Sunday, November 11, 2012

November 11: Culture Shock

Sunday nights out tend to be quieter nights, more laid back than karaoke or dancing. A few of us often meet at a wine bar or another bar downtown. We might turn on the jukebox, but more often we'll sit in deep couches or outside on the patio beside a wood fire where we can talk. Some of those Sunday nights are the best nights of all, even though nothing exciting really happens.

One night a few weeks ago, a few of us were sitting around a high top talking. Kat told us she'd written a paper recently about her first culture shock. She'd gone to the deep South with a boyfriend to meet his family. Yep, I've felt that southern culture shock. Iowa to California to the swampy underbelly of middle Georgia all in a little over a year.

Instead of letting the conversation meander on though, Jeremy asked the rest of us in turn when was the first time we felt culture shock. Smooth Jazz told about going with his mother to the wealthiest suburb in the city, and how he felt fine playing with the kids in that big house, but he felt his mother's anxiety that he might do something wrong.

I think I told about becoming an officer's wife and moving to Sacramento for our first assignment. Or maybe I said something about moving to Iowa City when I was 17. To tell the truth, I wasn't paying much attention to myself because I realized my first culture shock took place years before either of those events. I grabbed a napkin and made a note to write about that, since I didn't want to take a second turn during the conversation.

My real first culture shock took place the summer I turned 9. My dad was selling life insurance at the time. I think he did that for 2 or 3 years before he decided he was working with a bunch of crooks and quit. He must have made good money doing it though, because he had his own office uptown on the square with a phone that rang both there and at our house. And we remodeled our entire house the next summer, including digging a basement by hand. Yep, we were flush for a few minutes.

That summer we went to the centennial celebration for his insurance company, Equitable of Iowa. We stayed at the Savoy Hotel in downtown Des Moines -- a real hotel. Not the green canvas army tent we stayed in on most of our vacations, which were camping trips. A real hotel with a vertical sign that read SAVOY HOTEL over the door, just like in a movie. I was pretty sure that hotel would hold more people than lived in the tiny town I grew up in.

I remember three things in particular about that weekend: fish eggs, shame, and a traveling turd.

Friday night after we checked into the SAVOY HOTEL, we went to a reception at ..... wait for it ...... the governor's mansion! My brother, who was 6, and my sister, 4, and I were ordered to stay right beside Mom or risk being taken right back home and left there with Grandma.

No fucking way that was happening. I glued my arm to Mom's hip. She was 8-months pregnant with my second brother so there was plenty of hip to go around.We stood in a wide hall that had mounted deer heads and framed documents on the towering walls. Waiters mingled with the crowd, plates of tiny hors d'oeuvres held out for anybody to take.

I knew it wasn't polite to ask for food, so I didn't reach up to take anything. Not until I saw a tray of orange cakes with dark chocolate icing. I just couldn't resist one of those cute little cakes. I asked Mom if I could have one and miracle of miracles, she said yes.

Mom picked the little cake off the silver tray, put it on a napkin and handed it to me. I just held it for a while and let the anticipation build.

It's not that we never got cake at home. But we certainly never got tiny orange cakes with chocolate frosting so dark and shiny it was almost black. We mostly ate one of two kinds of cake: Mom's wacky sheet cake with fudge frosting (the wacky ingredient was 2 tablespoons of vinegar) and Grandma's angel food cakes, which she decorated using the skills she'd learned in a cake decorating class.

I'd never eaten anything like the little orange cake in my hand.

Finally I held it up and slowly pushed it into my mouth. The flavor exploded in my mouth -- and I mean exploded. I felt my throat close up as the first wave of revulsion hit me. This was not an orange cake and it certainly wasn't covered with chocolate frosting.

It tasted like .... I didn't know what it tasted like. Fish and salt and maybe blood. I couldn't even think about the taste. I just wanted it out of my mouth.

I tapped Mom's arm and she looked down. I'm pretty sure my eyes were filling with tears of disappointment and fear that I would throw up.

Normally she would have told me to just swallow it and not make a fuss. Little girls were to be seen and not heard. Maybe it was because we were in the governor of Iowa's mansion or maybe she knew when I took that pretty little cake what was on it, I don't know. But she took my napkin out of my hand, held it under my chin and let me spit out that awful not-a-cake into the napkin.

"What is that?" I whispered up to her. It's rude to refuse food or say anything if it doesn't taste good. I'd been taught to just eat whatever was put before me, even if I didn't like it.

"It's caviar," Mom answered.

I'd never heard of caviar. I just stared up at her and tried to figure out what the hell caviar might be.

"Fish eggs," she said in her voice that meant the conversation was over.

Fish eggs? Fish eggs? People eat fish eggs? And they look like chocolate frosting? How could fish eggs look like orange cake with chocolate frosting?

It's not that I lacked an adventurous palate. I really did eat almost anything that was put in front of me when I was a kid, even Rocky Mountain oysters. I'm not sure when I actually understood what "nuts" were when Dad explained what we were eating, but every spring I enjoyed deep fried hog balls along with everybody else. I also ate squirrel, deer (didn't like the taste, but I ate it), snails, turtle, oysters ..... I would eat anything except liver.

And now caviar.

Maybe if I hadn't thought I was going to eat a sweet orange and chocolate cake I would have liked it. I've never eaten caviar since that day.

But surely it's time to try it again. I'm going to buy some and try it. I'll let you know how it tastes.

The second thing I remember from that weekend is the formal ball Saturday night. I have no idea what we did all day Saturday, but in the evening my brother, sister and I were left in an enormous room with all the other kids while our parents went to a formal ball.

We could see the adults dancing on a closed-circuit, black-and-white TV. I looked and looked for my parents, but I couldn't pick them out of all the swirling couples on the grainy TV screen.

And that's the first time I remember feeling shame for someone else.

My mom had made herself a dress for the ball. She was big and pregnant, and we may have had more money than usual, but we still didn't have a lot. There's no way she could have bought an expensive ball gown just for this one evening. So she made herself an orange plaid knee-length dress to wear to the dance.

When I looked at the couples dancing on the TV, I realized all the other women had on long, formal ball gowns that swirled around their ankles as they danced. I thought about my mom in her dress, the one she'd been so happy to put on in our hotel room upstairs, and I felt ashamed for her that she didn't have a ball gown like the other women. I wondered if she felt as terribly out of place as I knew she was.

And I also felt angry at those other women. I just knew they were going to stare at my mom in her homemade dress and maybe even laugh at her. Them in their fancy, expensive dresses and their beauty parlor hair-dos.

We weren't allowed to just stare at the TV for long. Our caretakers sat us at big round tables for dinner. I was lucky my dad's boss's daughter Gracie was sitting beside me. I didn't know her well, but we'd played together a couple of times. She was an only child, a year older than I was, and she possessed sophistication several layers above mine.

The first thing the waiters set down in front of us was a shrimp cocktail. It was a wide, flat glass filled with crushed ice. A cup of something red sat in the center, and 6 enormous shrimp curled around the edges of the glass.

I'd never seen anything like it in my life. The only cocktails I'd ever heard of were made with three fingers of bourbon in a glass with a few ice cubes and a splash of water. I didn't even know how to eat it.

"What is that?" I whispered to Gracie.

"Shrimp cocktail," she said. She took a shrimp off the side, dipped it in the sauce and bit into it.

OK, so you don't eat the ice. Good information to have. I copied Gracie and took a bite of the shrimp. Unlike the caviar, the shrimp was delicious. Ice-cold and tangy from the sauce. I ate the whole thing before I remembered the TV up on the wall behind me. I looked back, but I still couldn't pick out my parents. Suddenly I didn't feel like eating any more shrimp. I didn't care about being left there, but I was worried about Mom in her short dress.

I tried to help my brother and sister eat their shrimp, but they weren't having any of it. It was all too weird for them. The waiters took their cocktails away untouched. I think they took away a lot of untouched shrimp that night.

The next course was steak. Not a problem. Iowa kids know our steak .... well, not so much this steak.

The waiter brought each of us a steak the size of the dinner plate covered in some kind of very lumpy gravy. I stabbed one of the lumps with my fork and held it up.

"What is that?" I whispered to Gracie. I was feeling stupider by the second.

"Mushroom," she said around a mouthful.

She must eat like this all the time, I thought. It's not that we never ate steak. Dad often bartered in the fall for a whole calf and a hog. He'd help a farmer friend harvest his corn or beans and he'd get meat in return.

But our steaks were always t-bones, cooked on the charcoal grill or under the broiler in the oven. And we ate them plain, not covered in mushroom gravy. And I was taking Gracie's word for it that those were even mushrooms. The only mushrooms I'd ever eaten were the hard little square ones in Mom's tuna casserole, the ones that came in the Campbell's cream of mushroom soup.

I ate some of the steak, and it was delicious. My brother and sister wouldn't touch those mushrooms, so I helped them scrape the sauce aside and cut up their steak for them.

A local TV celebrity, Duane Ellot, a guy who had a noon TV show he did with a puppet named Floppy, showed up and entertained us for a while. All of the kids were really excited. He even let my little brother pet Floppy.

I thought it was a little weird seeing him outside of TV. He wasn't as big as I thought he was, and it was obvious Floppy was a puppet. On TV Floppy was always in his little dog house.

I don't remember what we did the rest of the night. I kept my eye on that fucking TV and worried about my mom in that dress.

Many years later I said something about that convention to my mom. She said, "Oh, do you remember that really pretty dress I made? That was one of the prettiest dresses I ever owned. I loved that dress."

"I do remember it," I said. "It was orange...."

"Yes, it was orange, but don't you remember it had those metallic threads running through the fabric? Do you remember that? I felt so pretty that night even though I was so big and pregnant." She smiled and I could tell she was reliving the fancy ball.

And I realized I'd been ashamed for her all those years for nothing. She felt stylish and pretty that night in her orange plaid dress with the metallic threads, just a few weeks before my brother made his entrance.

I didn't say anything to her about how I'd felt ashamed for her. It was quite the wrench in perception to realize how differently we'd seen that dress. And not surprising. Shame is my old friend, always ready to sit beside me and whisper in my ear.

I wish I'd known that night how she felt so I could have enjoyed the rest of that shrimp cocktail.

The last story I remember from the culture shock convention is about a traveling turd, but that's a story for tomorrow night. Don't worry. It's shorter and has nothing to do with food.

When was the first time you experienced culture shock? You're more than welcome to share your story in the comments section, no matter how long it is.




  1. Don't worry if you don't like caviar, I don't like it either.

    1. I think I need to give it one more chance just to see if I like it. I can imagine it might be good on little puff pastries with some smoked salmon.

  2. This was a great read. Thanks for sharing!

    I'm trying to decide if I've ever felt culture shock and I'm coming up blank. Not even when I went to New York for the first time. You'd think a suburban Mid-Western boy would be intimidated at least a little bit, but it just felt like home to me.

    1. I thought everybody had felt culture shock one time or another. I rather enjoy it sometimes. It stretches my boundaries.