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Monday, July 16, 2012

Full Fridge and A Place to Call Home

No, that's not really my fridge - but it's pretty damn close
This story starts outside of my fridge. It's a day when there are friends around, and food is both enjoyed and shared by all.

"Peggy-Sue, I just love this dip you brought! How did you make it?" one friend asks another.

"It's a family recipe; my grandmother brought it over from Naples. She made the best Italian food," Peggy-Sue replies.

And somewhere nearby, I am listening, watching, and wondering what my stories would have been, had I known my heritage more fully.

Before anyone thinks I want them to feel sorry for me; let me put a stop to it. I am proud of the half of my identity that I do know; a hodgepodge of ethnicities all stemming from an Eastern European starting point. My Bubba, Yiddish for grandmother, was full-blooded Russian Jew. Her husband claimed German ancestory, but his relatives had lived longer in Missouri than not and probably had a few new shades added to the mix. My mother obviously was a fifty-fifty blend of the two, born with blonde hair like spun golden wheat that over the years darkened into a heartier winter brown with auburn swirls. She had both her mother and her father's Pacific blue eyes and skin that was a reddish white that freckled easier than it tanned.

But what about me? I was born with soft brown skin, big dark eyes and even darker brown hair. I looked nothing like anyone else in the family before me, even my older brother whose father was a perfect match to our mother's coloring.

My older brother Jason and me - 1980
I grew up believing I was half Mexican, the daughter of a man my mother didn't know, but had a night of fun with. No name, no picture, just an idea of someone who may have been my father.

Around nine my face started changing. My short cute nose suddenly lengthened and curved, taking up a large portion of my face. My eyebrows grew fuller and together, and my lips thickened. My maternal uncle, the man who loved me unconditionally and raised me as his own daughter (and whom I call my Dad) told me he thought I might be Middle Eastern. I was horrified.

My mother came over for a visit and my Dad told his sister (I hope you didn't skim too fast over the last paragraph and are now scratching your head over that statement!) that I looked Persian. She agreed, telling me that she thought maybe I was actually half Iranian. This conversation took place at the beginning of the Gulf War in the summer of 1990. I didn't know the difference between Iraq and Iran, and the only thing I heard my family say was "You're one of them, the enemy."

I refused to accept the possibility, and guiltily, I continued to tell people I was Mexican until I was married in 1998. For the year leading up to my marriage, I was constantly approached by strangers asking if I was Iranian, Saudi, Afghani or even Indian. Iranian was the most common assumption, but sometimes even Greek or Armenian came up. One Iranian neighbor told me that I look exactly like the women in his country. He was sure that I was Iranian; and somewhere around that time, I decided I was too.

I started telling people that I was Middle Eastern. I didn't plan it out very well, and when someone would ask what country - I would say either Saudi Arabia or Iran to save myself the humiliation of saying "Actually, I don't know what I am or where my dark coloring comes from."

Over the year I got better and better at lying, creating an entire world where my unknown biological father hailed from, and the reasons why I didn't speak the language or follow the religious customs. I think there was a point in time where I started to believe my own lies about myself, and took a conversation with my grandmother to shake me back into reality.

"So you think you're Indian?" she said.

"No! I don't," I replied. I almost told her "I'm Middle Eastern!" but then I remembered who I was on the other end of the line; a woman who had known the truth of my birth.

I let the conversation fall from there. My grandmother later sent me an email calling me out for the lies I'd been telling about myself. I cried, angry at her for not understanding. I wanted to blame my Dad and my Mom for telling me that was who I might be - but that was just an excuse. The truth was, I clutched that lie for so long because it made me feel like I belonged somewhere - like I had a home.

I know it sounds silly - especially considering that I did have a home with my mother's side of the family. A loving home, a home with delicious food and wonderful parties, and even better memories. But the thing is - when you have an entire half of your life that has no shape, no vision, no place, you spend a very long time trying to make sense of it.

I have oftened wondered if people who are born blind dream in pictures. I think the half of myself, the half without a biological father or connection to the way I look, is just like being born half-blind.

But there's a beauty to blindness. An object is left up to the imagination, and instead of being one thing, it can be everything. I was thirty before I realized that not knowing wasn't the badge of dishonor I had believed it to be. Instead - it meant I belonged everywhere, to everything, and everyone. I was half Russian-German-Jew and half the Human Race.

The fridge for me symbolizes this idea in a very succinct way. There's Vietnamese fish sauce, fermented soy bean paste, anchovies, capers, ceviche, fenugreek leaves, frozen burritos, ketchup and a dozen other ingredients in there that span the globe. I don't have one great food culture to tell my friends about at the next pot-luck party. I have every great food culture to talk about. I think that's pretty cool.


Sarah said...

I love so much reading your blog. You are such an amazing woman and I am so proud to call you my friend. There is something that you said that is right on - YOU.BELONG.EVERYWHERE. <3

Bryanne Salazar said...

Sarah that was such an amazing compliment! I am so grateful to call you my friend too! Thank you <3

Stacey said...

The mystery of you is what intrigued me when we first met. You belong in the world for sure, and I hope you will continue to inspire others with this story for decades to come. I love you, my friend!

Bryanne Salazar said...

Thank you for sticking by Stacey. You are a wonderful friend :-D

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