I Didn’t Get the Memo

A few years ago, my husband (former) and I were having dinner with a couple—accomplished and sane—and I admired the woman’s ring. She said it was a 10-year anniversary present from her spouse: a diamond.

I didn’t get the memo.

Maybe it’s because I was raised overseas. Or maybe it’s because my mother was an American Indian reared by alcoholic parents. But something went missing.

I am clueless when it comes to such celebratory customs, such as what types of presents to expect at anniversaries.

Thanks to Wikipedia, you can discover that the first anniversary is paper, the second, cotton, the third, leather. And the tenth: diamond.

While leather conjures randy images not fit for a public blog, I use the anniversary gift as a metaphor to confess my ignorance and status as an Outsider.

I grew up ignorant of a handful of American customs, many of which appear to be invented by purveyors of jewelry and greeting cards. And like an immigrant anxious to adopt my new country’s cultural mores, I sought avenues to learn the customs of my adopted country.

I realized when I came to the US after attending schools overseas—spending my life as an American in Europe and the Middle East—that I needed to learn cultural norms just like any new citizen.

Growing up, I had never eaten at a McDonalds. I had never driven a car. I had never seen an American football game.

Some customs still evade me, and I have never received a diamond ring, although I have reached the tenth anniversary marital mark.

Once, when visiting a high school in the US during a trip, fresh from England, the practicing teams needed a referee and I was given a whistle and shoved into the game. Next thing I knew high school girls were playing basketball but I had no idea how to officiate.

“Blow the whistle,” someone shouted. I blew the whistle. But had no idea why.

The players were furious and someone finally took the whistle and I watched the play from the sidelines. I had no idea what I was doing: I didn’t get the memo.

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
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2 Responses to I Didn’t Get the Memo

  1. Russ L says:

    Hi Cynthia,

    Sometimes I think it doesn’t matter what customs you practice, just so long as your family has them. Or perhaps that you recognize the ones you have, but didn’t realize were there because each family has it’s own cultural norms (regardless of the wider norms in which a family is “supposed to be” imbedded).

    I also thought your phrase “my ignorance and status as an Outsider” was interesting as well. In fact, I’d submit that it’s a prerequisite for definition as an American Indian; that one never feels like one really belongs…anywhere.

    Like

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