Sometimes, I wonder if we were better listeners before we came to the United States. When we first arrived in 1990, my untainted ears still longed for the steadiness of a storyteller’s tone. In the evenings when mothers called their kids home for dinner and crickets began their soothing songs, my siblings and I gathered around Dad to hear sweeping tales of monsters and heroes and magic in a tradition that had been practiced long before a book, a TV or a tablet became the norm.
Mom has laid a three-foot spread of newspaper over the yellow linoleum floor. In an old, fifty-pound rice bag, several chickens squirm. I’m standing to the side waiting as the kettle sings its readiness on the stove. Mom picks up the kettle and pours steaming water into a white bucket next to the spread of newspaper. With an expert hand, she opens the rice bag and pulls out a chicken.
A couple of years ago, I read a fantasy novel that opened with the main character eating an apple on her way to market, and before that I read a fantasy novel where the main character and her companion packed bread and apples as their meal for their long, horseback trek across a kingdom to participate in a war that was devastating the countryside. Not gonna name any names or titles, but I was like, “Enough with the apples!” C’mon people. Can’t we do something different? Can’t we offer these characters some rice or something? Or maybe a cucumber?
A little while ago, I ran into some colleagues on the way home from work, and one of them pointed at my chest, lifted an eyebrow and asked, “You’re wearing your name badge home?” I told her I was, and that I always kept my name badge in my purse in case I needed it for something. The truth is, sometimes I forget to take it off, but sometimes I leave it on intentionally. I leave it on because it’s a weapon in a battle I face everyday. It sends a message I don’t need to verbalize—that I have a job, that I can take care of myself. It reminds me that I’ve made it, that I’ve pulled myself out of the poverty hole I grew up in. It acts as a shield against my memories of food stamp and milk vouchers and the barely contained repugnance of more privileged shoppers at the grocery store.