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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Becoming Karen

“When something like this happen, Karen people boil this one…” Baw Baw holds up a dried brown pod from her dresser drawer.
“Bean” I say, handing her the word.
“Yes, bean,” she repeats, “together with yellow, not powder… root. Then washing your hair.”
“Turmeric? You wash your hair with boiled beans and turmeric root?” I look at her in disbelief.
Uh. Will you do together us?” Baw Baw inquires.

Sometimes I forget that we come from completely different worlds. The reality of my house washes over me suddenly like an indigenous cleansing ritual. Language is a small barrier to communication and cohabitation. There are always creative alternatives: acting, facial expressions, and shared meals are perhaps even more effective in evoking a common understanding than a dialogical conversation. But here we stand at the gulf, where the empire of reason encounters a world animated by spirits.
 “Umm,” I say barely holding back uncomfortable laughter, “Ya ga gwa hso ga mo luh a ghay—I will think about it.” The features of her familiar freckled face suddenly seem harsh and primitive. I imagine a concoction boiling over a fire on muddy earth next to a bamboo house, a woman in a colorful sarong with horizontal stripes squatting next to it, stirring. The steam rises like a dancing ghost.

There are currently three fifty-pound bags of Eagle Brand jasmine rice stored in my closet, as it is now the primary component of my diet. Most days I keep to oatmeal, grits, or something else bland and Western for breakfast, but the rest of my meals are thoroughly Karen. Occasionally I will prepare pizza, pasta, or some kind of soup for dinner, but usually I am the only one who will touch it and so my motivation to cook is rapidly waning. The typical Karen meal consists of some form of deep fried or stewed meat possibly including organs and bone shards, broth, leafy greens, pounded chilies or spicy fish paste water, and sometimes fried eggs or vegetables, all of which are served over rice like condiments by American standards.
The Karen diet appeals to me because of its stability. I know what to expect when I sit down at a meal. Food in American culture is so sporadic it leaves your stomach confused just thinking about it: rice one night, pasta the next, bread the next. We are eating ourselves into cultural oblivion. My friend Angela tells me that we are supposed to eat the foods that are traditional to our region; our bodies are wired to thrive on these foods. If we are immigrants, which most of us in this country are, we should be eating a combination of the foods native to our homeland and to our locale. However, I have not yet migrated to a diet of sauerkraut and boiled peanuts.
To eat is to remember, as in the Seder meal and the Eucharist. We remember our journey, our sufferings, our joy, and ingest our identity. Yet who is able to partake? Where are the boundaries? They are certainly porous, permeated by proximity, yet must be drawn for the sake of subsistence. To forget is to spiritually starve, to slip into cultural depression. I need to eat cheese, not only to pay tribute to the rich European traditions of cheese making but also to remember who I am, to move forward in the world.
To partake of fish paste for breakfast is to enter the idyllic mountains of Karen State, to remember a painful and terrifying journey through the jungle, and to live in the hope of life in America. As I eat rice with my hands, I partake of foreign food. I am brought to face with a concrete suffering I cannot understand. Like a defiant protestant at Catholic Mass, I go forward anyway. I pray with my right hand resting on the steaming rice piled on the plate, and in the recognition of difference, renew my membership in the cult of humanity.

I arrive at Lay Moo’s house one evening to use the open wireless network in his building. Erin emerges from her room after I sit down.
“I need to tell you what happened last night,” she says. “I woke up in the middle of the night and there was this darkness. I don’t generally think much of that sort of thing, but I had this strong feeling of something bad in the house. I went to the door of the room and Aye Be Wah was standing right there, also looking scared. I later found out that she had been on the phone with someone and wasn’t sure who it was, and it left her feeling scared. Then several hours later I got up to go to the bathroom and felt the same darkness and then as I was in the hall walking back to the bedroom I heard a loud voice shout, ‘DIE!!!’ I quickly ran into my room and shut the door and heard Wah Lay Soe start crying.”
I stare at her in disbelief. “Was it a man’s voice?” I ask.
“Yes, definitely,” she replies.
“And it wasn’t Lay Moo?” I ask, barely able to imagine this as a possibility.
“He was at work.”
“Oh. Of course,” I say remembering his night shift. “I am pretty skeptical of this kind of thing also,” I tell her, trying to excuse my facial expression.

As a child, I remember cooking mud soup in the backyard. I would forage for nuts, sticks, leaves, and other precious ingredients in the woods, collecting them in a red bucket, mixing them with city water from the garden hose, and then stirring with a branch. At some point I learned that this was useless play.

With a sudden wave of certainty, and a faint laugh at the thought I say, “I know exactly what we need to do. We need to boil beans and turmeric root and wash our hair with it.”

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