So, before I get started here, I will give you a warning that there is a bit of bad language later on in this post. Be warned. Okay, on with the show.
The Ozarks, the American region that raised me, is an insular place. This part of America, southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, is very much like Saudi Arabia in that the people here are some of the friendliest in the world, while some of the most guarded at the same time. Thus, I have always had tremendous respect for people who come to the Ozarks and jump headfirst into life here, even when they stick out like a sore thumb. Especially when they stick out like a sore thumb.
In this closed rural area, outsiders are warmly welcomed, while often never entirely accepted. In a more urban area, people congregate from around the country and the world. You’re bound to find a group of friends which includes others like you, people who have chosen to build a life in a part of the country in which they were not born and/or raised. But the Ozarks is a place of entrenched generations. Everyone knows your parents, if not other details of your extended family tree. You’ll find yourself being stopped by random people at Walmart who ask probing questions that demonstrate their thorough knowledge of your life and lineage, and you’ll answer them because obviously, they know very well who you are, even if you can’t return the courtesy. You’ll absorb knowledge about rural life, little maxims that you don’t even realize you have stored in your brain until you find yourself educating a visitor about them when necessary, like, don’t walk directly behind a horse without patting him to let him know you’re there.
In the Ozarks, change comes slowly or not at all. The chances are high that when you go to sit down for a parent-teacher conference with your child’s first grade teacher, you won’t be nervous because she was your first grade teacher, too. My parents still don’t have high-speed internet; since they live out in the country, they use a satellite internet provider that offers them a limited amount of bandwidth at a speed somewhere between DSL and dial-up, and if they exceed that bandwidth limit, their internet slows to dial-up speeds. The local internet service provider still offers dial-up for customers who are unwilling to spring for satellite internet but live in places that can’t get high-speed internet yet.
It’s a place that regards visitors with only the most perfunctory curiosity, especially if said visitors come from a very different culture or place…that is, until they do something weird. I’ve been lucky enough to see my share of brave visitors come here and make their mark, including the guy I married. I like to think that it’s at least partly due to their influence that I’ve never been too severely hampered by the expectations of my home culture.
My grandpa was the original weird ethnic visitor whose arrival and acclimation to the Ozarks I observed with fascination. My grandpa, my mom’s father, lived in California. He was Mexican-American, a proud Army veteran whose daughter had married a guy from the Ozarks and moved there with him shortly after they got married. My dad never got along very well with most of my mom’s family, but he always liked my grandpa.
The truth is, it was really hard for anyone to not like my grandpa. He was brown, short, and spoke with a thick Spanish accent, which made him conspicuous enough in southern Missouri, but he was also hilarious. He was always joking or singing, and he had this laugh that sounded like a snake hissing (which, weirdly enough, my husband also does. Whenever he laughs like this, I am stopped in my tracks because he sounds so much like my grandpa). He had zero concern about what the Ozarkians thought of him. Which meant, of course, that he was incredibly fun.
One time when he and my grandma visited, he wanted to be able to drive around and get out and about while my parents were at work. Aside from my parents’ cars, the only reliably running vehicle on the place at that time was a Chinook camper truck, which my brother, my cousins, and I adored back then because we would sit in the back and play cards while our parents drove. We thought the Chinook was the coolest thing ever until junior high hit us all, when suddenly it became a source of humiliation to have parents that actually sometimes drove a Chinook camper truck around town.
My parents gave my grandpa the keys to the Chinook and told him to go wherever he wanted. And he did. We found that out when one of my mom’s coworkers at the bank where she worked, which was (well, is) located on the town square, came to my mom’s desk to inform her that my grandpa had been spotted driving the Chinook camper truck around and around the one-way square…in the wrong direction.
To be honest, I’m sure that the Summer of Grandpa in the Camper helped usher in the Chinook Embarrassment Era. Still, to this day, I giggle a little in my head at the thought of my grandpa completely unselfconsciously bopping around the square in the wrong direction in the Chinook. I miss him all the time, and I can’t help but think that he and Mr. Mostafa would have gotten along famously. He never let anyone make him feel like he didn’t belong, and I adored that about him.
My grandpa was the first diverse, if intrepid, visitor to the Ozarks that I ever encountered, but he certainly wasn’t the only one. When I was in high school, we got an exchange student for the very first time. This was extremely significant for us, because my high school was tiny. So tiny, in fact, that it was not really a high school at all, but actually a preschool through twelfth grade school. It remains that way to this day. There are separate buildings, of course (the first graders aren’t jolted from their reading circles by a bell ringing as the high schoolers spill out of classrooms and noisily slam locker doors on their way to their next classes), but it’s actually one big school. I had 29 kids in my graduating class, and this was a really large class (apparently, there was some sort of Ozarkian baby boom in 1983). People look at me like I’m making this up when I tell them this, especially people who identify as originating from a small town but actually had graduating classes well in the hundreds, like I’m just trying to outdo them with my rural cred.
Our exchange student, Rafael, was from Brazil. He, like my grandfather, was short, brown, and very funny. On the day he arrived in the Ozarks, his host family threw a barbecue and bonfire to welcome him. Everyone was there. We all couldn’t wait to meet the new Brazilian in our midst. I mean, a new kid from Michigan or Idaho was exotic enough to us. Brazil! We didn’t know what to do with ourselves.
At one point, Rafael was standing in a circle of about fifteen of us kids, telling us about his journey from Brazil to the United States. He described how he had landed in New York and spent one night at a hotel in a skyscraper, in a room with an amazing view. A really amazing view, as it turns out.
“I look out the window,” he said, “And I see, in the pool on the roof of the building next to me, there are two people, and they are…” he lowered his voice, and then continued, “fucking. And I go away from the window, and then I come back, and they are still there”–again, he lowered his voice–“fucking. And I say to myself, ‘Ah, this is America.'”
It was at this point that I began to feel a bit sorry for Rafael, because out of all the genuinely cool places to be found in America, he ended up having to spend a year in the one place that was guaranteed to crush any lingering notions of sex in a high-rise rooftop swimming pool as a quintessentially American experience.
As Rafael concluded his story with a laugh, every single one of us in the circle of his new schoolmates gasped in horrified glee. This kid just said the f-word! And in front of adults, too! He was funny, and we considered him brave. It never occurred to us that maybe, just maybe, he might have been brave for traveling from Brazil to America at the age of 15 in order to spend an entire year with a family he had never met before, in a place he had never been, in a culture that he probably didn’t really get and which certainly didn’t really get him. No, he was brave because he said the f-word where any adult could have sauntered by and heard the whole scandalous story. Because we all knew that if he had been caught, he would have been in trouble. That is America, buddy.
Rafael was a great kid, and we really enjoyed having him in our school. Looking back, I’m kind of amazed at how well he integrated into Ozarks life over his year here.
And then, of course, we come to Mr. Mostafa. The number of little cultural scrapes and misunderstandings that he and I have navigated here over the years is practically endless, and I expect it will remain so. Like my grandpa and Rafael before him, he always does his best to handle them with a smile. Last week, we had lunch at Ruby Tuesday with a table full of my family members and their significant others, a few of whom had never met Saleh, and others who hadn’t seen him in a few years. The waitress asked us what we wanted to drink.
“Water, please,” Saleh asked. “Room temperature.”
I immediately realized that the kid had been in Riyadh too long. No one in the States–or, at least, no one in the Ozarks–will ever ask you what temperature you would prefer for your water, while in Riyadh, it’s standard restaurant practice to ask if you want your water chilled or at room temperature.
The waitress looked confused, and a bit irked. “No ice, please,” I clarified to her. The entire table was watching and listening. Then, feeling nervous lest everyone think that Mr. Mostafa was acting snobby, rude, and obnoxious, I made some sort of joke about the situation, which I now cannot recall. Everyone laughed, including Saleh. The tension was melted, and that was that.
But later on, when we got home, he was sulky. “You really hurt me with the water thing,” he said. “I felt like the whole table was laughing at me.”
I apologized to him, and I explained that at the time, I felt like my options were limited. I could have kept my mouth shut and let the waitress set him straight about American restaurants and room temperature water. I could have “corrected” him seriously. Or I could have made a little joke that framed the situation as a cultural misunderstanding (which is exactly what it was), so that everyone else at the table would see that he wasn’t being rude or demanding. Of course, now that I have the hindsight to sit and think the incident through, I’m sure there were other options, as well. But in that split second, I could only identify those three, and I chose the last one.
“Which would you rather everyone at the table think?” I said to him. “You know the stereotypes that exist about Arabs. Would you rather them think you’re a mean, obnoxious Arab guy demanding room temperature water, or that you’re good guy who just had little a cultural misunderstanding?”
He was quiet for a second. Then he said, “Yeah, I see your point.”
Being in a bicultural relationship is tricky. This is obvious from the first time you take your significant other to meet your family, especially if your family is unaccustomed to interacting with people from other cultures. They think he’s odd. His preferences are strange. He talks about weird things. (He drives in different directions.)
And when your significant other is a Saudi, the differences are compounded because of the endlessly perpetuated stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. Mr. Mostafa may never have to deal with the outward discrimination that my grandpa and Rafael may have had to deal with, since he doesn’t immediately appear as though he doesn’t belong (translation–he’s white). He even dresses the part when he’s here–he has an affinity for workboots and flannel button-up shirts. But the minute he opens his mouth, it’s obvious he wasn’t born and raised in the Ozarks. And in truth, when we show up at a gathering, everyone knows that he’s my Saudi husband, the guy who moved me halfway around the world to live in the desert. So not only does feel like he has to prove that he can fit in here, he also has to do his best to shed the weight of stereotypes and preconceived notions. Whether he likes it or not, he’s permanently connected to this part of the world now, and he doesn’t want to be regarded as a walking stereotype when he’s here. I don’t want that for him, either. I wonder if Rafael ever felt that way. I wonder if my grandpa felt that way. And I can’t help but feel that it’s unfair that all of them are, were, or would have been subject to that pressure.
The good news is that because of our bicultural status, Mr. Mostafa and I have a head start on finding awkward situations through which to inflict monstrous embarrassment on our child. And we’ll even be able to save some money by not having to buy a Chinook camper truck. Mr. Mostafa’s an accountant, after all. He appreciates a good bargain.