A few weeks ago, I was shopping at Costco and had a different cashier. She said, “Good morning.” I said, “Where are you from?” I’d heard the distinctive New England twang. Too twangy for Connecticut, not twangy enough for Maine, not hard enough for Boston, and not Rhode Island-y. She was from central Massachusetts. I told her that we moved here from Connecticut. I became her new friend. Every week, I wave and she waves. She tells me about her kids, and I tell her about mine. She gives me a good dousing of New England wit and bite, even if it zings me. It makes me laugh.
Her co-workers don’t laugh. When they interact with her, they give her the steely-eyed gaze. I cringe when I imagine their interactions. New Englanders pride themselves on telling the unvarnished truth, no matter who it hurts. They believe anything else is a lie. Southerners pride themselves on polite kindness, even if it isn’t the truth because you don’t want to “be ugly.” (But you can talk about it to others later, as long as you say, “Bless her/his heart.”)
It’s curious to me, having lived all over the US (Southern and Northern CA, GA, IL, HI, CT, TN) how bound people are by their cultural upbringing. How breaking these cultural values become the great sins. And, of course, it’s true outside of the US. One thing my husband had to get used to was that Dutch culture reveres birthdays. On her birthday, my grandmother sits next to the phone all day with a pad of paper and pen in hand. When you call to wish her a happy birthday, she will let you know that you are caller #16 or whatever. Then she will proceed to tell you who has called. And heaven forbid you should forget to call, which is why I listen to my grandmother read the list of everyone who has called her and then call to remind those who haven’t called to call before the day is over.
And then there’s the kissing thing. Dutch relatives kiss each other on the lips, regardless of sex or age. I made the mistake of doing this to my father-in-law by accident. Not good. And very hard to explain your way out of. Then there was my husband’s experience with my relatives’ kisses. He learned to wait to the last second to turn his face, so the kiss would end up on the cheek. And then there was my Chinese sister-in-law, who I thought would have cardiac arrest, when my uncle came at her for a kiss. I learned to stand next to her and do kiss-interception.
What weird cultural/ethnic oddities did you grow up with? Or which ones have you broken by mistake in a new culture? And what was the response? I’ve had people back away slowly as if I was a time bomb waiting to explode.