Back to School 2014
I understand you spent your life in the middle of nowhere. There were cows and chickens and not that many people. And if there were people, they were pretty much the same kind of people. They looked and talked the same way, they had the same religious beliefs, and they ate the same foods in the same way. Life was bleak in the small town. But now you are in a big city that has more diversity than you've ever been exposed to. How do you handle this new and colorful state of affairs? What should you do to avoid making a fool of yourself by revealing your provincialism? I'm here to lower a rope down into the dark cultural hole you're in and pull you up to the light of big-city life. The advice I have to offer will not solve all of your problems, but it will make things a little bit easier.
When I traveled through Montana two or so years ago, the first thing I noticed is that people in small towns eat utter crap. What they call breakfast or lunch or dinner is actually no better than a salt lick. This results in a severe stupidity of the tongue, and there is a part of me that believes this kind of stupidity should not be dissociated from the political stupidity of the rural areas. A person who has enjoyed a truly supreme bowl of pho is not likely to vote for a Republican or believe in that Tea Party nonsense. You are what you eat. So if you are a student from a small town, the first thing you must do is raise the IQ of your salt-dumbed tongue.
I first recommend visiting an East African restaurant. Now, notice how I called the restaurant "East African" and not "Ethiopian" or "Eritrean." Why? Because it's hard to tell an Ethiopian from an Eritrean, but if you make the mistake of calling an Eritrean an Ethiopian, or the other way around, you will open an old and very deep wound that has yet to be resolved in a part of the world you know nothing about. Play it safe. Just say "East African," which also includes Somalis and Kenyans. Also, in general, and this is a golden rule for being in a multicultural city, do not presume anything. Do not presume an Asian person is Chinese or Japanese. These differences are important, and it takes time and experience to become acquainted with them. So when you meet a person who does not look or talk like you, assume that your ignorance of the person's background and nationality is as vast as the universe itself. Humility will get you far in this city.
Now that you are in an East African restaurant, of which there are many in Seattle, do not let the strangeness of the menu scare you. Everything on the menu is made from vegetables and animals that even small towns are familiar with—cows, chickens, peas, sheep, tomatoes, and so on. There are no bugs or reptiles or pets in the East African cuisine. A few minutes after you have ordered (with, of course, the help a server whose thick accent should never test your patience), you will find a big plate of food on your table. This is not all yours—unless, that is, you are on your own, which is not ideal (it's best to visit an East African joint with a friend or friends). The single big plate must be shared, and you must use your hands. Yes, tear a piece of injera (East African bread) with your fingers, scoop up the food, and enjoy the new galaxy of flavors. If you dare to use a fork, people will see you for what you are: a stubborn bumpkin.
Now, if you go to a Thai restaurant, and this city seems to have more Thai restaurants than Thai people, you can use a fork and knife. But do not use a fork and knife at a Japanese or Chinese restaurant. You use chopsticks at those places. And if you do not know how use this kind of utensil, start learning right now. Again, only a bumpkin eats dim sum or sushi with a fork and knife. But if you go to a French restaurant, you can use the usual utensils. The French pretty much eat the same way as Americans.
Now, if one morning you are looking for bacon to go with some eggs (you are nostalgic for a little home cooking at this point) and come across a convenience store that has the word "halal" on its sign, just keep walking and looking for that bacon. Halal foods are what Muslims are permitted to eat and drink under Islamic sharia law—and sharia says no to all products made from pork. However, you can get goat meat, which when grilled for the right amount of time is not bad with eggs. Give it a try. Also, don't freak out about the number of mosques in this city. The Muslims you hear about in the news are not the same as the ones you will encounter in the street or a store with halal foods.
One more important thing. If you are out drunk one night and chance to come across a man (in a bar or whatever) who looks like he is from some country in South America (do not presume), and you notice that he is wearing (what looks to you like) a wild and wide and fancy hat of some sort, do not say: "That's a cool hat, dude! I want a hat like that. Can I try it?" This kind of praise and enthusiasm is so sorry because the hat to this person is no different from the baseball cap your grandpa wears while on the lawn tractor or in a tavern. So imagine if a stranger came up to your grandpa and said the very same thing, said his baseball cap was so cool and asked to try it. Just imagine that. This person talking to your grandfather is like you talking to the South American man. Leave his hat alone. In the city, we learn how to pass things in silence.