Thursday, July 21, 2011

Culture Share: USA (California) - Eastern Friends on Western Shores

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Lillian Csernica discusses discovering international friendships in Santa Cruz, California.

Eastern Friends on Western Shores
by Lillian Csernica

I live in the Santa Cruz mountains. There are times, especially in summer, when it feels like the whole world comes to Santa Cruz. Perhaps it does. Out on the wharf I've heard Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, and even Turkish. I have a particular interest in the cultures of Asia, which has led me to make some wonderful friends right in my own area. Out of respect for their privacy, I won't be referring to them by name.

The Lady from Bangkok

A new Thai restaurant just opened up in my area. I think Coconut Milk Noodle Soup is absolutely divine, so I couldn't wait to indulge my passion for lemongrass and galangal root. The lady who waited on me was very kind, explaining the words on the menu I couldn't figure out and making recommendations about which dishes went well together. I ordered Angel Wings as an appetizer and the duck curry with white rice. As I so often do, I got into conversation with the lady and asked her what part of Thailand she was from. She said Bangkok, as if that was the most obvious answer in the world. I happen to know the name the Thai themselves use for Bangkok, but when I tried to say “Krung Thep,” the lady laughed good-naturedly and pronounced it properly for me. When I mentioned I had friends who'd lived in Chiang Mai, that seemed to prove my credentials as more than a tourist. The lady and I chatted about the various wonderful sights I hope to see if I'm ever fortunate enough to get to Thailand.

Now thanks to the excellent novels of John Burdett (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, and the rest of the series), I have learned a lot about Thai culture, most specifically the art of the wai. A wai is performed with the hands together palm to palm and held in front of the face while bowing. Exactly how high or low you hold your hands in this position reflects both your social status and the status of the person you're addressing. In this aspect it's much like bowing in Japanese. You really need to know the fine nuances of who's who to get it just right. Even so, I was so grateful for the Thai lady's conversation that I made her a very respectful wai. Up until then she had what might be called her “business face” on, the cheerful way a waitress speaks to a customer. When she saw me wai, her eyes opened wide, her jaw dropped, and her face generally lit up. “How do you know to do that?” she asked in a breathless tone. I explained that I read a lot about Thailand. Well, from that moment on it was clear she considered me just too cool. She returned the wai and said something in Thai that I'm afraid I didn't understand, and didn't grab the opportunity to have her translate for me. That's all right. There will be another time when I enjoy the excellent Thai food there and the company of that very nice Thai lady.

The Korean Couple

In the same shopping center as my favorite Chinese restaurant, there is a florist shop called the Flower Outlet that's run by a very nice Korean couple. In addition to the usual cut flowers, they have a marvelous variety of orchids and those impressive bamboo plants that have been braided into lovely shapes. It's amazing how wide a variety of flower-related merchandise they can fit into their relatively small shop. Those fountains with the little water wheels or the bamboo dippers that fill up then spill, a selection of lavender-related products including sachets stuffed with fresh lavender, and of course all kinds of vases and pots for displaying flowers and plants. The closer you look, the more details you see. The vases have a distinctly Asian flavor. The pots often have frogs or pandas as a motif. I really enjoy going into the Flower Outlet because even though it's rather crowded in there, I get a sense of peace and order. I'm sure this has a lot to do with the Korean lady in charge of the shop who always has a friendly smile and helpful suggestions. When I had to choose an arrangement for the funeral of a close friend, the Korean lady was very kind in showing me all the options in the ordering catalog and helping me get a sense for what my departed friend would have really enjoyed.

I don't see the gentleman in charge quite as often, but he's every bit as kind as his wife. One day I went into the shop looking for some bamboo rods I planned to use in making a birthday gift for a Chinese friend of mine. I mentioned that purpose and explained my plans to make a scroll using the bamboo rods on each end. Unfortunately, there was nothing in the shop that fit my design ideas. As I was getting into my car out in the parking lot, the Korean gentleman came hurrying after me. Somewhere in the back of the shop he'd found two lengths of bamboo that were a bit thinner than what I had in mind, but their color was perfect. When I pulled out my wallet, he waved that away. I was a good customer, and he was happy to help. I was really touched by that kindness, that extra effort. The scroll came out very well and my Chinese friend was happy, so I owe the Korean gentleman another round of thanks.

In a curious coincidence, the only Korean phrase I know relates directly to the Flower Outlet. In Korea, there are some men who are very attentive to their appearance, getting manicures and facials and generally making the most of their often quite handsome features. Another Korean lady I know explained this phenomenon to me. Such men are referred to by a particular term which I will render phonetically as “koht mee nahm..” It translates as “flower men.” The nearest equivalent I could find in English would be “metrosexual.” The term “flower men” does not reflect on the sexual orientation of the Korean men to whom it's applied. In the same way an artful florist knows how to show off flowers to their best advantage, these “flower men” make the most of their own beauty.

The Japanese Lady

Everywhere you look up here in my little corner of the world you find people with unsuspected talents. This proved true the day I had lunch at the new sushi place in town. I am a staunch Japanophile, so I was looking forward to the opportunity to exercise my limited Japanese. Our waitress was a tall, gracious lady. As I salted the conversation with the occasional Japanese phrase, she asked if I'd ever been to Japan. When I told her I'd once spent a week in Yokohama, she was delighted. Yokohama is her home town. While I ate my delicious lunch and she kept up with her other customers, we kept up our hit-and-run conversation about my interest in Japan. I mentioned my latest novel which is set in Satsuma during the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. A samurai and an English woman meet under dire circumstances which lead to them falling in love. The Japanese lady liked the sound of that. Now that she knew I work with English for a living, we talked about trading language help. She'd help me expand my Japanese and I could help her with her English pronunciation. This sounded like a great idea to me. Then came the really delightful discovery. When the Japanese lady was still in Yokohama, she worked as a jazz singer! Clubs, weddings, social events, they were all excellent venues for her lovely soprano voice. She'd already had some engagements in Santa Cruz. We exchanged e-mail information, and I promptly went to her web site so I could order her CD. I can't wait for her next performance so I can go and hear her sing live.

The Gentleman From Hong Kong

My favorite Chinese restaurant happens to feature cuisine that combines the flavors of both Hong Kong Chinese and Vietnamese cooking. My favorite waiter there is a tall slender gentleman with jet black hair and a rather stern look that in the presence of children will give way to a shy, sweet smile. Out of respect for his privacy I will not mention his name, but I will say that he and I have been friends for almost ten years now. He has taught me a great deal about feng shui. He's been to my house a few times, and while he's there he'll look the place over and make one or two comments about what I might do with mirrors or plants or perhaps a small water fountain. Keeps the chi moving and that makes the luck flow through the house! In my office I keep the gifts that he has given me over the years. They include a pair of lavender money frogs, a fine dragon lantern like the kind that's carried in Chinese New Year parades, and a Lion Dog made of fine ceramic, one of the best examples of this particular creature I've ever seen. When my friend gave it to me, he made me promise to take good care of it for him. I've kept that promise. The Lion Dog sits on a square of silk on the top of a bookshelf that faces my office door. Why does it occupy that precise location? Anyone who walks into my office will be line of sight to the Lion Dog, who traditionally devours wicked people.

What do I do in return for all this generosity in both information and material objects? Of course I stop in at the restaurant often and bring my friends and family with me. What's more, I remember his birthday every year. I bring him something special at Chinese New Year. I also mend his bracelets. We share a fondness for semiprecious stones. My friend likes to wear bracelets of stone beads which are rather large in diameter (in millimeters). The beads are strung on elastic, which in time can become frayed. Once my friend learned I make jewelry for a hobby, he asked me if I could mend the bracelet he wore at that time. I did so, using a new type of elastic he hadn't seen. Now he trusts me to make all his repairs. Just recently I was doing some mending for him and he showed his thanks by taking off the bracelet he was wearing at that time and giving it to me. He assured me it will bring me luck. This bracelet is made of hawk's-eye, a special variation of tiger's-eye. It was my friend's favorite bracelet. I was so touched I couldn't speak. He has since had another bracelet made to match it, so now we share not just our love of this particular stone but the stone itself. I treasure the bracelet so much I wear it all the time.

Wherever we go in the world, people are people. What really builds bridges is having some idea about what's important to those other people from those other parts of the world. It can be as much as having been in the same city, such as my time in Yokohama, or as little as the simple gesture of respect embodied in the wai. When we take an active interest in what's really important to the everyday people of other cultures, that's when we find the common ground in which we can plant the seeds of lasting friendship.

Lillian Csernica lives in Santa Cruz, CA.


  1. Your story about the lady from Bangkok reminds of when I was in preschool, and we had a teacher who was from Thailand, and she taught my class to make a wai. Of course, we were all four, so she didn't get into the nuances. But I think that might have been the start of my interest in other cultures.

  2. Atsiko, I'm glad it spoke to you.