Paralysis in the Cereal Aisle

I wrote this seven years ago, when I first began writing. It made it into my first book, but I want to repost it today. Though I’ve only lived in Kurdistan for a couple of months, I have been profoundly affected by my time. I am back in the United States for a short time and last night was at a supermarket. By American standards, this particular market is small, but even small markets have never ending choices. So I repost, because paralysis in the cereal aisle is real.

If there is a common thread of experience in those who grew up overseas (third culture kids) or spent a considerable amount of time living overseas it could be the paralysis that occurs in the cereal aisle.

I walk in to the local chain supermarket and grab a shopping cart. The vegetable and fruit section causes minimal trauma, other than looking around thinking that I’d like to bargain over the prices.  It’s when I turn the corner into Aisle 3 when the trouble begins.  A sea of cereal assaults me.  The sizes, colors, names and food labels blend into a kaleidoscope and I want to cry.  I am paralyzed as to which to choose and in that instant I am transported back to Eesajee and Sons, the small general store on the mall road in Murree, a mountain area in Pakistan.

In the summers I would go with my mother to this store.  It was all so simple…so easy.  My mother would give Mr. Eesajee a list and he would climb up a ladder pulling down items one by one.  Lyle’s Golden Syrup, Nice biscuits, Digestive biscuits, Green’s Cheddar Cheese, store-bought butter and Corn flakes, one of the two choices of cold cereal available in the market. They were soggy the second a drop of milk touched them and the nutritional value was perhaps minimal, but it’s all we had and we were perfectly content.  Besides – if given a choice I would always pick parathas and omelets at a local tea shop.

I’m jarred back to my present reality by an announcement over the loudspeaker. I have no idea how long I have stood still or how many people have passed me by.  If I can survive the paralysis and make up my mind, there are some pretty good tasting cereals all available for a price.  My world suddenly opens up and I begin to read names and labels. After I pick Cheerios and Honey Bunches of Oats the kaleidoscope begins again as I realize there are 15 kinds of granola on the shelf.

I have often wondered why the cereal aisle?  The bread aisle has a lot of choices, as does the jam and jelly section.

What is it about cereal that brings out the confusion and paralysis, the feeling of being alone?

It should all be so simple.  Third culture kids are many of the brightest people I have ever met.  We survive wars, rumors of wars, and military coups; we know how to bargain in three or more languages;we can sleep anywhere and eat things that would send many to the hospital.  Why can’t we pick cereal?  Why is the mundane always the hardest?

It’s in the ordinary of life where we develop skills that are not always transferable across cultures.

Normal and ordinary includes mosquito netting on hot nights while sleeping outside on a rooftop and making mayonnaise with a blender; long periods of separation from family and eating fish curry with our hands; 15-hour airline flights taken alone at young ages with simply the command “Don’t lose your passport!”; vacationing in countries now considered the“Axis of Evil”; coping with crises considered insurmountable to others but all a part of the community that for better or worse we belong to.

No wonder our lives feel challenged by the normal in these passport countries.

It’s a challenge to go forward and make peace with the commonplace, moving away from thinking all of life in the United States as unimaginative and unoriginal. In my case it begins with the miracle of movement.  People who have experienced severe accidents with trauma to the spinal cord will often say that learning to walk again is one of the hardest things they have ever done.  Physically I do not pretend to relate, emotionally I know exactly what that is like.

It’s learning how to walk in a new way, learning how to live differently, first in baby steps, gradually gaining strength and momentum. It takes time and it takes work. 

The cereal aisle is a baby step in the journey.  Once I have picked my cereal, refusing to give in to the feelings of immobility, I find the rest of my grocery shopping goes quite smoothly.  I decide to pass on the granola…enough trauma for one day.

Besides, who needs three boxes of cereal on their shelf?

You can read more essays like this in the book Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging.