Would you like a cup of tea?
The Mormons brought me cookies this evening. Now, don't worry. This is not a story about the Mormons and their delicious cookies which were lousy with chocolate chips, nor is it a cautionary tale about taking cookies from strangers (spoiler alert - I ate one and I am still alive). This is about rituals, about cultures, and about life. I was having a conversation with a friend this weekend, and she was lamenting a lack of empathy that she saw in persons from a particular cultural background. It reminded me of something that I experienced some time ago, which taught me that kindness may look different in different places, and if you are willing to keep an open mind, you just might find it where you least expected it.
As most of you may know by now, I spent many years studying and working in England. There's much I could say about it, but today I speak about one of my favourite topics (and treats) - a cup of tea. It's one of my favourite English traditions, and one I still enjoy regularly despite the hot weather that has settled over the last few months. Before I moved to England, it was a morning necessity for a jolt of caffeine. After a few years in England, I used coffee and tea for the very opposite - soothing relaxation. I even read somewhere - studies have shown actual relaxation properties found within the act of making a cup of tea. While I have not checked the validity of this, I definitely believe it to be true.
Now when I first moved to England, I would say that it was noticeably different from Barbados. Yes it was cold and wet, and it was definitely more vanilla than chocolate, but I am talking about the really important and noticeable differences. For most of you who grew up in Barbados it was (and still is to some extent) commonplace to greet others as you walk down the street, enter a bus or bank or even a store. It was something I barely noticed when I was young (unless I forgot my manners as a child...) the polite "Good morning" as I passed persons I knew and strangers alike. In fact I think what I noticed more than anything was its absence when I moved to England. I know many persons who have felt this absence strongly when they moved out of the Caribbean. For me the silent passers by created a nostalgia that surprised me deeply, and made me ache for home. I remember a conversation with a friend of mine who moved to England a couple of years after I started working there. She said she would get on the bus every day and greet everyone with a smile and a friendly "good morning" even though she never got a reply. I can't say I was that brave - I moved abroad with a healthy fear of standing out, concerned that anyone out of place might be snatched up in a black van (of course lured in with a plate full of cookies), or mugged; and so did my best to blend in. As an aside, I remember my very first trip to New York. I clearly remember watching a news article before I left England about how likely one was to be stabbed or shot in a New York subway and so I was suitably terrified. My best friend was living there at the time, and I was going to visit her, and she gave me instructions to get off the greyhound bus at Grand Central station and take the shuttle to time square and meet her after church. What she neglected to tell me was that the shuttle only made that one stop, and went back and forth between Grand Central and Time Square. I was pretty nervous on this my first ride in the subway and didn't want to ask anyone anything. I rode that subway back and forth about 3 times each way, not realising that I had to get off. I was so worried about looking lost, that I would get out of one door and go into another, trying to look totally confident. She thought this was totally hilarious! But I digress...
It's perfectly natural (apparently) to miss that familiarity of home. I thought at the time that in a big country such as England, the personal touch had been lost, and people didn't make time for those trivial greetings. However, it was was a long time before I realised and appreciated that they had their own version of this kind greeting, and it was the offer of a cup of tea. Soon after I had a been there a while, I realised that you couldn't go anywhere without being offered a cup of tea. Even when I began to work and did home visits to those who were unable to attend the surgery, I would be offered a weak cup of tea by little old ladies who looked as thought they could barely hoist a kettle. It was indeed quite a faux pas not to offer a cuppa. Perhaps if you felt particularly venomous toward someone you might leave the teabag in a minute too long, or make a very weak cuppa and have a silent pleasure in watching them have to drink it! The offer of tea was a kindness and a greeting, as much as it was to hear "morning" called out on the street in the early morning sunshine.
Ironically, the significance of this did not dawn on me until I went to Tanzania. Here they shared the greeting "Karibu" which means "welcome" or "you are welcome (here)" when someone arrived. Greetings in Tanzania held great significance. When I was trying to pick up some basic Swahili I remember reading about the importance of greetings and how essential it was for persons to spend a good few minutes greeting one another in any situation, even before business was done. I had spent a number of years in England by that point, and had grown used to a different speed. I can still now hear the voice of the nurses when I came in the morning saying "Habari" which meant, hello, how are you, good morning and a host of other things, when said in combination with other words. I grew accustomed to the long greetings quite quickly, as they were repeated in every interaction.
Far more importantly, I also began to see that every place has its ritual, it's greeting or some other tradition which acknowledges someone and says "I see you." My friend that I mentioned earlier, who used to get on the bus and utter her unmet greeting every day remembers getting onto the bus one day having lost her voice through illness, and was unable to speak. She smiled warmly at the driver and sat down, and was surprised when one of the fellow passengers said to her "are you alright?" They had noticed her silence, and were concerned about her welfare. I had a similar experience shortly after I started university. There was a small shop around the corner from my hall (the 10 o'clock shop) and I must confess that I very clearly remember buying pints of milk and ice cream from here although I am sure I must have bought many other things. I didn't have any conversations really with the store employees initially, until one day I wandered into the shop in a funk. When I went to pay for the milk (ice cream) the cashier said to me "are you ok love". I was completely taken aback! I thought I'd hidden my displeasure well (although I am reliably informed that my emotions are always written all over my face.) I replied that I was ok and asked him why he asked. He said "you weren't singing! You are always singing or humming when you come in here so I figured something had to be wrong. Would you like a cup of tea?" It stands out in my mind as a wonderful gesture. It was the first time I noticed a number of things (one of those things being that it would not be possible for me to blend into the background no matter how hard it tried, a second that the singing I thought I was doing in my head was out loud!) but what I really noticed was that kind gesture of offering tea - an act of service and kindness - and its profound effect.
To those who may be moving away from Barbados, take with you the lesson I learned from my friend's experience on the bus: even if the "good morning" greeting is not a cue in England for others to respond, they may still appreciate and notice when you do. I recently read a facebook quote that said "there are a million ways to say "I love you". You can say - "put your seatbelt on... Get some rest..." I would say there are many ways to greet someone... Good morning... Habari... Would you like a cup of tea.
To those who live or have lived or travel to other countries, I would love to hear about greetings and traditions in other places. Have you found the greeting yet that makes you feel welcomed? Is there a special ritual that you share with a friend, family member or even a stranger that makes you feel like home, even in a far away place? Or perhaps you never considered it. I look forward to hearing about those greetings.
As for me - I send as always - big love from a small island...
Ps I love this picture that I took above when I was in Tanzania. The Zebras look as if they were interrupted from a deep conversation.