Facing Down the Ugly American
By Don Merlot
[WC News Service]
Back in 1968 I started my international career in February and took off for my first international trip in June. When I stepped off the plane to experience my first foreign culture exchange and to pursue an international global career, my expectation was, as a recent college graduate, that I could handle anything and everything.
One of the things that I was told about seeing a new culture was, do not judge a culture or compare it to your own. You do not have to like it, nor comment about it publicly. You are a business ambassador doing business and be polite and diplomatic.
Maybe as I look back, that was true; in the American Culture of the 1960s we were the Baby Boomers out represent the USA and its interests but it was not practiced by all American travelers that I had met or known. And there I was, starting my first business trip in June 1968 surrounded by an anti War movement, racial discord, political division. My new business group consisted of Americans who wanted to sell excess manufactured goods. There was a common feeling then that Americans were exporting “fast food, blue jeans, and rock 'n roll."
The business trip was planned to introduce me to our Caribbean distributors and meet some of my field colleagues. At the half way point, my colleagues had to return to the office and I was to continue alone. It could not be prevented as the group of sales and marketing executives taking me on my first trip had last-minute changes.
The first part of the trip went well and was uneventful. We flew to Puerto Rico, and our group arrived together. I was introduced to our distributor in San Juan. To me it was a totally new experience: meeting our business associates. I spoke Spanish and, at Thunderbird, I had been given advance studies on commercial Spanish and the basics in the official Spanish Castilian (Castellano). The distributor’s general manager was a Spaniard, and as I got to know him, he was a great teacher for me as I was a neophyte to the Spanish/Spanish-American world.
My colleagues were trained at Thunderbird, the international business school, or had lived overseas. When we met, we communicated well and that was a relief, because I was told that all the words I used could have different meanings in different markets, but luckily I was nudged by my mentors who clarified any words that could have different meanings. (Pinche in Mexico is a jerk and in Spain it means a cook's assistant).
For me, I had to get involved with the actual instead of talking academic theory.
That night after our day’s meeting we went out to Spanish restaurant in Old San Juan and had great Spanish food. The menu included a choice of garlic soup (Spanish) and black bean soup (Cuban) and a paella marinara (A Spanish seafood and rice dish). These were pure Spanish things I had never experienced before that we enjoyed with had superior Spanish wine.
This was all new to me and I had to pinch myself as I was just embarking on my wine sojourn and wine appreciation avocation.
The wine was from the Rioja, a region in Spain, and the varietal was Tempranillo. The wine label was Marques de Riscal and at that time it was considered one of the top quality wines from Spain. It had already competed with French wines in Bordeaux competitions. My colleague had lived in Spain and was able to let me try the good wines from Spain.
Puerto Rico and the Spanish Caribbean were discovered in 1492. In Spanish history this is the start of the New World. There was a constant reminder that I was visiting the New World and seeing the Old which gave birth to the New World.
I had to see clearly, hear clearly, and feel the New World. I heard a story that made me laugh. It was the story of a Mexican tourist who understood his culture and was a first time visitor to San Juan and the Caribbean and wanted to absorb the beautiful beach scenario of Isla Verde, where one could walk along the sea and buy a cup of coffee (Puerto Rican coffee a posillo), some bread, “Pan de Agua.” (Spanish/Puerto Rican equivalent to a baguette).
So the story goes that the tourist walked along Isla Verde and came upon a lovely setting and a food stand serving breakfast offerings, so he decided to eat breakfast. He reviewed the menu and ordered what he saw; there was a choice of eggs and bread and tortillas. So he ordered fried eggs, toast, and three tortillas. He was asked what type of tortilla, and he asked what the offering was?
It was cheese (Manchego), chorizo (Spanish sausage), and ham
(jamon Serrano). He said he would have one of each. The server never blinked, and all the food came out at the same time. The tourist was over
whelmed when he saw the quantity of food and the serving size.
Unbeknownst to the tourist: a tortilla in Puerto Rico (and Spain) is equivalent to an omelet (or an Italian Frittata). In Spain tortillas are omelets. In Mexico and Central America Tortillas is a Corn cake, made from corn meal (Masa) the egg servings were on individual plates which were more like a platter, so he had the equivalent of four meals. The lesson on exploring new cultures was that there is a common language and to make sure if the definition is the same.
My entry to “Food and Wine of the New World” had just opened up for me and I had added to my repertoire of Spanish food. I was started with a Spanish Sopa de Ajo -–
garlic soup and I also was given a small cup of black bean soup that had come from Cuba. For the main dish we had a Paella Marinara –- a seafood platter baked with rice. This dish was chosen over the traditional Paella Valenciana (which has Chicken and rabbit). My colleagues ordered and I just sat back and enjoyed. It was a rite of passage; one of my colleagues had lived in Madrid for several years and wanted me to take off correctly as food and wine are crucial in the Spanish gastronomy: to me in 1968 Spain was a traditional Western European country, and I was a raw, uninformed kid starting on an international career.
My colleagues, traveling with me, had all lived in Europe, one in Spain, and instinctively knew what was right for a novitiate as me. The menu was Spanish and one was given to me but was not for me to figure out my choice, but to acquaint me to the Spanish food and wine scene. For days I emitted garlic. My breath wafted with ajo for days.
Puerto Rico was the discovered by Christopher Columbus (in Spanish America he goes by his Spanish name Cristobal Colon) on his second voyage to the New World he discovered Puerto Rico. It became part of the Spanish Caribbean colony until the Spanish American War in the late 1880s and became a US possession. Puerto Rico has kept its Spanish roots intact. Its food and culture is Spanish Caribbean. There are Caribbean ingredients that are included in the daily menu of the island, but in a Spanish restaurant there are still the authentic dishes from Spain.
After Columbus’s trips and discovery of the New World, Spain became the most powerful kingdom in Europe; it leapfrogged to a top wealthy powerful country. In Rome Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander the VII (changed his surname to Borgia,) and issued the Papal Bull (Tordesillas) that let Spain and Portugal claim the new World. Spain controlled Spanish Colonies from Sevilla, Spain.
When Columbus sailed west to create a new way to get to the spices of Asia and the Spice Islands, he created opportunities to take new foods to the New World. Sugar had started in what is now New Guinea and developed in China and India. Sweet flavors from sugar were popular in desserts and something that Spain had incorporated in its possessions. The reason Spain had gone west is that Portugal had taken over the maritime world and control the spice trade flowing west from Asia and the Spice Islands. Columbus promoted the idea. One of the foods the Portuguese took west and planted it in the Portuguese possessions which were located along the maritime route from Africa to the Azores. Sugar; from the Sugar Cane thrived in a tropical environment and when it came into Spanish Hands, the Spanish took it to the Canary Islands.
Columbus brought some sugar cane plantings and introduced them to the Spanish Caribbean: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica. The distilled alcohol derived from sugar is rum. This rum product became the beverage of the Caribbean. Lighter rums became popular in Spanish possessions.
The wine we had was Spanish made from the Spanish varietal Tempranillo that when cultivated in the Rioja became a classique red wine that would compete with the French Bordeaux. The Marques de Riscal that we had was delicious. As I knew nothing of the wine I would have to study it.
I thought my trip to Puerto Rico was fabulous. As I was developing my international skills I was reminded that I not look for similarities but differences. Certainly Puerto Rico was different from Mexico, and had its own unique character.
The next scheduled stop on my maiden international voyage was to Kingston, Jamaica. When I awoke the day of June 6, 1968 I was told the news that Senator Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in Los Angeles the night before. He was running for President and was against the War in Vietnam.
I remember that sinking feeling I experienced five years before when JFK, his brother, was assassinated, and I felt it was done for political reasons. I thought this was an American conspiracy. Our Vietnam War was continued by LBJ. I felt I was an American and we were being threatened. When I left Tulane and Thunderbird I had not been pro-Kennedy or LBJ. Was this a threat to America? My shock was that all day no one really mentioned or seemed concerned about this assassination.
My colleagues had already made their return to the company headquarters in Michigan and had told me that I would go alone on to Kingston. My first trip alone, without family or friend, and as I traveled on a Pan American flight, I was experiencing a historic moment on my first trip out of my American cultural bubble: here in English America and Spanish America. Luckily I had grown up learning about the history of the New World and thought of myself as a product of the New World. The historical development of the New World was right here in Puerto Rico and Jamaica. I felt the strong defense of American eagle protecting me even though I would leave the political control of United States. This was done many times before as I traveled as a child between Mexico and the United States. Going through immigration and Customs was a formality and I had a US passport and felt the cultures I was leaving and visiting respected that.
Arriving, I became a stranger in a strange land, I could tell immediately that the language was not American but Jamaican and British. The signs were not American English, but British -- Jamaican. Going through customs the lines were for Jamaican, British Commonwealth, and others (where I directed). Before I realized it I was in a room looking for my luggage and clearing customs. Bags in hand, (a brief case and a two-suit suitcase), I was in front a receiving crowd of porters and family tourist vans looking for visitors, family, and tourists being directed to the taxi lines. It dawned on me that I was trying to find someone who did not know me from our distributorship. An official looking guard with a clip board with lists of guests was in front of hotel vans. He asked my name, immediately found it, and I was whisked away to a hotel van and on my way to my hotel.
I had to get some Jamaican money and looked for an exchange kiosk but I lost my opportunity because I was already in the hotel van, but I had been told to carry a roll of dollar bills to use for tips. At the hotel I was processed and directed to my room. At the reception I received a note from my distributor contact that he would be here shortly to greet me and have dinner with me.
As I looked around the lobby, I saw I was the only American tourist. A flight crew from BWIA (British West Indies Airways) was checking in also. Also a British Airways crew arrived. I was so stunned by the women flight attendants. They were young and real beauties. Their chatter in English accents was new to me. They talked to each other, but ignored the rest of us in the lobby. The BWIA hostesses made up of Jamaican and Caribbean young ladies really stood out because of the polycultural mix: African, Indian, and Chinese, and Spanish. I learned later from our distributor that the English and Jamaicans call BWIA 'Britain’s Worst Investment Abroad.' I refrained using that joke because I did not want the people to think I was making fun of them.
It sunk in to my brain that I was surrounded by a black population that was in command of their environment. They were not white Americans or Brits. When I came to the USA, I grew up in a military school in Virginia and segregation still existed in the late ‘50s, so the demeanor of the Jamaicans was so different than the black African-Americans I knew. I quickly changed to informal clothes. The English tradition of business attire was necessary for the business day, but at night the informal wear was like the Spanish Caribbean guyabera, an open shirt that was not tucked in.
Fritz Hansen was the sales manager (and an African Jamaican) from the Times Store, our Jamaican distributor importer for Whirlpool appliances. Fritz came in and greeted me with a deep Oxford Accent. He spoke better English than most Americans I knew. He was a graduate of the London School of Economics. He commented that he was sorry that our statesman was killed. We went off to have a Jamaican supper. Everything for me was different -– including the drive in the car in the left lane.
To prepare for this trip I went to the Library and there was a Time Life series on countries, and I had read up on the markets I was prepared to look for the differences.
Food and wine in Jamaica was not like Puerto Rico. Wine was not a tradition in the Jamaican culture. The beverages were beer and rum. New to me the beer was Red Stripe; the rums were in different stages. White rum, the least expensive, was raw and had a sharp after taste; mixed with a soft drink like a Coca Cola (which was universal in the Caribbean). The Jamaicans are proud of their dark rums.
Interesting for me was the mixture of ginger ale, ice, and dark rum. As Fritz got to know me he asked many questions on our American political situation. The major question was, “Why do Americans kill their politicians?” For me, as a recent graduate and had been a political science and history major and was able to answer from my academic perspective. (No experience or opinion since it was my first trip.)
Since I liked spicy food Fritz ordered food with the spicy Scotch Bonnet. (This is the equivalent to the Mexican, Spanish Caribbean, and Central American “Habanero”). We had Jamaican specialties. A spicy soup (Cock soup) grilled goat, Peas and rice. I enjoyed a sauce that was “Picka pepa.”
From 1494 Jamaica was a Spanish possession until 1655 when the English wanted to have control of territory in the Caribbean. Jamaica was taken by the British and became a harbor for the buccaneers -– freelance pirates under British protection. Jamaica became the largest rum producer in the Caribbean; and as slavery was introduced as the growing of sugar cane grew to make rum for the English taste. Sugar required large amount of slave workers
So my trip ended up being to the Spanish Main and was my introduction to Puerto Rico and Jamaica. I met the old traditional world by traveling to the countries that were part of New World. Both had been discovered by Columbus and became part of Spanish America. In 1655 Jamaica was captured by the British. It became a haven for British privateers trying to steal Spanish ships carrying gold and silver back from Spanish colonies in South America. British brought African slaves in to bolster sugar crops and developed a rum industry.
I recognized that black slavery in the US -– cotton in the South and British Caribbean sugar development was parallel but not the same result. The black African in the Caribbean dominated the population. Especially in Jamaica the British education system and religion were deeply imbued in the population. Education was a priority and people clearly spoke and well.
The American slaves’ descendants were not educated, nor did they neither speak well nor were not as spiritually united as the Jamaicans; Anglican faith dominated the island. But it was not my role to criticize or make public comment. The Puerto Rican was poly-cultural. Spanish education had not continued after the Americans arrived and English was substituted, the population was not white and by American standards considered inferior, but they were American and US citizens. They were thrown in the category of non-white. Until the concept of Hispanic was created. The problem here is that Hispanics include Africans and Native Americans (American Indians -- Amerind).
This part of my life was a first step of international understanding for me. How Americans think and what the new world thinks of Americans.
(Don Merlot is Ron Alonzo).