I went to my favorite international grocery store tonight, on a whim. I love this place. I love the chaos, and the colors and the wacky, miswritten signs. I love that I feel like I have stepped out of my home, and into another country. International waters.
Usually, a visit is intoxicating.
Tonight wasn’t intoxicating. Earlier this week, a friend from Bangkok contacted me about helping with a project over there. Four months ago, I would have been thrilled – YES! LET ME HELP! Let me be useful, FINALLY!
This time, I paused. Getting involved feels like opening a wound that’s just stopped smarting. A wound I was constantly protecting, has finally stopped stinging long enough for me to enjoy other parts of life. Getting involved, is all I wanted months ago – a way to not lose my life back there, a way to bring something of meaning here to my dull and frustrating life in America. I stopped thinking that way, I’ve started enjoying life – embracing it, even. And then he asks me to put my mind back in BKK, and I want nothing more than to ward off the potential pain and ache and sadness of missing all of that life I left behind.
So I went to the international grocery store to buy Matcha Tea and real Naan and strange fruits, and raw shrimp. And the tension of the space assailed me.
I never ask for help there, the chances of me speaking the same language of the workers is low…almost as low as the chance that they will know where the item I need is located this week. In one aisle stand 5 shoppers, all different ethnicities and three different colors. We eye each other, not unkindly, but with questions, “How do you shop? Will you be polite, or pushy? What IS your culture, I don’t know what you’re about to do.”
We shift around each other, in the tight corners – one buying the Bok Choy for a taste of home, the other for a taste of ethnicity. One here for the cheap prices, the other so she can read the labels in her own language. They eye me with strange curiosity, and I wonder what they assume.
Do they envy the ease I experience, here in “my land”, while they ache with homesickness? Do they assume I am foreign, with my dark gypsy eyes and strange skintone? Do they feel a kinship, or an annoyance with the associations I have – “belonging” in this city.
Do they know how much this chaos aches my heart? How I have stopped in three different aisles, sniffling as I recall old trips I made to the grocer and how anxious I was in that foreign land? Do they know how I recognize that haunting look of sadness expats often carry, and want to tell them, “I was once you. It will get better. You will make friends.”?
Do they know I don’t feel special, and I am so sad that my powerful gait and my narrow lips speak of privilege? Do they know I watch the strange tension between generations, one trying to preserve his culture – the other begging to try some Lays, and sigh in sadness? Do they know I want to be THEM, and I AM them…but don’t know how to tell them?
Do they know I am thrown back to 11 months ago, treading so carefully to let people know I respect them – from my privileged, educated standpoint? I am sad that the woman wearing a headscarf ducks as she passes me, speaking quietly and excusing herself. I am sad that they gave me this little honor, and truly – I wish I could help.
Do they know, this chaos, these smells, the raw fish sitting open on ice – brings up so many memories stuffed down for months, I could barely finish my shopping for aching?
Do they know, no life is easy and I am sorry many of them are struggling to adapt and make ends meet? More sorry than I can ever express, more understood than I can ever portray, more empathetic than I will ever describe.