Saturday, January 9, 2010

Different Like Flowers

Amazing what stories can do. Amazing how they can ease us into topics that are otherwise too big to handle. The other day, we talked a lot about culture. And it all began with a little joke about smoked fish.

Bernice brought her twin sister (twin sister!) Beatrice to class. Beatrice started telling us about her twelve kids, who all married spouses from all different cultures. Having a potluck with them is like sampling the cuisines of the world. She said when one of her daughter-in-laws – the one from Africa – smokes fish, you have to wear a gas mask at the house. “But oh, it’s worth it. The food turns out delicious!” Then she added, with gleaming eyes, “I have my own United Nations at home.”

Bernice, our star comedian, nodded, “Yeah, yeah, that’s right!” She toned down her own jokes today to let her sister take the comedic spotlight – I thought that was so sweet and generous.

Before we knew it, Mo was venting about racism in America. He’s really mad about that, the way people still can’t look past one another’s skin colors in this day and age. Soon he got fired up – in one breath culture led to religion to politics to war.

Bernice calmed him right down with one sentence. “God made us different like flowers – if we were all the same, there would be nothing nice to look at.” What a beautiful image – I had never thought of it that way before. Without disagreeing with anything Mo said, she put a positive spin on our entire cultural discussion. In my mind, entire fields of flowers sprang up. I’m no botanist – the clarity of the image surprised me. It was like something out of the Planet Earth TV series. “It’s important to treat everyone with love and respect,” she added. “Always love, never hate.”

Henrietta was listening, not speaking much, but at the end of class gave me a stack of poems about food and culture, and asked me if I could print some information on the Chinese zodiac and explain it to her next week. She has been learning French and English, and wants to take up Chinese too. And to learn a language well, she likes to take the time to understand the culture first.

Helen said, “There is something I’d like to say.” Already we knew it was going to be graceful and profound. The room went quiet. “My parents never taught us to treat anyone differently because of their race or creed.” She told us that her parents made it clear to her sister and her to keep their feet on the ground and keep their heads up, to feel neither superior nor inferior to other people. And that is something she has tried to instill in her kids as well, and now her kids, all grown, have passed onto the grandkids. It starts at home.

Hearing this, I had to share about the first time my grandma met my husband, who was my new boyfriend at the time. She doesn’t know any English, and he didn’t know any Chinese, except for “hello” and “thank you” which I had strategically taught him in order make a good impression on my family. My grandma opened the door and let us in. At first I started translating, then I realized it wasn’t needed. With nods, smiles, hand gestures, they were conversing. They greeted each other. My grandma gave him a tour of the house and showed him a view of her garden. We ended up at the kitchen counter next to the fruit bowl. For some reason, Jason had never seen a mango before in his life. My grandma could tell because his hazel eyes turned huge. She giggled, then tapped him several times on his arm. That was when I realized she, at a little more than four-foot tall, was one and a half heads shorter than him. I took a mental snapshot, thinking to myself, this is surreal. She had retrieved a paring knife from the top drawer and proceeded to show him how to cut the mango. In thirds, then cubing without slicing through the skin for the two side pieces. The middle piece with the seed is for biting into – this, she gestured by holding it up to her mouth, then looking at Jason. In response, to show her that he understood, he held an air-mango in his hands then opened and closed his lips. Like this, the mango lesson went on in slow motion. She paused after every step, and only after Jason nodded, would she move on. Finally the ceremonial cutting was done and it was time to eat. My grandma handed one of the side pieces, along with a teaspoon, to Jason, and the middle piece to me. I smiled on the inside. The three of us ate right there at the counter. We were standing close together. My elbows touched both of theirs. It was the best-tasting mango I had ever eaten.

Not many people ask outright (because culture after all is a touchy topic), but whenever people ask Jason and me what it’s like to be “an interracial couple”, we just tell them this story.