I make every effort to be sensitive to the accepted norms of the culture I find myself in. For example, I might show up at someone's home in China with some pork dumplings I picked up at a local food stall, but when asked to bring something for the social gathering after the bar mitzvah I am clearly going to make a different choice in terms of appetizers. The times I find myself floundering are when I am clueless as to what the cultural norms are.
Soon after Jay and I were married we backpacked through Europe for several months. Towards the end of that trip we spent some time in England, where Jay has many relatives. One afternoon we were visiting some elderly cousins in Sheffield and these kind ladies asked us if we would like some tea. Thinking we were doing the polite thing we both smiled and said that we would love some.
This did not elicit the expected response. Instead of smiling back at us and going to put the kettle on these poor women looked panic-stricken. They both rushed out to the kitchen and we were left looking at each other in confusion. It took us a few minutes to realize that "tea" meant a meal, not just a cup of something hot to drink. They clearly had not expected to feed us and had been thrown off by our enthusiastic acceptance of their offer. This happened thirty years ago and I can still vividly remember the feeling of mortification I had sitting in their living room while they were bustling about in their kitchen. It was a definite case of cultural disconnect.
My introduction to Jay's family provided another culturally clueless moment - one I can now laugh over, but it definitely did not seem funny at the time. There I was, an American farm girl sitting down to a "Canadian, but heavily laced with British tradition" roast beef dinner. I had previously only encountered rural American roast beef dinner, well-cooked throughout and served up in large chunks. (Now that I think about it though the large chunk part probably had a lot more to do with the fact my mom didn't have a knife in the house that could cut anything other than butter than it did with cultural differences.)
Jay's dad sat at one end of the dining room table carving the beef. (Carving the roast at my house was a tad less formal, consisting of my mom standing at the stove in her apron hacking away at the mass of meat while muttering under her breath about the dull knife.) As he held up pieces to slide onto the plates being passed to him I marvelled at the fact the beef was sliced so thin you could actually see through it, something I had not previously realized was possible. More shocking however was the colour of the meat, which ranged from pink on the outside edges to bright red in the middle.
If it had just stopped there everything would have been fine. Cultural crisis could have been avoided. But then I asked a question. It was a simple question really. One that was perfectly acceptable in my own culture.
"Could I have some ketchup please?"
Dead. Silence. Shocked looks all around. I was so clueless I didn't even know what I had done wrong. Jay had to explain it to me after the meal.
My last example is more recent. When I was in China two years ago we were at Diana's grandfather's home. I remember feeling a little nervous before we arrived, not sure what to expect and also not wanting to embarrass my daughter-in-law in front of her family. Diana had been great about letting us know what was expected of us in different circumstances, so I felt fairly confident I could manage not to humiliate either her or myself when we arrived.
We were warmly greeted at the door by the grandfather and various aunts, uncles and cousins. Then we were ushered into the living room, where plates piled high with pieces of juicy watermelon were placed for us to eat. But nobody made a move to sit down. Smiling, shaking of hands, head nodding, more smiles, and a mix of languages filled the room. My North American trained brain took a look around and figured everyone was waiting for the guests to be seated, so I plopped myself down on the couch, thinking I was breaking the ice. Cultural fail.
What it turns out I really was breaking was