The other day, I got a form letter from the Provost about my tenure application. It was just the next phase in what I hope will be a series of “rubber stamp” automatic approvals up the chain of command. However, as I filed the letter away, I remembered M.’s carefully-planned tenure celebration with me. Let me tell you a bit about it, as it was indeed a globalized night.
It was a chilly January evening in New England as M. beamed a jubilant smile my way. I had made it through the major tenure application hurdle that morning – the grilling by the tenure committee. “I will take you some place special to celebrate – is it ok that it is not fancy? Yes? You really don’t mind? That’s great, OK, do you trust me?” M said, bouncing on his toes with excitement, pointing both of his index fingers in the air with the unrestrained glee and goofiness he is known for.
Pulling my fingertips closer into the bright orange woolen gloves, I thought about all of the sacrifices M. and my extended family have made over the past 7 years while I lived “on the tenure track.” And I mean ALL. Might as well call it the tenure gerbil wheel as far as I am concerned. “Sure, canim,” I said with a confidence that belied my anxiety at what M. might have up his sleeve – he’s always into something new.
“We are going to the movies – and then” M. could hardly contain himself, “then we are going for supper at the Eritrean Social Club near my art studio!” His smile was wider than the Bosphorus strait and his eyes had double the sparkle of that same body of water on the most perfect of sunny summer days.
I felt butterflies in the pit of my stomach. I knew I shouldn’t say it, but the etiquette-driven girl in me responded the way my Granny would have liked after all of those Sunday afternoon etiquette classes “Um, isn’t that a private social club, I mean, are we allowed to go in there?” I thought of all of the Eritrean folks, in their social club, a refuge from the world outside that is likely to often be unfriendly and/or racist…
“No, no, it is fine! I went in there, the lady was there cooking food – the whole place smelled sour like sourdough – it was that injeera bread – the pancakey one with all of the bubbles in it – you know – injeera - she was cooking it and I asked her if we could come for dinner, if that would be alright, or if this was a private club.”
“Well,” I said, kicking myself as the words came out of my mouth, “that didn’t leave her much of an option, did it?”
“If you don’t want to go,” M. said as his energy and happiness deflated, “that’s ok, we can go anywhere you like.”
Feeling the blush of shame on my cheeks, I finally came to my sense. Reaching out to hold his hand, I kissed M. and said “I trust you – let’s go – it will be fun! I love Eritrean food, what a treat!” This seemed to do the trick – and although I still felt nervous about this impending cross-cultural moment, where I did not know what to expect, I knew it was important to show M. how much I loved him and trusted him – and I also knew that no matter what – we would grow from even this tiny experience.
As we walked in, a warm billow of spice and butter-scented air greeted us. Turning to my left, I saw a young girl, who without missing a beat called out the following:
“Look! White people came in!”
There is nothing quite like the equalizer of a small child who is not afraid to name the moment. And it softened us up completely. We laughed at this – perhaps with more comfort than the Eritreans shushing her and hustling her to the back of the pool table she sat next to. “Yup,” M. said, giggling, “that’s us, white people!”
Before long, we were seated in front of the blasting television, joined by that very same little girl aged 7, and her younger brother, aged 3. We played hand puppet games and answered their questions and just had a lot of fun. It wasn’t until we were well-tucked-in to our delicious meal of super-spicy food that I realized I was hearing Turkish. Looking around to make sure that it wasn’t the puppets lapsing into their native tongue, I finally turned up to the television screen. Sure enough, it was a Turkish soap opera with Amharic subtitles. M. realized this at the same moment – whipping around to check it out – and proceeded to explain to me who the actors were – who was famous, and why. I had no idea that my husband was so “up” on Turkish soap operas which, by the way, have gained international notoriety for tackling tough social issues – see, for example, this article in the New York Times.
What are the odds of a Turkish-American couple heading out to an Eritrean social club in Boston, Massachusetts only to watch a Turkish soap opera during dinner? No idea, but it was a heck of a lot of fun. Best date ever – and all because I allowed myself to trust in my M. and not worry quite so much about the rules of etiquette or being in my comfort zone.
Here’s to many more out-of-my-comfort-zone dates with M. Thank you for making me a better person.