
When I went to her house, at least six of the eight kids would be at the messy kitchen table – like it was when all my siblings were home and I was a toddler, I imagine. Six girls babbling out their personal dramas of wearing each others clothes and stealing each others records, and two boys kicking each other under the table and spitting out Brussels sprouts when their frazzled mother wasn’t looking. Their hilarious, stout Ojibwai father, Ira, sat back with a smirk on his face, poking them once in a while just to see what their mother would do.
At the Casa Blanca, we were all Mormon, yet we felt divided by a common religion. I felt that their cultures made them confident, let them somehow own their womanhood – not in the domestic sense, but as the collective identity of “She Who Must be Obeyed.” The Latinas had joined the Mormon church, like my great grandmothers had, and left their countries, come all this way to study – and to marry. They knew what they wanted.
Boys flocked to our house after church. Missionaries, sophomores, composers, soccer players, saxophonists. Most were short and dark and friendly. Some were gorgeous and dark and quiet. And they were all excellent dancers. The whole house was redolent of seared slow-braised pork, of cumin and tomatoes and inexplicable peppers. The girls started cooking before church, then set everything to simmer for the three hours. By the time they got back, the roasts and shanks, the ribs or stews were fall-apart luscious. Pots and pots were always bubbling away on the stove, full of colorful liquids. The kitchen counters were at times a Jackson Pollock of red and green and brown sauces, at times a hazy Edward Hopper of chilled Sunday blue afternoon light glancing off countertops and the warm wooden table.
These girls made me jealous. They made me feel that cooking was a way of life in a way that my lonesome, reticent Northern European mother never experienced. I felt I really could have no part of that ritual seduction, but I wanted to learn, where dancing accompanied food, where chopping was as much about laughter and gossip as it was about providing for your family. Where your man came up behind you and grabbed your ass as you stirred a pot of carne de something.
Periodically throughout my childhood, my six-foot-something, blond, blue-eyed Swedish father was to be feared. Once, after he threw a jar of mayonnaise against the wall and stormed out, he returned sheepishly an hour later with a bunch of daisies, because “the fight wasn’t bad enough for roses.” My mother would weep silently and hide in the bedroom while he was gone, and they kissed and joked when he returned. Although they often embraced, that was the extent of the drama and passionate resolution I observed.
My brother was on a mission to Colombia, where he wrote cryptic letters home about a beautiful girl in Cartageña that he was forbidden to love. He wrote of inexplicably delicious food, of passionate partner dancing, of unending wet heat and illness. When he came home after two years, he had acquired a terrible case of tapeworm, wasting away from a blond, red-cheeked, red-bearded Viking boy to a skinny clean-cut man with intensely blue, sunken eyes. Both the parasite and the culture had changed him. His big personality had found a home within the Latin culture, so he packed up his green and white 1965 Rambler and headed out from Spokane to Austin to study South American geography. He had discovered the Tawny-tufted Toucanet and the Blue-knobbed Currasow, handmade tamales and salsa (the dance, not the sauce), and cemented his adoration of beautiful, smart Latinas. He proceeded to study the Latinate tongues and marry his Spanish teacher, a Catholic (what else) Portuguese-American who kept him in line, took him dancing and cooked him back to health.
When I was in junior high, my sister’s travels as a nanny to France and Switzerland also fed my growing insecurity about my own culture. She traveled, she spoke a romantic language, she dated foreign men who took her to Japan and met rugmakers in Iran. How could the bar for international intrigue and romance be set any higher? I felt like my place and my life were wrong, that it was all a big mistake, that I should have been born in Paris in the 1920s or some place and time equally fascinating.
This feeling plagued me in my writing for years. The “write what you know” dictum rang hollow for me. What I knew was suburban ennui and banality. What I knew was a religion few, including myself, understood or wanted to. What I knew was a perfect green lawn, kneeling for prayers by my bed at night and a closet of dark thoughts that could never make it to paper while my parents were still alive. I felt it was a lid on a bubbling pot, a self-obsessed middle-class existence not worth writing about.
Who are we? My therapist, for the short period I had one, talked about the process of individuation, of becoming an adult human as having two major steps:
1. Identification with peers: Our youth is all about finding our place, our role in society, of connecting and bonding with the herd for safety and community, so as to say, “I belong. We are we.”
2. Individuation: Becoming one’s self. Here, we create and define our own boundaries, circle the wagons so as to say, “I am not you, and I am not we – I am me!”.
But, he warned, with all the confusion, pain and mystery of life, it is so easy to stop at this point, to stay in the closet, in the harbor, in the corral, in the lines, in the pot, in the comfort zone. If you do this, if you let society decide who you are, you quit growing. The key is to develop a sense of an individual self, within an acceptable social context.
Ah, a conundrum.
Girl, interrupted. Postponement, Moratorium. Your soul is in Foreclosure. You have accepted your Fate. I didn’t want to stay in what I considered to be a constricting and banal society, but change and growth is difficult, too. Should I stay or should I go?
In college, both of these processes were torture, but it was the former that terrified me the most. Finally, after a childhood of being a “good girl,” began to feel rebellious. I wanted out, to be an individual, to slip the leash. I longed for what was Latino, what was French.
What was Other.
Art and poetry became my Bible, and I wanted to stay in this terrified state. Confusion felt like home. Not knowing who I am or where I fit in felt so comforting after a childhood of restriction and surety. I craved this mental and emotional chaos, because it felt like this was where excitement lay, where the Exotic in me, the Poet, the Foreign Correspondent, the Stranger, the Seductress, could thrive. The Capital Lettered Noun, with Punctuation. Me.
And one thing I discovered as I watched the Latinas live their life together in their crazy communal kitchen, but also as adventurous individuals that brought a rich culture with them wherever they went: The Kitchen and the Bedroom were also the rooms for me. Not the Closet, not the Parlor, not the Conservatory, not the Schoolroom.
The Kitchen, the Bedroom. Open and free. Without. Punctuation.
(and yet i secretly wanted to learn to love my own country my own boring culture for what it is my own boring self for what i am to be at peace with it all and yet and yet)
I wanted to find a way to live and write within the world I had been assigned by Fate; to understand it – and yes, change it if I wished, build a life around my self like building a sauce, delicate layer upon spicy layer – layer of fearlessness upon layer of fear – but also to find the joy and beauty and eccentricity within each and every simple grain of what has been put, with love, into my very full bowl.
by Shannon Borg