Abuela’s RulesBy: Marcelo Báez
A few months back, while waiting in line to check-in for an Aeroméxico flight, an older woman and a little girl—the woman’s granddaughter, I assumed—stood in front of us. The woman was becoming visibly flustered while trying to navigate through the airline’s electronic kiosk. Neither spoke English, and only a couple of attendants where available, all of which were busy with other passengers. I was traveling with a friend and both of us offered to help the woman. Looking relieved, she accepted our help and thanked us.
Once my friend and I made it to our designated gate, we sat down and started going over pertinent travel details. Suddenly I overheard the older woman’s voice from behind me. In a serious tone, she instructed her young companion to “give this to those young men.” Seconds later the little girl walked up to us holding a big bag of peanuts. It was a thoughtful, well-mannered gesture on behalf of the older woman, and it left me feeling nostalgic.
When I was a kid, I spent many of my weekends at my grandmother’s place in California. She lived in an old house and things broke down constantly. Fixing one thing or another, repair men were often hanging around her home, and my grandmother implemented a strict rule for all her grandchildren to follow: always offer the workers something to drink. If they declined, then offer a snack such as fruit or Mexican sweet bread (Grandma kept an unending supply of the latter in her pantry).
So that type of kind, grateful recognition—is it a cultural trait?
For a second, I thought so. Simply because earlier this year, after staying with my parents in our small Mexican town, I never managed to make it back to their house empty-handed. Not because I’m a shopaholic, but because the townspeople—friends, acquaintances, extended family—kept giving me candy, bread, fruit and all sorts of prepared food. Since it’s considered impolite to decline a gift, my parents’ kitchen looked like a bona fide farmers’ market only a few days into my visit.
But then, just when I was about to solidify my hypothesis on cultural customs, my grandmother’s neighbor, an American man in his late 60s, popped into my head. Specifically, the afternoon he randomly dropped off two giant zucchinis on my grandma’s porch. My confused, non-English-speaking grandma wasn’t sure what to make of the man’s gift, but hours later, she handed me a container filled with zucchini stew and asked me to take it to the “Americano.”
Upon ringing his doorbell the man greeted me attentively but somewhat embarrassed, he quickly explained that he wasn’t expecting anything in return for his gift. “I noticed your grandmother keeps a garden—as do I—and I just didn’t see any zucchinis in there,” the tall man explained. Then he asked me to relay a message: “We don’t even eat half of what we grow, so tell your grandmother she can help herself to anything in our garden.”
So are polite, thankful customs a virtue that’s more prevalent only in certain cultures? Naw. If anything, it’s generational.
The amount of peanuts the little girl was trying to hand over to us was substantial (she could barely hold the bag with both hands). We didn’t accept the whole bulk, but my friend and I both grabbed a handful after thanking her and, from a distance, waving at her caregiver.
“Que les vaya bien, muchachos,” (Farewell, young men) the girl graciously articulated before walking away.