The other day in class, we were working on putting sentences in order to tell a story. This was the basic story: Wilma and Carl met at a party. They talked for a long time. They fell in love. They kissed. (The teacher’s book put these in the opposite order) She met his parents. They got engaged. They got married. They had two children.

Without exception, all my students (Iraqi and Korean) put the kiss after the marriage.

Donn and I were having fun with that later. “She met his parents. They got married. They met at a party.” We laughed, but the humor stems from the fact that this is typically how it’s done in Iraq, although of course there are exceptions. Back in class, we found out how everybody met their spouse or, if not married, how their parents met. The stories contained a lot of similarities. Some were married to first cousins, or second cousins. Some first saw their spouse at their own house, where their future spouse was friends with their sibling. Several met their spouse for the first time at the engagement. But no one met their spouse completely on their own, at university or at work or online.

When you spend a lot of time in one particular culture that is not your own, you will begin to take on characteristics, add things in, to create your own hybrid of culture. This happens gradually over time, and certain moments will cause past events to suddenly make sense. I remember planning a movie night at Oasis Books in Nouakchott, years ago, and asking a friend for movie suggestions. “Anything is fine,” he said, “but no kissing.” Donn and I were mystified, as we knew our friends watched all kinds of movies, and got French stations on their TVs. And of course kissing is very innocuous in our culture and shows up in even kid movies. But somehow, realizing that everyone put “kissing” after “marriage” helped me to understand this, and suddenly I felt embarrassed at all the kissing that takes place in movies, which is not a reaction I’ve had since I was about 10.

As it is, I move uneasily back and forth. The best part is when you mistrust yourself. Which culture is this rude in again? I’ll be sitting pointing my feet at an American friend, or eating with my left hand, and I think, “this is okay in American culture. It’s not rude,” and then I’ll think, “right?” Usually I just stop, just in case. I have written before of getting confused about whether or not I can acceptably double-dip my samosa or my chips, of whether I can use my own private spoon to eat from the common bowl. (Rule of thumb: fine with Arabs; not fine with Americans or Canadians; certain exceptions apply) It took me ages after we moved back to America to remember that the stores don’t close for lunch here, that the bank is open at noon (although even as I type that I’m not 100% certain. Right?) The twins’ pediatrician closes for the noon hour, which has only confused me further. But Fred Meyer is open. (Right?) (No, that one I’m sure of)

Kissing, however, is fine in American culture. Even the teacher’s book thinks you typically kiss before you fall in love. Right?

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