I wanted to leave.
At fourteen, I had decided that I was tired of blending in with the clean-cut white Mormons in Salt Lake City, Utah, and I decided the perfect place to go was Nairobi, Kenya. I had voraciously read parts of history texts that detailed slavery, the unrefined parts of the African continent, the diversity of people—and it had all become romanticized in my young mind. The people there looked totally different, the land was not surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the buildings were closer together and not church-owned, and there were wild animals. I checked book after book out from the local library and knew I had to go.
True, my parents did not have money. They had eight children and my father was constantly losing his job and having to find a new one, and we weren’t the kind of people who took vacations. The only opportunity to go to Nairobi was through the Girl Scouts, an organization that my mother thought was too feminist. Still, she had let me join as a child because I wanted to be around a friend. I told her that I could get on scholarship to go to Kenya.
The problem was my health. After filling out paperwork and attending an interview, the Girl Scout Wider Ops Director let me know that Diabetes was risk and that the organization would never sponsor me to go anywhere in Africa, of all places—what was I thinking?
My mother didn’t know why I wanted to go anywhere.
“Your life is here,” she said. “You can look at pictures in a book instead of travel. It’s all really the same thing.”
Really, she had the same sentiments as the Girl Scout Wider Ops Director; she thought I could not manage my diabetes. From the time when I was diagnosed at two years of age, my mother had control over my health. She would never let me learn to give my own shots, choose my own food, or pick sports activities that I wanted to participate in. Even though she often forgot to give me my insulin, made terrible meal plan choices, cooked everything from contents that sat in a box, and did not let me participate in sports, she maintained that I would never be healthy unless she was in charge. Needless to say, I found this ironic.
I would sit in classes, go to church, walk around the neighborhood, and think of maps and planes and suitcases. The only possibility of travel I was ever given was the potential of serving a full-time mission when I turned twenty-one; I could be sent anywhere in the world. This was appealing, and our church often held activities where those who had traveled far and wide would come and show photos and relics, cook foods from respective countries and share stories. The lure of a mission sounded great, but it would not have helped me in my situation at the time: I wanted out.
I wished to be an only child. I wished for a bedroom with a stronger lock. I wanted a different color of skin, a new language, something, anything to set me apart from what I was. I was so average—medium build, dark stringy hair, a face that was prone to smiling for no reason—something I had gathered from years in Utah. I didn’t stand out—my clothes were nothing notable, I didn’t have any special skills, there was very little exceptionality in any area of my life. It was so frustrating to be told to believe, to look, to even feel the same way as everyone else and I saw the dark complexions of Kenyans beautiful and alluring—a kind of fetishism I did not realize I was doing. I so wanted to be like them.
I knew it would be impossible to convince the Girl Scouts, so I gave up, and went back searching for another way to leave home.
As a child, my mother tried to introduce me to the exciting field of home economics through the 4-H program, part of her alma mater, Utah State University. I would try to sew clothes, bake muffins and cookies, and work to please my mother. None of this held any interest for me, of course, until I came across an opportunity to do a foreign exchange program in Tokyo through the 4-H. My mother could get on board with the values and after being accepted into the program, she agreed to let me go as long as she didn’t have to pay for it. She told me to ask my grandmother.
“She has all the money in the world,” Mom said, though I knew that was not true. My grandparents charged everything. They had accounts all over the Salt Lake Valley and my parents had followed suit—they worked to pay interest.
Even though my grandmother was also very zealous, I happened to like her. She was a very warm person with a positive attitude and she was a very good listener. She had a quaint little house in the Avenues—an old and rich area of Salt Lake City—and she had traveled all over the United States. Because she wasn’t a fan of flying, she took trains to go and visit family.
When I approached my grandmother with the proposal of traveling to Japan, she asked me what the rush was. “What if you get called there on a mission?”
I had never considered Japan. There were plenty of Asians in Salt Lake City and they were always the best—the brightest students with academic awards, gifted piano players, chemistry scholarships, strong soccer players; I knew I would never fit in. I didn’t know how to use chopsticks and the program sounded rigorous. I looked at books showcasing exotic parts of Tokyo—neon lights, Kanji letters, bowls of steamed ramen, thousands of people walking around.
But, it was a way out.
“You’ll share your faith?” my grandmother asked.
Even though I was always in training to be a missionary, I had a fear of approaching anyone I did not know, as I was incredibly shy. Still, I promised I would do this and my grandmother beamed.
“You have to go,” she decided.
I wanted to leave, go, get out, disappear.
I wanted to have a different color of hair, to have different skin, eyes, teeth. I didn’t want to be like any of them, anyone I was around—these Mormons. Perhaps, I saw them as boring. It was the 90s. There was rap, hip-hop, fast cars, crop tops. I loved the dark eye make-up that I saw on Hispanic women who came to pick their children up from my school. Yes, they were “Other,” and yet, they seemed so much happier. They were free to be different. No one questioned them. They just were.
I decided that I could not fit inside my community, but I still knew I had the responsibility to be a missionary and bring “the world His truth,” the line of a song from a popular Mormon Hymn. I wanted to convert the “godless”—the dark-skinned people I so much envied. I didn’t understand my own naiveté, my own misplaced fetishism. I was too young, too uneducated, too tired of not fitting in.
At church, members of my ward, the community that I lived within, told me my narrative. I was to get older and to only date Mormon men. I was to marry young, maybe around eighteen or nineteen years of age, and to have a many children as possible. Because I had been diagnosed with Type I Diabetes at two, I had been told my medical professionals that being a mother would always be a challenge. Then, I hated babysitting and just grew tired of children. My siblings always needed something. I wanted out.
My mother was a proud woman. Yes, she had fulfilled her Mormon narrative and had eight children by the time she was forty-one, but she was also somewhat unconventional. She would often complain about the sexism that she saw in church meetings. She worried about being treated with equality. She took the rejection from the Girl Scouts as a personal affront, and then, it became her mission to help find a way for me to get into a program that would assist me going abroad.
School was filled with judgment for me. I had gone to an accelerated middle school with a friend who had fibromyalgia and basically never went to school. It was hard to find anyone to sit with for lunch. On the weekend, we went to church and I always was left out because I did not attend the same school as the girls in my church ward. All I had at home were younger brothers, and I did not feel, outside of DNA, we had much in common. I felt very alone.
At night, I prayed for a friend. She was an Other—Asian, smart, funny—and in my mind, she would save me from loneliness. I got her, too. Her name was Sandy and she was the daughter of Laotian immigrants who had very strict rules. Basically, most of these rules interfered with our social life. Sandy could not come over to my house nor go anywhere with me. After school, she would have to walk the four blocks home and remain home until her parents and older brothers came home from work.
We wrote intensive notes in class—pages and pages of correspondence. At times, it felt as though Sandy was interviewing me and trying to nail me down. Questions would be about what celebrity I wanted to marry. Sandy was intensely boy-crazy, and even though I was the same age, I was not. Boys lead to marriage and marriage led to children. It wasn’t for me.
She was the youngest of nine. Her family was spread between California and Utah. Two of her brothers lived at home—one was a graphic designer and the other worked in construction. I had never been around older men besides my father. My brothers were young—into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Sega. Sandy’s brothers spent time with us—took us out for fast-food, made sure we had everything we needed to do homework, and let us watch horror movies with them. Looking back, I can see that they were both flirting with me, as they were never given permission to date a white American.
Still, the attention was something I had not experienced. It was flattering and empowering, but it also made me uneasy. I had started to attend Seminary high school classes and the entire focus of the class was on avoiding premarital sex so that you could stay worthy to marry in the temple. I don’t want to say that I didn’t want the temple—I knew the shame my mother would feel if I did not get married there, but marriage seemed so far away. Sure, I went to dances with high school boys. Asking was done in a grandiose way, but the dates were never serious. I was always “friend-zoned” right away.
Sandy’s brother, Viset, was twelve years older than me and when he asked to kiss me after I arrived to Sandy’s house before she got there, I let him. I don’t think I knew what I was doing. I had never French kissed anyone and was considered “old” for a first real kiss by many of my peers, most of which had kissed and dated by the time they were thirteen. He was an older man—he was able to get anyone he wanted. But, I was naïve about cultural rules for dating. His parents wanted him to end up with a nice Laotian girl. They even would work on getting him prearranged for marriage if he so desired.
He was tall, dark, and not Mormon. I was excited.
Even though Laos had little in common with Japan, the prospect of going to Asia was pleasing to Sandy and her family. They saw me as being curious about culture and felt I was financially competent to be able to travel so far for so long. Things were not serious with Viset—we never went on dates. He would pick me up at the corner of my neighborhood in his truck, we would have sex in some alleyway, and he would drop me off. I didn’t understand what was going on at the time, but looking back, it was disappointing.
Before I left for Tokyo, my mother insisted that I stay at Primary Children’s Hospital for three days in order to get training on how to manage my diabetes. This was embarrassing. Most teenagers were adept at giving their own shots and the nurses seemed baffled by my mother’s insistence that I be admitted. However, a doctor felt that it was in by best interest.
Even though I was in the hospital, I felt a sense of reassurance that I was going somewhere. The nurses taught me about measuring food and giving the proper dosage of insulin to break down carbohydrates. Everything about the procedure was based on numbers. This wouldn’t have been a problem, but I hated math.
My father was obsessed with numbers and he was the one who had taken me on a four-hour card ride to run an errand, yelling multiplication tables at me. He would frown over my math homework, telling me to read over the examples, and then would explode when I would do the problems incorrectly. At night, he would slip into my room and apologize, push his hands underneath my pajamas, and beg me to forgive him.
“You need to know how to add and multiply,” the nurse told me. “It’s simple.”
Even though it was, I would get confused over basic math and go blank, freezing over the most basic problem. The nurses thought it was an education problem. After all, I was fourteen and should know this stuff. I could never tell them what it was about.
Still, I thought of a plane ticket and Japan and being far away and having my own room and having control over my own body and suddenly, a few math problems became more possible.
Viset was obsessed with pornography. As a Mormon, this was a grave sin and I could not understand what pleasure he would get out of this. As the school year progressed, Sandy and I hung out more, looked up information on Japan, talked about taking our own “girls’ trip” if we didn’t have the culturally strict families that we had. Sandy did not know about Viset. When I slept over at her house, she never noticed that I slipped out of her bedroom in the night and let him do whatever he wanted to me in his living room in the dark, the smell of Laotian spices floating around the kitchen.
Seminary class was getting more focused on staying away from exclusive dating. Viset had never taken me out. We talked on the phone—which Sandy knew and encouraged—but we had never actually gone on a date. When I found out that he looked at pornography, I flipped through his stack of magazines. The women looked like plastic—fake everything, perfect teeth and smiles—almost a look of the people I had grown up with, and I began to wonder if everyone had to be sexual in the same way.
Still, he would call and pick me up from the corner next to a Little Caesar’s Pizza. Once, two young women who worked there came out and asked if I was a prostitute. I wish I could say that it hurt or offended me, but instead, I felt perplexed. Was I? What did I get out of the relationship? It was all about Viset—what he liked, what time he needed it, where, everything. It was uncomfortable in the truck and I felt exposed. I felt dirty. I was trash.
In Japan, I stayed with a family who had money and two daughters. They all spoke English with only a hint of an accent. The father had invented part of an apparatus for a ski lift and they were all avid skiers. They drove BMWs and had motorcycles. The mother taught English classes to children in the neighborhood. They had a dog and cat.
I welcomed the strangeness of my new situation.
I ate miso soup for breakfast instead of cold cereal and I finally had the opportunity to inject my own insulin. We ate rice and noodles and shrimp. Fruit was a dessert; I didn’t drink soda. Because Tokyo was so dirty, we showered at night and I began to get used to going to bed with wet hair. During the day, I would go to English and Japanese classes, take a piano studio, and go on long walks around the neighborhood. At nights, we would eat a lengthy mean and plan trips for the weekend. We rarely watched television.
Before long, I began to notice how different I was.
The Japanese girls were short and very thin and I would stand in the mirror, staring at my thick body, and wish I was them. I wanted shiny black hair and glasses, straight white teeth, a small frame. I wanted to be gifted with music and have parents who left me alone when I was practicing instead of telling me I was hitting the notes wrong. I didn’t want to be diabetic. I wanted a father who I wasn’t weary of.
In an effort to lose weight, I decided that I would stop giving myself insulin. Without insulin, my body would go into a state of ketoacidosis—a too-high sugar level that would make digesting food impossible. I managed to do this for three days and I felt as though I had the flu. I couldn’t concentrate in class. I couldn’t eat because I was terribly nauseous. I felt tired. I drifted through these days as though I was underwater, my head foggy with white noise.
When my Japanese mother told me that she wanted to take me to a doctor, I declined and then gave myself a shot of insulin. I realized that I didn’t want to be so sick that I got sent home and I realized that I didn’t want to prove my mother right—I didn’t need her.
A day later, when I was better, my Japanese mother asked me if I was homesick—perhaps that was the reason I had been acting so strange.
“No,” I said. “I never think about home.”
Mormon doctrine attempts to keep cultural ideologies and practices while uniting differences through a belief in Jesus Christ and the restoration of His church. When members would go on missions, they would learn native dialects instead of taking English as the converting language. There were many different faces within my culture, yet, I saw a flattening out of difference, an erasure of the Other.
Part of the issue was that I did not feel a strong relation to my family. My mother was over six-feet tall and she had a difficult time finding clothing and shoes. She dressed simply and was not into fashion like so many other women I was around. My aunts were all tall and formidable, like my mother. Yet, they had all married and had large families. My aunts, when they would visit, would ask why I seemed so uninterested in boys. In a sense, they would tease me.
Church meetings were full of different people—all classes, racial groups, body types—and yet, together, everyone looked the same. The men always wore white dress shirts and ties and the women wore flowery dresses. Some, who had money, may have looked nicer.
The way I looked mattered too much to me. I was fixated by the number on the scale. I wanted to be like Sandy, even with the oppressive parents. I wanted to be held as having value, which was ironic, because I knew that Sandy did not feel this way.
In Japan, we wrote letters. I sent her a birthday present. I thought about asking about Viset, wondering who he was getting to service him at night, but Sandy didn’t know we had gotten involved. I wanted to protect her. Even though she was not religious, I wasn’t sure what she would say or how she would react. I always wanted to please her.
I found a rhythm in Japan. I woke up, ate breakfast, went to school, went on a walk, did chores, played piano, read a book, wrote letters, showered and went to bed. I was almost part of the family.
I wanted that. I wanted to find another tribe to belong to. In class, I worked on studying Japanese pronunciation, which I found to be easier than Spanish or French. I went to some of the hot tourist sites: Mt. Fuji, downtown Tokyo, several Buddhist temples.
“Make sure you go to the LDS temple there,” my mother had said before I left.
There was a group of Mormon 4-H students who planned a temple trip where they could do baptisms for the dead. But, when they asked me if I wanted to go, I declined. I realized that I was in a new place—no one knew me or what I believed and no one would care what I did. I didn’t have to go to church on Sundays. The family I stayed with believed in the theoretical presence of a Higher Being, but they weren’t religious and they didn’t have any interest in learning about anything.
In Salt Lake City, I was always taught to look at everyone as a potential convert. Our mission was to convert as many as possible. For this reason, my mother insisted I bring several Book of Mormons to hand out. She made me write my testimony of my faith on the title page. I never took the books out of the bag, and on the last night, I slipped them into a garbage can outside the backdoor. I felt like a heathen.
Still, I was interested in the practices of my Japanese family; their grandparents were Buddhist and very devout. We would often go on hikes to a shrine on the side of a mountain and light sticks of incense and they would chant their prayers. Even though we did these sorts of activities, they were not a usual occurrence: there was no church to go to, no scriptures to read, no perfection to achieve.
Everyone seemed very content.
Being from Utah is not exotic. Even though there is so much ignorance about Utah, it still is not a state that most have an interest in. When people ask me what there is to do in Utah, implying that there is “nothing,” I find myself trying not to laugh. Utah seems to span an aggregate of activities—outdoor climbing and camping, skiing, cycling, trail running, fishing, and kayaking, only to name a few. In Salt Lake City, there is an enjoyment of fine dining and there is a true “foodie” culture. When a friend once asked me if she could ever start a food tour in Salt Lake City, I didn’t doubt that she would be successful. While football isn’t a prominent sport—there is still the NBA, a love of baseball, the Real Soccer stadium. Arts and theater draw crowds. “Something for everyone,” I find myself arguing when confronted.
But, perhaps that is what is the hardest about being from Utah—the endless explaining, reeducating Americans who think polygamy is still a lawful practice and who naively believe that everyone, EVERYONE, in Salt Lake City is Mormon. It is tough to be pointed to as a “White” state—a state that has its own racism and intolerance of color. In fact, while there are few African Americans, the Hispanic culture is alive and thriving. There are many Asians and Polynesians. Many other cultures come as a result of converting to the LDS church, and yet others are brought by school or business. Yet, there stereotypes, stemming from South Park and Book of Mormonabound. It is utterly exhausting to explain everything all of the time.
And then, I find that I turn on myself. What do I care if someone exposes ignorance about my state? Do I really care that much? At the end of the day, do I even think I will grow old in Utah?
I have lived many places and have found positives and negatives about all. Still, I have my own sense of “Utah-Pride.” There is a sense of hard work that I have not experienced in other states. It is great to go to any restaurant, even a McDonald’s, and get decent service. People are in a hurry and they seem to have a purpose—that feels fulfilling. And then, no matter what, it has made me who I am. Can I really argue with that?
On my last night in Japan, there was a lantern festival. My Japanese mother had made me a kimono and she taught me how to tie the belt. It was a form of cultural and religious clothing that didn’t feel oppressive. My Japanese mother told me that kimonos were sacred and had a way of protecting one, even when one could not protect herself. Even though I looked ridiculous, I couldn’t help but be amazed by her gift. My mother had insisted on giving religious paraphernalia and Salt Lake Olympics 2002 t-shirts. The shirts were too large for my small Japanese family, though, out of politeness, they tried to wear them.
The lantern festival took place at a large park outside of a Buddhist shrine. My family stopped and lit sticks of incense for their ancestors. At the time, I was rooted in the belief that your ancestors were sealed to you through covenants and rituals performed in temples. It was exotic to think that a stick of incense could bring a connection, but I didn’t think that was true.
At the festival, most of the women wore kimonos. There were lavish ones made of silk with intricate flowers and designs. The women wore bracelets of silver and gold and wore their hair in twists. We ate from vendors—bowls of noodles with clams and vegetables, a miso paste, another spice that I had not encountered that was strong and flavorful.
“Maybe you don’t have to go back so soon,” my Japanese mother said. “You could extend your stay.”
I wanted to stay, but I knew that I would never be a real member of the family. I would never look like them. Even though I could light incense at a shrine, I was unsure that I could ever fully embrace the tenets of Buddhism. I would forever feel the pressure of converting them to Mormonism. At this time, I was sure that Jesus was a distant older brother and that He had died for my sins. While I didn’t feel exactly homesick, I wasn’t sure what I would become in this place. What about Sandy and Viset? I had to go home.
It was one of those things that was incredibly hard to understand. I cried the entire time I packed—as I had felt genuine love and acceptance from everyone in the family, something that I did not feel in my own. I knew I would never be as successful academically or with music, but I still felt successful despite my shortcomings. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue to see Viset. Even though most of the girls I had attended school with had never kissed anyone, they had a wisdom that I lacked. Many knew who they were and what they were worth. They wanted to wait for a man that their parents would approve of. There wasn’t a rush to get involved.
So many arguments later assured me that I had gone into relations with Viset with awareness and choice, but looking back, I know that I never understood what I was consenting to. Statutory rape laws exist to protect people like me—those young girls who look for acceptance and will do anything for anyone to feel love. Viset was already in the process of moving on while I was in Japan, and yet, he never mentioned this. When I returned, went back to school, and ended up graduating, he ghosted me and I never heard from him again.
Years later, he reached out with a weak apology about leaving, informing me that he had married and had children and was living in California. I had to laugh. He told me that he had loved me and now, older, I knew more about love and relationships and was not easily convinced. I never responded. Still, when he reaches out, I ignore his messages. They are so artificial, so full of lies. Yet once, because he was not Mormon, because he was not white, because he was so different, I thought I was special. He was the ticket out of Salt Lake City—and yet—my experience in Japan taught me that there were other roads out.
After returning, I kept in touch with my Japanese family. The girls wrote me little letters covered with stickers. They sent me postcards whenever they went on trips. They told me to call, but my parents were already complaining about how much time I talked on the phone with Sandy. Years later, the girls married and wore silk kimonos at their weddings. The grandmother passed away and they sent me a funeral program. I wrote back, gushing about my new freedoms as a high school student and later, a college sophomore, but it all felt like artifice. I was always trying to reconnect—to get what we had when I was in Tokyo.
They were human, not Other, and full of their own shortcomings. Not being white didn’t make them any different than myself, and I began to learn this with the more diversity I encountered. There were also people from white Salt Lake City that I had begun connecting with—many were liberal minded and had real aspirations for the future. Some drank coffee and alcohol. Some dated. We had more in common than I had thought.
One day, my Japanese family stopped writing and it was weird—I barely noticed.
What is it about traveling that opens you up? Why is it when you go somewhere else, you are more present, more focused, more alive?
At fourteen, I managed to find that wanderlust, which enabled me to get away from home and to, ultimately, take charge of my life. Even in the best of homes, everyone needs to get away at some point. I felt like I came to surprise myself, that even after being deprived of insulin for three days, I managed to recover and take better care of myself than I had before. I found that being away from Salt Lake City provided me with an ability to standout—that I was different, unusual, special.
Perhaps it is collateral learning. I think back to every place I have gone and the amount of problem-solving that needed to happen—cost, transportation, accommodations, etc.—nothing was easy. Maybe traveling builds some sort of mental muscle, as though being able to plan and accomplish a trip allows one to plan and accomplish…anything. Maybe that sounds too clichéd, but then there’s this.
When I got home from Japan, I told Sandy about her brother. She “broke-up” with me in a note and I had to change high schools for a year, to cope. She blamed me and accused me of seducing her brother, who was innocent in her eyes. It was the first friend who had ever exited my life so violently. It hurt, and years later, now, it is still sore.
Ever since I was young, I wanted to run away. I wanted a mother who listened, a father who didn’t yell or abuse me, a life free from illness, some friends, and for a small time, whenever I travel, I forget about that and look forward, ahead, today.
Kate Kimball eared a PhD from Florida State University. She received her MFA from Virginia Tech. Her work has appeared in Arcadia, The Chaffey Review, The Hawaii Review, Kestrel, Weber, and The Capra Review, among others. Her collection of short stories, You are Here, was shortlisted for publication by Stillhouse Press in September 2016 and her novel, Blueprints She Left Me, was a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2011. Having worked over 50 jobs and being from Salt Lake City, Utah, has given her ample material to draw from. Currently, she is at work on her novel, The Misbegotten Sisterhood.1