Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Culturally Sexual Differences

Ok, now this whole incident is just plain wrong on so many levels. It was flattering and annoying and cute and obnoxious and interesting and unbelievable all at the same time.

I used to go over to my adopted grandparent’s house in Blacksburg fairly regularly and help them out with... well, whatever they need help with. They have a studio apartment in the basement that they rent out to whoever needs it. Their tenants are usually some pretty interesting characters. Especially since they are both extreme liberals and most of their friends fall under the hippie/activist personality type.

Well, anyways, they once rented the apartment to a man from the Republic of Benin, Africa. He was 32 years old, married, had two or three kids, and was here in the States alone for a couple months to do post-grad work at VT. He had the most adorable French-ish accent you can imagine. I met him for the first time over dinner on a typical Wednesday evening with the grandparents.

When, he held my hand for a second too long when he said hello, I wrote it off as his culture... I'd never met anyone actually from Africa before, but Latinos are notorious for having no personal space bubble, so it was a logical assumption on my part. He did the whole look-you-up-and-down thing that's so typically male that I just laughed at him. And, the entire greeting took all of five seconds so my grandparents didn't pick up on anything (honestly I wasn’t even sure that I was reading him correctly at the time).

He was cute, and sweet and talkative. The entire dinner was spent with him explaining his research project, and his country, and complimenting the jambalaya that I’d made. Nice guy. Nice accent. Though I had a hard time following what he was saying because I would get caught up in just listening to the rhythms of his speech – even nicer then Jamaican. He started playing with my camera phone after dinner and we ended up getting pictures of all of us. He asked me to email him the pictures later and so I agreed.

After I had helped the grandparents with some things around the house, I put the left over jambalaya in a dish and brought it down to Theo in his apartment so that I could get his email address and send him the pictures. He had changed clothes… now he was wearing just boxers and no shirt. But, he didn't seem to be embarrassed so I didn't say anything. If he could be cool, I could too. He pulled out a business card but didn't hand it to me.

Then he said, in his adorable accent, "Can I discuss something with you?" I agreed and smiled. He gestured to the chair that was facing his bed and then sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at me.

Now, if there is one thing I've learned from my many years of international travel and from being active with the international population at Virginia Tech is that internationals often have no clue how to behave in the US, and that other cultures are vastly different then our own. Hence the term “culture shock” has been invented. You have to take everything in stride when dealing with internationals. Anyways, I guess he was lucky that I am who I am and not some typical American girl … or worse a feminist.

He proceeded to ask if I would be his friend while he was here in the USA and take him out sometimes so he didn't have to sit in the apartment alone, and so that he could have discussions in English with me. I was getting an inkling of where this was going but I was trying to play dumb so I told him that of course I would be his friend and that we could go get coffee sometime and I would love to let him practice his English with me (and I was genuine, he is a nice friendly talkative guy who I wouldn't have minded spending some time with).

Then came the shocker…He reached out with both hands and grasped my wrists and looked me directly in the eyes from about 10 inches away and said "I find you very beautiful. Perhaps I can be… not husband, what is word? Boyfriend! Yes, you need a boyfriend?"

No, no, no, no, no! It was said so calmly and rationally that I wasn't sure I had understood him… maybe this man didn't know what the word boyfriend meant! I pointed at his wedding ring and told him that I couldn't do anything with him because his wife would hunt me down. This phrase apparently perplexed him. "Hunt me down?" he asked. "Yes." I replied firmly, "Your wife would come over here to America and…" I made the slitting gesture across my throat with my hand.

Now that he understood. He dropped my wrists, grabbed his own throat and looked at me in complete shock. "They, women, are allowed to do this here?" I told him that women aren't allowed to actually kill, but that in America wives don't allow their husbands to touch other women and that it would cause trouble in the relationship and would probably cause a divorce.

His retort? "Well, in my culture this is not the way it is. Man is allowed to have other girlfriends when he is married; we even have more than one wife. So, it is ok in my culture and you can be my girlfriend! Even if my wife were here she would say it was ok. Sex is good, and she is far away so she will understand… you like sex?"

I swear to you my jaw hit the floor. Now I am very open about everything regarding sex. But, never in my life have I had a completely serious, calm, rational discussion with a married man I’d met two hours before about why I could not be his girlfriend for two months.

So, I told him that yes I liked sex, but he had a wife and he was in MY culture right now and that in my culture that means that I cannot touch him. He was very logical, told me that since HE was the one that was married it was HIS culture that dictated what he could do in his relationship. He told me that he would take me back to Africa with him and I could see and then I could be his girlfriend. “AH, a way out” I thought. "Ok, Theo, if I come visit you in Africa and your wife tells me herself that she is ok with you having a girlfriend then maybe I will be."

And, saying that, I stood to leave. I was trying very hard to not leave him with the impression that all American women are frigid bitchs. The entire discussion lasted over thirty minutes. I seriously sat there and tried to explain for over a half hour why I was not going to take him on as a lover. I don't think he got it!

He went for a hug when I said that I had to leave. I am fine with hugs. Whatever. But, then he groped me like a horny highschool boy. Butt, waist, breasts… seriously took me a second to fight off the shock before I started struggling. I was also laughing the whole time; it was so incredible. And, him wearing only boxers, it was easy to tell that he was very, um, happy. He caught my wrists again and made sure I knew how happy he was. No, no, no, no. Anyways, I finally managed to un-entangle myself from him, and he had the nerve to ask me when I was coming again.

I was still shaking my head in incredulity but I said I’d be back the next week and that I would bring him some movies to borrow (we had talked about that earlier). He asked me if I was going to watch them with him. I told him only if he would behave. Apparently he didn't know the word "behave" so I tried- "be good." He told me he was good and would be very good for me.

I rolled my eyes at him… "I mean treat me like a friend and ONLY a friend. NOT a girlfriend." His reply and I shut the door in his face? "Ok, for now."

So, I'm sitting there a couple weeks later having further "discussions" with Theo, I'm wondering how many typical young women would be able to not run screaming from the room. Most of my peers would not have been comfortable with the conversation twists that occurred (not knocking my age group, just pointing out that intelligent American women are quite often not open to male viewpoints from other cultures).

Listening to him talk about gender roles in his culture, I couldn't decide if he is speaking from a ten-year old boys perspective or the perspective of someone still living in the 18th century. Perhaps both. For a very educated man, his views on gender and sexuality were quite backwards. Such statements as "Well, the woman does not need sex, but the man’s mental state is based on whether he gets to fuck regularly- it is all biological" seemed to be spouted off with complete certainty.

I asked him if it was ok for his wife to find a new lover while he was away, he told me "No". Quite simply, quite plainly, with a tone that told me he thought me quite absurd for even thinking to ask such a thing. He follows the different zip codes rule apparently. He doesn't sleep with any other women in the Republic of Benin, but anytime he is out of the country he takes on a lover or two – and the guy travels a lot.

He spent probably thirty minutes explaining to me the lessons that his friend's father would give them about how to please a woman- in graphic detail I might add- how he was taught that a man "must feel with his fingers to see if she is wet enough to fuck". Man oh man! I think I must have been blushing for about two hours straight. And, somehow listening to him say all this matter-of-factly in his fairly sexy French accent made it even more absurd to me somehow.

Apparently the only reason that a woman has a right to a divorce in his country is if her man is not a good lover, so much emphasis is placed on teaching boys what to do to keep her happy in bed (now there is a custom that should be adopted here). He didn’t seem to know that "sex" was the common word, he always just used fuck or fucking or fucked. He didn't know many of the words to explain himself in English, so he would point or gesture or touch.

One thing that totally baffled him was that I don't want children (this came about as a result of a discussion on condom use, of course). He simply couldn't understand why I wouldn't want to have a baby. "Babies are good for the world." "You can teach children to be like you and then you live forever." Which I assume was his way of describing a legacy. It confused him even more that "there are men in your culture who would be ok with marrying a woman who would not have a baby?" Babies are next to gods in his culture apparently.

It seems to be just the natural progression of things in his mind that you grow up, get married, and make babies. End of story, no other path to take. He finally tried to justify my weirdness in his head by saying that I "must have a big heart for helping everyone in the world and that I don't want to have to focus all helping energies on one baby when I feel should be helping lots of people", or some such mumbo jumbo. I let it slide.

He was always saying things like how he was drawn to curvy women, and how he knew right after meeting me that I was different then "most white women" he had met and that my "life spark reminded him of African woman from his country." He spent probably twenty minutes trying to explain that to me, and eventually I just nodded my implied agreement even though I still didn't really get what he meant.

I had to remind him several times throughout the evening that he had agreed to be only friends with me and not to try to be more then friends. He would nod and move on. And, then circle back to the subject twenty minutes later. One would think that I would have learned from last time that his hugs are not just hugs, but he had done so well throughout the evening of keeping his hands to himself that I made the mistake of assuming he was over it. So, the goodbye hug was just as horny-highschool-boy as last time. He was a bit on the scrawny side which was a good thing because if he were stronger, what was just laughable could have been dangerous.

However, he was very verbally clear that he still wanted to have me as his girlfriend. He even told me about a date he went on the “other night, where, being a man" he could tell she "just wanted him to fuck her." But apparently his "penis wasn't working with her." So he knows that he "wasn't supposed to fuck her, but” he knew that “it would work very well with Kate."

Flattering, disturbing, but flattering.

The worst thing is that I had to go back upstairs and say goodbye to the grandparents. I'm sure I was disheveled and blushing. They told me how nice it was that I was being nice to Theo, and that they were glad for him to have a friend closer to his age. And, that we should have him up for dinner next time I came over since he seemed to enjoy the company so much. I was still half giggling uncontrollably… "Yes, he certainly did seem to enjoy the company." And, I raced out of there.

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