Cultural Relativism

Cultural Relativism

“Have you met our new neighbors?” Bob asked his wife, peering out their kitchen window, sipping his cold beer.

“Not yet. They just moved in a few days ago.” Pork chops were sizzling in the pan. “After they settle in, we should go and meet them.” She responded.

“They look funny, where are they from?” He was ready to sink his teeth into a juicy piece of meat, the highlight of his upcoming weekend.

“They look Middle Eastern to me, but their two girls were probably born here. They speak perfect English. I heard them talking to April the other day. They seemed to be getting along well. They played for two full hours without yelling and screaming.”

“That’s a good sign. She can use some neighbor friends.”

“Yah, spending time with her friends always beats watching television.” she nodded.

Right before they started with dinner, they heard a knock on the door. Bob opened. An old man in a perfectly ironed three-piece suit was standing in the frame. “Hello. My son and his family live next door to you. I’m terribly sorry to bother you but may I borrow a pot from you just for tonight?”

“A pot?” Bob was surprised.

“Yes a cooking pot,” the man explained.

“Well… I guess so. Kate, honey would you come here for a second.” Bob called his wife.

She walked to the door, “Hello. You must be our new neighbor. My name is Kate and this is my husband Bob. The little girl who was playing with your kids yesterday is our daughter April. We were planning to come and welcome you to the neighborhood.”

“Oh, they are my grandchildren, God bless them they are so sweet. My name is Mr. Amin.”

Bob looked over his shoulder and whispered to his wife, “He’s here to borrow a pot from us.” and chuckled.

Mr. Amin continued, “All our kitchen utensils are still packed in boxes in the garage. My son and his wife both work and they haven’t had a chance to unpack yet. If you let me borrow your pot, I’ll be grateful to you, I’m going to cook for them tonight. Oh, only if my son finds out I’m going to their new neighbor borrowing a cooking pot! he never approves anything I do. He and his wife always say I don’t understand American culture.”

Kate and Bob exchanged a puzzled look. Bob could hardly hide his sneer, “Can you believe this guy? We don’t even know him and he’s asking for a favor!” he muttered.

“Don’t make a big deal out of it. That’s fine. He can use one of our pots,” Kate whispered back. She went to the kitchen and came back with one and gave it to Mr. Amin.

Their elderly neighbor profusely thanked them and promised to bring it back the next day. After he left, Bob shrieked, “What is he going borrow next? We need to draw the line now, Kate! He really needs a crash course on American Culture 101.”

The next day in mid afternoon, Mr. Amin came back dressed as sharply as yesterday with a pot in his hands. He thanked Bob and Kate for their generosity and returned what he’d borrowed. Before he walked away though, Bob lifted the lid and noticed a little object inside their pot and took it out. It was a hand crafted miniature pot.

“What is this? You borrowed one pot from us, how come you’re returning two?” Bob asked.

Mr. Amin explained, “The truth is that last night your pot got pregnant in our house and promptly gave birth to this cute baby pot. We don’t know how it happened or who the father is. Nowadays pot pregnancy is a big issue, but what’s done is done. In all fairness, since this pot belonged to you, so should the baby. Congratulations!”

Bob and Kate were stunned. “Do you like the baby pot, Mr. Bob?” Bob was overwhelmed by hearing such wonderful news from their neighbor, “Oh, thank you Mr. Amin. This baby pot is beautiful. Don’t worry my friend. It’s our baby, we’ll burp it.” He tried hard to hide his excitement.

When Mr. Amin departed, Bob was practically dancing. He paraded his beautiful miniature pot, snapping his fingers in jubilation and said, “Did you hear this? Our cooking pot gave birth to a beautiful baby. Is this the same pot we bought from Wal-Mart for $10.99? Oh, these naughty pots. We learned something new today from our dear neighbors.”

“But he’s an old man. He doesn’t even live here, he’s just a guest. This is a handcrafted ornamental piece, we cannot accept it. Most likely it’s not even his own. You shouldn’t have accepted it.” Kate complained.

“No my dear, according to my friend Mr. Amin, our pot had a baby in their house and you know how pro-life I am. We’re going to keep the baby. That is only right thing to do.” This unexpected pregnancy and arrival of the little baby pot had exhilarated Bob. “What a cute accent he has. Where is Persia anyway? I’m beginning to like this little guy.” He made many comments of this sort that night.

For the next few days, Bob told all his friends and coworkers the sweet story of how they were blessed with a new baby pot. The miniature polished brass pot was shining on their shelf. Bob was so proud of his little baby. He dusted the pot every morning before he went to work with a smile on his face remembering their simple foreign neighbor.

As much as they both enjoyed having their new decor, Kate didn’t feel right keeping the little pot as a payback for their favor and her husband adamantly disagreed. “I could not insult Mr. Amin by rejecting the baby pot. He acted based on his cultural beliefs and we must respect that. We should really learn from other cultures, my love.” Kate had never seen her husband this way before.

A few days later, they received another visit from their new neighbor. When Bob opened the door, he was pleasantly surprised to see Mr. Amin again, “Hello my friend, come on in.

Come in.” He practically dragged him inside and offered him a cold beer.’’

“Oh, no alcohol for me, Mr. Bob. I’m a devoted Muslim. I don’t want to burn in hell.” Mr. Amin sat down and continued, “I’m terribly sorry to bother you again, but I’m in a dire need of a big cooking pot. We have invited our family and friends to see our new home and need to cook for a large crowd.”

Bob didn’t even let Mr. Amin finish his sentence, “No problem my friend. We have a brand new ten quart pot that has never been used before. You came to the right place. Don’t even think of buying such an expensive pot only to use once for a special occasion like this.”

And without consulting with his wife, he darted out of the room and returned with a brand new pot still in its original packaging and handed it to Mr. Amin. “Who knows, maybe this chubby girl gets knocked up in your house too.” He winked slyly. “By the way, what does Amin mean in your language?” Bob was eager to know.

“In Farsi Amin means trustworthy.” Mr. Amin responded.

“How interesting, I’ve heard your foods are delicious. I’d love to try Persian foods. Are there any Iranian restaurants in town?” Bob enthusiastically asked.

“Oh no Mr. Bob. Don’t try Persian food in restaurants. In our country, eating in restaurants is only for travelers and foreign tourists. It’s not socially acceptable either. Besides, restaurant chefs can never duplicate the authentic taste of home-cooked meals. One day, I’ll cook Fesenjoon with duck, so you can truly get a taste of heaven right here on earth.”

“I’m looking forward to that.” Bob said. Mr. Amin thanked them abundantly and left their house with a big pot in his arms.

Days passed and they heard nothing from their new neighbor. Bob impatiently waited another week and still was no sign of Mr. Amin or their pot. Finally one evening, Bob and Kate walked to their neighbor’s house to see what happened. Mr. Amin himself opened the door. “Long time no see my friend. Is everything all right?” Bob asked.

Mr. Amin did not seem to be in a good mood tonight. “What happened to our pot?” Bob inquired.

“The truth is that this pot of yours also became pregnant the first night we had it.” He continued with a gloomy face,” Mr. Amin said.

“That’s not a bad news. We understand pot pregnancies, it’s not your fault my friend. Just give us our pot and its baby and we’ll take care of it. Is the baby chunky?” Bob’s face was glowing.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news but unfortunately your pot died during labor, there must have been some complications,” Mr. Amin sadly informed his friends.

Bob was shocked. “Come on Mr. Amin, pots don’t die!” he pleaded.

“Sure they do Mr. Bob. Your first pot had an easy pregnancy and delivered a cute baby for you and this one…Oh, what can I say my friend. I think the baby came sideways. I’m so sorry, Mr. Bob.”

Kate burst into laughter but the sudden death of a $130 heavy-duty Teflon cooking pot at childbirth was so painful for poor Bob.

“What about the baby, Mr. Amin?” he desperately pleaded.

“Unfortunately, the baby didn’t survive either. The umbilical cord was wrapped around its neck. Please accept my condolences for your grave losses.”

Bob was paralyzed by the news.

“Would you like to come in for a cup of freshly brewed Persian tea? Our tea is the best.” Mr. Amin kindly offered but grief-stricken Bob couldn’t even hear him anymore.

The entire night, Bob was perplexed by the chain of events that led to the tragic loss of an expensive cooking pot to a simple foreigner, and Kate laughed her heart out for the same reason.

Soon after these enigmatic cultural interactions, Mr. Amin and Bob forged a unique friendship and each received a beautiful pot to symbolize this amity, a friendship that transcended cultural, lingual and generational differences. To Kate’s complete surprise, Mr. Amin was repeatedly invited to Bob’s parties and was gradually introduced to all his friends during his stay in America.

During their last meeting Mr. Amin caught up in the moment and drank a bottle of cold beer with Bob. After committing this unforgivable sin, he burped twice, quickly washed his mouth with soap and water, and humbly asked God to forgive him for his sin. Then he told Bob of his plan to return to Iran in a few days and pulled them aside to ask him a favor.

“I would like to share a secret with you. We still have your dead cooking pot in our home. As much as I like to take it back with me as a souvenir, I really can’t. It’s too big to fit in my suitcase. Do you think you can give it a proper burial for me?”

A few days later, Mr. Amin returned to his homeland and Bob never forgot the Persian cooking pot experience or his friendship with Mr. Amin.

* Based on an Old Persian anecdote