Vanilla’s Revenge

What is more iconic as a childhood memory than ice cream?

In the Pacific when I was growing up, we had a local brand called Foremost. The company sold ice cream from Honolulu to Guam and Okinawa. It was the brand we reached for. It was reward, bribe and justification in a little one’s world. Years later when the big military drawdowns lost Foremost their business, the company reemerged as Blue Seal, which is now a major local brand in Okinawa. These days, when I go down to Naha, the clerk in the shop will smile and ask what flavor I want, sometimes in English and other times in Japanese to see if I am new US military to the island. I really like sugar cane best, but I always ask for a scoop of chocolate first. Sometimes the ice cream jockey will ask if I also want a scoop of vanilla to make a three cup.

I politely say, “No, thank you, but can I have coconut instead?” That is as much of a compromise as I am willing to make.

I make a point of ordering Blue Seal ice cream. It is not for the reason of reliving fond childhood memories. It is to show my resilience to an episode in my life when I refused to bend. You might say it is only ice cream, but to a 7-year-old, ice cream is everything. With the first bite of chocolate, I imagine my fist held high, “I won.”

As a school child on my brown island of Guam, they asked us what flavor ice cream we wanted — vanilla or chocolate. I asked for chocolate and always had to make do with vanilla. When I asked why there was never any chocolate, I was told the upper students got their choices first. The message was simple. I was too young to count. When I asked if they could order more, they said they didn't know.

They looked at me like I was an “uppity little snit.” Sometimes I got a nasty comment like “pushy, haole” which isn’t even Chamorro but borrowed from the ‘neighboring’ islands of Hawai’i, 7 hours away by jet. It earned me a nickname as well. I was called “Vanilla” behind my back. When I challenged people about the reference, it sometimes ended in fights. Vanilla, for me, was not a ‘feel good’ flavor.

So I stopped eating the ice cream and I let it melt at my desk or in the cafeteria. This went on for a week or two. At my small catholic school, this insubordination was met head on. They had a boot camp sensibility about following rules—so breaking simple regulations about ice cream ended up warranting a draconian response.

The principal came around to ask why there was a wastage of food. I explained I asked for chocolate and always got vanilla. I would not eat it. I continued to leave my ice cream to melt and then throw it away. The principal’s opinion of me was simple — I was stubborn and obnoxious. She made sure to point this out in front of my peers.

My face burned with shame. I did not understand how I was being difficult. I hadn't asked for vanilla so why did I have to still eat it afterwards? From that time on, vanilla became my “flavor of losers.”

One day, the secretary, who secretly sympathized with me, snuck me a Scooter Pie on my way out of one of my “see the principal” sessions. It was her awarding me a tiny chocolate trophy. I gathered she wasn’t a big fan of the principal either. This saga continued as a draw between the good sisters and me for a long time — somehow I had the sense not to back down.

Years later, when I was a flight attendant, my old principal was on my flight; She asked for coffee with cream — not milk. She recognized me. Politely I asked if she had enjoyed her trip as we were on the final leg which would end on Guam. She silently held up her cup and waved me off with a dismissive hand.

The black handled carafe of coffee was almost empty in the galley.

“Too late, none left and we land in fifteen.” My supervisor pointed at the orange handles of decaf.

I got my principal a cup, thought better of it, dumped out the coffee and reached for another carafe with its beige handle. I smiled my nicest smile. She got tea.

I saw my 7-year-old self with his first bite of chocolate and his fist held high. “I won.”

Revenge may not taste like vanilla, but it can spur you beyond the immediate happiness of chocolate.

For Farah, who tickles my muse to help me write.