I believe in onions. I hate onions. My mother and I argue about them every night. Cooked, they are all right, but raw, sliced, and circulating through the salad we eat with dinner, I cannot stand them. They leave me feeling as misplaced as that modifier. My mother defends them for their crispy zest, but, to me, they are an infestation, the black plague of ingredients. Like ultraviolet radiation, they are there even when you cannot see them; their furtive but foul flavor infuses the romaine, the tomatoes, and every last cucumber. That’s the thing about onions: their essence seeps, soaks, and spreads, rendering them absolutely unavoidable, inescapable. After I surrender, eat my compromised cucumbers, the onions continue their attack. They beset my breath from the inside out. Talk about biological warfare. No matter how many times I brush my teeth, which I must do the instant after any onion-infiltrated meal, I can still feel what I have brilliantly dubbed, “the bad breath taste.” I even hate metaphorical onions, which reek with both ineptitude and overuse; their many layers ironically reveal nothing but more of the same. Onions irritate. Their stench permeates, persists, and stayed with me across oceans.
When I spent a month in Nepal last summer, the unbidden and relentless overtures of rickshaw drivers, salesmen, and Nepali men in night clubs were as inescapable as onions in a salad. I learned to walk without looking up and hide before consulting my directions. I wanted, however, to hike the trail to the World Peace Pagoda but hesitated to set off alone because of reported muggings, the irony of which may or may not have occurred to the muggers. Guilted by Lonely Planet’s warnings and the echo of my parents’ concerns, I hired a guide, Hari, to accompany me. Along the way, Hari asked me 1) if I was a virgin and 2) what would make me have sex with someone. When I made clear that I was not going to have sex with him, he asked 3) if we have lesbians in America and 4) if I were one. My guide and protector then showed me the pornography he had on his phone. Worst of all, his sweat smelled like onions. That raucously rancid smell dripped off of him more and more as we hiked. On the way down, my steps along the slippery rocks were unsteady, but my face and mind were set against his noxious personality and pungency; I was fuming. Back at the base, he bashfully asked, “Molly, are you mad at me?” and softened the edges of my anger. Sensing his opening, he charged me twice the usual price before asking me if I was going out that night. I wanted to scream. I seemed to have lost all the cultural relativism, idealism, optimism, and wide-eyed innocence with which I had come to Nepal, and I knew no toothbrush could scrub out my outrage. Only later did I realize that it was I who smelled like onions, that the dal bhaat that I ate three meals a day, that Nepal, had changed the smell of my sweat. I then cried onion-induced tears.
In Nepal, far from family and friends, rather than feeling lonely, I craved isolation like never before. After weeks of beggars and salespeople inundating me whenever I walked, I just wanted to be left alone. Nepal had gotten under my skin, but alongside the unwanted advances were the smiling faces of the children whom I taught science, my first grade students dancing the Macarena with me, the Nepali dinner Chandani taught me to cook, the early morning tea with my host mother, Keshari, and the morning she first invited me into her puja, or worship, room. I felt the power of the Bodhnath Stupa and the thrill of the Himalayas. Nepal had changed the smell of my sweat, and I would not have it any other way.
Onions can fill and flavor a self as well as they do a salad. As you chop them, onions release unstable chemicals that cause you to cry. Chopping a poem, a calculus problem, a question, or a character in a play can be similarly destabilizing. The unpredictability of performing in front of a live audience is plenty precarious, but as theatre slices and dices the human condition, it further unbalances the actors and audience members. Onions release uncertainties and complexities, but I have learned to like being just a little off balance. While the taste of onions still disgusts me, their exhilarating company delights me. I like exposing myself to onions, absorbing them, sweating them out, chopping until I have changed my sweat.
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