Thursday, February 16, 2012

Finding cross-cultural reality in a sweet pea

When I was young, my grandfather kept a large garden at the end of our yard. He grew many things, but my favorite was the sweet peas. They ripened in early spring, usually just before Easter, around the same time daffodils were sprouting bright and yellow among the spring greenery.

By the time I was eight or so I learned how to tell when the pods were just ripe. I wandered through the long, carefully-tended rows picking perfect specimens as the soft dirt, heavy with Virginia red clay, stained my bare feet a deep, earthy red-brown.

Dewy spring grass would wipe away the worst of the dirt as I headed back to the house, leaving a trail of pea-pods in my wake. Growing up, there was hardly anything better about spring than those juicy, crisp, fresh sweet peas straight out of my grandfather’s garden.

It’s been years since I was home in the spring to raid pea-pods from those carefully tended rows. I’ve lived many places during those years and I’ve spent the past two in Cairo, a sweltering city of cars, pollution, and some 20 million people.

Living in a different culture, sometimes the simplest things remind you of ‘home,’ alternately highlighting the similarities or the differences between ‘here’ and ‘there.’ I seldom find similarities between Cairo and small-town southern America, although they’re there: a genuine and humble hospitality, for one, and tea with mint, for another.

Yet this morning I sat in village an hour from Cairo with a pile of fresh sweet pea pods heaped on the table in front of me, popping the peas from their pods in preparation for tonight’s dinner. Each time one of those succulent fresh peas found its way into my mouth instead of the bowl in front of me, I was reminded of that old memory.

Sometimes those quiet, mundane tasks remind you that, wherever you are, there are intrinsic similarities among humans. Sure, this morning I was sitting in a rural Egyptian village with palm trees and fields of chamomile out the window, neither of which I ever saw growing up in Virginia, and the majority of the peas ended up in a bowl rather than in my mouth, but even so the similarities seemed more stark than the differences.

I once spent a week living with a family in a tiny community in Brazil’s southern Amazon basin. It was starkly different from anything I had grown up with: they had no running water, most of the family slept in hammocks, they washed clothes in a spring, and there were mango trees everywhere.

But even there I found familiarity: an elderly man in a t-shirt and baseball cap bouncing his grandson on his knee, everyone gathered around a (generator-powered) TV to watch a soccer match, each child expected to help with chores and the youngest crying when her mother left the house without her.

As scholars debate theories of globalization, giant multi-national corporations search for cheaper labor and politicians’ rhetoric expounds the virtue of “us” versus “them,” sometimes all we need is to take a step back.

Consider, for example, the simple joy of one fresh pea: surreptitiously pilfered from the pot before it is cooked, it is just as sweet in rural Egypt as in small-town America.


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