Women, Spoon, Culture – Simple Broth
I studied the German language with a dynamite petite woman from Austria. Frau Teacher, whose name I no longer recall, taught her native tongue, and she shared with us the cultures of Germany and Austria. She narrated a story whose moral continues to resonate.
“When I first came to the USA, a male American colleague and I went out together. We arrived at a closed door. He opened it and stood there. I stood there looking at him and waiting. He silently remained unmoving, continued waiting, and looking at me. Neither of us moved nor said a word.”
A student asked, “Why didn’t you go through the door? He was holding it open for you to walk through.”
Frau Teacher replied, “Because I was waiting for him to go through the door first.”
Someone asked, “But why? He was holding the door open for you. He was being respectful. You are a woman and you are supposed to go through the door first.”
Our Frau Teacher said, “I understand that now, but where I come from, it is the man who goes through the door first.”
“What?!” we responded, incredulous at the thought. Moans of disapproval were repeatedly heard. A student, with polite indignation, asked, “How can a modern DEMOCRATIC country like Germany or Austria disregard the female half of their population?!” We proceeded to bombard Frau Teacher with our opinions with what we considered to be a major faux pas of German culture and piled a barrage of questions upon her.
Students, “Why?! This is wrong! Women are supposed to go through the door first! This makes no sense! Does German culture respect women?! Do German men value women?! This is crazy! This is backward!”
Frau Teacher explained, “Of course German people and culture respect women. The reason a man goes through the door first is because when you approach a closed door, you do not know what is on the other side. There could be danger and if there is, a man crossing the threshold first would encounter it before the woman. He could, therefore, warn the woman, allowing her time to flee, protect herself, or prepare for what may come. The man going through the door first is a way of protecting the woman.”
“Ohhhh! That makes a lot of sense! This is really cool!” We enthusiastically exclaimed. A roar of laughter erupted from the entire class and the inevitable…
“We have to teach American men to do the same!”
When I reflect on this story, I am embarrassed at how quickly I judged and condemned an entire population simply because we interpret a situation differently. The American man was trying to do the right thing, and the Austrian woman was giving him the opportunity to do so, but their paths did not meet. My errors were applying a set of cultural standards onto someone who comes from elsewhere and being judgmental when they did not succeed at the task. Obviously, telepathy is an ineffective way to communicate especially with people from other lands. My convulsive disappointment at someone’s inability to conform to foreign cultural norms is a reflection of personal failing in disposition and nothing else.
Women, Spoon, Culture - Simple Broth
Living in ethnically diverse New York City, I have had many opportunities to apply some lessons from Frau Teacher’s story. Among the lessons, I have learned is to be wary of using one’s cultural parameters when interpreting non-verbal communication because this can lead to misunderstanding. When confronted with an oddity, ask for a clarification, and finally, do not take offense over a perceived insult. The person you are communicating with may, in all sincerity, be giving you the highest compliment.
I was invited to dinner at someone’s home and in their culture people eat sitting on the floor, with only the right hand, without utensils, and from a communal plate. My comfort level does not permit me to eat bare handed unless we are talking about something like pizza, which is normal in New York, or snack foods. Applying lessons from Frau Teacher’s story I believe it is best to ask for a spoon when invited to dinner with people of certain cultural backgrounds because a fork and knife require the use of both hands.
I was happily enjoying the very tasty meal when the hostess plucked from the heap of rice, stewed vegetables, and meat what she believed was the choicest morsel of the meal. She presented this gift to me – her American guest.
“Sister, I saved this piece for you. It is the cow intestine,” she said.
There it was, in all its glory, an organ meat. A recognizable and named body part, trickling with gravy, spices, and all the yummy flavors of our delicious repast being held aloft by her greasy hands slathered in saliva and oozing with the juices of the meal. I wanted to retch.
I smiled, put my spoon down, and said; “That’s very kind of you Sister, but no thanks. I’m American and we generally don’t eat body parts.” It would have been impolite of me to say all that I was thinking.
At this point, I lost my appetite. She saw my consternation and was very gracious. She said, “No problem Sis. I understand. I’ll give you leftover halal Chinese food,” and our “problem” was solved. No eye rolls, teeth sucking, or furtive glances were exchanged nor did I think myself superior to her and her culture. Rather, I was able to appreciate her kindness and generosity, embodied in the form of cow intestines.