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The Reality of Hospitality

November 13, 2007

The differences between my wife, Lisa (a Hindu from a liberal family in Bangalore) and myself (a Jew from Southern California) were as apparent as the ubiquitous neon signs of Tokyo, where we met. She had a big extended family that she was close to and saw frequently, mine was small and I saw them a few times a year. She grew up eating three hot meals a day while I grew up with two working parents and fast food. If there was somewhere we had to be, I wanted to be as punctual as the Japanese trains. Lisa had no such urgency.

Tokyo and our relationship were mysteries that unraveled day by day. Eight years later, now living in California, we spend less time uncovering the differences between us, and more on the dynamics stemming from our differing cultural backgrounds. Now that it is summertime, what comes immediately to mind is how we plan to deal with a significant issue that appeared early in our marriage--our differing expectations of guests when they stay at our house.

We did not know we had differing expectations of guests until my friend Eyton came to town early in our marriage. The primary difference between his visit and that of relatives is that he came with his own agenda of what he was going to do: take a day trip, maybe a few side trips. In theory this was great. Lisa was in school, I was working, we might hang out with him at the end of the day, I thought, and that would be fine. In hindsight, the problem was that he had plans to use our house as a hotel--exactly as I would’ve done, but not as Lisa’s relatives had done previously.

Throughout Eyton’s stay, things were tense. Items were left out of place on the counter, food left in the toaster. Lisa was not happy. Halfway through his stay, Eyton took off for few days as he had planned, actually missing a party we had arranged for our friends to meet him. Lisa, not entirely unhappy to see him leave for a few days, was upset that he left during his stay.

Disagreement again arose over guests when Tom came to stay with us not long after Eyton’s visit. The son of a friend of ours, Tom was on vacation from college and one night wanted to hang out with friends. He came home late, missed dinner. Again, Lisa was upset. I believe she expected the respect she had shown him--cooking for him, showing him around--was to be reciprocated by him acting as part of the family and wanting to do what we do, not using our place as a free place to crash. I felt Tom should be able to do what he wanted to while at our house.

Disagreement over our expectations about visiting guests put us in uncharted waters in our relationship. All the passion and mystery of our differences turned to desperation and a grasp for understanding of why we had reached a cultural impasse.

The issue of visiting guests remains a symbol of a primary difference between the American individuality I am used to, and the Indian (and Asian) view that opening one’s home is in itself a sign of respect not granted so easily. India was still quite closed to outside influences in the ‘70s and ‘80s when Lisa grew up there, and for a number of reasons--safety, economics, cultural biases toward individualism, to name a few--it wasn’t normal to travel alone in India and show up at someone’s house to crash on their couch back then. Conversely, America had already experienced the radical individualism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I was a product of that.

Years later, we have adjusted our expectations slightly. When Tom came to California to visit recently and chose to stay with a friend and not us, Lisa was unconcerned. “He’s just a kid,” she said. I got angry and called him inconsiderate for not making us a priority.

We also have differences regarding time. Lisa is simply less stressed about arriving on time. This must have to do with Indian Standard Time, which I have come to understand as meaning, “we’ll get there when we get there.” This is certainly a survival technique in a country like India (or any developing country, for that matter) where poor infrastructure keeps almost everything running on an “approximate” schedule. Context helps me deal with this situation. In India, I recall those waiting for us sitting with a half-empty glass of whiskey and a smile, so showing up late in that country is much easier. At home, the issue is unresolved. Nine times out of 10 I find that I annoy Lisa by shuttling her out of the house too quickly to make an engagement at the time I think is right. In this context, I’m the uptight Northerner (referring to my Northern European heritage) and she’s the relaxed Southerner (from South India). Frankly, I can only hope that our kids pick up on her attitude toward time.

While some cultural differences tax our marriage, our relationship to food and the ritual of food preparation adds to the mystery and allure of growing up on opposite sides of the world from each other, with completely different religions and influences. What my Nana’s Rose’s brisket was to me, Lisa's Inda Auntie’s chicken curry was to her. Both of us have retained hand-scribbled recipes. When I first ate the recipe cooked by one of the many experienced cooks in Lisa’s family, I stuffed myself into oblivion and wondered what the original must have tasted like. Certainly Lisa must feel the same when the weather gets cold and I break out the brisket.

Alex Goldfein

Alex Goldfein is a published author of a collection of fiction and essays, Out of Area, published by 1st Books Library, and a professional freelance writer who has worked with Fortune 500-sized companies and numerous small publications. He has lived in Japan and traveled extensively in Europe and Asia. He now lives in Long Beach, Calif.

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