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Should Call Him Khem

In defense of food (and porn) in Paradise Hills.

Author: Rachel Vaughn

Neighborhood: Paradise Hills

Age: 27

Occupation: Website Content Editor/Freelance writer

I salvaged a Lonely Planet Thai language phrase book years ago, a souvenir of my ­father’s long-ago Navy travels in Southeast Asia. Practical and illuminating, it highlights the primary concerns of visitors to that sultry locale — so ­it’s no surprise that a great deal of textual space is dedicated to food, hospitals, and ­sex.

Dì-chan ben pà-yâht translates to “I have intestinal ­worms.”

His name is Khem. He is a retired store owner from Nakhon Pathom. I am new to the building and look like a Japanese princess. He tells me this by way of introduction. I should call him Khem because his full name, he insists, is too difficult for anyone to pronounce, and he is tired of hearing it loused up. I consider this while he presents me with a plate of chicken and beef satay, perching it atop my bag of groceries. I am not Japanese. And I suppose it hardly needs to be clarified that I am also definitely not a member of any ­country’s ruling or defunct monarchy. At best I might be descended from a line of minor tropical jungle chieftains or damp, consumptive potato ­farmers.

I ­don’t mention any of this to him. It would seem rude, contrary. I was new to the apartment complex, and the man had just given me a plate of skewered meat. Instead I thanked him and promised to return his plate the next day. The satay was followed over time with a noodle dish, coupons for Fresh & Easy, a small pot of pink azaleas, sticky rice, a single energy-efficient lightbulb, the admonishment to get married and have children as soon as possible, then more satay. I ­haven’t known Khem long, but in the months since meeting him I have learned two things about my new neighbor: he is a fine cook, and he may be a porn ­fiend.

Row mâi ben kon fâ-rang-sèt. ­We’re not French. Kà-nom bang tam dôo-ay bâang kôw sãh-lee têe mâi dâi ow ram òrk. Whole-wheat bread. I can imagine this ­isn’t asked for that ­often.

His wife, a Filipina, died years ago. They met in Bangkok, where she worked as a maid in some rich ­widow’s house. They ran the store here together, and even after widowhood set in he stuck around the neighborhood, probably plying each new tenant with his charcoal-fired version of a welcome ­basket.

Late some nights — after even the gangsta rap from downstairs has subsided and you can finally hear crickets on the slope outside — the sounds from next door are so faint that ­it’s hard to figure out at first. Then you realize: synth. Flopping. The ohyeahohyeahoh­yeah of old-fashioned, low-budget cinematic boning. I have trouble looking him in the eye after these nights. Not because of the porn, or mostly not because of the porn, but the sheer loneliness. The quiet of his apartment each ­morning.

“Why ­don’t you travel some?” I ask. “You could get out of here for a while, maybe visit Thailand. ­Don’t you miss ­it?”

“Ah, no.” He waves his hand. “Too old, too old. ­I’m already here so long. This is my home ­now.”

­It’s hard not to feel bad about that. The name “Paradise Hills” in addition to being half a misnomer (there is nothing paradisal about it — though hilly, certainly, but not exceptionally so), is also better for what lies in proximity rather than what it offers within its own borders. That being: everything else considered by the people who live here as Paradise Hills, sometimes down to and including National City, the South and North Bay Terraces and, on occasion, Bonita. Its citizens are an expansive and imperialistic people, largely working- to lower-middle class, natives in the sense that any long-rooted military community is native, “a diverse population,” according to Wikipedia, “consisting primarily of people of Filipino and Latino ­descent.”

This makes Khem something of an anomaly in the area. As a lover of most things anomalous, ­I’ve begun to treasure him recently. His too-large trousers (you ­can’t call them anything else) cinched up nearly to his chest. The neon-green fly swatter whapping when ­he’s out smoking on his porch. Once I tried to give him some pizza from ­Mike’s Giant on Reo Drive. I ­don’t cook. He was kind enough to never mention it ­again.

Dì-chãn chôrp nãng bóh gàp don-dree bèe pâht. I like erotic movies with bamboo xylophone music. Khem might, too, but ­I’ve never ­enquired.

­“What’s that book? You are always reading. You should be dating instead — find a nice boy who will read to ­you.”

That book was Michael ­Pollan’s In Defense of Food. I bought it at Costco while sample grazing and working out the math of a family pack of pot stickers for a single girl with few hobbies. I wondered if this was where the author pictured his work ending up. And before such an indifferent audience! Eat fewer processed foods, sure. More greens, no slick packaging. Meanwhile, we can buy cocktail shrimp by the truckload and chocolate by the ­crate.

­“It’s about food,” I reply. “Our relationship to it, and how trends have affected the way we view the things we eat. ­It’s kind of ­interesting.”

And it was, insofar as finding that the founder of the ­Kellogg’s breakfast-cereal behemoth did so because of a rectally fixated paranoia is interesting and enlightening. That is to say, a searing masterwork. From what I remember, Kellogg believed that excessive consumption of meat created toxic chemical deposits in the small intestine that were responsible for compulsive masturbation. To combat this protein-borne perversion, he jockeyed for more carbs on the breakfast table and frequent yogurt enemas. His cereal empire survives in our supermarket aisles, but ­it’s ­Kellogg’s intuitive powers that most impress me. Empirical science of the modern age has since told us what he already knew: steak is really just a gateway meat to more depraved sexual ­acts.

I hate to think what Khem might be doing in the confines of his two bedrooms if he were to eat more of his own incredible barbecue. If rather than cooking fish half the week he began to substitute carne asada or pork chops. And what about me? I only just figured out my ovulation cycle by my level of desire to get all up ons with Liam Neeson, which intensifies toward the middle of the month and subsides into a more manageable budding appreciation for Delta blues music the rest of the time. I would assume that low self-esteem or a cough syrup addiction would be to blame, but maybe it will be a medium-done chateaubriand that eventually causes me to hulk out into a raging slut one day. I have meat at almost every meal, and if Kellogg was right, ­I’m not sure ­there’s enough Valtrex in the world for me to enjoy satay for breakfast ­anymore.

Khem pooh-poohs this and straightens out of his plastic lawn ­chair.

“Why do you have to care about that? What food is good to eat. If you like it, ­it’s good. ­That’s how to enjoy ­life.”

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Author: Rachel Vaughn

Neighborhood: Paradise Hills

Age: 27

Occupation: Website Content Editor/Freelance writer

I salvaged a Lonely Planet Thai language phrase book years ago, a souvenir of my ­father’s long-ago Navy travels in Southeast Asia. Practical and illuminating, it highlights the primary concerns of visitors to that sultry locale — so ­it’s no surprise that a great deal of textual space is dedicated to food, hospitals, and ­sex.

Dì-chan ben pà-yâht translates to “I have intestinal ­worms.”

His name is Khem. He is a retired store owner from Nakhon Pathom. I am new to the building and look like a Japanese princess. He tells me this by way of introduction. I should call him Khem because his full name, he insists, is too difficult for anyone to pronounce, and he is tired of hearing it loused up. I consider this while he presents me with a plate of chicken and beef satay, perching it atop my bag of groceries. I am not Japanese. And I suppose it hardly needs to be clarified that I am also definitely not a member of any ­country’s ruling or defunct monarchy. At best I might be descended from a line of minor tropical jungle chieftains or damp, consumptive potato ­farmers.

I ­don’t mention any of this to him. It would seem rude, contrary. I was new to the apartment complex, and the man had just given me a plate of skewered meat. Instead I thanked him and promised to return his plate the next day. The satay was followed over time with a noodle dish, coupons for Fresh & Easy, a small pot of pink azaleas, sticky rice, a single energy-efficient lightbulb, the admonishment to get married and have children as soon as possible, then more satay. I ­haven’t known Khem long, but in the months since meeting him I have learned two things about my new neighbor: he is a fine cook, and he may be a porn ­fiend.

Row mâi ben kon fâ-rang-sèt. ­We’re not French. Kà-nom bang tam dôo-ay bâang kôw sãh-lee têe mâi dâi ow ram òrk. Whole-wheat bread. I can imagine this ­isn’t asked for that ­often.

His wife, a Filipina, died years ago. They met in Bangkok, where she worked as a maid in some rich ­widow’s house. They ran the store here together, and even after widowhood set in he stuck around the neighborhood, probably plying each new tenant with his charcoal-fired version of a welcome ­basket.

Late some nights — after even the gangsta rap from downstairs has subsided and you can finally hear crickets on the slope outside — the sounds from next door are so faint that ­it’s hard to figure out at first. Then you realize: synth. Flopping. The ohyeahohyeahoh­yeah of old-fashioned, low-budget cinematic boning. I have trouble looking him in the eye after these nights. Not because of the porn, or mostly not because of the porn, but the sheer loneliness. The quiet of his apartment each ­morning.

“Why ­don’t you travel some?” I ask. “You could get out of here for a while, maybe visit Thailand. ­Don’t you miss ­it?”

“Ah, no.” He waves his hand. “Too old, too old. ­I’m already here so long. This is my home ­now.”

­It’s hard not to feel bad about that. The name “Paradise Hills” in addition to being half a misnomer (there is nothing paradisal about it — though hilly, certainly, but not exceptionally so), is also better for what lies in proximity rather than what it offers within its own borders. That being: everything else considered by the people who live here as Paradise Hills, sometimes down to and including National City, the South and North Bay Terraces and, on occasion, Bonita. Its citizens are an expansive and imperialistic people, largely working- to lower-middle class, natives in the sense that any long-rooted military community is native, “a diverse population,” according to Wikipedia, “consisting primarily of people of Filipino and Latino ­descent.”

This makes Khem something of an anomaly in the area. As a lover of most things anomalous, ­I’ve begun to treasure him recently. His too-large trousers (you ­can’t call them anything else) cinched up nearly to his chest. The neon-green fly swatter whapping when ­he’s out smoking on his porch. Once I tried to give him some pizza from ­Mike’s Giant on Reo Drive. I ­don’t cook. He was kind enough to never mention it ­again.

Dì-chãn chôrp nãng bóh gàp don-dree bèe pâht. I like erotic movies with bamboo xylophone music. Khem might, too, but ­I’ve never ­enquired.

­“What’s that book? You are always reading. You should be dating instead — find a nice boy who will read to ­you.”

That book was Michael ­Pollan’s In Defense of Food. I bought it at Costco while sample grazing and working out the math of a family pack of pot stickers for a single girl with few hobbies. I wondered if this was where the author pictured his work ending up. And before such an indifferent audience! Eat fewer processed foods, sure. More greens, no slick packaging. Meanwhile, we can buy cocktail shrimp by the truckload and chocolate by the ­crate.

­“It’s about food,” I reply. “Our relationship to it, and how trends have affected the way we view the things we eat. ­It’s kind of ­interesting.”

And it was, insofar as finding that the founder of the ­Kellogg’s breakfast-cereal behemoth did so because of a rectally fixated paranoia is interesting and enlightening. That is to say, a searing masterwork. From what I remember, Kellogg believed that excessive consumption of meat created toxic chemical deposits in the small intestine that were responsible for compulsive masturbation. To combat this protein-borne perversion, he jockeyed for more carbs on the breakfast table and frequent yogurt enemas. His cereal empire survives in our supermarket aisles, but ­it’s ­Kellogg’s intuitive powers that most impress me. Empirical science of the modern age has since told us what he already knew: steak is really just a gateway meat to more depraved sexual ­acts.

I hate to think what Khem might be doing in the confines of his two bedrooms if he were to eat more of his own incredible barbecue. If rather than cooking fish half the week he began to substitute carne asada or pork chops. And what about me? I only just figured out my ovulation cycle by my level of desire to get all up ons with Liam Neeson, which intensifies toward the middle of the month and subsides into a more manageable budding appreciation for Delta blues music the rest of the time. I would assume that low self-esteem or a cough syrup addiction would be to blame, but maybe it will be a medium-done chateaubriand that eventually causes me to hulk out into a raging slut one day. I have meat at almost every meal, and if Kellogg was right, ­I’m not sure ­there’s enough Valtrex in the world for me to enjoy satay for breakfast ­anymore.

Khem pooh-poohs this and straightens out of his plastic lawn ­chair.

“Why do you have to care about that? What food is good to eat. If you like it, ­it’s good. ­That’s how to enjoy ­life.”

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Comments
7

I have read this like six times, and it gets better each time. I still gasp in delight at parts like "deep evening cock-handling to the best of 80s production sensibilities"...which is truly delightful. Thank you.

Tremendous finish, too, BTW, with the pearl of wisdom followed by the screen door creaking shut. During my first read, my view of Bas pivoted 180 degrees as I read the last two paragraphs. Maybe the old devil has it figured out after all.

OK, back to my corn flakes...

March 1, 2009

Thanks, shizzyfinn! Your comment made my morning. I'm glad you enjoyed it, even with what I realize now is an overabundance of hyphens. I mean, holy crap.

March 2, 2009

I agree with shizzyfin, and would like to add that this is one of the best neighborhood blog entries, if not the best, I've read. The mini character portrait, with themes of food, cooking, sex, relations of gender and ethnicity, and observational humor, make this a truly literary piece to be savored.

It makes one wonder what the editors were smoking in February; while understandable that a journalistic ideal of actually effecting positive change in what is being reported would lead them to praise the short piece about ballpark prices, but it is not really a neighborhood story, and it should not have won first prize. The second place piece about City Heights just didn't capture my interest as a reader. RD Vaughn's piece, in my opinion, is the real winner for February. Brava!

March 26, 2009

I have to wholeheartedly agree with SDaniels, and others. Except I did enjoy the story about City Heights and found it interesting. However, when I read the above published blog by RDVaughn, I could not understand why it had only received 3rd place. It is incredibly well-written, hyphens notwithstanding, provocative, interesting...and leaves you wondering and wishing to read more. And it IS about a neighborhood, not a dilemma over the city of San Diego's overpriced baseball games, complete with relish and beer. (Nothing against that story, just didn't understand why it won first place when I read it, especially in comparison to the above piece).

So what else did she need to do with her writing about her neighborhood? Effect social change? Lower taxes??

Well-said, well-written, well done RDVaughn. (I used the hyphens in your honor). I hope to see (read) more of your work.

April 11, 2009

SDaniels and lallaw: I'm sorry for the lag in replying. The Reader doesn't seem to have a comment notification system in place.

Thank you both so much for your warm, articulate (and discerning) comments. I'm heartened to know that my blog entry, in spite of my over-enthusiastic use of hyphens, appealed to you. I can't speak for the editors, but I suppose maybe my piece wasn't neighborhood or city-centric enough within the contest guidelines. Regardless, I won some money, which was nice for my wallet, and now get to bask in your praise, which is even nicer for my raging vanity. Thanks again!

April 14, 2009

Suzanne, or "SDaniels"...I too was stupified that "gopher bashing" won the apparent only prize, let alone first prize, to date for March. (At the end of the piece, I sat staring at the screen, one side of my face scrunched up, head tilted to the opposite side and all I could say was, "haaaaa?" The crickets creaked on...

And yes, dear RDVaughn, you are both a gentlelady and a scholar to thank us personally and publically. I am certain that Suzanne and I were not the only ones who greatly appreciated your talent at story-telling about your neighborhood. Perhaps if you had bashed 'ole Bas with a shovel like March's first place winner did to his neighbor's gopher it would have moved you to the top.

Oh well, ours is not to question, but to keep trying... please let us know where else we can read your work. For some reason I remembered some blurb that you were published elsewhere...Be well and write on! Lisa a/k/a "lallaw"

April 15, 2009

As the priggish English teacher I am, I never use texting terms to indicate laughter, Lisa (lallaw), but you seriously had me rolling with your reaction to the gopher bashing, replete with crickets, and the suggestion that bashing a gopher (metaphorically, of course) wins the Reader prize.

Incidentally, they will choose a winner for 2nd and 3rd. They do in quick succession, each week after 1st place is chosen--a "stay tuned" situation for those hungry, expectant entrants. And speaking of hunger, hope to see you at Barbarella's, should the whole potluck/dinner pan out. Gotta hand it to her for her good natured consideration of the idea. :) -Suzanne D.

April 15, 2009

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