Like catfood for chocolate

By Filipina Storyteller Avigail Olarte

Only this time the catfood is the chocolate, or was thought to be, when a friend greedily snapped up catfood packs from a shelf. It was summer in Berlin, and in the hubbub in the supermarket she mistook “die Katze” (cat) for “die Schokolade” (chocolate). Not that she knew the words, of course. They looked brown, squarish, the same. She brought them home to Africa as gifts. How strange they tasted, she thought. The cat would have loved it.

To be in another country, how fraudulently similar things could be. You arrive, happy to be free from everything familiar, only to seek the very things that make a place less foreign. Alien and alone, the growing feeling of incertitude compels your brain to tell you that, yes, that long, slim tube is a toothpaste, when it’s really a tomato paste. Or that it’s sugar when it’s salt.

Soon you find yourself like a bird trapped in a noose: Struggle against it and you lose your neck. If that isn’t culture shock, tell me what is. Somewhere someone said “culture shock, like love, is a temporary madness.”

Transitioning to another culture, in another country, leaves you bewildered, hostile, upset. The only way to survive it is when you try to learn, to force yourself to be diminished, to surrender, to let go.

If calculations prove to be correct, it takes about three months to get over the initial jolt. For someone like me, I’ve never gone past three months in any foreign country. Nearly three months in Bangkok, two months in Berlin, a week in Brussels, a day in New York, a stop in Amsterdam.

In many of these places, I’ve collected books, phrase books, maps, bus maps; searched for dining listings, shopping areas, theatre halls.

I’ve scoured the streets for the 99-cent currywurst sausages in Germany; hunted for the perfect plate of som tam, the hot papaya salad in Thailand; spent for the best Trappist ale beers brewed by the Belgian monks; and almost—not that I had the courage and the body to—stripped down and lay naked on the splendid Strawberry Fields of Central Park.

To enculturate, a verb: to change, modify, adapt. Or more specifically, to breed into, to be captive of one’s own, new environment and be in your thundering best to stand out, be yourself, and yet be the same as most others. To be at peace with myself, to have that assurance within, that to me is being home.

(The title is taken from the Spanish saying, “Like water for chocolate”, which means you settle for something less for another of uncomparable value)

Published 16 December 2011, AsiaNews magazine edition, Home

Avigail Olarte wields her pen like a gun. She believes in this: If the shoe does not fit, leave, shoot the prince.