“May I have a sip?” asks a much-loved older relative.
I stifle a sigh and hand over my coffee cup.
Three minutes later, “Can I have another sip?”
With a small sigh, I hand over the cup.
Two minutes later, “Can I…” and I hand the cup over while biting my lip.
I don’t want to share. That cup of caramel/ Brazil nut/ vanilla-flavored coffee is my first flavored filter coffee in 11 months and, since I probably won’t be back to that store again this summer, it’s the last of that kind for another year. And I want to savor every drop of it.
And cherished older relative could have bought their own, heck I would have paid for their own. But no, my relatives want “just a sip” and “just a bite.”
This might have turned me into a person happy to share, but it did not. I turned into a person who hates handing over my coffee cup, doing it only under duress and after chiding myself about the importance of generosity.
Then I moved to Oman and learned a whole new system of dealing of food. There is no “mine” and no “yours” when eating with my Dhofari friends. There is “ours” and everyone attempts to be the person who is fastest to pass the freshly poured cup of tea or the newly opened box of cookies to someone else.
When I am with female friends at restaurants; food is automatically pushed towards the center of the table. We cut off pieces of whatever we ordered and place it on each other’s plates, even if that person is protesting that they don’t want any. We unconsciously put some French fries on a plate in the middle of the table or turn our plates so it’s easy for someone to take some.
On picnics, the food is set out communally on a platter. No one takes anything out of the coolbox without asking each person what they want first. At the end of the night, you try as hard as possible to give the leftovers to someone else. Several times I have pushed others to take food (halwa or qibqab, a thin, plain cracker-like bread) that I really wanted to bring home.
I do this instinctively in Oman but when I am staying with family, my food protection systems engage, the remnant of years of fending off “just a bite” and “you should share.”
Seeing food (taco salad! cinnamon-raisin bread! potato salad! cranberry muffins!) that I haven’t had for almost a year, I get selfish. When I open a small (one person!) bag of Old Bay-spiced potato chips and a relative hovers and dives in, I fight my instinct to hold the bag out of reach.
When people ask for “just a sip,” I am still cranky but I envision my Omani friends’ horror at the thought of my behaving badly. I remember all the meals shared and all the French fries I have stolen as I hand over the coffee cup.
“It’s just pie, people are more important than pie,” I say to myself as a foreign fork appears at the side of my plate. I push my plate towards the fork, saying “go ahead” with a cheery tone. Ethnographic work changes you. For the better.