Saturday, April 10, 2010

Culture Bridges Over Hearts

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”(Marcel Proust)

I always love when people from a different land come to visit me. If not for the topsy-turvy kind of lifestyle I am forced to lead for a while when I act as full time hostess, I love it for the opportunity to see the world through their eyes.

To me, WalMart is WalMart any day of the week, the land of the “weird folk” and cheap bread. The church is the church, where people enter the pews as they come in and leave them at the end, orderly. A sales cashier needs your ID for a beer purchase as part of a routine. All these are big, eye popping events and heart skipping beats kind of encounters for my parents, who are visiting.

Some of these “alter realities” seen lately through their eyes were too good not to share.

Every time they ask for my ID at the grocery store, when we’re buying alcohol, mom starts literally shaking, and then asks :”What? Are you in trouble?”. I always smile and say “No, ma’, I just look young”. She rolls her eyes in disbelief.

We went to church at midnight, for Easter, and they both could not believe that people were not pushing each other, elbowing one another on the way to The Altar to grab a candle light from the priest, the way they do it in Romania, breaking icons and knocking babies over along the way. They were both shocked that everyone waited their turn in their pews, while the church people came and gave each row a light. Everything seemed too quiet and orderly, and probably boring, too, to them. Mom crossed herself – and not just because the priest kept saying “In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” It was mostly disbelief!

With the risk of being cheesy, I will add that my parents stop and stare at what I call “American fat”. In Romania, what is considered “American chubby” becomes obese. What is considered “American obese” becomes mutant. They are shocked, and I try to subtly pretend they’re not with me when a 400 lbs person drives a motorized cart in a store, and mom stops and crosses herself.

They also do not understand why they can’t find “lamb pleura” in any good old neighborhood grocery store, so they can wrap their meatloaf with it. Dad cannot understand why we looked in three stores for Ricotta cheese (one of the most common, cheapest cheeses back home), but in the meantime, we find 100 specialties of orange cheese, which looks like no cheese at all that he is familiar with. The man went to school to learn how to make dairy and meat products from animal milk and meat! So, he is all confused about the “orange” cheese that I know Americans treasure for their burger topping.

My dad cannot understand why Chinese restaurants don’t give you a knife. He is surprised that their meat is all chopped up. How does one know what they eat if they cannot see the bone of the animal, the fiber of the muscle and so forth?! How do they, indeed.

I love the way they think WalMart is expensive. And then we take a trip to a regular mall, and they go to Ann Taylor and Sur la Table and REI, and when they look at the prices there they go: “Uumm… Why did you bring us here? These things are so expensive we feel bad touching them!”.

I love, love, love the way they transform everything in lei (the Romanian currency). They find anything for say $5 and although it’s something they need and want, they go “Oh, that’s roughly 150 000 lei, of that’s too much. It’s 35 000 back home, we’ll get it from there.” I wish I had inherited that sort of self-possessiveness!

I love how dad thinks Dollar Tree stores are ever so cheap, that he wants to buy everything there is to buy there, even toddler pj’s, which he would have zero use for! He thinks they’re sooo cheap, he calls them the “Dollar Free” stores. When I travel, I usually, go “oh, let’s go to The Zoo today!”. When he comes here, he’s all about “Oh, let’s go to Dollar Free today”. As in “every day”.

I love when they see something new, and their eyes pop open with wonder, the way a little child’s would, at the sight of a new toy! They absolutely loved Party City! I could not and (if it were not for the fact that we were late for a wedding planning meeting) I would not peel them off the aisles of that store!!! They are huge entertainers. Huge! So, for them to see that there is a whole entire store dedicated to everything you’d need for entertaining, it was just like the poor Irishman who reached New York for the first time: a dream come true! I think that was the first day when both of them (stern Europeans that they are) smiled generously since they came off the plane!

Mom and dad trying on party hats at Party City

They think American fridges are wicked cold, but they’re not roomy enough for what they want to cook! They think this is silly as all! They think, of course, that central air is a waste of money, waste of an invention, you name it, especially when you have a ceiling fan!

They have no clue why people would be picky about eating chicken livers, pickles, olives, peppers, why they’d not want any bones in their chicken pieces, or debate why mustard is already smeared on their bologna. They look at me like I am nuts when I tell them they need to cook bone free, condiment free and organ free foods, if they cook for a crowd. They do not understand what anyone in the right might would think these things would not be good for anyone. They’re delicacies back home, and the use of the condiments there means that the cook is good enough to already match what’s appropriate with the food and make it already better for the one who consumes it. Free will and the notion of free choice is very foreign to them.

They will never understand why I don’t have the 20+ seats dining room they have at their house. How can anyone, they say, have any kind of Holiday meal or birthday feast with less than that kind of a dining room table is beyond them! You see, the notion of a buffet is completely foreign to Romanians! They are huge “family meals” type people.

I just smile and move on. Sometime, I wonder about the journey I took: I grew up like them! For the first 23 years of my life, their normal was my normal. How did I adapt?! How did I find the “different” here “normal” for me? Why did I?!

Somehow, I don’t remember any kind of a painful transition - so most times I cannot relate with all this. It makes for a very strange experience when you meet face to face with the people you came from, and you feel like you’re worlds apart.

I cannot help but wonder what they think about who I have become? I know myself, and to me, trying

different things and adapting and searching other cultures to become richer was a motto in life. They are the complete opposite: they are stuck with the familiar. But it has to feel strange for them that the product of their bodies and upbringing is gravitating comfortably in this strange universe they cannot comprehend, while they feel like misfits 24-7.

As much as I enjoy seeing all the things I take for grated every day through their eyes, a bitter-sweet feeling overwhelms me: are we really our parents’ children? Or has life changed us so much that it’s hard (as in “difficult” as well as in “painful”) for us, and mostly them to tell?! And how do we bridge ourselves back? How do we find that common thread that is “thicker” than water to bring us back together, so that the hugs will feel meaningful and the kisses honest and not coming from strangers?

But, alas, the matters of the heart are deeper and less open to cold minded explaining than this!

Somehow, we “get” each other – it has to be the miracle of love and family which surpasses any cultural boundaries. Just like at the end of the day they are mom and dad to me, the same people who read me stories and cooked my first omelet for me and punished me when I did poorly in math, I have to believe that they find in this weird American woman who eats sushi the same little girl they raised, with curly hair, impossible curious mind and awfully picky about apples. I feel they do.

Or at least I hope so, or else their journey here must be painful. And for the life of me, I cannot figure out how to change that!


Charlie said...

Can't wait to see your folks this week! I am reminded how I converted lei into dollars before making any purchase. It was insane to have millions of a particular currency in your wallet and realize it was only worth about $100 bucks American! I miss being a millionaire!

Dawn in NC said...

Thank you so much for including me on Friday evening. Everything was wonderful and tasty and beautiful and welcoming. I hope your lovely parents didn't think me TOO rude for arriving an hour late and departing after only two hours. As it was, I was up past midnight chopping for our Saturday trip. Scott loved the doggie bag you made him, though! ESPECIALLY the sausage.