The Foreigner In The Corner

I am the quiet one in the crowd with an approving nod and a warm chuckle, the one who just smiles at whatever you say. Looking spineless and overly agreeable, I give affirmative responses to most questions and suggestions while appearing to be afloat in my own world. To an outsider, it is one that seems to be without many words.

Except that mine is actually the opposite, though far away, where roosters crow from the roofs of neighbors who keep them not for food, but to tell time. I grew up with the nearest telephone being a thirty minute walk from our house, where my childhood summer entertainment consisted of evading grownups on my bicycle and hanging out watching water buffalo bathe in mud and bask in the sun. I would wait for the dirt to dry on their backs and crack into chips that fell in diamond-shaped patches, the end of the day leaving giant hoof prints surrounded by an assortment of clay shapes on the ground.

I don’t tell you about any of this because it always seems so odd and self-serving. In a crowd discussing television shows and restaurants, a story about livestock is just random, strange, and is easily misconstrued as an attempt to vilify the only life that you know – the same one I’m trying to fit into and make familiar. Worse, it makes a spectacle of what seems to be the pitiful backward existence of my past. I’d rather not draw attention towards some obscure land that’s so different from the universally appreciated topic at hand, even though I am pretty sure at one point in the conversation I was actually asked where I was from.

By asking maybe you didn’t need answers, you were just trying to be nice. I tried once, at a restaurant, to say that a dish reminded me of my childhood. The moment I said its name your eyes didn’t shift but its focus turned inward, instead of the story I wanted to tell.

And so I didn’t tell you about kare-kare, the oxtail stew that my beloved nanny used to make each year on my birthday. Early in the morning, grains of rice would be roasted and browned before she sat on a stool and ground it into a powder by hand. I wanted to tell you how the rice thickened the sauce and gave it a distinct flavor, whose aroma alone made the entire day’s labor worthwhile. I wanted to tell you how, the day I was able to replicate it in this country, I cried. But before I could start you said, “Ox…TAIL?” and wrinkled your nose, and that became the end of that.

I don’t tell you about the annual floods that submerge cities and mark the years on the walls of houses whose inhabitants have come to embrace the entry of sewer water as part of the season. I never mention the skewered green mangoes bobbing in brine sold outside churches, alongside prayer books and handwoven straw fans. When we eat a small and pricey sliver of fish at a fancy restaurant, I’d rather not spoil it with stories of mornings on the shore of my father’s hometown, where young boys helped pull in the nets that their own fathers had cast into the ocean the night before. The children would wade into the water with pieces of nylon string tied to their waists. They attached one end to the net and pulled it with their bodies, the bite of the string on their skin cushioned by coral-colored flipflops pressed against their backs.

I’m afraid my own savored tales of eating whole fish or sucking on a strange fruit would be met with indifference, and maybe even aggression. I’m not trying to be exotic, I’m just missing home. I want to tell you that this is not a comparison with or a preference for that from which I’ve been severed, but merely a keyhole peep into a world I’m both trying to leave and take with me while attempting to navigate a new one.

The next time I nod and respond with a smile, I want you to please look again. You might notice that my silence is thick with a life that goes on within me even if it’s all so far away. It’s a movie that plays behind me as I watch the unfolding film up front. One day I hope to achieve a melding of the two in a continuous set of frames I cannot differentiate: the life of my past in the smells and sights of fields and food, interspersed with an equally storied present I might eventually begin to describe on my own.

Until then I might have to resort to my own way of unpacking myself like a suitcase of selected outfits and personas from my homeland, to test one by one for reactions in the  new set of faces I’m trying to know. Forgive me for a while longer while I keep mostly silent, maybe talk about the weather or a news event, and when really, really pushed, say  something non-threatening that cannot be misinterpreted, such as my craving for pancakes, or my love for pastrami on rye. TC mark

image – Helga Weber

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Emily-Tugwell/1193606623 Emily Tugwell

    This is fantastic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1552230509 Blake Austin

    “I wanted to tell you how, the day I was able to replicate it in this country, I cried. ” This killed me. 

    I wish we were friends. I want to listen. 

    • Jordan

      I was going to say the exact same thing.  That was a powerful sentence full of meaning.

  • http://twitter.com/gagopolis Allan Policarpio

    Loved this, Shakira. Where in the Philippines are you from?

  • Asdf

    Love it. This is me. Though, I think this is telling of many quiet people. The quietest often have the most to say, but we know better.

    • Guest

      So true. Same here. Love it.

    • Amissa

      Why is it better to stay silent?

    • Amissa

      Why is it better to stay silent?

  • ANG

    This was really well-written and it made me sad. I would love to hear your stories.  

  • Sam

    Between this piece and the Relativity of Discomfort one you’ve been on fire. A TC author I’ll always read now.

  • Cnlaird

    beautiful. thank you for helping me understand.

  • Tari

    I really like this, I know I’d miss the Philippines too if I left. 

  • Jenn

    I ate up every single word of this.  I loved the last article you wrote, and went back and read all your other ones and loved them too.  You are my new favourite author on TC.

  • http://www.facebook.com/t.jason.ham Jason Ham

    lol this is kinda cute, especially coming from a kababayan.

    we are usually loud as hell though. no one likes talking about how awseome (or fucked up) the homeland is than us hahaha.

    my only other comment is that i definitely hold this sort of “omg u white ppl just don’t get it” attitude but seeing it written in an article makes it awkward and unsettling since I know people here who are genuinely interested in other cultures and do so without any shade of condescension.

  • Phyllis

    I, too, will miss the Philippines, esp. kare-kare complete with bagoong. It’s always been one of my favorites. Thank you for sharing. :)

  • http://takemetotheriot.com Kathrina

    Thank you for sharing.  I am from the Philippines, and I think this is a pretty accurate description of many places. Especially the mangoes in brine on a Sunday morning near a church.

  • Jun

    I never comment on TC articles but weirdly enough this one touched me. Maybe because I always notice the foreigner in the corner and it sucks because people equate not knowing about x TV show on AMC as being out of the culture loop – when in fact the richest fruits of culture start with you guys. Beautiful writing.

    • Amissa

      “you guys”?….. vague and insulting.

  • douchegirl

    This brought a tear to my eye because I, too, am the foreigner in the corner. I used to feel this way specially when I was younger and in high school. Now, I’m a lot more Americanized but the culture divide is sometimes a little obvious. 

    One time, a friend asked me if I remembered such and such song from middle school and I told her “If it’s from before ’03, I wasn’t here for it” and she was quite surprised. 

  • Mayen

    Hey Kia! This article is so touching, found myself teary-eyed while reading it. You just put into writing what goes on in my head almost everyday since I moved here. — “It’s a movie that plays behind me as I watch the unfolding film up front.”  
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! – Mayen (from vet dorm :))

  • matt

    marry me? :) 

  • Sophia

    Loved loved loved this. I often wonder about the stories under everyone’s veneers, especially quiet people’s. If we all told our stories, life would be much more interesting.
    Please write for ThoughtCatalog more often.

  • Anonymous

    Love this. One of the best relatable articles that I’ve read on here.

  • Anonymous

    Love this. One of the best relatable articles that I’ve read on here.

  • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

    Easily in the Top Ten of posts here; reading writing like this is a luxury.

  • K Izadora

    Very well written, kababayan. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/#!/anstr Anne Lagdameo

    beautifully-written, in true kia style.
    are you not on facebook? this is anne p. from ssc-hs.

  • Anonymous

    This is beautiful.

  • http://www.dopaminejunkie.org/kare-kare-oxtail-peanut-stew-a-storytellers-dish/ Kare Kare (Oxtail Peanut Stew): A Storyteller’s Dish | DopamineJunkie.org

    […] Replies I talk about kare-kare a lot because it has defined a huge part of my childhood and my relationship with my dear nanny who […]

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