Not Wrong, Just Different

I think I taught somebody something today. It’s sad that that’s a sentence worth writing; after all, I am a teacher. But on most days, I’d be really surprised to learn that I had taught someone something that they remember and use appropriately ― even more so if it has anything to do with the subjects I teach. But what makes the fact that I taught something today even more amazing is that school’s out for the summer. I’m not even officially “on duty.”

Here’s what happened: My mom took my son and I out to a buffet restaurant. We were shown to one of those little areas that’s supposed to look like a dining room ― you know, divided off from the restaurant so it doesn’t look like you’re eating in an airplane hanger. Anyway, besides us there were three other occupied tables: a small table with a young-ish couple, another with two older ladies, and a huge table (must have been at least a fifteen-top) full of a happy, raucous, and quite boisterous Mexican family speaking Spanish. The kids were singing and picking on each other, the adults were enjoying each other’s company, and the abuela was just soaking it all in. Occasionally a grown-up would say something to one of the kids, but the others would just chortle at them and the games would continue.

I was enjoying listening to them, trying to learn some new words, and appreciating the energy and life they brought to the room… but I’m sure you can imagine at this point how the two older ladies were feeling and acting. I caught them rolling their eyes at each other at every imagined peccadillo of the niños, clucking their tongues at the overly permissive parents who would allow such behavior, and generally bemoaning their sorry luck at being placed in the same dining area as the noisy foreigners.

Then the Mexicans left. With besos and abrazos they headed out en masse, talking about how they’d see each other on Sunday for lunch. A dad told his daughter she wasn’t allowed to bring her bowl of helado with her, so she quickly spooned the rest into her mouth as she scurried after her brother. (I did not envy her the headache she was about to have.) Cousins got in parting jibes with each other, and someone diligently helped abuela out to the car. And then everything was very quiet.

I heard the waitress say to the old ladies (after she pocketed the generous tip the Mexicans had left, btw), “sure is nice and quiet in here now.” To which one of the ladies responded, “It’s about time.” More disparaging head nods followed, and the waitress left.

A few minutes later, she came back to find me gently scolding my son for making spit noises at the table. She told me sweetly, “Oh, don’t worry. He’s so much better behaved than some children. I can just imagine the kind of discipline that goes on in that house.”

I couldn’t help myself. I said, with the same tone of voice I use to correct my know-it-all seventh graders when they don’t actually know it all, something like, “No, you really can’t imagine the kind of discipline those kids get. Those parents just have different standards of what’s acceptable behavior, that’s all.”

She looked at me with skepticism and disdain, as if I were a “bad” parent about to start letting my kid run naked through her section. But she didn’t say anything, so I continued. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Spanish-speaking countries, and you’d be surprised how culturally different we are. What we see as loud and rude and making a scene, they see as being sincerely friendly and enjoying each other’s company whole-heartedly. And what we see as polite, well-mannered and with proper respect for others’ privacy, they see as rude and cold and stand-offish. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Maybe it’s just a matter of perspective.”

I heard one of the old ladies hmmph, but I think the waitress was starting to get it. I saw the young couple start to pay attention too. The waitress made some sort of comment, along the lines of, “I never thought about it like that before.” The dining room was even quieter than before as she left to keep doing her job. The old ladies in the corner continued their job, too, and started whispering to each other as if I wouldn’t notice.

Well, the waitress must have kept thinking about it like that, because ten minutes or so later she came back. “Were you in the service?” she asked me. “How did you get to travel so much?”

I told her I was a Spanish teacher. She gave me the same look that a person who has just said a swear word gives a clergyman they didn’t realize was standing right in front of them, like I was going to rip her apart right there on the spot. Instead, I gave her one of my many “multi-cultural misunderstanding” anecdotes.

“I was raised to eat everything on my plate,” I told her, and she nodded to say that she had too. “But I visited a country once where cleaning your plate is considered rude. Cleaning your plate implies that you haven’t been given enough to fill you up, and your hostess, feeling inadequate and very embarrassed, will promptly fill your plate again even if you’re completely stuffed. So you’re supposed to leave a little bit, as if to say, ‘that was amazing, but I can’t eat another bite.’ Then your hostess feels like she’s given you enough to eat and you haven’t insulted her.”

“I understand,” she said, and then she repeated the magic words that every teacher wants to hear, even if they come from a middle-aged waitress in an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant instead of the kids you get paid to educate: “I never thought about it like that before.” We ended up chatting for a few more minutes, but the thing I will try to remember from that conversation is the glimmer of hope for the future of our country that I saw when that waitress realized that her previous customers hadn’t been wrong, just different.

[The ironic footnote to this touching story of multicultural-diversity-awareness-training is that Sean ended up pitching a huge fit because he hadn’t eaten enough of his food to get to have dessert. I had to drag him out of the restaurant kicking and screaming and crying and fighting. So the old ladies got to see what a poorly-behaved white kid looked like as he learned the cultural importance of eating everything on his plate.]


kkb said...

I guess some teachers are never "off duty". Congrats on being in the right place at the right time with the right thing to say! Loved the footnote, btw.

And, hmmm, a loud, boisterous family gathering.....ever been involved with one of those yourself?

Anonymous said...

nice princess bride quote! slightly paraphrased but very fitting

Xrysostom said...

Well said, Chris. I also see that "anonymous" got through the spam filter here as he/she did on two of my blogs. What's the "cultural norm" we should follow should we ever encounter one of these creatures on a dimly lit, lonely street?

Orycteropus Afer said...

Chris, thanks for this reminder. In giving you the Golden Aardvark, I reflected a bit on how it hit home for me.

CephasGT said...

Kudos to you sir, and well said. If we can only count on that sort of one-at-a-time mind changing in all of our other endeavors, we may yet succeed...

sydney said...

you always find a way to help teach someone something... i have learned more about spanish and life this year from you than i have in all of junior high and high school... and all i can say is wow... you're truely amazing!

Jordan said...

know-it-all-seventh graders...
what in the world are you talking about?


and you truely are a great teacher.
i learned more latin from you in one year, than i learned spanish in seven!

keeprollinon821 said...

WOO HOO!!! I don't make it a habit of reading blogs, or writing in them (as I have one in my own that doesn't get written in very much), I can relate to the story you shared, believe me. I was recently in a restaurant where the staff spoke mostly Spanish, other than a few waiters/waitresses. Some people walking in, and noticed and said, "I never, and stormed out." Sometimes, I think people need to realize that who you are is who you are. Not to be ashamed of who others are either...

great post, pluger!!! footnote was great!

Andrew said...

A great post! Voicing your opinion is always a great way to initiate conversation and learn something new (and maybe even teach others in the process). We live in a culture that emphasizes thinking about ourselves. We compare everything to that standard, and we are offended when some do not conform to it. Ahh, the American philosophy!