Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Accidental Tatoo

As an incoming sixth-grader, new to middle school, I’d say that orange fingernails are something you would want to avoid. Unfortunately, this ended up being part of my introduction into Iroquois Middle school back in 1998. The summer before the school year, my family and I went on our second trip to India (the first trip had been when I was five years old). It was a strange trip; the experiences that are carved in my memory are only negative, with a few exceptions. This involved mosquito bites so irritating that they crusted over (the scars from which I still have), and a traditional ear piercing gone wrong (complete with old heated metal sticks as opposed to the speed guns at Claire’s) that was later infected, but perhaps the worst of these was my episode with mylangee, more commonly known as henna.

One evening in India, my mom and some of the other Auntys were mixing pastes in the kitchen and I went in to inspect, and probably in the hopes of getting some more fresh milk (it was a new phenomenon to see the cow whose milk you were drinking). I went into find a green paste that sort of smelled like spinach. I assumed it was meant to be eaten as a pickle or was going to be used for some curry in the morning, but I was surprised to find out that they were going to be putting it on their hands, nail, and in their hair. I was intrigued, so my mother asked me if I wanted some. I suppose it should have occurred to me that there was some reason they were doing this and my mother insisted that it was good for the skin, hair, and nails. I agreed, figuring I would just wash it off if it got too uncomfortable or if I grew bored. After applying this paste to my fingers and waiting around in a bored silence, unable to add anything to the all-Malayalam conversation, I wanted to play with my sister so I washed off the paste only to find that my nails had turned orange.

I believe this instance can equate, at least on some levels, to what James O’Connell was feeling in his experiences with tatau in the Pacific. In her account of the story, Ellis notes that O’Connell often has these life-changing marks applied to him, and indeed even a marriage, “without his awareness” (Ellis 6). Due to this passive perspective, O’Connell “remains unaware of the social transformations he has experienced” and indeed because of this it is questionable as to whether these transformations actually take place (Ellis 6). The intent of the tattoo is important in its significance to the wearer. My embarrassment from the orange fingernails stemmed both from the fact that it made me stick out at a time when all I wanted was to blend in, but more importantly I could not claim that I had done this in some teenage rebellion or indeed that I had any choice in this bizarre change, and thus I had no ownership of the nails nor could I harness the power it might have given to someone who had chosen to apply the paste in full knowledge of what it would do. O’Connell claims that he “is not responsible for the patterns he bears” and so I claimed the same (Ellis 4). Ignorant to the situation surrounding tattoo, “O’Connell’s only choice in the matter [was] how to respond” and in this way, he makes the tattoo his own (Ellis 5). While he may not have chosen when, how, or indeed whether or not he even wanted a tattoo, by bearing “the trial without complaint” he accepts the tattoo and begins to both create and accept its meaning (Ellis 5). Eventually my nails grew out and I was able to move on from my awkward experience, but perhaps some of my acceptance came from the fact that I never covered up my nails with darker nail polish. At the time I might not have known, but it could have been a small way of accepting my own “tattoo”.

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