Chapter One: Cultural Relativity
Not long ago a college student named Felicia Brooks felt she was the most fortunate young woman in all Seattle, and possibly in the entire world, except for one small problem.
She was deeply in love with her boyfriend, an African student who was the only son of his country's president. His name was Fortunata Maafa. In the spring of 2001, they both were graduating seniors at the University of Washington. They had been dating all year long, he was more than she could ever have hoped for, and Felicia knew all her friends thought Fortunata was catnip. In fact, she was afraid sometimes that they might steal him from her. Most of them had given up on black men entirely. Or at least they had given up on American black men. Their mantra, which Felicia had heard a thousand times, and often chanted herself, was, "All the good black men are taken, and the rest are in prison, on drugs, or unemployed, or dating white women -- or don't like girls at all." What was a sistah to do? During high school and college, Felicia and her friends despaired of ever finding Mr. Right.
But then, miraculously, she met Fortunata fall quarter at the Langston Hughes Cultural Center. He looked like a young Kwame Nkrumah, he dressed as elegantly as Michael Jordan, was gorgeous the few times she saw him in his agbada (African robe), and he fit George Bernard Shaw's definition of a gentleman being "a man who always tries to put in a little more than he takes out." Furthermore, he was rich. He could play the kora, an African stringed instrument, so beautifully you'd cry. Yet, for all that, he still had a schoolboy shyness and was frequently confused by the way Americans did things, especially by pop culture, which was so sexually frank compared to his own country that it made Fortunata squirm. All of this Felicia thought was charming as well as exciting because it meant he was her very own Galatea, and she was his Pygmalion, his guide and interpreter on these shores. He dazzled her every day when he described the ancient culture of his father's kingdom in West Africa. There, in that remote world, his people were introducing the most sophisticated technology, and that was why Fortunata had studied computer engineering. But, he said, his people worked hard to avoid the damaging aspects of Westernization. They were determined to revolutionize their science, but also to preserve their thousand-year-old traditions, their religion, and their folkways, even when the reason for some of these unique practices had been forgotten.
One night in June after their final exams were over, Felicia played for him the movie Coming to America on the VCR in her studio apartment on Capital Hill, hoping he would enjoy it, which he did. No sooner was it over, than Fortunata slid closer to her on the sofa, and said, "I am so like Eddie Murphy in this funny movie. I came to America four years ago, not just for an education, but really to find a beautiful American woman to share my life. To be my queen. Felicia, that woman is you, if you will have me. Because if I can't have you, then I don't want anyone. I just won't marry, ever."
Naturally, Felicia said yes.
"And," he added, "you promise not to change your mind? No matter what happens?"
From the pocket of his suitcoat, Fortunata produced a ring with a flawless, four-carat diamond shaped like the Star of South Africa, for precious stones were plentiful in his country, a nation rich in natural resources. Felicia threw her arms around him. Then, without thinking, acting on what she believed was instinct, she brought her lips close to his. But before she could kiss Fortunata, he wiggled away.
"What?" said Felicia. "What's wrong?"
Fortunata gave her a shy, sideways look. His voice trembled. "I'm so sorry. We don't do that...."
What?" she said. "You don't kiss?"
She looked straight at him, he looked down. "You know I can't."
"Please, don't start this again." Now Fortunata seemed nervous; he began rolling the end of his tie between his fingers. "I'm not sure why. We just don't. The reason is lost in antiquity. Felicia, it's not that unusual. Polynesians rub noses, you know. Samoans sniff each other. And traditional Japanese and Chinese cultures did not include this strange practice called kissing. I suspect they felt it was too intimate a thing for people to do. All I know is that my father warned me never to do this thing when I came to America. We've discussed this before. Don't you remember?"
Felicia did remember, but not happily. This was the one thing about Fortunata that baffled and bothered her deeply. She understood that his culture was very traditional. For example, Fortunata's people insisted that sex should be postponed until a couple's wedding night. All during the past year, they'd done almost everything else that lovers did. They held hands, hugged, and snuggled. But there were no kisses. Not even an air kiss. Or a good-night kiss when he dropped Felicia off at her apartment and returned to his dormitory. The last thing she wanted was to be culturally insensitive, or to offend Fortunata, or to have him break off their nearly perfect relationship. So on those past occasions, Felicia never insisted that he kiss her. Nor did she insist on the night he summoned up the courage to propose.
After taking a deep breath, she said, sadly, "Can we rub noses then?"
"Of course," said Fortunata. "I think that's okay."
It is well known that when two people fall in love, their brains produce an amphetaminelike substance (phenylethylamines) that is responsible for what we call "lover's high." After Fortunata left, Felicia still felt this chemically created elixir of strong emotion; but she also felt very confused. What she felt, in fact, was half ecstasy that she was to wed the son of an African statesman, and half bewilderment because rubbing noses -- in her view -- was no substitute for a big wet one. She was a highly intelligent woman. A woman about to graduate with a degree in anthropology. She wondered if she was being culturally inflexible. But Felicia knew that all her life she had been fascinated by and respectful of the differences in cultures, how each was a self-contained and complete system that must be understood from within. She knew her Levi-Strauss and the work of dozens of structural anthropologists. You did not have to tell her that in some Muslim countries, it was insulting to cross your legs when sitting if the soles of your shoes were displayed to your host. Or that in Theravada Buddhist countries like Thailand, patting a cute youngster on the top of his head was a no-no because that part of the body was looked upon as sacred. So yes, she had always taken great pains to listen carefully when Fortunata spoke of his country's history and mysterious customs.
But she wanted a kiss! Was that asking for so much?
In her heart she knew that kissing was special, and to prove it to herself, she sat down at her computer, went to the Internet, and spent the night looking at everything she could find on the subject. Just as she'd expected, kissing as an expression of love and affection was old. Very old. It dated back to the fifth century. And as a custom, it was even older than that! The early Christians borrowed kissing from the Romans. Clearly, it was the most human of practices. Everyone knew animals didn't kiss. They licked. The reason for having lips in the first place, Felicia decided just before daybreak, was so people could use their God-given soup coolers as the most romantic, the most erotic, and the most natural way to show they loved someone.
During the last year Felicia had introduced Fortunata to all kinds of things outside his culture -- karaoke, the music of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, the importance of Ichiro bobbleheads, and why everyone needed a good-looking tattoo -- and he had enjoyed all of it, and thanked her for enlightening him, as a good Galatea would. When she finally drifted off to sleep, around ten A.M., Felicia wondered if Fortunata had lied. That maybe people in his culture did kiss, but for some reason he simply didn't want to kiss her. But, no! She had never caught him in a lie before. It was more likely that he'd never kissed anyone. So she was certain that if Fortunata could just experience the electric thrill of kissing once, and with the right woman (meaning herself), then a wonderful new cultural doorway would open for him. If she truly loved him, Felicia knew she owed him that.
As luck would have it, Fortunata dropped by unexpectedly that evening as she was fixing dinner. He was almost bursting with excitement.
"Felicia," he said, "I just spoke with my father. I told him about our engagement. We have his blessing. In my country the wedding ceremony lasts for a week. Since my father is president, the whole country will celebrate." He paused to catch his breath. "Aren't you happy?"
To show her happiness, Felicia pressed her body against him. Before he could move, she placed her hands on both sides of his head, pulled him closer, puckered up, and bestowed upon a startled Fortunata the most soulful, moist, and meaningful lip lock she had ever delivered in her life. She felt her heart beating faster, the temperature of her skin beneath her clothes heating up. Smiling, Felicia took a step back. The expression on Fortunata's face was unreadable. He started to speak, but stopped.
And then, suddenly, he was gone.
Where Fortunata had stood there was a full-grown, giant West African frog. It was a foot long and weighed as much as a fox terrier.
"I warned you," he said.
Felicia felt ill. She thought, I can't handle this. But what she said was:
"I don't suppose we can break off the engagement, can we?"
"Don't be silly," said the frog.
Copyright © 2005 by Charles Johnson