Here’s the third of a monthly series of columns I’ll be writing from abroad, as originally published in my hometown paper, the Barrington Courier-Review.
Romantic Friday dinners were my favorite in college: at the end of each school week, one of the dining halls on campus would dim the overhead lights, put out dozens of tea candles and hire a pianist to play some generic, swoozy-jazzy tunes while we munched on Ginger-Scallion Stir-Fried Chicken and Apple Tofu Crisp. The weekly event took place in the dining hall that also had the infamous “Awkward Tables,” which were unusually narrow and had seating for at most two people to squish together side-by-side. They were perfect for situations when you didn’t want anyone else to join you, and also for when you wanted to minimize direct eye contact with whomever you were eating. In other words, it was the ideal setting for breaking up with a significant other, confronting a suitemate about their flatulence or talking about touchy-feely things in general — especially on Fridays, when the background music and candlelit glow would have a general soothing effect and help smooth over any ruffled feathers.
The thing is, I never questioned until now why “being emotional” qualified as an activity that best took place surreptitiously at one of the Awkward Tables; it was just a fact that most seemed to accept. (I think part of it’s because our collective societal machoness tells us that talking about feelings is inherently superfluous.) Looking back on my four years as an undergraduate, I realize that the majority of my time spent eating candlelit dinners at an Awkward Table involved me acting as a sounding board for my friends’ concerns; it was rarer for me to open up, if only because I thought I was better at listening than at putting forth my own worries in a coherent way.
Moving to England has flipped my world upside-down: being in a foreign country with foreign food, words and toilet paper has made for countless instances when I’m flabbergasted, scared or frustrated and just need someone to talk to. The friends and sense of community I’ve found at Oxford have supported me in those crucial moments — and they’ve also helped me realize just how universal the “awkward stigma” attached to emotions is. One of the many trans-Atlantic cultural stereotypes portrays Brits as notoriously guarded about their feelings, preferring instead to talk about yesterday’s weather, today’s weather and the forecast for tomorrow’s weather. Americans, however, are superficially friendly and overly open on the first encounter, especially in booze-and-schmooze scenarios where the wine and gossip abound and no one will remember anyone’s name the next morning.
These notions are, of course, stylized representations of diverse cultures. Even so, both tactics — which folks on either side of the Atlantic resort to — operate as different ways to avoid reaching the touchy-feely, emotional stage of human relationships that makes life worthwhile. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what this year’s winter is shaping up to be like or what the secret ingredient in Janie’s garlic hummus is; what does matter is the depth of human connections you have forged and the experiences you have shared with those in your life.
As an international student at Oxford, my default cop-out to diffuse an uncomfortable situation (and sidestep the tangle of misunderstandings that usually results from a lost-in-translation moment) has been to laugh a little bit too loudly and declare, “Welp, I’m American, whoops!”, as if culture by itself is an all-purpose excuse. After four months abroad, I’ve learned that culture isn’t a Get Out of Jail Free card. If anything, it makes ever clearer the need for forthright, honest communication, a task that requires a good dose of bravery and a bit of skill in being assertive, especially when feelings are involved. That’s no easy task, but there’s no easy way to unsnarl the tricky interpersonal affairs of everyday life. For my New Year’s resolution, then, I plan to start moving away from the “Awkward Table” mentality toward a “I Have Feelings And I’m Going To Talk To You About Them!” outlook. That, and I’m going to eat more vegetables.
2012, here we come!