In an age of immigration bans and border walls, it’s easy to see the world through an “us versus them” lens. But sometimes all it takes is a fleeting incident to alter one’s world view.
When I was seven and traveling through India with my family, a bag of taffy helped me recognize the place of privilege I hold as a white, middle-class American. But that candy also helped me feel a kinship to other children. Here’s my tale of discovering the taste of shared humanity.
The train was stopped on the outskirts of Bombay. A humid fog filled our car. Sweat trickled down my back and my thighs stuck to the vinyl seat. I rested a bottle of murky water on my cheek as I stared out the open window. Dad said the water wasn’t safe to drink so Mom purified it with iodine. The water tasted like medicine and was the color of rusty pee.
“I wonder what the inside of those houses look like.” Liz nodded at the slum sprawled outside the window.
The army of shacks stood shoulder to shoulder. Glassless windows glared at us. Some shanties had blue tarps for roofs; others wore helmets of tarpaper or corrugated tin. Laundry hung from clotheslines draped across sewage-filled ditches. Bright pink, red, and blue saris flapped in the hot breeze, banners of beauty beside the gray dinge of cement block walls. This place didn’t look anything like our New Jersey neighborhood.
I shrugged. It was too hot to think. I was just glad I didn’t live in one of those shacks.
Paper rustled and I turned toward the sound. My sister was rooting through a bag of candy. “Hey, where’d you get that?” I reached out my hand, but she pulled the bag away.
“Mom brought it in while you were asleep. We have to share it.” Liz opened a piece of taffy as blue as the sky that stretched above the shack city.
“Quit eating it then, you pig!” I plunged my hand into the bag and grabbed my own blue candy, unwrapping it and shoving it into my mouth before Liz could stop me.
“You’re the pig,” She said matter-of-factly.
We both chewed placidly. It was too hot to fight.
Suddenly a boy appeared from nowhere outside our window. He looked a couple years older than me. Baggy yellow pants sagged from his waist and he wasn’t wearing a shirt. I could count his xylophone ribs. The boy cupped his hands together and began to babble.
“What’s he saying?” I asked.
Liz rolled her eyes. “Do you think I can understand him?” She reached in the bag and plucked out a green candy.
I couldn’t let her get ahead of me so I grabbed a pink one. The boy’s gaze darted to the bag. He held up his cupped hands and babbled louder.
“He wants a piece,” I said.
Liz looked into the bag and scrunched up her face. “What color?”
I looked at the boy’s dirty pants. “Yellow.”
She tossed a banana-flavored taffy out the window. He caught it in one deft move, babbled something and raced away.
Liz beamed as though she had just personally saved the world. Then, without warning, twenty more kids appeared in front of our window, all of them as ragged as the first boy. They stood a few feet below us with begging hands and pleading eyes. Their voices rose to an undecipherable din. I took a step back, glad for the train that stood between me and them.
“They all want candy,” Liz said. “What should we do?”
My sister and I looked at each other. The taffy was good. So far most of the candy on this trip had tasted like rose petals. But this stuff was yummy.
“Not the whole bag,” I cautioned.
“No way,” She agreed.
Piece by piece, we began tossing candy to the children.
A blue piece to the little girl in a torn blue dress. A chocolate taffy to the boy with the birthmark on his cheek.
“Over here.” I’d point. “Don’t forget that one.” I picked the recipient and Liz tossed the bounty.
If the candy didn’t hit its intended target, the children pounced on it. But as soon as a child got one piece, he ran off and the crowd slowly thinned. Except for one big boy who caught a piece right away, but hung around behind the shorter children.
The bag of candy was getting lighter. “We’ve got to save some for ourselves,” I cautioned. I put a purple piece to my nose and inhaled. Pure grape scent without a hint of rose petal.
“We will, but this is kind of fun.” Liz grinned.
I knew what she meant. We were monarchs—I was queen and Liz the king— in our train castle. The taffy was the largess we were distributing to worthy subjects. I felt powerful.
Outside the window stood a girl with a long brown braid. She looked about seven years old, same as me. Her braid was so long she could probably sit on it. Mom had given me a pixie cut before we left home. A bead of sweat trickled down the back of my bare neck. How long would it take to grow a braid like this girl’s?
“I like your hair,” I said to her.
Brown braid girl didn’t answer, but she smiled at me. Not like a subject smiles at a queen, but like a friend smiles at a friend.
“Here you go!” I said and tossed the candy to her. But the big boy snaked out one long arm and plucked the taffy from the air.
“Hey!” I hollered. “That’s not fair. You already got one!” He laughed loudly and ran off, disappearing into a narrow alley that wound between two rows of shacks.
When I looked down again, the brown braid girl was the only kid left on the parched mound of dirt below the window. The only subject who had not received a gift from her queen.
Liz inspected the bag. “There are only two left.” She dumped them into her hand.
“One for me and one for you?” She handed me a purple taffy.
I glanced at the girl. She stared back, her smile gone. How would you like it, her unblinking eyes said, if I was the queen and you were the subject?
But there were only two pieces of candy left. I turned to Liz. “It’s really good taffy.” The power of the girl’s eyes burned into side of my cheek.
“I know.” Liz studied the orange piece in her hand. “I love it.”
I peeked at the girl out of the corner of my eye. She was barefoot and had a big scab on one knee. I reached down and touched the scab on my own knee.
Suddenly I didn’t want to be queen any more. I’d rather be standing on the ground next to the girl so we could compare scabs. Maybe she would even let me comb out her hair and try braiding it again.
Liz and I exchanged a long look. She sniffed her candy one more time, inhaling so deeply she practically shoved it up her nose.
“Ready?” Liz asked.
“Ready,” I said.
We leaned over the side of the window and held our candies out to the girl.
Her eyes lit up and she smiled so widely I could see every one of her perfect white teeth. Plunk. Plunk. We dropped the candy into her outstretched hands. The brilliant orange and deep purple were precious gems against the pinkish-brown skin of the girl’s palms.
She laughed, a tinkling sound like the bells the altar boys ring during mass to get everyone’s attention. Then the girl dipped her head, said something I couldn’t understand and ran off, her braid swinging side to side.
My stomach felt funny. It was kind of like hunger pangs for more taffy and kind of like the ache I get before I start to cry. Liz sat down and I plopped into the seat across from her. Neither of us said a word.
After a couple minutes, the train whistle blew. The door opened and Mom and Dad came in with my brothers. Jesse claimed he’d already called the window seat, but I refused to move.
The rumble of the engine changed pitch and the train began to chug slowly down the track. I watched children dart in and out of shacks and up and down dirt alleys.
“Mom, will you buy us a new bag of candy at the next stop?” Liz asked.
“We need two bags,” I interjected. “Maybe three.”
Mom’s eyebrows shot up.
“Not for us.” I pointed out the window at the girl with the brown braid who stood on a mound of dirt in front of a shack with a blue tarp roof. She was waving and I waved back. “For the kids,” I said. “They love this taffy too. Same as me.”