Assimilate Or Go Home: Dispatches from the Stateless Wanderers
2011 COLUMN CONTEST WINNER
DLM is a home-schooled pastor’s kid, a real life Bible-college educated evangelical in the middle of Portland, Oregon. Currently living in low-income housing with a bunch of Somali Bantu refugees, a husband, a baby, and a very cranky cat, DLM writes about her missionary dreams and cross-cultural schemes while ardently striving to put the “fun” in fundamentalism.
In the car, Hali asked me to do the makeup at her wedding. She was a junior in high school. She was gorgeous, polite, and severe when things didn’t please her. For years we had plotted her path through the world: make it through the hell that is high school, go to college, then get married (she said she wanted to be an ESL teacher, a touch I liked since that is exactly what I have become). And then—her two younger sisters let the news about the out-of-state boyfriend and the wedding slip. I asked too many questions and my voice got all high pitched and then I lost her, watched her slip away from me in all the tiny ways.
In the car, staring out the window and fiddling with her MP3 player, she asked me to do the makeup. “I will give you the money, and then you can bring it on the day” she told me. I asked her why we couldn’t just buy it together and she’d keep it. “I am not supposed to have anything when I get married,” she said. “My husband will take care of me then, buy me anything I need.” As I tried to absorb this information she casually added: “Oh, and can you make me the big cake, too? Nobody else has ever had this, and I want it.” I said yes immediately, desperate for any tenuous connection to this girl and her wedding, not ready to say goodbye.
We were at the cake-decorating store, looking at supplies for the big event. I knew we would stick out, as we always do: the frazzled volunteer with the three girls in headscarves trailing behind, touching everything in sight. I had to remember to breathe deeply, that people were watching us closely. We went up to the counter and a woman in her mid-30s helped us, kindly explained things like what size cake pans would fit in my oven and how many layers would be feasible. And then her eyes flicked over to Hali, who was looking at the displays of confectionery roses, dreaming of what her cake was going to look like. “Is it her wedding?” the woman at the counter asked me. I nodded. She edged closer to Hali, leaned her bosom on the glass countertop. “Honey,” she said, firm and full of kindness, speaking with an intimacy I could only dream of having with Hali. “You are much too young to get married.”
Hali looked at her, large brown eyes clear as could be. “Oh, I know.” She said, and smiled wide.
We were watching High School Musical together for the billionth time, when Hali suddenly asked me to rewind a scene. So I did, and we watched as the sorta mousy girl (messy brown bun, glasses) who plays the piano get her day in the sun. During the finale of the film, where the kids put on the musical in question, she is transformed. Sitting down at the piano wearing a bowler hat and vest, she slowly rises. She takes off her hat and shakes her head slowly, causing a cascading wave of luxurious hair. She sings, and then you notice her glasses are gone and she is wearing makeup and everyone is all like “Hey! That girl is pretty!” and she looks very pleased.
We watched it over and over again, at Hali’s insistence. She sat forward in her chair, immersed in the modern fairytale of believing in yourself. Hali, the girl who was covered from head-to-toe in fabric, headscarf dutifully on, who was normally forbidden from wearing makeup at all. And I knew she wanted a chance, just like that girl in the movie, to shake her hair out in front of everyone. To be transformed, to have one song-and-dance number be all about her.
My apartment was covered in flour, and there were large, lopsided cakes covering my kitchen table. The baby was up from the nap early, irritated at being plunked in her high chair while I tried to smush pieces together to create some semblance of a 3-tiered monstrosity.
While the baby waved her little arms and gnashed her four teeth like a little tyrannosaur, I became despondent over the state of my cake. It looked positively Seussical, but not in a whimsical way. I smeared on the frosting I bought at the Hispanic market, the kind all the refugees like because it isn’t very sweet, the kind of frosting that looks and tastes exactly like shaving cream. I smeared it on thick and hoped for the best. I piped on the roses and fed the baby more cheerios, and I topped it off with the gaudiest plastic-and-lace heart you have ever seen.
The late afternoon light was streaming in yellow, the wedding only hours away. I eyed the cake critically, despairing at all the flaws. And then I laid down in the middle of my living room, and shut my eyes. The cake really was the least of my worries.
One floor below my apartment, Hali and her bridal party (all 15- and 16-year-olds) were getting ready. I saw her, fresh from the hair salon, covered in bridal henna. Her hair was smooth, black, and shiny. It was the one day in her life she didn’t have to wear the headscarf. I felt teary, parental, overwhelmed.
My unflappable friend Julia, whom I had outsourced the makeup gig to, was surrounded by teenage girls. Julia was no stranger to hanging out with gaggles of refugees and brought a calm and firm presence to the chaos of the room. The bridal party was a sassy, high-pitched bundle of nervous energy (this was sort-of like their version of a debutante ball, signaling that they were ripe for marriage themselves). They drank can after can of orange Fanta and admired the henna on their hands. They played hip-hop music videos and yelled into cell phones and told Julia to put on more and more and more eye makeup. I hovered, completely useless at beautifying rituals but just trying to be a part of the process. I printed off directions to the wedding and handed them out to the men downstairs, I took pictures while the girls posed, and I turned off the rap music when it became unspeakably crass (I am very, very good at Shutting Things Down).
We got the phone call that it was time to go to the ceremony, and we all gathered to give Hali advice. She looked exceedingly calm, like she had withdrawn almost completely inside of herself. I realized that for once in my life, I didn’t have any advice to give her.
The music at the wedding was so loud that the speakers had long ago died and you could hear metal bits buzzing about. Somali Bantus from all over the west coast were there, congregating in front of the Russian dance studio where the celebration was to take place, talking loudly over the fuzzed-out bass that was spilling from inside. Julia and I conscripted several teenage boys to help us carry in the cake, and I don’t know what got more stares: that confectionery masterpiece or the sight of two white girls at the wedding.
To distract myself from the emotions lying near the surface I switched into Cultural Anthropologist mode, making mental notes about the fabulous dresses and all the rituals I didn’t understand. The room was large and surrounded by mirrors, with a few tables off to the side piled high with speakers and other DJ equipment. There were chairs hugging the walls, and in the middle of the room was a large circle of women, dancing slowly, slowly, slowly around the room. They were women of all ages, some with babies strapped to their backs, twirling and shuffling and generally just having a good time.
I camped out on the sidelines with Julia, ears aching and head throbbing and with a large lump in my throat. I was grateful that it was too loud to talk; I wouldn’t have known what to say.
After what seemed like hours of waiting, we were all ushered outside again to watch as the bride and groom held hands (which then meant they were married). We all followed them inside waving banners in the air, the women yelling and trilling at the top of their lungs. Then the entire bridal party did something like 100 laps around the little room, dancing slow as molasses, everyone looking young and beautiful and never taking their eyes off the floor. I stared at the groom, tall and thin, dressed in a gray suit and never taking off his sunglasses. I tried to think kind thoughts, to be an optimistic person for once in my life.
After several hours of this, the bride and her girls were ushered off to do a complicated dress change. I was up way past my bedtime, needing to get home to relieve the babysitter. I asked when the cake would be cut and was told it would happen at the end of the wedding. Well, when will that be? “Oh, 4 or 5 in the morning.” I decided to leave, right then and there.
I tried to find Hali in the crush of people surrounding her. Her sisters found me, breathless with the excitement of it all, faces covered in makeup that was obviously applied by someone not as talented as Julia. They told me that things had changed, that Hali was moving to the east coast instead of Seattle, that she had just been told herself. I shouted at the girls over the din “When is she moving? Next week?” No, they told me. She is leaving tomorrow.
I frantically pushed through people until I found Hali and her pack of girls in a small changing room. She had warned me beforehand that she wouldn’t be able to talk to me at the wedding, that I shouldn’t be worried by how sad she looked. She had explained that in her culture, it would be disrespectful to look happy on her wedding day—she was, after all, leaving her family behind. I found her, in a beautiful dark-green dress that looked like a sari, and clutched her wrist. “Hali,” I said, “I love you.” I swallowed, and then lied through my teeth: “ I am so happy for you.” She nodded her head. I rushed on, talking fast and close to her ear.
“I want you to know that you can always call me. If you ever, ever need anything, please call me. I will always be here.” Her eyes looked up at me and she nodded, and then she was led away to continue the dancing, side by side with the man she had only met twice in real life.
The children were all crowded around the cake, staring with wide eyes at all that frosting, taking little licks when they thought no one was watching. Babies slept in chairs, on the floor, on their mothers’ backs. The music still pulsed, one song blending into another, and the women danced on. Julia and I snuck out the back door, and I got my last look at Hali, so gorgeous and young, having her day in the sun, and a feeling worse than sadness started creeping in.
I thought about the countless conversations about colleges and careers, the introduction of Disney pre-teen media and “follow your dreams” mantras, the talks about Jesus and how much he loves and values women, my harping on equitable marriages, on waiting to have children, on finishing high school. As I drove away from the wedding, there was only one thought in my head: What if I had made everything worse?
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