“A coke, please,” he said gratefully.
I went to the kitchen, filled a quarter of a tall glass with ice cubes, poured coke to the brim and offered it to him.
Instead of sipping, he lifted the glass, estimated the amount of ice in it and said, “Are you running short of coke?”
Chastened, I took the glass back to the kitchen, threw out the ice cubes save three, poured more of coke and handed the glass to my friend. He drank contentedly.
An hour later he left. The bell rang again and another neighbor, an American, came to visit. He was perspiring too, and I acted the considerate host and offered a cold drink.
The same polite response, “A coke, please.”
Once again, I went to the kitchen, took another tall glass, filled it nearly to the brim with coke and then, mindful of the earlier admonition, carefully added three cubes of ice.
The American friend accepted the glass with a polite word of thanks and placed it on the side table. He was about to take a sip but stopped to lift the glass and look at its contents.
He peered at the three lonely ice cubes at the bottom of the glass.
“Are you running short of ice?” he asked.
If you think looks are superficial things, you may have just arrived on this planet from Mars. I doubt Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie get their million-dollar roles in Hollywood because of their wits or scholarship. Some observers suspect two-thirds of people, especially women, find their jobs in companies by looks rather than skills. L’Oréal and Unilever sell $50 billion of cosmetics each year, not to speak of Estée Lauder and Procter & Gamble. The curious part is that dark people want to look fair and white people want to turn dark. Every Bollywood song-and-dance routine hires pale girls from Ukraine and every woman on a cruise I took recently lay in the sun semi-naked on the deck until baked crisp to crimson.
Our habits are harder to reconcile. The Chinese are reported to eat whatever moves, from bat to bison, the Japanese enjoy whatever comes out of the sea (I can’t name the creatures, but they taste good), Koreans enjoy a live octopus and Cambodians feast on fried tarantulas. The average American, including Indian American, cannot dine without a beef steak, while in India you will be beaten or lynched even suspected to taste beef. I tried to stay away from exotic delicacies: eating grasshoppers in Thailand, chicken feet in the Caribbean, stewed cow head in the Middle East and snakes with tribes in India.
To show my admiration for local customs I have worn a tuxedo in the UK, a galabia in Abu Dhabi, a dhoti in Bangladesh, the formal Barong Tagalog in the Philippines, the guayabera in Colombia and the Dominican Republic, and the shortest of shorts on US beaches. While at fashion shows in Paris, Madrid or New York women make men lose their head wearing Versace or Gucci that reveal more than half of their best assets, the women would probably lose their head wearing those dresses in Riyadh or Islamabad. The modest Indian housewife wraps herself elaborately in a long sari, but foreigners gawk wide-eyed at the wide expanse of their torso a skimpy blouse barely covers.
Let me not talk about the crazy juxtaposition that some countries drive on the left of the road while others on the right, creating havoc for visiting tourists and forcing car-makers to make different cars for different markets. In Spain slaughtering a succession of sturdy bulls I found to be a great sport, while in Nepal slaughtering 250 thousand buffaloes and goats for some crass goddess is supposed to be great worship.
There is no limit, of course, to the wildly different things people want to worship and believe. Let alone the big faiths of love and peace that are forever killing one another, there are the Ho No Haga Sampyago that diagnoses you by your feet, the Freedomites who believe in parading naked to show contempt for authority, the Solar Temple Order that sacrificed an infant for embodied evil, Raelism that started a company to clone decent humans, Chen Tao that waits for a god to descend from a flying saucer, and the notorious Aum Shinrikyo that tried to raise consciousness by putting deadly Sarin gas in five Tokyo trains.
The extent of human differences beggars imagination. Blessed are the people who work idealistically for the United Nations group, as I once did, and try to unite countries, because it seems a pretty uphill business to try to unite humans, armed as they are with their tastes and beliefs – and convinced that those represent the unique standard of normalcy.