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Pollo, Por Favor

Being polite and culturally sensitive can certainly open doors, but sometimes you need a few more elements for true cross-cultural bonding to occur.

I was in central Mexico with a group of U.S. college students who were studying Spanish language and Mexican culture. Like my students, I was also living with a volunteer host family whom I hadn’t known before we arrived. Our first Saturday afternoon my host brother Gerardo, an aspiring television journalist, was sent on assignment to a small village to film a story. Spontaneously, a half dozen students and I piled into the back of a van with him, his mother, and a film crew. Off we went into the countryside. While he filmed the story, we watched, and then at his urging we explored the town. When the filming was over, Gerardo and his mother invited us to join them for lunch.

The restaurant, perched on the edge of a picturesque lake, was understated and rustic. So was the 15 year-old waitress. The hand-written menu was basic: pescado (fish), pollo (chicken), carne (meat). Period. Aware that fish from the lake was the town’s specialty, all of the students were primed to enjoy it.

Someone must have asked what kind of fish it was. Or maybe Gerardo’s mother just wanted to be the perfect hostess. In any case, her inquiry sent the flustered waitress into the kitchen for the answer. She came back a moment later with the name of a fish that no one recognized. When that didn’t work, she disappeared again. This time, she reappeared proudly with a squirming fish on a plastic plate to show us all.

I’ve often found my U.S. students somewhat uncomfortable when reminded of where their food comes from. To the Mexican hosts, this discomfort is often inexplicable. This group was no exception in their squeamishness over “live” food, but they made me proud just the same. They had internalized everything we had discussed during orientation and their involuntary shudders were hardly perceptible to the untrained eye.

When the waitress reemerged from the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron, the group was ready to order: “Pollo.” “Pollo, por favor.” “Para mí, el pollo.” “Yo quiero el pollo, por favor.” The waitress took down their orders. The students smiled, relieved. They had handled what could have been an awkward cross-cultural moment with grace and finesse. And no one had even noticed.

Or so they thought. Gerardo had been taking it all in from the other end of the table. As the waitress finished writing down the orders, he leaned forward to get the group’s attention. With impeccable timing, he pointed to the yard outside and surprised us all with perfect English: “Would you like to see the chicken?”

There were dozens of chickens just outside the window. Disarmed, we all shared a long and hearty laugh. Five minutes later, a weathered campesino led a small herd of cattle up the hill. Now it was the students’ turn to point to the window: “Gerardo, would you like to see the meat?” We all laughed again.

It’s been 12 years. Gerardo and I are the best of friends. I participated in his wedding and we see each other several times a year. A visit rarely passes when we don’t recall that ice-breaking moment. And, yes, the opportunity to laugh might not have come had the group screamed, “Ooh, gross!” when first confronted with the raw fish. But the true cross-cultural bonding came not as much from their obeying the rules of politeness that I had tried to teach them as from mutual empathy, humility, and a shared sense of humor.

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