Monday, December 26, 2011

The Burden of a Perpetually Clean Slate

I've figured out what's been bugging me. Many thanks to niece Laura, who helped piece this together.

Meet the niece

I have, in my lifetime, walked into countless Ecuadorian joints, provoking reactions ranging from mild bewilderment to thinly-veiled hostility. Waiters take a deep breath before approaching my table in halting English, dreading the prospect of trying to accommodate the imperious clueless gringo.

But, in spite of appearances, I speak Spanish, I'm friendly, and I understand the cuisine and the culture. More than that, I actually fit in - if you'll give me a chance. I'm not just some anglo foodie who knows to order guatita; I am 1% Ecuadorian under the hood, and by the time I leave the restaurant, the waiter will be my pal and the other customers will nod amiably and ask whether I have an Ecuadorian grandparent or two (my usual reply: "¡ojal√° sea cierto!", i.e. "if only it were true!").

The problem is that whenever I enter a new Ecuadorian restaurant, I always start from scratch. Ecuadorians can't detect the cumulative approval of previous paisanos. And while it's fun to pull off this magic trick, it is, after decades, starting to get tedious. I feel as if I'm caught in a loop, and am developing an irrational expectation that all these experiences ought to afford me some tailwind.

Restaurants aside, the same issue applies in the myriad other circumstances where I must strain to overcome initial impression because I simply don't look like everything I am.

Most people avoid such issues by not meeting many new people or going to many new places. They segregate into tribes and retract into routines. They fit themselves more or less comfortably into narrow circles from which they seldom emerge.

To reject all that and maintain a thirst for adventure requires, alas, locking into a perpetual Groundhog Day loop. Unless you're skillful at making yourself seem special or at projecting a shticky image (ala Tom Wolfe's white suit), you've got no choice but to play each and every new hand without chips.


jim said...

Perhaps a certificate of approval, like a passport?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post Jim. I play Magic the Gathering, a card game. The usual demographic is males from about 14 to 24. I am an older female and it gets harder and harder to walk into a new gaming shop. I will not be the trix rabbit though. Magic is not just for kids. -Linnea

Jim Leff said...

Yes, age is a factor two ways: it's another factor (like non-Ecuadorianness) that gets you excluded on first impression from certain things... and age also heightens the sense of dismay at having to fight the same fight over and over with new people.

(Per the former, the other week I was talking to my physical therapist, and ran across the room to grab a piece of paper. This created a minor sensation. I wondered if I've developed a weird-looking running stride or something. And finally, I figured it out: 49 year old guys don't run. We stride with gravitas...or shlep with hunched shoulders. Woops!)

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