What bothered me the most was the fact that she didn’t even notice.
So, as the afternoon diffused into a windy May evening in Virginia, I was too swept up in a number of internal drifts, an intimate conflict where the strong winds of desire collide with—and succumb to—those of hurt and annoyance. The problem: we were having a great time, but now, after finishing dinner, she was in front of me, wearing her best smile over an almost untouched plate of food.
And the problem was, to be clear, the plate of food.
I couldn’t stand seeing a full plate not cleaned by a meal’s end. I felt it was a sign of disrespect to the millions of people who went and go hungry every single day. I grew up in perhaps the most complicated years in the recent history of Peru, when inflation, economic stagnation, and a deadly internal conflict rendered an already poor country an even poorer one. By 1990, Peru had indicators as a country similar to some of the least developed nations in the world, and hunger and need were felt everywhere. Obviously, in such a context, it was very apparent that whatever plate of food was placed in front of you was precious, and one should be thankful. And probably because of this background, my reaction to the uncleaned plate was as though she had treated someone badly in front of me for no reason, an action to which I could hardly reconnect my desire and interest in her.
Under the dim lights of the restaurant, she was as pretty as I had ever seen her, but I couldn’t get past the fact that she had ordered something and then didn’t eat it. What kind of justification could there be for such disregard of food, short of being sick? Was she actually sick? If so, why she didn’t tell me? Would she ever tell me? If not, did that mean that she wasn’t having a good time? And would that mean that she actually didn’t like me after all…? As the spiral of questions started to feel like a boa constrictor around my neck, and as the waiter cleaned up our table—taking the almost intact plate from my sight—I was so afraid to say something that I opted to excuse myself to the bathroom.
I remember clearly that I didn’t even turn on the light, and sat there, trying to come to terms with my confusion in the dark—as if in such gloominess it would be easier to elude part of my emotions and return to be propelled by the only current I feared I was no longer feeling: desire. Maybe if I just closed my eyes for a second, I would be able to forget the episode and focus on how promising the night seemed to be until that moment. Outside, waiting for me, was the girl I asked out in a bout of courage and in the imperfect English I could muster. Hadn’t I worked so much for this: worked up my courage to ask her out, worked almost a whole semester to afford a nice meal with her?
But moral disgust cannot be contained once it is elicited, and one ends up drowning slowly in one’s doubts: why did it bother me so much? What were the conditions in which this might be justified? Or actually, why did I assume it was not justified, per se? Who am I to judge? Didn’t we come from such different backgrounds that my moral disgust itself was not justified? Also, how could I be so morally disgusted by a plate not cleaned when I wasn’t really doing much for world hunger outside of being disgusted? How did I know this was an effective way to fight it? What if she actually was to engage in a much more effective way of combating world hunger—would it be okay then for her to order food and simply not eat it? And, most poignantly: if I said something, I risked blowing the whole thing off, and I didn’t want that, either—or did I? The interrogation ended up circling back to me: how had I ended up with such a belief? Did my moral disgust really have anything to do with combating world hunger, or did I see it as a disdainful act, a red flag signaling an unfit moral character? Could I like someone who had an unfit moral character? How could I project my own trauma onto someone who had not experienced the terrible spectacle of hunger? Did I have the right to burst her bubble when she did not have this social malady front and central on her radar?
Only when I convinced myself that my righteousness was as arbitrary as it was my upbringing was I able to calm myself enough to head out.
I might have been a bit too long away from the table, as she was worried when I came back. It was starting to get breezy. By then, she had already eaten half of the dessert, which I took as a good omen. I decided to not say a word, and even though my head was clogged with questions, I tried to focus on how great the future, starting that very evening, could be. I guess it paid off. In perhaps the most quintessential mental transaction that any recent immigrant makes, I, too, decided to sacrifice a bit of my own past for the promise of a better future—which usually starts by feeling more adjusted to the uses and costumes of your new country. One could argue both ways: it was, certainly, a small betrayal of my old self, but also the first acute use of a self-regulatory mechanism—one which has become as second nature by now as it is never-ending, an assimilation always incomplete.
How the evening ended is irrelevant. Suffice to say that it was still windy when we parted ways. And I am not so hung up on empty plates any more—especially after finding myself throwing away food from my fridge from time to time, the ultimate and most common first world ritual. What has actually haunted me over these years has been the quickness and efficacy of the sacrificial transaction in which I engaged that day and the way it has echoed in my two plus decades as an almost professional foreigner. I have repeated it so much that I am not sure if I am left with anything of my old self, having mortgaged it piece by piece for the promise of a decent future. Do I regret it? Only when the headwinds are too strong.
Even in the best of cases, to migrate feels as if one is stumbling into an intricate choreography without having rehearsed a single step—what feels foreign is the new scenario, the new costumes, and the new script, even the way in which the lights hit the new stage. I can still clearly remember how, for the first month of my arrival, even sunlight felt different. (I was no longer in the tropics, and the sky always felt bluer and lower, nearly within reach). The tectonic shift of moving away from culture, language, and family is always treacherous because it sometimes requires one to shed and leave behind part of oneself in seconds, as I did over a plate of food—when I opted to forget, to try instead just to enjoy the evening and its breeze. It has been windy—turbulent, even—since.