A newly arrived American couple invited us over for dinner to show off their apartment and update my roommate and I on how they were doing at settling in. The wife had been at our home earlier in the week learning all the ropes of hosting and being hosted in a local Uyghur family. We taught her the rules of what to say at the door, how to pour the tea, when and where to wear slippers the hints to watch for about when it’s time to leave, and how to accompany someone out. She spent time trying on our headscarves and tying them in different and trending ways.
We told her our visit wasn’t meant to be a test on what we had taught, it was just an informal time to hang out. Even in light of our telling her to relax, we could see the wheels in her head spinning as she tried to remember which seat was the one of honor and who should be the furthest from the door.
As the evening wore on we took our bowls of ice cream into the living room and kept chatting. Once everyone had used their spoons to scrap the bottom of the bowls clean, her husband stood and started to clear the dishes and take them back into the kitchen. My roommate and I got the hint at once and both figured it must be time to go… we casually checked our watches and started rubbing our hands together while looking at the other person for confirmation. As we were still going over our pre-leaving ritual, the husband returned from his task in kitchen, threw a cushion on the floor, and flopped down to join in the conversation with a story of his own. My roommate and I were confused by the clearly contrasting cultural signs…’should we stay or should we go?’. We glanced and each other briefly and could tell we were sharing a mutually awkward moment of forgetting how to be a guest in our own culture. It suddenly clicked that the clearing of the dishes was a kindhearted act of servanthood on the part of the husband and not a bold hint saying “get out of my house”.
I burst out laughing at our mutual misunderstanding… but as many of you know, my laugh is not one of those subtle easy to hide behind your hand or disguise as a cough type of laughs. When I laugh people start making hyena comparisons… others grab their cell phone and offer to call 911. This poor couple had no idea what had hit them.