Every culture thinks it has everything figured out and that the world would be a better place if everybody were more like us. In rural Minnesota we pride ourselves on our helpfulness towards our neighbors, our honesty in business, our disdain for tawdry shows of wealth, our ethic of hard work and our refusal to lock our doors or take the keys out of the car.
If the rest of the world were just like us, we imply as we tell another story about somebody driving 40 miles to return a lost checkbook, things would be so much better.
Never mind that people who move to rural Minnesota from other parts of the world often find us distant, snoopy, gossipy, afraid of risk, addicted to bland food and generally stuck in the mud. Never mind that many of our so-called good actions are motivated by guilt, fear, and the proud desire to never owe anybody for anything, even a slice of pie.
I'll never forget the sense of superiority I felt when I sat alone at a breakfast cafe in Miami listening to retired men from New York City tell stories at the next table. I couldn't believe my ears: One by one, the old men bragged about ripping people off on land deals.
Not saying that people don't rip people off up here in the virtuous Upper Midwest. But we certainly know better than to brag about it over pancakes.
We love getting good deals at the auction, sure. But when we brag that we picked up a mower for $25 that just needed a tune-up to run perfectly, we're really bragging about our frugality. If you ever pull a really big rip-off, decency requires that you keep your mouth shut.
The pervasive influence of culture is complicated, and it shows up in the oddest places. In New Zealand, older people have a stern ethic of self-reliance that makes our crusty pioneers seem soft.
Example: To help older people stay in their homes, New Zealand instituted the same wrist alarms we have here that people can push to call the paramedics if they fall and can't get up.
Trouble is, those tough old Kiwis would rather lay on the floor for four days hoping somebody will just stop by than to officially call for help. Culture trumps technology.
Late last fall, a wonderful woman moved from her native Thailand to our farm and married my brother. (Yes, another fraulein from afar falls for a Fertile man.)
Before Kae arrived, she learned that our parents were of retirement age. She didn't realize that they work harder than ever. In Thailand, older people don't work. And they don't hesitate to accept help. In fact, when they get to a certain age, they just sit around and wait to be served. What's more, Thai young people are thrilled to do the serving.
Kae arrived fully expecting that her job would be to wait hand-and-foot on in-laws she hadn't yet met. And she looked forward to it.
What fun it has been to enjoy other benefits of Kae's culture. Kae loves to cook for others. Bonanza! Thai food is healthy and delicious.
Kae loves family unreservedly, even the one she just joined. Athough we three families live on the same farm, we generally keep to ourselves until some holiday forces us to eat a meal together just to maintain appearances. Well, that won't do for Kae. She will whip up a meal on a Tuesday and call us together for a feast.
A few weeks ago, we gathered for a meal by Kae. Afterwards, we moved to the living room and struggled to converse. You could tell Dad was just dying to sneak out the door to go putter somewhere on something.
He stealthily rose from the couch. "Well, I think I had better..."
"No!" Kae shouted as she grabbed him by the shoulders. "Thai old people sit and enjoy their children!" Dad was to sit there like Buddha and absorb the bustle. He fell back into the couch in defeat.
Dad made it five minutes before the pain of human interaction became too much to bear. With Kae distracted by the dishes, he snuck out the side door to spend some time with his chainsaw.
But the meal and those extra five minutes with Dad were a good thing for all of us. Several sentences of actual communication were exchanged, an odd phenomena for January.
Yes, we Minnesotans were improved by Kae's insistence that we honor a part of her culture.