Thursday night we had one of those gatherings of people around our dinner table that, for me, was a thing of beauty.
Of the eight folks at our table, we were born in five different countries. Four of us were born here in the United States of America. The other countries represented were Iran, Japan, Mexico and China.
After an hour or so of polite, but interesting chit-chat, we got into one of those rare and wonderful conversations that goes beyond pleasantries and gets to the heart of things. We started talking about the complexities of relationships, focusing most of our attentions on marriage, parent/child and siblings. The interesting part of the conversation was that while there were a few subtle cultural differences, we had all really come to most of the same conclusions about how to make things work or smooth things over. I asked my guests to consider their culture and offer insights regarding how to make relationships work.
The Cajun spoke first.
“Pick your battles,” my friend Debra Broussard Taghehchian said.
“Act like you want to do it — not like you have to,” said her daughter, Layla.
And then Debra’s husband, Saeed Taghehchian, who is from Iran, offered a Persian jewel of wisdom: “It’s a lot easier to change myself than trying to change you.”
With that one, we all gave a hearty, “Amen.”
Jiro Hatano, our friend visiting from Japan, had been quiet through much of the conversation, but with Saeed’s sage adage, Jiro grabbed his handy-dandy translator and started translating ideas and axioms from Japanese into English. With each, he would do his best to explain its meaning and context.
“His conduct betrayed his upbringing,” was the first translated from Japanese and prompted much discussion. Should the verb be betrayed or portrayed? Was Jiro trying to say the Japanese equivalent of, “He was raised to know better,” or, “Raised as he was, this is what you should expect”?
Jiro said it was the latter. Basically, you get out what you put in.
The second Japanese advice on making relationships work was: You’ll give yourself away every time you open your mouth.
In other words, keep your mouth closed whenever possible.
The third was the most difficult to translate. Jiro’s original version of the sentence was enigmatic:
Inscrutable are the ways of heaven.
After much discussion, he explained its meaning: We can’t predict the future. The way of life is changing always. If we have trouble now, that trouble could turn to happiness one day.
Jiro’s thoughts inspired another Persian insight from Saeed. The first, loosely translated is: Taking the high road sometimes requires keeping your mouth shut.
“Sometimes we say in Iran, if you don’t want to lose, don’t fight,” Saeed said.
My husband, originally from Mexico, agreed and decided it was time to enter the discussion.
“For me, it’s about managing the moment,” he said. “You can’t make your decision about how you’re going to react to one thing by thinking about the future or by thinking about the past. You’ve got to do the right thing based on the circumstances at hand. If you mind that, those moments become cumulative. It’s collecting the little pieces that make a long chain.”
And with that, we finished our sherbet and agreed that if the eight of us from such different backgrounds and family situations could find such common ground around a dinner table in Louisiana, global concord is surely within reach.
Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, appears Sundays. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.