Wednesday, July 27, 2011
My friend AeRhee and I had just finished watching a Brazilian documentary at MOMA. This was the type of film that would fall into the category of 'films about quotidian routines that are not designed to promote tourism'. For some reason, we both decided to wait it out to the bitter end. The rough premise was to highlight twenty little known villages in Brazil with short vignettes of their local inhabitants. Upon leaving the theatre and marching out into the steamy evening air, we got into a discussion about how we express our dissatisfaction with others. In my usual self-deprecating manner, I confessed that I was noticing my occasional tendency towards passive-aggressive responses to strangers' unintended slights. I gave AeRhee an example from the night I went to see Pink Martini live at Summer Stage in Central Park. I was standing not far from the stage with an audience of a thousand or so people, and was dancing a little to 'Lilly', one of their catchiest songs. Suddenly, a young woman arrived with a large tote bag which she tossed in front of her, and then planted her body two inches from my nose. My Cha Cha moves ceased, as I looked down on this spectacle of space invasion. As the red in my cheeks started deepening, I tried to think of a tactful way of asking this person not to insert her hair in my mouth. My friend had no trouble coming up with a solution. 'I would have said, 'Excuse me, can you please move forward a little, I don't have enough room here.' I looked at my friend and smiled. Yes, that would have been the normal thing to say. I told her that culture plays a role in our responses, as I recalled learning about Asian cultures having a very direct way of communicating. AeRhee, who is Korean-American, agreed with me. As we quickened our pace down 58Th street, we arrived at a bar my friend wanted to go into. It had an East side look to it that I wasn't used to. Men were wearing business suits or collared shirts, and the women were in cocktail dresses. I was wearing an outfit more appropriate for hiking a mountain. AeRhee and her direct communication skills miraculously got us two bar stools as we slid through the crowd of suits. I ordered a Czech draft beer. It was cold and crisp, but it lacked a pulse. It put me in a bad mood. I like my friendly Belgian ales. Being heard involved screaming, so our conversation was limited to lots of nodding. Through the sea of conversations one voice succeeded in getting its message across. A clearly inebriated man wearing a pink sports shirt repeated the same phrase several times as he looked over in our direction. 'My friend just got back from serving two terms in Iraq'. AeRhee responded by taking out her cell phone to show me pictures of the pianist she had become friends with. As she scrolled through the images of a pensive looking man in a tuxedo with long flowing hair, the war veteran made his way up to the bar. He too was drunk. He leaned over and touched an image of the pianist sitting in AeRhee's convertible. 'He's a good-looking guy', the vet slurred. AeRhee and I looked at him momentarily, and then went back to the pictures. I felt bad for the vet. I turned to him and said, 'Welcome home'. He thought I was offering an invitation. He must have had a lot of those Czech beers. As I glanced at a picture of the pianist standing in the woods, the vet stuck his finger under my arm. What was he doing? The gesture was unacceptable for many reasons, not the least of which being that I had been sweating all day from the record-breaking temperatures. What to do? With all my Asian moxy I turned to him and in a clear, direct voice announced, 'Don't ever touch me again. I don't like being touched by strangers.' This huge, drunken man who had previously worn a mask of arrogance, suddenly woke up from his stupor. His features slackened in a moment of defeat, and gazing at the floor, he apologised. Though thrilled with this new found directness, I still didn't trust it's power to permanently block future space-invading attempts. I picked up my stool and moved it closer to AeRhee. I was on the right path. I looked forward to a future of directness accompanied by better beer.