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Half a pound of ham
essay [ ]

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by [Bernadete_Piassa ]

2009-07-20  |     | 

“Half a pound of Virginia baked ham, please.” No, wait. The voice is not clear enough. Let me try again. “Half a pound of Virginia baked ham, please.” Good. That sounds better. I just hope I don’t fail this time. I just hope I don’t stutter. I just hope my voice doesn’t come out very low and the saleswoman doesn’t have to say. “Excuse me?” Oh, how I hate these words!
I am at Richboro’s Shop & Save grocery story standing in line, waiting for my turn to be helped. All I want is ham—just half a pound of Virginia baked ham. However, I need all of my strength to remain in line. Part of me wants to run away and just grab a ham off the shelf, the kind that comes already packed and is not so good, of course, but at least one doesn’t need to ask for it from the salesperson. The other part of me wants to get the freshly sliced ham that tastes delicious, smells delicious, but is tucked away safely behind the counter, where the saleswoman is the only one able to reach it.
I am a coward, or at least sometimes I behave like one. But I don’t like to admit this, so I am standing in line. I am getting the freshly sliced ham even if this costs me all my energy. Even if I have to get sweaty and anxious, I will ask for it.
I bet you are laughing at me. I bet you are wondering how come I am not able to order something so simple. But I am not American like you My English is broken. That’s why although I want to ask only for half a pound of ham, I need to rehearse.
If you were in line, you could smile at the saleswoman. You could chat with other customers while you waited your turn. You could ask for ham and even change your mind afterwards. You would be relaxed, just performing one of the small duties that you execute in your daily life without even thinking about it. Probably, after getting what you asked for, you would simply go on with your shopping, just forgetting about the ham until you had to pay for it.
But for me, the ham is serious business. If I don’t buy it, I will be a coward. If I buy it, the ham will be my trophy, and when I get home and try it, it will have a special taste—the taste of victory, of accomplishment. You see, I can’t fail. I really have to rehearse.
I need to confess to you that this is not the first time I have asked for ham. I had bought it before, several times in fact. And every time I had seen the saleswoman and the other customers looks. I had seen them stare at me and place a stamp on my face: foreigner!
Foreigner! That’s what they know instantly about me. They have no idea that I am a journalist, that I am a mother of three children, that I live right there, just two blocks away from the grocery. But they do know that I am a foreigner, an outsider, an alien, a stranger. And they look at me in a different way: suspicious, curious, wondering.
There are a thousand questions floating in their eyes. I can almost feel them. However, I just smile, for I don’t want to give any explanation. I am so tired of explanations, so tired of having to prove that I came from a good family and yes, your kids can play with mine without getting harmed, no, I am not going to eat you, yes, I speak three languages, I am not illiterate, no, I don’t intend to destroy America’s values, yes, I would like to see your country in better shape, no, I am not going to steal Americans’ jobs.
The endless explanations, the questions in the air, the look on someone’s face… all this makes me long for my own country. Over there I could be myself without having to live always tense, trying to prove that I am a good person. I could be cordial and chat with other customers in line because I knew the jokes and the small talk they were used to. I could even be authoritarian, if I wished, and the saleswoman would feel that I was more important than she and wouldn’t mind my impoliteness. But here I just don’t know the right jokes, the right words. I can’t stand tall, proud, and demand what I want. Here I am small, quiet, and talk only in whispers. That’s why I need to rehearse, when I want to buy half a pound of Virginia baked ham.
It is almost my turn now, and once more I ask myself if I won’t fail again, if the saleswoman won’t say “Excuse me?” making me feel even more ashamed of myself, of my English that will always come out with a foreign accent.
“Why do I feel so vulnerable here?” I ask myself, without waiting for an answer. The world of foreigners is a world of questions not answered, of misunderstanding, of tears not always shed. A lonely world of people who don’t belong in their home country anymore, but still don’t belong in their new one. People who during the day struggle to live in the place they chose to stay, while at night go back, in their dreams, to the place they decided to flee. The world of foreigners is a world of soaring souls, floating in space looking for a home, for a meaning.
“May I help you?”
Lost in my thought, I had almost forgotten about the ham, and the person behind the counter scares me. Putting together all my strengths, I say, in a firm voice, “Half a pound of Virginia baked ham, please.”
“Excuse me?” she asks, a voice of someone used to hearing the right words, the right accent, at the right place.
“Half a pound of Virginia baked ham, please,” I repeat loudly. And this time she hears me. She turns her back to slice the ham, weighs it, gives it to me, I pay for it, and, at home, I try it. As I thought, the ham has a very sweet taste. At the very end, however, it has the same bitterness of thoughts that remain for a long time in our minds until they become sour.

* Published in Basic English Brushup with Reading and Ten Steps to Building College Reading Skills by Townsend Press Books

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