Thursday, November 13, 2014

Living in a Glass House

The other night we had some people come over for dinner, some locals. More specifically, one of Shannon's employees and his wife and kids. I'm always nervous about having people over for dinner, because the food we eat is not like the food they eat here. If you go to someone's house here they will fill and refill your plate over and over again, whether you want them to or not. They will kill the fattened calf, so to speak, and put out a crazy big feast for you. Which really, if you think about it, is a little embarrassing. And then you're left with the question of how to reciprocate.

So when we lived in Istanbul some friends mentioned that they would always try to have people over to their home first, before they got invited somewhere. Because then they could set the stage for what was normal, for how things were to be reciprocated. They would serve a normal meal with normal food and normal portions, and then a normal dessert and of course tea and coffee afterwards. And I thought, wow, that's a great idea.

So I made a huge pot of chicken and vegetable stew, sliced some bread, and had made an apple pie for dessert. We always tell our guests that we don't (and won't) heap portion after portion after portion of food on their plates because we don't do that in America and aren't comfortable doing it, but that there is obviously plenty of food and if they'd like more to please help themselves. And we offer, but we don't force. Our guests each ate one bowl of stew. They commented on how they didn't think Americans ate things like that (probably because every time they've been guests in a foreigner's home they've been served the "fattened calf.") We served the cake they brought with the pie I made (and the mandatory store-bought candy) and tea and coffee. And they left with a loaf of pumpkin bread and a jar of my homemade jam, leaving us with half of the biggest cake I've ever seen here.

And that night, as Shannon and I were washing dishes we discussed how in America we loved having people over. I loved playing hostess and cooking and baking. But here, it's just uncomfortable and awkward. We never feel like people actually have a good time. I never know if they really like the food or if they're just being polite. We never know if we're doing the right thing by not heaping loads of food onto their plates or if we're really offending them. Should we send home leftover cake when there's no way we'll eat it all, even when they refuse it? How long do we wait after we serve dinner before we serve the tea and coffee, because no matter how many times we explain that it doesn't mean we want them to leave, it just means that our kids expect dessert immediately following dinner, they still leave 30 minutes later.

What do they think of our huge (for here) apartment? Our girls' 80 million hair bows? What does it say to them when we live in a nice apartment but I serve them chicken stew when they come for dinner instead of the spread they were probably expecting? Does it speak well of us because now they're off the hook for giving us a huge spread, or are they angry because they think we don't value them enough to prepare the feast? How does this impact things with Shannon being his boss?

I've was a nanny before for a well-off family when I was in graduate school. I noticed when they bought "extras." I saw receipts around the house sometimes for hundreds of dollars on makeup or thousands of dollars on a bookshelf. I saw the food in their pantry, the out-of-season produce in their refrigerator. The products they bought, the clothes in their kids' closets, how frequently they washed clothes and ran the dishwasher.

We have a nanny come into our home five mornings a week so I can go to language class. And I wonder what she thinks about the food in my refrigerator. The clothes in my girls' drawers. How frequently I do laundry, change the sheets, vacuum my floors, clean the toilets. What she thinks of the toilet paper I buy, the laundry soap, the dish soap, the individually-packaged tea bags. The flour in bulk but the always-expensive avocados (for Raye). Does she think I'm wasteful? Extravagent? A good manager of my home? What does she think of my children and how they behave? How they eat? What they eat?

And I feel like I live in a glass house for all to see. And it makes me uncomfortable.

Because as much as I know that we are not extravagant (at least not for Americans), that I clean as regularly as I can manage, that our intentions are pure in not serving the fattened calf, and so on, it doesn't much matter if they don't see it, too.


  1. Oh friend... I hear the discomfort in this post... and I'm so glad you shared it! But, I don't think you need to worry so. How much did you bless these people by opening up your home? Plenty! Did you help them see something of your culture? Definitely, and that is always a good share! And... here's the brilliant thing... hopefully of encouragement. I've been realizing that I'm this mish-mash of cultures (and you are now too)... and since I don't fully represent any one culture... finally at the end of the day I just get to represent Him who made all cultures (just in a different way than anybody else has ever seen before.) -- Now, to just apply this concept myself as I go to a strange, maybe-Thanksgiving dinner of my Cantonese in-laws in Ohio (my husband has intimated that maybe group-soup called hot pot will be the meal?!? Not sure what to do with that, but we'll muddle through!!) :D

  2. You've been overseas for many years (in some form or another), so what I'm going to say probably won't come as much of a surprise: Of course they notice the differences, and of course they are judging you for it. Not to say they are leaving with resentment and a dislike, but I'm sure they think you don't do things "the right way", and a lot of what you do doesn't make sense to them. I know this from my experience overseas, and from hearing other ex-pats talk; even the people we consider friends will think we need to change the way we do things to fit their culture, and you know your nanny is making a mental list of things to tell her friends and family about. This may not be a comfortable realization, but just remember that you are doing the same thing when you go to another person's home. It's only natural to notice the differences and be a little critical.


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