– The Beatles
“It’s an acquired taste.”
For the first fifteen or so years of my life, when I would hear that statement attached to description of food, I would immediately assume it tasted weird or bad. I never even took the time to break down the meaning of the entire sentence. It just entered my mind phonetically–its eyn uh-kwahyurd teyst–then my mind would spit out meaning: don’t bother.
Can you blame me though? Think back to your eight-year-old palate. Now, think about how you felt about beer, asparagus, salmon roe, brussel sprouts, coffee, licorice, and liver. Did you like these foods? Well, I sure didn’t. They were foreign and unpleasant flavors to me, and when grown-ups described how it tasted, they used the word, acquired. Maybe I just assumed it was a word with double meaning like fine, or right.
In any case, as I got older, I developed a liking for many of the aforementioned foods, and the meaning finally clicked: Ah, you acquire a taste for the food over time. Now, I cannot imagine turning down liver pate or fish eggs of any kind, and asparagus and brussel sprouts are among my favorite vegetables.
Looking back on it now, I think I was jarred by the unknown. I was uncomfortable with the new experience of consuming these unfamiliar flavors, and I immediately cast them aside, categorizing them as other, weird, disconcerting, and ultimately not worthy of my time.
I have come to realize that people, too, can be an acquired taste. A perfect case in point would be one of my good friends, whom I met six years ago, roughly around this time of year.
I was working in Burlington, Vermont at the time, and I was finishing up my last day at work. It was blazing hot, and I was just trying to put in my hours, which were all but pointless, since there was little I could do on my last day. It was explained to me that this particular day also happened to be one of the first days of work for the office’s new summer intern from Maryland, and we were to share an office space for about six hours. Honestly, I did not care. I was heading off to my new job in San Francisco in a few days. It was hot. I was in the office, but not present–just going through the motions while in a bit of a foul mood due to the circumstances.
After getting settled in at my desk, trying hard to move as little as possible so as to avoid sweating further, a tall, thin Black man, with neatly trimmed hair, and a big smile came walking into the office. It was the new intern.
Two things struck me immediately. First, despite the fact that this man seemed to be over six fee tall, he took remarkably quick, tiny, careful strides; it was as if he were literally walking on egg shells. Secondly, along with a snappy polo shirt and matching belt, he was wearing the tiniest shorts I had seen on a man, since the 1980s. His long legs, which had clearly been treated with liberal amounts of body lotion (as the chocolate glossy shine suggested), and deck shoes worn without socks (coordinated with the outfit, of course), actually made the shorts look tinier (if that was possible).
So here I was, in the midst of a pointless day of work, with sweat dripping down my brow, and I was being greeted by a giant chipper pair of legs from straight out of a recent J.Crew catalog.
He introduced himself with a kind handshake; his giant, cool, dry hands made me even more insecure about my sweaty palms. We exchanged pleasantries, and I began to take notice of his pronounced and intentional Southern twang.
Sitting about six feet away from me, at his desk, the intern engaged me in a bit of small talk. I commented on how hot it was. The intern explained that he was from North Carolina, and it was, “hot as Hades,” back where he grew up. I asked him about going to school in Maryland, and he told me that it had been a challenging transition, but the journey had been rewarding, he was appreciative for the learning he was experiencing, and I am pretty sure he mentioned that God or Jesus put him on this path for a reason. When I asked him how he felt about his new internship, he poured on the praise for the woman who helped him secure this opportunity, and he accentuated his complements with, what sounded like, a bible reference. All the while, the intern did not show a sign of discomfort with the heat. Maybe it was the shorts.
In any case, I pegged him as very Southern, conservative, religious, exceedingly positive, with teeny-tiny shorts. For this Berkeley raised, hippy-influenced, decidedly nonreligious, pragmatic wearer of over-sized shorts that extend below the kneecaps, the intern was very foreign, and completely indigestible. We spent much of the rest of our day in silence. And, while we were both at a gathering that weekend, I pretty much avoided him.
Flash forward one year, and I am coming off of some time away from work. My supervisor tells me that the division has a new hire, and this person in the new position mentioned that he knows me. She mentions his name and nothing clicks. She mentions that he interned at Vermont, and… it clicks.
“Ah,” I say with a smirk, “that guy is… special.”
When his first week comes around, I go down to greet him. He is very well dressed, and on this occasion, wearing pants. One thing leads to another, and for some reason, I end up offering to take him to lunch later that week. The day of our lunch comes around, and I take him to pick up Good Luck Dim Sum, one of my favorite bargain bites, down on Clement Street in the Richmond District of San Francisco. Knowing he is from the South, I do my best to pick out the items that are most palatable for the every-day person. We leave with three huge boxes of dim sum–enough to feed a small family. Upon arriving back at work, we find a place to sit down, chat, and eat. He is polite, but eats very little. Apparently he does not have a taste for dim sum. I’m a bit put off, as unadventurous eaters easily annoy me. He does little to change my opinion of him. To me, he still is not quite my cup of tea.
Over time, we continue to find ourselves in each other’s company. By the end of the year, I realize that he is one of the brightest professionals in our division, and I want to work with him whenever I can. By the end of the next year, he ends up being one of the few people from work with whom I feel close enough to invite to my wedding. By the end of the following year he becomes one of the only people in my life with whom I can argue, debate, and/or engage in authentic dialogue. We mainly argue about the compatibility of a conservative agenda, and social justice, and it does get heated, but we stick with it. Now he is one of my closest confidants, and I cannot really imagine my life without him.
My perspective on the “Intern” has clearly shifted over time. I do not think I would describe my friend as weird. Rather, I would say he is quite unique, especially by California standards.
I have adjusted to his cyclical way of speaking, and now recognize that his style is conducive with great storytelling. I find it charming, the way he uses similes to explain everything under the sun. I smile inwardly as I watch him tiptoe around situations in which he is tempted to speak unkindly of another (“Well, his inability to finish his end of the project provided me with an opportunity to explore creative options within a short window of time”). I have begun to repeat many of his favorite sayings, such as: “teamwork makes the dream work,” or, “it takes a village to raise a child.” When my friend references his Christian faith to thank me for something I may have done–“Brother, there is a place in The Kingdom for you”–I take it as one of the highest complements I could possibly receive. I have witnessed him become a more adventurous eater (though he still wouldn’t touch the tuna tartare when we went out to eat the other day). We laugh together often, reenacting the scene with Randy Watson and his band, Sexual Chocolate, from Coming to America. We greet each other every day with another Coming to America reference, asking one another if one’s “soul is aglow,” in honor of the infamous product from the movie. I have even mastered the Southern art of carrying on a conversation with him about one thing; when in reality, we are speaking about something else all together. The two of us can carry on a twenty-minute conversation about coffee, while we are actually talking about his dating life.
Clearly, over time, I have come to acquire a taste for my good friend. I now realize that my previous distaste for him had less to do with how weird or foreign he was to me, and more to do with my own xenophobia and bigotry. I may have thought of myself as open-minded, but in reality, I viewed him through a lens of judgment, bias, and perceived supremacy. I was the one with an unadventurous palate.
Only happenstance brought us back together. Had our interactions been limited to those few hours in Vermont, I would have missed out on developing a relationship with one of the kindest, funniest, most brilliant, and most thoughtful individuals with whom I have ever had the pleasure of crossing paths. He has changed me. I am a better person for having known him.
Alas, our time together is now limited. My good friend will be headed back to the South for graduate school in less than a week. He will be missed.
Recently, during a conversation about his upcoming migration to the South, I asked him if he was excited about being closer to home, and around people that were more like him. “Aren’t you excited about blending in? Aren’t you looking forward to being with your people?” I joked.
“Well, Brother,” he exhaled with his Carolina drawl, “I worry about that,” he said, adding a long pause. “I think they may not get me. My ideas might be too liberal for their liking.”
The irony of his statement was not lost on me.
I hope that he finds a home in the South. For as Maya Angelou says so eloquently:
The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.
My good friend shared that quote with me. He taught me that this understanding of home should guide the way we co-construct community for all. He is very wise.
If I could write a letter to the people of the community for which he will shortly be a part of. I would kindly request that they sooth my good friend’s ache for home. Moreover, I would ask that they give my friend time to grow on them. For in my opinion, a taste for my good friend is well worth acquiring.