Adventures in Multicultural Living Series
By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
My neighbor and I were having a quiet cup of jasmine tea in my kitchen when I noticed that she was burning her fingertips repeatedly trying to fish the floating tea leaves out of the boiling hot water in her cup. Without thinking, I gave her a spoon so she would not burn her fingers. Then I looked down at my cup and realized that I did not have a similar pile of tea leaves sitting on the side of my saucer, nor did I have any tea leaves floating on top, nor did I ever.
Then it occurred to me, “Oh, if you blow on the tea leaves while you are drinking, they will sink down to the bottom by themselves.”
She is not a tea drinker, and certainly not a loose-tea-leaves-in-the bottom-of-the-cup type of tea drinker that I am. She blew on the leaves, and the problem (which I had not ever registered as a problem before, despite the many cups of tea we have shared over the years) was instantly solved.
I realized that this “trick” is a small detail or nuance that I learned to do without anyone ever telling me or teaching me, something that I learned to do subconsciously by watching all the other tea drinkers around me while I was growing up, something that if I had ever noticed enough to ask, they would have certainly thought I was crazy. Like the way no one ever thinks about personal space until someone invades it, there is a “feel” to the way we move about our lives that we do not think about until something goes awry.
I wish it were as easy as it looks on Star Trek. They can seamlessly infiltrate alien cultures and travel in time, with just minor changes in their appearance (either through temporary plastic surgery to create ridged foreheads or a sweat band to cover pointy ears). Other than a joke or two when a character misuses the word “groovy” in 1990’s Earth, they can always “pass.”
In real life, it is impossible for me to pleat a sari properly (despite living in Kathmandu and wearing a sari for four years), my mujadara and pulao always turn into Chinese fried rice (the spicing never quite right), my western table manners are stiff (even though I keep studying books on etiquette), my forays into the corporate world way too casual (too many years in nonprofits and universities). I do not have the right “feel.”
I am amazed at how immigrants do it. Even though I was born and raised in this country, and I speak the language fluently, there are so many nuances that I do not “get” that sometimes I feel I can never “pass.”
In graduate school, a new housemate once stared open-mouthed while I cut carrots. He said, “I’ve never seen anyone roll-cut carrots before. I’ve only read about it in cookbooks.” I did not know there was anything special about how I cut carrots, or that there was a name for it, or that anyone would ever write about it in a book. It was just the way I saw my mother and grandmother cut carrots, the way I thought all people cut carrots, but suddenly I felt like a museum piece. In that moment, I not only learned about my housemate’s culture, I also learned about my own culture…and we both changed.
Other Recent Readings of Interest by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang