Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Being an Alien

That fateful day.  They look so innocent, don't they?
I'm the one in the groovy, mint-green pants.

{This is part of my 31 Days of Surprise Endings.} 

People often ask me what it was like to grow up as an American in Bangladesh.  And it's kind of hard to explain, except to say that I always felt like an alien.  In Bangladesh, I never fully fit in with my Brngali friends because of my white skin.  In America, when we visited, everyone could just tell that we were a little -- or sometimes a lot -- different.

It wasn't just that we were living in a different country from our families, it was really like living in another time period. We didn't have reliable electricity, television and cable were non-existent, and we used phones only when we were visiting the main offices of my parents' work.  And they didn't work well at all.

One time, my sister and I were in a Sunday School together in America during one of our short trips back, and when my parents came to pick us up, the teacher asked if we were hard of hearing.

"No," my parents answered, puzzled.  "Why do you ask?"  

Apparently, we had found toy phones to play with and our whole conversation had gone something like, "HELLO!  CAN YOU HEAR ME?"

"HELLO!  I CAN'T HEAR YOU!  TALK LOUDER PLEASE!"

Mom and Dad had to teach us to be "street smart" in two different cultures.   It was more than the difference in technology.  We had learned not to drink tap water EVER unless you wanted a parasitic zoo living in your intestines, and we knew about cobras and rabid dogs.  

But there was one danger that concerned Mom terribly, no matter where we were: drugs.  I suppose this was the result of being a good Baptist girl who came of age in the late sixties.  As soon as she thought I would understand, she educated us about all the different kinds of drugs – that some looked like dried grass while others were powders and still others were little pills that someone might tell us we should take because they would make us feel wonderful.  

“They’ll tell you all kinds of lies,” she said, warning us about the cunning people who would surely try to get us to take drugs.  “They’ll tell you that if you just take this little pill or smoke that pipe you’ll feel so much better.  They might even try to give you candy or treats.”  Jenny and I stared at her in terror at the mere thought.  

“But,” she said smiling in a way that relaxed us again, “all you have to say is ‘No thank you'.”  She continued, “You don’t have to give an explanation or anything, just keep saying, ‘No thank you.’  Got it?”  We nodded vigorously.  Then Mom had us role-play these scenarios several times until she felt confident we understood.  

It was a good thing Mom took the time to teach us.  Because, sure enough, the summer I turned five – five! – when we were in California for my aunt Alisan’s wedding, someone tried to give us drugs.  What I never expected, though, was that the pushers would be my very own Aunt Janelle and Uncle Steve.

We were riding with them from Yosemite to Bakersfield.  They gave my cousins Dramamine because they tended to get carsick.  But Jenny and I didn't know what Dramamine was.  In Bangladesh, carsickness was a way of life.  The sides of many buses were decorated with lunches of their passengers. 

After distributing the pills to my cousins, who knew the drill and complied happily, my aunt held out the little bottle of pills to Jenny and I and told us to take one.  It wasn’t even a question of whether we wanted it or not, but more of a polite, but direct, order.  I looked at Jenny in horror, and she looked at me.  Then we shook our heads with equal politeness, just as we had been taught, and said, "No, thank you."

Uncle Steve (understandably, I can say now) didn't want vomit in his brand new Volvo station wagon, so he kept pressing the issue.  "Just take this little pill.  It won't hurt a bit, I promise.  It's easy to swallow, and it will make you feel really good," he said with his most charming smile.  

I had to bite my teeth together hard to keep my jaw from falling to the ground.  This was exactly what Mom had said they would say!  And "they" were my own relatives!

Jenny and I plastered smiles on our faces, just the way we had when we were role-playing this scenario with Mom.  "No thanks," I said, speaking for the both of us.  "We're fine."

"You know," Aunt Janelle said in the sweetest, most cunning voice, "we're going to stop at Foster's Freeze when we get to Bakersfield.  If you take this medicine, you can get a milkshake."

I couldn't believe the words I was hearing.  All of this was playing out precisely the way Mom had said it would.  I slipped my hand into Jenny's, and she squeezed it tightly, assuring me of her solidarity.  Thank God she was here with me.  My eyes flooded momentarily as I was overcome with gratitude for my big sister, but I blinked back the tears.

We made it to Bakersfield without any vomit, and my aunt and uncle were so relieved they bought us milkshakes anyway.  When we met up with my parents, I ran gratefully to the arms of my mother.  As I clung to her, I whispered in her ear, "Mom!  They tried to get us to use drugs!  But we did what you said.  We just told them, ‘No thank you!’”

So... I might not have had green skin, or a weird-shaped large head, or stepped out of a flying saucer, but the world was a tricky place.   And I always had a lot of figuring out to do.  




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