To quote Brené Brown, “Culture is the way we do things around here.” As cultural tension continues to be a point of stress and anxiety in our country, it’s helpful to remember that getting to know new cultures can be super fun and totally life-giving. One example is the night I crossed a major cultural barrier. And it was all thanks to a couple of Mexicans and a frightful mango-chile sucker.
Candy covered the stainless steel countertop of the school cafeteria that night. The laughter of children inter-played with the mariachi music echoing off the cement walls. Parents and grandparents sat clustered around several cafeteria tables, congenially observing the antics of their young ones. Gathering bunches of the plastic-wrapped sweets in front of us, my friends and I stuffed generous servings into brown paper bags.
Before we brought out the piñata, Armando, Javier and I had to finish bagging the gift bags for the kids. Apparently, Las Posadas was a nine-day party leading up to Christmas, and we were part of it. To my right, Armando looked over at Javier, and then back at me. With a mischievous smile, he held out a large sucker and asked, “Quieres probarlo?”
Grabbing the candy from his outstretched hand, ominous brown writing came into focus against a bright yellow wrapper. “Mango y chile.” Nobody with a sweet tooth would turn down a mango sucker. With super-spicy chile powder, though? That was a different matter. Judging by the grin on Armando and Javier’s faces, this was going to be a far cry from the Tootsie Pops that the local Dutch-American families might distribute on Halloween.
Armando and Javier were both from Mexico. Javier spoke English reluctantly. Armando only knew Spanish. They were a few years older than I, and we were all members of a Spanish-language music ensemble at our church. My language skills were improving all the time, since Javier and I were the only two bilingual members of the group. The spicy-food hurdle, however, was still ahead of me.
Steeling my face, I said, “Pues si, no hay problema.” Unwrapping the candy and then tasting it, my outward expression was cool and calm. We continued to fill the brown paper bags in relative silence. The anticipation was palpable, as was the immense burning sensation inside my mouth.
This wasn’t a mango candy with a hint of heat! This was something totally new and completely wicked. The outer layers of the sucker were straight-up, unadulterated chile powder. Rapidly blinking, I willed my tears not to accumulate. And methodically sorting candy helped keep my smile at bay. This was so uncomfortable. But also really fun.
“They want to know whether I can hang with Mexicans? Only a total wimp wouldn’t be able to handle children’s candy, right?” No signs of burning or stinging made their way past my poker face. Then, finally, the sweet, smooth flavor of ripe mango emerged. My taste buds rejoiced! Armando and Javier seemed clearly impressed.
I crossed a cultural plane that day, and there was no turning back.
Armando, Javier, and our other choir members became some of my dearest friends in my early 20’s. We celebrated many of life’s milestones together, and they taught me important lessons about finding the beauty in other cultures. Here are three of those lessons, from the mango-chile sucker incident:
- What seems perfectly normal under separate conditions, might actually pair well together through a different cultural perspective. For instance, super spicy and super sweet flavors in the same candy! Or, loud, boisterous music in the middle of a reverent church service. One doesn’t necessarily cancel out the other, and an unexpected combination has often surprised me with its beauty.
- The initial experience of a new culture might feel abrasive, simply because it’s...new. Not only was chili pepper hotter than I was used to, but it was a different texture, as well. After a while of hanging out with Mexicans, however, spicy cuisine moved to the top of my favorite foods. (What I wouldn’t give for an helote right now.) From food, to music, to public displays of affection, sometimes the new and unusual are simply an acquired taste.
- Sweetness is found at the core. Similar to the delicious center of the mango-chile sucker, I’ve come to believe that most people desire happiness and kindness, deep down. Often, however, we express this desire in totally different ways, depending on our culture. Yet I believe we have more in common in our hearts, than the exterior might reveal at first glance.
Thanks for reading, and let me know if you wanna go out for helotes!