Dig Where You Live

This essay was written for an assignment in the ESL Writing Intensive Seminar, taught by Ariane Simard. 

“I’m going to the Thai Market.”

I didn’t react with a start. I merely cast a brief glance at the eager visitor in the doorway of my room and nodded silently; hopefully, a nod that conveyed, “Have fun.” I was sure that I had heard incorrectly; the idea of home in a city so far away from the likes of my past seemed impossible. I returned my eyes to my computer screen, continuing my fervent search for activities in which I could partake on my first weekend in Berlin. I had an especially vigilant eye for anything that indicated hints of home.

“Do you want to come along? I could really go for Thai food right now.”

It appeared that I had heard correctly.

I did not go. Someone dangled the perfect gift within my reach but I was afraid to grab it, afraid of what it could mean when I made it mine. I found myself hesitating to claim Thailand as my home and couldn’t bring myself to go to the Thai Market without a guilty heart. Because I am not Thai, not really. I worked hard, I think, to be a part of the Thai culture so that I could call it home, but I’m not certain if my efforts would ever be worth the cost.

I eventually prompted myself to go to this elusive Thai Market, several weekends later, with people who I believed could more easily empathize with my predicament—an American with Chinese parents, a Swede with Indian parents, and a not-so-distant Indian neighbor. Not-so-distant in the sense that much of Thai cuisine originates from Indian roots. More easily empathize, because my identity is as two-fold as some of theirs were.

I was exposed, in primary school, to an unspoken agreement by which I had to discern what deviated me from others while conforming to a community with a uniform identity. When I was merely an infant, my family escaped from the wintry months in Korea to the exotic holiday destination of Thailand. Most people stay for a summer; I stayed for 15 years. Immediately, I integrated into the sea of homogeneity. Thai words rolled off my tongue before taking hold of Korean. My palate accustomed to the mouth-puckering, tongue-numbing flavors of the tropical country. Even my tanned skin and blunt haircut allowed me to pass for a Thai student. I was blissfully content in my ignorance to forge an identity. That ignorance was taken away from me when I was asked on the first day of kindergarten by my classmates, right after a brief inquiry of my name, where I was from—what I called myself, how I identified myself. I never had to be aware of myself in such a way before, and I quickly surrendered to the revelation that my identity, this label, held as much significance as my name. Salman Rushdie writes in Imaginary Homelands: “Our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle between two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.” [*1] The recognition of simultaneous plurality and partiality was my first experience with identity.

I guess this was why I was disappointed by the incongruity within the Thai Market when I first set eyes on it. I had just been ripped away from a comforting patch of community when I moved to Berlin, and now I was in the midst of scrambling to find the same feeling of belonging. But I ended up facing the physical fabrication of my fragmented identity in the market. Under the umbrella of the Thai Market, there was a mishmash of vendors from various nationalities—some sheepishly pushing against the limits of what constitutes as Thai with dishes from other Asian cuisines; one even shamelessly ignoring the institution and planting an enormous Brazilian flag in the middle of the open field. The foreign constituents of the Thai Market didn’t offend me nor did they offend anyone else. I was crestfallen to see, however, how readily the local Thai community welcomed visitors who wanted a sample of the culture and didn’t face the looming expectations to be a permanent part of it. They could come and go as they pleased, multiple times. Every weekend, in fact. All my efforts to prove myself a deserving member of the community seemed pointless, when no one else had worked for it. “It’s my present that is foreign, and that the past is home, albeit a lost home in a lost city in the mists of lost time.” Rushdie again, in Imaginary Homelands, ensnares my bewilderment of what belonging can actually entail. I was as eagerly accepted in the market as anyone else, but I’ve never felt more alienated.

Despite my attenuating hopes of the market, I found myself regularly frequenting it. The market welcomed me every visit as warmly as it did at my first. I did not eat anything the first time I visited it; my appetite stifled as I choked on my tongue. On my second visit, I attempted ordering a dish. I spoke to a Thai vendor, who had a smile sunken into the creases of her face, selling pad thai. I spoke in Thai, tentatively molding out the words I once so often used. The vendor lit up and quickly shifted from the formal way of speaking Thai to one of endearment that elders often use to children in Thailand, sentences ending with a ja, more of a tender accompaniment than a word with actual meaning, with a drawn-out lilt.

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from Korea.” I feel as if I cheated her with my answer, cheated her of chancing upon someone from her home. I hastily added, “But I lived in Thailand. 15 years.”

Her smile didn’t waver as my voice did.

“Do you want to sit under the tent while you eat? It’s raining.”

I succumbed to her accommodation and wordlessly crawled underneath the lowly pitched tent. With a warm, lingering smile, the vendor assured me that the food would be ready in a few minutes. I sat as I waited, my chin propped on my knees, and allowed my eyes to wander and survey the surroundings. I caught sight of a vendor nearby. My eyes darted back to assess the out-of-place yet familiar letterings on a label. They were words of my language. I stared, stupefied, then shifted my position to conceal my face from the stall with Korean vendors, a man and his elderly mother, who were selling mandu. It was a sudden, inexplicable movement. In hindsight, the vendors guessing my nationality would not have led to an unpleasant situation. In that moment, however, I hid my face out of shame. My ambiguous identity again forged into one of deception, as it had during my exchange with the Thai vendor.

It was to my equal surprise, then, when an overwhelming yearning prevailed me, and soon after I said my goodbyes to the Thai vendor, I loitered around the mandu stall, drawing up the courage to walk up to them. My reluctance displayed as I waited in line at the stall, as I fell behind customers who repeatedly interjected in front of me. Once the line dwindled, and I was the last customer waiting, I forced myself to order a serving, even though my hunger dissipated.

“Hello. What would you like?” The man spoke in German.

“One vegetable mandu, one chicken mandu. Please.” I answered in Korean.

“One vegetable, one chicken?” The man seamlessly shifted to  Korean, without breaking composure. His mother next to him, however, looked up from the pans of sizzling mandu, and nudged his shoulder as he prepared my order.

“Give her buchimgae, too. And kimchi. You can’t have buchimgae without kimchi.” She watched him comply, adding to the paper plate the Korean savory pancake and spicy fermented cabbage. “More kimchi,” she said, and then, almost as though to herself—“She speaks Korean.”

As the man handed me the plate and said his good-bye, I struggled to express what suspended scrambled in my mind—it’s been a while since I’ve spoken Korean, it was lovely meeting you, talking with you, I hope you have a good day. But all I could gasp was, “Thank you, thank you.” Those words could not encompass the relief I felt of having satisfied a longing. My initial hope was to merely find a place within the Thai community, as I did back home, but what I was given was so much more.

I plodded to a bench at a far end of the park, next to a German man, who gave me a friendly closed-lip smile. I acknowledged his greeting and settled onto the bench with the plate of food on my lap. The food didn’t taste of home, or at least how I remember it. But I once again let my eyes drift onto the market—I could see much more from here. I saw more German customers than Thai. While I still felt a pang whenever I saw how easily they could obtain something that was so precious to me, there was a part of me beaming with pride. When I saw Thai customers sitting on straw picnic mats, just as people do in the parks in Thailand, the harsh divisions of the foreign and familiar began to blur, and I sank deeper into my seat in unfurling contentment. I remember a Korean family sitting across the park from me. A father was chiding his children for attempting to climb the statue of Borussia, and the way he yelled was so typically Korean in manner—yelling loudly, uncaring of situation, all the while muttering why do they do that, really, and promising more to come when they get back home—that I could not help but be amused.

It was then that I realized that my identity, and everyone else’s I have encountered during my journey surrounding the Thai Market, is not an unbroken whole, but rather a composition of fragments. Perhaps this was the reason I stubbornly returned every weekend, “because,” as Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez puts it in Never Let Me Go, “in coming back I hoped to understand what it meant to let go without forgetting.” [*2] There was so much in memory that I couldn’t bear to let go of when I moved away from home. As it dawned on me that these thoughts of home were the only reminders I could hold onto, my view focused entirely onto my past. Coming to the Thai Market, where I stood in a striking familiar position as I had back home in Thailand, led me to the understanding that, indeed, the past is a beautiful place and encompasses everything I have ever known. When I hold on to these reminders, however, in the way that I have done until now, I am simply trying to anchor myself in a place from which I have already departed. I am learning to let go. But in letting go, I will not forget—how could I?—what has made me hold so dearly onto the past.

Notes:

[*1] Rushdie, Salman. “Imaginary Homelands.” Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. Print. 9-21.

[*2] Vaquera-Vásquez, Santiago. “The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Never Let Me Go.” The Rumpus.net. The Daily Rumpus. 8 Nov. 2016, http://therumpus.net/2016/11/the-sunday-rumpus-essay-never-let-me-go/

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