Mayfield: Cultural differences
Vail CO, Colorado
When a sweet and innocent “knuckle bump” between a pre-presidential couple sends a right-wing commentator into paroxysms of apoplexy, it’s probably time, once again, for white America to review some of the cultural differences that enrich the world around us. Such self-evaluation is particularly valuable at a time when our good ol’ boy president has taken his less than worldly ways out on the road, especially when that road is an autobahn, a dual carriageway or a strade statali.
One of the last times our own King George met with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, he breached political protocol by giving her a very up-close and personal neck rub, which, judging from her look of dramatic disdain, is something better left to husbands of the Deutsch persuasion.
And I do hope while he’s visiting Windsor Castle he doesn’t try to best the queen as to who has the larger wallet. The reticent British are really reticent when it comes to revealing either the content of their purses or the size of their personal fortunes. Similarly, the French may be more inclined to discuss their private affairs than the sad state of Gallic social affairs. We can only hope that G.W. behaves as well as his wife, Laura, on her recent visit to Afghanistan. I sure hope she’s joining him before he gets to Rome where, considering his evangelical convictions, he may try to convince the pope of his eminence’s need to be born again.
We can all be grateful that this farewell tour is limited to four of our friendliest allies.
Allah alone knows what would happen if he decided to drop in on some of our more marginal Middle Eastern partners where cultural constraints make shaming the greatest of sins. I once watched a seemingly temperate Arab gentleman explode in righteous indignation over an innocuous slight that had the merest, tiniest, microscopic, hint of gentle disapproval directed toward him. I learned very quickly where to store my personal opinions in that neck of the woods.
While we’re on the subject of Arabic attributes, it would be good for someone on the president’s staff to remind the man of the role hyperbole plays in Middle Eastern culture. It was not for nothing that the late great TV host, Johnny Carson, as The Great Carnac, would invoke such curses upon Ed McMahon as, “May a camel fly up your nose and build a large nest within!” Even Big Ed didn’t have that big of a proboscis. Hyperbole permeates public discourse in that region of the world and it is both foolish and more than a little dangerous to develop political policies based on obvious, at least to insiders, overstatements. Bombing Iran because of the bombastic bullying of a petty tyrant may not be the best way of showing the Iranian people how much we care about them.
On my first visit to Africa, I was so very pleased at the overly helpful attitude of my native contacts. Never was I contradicted or criticized. Not once did my queries receive a negative response. It was only after I had been there a few days that I realized that agreeing did not necessarily translate into doing. It was simply considered bad manners in Tanzania to disagree with your guest. So I spent my three weeks in East Africa trying to decide when yes meant yes and when yes meant no or sometimes maybe. The intricacies of these cultural conflicts make the adventure of travel more than just hiking on Mt. Kilimanjaro or bumping up against an elephant.
My personal best, foreign-based, faux pas came one lovely summer evening in Paris at what appeared, at least to me, to be a charming little restaurant on the Left Bank. I had decided to ask a local green grocer where he thought I might give my family the most authentic of French meals. Something got lost in the translation, I naively supposed, because upon our arrival, the mademoiselle who greeted us at the door raised her eyebrows close to a foot above her ears while looking at our two near teenaged children. Undeterred, I boldly declared, “J’ai reserve une table au nom de Mayfield.” The fine proprietress, with only a moment’s hesitation, walked us to a lovely table near the back of the bistro. With a wink and the slightest of suggestive smiles, she handed us our menus and wished us, “Bon appetit!” It was just about then that I happened to notice that all the paintings on the wall were blatantly pornographic and situated just about eye-level to my innocent offspring. At that very moment of comprehension, a celebration broke out at the other end of the restaurant where all the waitresses gathered at the kitchen door and brought out what appeared to be a very large birthday cake oddly shaped into a tall, tubular design. Everyone began singing and shouting as the cake processed by all the patrons including me and my oh-so-innocent family. As it neared our table, I realized the cake’s design was a dramatically accurate depiction of a particular part of the human anatomy set at rigid attention, a lit sparkler placed solidly into the tip. I grimaced. My wife gasped.
The children roared in utter delight. And we were all educated into the wild and semi-wicked ways of French practical joking.
“A beau mentir qui vient de loin.”… as they, sometimes, say in France. (“Long ways, long lies.”)
Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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