Last night my wife and I went out for an impromptu night of dinner and live music at a new spot that is, unexpectedly, a ten minute drive from our suburban home in “the south”. It was a Southern Soul Food / Thai / French culinary theme with live Jazz in a venue chosen based on it’s “affordable rent” for this talented upstart chef and entrepreneur.
When we walked in, we first noticed a large, multi-generational table of about 15 to 20 of the most “southern looking” local white folks (qualifier: all men were wearing khakis and polo shirts and had pot bellies. The women all had “conservative” haircuts, were similarly pleasantly plump and dreadfully pale and all were exceedingly friendly). It was also their first time at this establishment and the chef was schmoozing away to create loyal customers.
They stayed long after the check was paid to go on and on about how great the food was and to get Grandma to try to see if chef would give her his collard-green dip recipe. After all was said and done, about 30 minutes later when it was our turn for the round of schmoozing, chef was telling us the story of his culinary influences coming from a mixed race background (African-American, Asian and European) and career path from his childhood beginnings in Venice Beach, CA…a long ways from here. We were discussing how very different the vibe of the community where the locations of this “affordable rent” restaurant lives is from that of his native beach culture, or the metropolitan / cosmopolitan culture of the nearby city center from whence he hopes to draw customers. Then
He said to us, “do you know what I just got invited to? Church. That’s what people do here when they like you. They invite you to church.” He was saying it to prove a point about why (despite pleading from one of his regular Neo Soul vocalists) a spoken word poetry night would likely not go over well just yet in this neighborhood. But to this cultural anthropologist and sociologist, it got wheels spinning.
It made me think about how the nature of our social organization and societal structure influences the culture of acculturation and membership within a “clan” or community.
So, what are some examples of this?
First one is already stated: Southern Christian suburbanites invite you to church when they deem you worthy of acceptance. My wife says she always used to think that was an insult, like it meant they thought she “needed Jesus” or saving or something. But I explained that Church in southern communities is a safe-haven for its members…not a reformation engine. They would only invite you in if they felt like they would want their children around you and felt safe that you were of their mind and kind…or at least compatible.
In Latin cultures, the invitation is more personal…to someone’s home for a meal. To share in the gesture of love that is strongly rooted in food culture.
In some places like Shanghai, if you are part of the generation of young adult urbanites who grew up as only children under the one-child rule, the invitation to a potential new friend might be to smoke one of your cigarettes and have five minutes of one on one conversation. An opportunity to make a deeper human connection based on more intimate personal interaction.
Then I thought about the Jewish culture I grew up in and how invitation to a Passover Seder or Rosh Hashannah dinner was a gesture of inclusion for your “gentile” friends and their families. I still remember when I was 10 and my best Friend Melissa’s family came over for Seder and her Dad (who was deathly allergic to Wheat) become horribly ill after eating Matzot-Ball Soup broth that my mother kindly but misguidedly ensured him had no wheat in it).
So, the acceptance traditions for American white folks of different monotheistic traditions still seem to remain very similarly protected by religious rituals.
And then you get to the subcultures and other tribes where the gestures may range from being invited to a poker game or to Join the book club to an invitation to the Jam Session or Drum circle or to share a Spliff.
Regardless of the tradition, I am affirmed of the gentle reminder of our basic human tendency toward really just wanting to get along. At the end of the day, no matter how hard we try to base our friendship and kinship relationships on our unique differences, the fact that these types of rituals exist means that we also, at our core, really just want to find our commonalities so that we can co-exist despite them.