The water tastes different here. In my country water is more like metal—sharp and rusty, swallowed only after some effort. It is sometimes dark, almost the color of honey. But in my new country, the people seem unsurprised at water’s transparency, as if it isn’t supposed to have any color at all. They drink with such arrogance, as if they think water never runs out.
My mother writes in her letters that I should find our old neighbors, the ones who left the old country long ago. They will be able to show me to the small markets down dirty streets where I will be able to buy the drinks that we drink. But her letters come slowly, and by the time I receive them they are stripped of their urgency. I begin to take my mother’s commands as mere suggestions. I begin to drink this new water that smells like steam and tastes like nothing, and I am already sensing some change in me. My skin is getting lighter, and now I understand why brown is not so common here. My hair has thinned, the kinkiness loosening into silkier waves. People seem to smile at me more.
Yesterday one of these smiling people—a graduate student, an older man—asked me to join him for dinner.
“I know this amazing restaurant, it’s this amazing mixture of Burmese and Thai and Indian. You into that?” he said.
I was quickly becoming accustomed to the pinched grinning faces of this country’s men, the way they looked at me as if I were a piece of colorful candy they might like to chew. But it was the first time one of them had approached me in this way. At first I was unsure. But then, the smiling man took my hand, and squeezed. His fingers were so white, and soft as dough, and I actually thought Oh! this man must be sweet, sweet like dough. And then I said “Yes, yes!” like the women I’d seen on television commercials for jewelry stores, answering proposals for marriage.
As I was getting ready for our meeting, our date, I spent several minutes studying myself in the mirror. If my mother could see me, she would call me vain. On my neck was the mole, an inky stain from which sprouted a few coarse hairs. I rarely saw this mark because I often wear high-necked shirts, and because whenever I undress I carefully look to the ground, avoiding the one mirror in my small dormitory.
But this was a special night. I wanted to wear a new dress that revealed the very tops of my shoulders. I’d bought it that same day at a second-hand shop near the college, almost immediately after the smiling man let go of my hand. I found it at the bottom of a discount bin, purely my good fortune. But when I put on the dress, and saw the mole—something I’d been born with and which refused to disappear no matter how much water I drank—I thought Everything will be ruined. I searched my memory to recall if I had ever seen any of this country’s women with such a mark on their pale pinkish necks, a black ball with little hairs sprouting about like mine. I had not.
I looked through the drawers of my bathroom for a tweezer. There was only a safety pin. I took it to the mirror and looked directly into my own eyes as I dug into my skin, winding the hairs around the sharp needle. I pulled them out. I jabbed the pin gently, but still, I bled. The pain was small but it made my eyes water. I hadn’t cried since arriving in this country, so when the tears met my mouth I was surprised at the taste.
Tomorrow I’ll write a letter to my mother, explaining how different the act of crying is here. She loves for me to explain to her the differences between us and them. I’ll explain to her that when they cry, the water in their bodies changes from the tastelessness of before to a rather pungent—almost spicy—water. But somehow it still tastes clean. Not at all like when we cry. With us, the water comes out of the body the same way that it goes in: dirty.
In the letter I will not tell her how my body has changed, how my tears now taste so clean, how I’m becoming more and more like them every day. How thirsty I always am. I’ll put the letter in a box, together with a bottle of water from my new country. And pray that my mother drinks.