She Eats Dogs

“You’ve gotta be careful in Argentina, girl! It’s not like Cuenca - it’s not nearly as safe. Hell, you’ve gotta keep your bag tucked close, a big thing of pepper spray...and I know what you’re thinking in that cheeky little mind of yours!” Mandy spouted between bites of sashimi and her bento box.

“Aunt Fran’s clearly gone crazy,” she rumbled, mimicking my bronchitis-suffering voice.

Clearing her throat, she looked me straight in the eyes and continued, “but just remember this, girl: they hate Asians over there.”

‘Hate,’ I thought, ‘hate is a very strong word.’ I coughed, as a much too large and boiling gulp of green tea scorched the back of my throat. Laughing uncomfortably, I brushed the thought, growing and darkening, out of my mind.

I’d managed to get myself through the soured reunion, but what my aunt had said struck me once more as I sat, cross-legged, on my hard, wooden floor, my avocado-peel green suitcase and piles of clothes sprawled on the space around me. Scenarios of all the dark possibilities that could potentially strike me in Argentina flickered through my mind: an extreme taxi driver hitting me at a crosswalk, being a target for angry pickpockets or a catalyst for escalating rage at a riot, or even a host school student refusing to speak with ‘La China’ because “she eats dogs.” Working myself into a panic and a flurry, I tossed books and shirts into the corners of my suitcase. At this point, my intricate packing system (considering weather, passing of seasons, weeks and laundry schedules, short backpacking trips, the possibility - more like probability - of a sprained ankle, a need to be sloppy and times of bling and sparkly things) had thoroughly been tossed out the window, replaced with an arbitrary and frantic need to fill the base of my suitcase.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Squirming in the leather seat, still warm from the previous passenger, I read from my iPhone Notes, “Cementario de la Recoleta, por favor.”

I leaned towards the driver, probably in his sixties with a large beer belly and unassuming eyes, and asked in tilted Spanish, “Can I ask you something?”

“Me?” rich and throaty, his voice rang through the taxi with a chuckle that seemed to pour from deep in his belly. “Si.”

The instant the words left my lips, I regretted it. Groaning and scolding myself in my head, I stuttered, awkwardly attempting different starts to my question. I couldn’t have been more unsure of his reaction and response! My chin quivering (almost as embarrassing as my nervous stammer), I managed to ask in a horribly squeaky and shaking voice, “Cómo piensas sobre los Coreanos y los Chinos en Argentina? What do you think of the Koreans and Chinese in Argentina?”

A look of surprise and bemusement crossed his face. Silent and thoughtful, he stared at his hands, clenched on the wheel; I hadn’t the foggiest idea what was on his mind. Starting to panic, I lamely began pretend-texting, as if I were a middle-schooler at a school dance, hoping they might look as if they had somewhere better to be, or as if they weren’t on dance floor by choice.

I wondered, ‘How far could the extent of his interaction with Argentine Asian immigrants be? Did he even consider them Argentinian? Did they even consider themselves Argentinian?’ My imagination, my defense mechanism, soon took charge of the wheel. He hates Asians? His heart must’ve been torn to bits by one, or his Korean girlfriend’s mother forbade her from marrying him, or his Chinese friend found success while he was left to drive lousy tourists around. He thinks they’re the greatest? Maybe he’s a quarter Korean (recessive genes - you never know) or he went to school with a tenacious one who made a deep and fantastic impression upon him! ‘Anything is possible,’ I insisted to myself.

Holding my breath, I looked up at him, questioningly. He chuckled at my eager, albeit incredibly uncertain expression. Pausing momentarily, he leaned out towards the window to watch the stoplights dancing between colors. I rested my elbows on my knees and strained my ears for fear of missing his words. He muttered a reply quietly, under his breath. Confused, probably verging on a panic attack, and seriously considering jumping out of the taxi and rolling on to the asphalt, Jason Bourne-style (it took all of my bottled curiosity and desperation to resist), I asked, “Cómo?”

Meeting my eyes in the mirror, with an expression that was as usual, entirely unreadable but oddly calming, he said, in a clear voice this time, “Buenas personas. Good people.”

Shoulders loosening, smile broadening, I felt relief and a great and unexpected pride. I leaned back into my seat and turned my iPhone over; I didn’t need to pretend anymore. Peering into the rearview mirror, I caught a glimpse of the taxi driver examining me with a peculiar look on his face. Biting his lip as if to say something more, he recoiled and then glanced back at me, suddenly hesitant. Reluctantly, he stammered, “Have you ever eaten dog?”