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When Abusing Culture and Tradition, Watch out for the Unexpected

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By John E. Carey Thanksgiving 2006 I guess this story has to start with the fact that I am married into a very beautiful and loving Vietnamese family. East meets West is a daily occurrence for us. Most of our lives are blissfully happy but the cultural differences between us do sometimes make for awkward moments and strange situations. I have a brother in law, for example, that has not really spoken to me in four years. He grew up in rural Vietnam before the war ended in 1975. There was a saying in his village: "To marry outside the village is to marry a dog." He grew up in the Central Highlands. I grew up in Ohio. Ergo: I am a dog and not worthy of polite conversation. It isn't so bad. After all, they EAT dog in Vietnam! Silence is a small sacrifice and isn't so bad! Thanksgiving is a very special American holiday but you have to remember it is a distinctly American holiday. It is practically a holiday without reason to others. Jesus Christ (can we still mention Him in the newspaper?) didn't cause this holiday. In fact, if I remember correctly, Abraham Lincoln caused Thanksgiving. So just explaining Thanksgiving to my Vietnamese family takes a long time and too many words. My sister in law once said, "And you eat a bird on this holiday? A big bird nobody wants? Why?" Don't even try to explain cranberry sauce. "If it is so good, where is it the other 364 days?" I have no clue.

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And also from my in-laws last year: "What the heck are yams and what do you do with them?" I, of course, knew the answer "Yams are tuber, like potatoes. They grow underground and you can make pie from them!" The response: "Not in this house." I have speechless moments in my family. American culture makes sense to us but to others it is sometimes mysterious. So, last year, I volunteered to prepare the entire Thanksgiving dinner. I had my bird, my stuffing, and all the trimmings. And I attempted pumpkin pie. There is no way I am about to make a pumpkin pie from scratch. So I recalled how my Mom did it when she was running out of time. Canned pumpkin, pre-made crust, and Voila! Pie! Hot from the oven. Except that there are two types of canned pumpkin: concentrate (which needs to be thinned with milk) and "ready to go" (which is, as it says, "ready to go.") I did not know this. I bought the "ready to go" but I thought it was concentrate. I thinned it with milk. My pies were runny. Not just runny. My pies were lakes of pumpkin soup. My nephew "ate" his piece of pie by vacuuming off his plate with a straw. The Vietnamese are very respectful and nobody laughed. But there was too much conversation in Vietnamese at pie time so I knew I was in trouble. But good news: one of the lasting traditions of Vietnamese life is this. On holidays, everyone takes food to their neighbors. So I suggested to my wife we take a pie across the street and palm it off on the neighbors. In the process, I explained, we'd get credit in heaven or wherever they keep track of good works for giving food to the neighbors. I could see in my wife's face that she didn't want to go on this dingbat mission to give lame pie to trusting neighbors, but she is Vietnamese. Vietnamese woman will support their man. NO MATTER WHAT! So, pie in hand and smiling all the way, we started across the street. I rang the doorbell and explained that the pie was somewhat runny, so I had frozen it, and I though his kids would appreciate a little Thanksgiving pumpkin pie from his Vietnamese-American neighbors. He accepted the pie graciously and I was delighted. Then he ruined my day. Before he closed the door he said: "I am especially happy because I am the pastry chef at the White House and I never get to taste other people's pie!" I was ashen faced. Holey Smokes! Three hundred million Americans and when I try to rid the household of a questionable pie the recipient turns out to be THE pastry chef at the White House. As we headed for home, my wife said all she needed to say. Two words: "Proud now?"
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John E. Carey is the former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc.
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