“I am so sick of you Americans and your Puritanical thinking; I can hardly wait to go home,” Bernard responds to me in a flat, literary-salon tone through his French accent. Walking slowly up the aisle of the movie theatre together toward the exit, we take our time as the lights come up in the house, allowing our eyes to adjust.
For Bernard, it is the end of a long academic semester of foreign exchange. And, I imagine, he is quite tired and ready to go home.
Standing near the exit, I am eager to be outside in the fresh air and sunshine. I know the sun is warming the broad leaves and blooms on vast spreads of tulips planted across campus. Along with tulips, remnants of plowed snow still lay melting in small, scattered patches across the landscape—even as we approach the beginning of May.
Having just viewed the French film, “Diva,” from the director Jean-Jacques Beineix, my Belgian friend had asked me what I thought of the film, a thriller. Quite candidly, I revealed that I had found portions of the film challenging—especially the script’s treatment of women. And, in some instances, the film had been disturbing because it was difficult to discern which characters adhered to a code of ethics concerned about something or someone more than their individual interests.
Unlike many typical or “traditional” American cinematic works—especially Westerns—this film, its script and characters were not presented in a moralistic black-and-white format. Due in part to the film’s genre, there were no “overly” simplistic ethical lines.
These observations had served as the catalyst for Bernard’s heartfelt retort. Homesick and longing to return to a place and a people who knew him and the unspoken, internal norms from which he operated, he had responded to me directly from his heart.
“Hey, I like your braids,” the Navajo man—sitting adjacent and behind me—comments as I await my food order.
Watching the front counter, I sit sideways on the firm seat of a canary-yellow Formica booth, immediately behind this man and his dining partner.
The man and his dining companion started their meal by splitting a burrito, purchased by another customer. When my initial order came up, I handed my plate of food to them as well, so that they would have enough food to eat between the two of them.
My sense is that the proprietor was neither overly pleased with the first burrito handoff, nor did he seem exceptionally happy with me for relinquishing my initial order to these two diners. Both of them appear to be quite tipsy. Yet, they are also both very hungry.
Soon, my own (second) order is up. Walking to the counter to retrieve my plate, I stop at the salsa bar to select a few extra condiments, then, return to my seat to eat quietly.
Everything on my plate is a hot, melting, mounded delicious blend of flavors. Letting the warmth from the food move into that empty space in the middle of my hungry being, I forget about our restaurant host’s potential consternation, hoping he can be happy with the opportunity to have sold two additional meals. I understand his perspective, as well as that of the hungry people behind me.
“Braids,” I muse silently, considering the twin issues of identity and heritage. In my mind, I think—braids, Heidi, blondes, Switzerland and the Alps or, alternately, braids, Inga, redheads, Scandinavia and fjords. But, why not consider braids, Morning Star, raven-colored hair, Pawnee and The Great Plains? Sometimes our minds and individual I’s settle into self-referential ruts. I had been stuck.
Shifting into a state of gratitude for this man’s indirect thank you ,which may be what the comment regarding my braids was about, and without uttering a word, I nod to this man in my mind’s eye, answering him spiritually, “You are most welcome.” We are part of the brotherhood of braids.
Travelling through the “headwaters” of the American South, I stop at one of my favorite stores to pick up a few items for a thick lentil soup. I am on my way to see family who now live even further afield from the Upper-Midwestern region we used to call home.
Walking the aisles, after a few hours of driving, I fill my shopping basket with millet, brown rice and large, locally grown produce—onions, tomatoes, cabbage and greens. As I shop, I notice someone in the store has been working extra hard to introduce some levity into the store’s shopping environment.
Alongside the jasmine rice, there is a highly-colored cartoon image of a princess; and, in the dried-bean section of the store, an image of a popular musical act is next to a stack of black-eyed peas. The visual puns and light humor are a welcoming phenomenon in contrast to the linear look of a dull, itemized grocery-store list.
Then, as I round the corner of another aisle, the soft smile of amusement—which had formed almost involuntarily on my face–leaves quite suddenly. Next to an area with seeds and beans for sprouting, I see an image of the African-American, child actor who played the character of Buckwheat in Hal Roach’s “The Little Rascals.” He is covered in a spray of white flour, and his hair is in an unkempt afro towering above his head. Inside of me, some invisible line has been crossed—where humor does not reside. The image does not strike me as funny.
Taking my basket to the checkout, I pay for my things as I attempt to sort through the emotions of my internal reaction. While walking to the vehicle to load my groceries, I try to decide exactly what it is, if I were even remotely centered, I might be lead to do.
Something. Not nothing. Have a conversation. Keep it light. Open a conceptual door.
Turning to lock my vehicle, I walk back into the store and ask whether a manager is available. Our conversation goes something like this:
—Hello. Do you have a moment?
—What can I do for you?
—I wanted to tell you that I love to visit this store. You always have all of the things I am looking for, the dry items I need and the produce.
—Good to hear.
—I also appreciate a lot of the visual puns you have been placing through out the store. They add some levity and fun to the shopping experience. Could we walk over here?
Stopping in front of the image of the childhood actor, Billie Thomas, portraying Buckwheat in “The Little Rascals,” I turn to face the manager.
—You know, I’m not so sure about this one image.
—Well, you know how people like to share the things they love with the people they love, like good food, where to shop and humor? I was trying to imagine travelling through to shop at this store with some of my husband’s extended family, they are of both European and African heritage—biracial, and I don’t think that they would find this image funny. I think they might even find this one visual pun offensive.
—You really think so?
—Well, the image does not feature an afro from the 1970’s. It isn’t about black power or racial dignity, is it?
—I suppose not.
—You know, I am not of African heritage, and I am from a different region—a different culture. And, if I were to speak truthfully, I would have to say that I find this image offensive. It represents a place in time where we were culturally—once, with our humor. I don’t think we are there anymore nor should we be revisiting the place of this antiquated form of “humor.”
I watch the manager’s wheels turning in his mind. He can’t seem to make the conceptual shift to see this image from a different perspective. I wonder whether or not the manager grew up on a diet of Little-Rascals, after-school reruns.
—Contrast this image with the one of the modern, musical group. The modern image is inclusive. The musicians have named themselves. They are performing together, as adults, in roles they have chosen. This other image is quite different. You have a few stores in your chain, right? Maybe the next time you have a group meeting with corporate you could have a conversation about the feedback I have given you and make a decision from there—amongst yourselves.
—Yes. We could certainly do that.
—Yes. Do that. See what kind of feedback you get. Thank you for your time and taking my concern into consideration.
“Those men do not have any manners,” staring wide-eyed at a large, round table of men lifting their bowls to finish slurping the last of their soup course, I comment to my mother in my overly loud, four-year-old and most self-assured voice.
In response to my comment, a long finger comes to rest perpendicular to my lips, telling me to hold my tongue in this very public context. My extended family and I have been on the road for days. We are stopping briefly at a large, family-style restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Our road trip includes touring the Redwood forest, a snow-covered visit to the Painted Desert, a stop at the Petrified Forest, as well as a careful viewing of the expansive vistas of the Grand Canyon from the canyon’s south rim.
I grow up eating soup and avoiding slurping, even after one of my first experiences of manners, culture and context invite me to do otherwise.
Years after my first trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown for dinner and days before one of my birthdays, a package from two dear friends arrives in the mail. The note inside says, “We wanted to take you to the movies for your birthday, so we sent you this film. XOXO”
Unwrapping the package, a Japanese film, Tampopo, reveals itself—a self-styled “Japanese Noodle Western.” From among the film’s many plot turns and twists, my favorite scene involves the “re-education” of a group of young Japanese women who are relearning the art of eating noodles in the context of an Italian restaurant in Tokyo—without slurping. (In traditional Japanese culture, it is considered a compliment to the food when a person eats her soup or noodles with an appropriate food-relishing slurp.)
The cultural instructor in the film is preparing her students to follow the non-slurping, noodle- and soup-eating etiquette the students will encounter overseas. As the older Japanese woman is modeling the silent, eating etiquette that her students will need to follow and the students themselves are doing their very best at eating their own dishes quietly, a mischievous foreigner begins drawing noodles up from his own full plate of pasta with grand, relishing, smacking and slurping sounds, thoroughly disrupting the cultural instructor’s lesson.
Yet, even after watching Tampopo, I do not even attempt the practice of slurping, but I continue the practice of spooning liquids into my mouth and twirling my noodles on my fork with great care, just as I was taught. I also continue “growing up.”
Then, many years later and by complete chance, on one fall day when I am facing a particularly deep, hot bowl of soup after working in the yard all afternoon—in my hunger—I draw the steaming liquid through my parted lips in an understated slurp, hoping to cool the soup (politely) on its way through my mouth and into my gullet.
Cool the soup I do. But, more important than cooling the soup is what happens as the flavorful vapors from the hot, fresh soup pass over my tongue to travel through to my pharynx and on up into my nasal passages until my unsuspecting olfactory lobes become involved. Finally, I understand.
We, the non-slurping soup-eaters of the West, have this soup and noodle etiquette thing all wrong. If we were really committed to embracing the whole gift of having sacred food on our tables at each meal, we would need to learn how to bask in foods’ full flavors and be willing to relish subtle taste experiences by taking some social cues from the cultures who know best how to embrace their brothy dishes—with just a little more noise allowed at the dinner table.
Not so very long ago, a friend told me a story about a year she spent working in Egypt—long, long ago. On her way to work every day, there was one particularly, almost impossible, intersection which she had to cross on foot.
The intersection was so busy, with at least six lanes of traffic crossing in each direction, that there was a police officer dedicated to directing traffic there.
Each day the officer did his job of moving traffic along in a very efficient manner. Yet, if the officer recognized a very dear friend among the mishmash of cars, bicycles or pedestrians, all traffic would be called to a halt, while he leisurely asked after that person’s day, well-being and family, catching up on the most important social news.
In concluding her tale, my friend said, with a deep sigh of longing, “If only we could transplant that one aspect of Egyptian culture into our own, things would be so much better here. As it is, we barely have the time of day for one another.”
“How could someone steal a coat from a church? And, in this weather? Isn’t a church considered holy space?” Slava asks.
The recently emigrated, Jewish couple I have been tutoring in English, along with my husband, sit across from us as we drink tea together. Teatime is our post-lesson ritual, where the greatest amount of cultural information is passed among us—in Russian and without the impediment of faulty or halting English.
As the cold, dry snow of a bitter, early February falls outside of the window, I consider how best to respond.
“Well,” I begin, “First of all, the church is a large, wealthy urban church in the heart of a metropolitan downtown. The neighborhood around the church is economically depressed. Thus, it is possible that the coat was stolen by a stranger merely walking through the building that day and not a member of the church itself.”
“Yes,” Slava counters, “but it was a very expensive coat, a very good coat.”
“The fact that it was an expensive coat would make it all the more desirable to a stranger passing through the church,” I explain.
Slava shakes his head in disbelief. Having come from Moscow, the idea of stealing another person’s winter coat is akin to the concept of stealing a person’s only means of transportation, or horse (a crime punishable by death) in the old American West. No coat in northern Russia, no horse in the American West–either way you are stranded. Still, Slava is having a hard time wrapping his head around what has happened.
Truth is that winters here are almost as brutal as they are in parts of Russia, with temperatures reaching -20, -30 or, more rarely, -40 degrees Fahrenheit. In Soviet Russia, a good winter coat is absolutely necessary for survival, highly personal, expensive and a carefully maintained investment, which lasts many years. A good, Russian winter coat is often handed down through one’s family.
I continue explaining, “Things are not equal here—economically. Sometimes people who face moderate to severe economic disadvantage ‘help themselves’ to other people’s belongings. People who engage in such acts of theft might reason that a wealthier person can afford another coat, after they take a short drive in their comfortably heated car, whereas they themselves have to take public transportation and actually need such a coat to function. But, I am only guessing. I do not know the exact circumstances surrounding the theft of the coat.”
“But, it was a church,” Slava intones.
“Yes. It was a church. Ideally, this would be considered sacred space. But, not everyone is spiritually respectful or even ‘religious;’ thus, sometimes pain, greed, anger or desparation override a person’s sense of what is sacred.
“What makes a space sacred?” I continue. “It is how we behave as a community, in a specific location, that renders a space sacred—not the physical structure.”