Last week I turned a few stomachs with talk of eating chicken feet in Trinidad and I promised the tale of Dave and the fish heads.
As many of you know, Mr. Lime and I lived there for about a year. We had visited twice before we moved there and since returning to the US I have gone back about six times. After we left we remained affiliated with a local school that was willing to accept students with special needs. We helped provide some scholarships and some training and resources for teachers. During the summer of 1995 we organized a group of three university students to come back with us and work with the school for a short time. We did some surveys of local need and identified some students and families that could be further aided and some of us worked directly with teachers during that visit.
None of the three who travelled with us had ever left the US so prior to departure Mr. Lime and I did some cross cultural training with them. A lot of it boiled down to "Be respectful. Don't criticize or label things as weird or wrong. Be a learner of the culture." We also gave them some culture specific information they would need and walked them through being smart travellers.
Dave was one of the guys who came along and he had, shall we say, a certain passive aggressiveness to him. When we discussed procedures for getting passports and times for team trainings and schedules during travel or cultural norms he always found a way to mildly object or suggest that perhaps we were being a bit too rigid in our expectations of him. He'd show up late for the few trainings we had and not pay much attention or challenge when he did attend. He was pretty sure he'd be given wide latitude since he was American. I would gently but firmly remind him that he was leaving the US, things were different, and it would behoove him to be more flexible in his adaptation to a group larger than himself as well as a new culture.
During one of the briefings on cultural specifics I addressed food issues and the sorts of things they might expect to be served. It boiled down to, "Unless it will endanger your health (severe food allergy or diabetic issues and the like), you are expected to eat what is offered to you. If I hear anyone say 'Yuck!' I will personally drag them out by the ear and beat them in the head. You don't have to like everything or eat a mountain of it, but you have to try it." Dave had many concerns about the potential foods, fish in particular, since he really hates it.
Now in fairness I wanted to forewarn everyone of something fairly revolting they would see cooking but reassure them not to worry. In Trinidad almost everyone has dogs for security. Most people do not buy dog food, they cook for the dog. You can buy 'dog rice, ' which is low grade, nasty looking rice with all manner of crud in it. Into the rice you may add chicken gizzards or livers, chicken heads, fish heads, table scraps, pretty much whatever protein source can be had for as cheap as possible. As the dog food boils on the stove it smells pretty gross and looks worse. I very clearly warned our three intrepid travellers that when they saw this they should fear not, for it was the dog's dinner, not theirs. They breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The day came early in the trip when we were all gathered to lime at one of the host homes. Dear friends of ours and their mother lived on a single property and had graciously agreed to house our three students. We all sat in the yard enjoying sweet drinks (that's soda or pop to the rest of us) and getting to know each other while Nanzo, our friend's mom, was tending to a few things in the kitchen.
Dave excused himself for some reason and came back a few minutes later and asked to speak to me. He went on to describe a pot of dirty looking rice with fish heads floating in it. He asked with an expression somewhere between abject horror and utter panic if he really had to eat whatever was served to him. By this time I was sick of his inability to listen to directions and question everything we had told him every step of the way. I wanted to nip this tendency pretty strongly since being on Trini soil did not seem to curtail it. I also knew he was describing dog food and I confess the evil side of me came out.
I reminded him gently and firmly about our expectations of cultural sensitivity and respect and graciously accepting what is offered. He protested.
I told him how I had eaten chicken feet, how I had managed to get curried goat into my morning sickness plagued belly (I actually do like curried goat when I am not pregnant, it just doesn't go down easily when I am). He pleaded.
I told him he was staying with friends who had adopted Mr. Lime and I as family and if he offended them he was going to have me to deal with. His lip began to quiver and his voice broke as he explained, "But it's fish heads!"
I looked into his eyes and said, "Dave, just this once I will give you a pass. Do you know why?" He visibly relaxed and shook his head. I blasted him, "Because it's dog food, Dave! I told you about this several times because I knew you would be worried about it when you saw it! Now do ya think you can manage to listen to us from here on out????" I think he was about ready to do a dance for joy at not having to eat Trini dog food. He double checked, "You're sure that's dog food, not our food?"
"Oh! Thankyouthankyouthankyou! But you're kinda mean for letting me think I'd have to eat that."
"Maybe so, but lesson learned." (Wink and smirk)