Nervous about letting people into my world with the start of this blog in August, my husband, Luis, told me a wise thing: “Mel, you’re going to learn more about other people writing this blog than they will about you.”
I didn’t know exactly what he meant until I started receiving responses from not only friends, but acquaintances. They have shared their own stories, both funny and touching. Some are highly personal. Many, especially those who are here from other countries, have told me they cried. Not my intention, but I am happy something resonated that deeply.
As a result, old friendships have been rekindled and new ones have begun.
To that end, last Saturday night Luis and I packed all three of the kids in the car to go eat dinner at the home of someone I knew only professionally before the launch of my blog, though since then we have become friends.
She and her husband are from Southeast Asia, a place I have never explored and know little about.
If I had not been surrounded by swirling young children I would have read a bit about their part of the world, their culture, traditions and if there’s anything completely off limits, just as I would before traveling to a foreign country. But my head spinning, that didn’t happen and I was going to have to wing it, though I was confronted with my lack of knowledge when I swung by Fresh Market to pick up a gift for them. Do they drink wine? Is that in poor taste to take? I know she likes coffee and often dark chocolate is a natural partner so I took a chance.
I grabbed an organic, espresso blend and a good looking European sweet and then later, at the suggestion of Luis, did pair a nice red wine from the house and a bowl of black beans he had just cooked, which I know she enjoys.
Just before taking off to meet them I got an email:
Thought it’s good to let you know we remove our shoes in the house, and shamelessly ask all our guests to do the same, so you can come mentally prepared. I promise no other “special” cultural behavior:))
My first thought, vain as it may be: thank god I had just gotten a pedicure and bought brand new socks for the kids that day.
Secondly, I welcomed an evening of the unexpected and shared the news with my crew, to which my six-year-old scrunched his face and said in typical dramatic flair, “Whaaaat?”
I explained that people do different things in different parts of the world. Bringing it to his level, this keeps dirt and worms and mud out of the house, I said, so you stay healthy.
“O.K., Mommy, but it’s kinda funny.”
When we arrived, I saw a row of shoes lined vertically along the wall just outside the front door and could see a sweet, young face peering at us from the living room window.
The door opened and the family of four welcomed us in. I grew up in a group of bear huggers and Cubans are highly affectionate, typically dousing people with kisses upon entering and leaving a home. I didn’t know what we were supposed to do, but their warmth shines and I hugged them both, though I only offered a simple ‘hi’ to two shy, little ones who hid behind their dad’s legs.
As I turned the corner, an older woman appeared and was introduced as the grandmother who was visiting from Asia for a few months.
I felt a slight wave of panic as I didn’t know how to greet her. Do I hug her, shake hands or simply nod? Instincts told me it was the latter and so I think I awkwardly just said hello, though I’m not even sure. When my nerves get the best of me I forget everything.
Moving on and into the house we were put at ease immediately. In a nice gesture, Cuban music was playing, charcuterie, salsa and chipswere on the table and a bottle of red wine was already open. Phew! I comfortably handed our gifts off to them.
It was quickly apparent that we all had more in common than not. We laughed – a lot – touching on the very topic I wrote about last with loads of stories about language mishaps, misunderstandings and funny nicknames bestowed on them as they tried to take on a new culture since their arrival nearly 20 years ago.
The conversation later moved to Southeast Asia, its languages in the house, versus on the street, the way people bargain at outdoor markets, the complexity of getting visas for visiting relatives, Green Cards and the tug and pull of whether or not to become a U.S. citizen. I sat quietly as Luis and our new friends discussed what that means not only logistically, but far more so emotionally. Everyone born here should be privy to such a conversation.
All the while the kids played beautifully, scooting and screaming around the house while we ate delicious Ecuadorian-inspired seafood stew, a cauliflower dish with turmeric and cumin and Sambal, a spicy chili pepper-based blend, which was the lone salute to Southeast Asia at the table. I was proud of our little Marcos for trying the new plates, even if he defaulted to black beans and rice by the end.
Luis whispered to me at some point that they’re like us, even the grandmother, who reminds us both so much of Luis’s mom. Her energy, her stature, something about her seemed so familiar. So that would probably explain why at evening’s close I walked into the kitchen and let reservations go, giving her a big hug and thank you. It’s also why, I suspect, Luis had not thought twice about gently touching her head while telling a story about how respectful Cubans are towards ‘gray hair.’
It wasn’t until the next day that I emailed our hostess, thanked her for such a good time and asked if we had done any irrevocable damage to her mom.
Apparently, the hugs were not the most appropriate, as someone her age typically nods from a healthy distance. Overall, people in that part of the world are not very touchy-feely, she told me, though it’s not uncommon to shake hands today, among younger generations anyway.
I sat at the computer, hand over mouth, horrified, even though she says her mother was not offended. But what about the affectionate story telling by Luis?
“LOL!” she wrote. She did not see that, but wished she had. I cringed, laughed, hoped and prayed, in just that order, that her mother was able to take it all in stride.
And then she made a good point:
“I think you’ll find people behave differently when interacting with another culture, no? Did you find yourself kissing people a couple of times on the cheek in Europe while not doing it here in the United States?”
Yes and yes.
And as for the shoes at the door, I wanted to educate myself, too.
Historically, much of Asian life was centered around the floor, from sleeping to eating.
Today, this is not the case, but the tradition continues not only for the case of cleanliness, but to trample through a Buddhist or Hindu temple would be disrespectful, as feet are not considered holy. Amen to that. We should all take our shoes off.
Beyond that, it’s something so engrained in both her and her husband that they couldn’t manage any other way. They don’t eat or cook near the floor, but it’s common for them to sit and hang there so she says you can see them both physically cringe with when they see shoes on interior floors, carpets, beds or sofas.
Obviously, I should have read this before visiting their home.