Wednesday, September 13, 2006

From the Land of Vita Malt Ginger Drink

As I’ve been reflecting this week on the anniversary of September 11, I’m feeling a bit despondent over world affairs. Without turning this into a rant, my biggest concern is the division today between people – between political parties, between nations, between religious ideologies – with each side vehemently standing their ground, convicted that their way is the right way. No compromise.

How can humanity ever expect to achieve peace if we don’t find real, authentic ways to bridge those gaps, realizing that we are all one – we are all connected – and we all want the same basic things out of life? It’s an age old question, I guess, and the sad truth is maybe we will never really understand each other. I certainly don’t understand why a group of people thought it was okay to fly planes into buildings. Like my dad says, it’s quite possible that we’ll be at war until the end of time.

I do find it fascinating to get to know people from other cultures, however, and I’ve always been drawn to them for some reason. Case in point - one of the biggest surprises I’ve received living here in the Heartland has been my unexpected friendship with Gbadabo Adeueye, aka “Sam”, my friend from Nigeria. Sam comes from a long line of African royalty and his father is the King of his tribe, one of the largest in Nigeria, making Sam the Prince and heir apparent. Seriously. If you’ve ever watched “Coming to America” with Eddie Murphy and Arsineo Hall then you know Sam’s story.

Sam is an extremely intelligent, articulate, sensitive and funny person. His command of English leaves me in awe, especially when I remember he’s only been speaking it for about four years. We have long conversations and sometimes heated debates about Nigeria and Africa and his experience growing up in what is basically a third-world country. Truly fascinating and always entertaining. I have quite a few good Sam stories that I want to share over time, but today I’m thinking about cultural differences.

Some of the subtleties and nuances of life in America escape Sam, one of them being holidays and gift giving. Sam doesn’t grasp the concept of certain holidays – especially ones like Valentine’s Day and Halloween. He gets the idea of Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter, and understands there are times we honor people of importance to our country like Martin Luther King, Jr., our Presidents and Christopher Columbus, but the culturally specific holidays like St. Pat’s day confuse him. And he never knows when gifts are in order.

Last week, on Labor Day, Sam gave me a present and was perplexed when I explained that we don’t generally exchange gifts on Labor Day. But I certainly let him know that I was honored to receive… the three hair scrunchies… bottle of Vita Malt Ginger drink… and condolence card…

When I explained what it was, we laughed until tears were running out of our eyes about the condolence card.

It is one of those really elaborate, wordy ones that begins, “The Light of Life. When one of earth’s most lovely lights has flickered and gone out, the shadow in your heart is almost more than you can bear”… and it goes on for many more lines and the message on the inside says, “Day by day, may the light of your memories diminish the shadow of sorrow and bring you peace”.

When I asked him what he was thinking, he told me that he didn’t really realize it was something you gave someone after a death, he just thought it was a “blessing” that honors those who’ve gone before and the message was ultimately about happiness and peace, which are things he wishes for me. Made sense given that Nigerians are big on “blessings”. Sam text messages a translated Nigerian blessing to me almost every day – most of them he forwards from those he’s received from his African family and friends, and some (my favorites) he composes himself. Some are sweet but most crack me up because they sound kind of crazy after being jumbled in translation – both linguistically and culturally.
Here is the blessing Sam sent me today:

“This new month you won’t dig in the wrong places for treasure and you won’t fish in unproductive waters. May God order your steps to divine abundance.”

So, because some of the blessings he sends have honored family ancestors and the dead, I can see why he thought the message in a condolence card might be a nice thing to give a friend.

The Vita Malt Ginger Drink is hysterical. It started when I told Sam that I was looking forward to Beth’s visit a few weeks ago. I explained to him that she has had a difficult year and needed some time to relax and reenergize. So, on her birthday, Sam showed up with a gift for Beth – some bright, beautiful African fabric and a bottle of Vita Malt Ginger Drink. Thank goodness he has a great sense of humor, so when we finally stopped laughing he told us that this was an African drink that his family occasionally takes when they are particularly troubled or “down in their spirit”. He says it has vitamins and minerals and helps stimulate their circulation which clears their minds and they are better able to cope with the problem at hand. A perfect example of cultural differences… we Americans might turn to “malt beverages” to deal with our troubles, too, but not in this same spirit!

Kind Sam, who works for a big oil company, exhausted after coming off of a 24 hour shift on the oil field that morning didn't go home and sleep but rather began searching to find this drink for Beth. There are no African grocery stores in OKC, but there are a couple of Indian groceries that carry some African products. There is also a decent-sized African community here, so the guy at the Indian grocery told Sam about a wholesale importer from Cameroon who might have access to the drink. Sure enough, Sam called the guy and he had two bottles of the drink left. Sam drove all the way to south OKC to pick it up because he felt like it might be good for Beth, given that she had been through a hard year and was needed rejuvenation.

Beth got a bottle and Sam gave the other bottle to me for my Labor Day gift. I can’t help but think of the VitaMeataVegeMin episode of I Love Lucy whenever I look at the bottle.

So that explains my condolence card and the Vita Malt Ginger Drink. The hair scrunchies? Maybe he’s just trying to tell me something…

Perhaps the widest cultural divide I ever tried to cross was with Omar Salam from Algeria. This happened pre-September 11. I say that because I bet you dollars to donuts had he asked me out after the events of 9/11 I would have said “no” so fast his head would spin. Is that right of me? No. But sadly I admit it’s probably true.

I was living with Beth at the time and she was dating a man from Algeria. They always seemed to be having such fun – great conversation, he was romantic, they did fun things together and it was all sort of exotic. Since I’m an admitted copy cat, when Beth’s friend’s friend, Omar, asked me out after a brief meeting I said “yes”. How worldly of me – going on a date with an Arab from North Africa!

Small problem. Omar hadn’t been in the U.S. very long and he spoke very, very little English. He did speak French, so I figured I knew enough French that we could make our way through a conversation. Beth’s friend who spoke good English explained Omar’s story for me – Omar had been a “former officer” in the Algerian “air force” before that country’s most recent regime change, after which he was “asked to step down” before deciding to head to the U.S. to make money by coming to Austin where he had “friends” and opening a QUICKIE MART. That sounded perfectly acceptable to me then. Today, I fear I would be much more skeptical and would hear “terrorist” instead of “former officer”, “alcida” instead of “air force”, “asked to infiltrate the land of the infidels” instead of “asked to step down”, and “alcida network cell” instead of “friends”.

But anyway, I figured dating an Algerian was working for Beth so it might work for me. It’s not like I had men beating down my door, so if I wanted to date at all I needed to be open minded to the guys who actually asked me out! I agreed to meet Omar for dinner at the Stonehouse, a lovely little restaurant about five blocks from where Beth and I lived.

Thankfully, I had a little bit of sense about me so I told Omar I would meet him at the restaurant rather than have him pick me up. Praise Allah that I am an intuitive Pisces and had a feeling that it might be better to wait until I got to know him before telling him where I lived. Omar was handsome and dressed nicely in black pants and a black button-up shirt but I smelled him before seeing him because he was wearing a gallon of super pungent cologne. I laughed nervously when I saw our table because he had it decked out with a HUGE bouquet of flowers and a bunch of those bright, foil balloons that said “I Love You”.


I noticed there were already three empty beer bottles at the table and Omar was drinking beer like it was water. Literally, he was draining a bottle of beer in about three drinks. My guard was quickly going up and the needle on my freak-o-meter had left 0 and was rapidly heading towards FULL TILT.

I realized we were going to have a problem because Omar spoke beautiful, fluent French but I couldn’t keep up because my French skills were not that sophisticated. I tried to communicate my surprise and concern when he kept handing me present after present after present. And odd presents they were. Bottles of wine, Guinness beer, a watch, a huge Tiger’s Eye ring, a bright red scarf, a pen and pencil set, a key chain, stationary. The gifts kept coming and Omar kept downing the beer. I remember we both ordered chicken and he only ate three bites of his food but drank seven beers during the entrée alone.

After many false starts I devised my conversation plan – I would just say a word and he would take off talking in French about that subject for as long as he had anything to say about it. When he would stop, I’d say another word and he’d go again. I said words like “Algeria”, “United States” and “Quickie Mart”.

He never asked me one thing about myself, but was somehow already convinced that we were compatible because about half way through dinner - when he was super slurry drunk and chain smoking - he started in with his first proclamation of devotion. He said his first “I love you Lori Holliday”. Omar never called me “Lori”, only “Lori Holliday”. This was not good.

A little jazz combo started to play at one point and Omar stumbled up there when they were between songs and grabbled their microphone and slurred “I love Lori Holliday!” while pointing at me. Everyone in the restaurant turned their eyes to me at our table stacked high with gift crap and started to applaud. He stayed at the microphone for a good minute continuing to say “I love Lori Holliday. Je t’aime Lori Holliday.”

I thought I was going to die and I was beginning to panic. Damn that Beth for dating an Algerian and making me think it was okay!

After the applause and “congratulations” from the other patrons died down, Omar staggered back to the table and I told him to “stop it” in a really stern voice. Well that started the drunken waterworks going. Omar started to cry saying “I’m sorry Lori Holliday”….”I love you Lori Holliday” in between lots of French words where who knows what he was saying. I told him it was time for me to go home – we’d been there only one hour. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no Lori Holliday” followed by lots of French words.

It was at this point that Omar slid an envelope over to me. I told him “no” but he pleaded with me to open it. *Gulp*.


I was in total shock. This whack job gave me a $2,500 plane ticket with my name on it on our first date when we couldn’t even communicate with each other about what to eat for dinner! Was this for real? Did this psycho really think I was going to agree to leave for Africa with him in two days? Was I being kidnapped? I’d heard about white slavery – was that going to be my fate?

By now, we were sort of creating a scene at the restaurant so I jumped up, grabbed my purse and ran outside. And, at last count, with 12 beers in him Omar lurched after me. I stopped at my car and tried to compose myself telling Omar as best I could that I didn’t want to see him ever again because all of this was highly inappropriate. About that time, our waiter came out of the restaurant holding all of that crap that Omar had given me and he dumps it all in my arms and runs back inside.

Not thinking clearly, I threw that stuff in the car and started to get inside when Omar started SHRIEKING at the top of his lungs, “ I LOVE YOU LORI HOLLIDAY!” As I was tearing out of the parking lot I looked in my rear view mirror just in time to see Omar Salam drop to his knees, grab the top of his shirt and rip it apart down to his waist baring his hairy chest and cheesy gold chains while yelling “LLORRRREEEEE HHOOOOOLLLLLIIIDDDDDAAAAYYYY!”.

Holy shit.

It’s at this point in the story when I like for Beth to take over the retelling because she does it so well. My car at the time had a terrible clack in the engine. It was very loud and very embarrassing and it was constant when the engine was running. Remember, we lived only 5 blocks from the restaurant and Beth was on the porch. She says that she was so surprised that after my being gone for only one hour she could already hear my Subaru in the distance and the clack kept getting faster and faster and louder and louder because I was driving so fast. I screeched to a stop in front of the house and jumped out with all that crap in my hands – balloons, flowers, wine, beer, jewelry, stuffed animals – and sprinted to the front door. When Beth mimics me she says I had a wild look of terror in my eyes and I was yelling “GET IN THE HOUSE! GET IN THE HOUSE! BLOCK OMAR’S PHONE NUMBER NUMBER! GET IN THE HOUSE! NOW!”

I’ll end the story here but to this day, when Beth and I start retelling our favorite memories we can get ourselves doubled over in laughter with the Omar Salam story. I never saw or heard from that weird-o again. When Beth’s Algerian friend was pressed for an explanation he didn’t want to discuss it and he and Beth broke up soon thereafter.

Abruptly bringing my thoughts full circle, on the global front maybe it boils down to this – the differences between people from different cultures might always keep us apart. But maybe, just maybe, someday we’ll find a way to bridge our cultural differences and find common ground. I don’t know.

But I do know that my life is richer – and funnier - from having befriended foreigners, and I hope that never changes.


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