This I Believe

James - South Harwich, Massachusetts
Entered on August 30, 2007

I believe that while politeness and cultural sensitivity can open doors, a few more elements are often needed for true cross-cultural bonding to occur.

I was directing a study abroad program for a group of U.S. college students in Mexico. Like my students, I was living with a volunteer host family whom I had never met. Our first Saturday, my host brother Gerardo, an aspiring television journalist, was sent to a small village to film a story. Spontaneously, a half dozen students and I piled into a van with him, his mother, and a film crew. When the filming was over, they invited us to join them for lunch.

The restaurant, perched on the edge of a lake, was understated and rustic. So was the fifteen-year-old waitress. The hand-written menu was basic: Pescado, pollo, carne. Period. Knowing that fish from the lake was the town’s specialty, we were all prepared to enjoy it.

Someone asked what kind of fish it was and the flustered waitress hurried into the kitchen for the answer. She came right back with the name of a fish no one recognized. When that didn’t work, she disappeared again. This time, she reappeared proudly displaying a squirming fish.

Now, I’ve often found my U.S. students a little uncomfortable when reminded where their food comes from. To the Mexican hosts, this squeamishness is often inexplicable. This group was no exception, but they made me proud just the same. They had internalized everything we had discussed during our orientation sessions and their involuntary shudders were barely perceptible to the untrained eye.

When the waitress reemerged from the kitchen, the group was ready to order: Pollo. Pollo. Pollo, por favor. The waitress took down their orders. The students smiled, relieved. They had handled what could have been an awkward cross-cultural moment with grace and finesse. And no one had even noticed.

Or so they thought. Gerardo had been taking it all in from the other end of the table. As the waitress finished writing down the orders, he leaned forward and with impeccable timing, surprised us all with perfect English: “Would you like to see the chicken?”

There were dozens of chickens just outside the window. Disarmed, we shared a long laugh. Five minutes later, a weathered campesino led a small herd of cattle up the hill. Now it was the students’ turn: “Gerardo, ¿quieres ver la carne? We all laughed again.

It’s been 16 years. Gerardo and I are best friends. I participated in his wedding a few years ago and we see each other every chance we get. A visit rarely passes when we don’t recall that ice-breaking moment. And, sure, the opportunity to laugh might never have come had the group screamed, “Ooh, gross!” when first confronted with the raw fish. But the true cross-cultural bonding came not as much from their obeying those rules of politeness I had tried to teach them as from mutual empathy, humility, and a shared sense of humor.