Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Cultural Stem Cells and Circle Completion

I do something other food writers and chowhounds don't. I go native. All the way. I can't help it; this is how I've been wired since my musician days, when I wouldn't be satisfied until I'd expressed the kernel - the very soul - of the many, many musics I played.

I didn't speak Portuguese, and didn't know more than a few melodies, but when I jammed with a chorinho band in a dangerous bar at 2am on a mountain slope in Rio's Jardim Botânico with a dozen drunken (but spectacularly talented) guitarists and hand-percussionists, they responded to me like I was a long-lost paisano. I didn't swing less than a Brazilian, I swung more. I'm not being dramatic in saying I'd have honestly preferred to be dead than to not do justice to the music (this was partially due to my unusual mentor).

People from different backgrounds frequently considered me a long-lost paisano, and I really was. I believe we're stem cells, with potential to grow into any human permutation, and I never want to merely simulate. I don't try to "fit in" in Ecuadorian restaurants. I nurture and express my inner Ecuadorian. That's the whole point! That's why I'm there! Not just to steal the bait; I'm truly open to the program!

I've determinedly knocked down nearly every obstruction between me and "them." I wrote a few years ago about how, as a kid, I accidentally sent the elevator to the basement of my grandparents' apartment building:
"The doors opened, and Cuban workers, speaking some incomprehensible and alien-sounding language, were eating food that smelled like rotten garbage. I mashed my finger on the "door close" button and held my breath, made nauseous and faint by the stench of the disgusting stuff these strange people were eating.

The smell was garlic. Obviously, I'm well over that now. I also speak good Spanish. And I've sat in plenty of basements with Cubans noshing on garlicky this or that."
I hardly recognize myself in that story. At this point, I have way more in common with the dudes scarfing the plantains!

There are so many more examples. I never "got" the whole Mexican kitsch thing, until I realized that
"...there is no difference between sacred and secular/cultural. Here in Oaxaca, with its deep Indian bloodlines, everything is both.

So many seemingly contradictory parts! Mezcal, Jesus, ancient Indian traditions, European waltzes, shamanic polyrhythms, incense and snapshots. Yet a tangible spiritual continuity subsumes all, and the surreal result feels remarkably unmuddled if you really dive in. You may have seen amalgamated Hispanic cultures portrayed in movies, where the trappings always seem kitsch. Up close and live, it's no such thing.
At these moments of revelation, I enjoy the sublime realization that I've been wrong, and "they" have been right. There's no headier joy.

And they truly are nearly always right! The stuff we arrogant, sophisticated, modern Westerners shit upon, as childish or primitive, is the stuff that makes human beings deep and happy and meriting existence on this planet (how many folks on your block or in your office fit that bill?). And it's always smart, even though recognizing this requires cognitive muscles we've allowed to atrophy.

I've watched bits of 10,000 YouTube videos from all over the world for my upcoming project, and my attitude has utterly transformed at the sight of this or that ethnic grandma kindly welcoming us web surfers into her kitchen. Like this woman, whose enthusiasm seems odd to American ears, or this no-nonsense one, who appears to have an unshakeable conviction that her brief message about Ghanaian rice mash is vitally important for someone out there.

It is vitally important (I really needed it! It was my missing link!) and I feel intensely gratified to have completed the circle. After doing so 10,000 times, I've reaffirmed two conclusions: 1. it's indeed all unity, and 2. no human permutation should ever be viewed dryly (let along condescendingly or patronizingly). How much water you add to your rice ball is both utterly trivial and the most important thing in the world, because, you and I being Ghanaian, the personal stakes are immense! And we are Ghanaian and Ecuadorian and Brazilian when we complete the circle; when we obliterate the separation; when, more than anything, we decline to be bored.

Obviously, I'm learning to feel just a bit more self-accepting of my cultural promiscuity.

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