Eczema Erased My Fingerprints

You never know if your mutilation will inadvertently force you to assume a role of political activism as a guest in a foreign university. Let me explain.
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You never know if your mutilation will inadvertently force you to assume a role of political activism as a guest in a foreign university. Let me explain.

As a bachelor student in eastern France, I earned my keep as a baker. Une pâtissière, to be specific.

It all started with an unreliable industrial pastry delivery at the local café where I worked part-time. We didn’t always get our frozen pastries on time to bake them up and sell them to the lunch crowd with their bagel sandwiches and American-style milky espresso drinks. Plus, next to the rather delicious, fresh sandwiches, industrial muffins just didn’t seem to fit in with the taste profile.

So with the help of a friend’s miniature toaster oven, I made up a batch of six orange buttermilk blueberry muffins. My boss liked them, and so I got to roll out a line of North American baked goods at the café, including a weekly cheesecake special featuring my dad’s 1963 recipe for New York cheesecake.

Besides giving me the unique knowledge of how to locate a bulk Philadelphia cream cheese supplier in Western Europe, I also now have the remarkable accolade of having catered the rabbit-themed opening party of a specialty men’s underwear store with hundreds of mini carrot cupcakes. It was one of the most entertaining and liberating eras in my life.

With a test run of a strawberry scone recipe. FYI, put the strawberry slices on after baking, not before. They ended up burnt, even with little foil tents around the berries. At least I got to eat them all.

With a test run of a strawberry scone recipe. FYI, put the strawberry slices on after baking, not before. They ended up burnt, even with little foil tents around the berries. At least I got to eat them all.

However, a baker is not only responsible for the happiness of her customers; their safety and health is just as imperative. Especially when working with fruits and eggs, I treated my workspace like a laboratory to avoid cross-contamination. For my personal hygiene, this meant lots of hairnets and gloves, as well as copious and thorough hand-washing.

About a month in, I started to notice the skin on my fingertips starting to flake. I slapped on a pair of gloves and didn’t think much of it. By the next month, my fingertips had cracked. By the month after, my fingertips were a bloody mess wrapped in bandages and stuffed into several pairs of latex gloves that I changed on the hour.

My freaked-out boss paid for me to see a doctor, who thought I was allergic to metal. My boss took over all dishwashing duties and bought a bunch of hand creams to keep by the register. 

It was only way later when I relayed the story to my beloved family doctor in the states that I learned that it was called contact eczema. I received a prescription for a corticosteroid to treat it.

After a bittersweet goodbye, I left the café and headed south in a rental car to start a new adventure with a master’s degree. My fingertips healed, leaving me with thick, pink scars as a souvenir of my brief career in the art of cowboy cookies and blackberry pies in the shape of the Canadian flag.

Little did I know that my fingerprints would seek revenge.

My fingertips have their own special armor against the abuse to which I subject them.

My fingertips have their own special armor against the abuse to which I subject them.

I arrived at a university in Shanghai as an exchange student from my French school. My host university was really into class attendance and had a high-tech way of keeping track of it. They had a little machine that you would stick your finger in and it would read your fingerprint and send your ID number to a computer. To thank you for your trouble, the machine would then say, “Xièxiè! Xièxiè!

On the first day of classes, the program assistant helped each student record his or her fingerprint in the attendance machine. When it reached my turn, I offered up my right index finger with a sense of foreboding. The machine started screaming in Chinese--I did not appear to be human. 

The assistant started grabbing my other fingers and twisting them around to see if the machine could read the side or the tip or anything. After five minutes of flustered experimentation, we finally heard the magic words: “Xièxiè! Xièxiè!”

The machine had chosen my middle finger.

Thus, every day of my séjour in China, before every lecture, I was forced to walk up to the xièxiè machine with my head down and my middle finger out. I gave the machine a big F-U before sitting down to my lecture. I heard murmurs, real or imagined I shall never know, of offended classmates and teachers who thought I had chosen our history lecture as the arena for a demonstration of resistance against the privacy invasions of the Chinese government.

The moral of the story is, if your skin starts doing something weird, see a doctor and get some treatment. Don’t be dumb like me and wait until you have become a permanent freak of nature to get some help. You never know if your mutilation will inadvertently force you to assume a role of political activism as a guest in a foreign university.

Nowadays, older and wiser, all I can do is try to keep my scars pink and healthy rather than cracked and bleeding. I treat any active eczema with the corticosteroid from my doctor. But I also have good luck using rich hand creams as a preventive measure.

On a Costco shopping spree during my last visit to my parents, my mom and I bought a 3-pack of Essential Nail & Hand Cream from Jenna Hipp. My biochemist mama really liked the sound of 20% shea butter in the formula, although we did a spot test to make sure that the essential oils wouldn’t provoke an allergic reaction on my sensitive skin. It’s a strange texture--very thick and almost waxy--but feels really wonderful on dry winter hands.

I'm partial to the one in the orange packaging.

I'm partial to the one in the orange packaging.

Am I the only freak with no fingerprints? Please tell me that I’m not alone.