After I was born and my mother returned to work, my parents left me in the care of a 70-year-old Korean nanny. Although she was a very warm-hearted woman who doted on me as if I were her own child, the only thing I really remember about her is that she was really old. Also, that she smelled like a combination of Old Spice and kimchi.
Being very old, the nanny tired easily and would often take several naps throughout the day. Whenever the urge to sleep hit her, she would just plop me in front of the TV and allow me to watch hours and hours of Sesame Street. Unfortunately, she only spoke Korean and didn't realize that I was watching Sesame Street in Spanish. To her, any language besides Korean was pretty much all the same. Can you really blame her?
After a few years together, the nanny either left our family for greener pastures or passed away. Her absence was never fully revealed to me. It was only years later when I saw "The Vanishing" that I thought about her again. However, what I DO remember is being a young boy sitting on my bed as my mother introduced me to our new Colombian nanny. Needless to say, the new nanny didn't speak Korean.
But, more importantly, she did allow me to continue watching Sesame Street in Spanish.
I tell you all of this only to explain how it was that I ended up going to nursery school speaking a strange amalgamation of English, Korean and Spanish. I like to refer to it as "Spanklish" but, in all honesty, it was like a really fucked-up version of Esperanto. Needless to say, nobody at nursery school could understand a single word coming out of my mouth. This was a very traumatic situation for a sensitive 5-year old kid like myself.
For all I knew at the time, EVERYONE on the planet spoke Spanklish. It wasn't until that first day of school when I realized that I was much "different" from all the other kids. The first clue was when I looked around the room and realized I was the only Asian kid in the room. Although I'd seen white kids on television, they were usually speaking Spanish. How come all these kids knew how to speak English? Is it any surprise that I wouldn't let go of my mother's leg and that she had to use her vacation time that week to stay with me as I adapted to this freaky new environment?
The second clue was probably when I turned to my mother and said, "Mama, donde esta le byun-soh?" (Spanklish translation: "Where's the bathroom?")
Over time, I eventually learned to speak only English and began to communicate with other people. Not only that but I also started making my first friends. By the time I reached first grade, I thought I was the All-American kid and I was ready for the next phase of my cultural reimmersion project...the after-school playdate.
Now, if discovering that you were the only person on the planet who spoke your own language wasn't shocking enough, imagine how my little mind was blown away when I started to see how OTHER people lived.
See, my mother was a bit of a maverick in the early 70's in the sense that she believed in eating only healthy foods. This would have been unusual for MOST mothers of the time. Imagine how weird it was that an IMMIGRANT mother chose to adopt this lifestyle. I don't know where she came up with this but I'm thinking it came from the Korean-language version of Reader's Digest. For years, that was the only periodical I ever saw in our house. Her obsession with this magazine dictated a lot of what went on at home. (It also explains why her jokes were never that funny. Apparently, the anecdotes from "Laughter: The Best Medicine" didn't translate well into Korean.)
Unfortunately, Mom's nutritional policies were quite confusing. Steamed fish, rice and vegetables were on the "OK to Eat" list. However, so were Big Macs and Kentucky Fried Chicken. My entire concept of beverages consisted of juice, milk and water. I didn't even know there were other choices available! Most of the time, I subsisted on rice, seaweed and bananas. A little bland, yeah, but what the heck did I know?
Imagine the shell shock I had when I saw what all my little friends were eating at their houses. Holy crap! Soda, cookies, potato chips, hot dogs, sugared cereals, Wonder bread! What was all this stuff and who did I have to kill in order to get more of it?
It was like entering another world that had been closed off to me for my entire existence. I immediately vowed to myself that I would start making up for lost time. Sure, the first 5 years of my life may have been lived in ignorant bliss but, dammit, if I had anything to do with it now, those wobegone caveman days were over!
Soon enough, I started arranging my own play dates. I stopped chosing friends based on their personalities or any shared mutual interests but rather on what kind of food their mothers kept in the fridge. I couldn't get enough of this American food. I'd do ANYTHING to get it. I was like a 3-foot tall heroin junkie dressed in a Mighty Mac and Buster Browns.
But, in all honesty, if there was one food that fascinated me more than anything else, it was bologna. What was this creamy, delicious mystery meat and where did it come from? Who was this Oscar Mayer man and how could I shake his hand?
I loved EVERYTHING about bologna. I loved the rounded plastic packaging that perfectly enveloped all the slices like a custom-made glove. I loved peeling off the outer rind and eating it separately. And I loved the fact that bologna was a gateway drug leading me to the wonderful world of condiments. Cheese! Mustard! Mayonnaise! What a glorious food this bologna was! It went well with virtually everything! Only a country as great as America could invent it. Clearly, my parents had made the right choice in deciding to move here!
Apparently, the love of processed meat products is handed down genetically to subsequent generations. My 19-month old daughter, the Peanut, absolutely loves blogona. Last night, I watched as she smiled gleefully and shoved tiny little handfuls of bologna into her mouth as fast as she humanly could. Every time she finished a slice, she would look up at me with her big eyes, hand me her bowl, and say, "More? More?"
Me? I just sat there looking at her lovingly and thought about when I was her age. About my weird trials and tribulations. About how bologna opened up a new world for me. And about how different my daughter's life would be from mine.
And so, as I refilled her bowl, I leaned over, gave her a kiss on the cheek and whispered, "Konbay, mi hija yep-boo-dah! Bologna es chway-go-da, isn't it?"
(Spanklish translation: "Cheers, my beautiful daughter! Bologna really is the best, isn't it?")