Three Nonfiction Pieces

Never Smile at a Monkey
Athan Makansi

Monkeys are cute. Lovable characters from my childhood, such as Curious George and Abu from Aladdin, were monkeys. At the zoo, monkeys attract adults and kids alike. Zoo-goers love to see the monkeys act like…well, act like monkeys –eating bananas, grooming each other, and swinging from branch to branch.

So, when I arrived in Himachal Pradesh, India to spend a year teaching English at a rural high school and discovered monkeys were ubiquitous on campus and the surrounding hills, naturally, I was excited. Very early on I had an intimate meeting with these primates.

Occasionally, I go for a jog around the rustic school campus. During one of my first jogs, I turned a sharp corner and ran directly into a family of monkeys. Surprising each other, we paused and stared for a moment. Stunned by the unusual chance of being so close to monkeys, I just stood perfectly still. Not knowing the proper etiquette of greeting a family of monkeys, I simply flashed the cuddly monkeys a wide smile. Something was lost in translation; upon seeing my bright, shiny teeth, the biggest monkey growled and galloped towards me. My smile vanished. I turned heel and frantically sprinted all the way to my house. That was the fastest part of my jog.

I was further surprised to hear that this doesn’t only happened to hapless travelers. The monkey problem regularly grabs the news, prompting threat awareness surveys and attack reports. Recently the state has ramped up its efforts. “Operation Monkey,” enacted by the state wildlife authority, allows farmers to have special gun permits specifically to hunt monkeys for a temporary period of two weeks in December 2010. And in February 2011, the state government began a monkey sterilization program.

On the school campus, each of my students has his own menacing monkey story. Locals readily admit how frequently monkeys will steal food right out of their hands. The school where I teach even hires “Bandar aadme,” or monkey men, who wander campus every day with hockey sticks to chase monkeys off the campus. Some have scars from their efforts.

My meeting with the monkey menace also taught me to resist preconceived notions about the places to which I travel. Peter Matthiessen most succinctly summarized this lesson in his novel The Snow Leopard, based on his own journey into the Himalayas. Before Matthiessen sets out on the arduous trip, his mentor gives him only one piece of advice: “Expect nothing.” I’d like to add some advice of my own: never smile at a monkey.

Athan Makansi spent 2010 – 2011 teaching intermediate English at the Lawrence School Sanawar in Himachal Pradesh, India. He currently works in Washington D.C. as a Consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton.

 

 

 

BATMAN BROKE MY HEART
One woman’s story about what came after “happily ever after”
Chelsie Boozer

I was raised at the end of the era that taught kids that divorce was a mortal sin. Bad juju on you. I know it’s far more common these days, and most people act like it doesn’t matter. Nowadays, saying you’re divorced is like saying that you cheated on your homework as kid: big deal.

I joined the military right out of high school and met my future husband at a base where we were both stationed. I was small town girl from Tennessee and he was a small town boy from Indiana. He had the most incredible blue eyes and a smile that made me melt like butter. He was a complete nerd and loved all things Batman. I fell madly in love and soon we headed to the courthouse. All was peachy keen until my knight in shining armor turned out to be the Tin Man, heartless and all – although if you ask him, he’ll probably say that his princess in the tower turned out to be Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction. Tomayto, tomahto. The gist of the story was that I married the love of my life and he ended up breaking my heart.

When my husband’s ex reentered his life, they were “just friends.” I’d by lying if I said the little voice inside my head didn’t go into over drive the first time I met her. But for the sake of my marriage, I tried to swallow my insecurities and play nice. I tried making friends with her and for a month or two it worked. But eventually I just couldn’t tune the out the nagging in the back of my head that something was off – and that was when the fights started. I would wake up in the middle of the night to find his side of the bed empty. I’d call him only to find out he was at her house. They worked together for 8 hours a day and then they’d study together for a few more hours. Once I came home early and found them in a compromising position on the couch. I didn’t have hard evidence, but all the signs were there. You don’t have to catch them in bed to know that your husband is in love with another woman. I’d accuse him of cheating; he’d say I was overreacting. As a woman, I can concede that per-maybe-haps I was a little eccentric about it. Maybe. Possibly. A little.

Once the suspicion set in, it consumed me. I could think of nothing else. You know what I’m talking about – I started rifling through his mail, looking in every nook and cranny of his hard drive, scanning the bills and phone calls, reading his text messages while he slept, asking around to see what any of our friends knew… The more things I found that added to the mounting evidence against him, the more I looked. I was angry, hurt, embarrassed. We would fight. Empty promises were made. But then a few days later, the nagging paranoia in the back of my mind came back and suddenly I was back on the hunt, looking for more things to condemn him and prove his guilt. I would tell myself that I didn’t want to know, that it hurt too much – but I couldn’t stop.

It was a vicious cycle that became an addiction. I wanted to stop, wanted to find the strength to either leave or make myself not care. But I just couldn’t. Once you suspect or know that he’s cheating on you, you have to prove it to yourself over and over and over and over and over. You have to stare at the evidence until you’ve degraded yourself beyond the point of no return.

When I was much younger, I saw a video featuring singer/comedian Mark Lowry. He was talking about himself and his brother back when they were children and used to terrorize the bejeezus out of their mother. Mark goes on to say that he wished all mothers had a little red light in the back of their heads that would start flashing 10 seconds before “ENOUGH”. At that point in my marriage, I felt like my little red light was constantly flashing. I had tortured myself to the point of overly-dramatic paranoia. If my husband did the slightest thing to piss me off, I’d fly off the handle into some crazy bizarre outrage. There was an over-abundance of southern-style hollering and name calling, mostly on my part, tears and insults flowing freely. And after it was over and one or both of us had stormed off in a huff, I’d smack myself internally. I kept saying that I wanted to make it work, and a part of me did; but with every fight I got angrier and angrier. The resentment between us kept building until there wasn’t much else. It wasn’t enough for me to make him feel bad – I was blind with rage and pain, and I wanted him to suffer.

Finally the day came where I had undeniable, black-and-white, in-your-face proof that my fears were valid. I’d jumped in my car, sobbing hysterically while ranting and raving, crying and screaming the whole way home. I imagine it would have been slightly funny to watch. I stormed into the house and quite literally ran in circles all over the living room for a good 20 minutes, beating pillows and calling him names that would make the devil blush. Crazy eyes, check. And then, I saw it.

The limited edition, very expensive, completely awesome, porcelain Batmobile cookie jar that I’d given my husband for Christmas was sitting on top of the refrigerator. It was his favorite Batman thing. The heavens parted and light shone down on it. My hissy fit stopped as I walked toward it with passion and reverence at the same time. Took it down from the fridge, turning it over in my hands and eyeing every inch of it. So smooth, so polished and sleek. A true work of art for the avid Batman geek. And just so expensive. Costly. Limited-edition. Did I mention that it wasn’t cheap?

Then I turned around, and held it high over my head, standing up on my tippy-toes for maximum height…. and brought the damn thing down as hard as I could. I wish I’d had one of those cameras that they use on Time Warp. The cookie jar didn’t make much noise when it shattered – it sounded like a Christmas ornament breaking. But you could FEEL the effect as it broke into a thousand pieces. Like knocking your cell phone off the counter or opening the cereal bag too hard or your beaded bracelet breaking….. The pieces just went everywhere. It was almost magical.

I stood there for a moment, looking at the kitchen floor. Then I gathered my things, walked out the door, and drove away. I felt better. Only later did it occur to me that I’d gone all the way home simply for the sake of killing a cookie jar. Go me.

Eventually, my one-and-only filed for divorce and a few months later, I was legally single. By this point, I was out of the military. No husband, no job, no home. I felt like going back to my hometown in Tennessee would be a step backwards, so I packed up what was left and moved to California to live with a mother I barely knew.

It was hard. Divorce aside, I was still jobless, homeless, and broke. With perseverance, I found a job and a small apartment. I was surviving, but inside I felt like I was drowning. It was hard enough to live with the heartache of being abandoned by someone I loved, but all of that was compounded with the shame I felt. When I’d walk down the street to pick up milk at the store, I felt like everyone was watching me; like they all knew that behind my forced smile I was screaming inside. “Embarrassed” or “mortified” don’t accurately describe the feeling. It was like someone had stamped DIVORCED on my forehead for the entire world to see; I just wanted to hide under the covers. I felt like the only thing about me that was worth mentioning was that I was divorced, like I ought to be shunned and sent to a divorce colony. Like it defined who I was, and that it would for the rest of my days. I’d lie in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking about it for hours. I’d get bored and doodle little cartoon pictures of myself, with one of those benign tumors growing off my face like another head and DIVORCED written on my T-shirt. Then I’d get angry at my ex-husband all over again. This went on for months.

My family was supportive in their own unique ways. My parents kept telling me to get over it, that it was for the best and, honestly, what else did I really expect? My grandparents had said they were sorry, but it was clearly an uncomfortable subject for them. The majority of my “friends” would conveniently have to get off the phone or log off of the chat whenever the subject came up. I could tell that everyone was tired of hearing me talk about it, tired of seeing me be the “angry and depressed white woman”. People kept telling me that it would get better with time; that the pain would go away when I found someone else – and it just pissed me off even more.

Wasn’t there a code for family and friends? Weren’t they supposed to buy me obscene amounts of ice cream and tissues, or a BB gun and targets painted like my ex? Weren’t they supposed to switch modes when I did: hate him for a week or two, and then pine over him for another? But no one was on that roller coaster with me. Everyone was tired of it, while I was holding a season pass.

I tried dating a few times but it was always a comical disaster. One date came over to my apartment but his truck got towed while we were inside, and I never heard from him again. Another one talked like the squirrel from Hoodwinked. I met a few creepy ones and a few jerks. While the dates weren’t exactly what I was looking for, they were always good for a laugh the next day at work.

By chance, I became reacquainted with an old friend from the military who had gone through the same thing. We stayed up will the wee hours of the morning talking about our respective ex-spouses and one day, he said something to me that changed everything. He said, “I hate her and I love her. I miss her, but I’ll never take her back. And it will always be that way.” Not exactly a profound statement, but it changed my outlook entirely. I suddenly realized that it was OKAY to be angry at my husband and still miss him. I didn’t have to pick one or the other because I felt both.

From then on, things got better. It wasn’t that the pain dissipated or that I “got over it” suddenly…. I simply took the feelings as they came. 75% of the time, I was fine. I didn’t even think about my husband. Some days, I missed him more than words can describe… so I’d go home, drink some wine, eat ice cream, listen to sappy music, and have a good cry. By the next morning, I felt better. And when I hated him so much I couldn’t stand it, I go for a long drive up the mountain, listening to angry death metal music, and just let it out. Pitch a hissy fit right in the middle of nowhere. And when I got home, I’d feel fine. I recognized that it wasn’t healthy to squash my emotions for the sake of appearances. It was about rolling with the punches as they came. My life was a wreck and I needed to fix it in my own way – to hell with everyone else’s expectations.

Divorce is ugly no matter how you slice it, but it has taught me a lot about who I am. I learned how to stand on my own two feet and not to compromise my self-respect for the sake of others. I realized what’s important in a relationship and what is simply unacceptable. Most importantly, I found out that I was stronger than I thought I was.

This would now be the part where I’m supposed to tell you that I met Mr. Right and everything is great now… except it hasn’t happened that way. My life hasn’t magically transformed into some Hollywood happy ending – life never works like that. I did meet someone new and fell in love again to my utter astonishment. And despite the fact that THAT relationship didn’t work out either, it was so much better than my marriage because of what I had learned. There was no fighting or resentment this time, just love and acceptance and understanding. It was the kind of love that let us part on great terms and remain close friends. And while my life might not be right where I want it, being where I am isn’t so bad. Every day, in countless ways, I see the ripples of my divorce and how it affects the choices I make today. I have my bad days and my good days. My real friends have stuck by my side and helped me through it. And every breath I draw gets me a little closer to internal peace.

The moral of my story is that sometimes life is beyond your control. Sometimes, everything falls apart. But it’s up to you to pick yourself up and move on if that is your only option. As Buddha said, “No matter how hard the past, you can always begin again.” No matter where you are in your life, your situation doesn’t define you. There is more to life than the pain. And when you’re feeling down, remember: If the world didn’t suck, we’d all fall off.

 

 

 

 

Curry Mile
Kylie Pace

You’d have to stay focused to spot the small flag that hangs above an intersection on Manchester’s Wilmslow Road. “Famous Curry Mile,” it reads. It could just as easily be a direction – “Famous Curry Mile: two miles onwards” – as a geographic marker, but this is in fact what it means to indicate. Glitzy restaurant signs in Arabic, English, and Hindi fonts overwhelm the sign, and their shisha, falafel, and buffet lunch specials ignore the street’s title. Only curious Americans would naively show up here looking for a mile of curry houses.

My own lunch here on a recent Monday quickly confirmed that I had overemphasized both parts of the street’s nickname. A longtime fan of the gravies that my subcontinental friends cook up in the States, I set my sights on the assumed epicenter of the transplanted subcontinent. But the lamb kabob and nan bread before me demanded nothing of the imported red chile powder that I had been increasingly adding to my dietary regime.

Fortunately, the name Curry Mile is false in the best ways. It’s unlikely that you’ll want to walk farther than this shortened mile after sampling the easily-affordable yet satisfyingly-portioned food. And what Curry Mile lacks in actual length, it over-compensates for with geography. The entire eastern half of the ex-British Empire, plus Thailand, has melted down to form this street. Drivers who learned to parallel park in Delhi pause to question a restaurant promoter who is shouting out special deals. Loitering for five seconds risks eliciting the attention of these doormen, who “guarantee you top quality Indian food!” Or Pakistani, or Bangladeshi; these nationalistic distinctions really don’t matter here, as long as the food is halal.

British traditionalists blame the country’s significant Middle Eastern and Asian population for replacing English culture with foreign religions, languages, and customs. In Manchester, a growing ethnic minority demographic drove 86.6% of the city’s population growth from 2001 to 2007. Islamic centers housed in former churches create extra traffic on Fridays. Chicken tikka masala has replaced the roasts, fish and chips, and boiled vegetables of Anglo fame as the country’s most popular dish. From the perspective of an elderly driver with foreign-born neighbors, it is only a matter of time before the country entirely looks and speaks like Curry Mile.

If the mainstream popularity of ethnic food and culture is connected to the increase in foreign-ancestried population, though, it isn’t a result of the numbers. While England’s immigrants have been (mildly) benefiting the country’s kitchens ever since Queen Victoria introduced a Pakistani cook to the royal kitchen, they aren’t necessarily eating the same dishes. The average take-out curry is Anglicised down to its final speck of five spice mix powder. The chicken tikka masala mentioned above stands out in taste and appearance compared to white, starchy English roasts, but this is only because traditional English food so thoroughly lacks color that the addition of canned tomato soup and spices to chicken equates to a culinary revolution. This is, in fact, the recipe behind the famous chicken tikka masala that I found along Curry Mile.

Curry Mile is not the high street for Manchester’s South Asian population, although its few grocers and clothing shops do also fill that role. The phenomenon of Curry Mile’s eateries exists because of the British, largely for the British. It was the skeletal British Empire of the Second World War that encouraged colonial immigration to fill national labour shortages caused. When midcentury deindustrialization left many immigrants unemployed, new entrepreneurs found success in feeding the nation’s appetite for tasty, cheap food. Today’s students who walk down a few blocks from the University of Manchester to the Wilmslow Road’s curry houses are continuing this trend; without them, there would be no Curry Mile.
And for those looking for “real” South Asian food, it’s best to get as far from Curry Mile as you can. My Bangladeshi lunch friend could recommend only two restaurants here that could pass for true Indian, but they both are closed on Mondays. That’s also avoiding the question of what constitutes “true” Indian food – a question best explored by a book like Lizzie Collingham’s Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors.

The inclination for subcontinental nostalgia, whatever that may be, is gaining popularity as British eaters gain enough confidence in pan-Asian food to seek adventure through authenticity. The best example of this in Manchester “dares to serve authentic regional dishes from the heart of India.” As if to prove its stylistic separation from Curry Mile, it is located at the far end of the metro tramline, in the outlying city of Altrincham. Here the immigrants that make modern England so alive with multiculturalism are present but hidden, in line with the imaginations of the generally upper-middle and older, more conservative, wealthier residents. The qualities of typical takeout – comforting, cheap, fast – are in low demand. Even the outdoor market’s Indian food stand here advertises its unsalted, fresh, vegetarian meals: just like we really eat in South India, the owner of The Dravidian suggests. He is the only Asian in sight as the bravest of shoppers sample his 3-course lunches, except during the occasional festival. During these weekends, Curry Mile’s patrons take a tram ride to experiment with Indian food – and they love it. I did too.

Kylie Pace is in extended transit back to the States after being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia. Her blog, saywhatethiopia.wordpress.com, was frequently censored due to its political content, although this probably had no connection to her detention at Heathrow Airport’s Border Control. Next year she will begin a master’s program in water resource management.

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