It happened to me again, just last week. At a business gathering, a business leader good friend of mine that I have not seen for a couple months approached me. She has always exhibited the beautiful body shape of a model. This time was different. I easily realized that there was a change in her physique, especially in the middle part of her body. She was constantly caressing her rounded belly with her palm. I kept looking the other way. She tried hard to attract my attention to her belly without success. I started a conversation about the business office we were visiting. She seemed not interested. She was still gently massaging her stomach.
“I have been eating a lot recently,” she finally stated. “Oh well. Me too, especially these days.” I responded with an awkward smile and without looking at her belly. I resisted so hard the temptation of asking what kind of food she had been eating. I did not want to make a comment about her pregnancy. I got in trouble once before due to comments on pregnancy. The “P” word finally came out. “I mean I am pregnant. I am expecting a baby.” OK, now I got it.
There were other people around us. I loudly double checked that she did not mean that I was the author of her pregnancy. Fortunately, she confirmed loudly in front of witnesses that it was not me who caused her pregnancy. I finally was in peace. I then shared with her and the people around us how I almost took a lady to court the first year I lived in Kansas City, because she told me she was expecting.
I was teaching French immersion at an elementary school in Kansas City. Early one morning, my colleague and friend from across the hall stopped by my room for the regular morning greetings.
“Emmanuel, guess what!” She started the conversation. My English at the time being a lot poorer than it is today, I did not quite understand what “expecting” meant. I then asked, “Expecting what?” With great excitement, my colleague announced, “A baby. My first child. I am pregnant.” I was furious to hear that news. I shouted out loudly, “why are you telling me about your pregnancy for? I didn’t do it!”
Lisa looked at me with great surprise. Her excitement faded away in a second. She first remained speechless. Then she started to explain something that I did not care to listen to. Lisa walked out of my classroom while I was still screaming at her, claiming my innocence as loud as I could. I felt falsely accused of a fault that I did not commit. My first reaction was to rush to the school principal’s office to report the false accusation. I deeply believed that she was blaming me for her pregnancy.
After a short inquiry, the principal decided that it was not her responsibility to investigate “sexual harassment,” and recommended that I call the teachers’ union. I called the union and the attorney arrived that morning, took my statements first, then Lisa’s later that day. To make a long story short, I lost a friend forever. Lisa never forgave me, I did not forgive her.
My reaction to Lisa’s announcement was typical of someone who grew up in a different culture and was faced by the cultural norms of the new host community. Per the local cultural standards, her announcement was supposed to create some excitement leading to the expression of congratulations from my part. Rather it became a cultural bomb on my side. Why did I react the way I did? What cultural rationale justified this reaction of mine?
Part II of this column explains the cultural and legal reasons why I reacted so harshly to Lisa’s announcement.
Emmanuel Ngomsi, Ph.D.is President of All World Languages and Cultures, Inc. He educates and coaches on issues of cultures and diversity. He can be reached at info@universalhighways.