Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mowgli Prepares to Take the Plunge

Now and then during our engagement, people would ask me if my Indian-born fiance was a citizen, which I took as a polite way of asking if I was marrying him so he could remain in the U.S. I would reply that he wasn't, but that he had his green card. For those who didn't know me well and/or seemed unaware of the implications of that, I'd add that he didn't need to marry me to stay in the country.

In a nutshell, once you have taken the necessary steps to get a green card, you may come and go as you like, and live legally in the U.S. for the next 10 years. After that, if you haven't already become a citizen, you have three choices: renew it, return to your home country, or apply for citizenship.

My darling husband Mowgli (not his real name) is taking the third option, so yesterday, we went to a camera shop to get passport-style photos of him to send with his application. He took great care with his grooming, ironed his crisp white shirt for approximately one hour, and worried about his handsomeness level -- all business as usual for him.

Once the application is filed, he'll be notified about when to show up for the naturalization test, which consists of a reading and writing test of English, and a verbal civics test. Once upon a time, it consisted of a list of 20 questions, but now there are 100, all about the branches, history and mechanics of our government. Ten of those 100 are asked during the interview, and you have to get at least six right to pass.

Since Mowgli is known in certain circles as an American History trivia team ringer, I don't think he'll have any trouble with that. But I'm not sure I could pass that test if I had to take it today.

I know that the President vetoes bills and that FDR was President during World War II, but if they asked me when the Constitution was written, I'd be all like, um, after 1776? And while I was happy to see questions about Native Americans and Susan B. Anthony in there, I think the one about the Pledge of Allegiance is a mite tricky.

The INS provides a free booklet of the 100 questions and their answers, and you can go online to get free flashcards. But if you take a look at the photo of my old copy of "Our American Government" below, you'll see how seriously I took civics class.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Photopost: Back to School, in India

I snapped this shot of schoolgirls outside Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, in March 2008.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mowgli and the Chore Chart

The other day I wrote about the bread baking event at the family reunion. Today I'm writing about something less exotic: the chore chart at the family reunion, pictured above.

If you count up those names, you'll get 47 (this is what happens when two people have eleven children, who then each have between one and three children apiece and get together 30 years later). So the chart is a necessary part of gathering for a weekend -- but it's also fun.

It is work, sure, but preparing food with someone is one of the best ways to get a feel for them; chopping vegetables, frying bacon and scrubbing pots have a way of exposing the ins and outs of a personality. I saw humor, management techniques, frustration and cubic tons of love in that big, bright room. If it had been possible, space-wise, I am dead sure that everyone would have been in there for the entire three days. As it was, we settled for scooting past each other to get at blueberry buckle, ice cream, soda and yes, children, alcohol.

Back to the chart, though. Everyone above the age of 14 or so was assigned to a team, and each team was assigned one meal and one cleanup. My husband Mowgli (not his real name) was on a team that drew breakfast duty on Sunday. I had my doubts (he is NOT a morning person), but he made me immeasurably proud when he told me, as I stumbled into the kitchen around 8:30, that he was the first one there.

The word on the street is that he made a whole mess of French toast -- my mother, who was on the same team with him, even claims to have photographic evidence.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Big loaves of thanks to the family

My husband and I just returned from a family reunion on my dad's side that was lovely in many ways and about which I will write in greater detail later. For now, I feel compelled to tell you about one particular incident.

There is a bakery in the family, and thus several bakers were on hand. These are people who make bread for fun, and tend to pass along the baker's art at family reunions. The bread we learned to make is legendary in this clan: Dilly Cheese -- it's exactly what it sounds like, and mere mention of it sent a roomful of folks into raptures.

I took approximately 8 million photographs of the bread-making process, but one of my favorites is of my husband's hands in dough. This was an unexpected development and hopefully the start of a bread-making trend at Masala House.

Below is my other favorite photo: cousin Matt, showing us how it's done. Deep thanks to him and the rest of the clan for welcoming us with open arms, and teaching us how to make something that nourishes body and soul.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

In Ghana, a Funeral is Called a Homegoing

I really didn't intend for this week's theme to become death, but it snuck up on me. Death will do that.

Yesterday, I posted a photo I took two decades ago in Paris' Pere Lachaise cemetary. It is a peaceful, pretty place of cobblestone lanes and trees and amazing monuments, where Jim Morrison and all sorts of famous folks are buried. It felt like a random, if semi-logical, event: need to post, need a photo, ah here, I like this one, click, click, done and off to work.

But today I realized that I have had death on the brain ever since a friend started a series of posts about his father-in-law's funeral, which took place in Ghana recently. His writing and photos have made me feel like both a participant and a voyeur, and I urge you, dear readers, to go take a look.

Here is the first post, and here is the second, and the third.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Photopost: Pere Lachaise, summer 1990

Fresh out of college, practically no money, wandering around a beautiful cemetary in an amazing city with an older brother.

I can't recommend it enough.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Common Language

When I was in my early 20s, I dated a Liverpudlian. We argued playfully about the usual British vs. American English words: lift vs. elevator, car park vs. parking lot, sidewalk vs. pavement.

Now I'm married to a South Indian. We don't argue about Indian vs. American English so much as translate them in our heads. Sometimes he says fingers when he means toes, and he knows that when I say stroller, I mean perambulator.

Last weekend, we were dividing up the cleaning, and I said I'd vacuumed the basement, the stairs, the hall and the kitchen. Hours later he was puzzled about why there was dog hair on the dining room floor if I'd already cleaned it. I said I hadn't. He looked confused and said yes, you said you vacuumed the living and dining rooms, the basement and the stairs.


And this is how I learned that for my husband, "hall" means living room and dining room.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Yes, We're Together

My husband and I don't often go shopping together, for various reasons. But when we do, about half the time, a checkout person will not realize we're together. "Oh, I didn't realize you were together," they'll say as I scoot my toothpaste up the conveyor belt with his razors. This, despite the fact that we've been talking about personal things and standing roughly half an inch away from each other. And probably holding hands or something smooshy like that.

I generally put it down to the level of distraction in the store. A checker must have a million things to keep straight, those registers are full of tricks, and sometimes the poor thing is wearing an earpiece blaring God knows what sales messages into their brain. Still, it's bothersome.

It's not even the blatant racism of it that bugs me the most. It's the negation of us as a couple, a reminder that here in the Midwestern U.S., the marital combination of our skin tones will always be seen as an anomaly. Not that a handful of people being blind to our coupledom matters that much in our day-to-day lives. But it still shocks me a little bit every time, and the really sad part is it shocks me a bit less each time.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Photopost: Hare Krishna Lunch

A while back I wrote about the mysterious van that shows up during lunchtime, always at a particular spot outside a certain office building downtown. It's from Govinda's, a vegetarian Indian buffet place run by the Hare Krishnas, and while I find the atmosphere at the restaurant a little culty, I do occasionally order a delicious, filling lunch from the van (via e-mail, of course).

So below we have the full lunch, which is $8 (it's $6 without the yogurt and dessert). Clockwise from the bottom: rice with an icky pickle on it, two curries, a flatbread (kulcha, I think), dal, halava for dessert, and yogurt.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Japanese Leftovers

At lunch with a friend last week, I reached for a discarded straw cover without thinking about it. Within a few minutes I had turned it into the little object above. Then I went to work on the blue napkin wrapper, which was trickier because one end of it was coated with an adhesive on the order of an industrial-strength Post-It® note.

I picked up this habit when I lived in Japan, and I moved back roughly 15 years ago, so I've been folding bits of paper into knots for something like 20 years. I can't recall where or when I started, or who taught it to me. If I'm in an Asian restaurant, I'll make a chopstick rest out of the paper sleeve they come in, but I'll also make these if there are more scraps of paper on the table.

Why do I turn strips of paper into tidy little knots? It's not as if I'm a nervous person and need something to occupy my hands. I never take them with me, so as soon as I make them they become useless bits of stuff, destined for enormous restaurant trash cans.

It's a Japanese leftover, an amusement, and a mystery.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Tokyo, circa 1991.

On Thursday morning, when I was about two minutes from work, I heard the announcement that shocks me every year: On this day in 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Really, they should say, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, instantly obliterating tens of thousands of people and condemning tens of thousands more to death. But that wouldn’t be polite, would it? And obviously, we all know who dropped the bomb, but it’s the passivity of the language that bothers me.

That night, I watched a documentary about the bombings, White Light/Black Rain, which was released in 2007 and includes interviews with the surviving crew members of the Enola Gay. One of them used the same passive construction: The bomb was released, or the bomb left the plane, something like that. None of the airmen expressed regret about their role; they talked about performing their duty to their country, and calmly described the missions in clinical terms. One of them did, however, deride people who are quick to say, "nuke 'em." I think he may have used the word "idiot."

There were also interviews with 10 or 12 survivors, who went through the details of where they were and what they were doing when the bomb hit, as well as what it was like to survive. I learned quite a few things from these people: The hibakusha (“bomb-affected people”) are still discriminated against, and were initially ignored by their own government. The patients in the hospital that was set up to treat and study hibakusha would beg passing nurses to kill them rather than endure another bandage change. The Japanese word invented to describe the atomic explosions is "pikadon," a combination of two onomatopoeic words: pika for "flash" and don for "boom."

But by far the oddest thing I learned had to do with the Hiroshima Maidens, a group of 25 severely disfigured young women who were brought to New York for recontructive and plastic surgery. During their stay, two of the maidens and the group's chaperone met Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, on the TV show “This is Your Life,” an encounter this New York Times article rightly describes as “monumentally awkward.” It is the original reality TV; all parties are extraordinarily uncomfortable yet remain glued in place, performing the roles they've agreed to. Lewis looks particularly squirmy, I'm sure in part because he didn't know he'd be meeting survivors until he showed up at the studio.

If you’ve read this blog for a while or know me well, you know that I spent a few years living in Japan, specifically in Tokyo and on Hokkaido. There were definitely times when I felt awkward about being an American in Japan, especially around older people who had undoubtedly lived through the war, and quite possibly survived the burning of Tokyo five months prior to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The photo above is of a man that my older brother and I encountered while ordering hamburgers late one night at a fast-food joint. I’m sure we’d had a few beers, but I was clear-headed enough to feel negativity coming from him, and to make an educated guess about why. Of course, it could just have been that he was annoyed by our loudness and foreignness; it’s impossible to know for sure, and asking wasn’t really an option from either an etiquette or language standpoint.

When I was watching the documentary the other night, my husband asked if I’d visited Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and I was ashamed to say I hadn’t. I was even more ashamed to admit I didn’t know why. I recall thinking about it, but can't conjure up the reason I decided against it.

Not making that trip is one of my few regrets; it’s the passivity of the decision that bothers me.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Even Dogs Play Favorites

We have two dogs, both mutts, both delightful in their own ways. Georgie is a Rottweiler mix, aloof and protective, and so densely built that strangers assume she's a male. She once barked at clothes that were hanging on the back of a door; I suppose they looked ominous to her, and to be fair, they had appeared without warning. When I walk her alone at night and Mowgli calls out, "be safe," I giggle.

And then we have Jim, the pretty sweetie-pie of the house whose most dangerous feature is the stench of his breath. He loves human contact so much that he will let you rock him back and forth when he is standing. I once compared him, fairly, to Inspector Clouseau.

Jim is Mowgli's favorite dog. He has proclaimed this loudly, in front of both dogs, on numerous occasions, so at this point, every creature in the house is aware of his canine preferences.

My morning routine is to feed and walk the dogs, and then work on writing projects, with the dogs cruising by for pats and scratches. Sometimes I ask their opinion of this or that sentence, but they're generally reluctant to comment beyond a yawn. This goes on for an hour or so, and then I go upstairs to get ready for work. When I come down, Jim is inevitably waiting as you see him above, tucked into that corner between a speaker and an overstuffed chair.

This is his view:

He doesn't budge when I come down to gather my things. Why would he? He's waiting for his favorite human.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Photopost: South City Grocery Store

I used to live in the area of South St. Louis commonly known as "Little Bosnia," in a house that was built in the early '20s. When I moved in, in 1999, the neighborhood was a mix of families that had been there forever, entry-level homeowners like me, and lots and lots of Bosnian, African and South American immigrants.

One of the wonderful consequences of that population mix was a plethora of international food items in the most affordable grocery store. It started out as a single shelf of unroasted coffee and tea cakes, way back in the dairy section. Soon there was a stand of freshly baked Bosnian bread nearby. These days, it's a huge section of its own, with juices, preserved vegetables, dessert mixes and prayer candles.

I was there the other day, doing research for a blog post for work, and couldn't resist the opportunity to take photos of all that awesome stuff. I'm pretty sure several old ladies thought I was nuts, which made me laugh, and I'm sure my giggling cemented their impression of my mental imbalance.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Polish Pride: Mustard Edition

Yesterday, having done battle at Soulard Farmers Market, I stopped by a grocery store because I had forgotten to buy apples, and I was not up for a second round of battle with that unending knot of slow-moving people. There were also a few items I needed that cannot be found at the farmer's market: dryer sheets, Nutella, and mustard.

At the store, I was pleasantly surprised to spot a mustard with a Polish name on it: Kosciusko. I had no idea who this guy was, but I recognized the name as Polish, and that was good enough for me. My train of thought ran this way: "Wow, mustard made by a Polish guy. I'm Polish, and I like Polish things. I bet this Polish mustard is fabulously delicious."

This morning, when I turned the little plastic barrel around, expecting to find that it had been made in Detroit's Polishtown (Hamtramck) or perhaps imported directly from Poland, I learned that it had been made by Plochman's, a company founded by a German emigre and originally based in Chicago. As best I can figure out from their website, they started making it in the mid-1990s.

So now I'm questioning my purchase logic. Was it really Polish pride that made me buy that mustard? The lure of the familiar? The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it becomes: I am not a fresh-from-Poland emigre desperate for the flavors of home. I am the great-granddaughter of an immigrant who has been to Poland exactly once -- and spoke the language so badly that I ordered, with great confidence, a mountain of pierogi.

That Kosciusko guy, by the way? Not a mustard-maker, not involved in any sort of food-related industry. He was an 18th-century military commander in his native Poland and the fledgling United States. Fortified Philadelphia in 1776, built a bunch of forts along the Canadian border, went home to defend Poland from the Russians in 1789. Didn't know a damn thing about mustard.

Those Germans, though, they know from mustard. I bet this German mustard is going to be fabulously delicious on my turkey sandwich.