My personal trainer approaches with a ribald grin and a hip-led swagger. He’s ectomorphic and Kenyan: A human twister. My polite return grin is taken as an invitation for escalation to a volley of increasingly complicated conviviality that I am totally unprepared for. I’m confined to a cultural script, trapped by the hubris of politeness, and there is no escape but for the completion of this elaborate manoeuvre. In short he’s going all Chris Rock or Eddie Murphy on me, or maybe Donald Glover for a more contemporary example.
Cultural exchanges as a guilty liberal elicit private panic, as the need to appear seamless and wordly violently collides against mostly knowing other cultures as an amorphous oppressed other. A handshake is a practical examination, an oral presentation, a closed-book essay. I’m flipping through my mental pop-cultural library of buddy cop handshakes and RnB music videos and ill-conceived improv characters, trying to convert theory in to practice. All this puts me thoroughly back in my own cranium, digits-in-temple stressed-out about appearing digits-in-temple stressed-out.
The next step in convivial escalation is that his right hand opens to a palm and his whole “I dumbbell curl 50kg” right arm swings back menacingly to like 11:00pm geospatially, the same slant as a street sign after a bad reverse park or a golfer going postal with a sand-wedge. His thumb is perpendicular to his fingers, the L-on-forehead for Loser shape. My matchstick cyclist arm comes up gingerly to maybe 10pm. My sinewy musculature is taut in preparation for what is to come. His palm is motionless at the apex of his swing for only a parabolic moment, and soon it will accelerate downward with only my L-on-forehead Loser-palm to F=ma the whole thing back to zero.
As an example of this digits-in-temple stressed-out, consider speaking English with your ESL colleagues. Their English is good, but not like the wastefully exuberant good of a tertiary-educated monoglot. There’s always this bit where you want to use a word (e.g. exuberant, monoglot) and are forced to like come down a little bit and play this balancing act of choosing an English word betwixt condescending and incomprehensible. Sentence formation becomes a series of guilty, self-conscious moments.
Then the palm comes down, like swinging down, and my eyes are locked on to his like coliseum combat. 11:00, 10:30, 10:00… My palm rushes to match his, like we’re on opposite ends of some low latency bi-racial funhouse mirror. My twelve minutes of warm-up cardio on the zero-incline treadmill hasn’t even started yet and I’m already sweating. I not only have to do this I have to do it all fluently, and with locked eyes I’m enlisting my peripheral vision to conduct all the trigonometry needed to ensure my palm-centre meets his at the same x, y, and z defined-point and our digits are precisely perpendicular. Cross-cultural communication has its mathematical dimension; privilege has its bio-mechanical dimension. 9:00, 8:30, 8:00.
Then there is religion, the big daddy-o of guilty self-consciousness in a country that has a triple-digit religion rate. So when people ask me if I go to Church or not, I’ve got this calculated performance about how I can’t come because I go hiking on Sundays. I say without a hint of ham that the wind is my sermon and pilgrimage is my prayer. All of this with receptive open palms and dulcet tones, eyes wandering around like wish flower motes are aloft all round. All of this really a plea for deflection because I’d rather not get all Nietzschean.
So not only must this whole convivial thing be completed, I must also give the appearance of enjoying it. Grit-teeth smiles, sweaty brows, and nervous glancing down to double-check my periphery trigonometry are a no-go. I’m smiling and inwardly praying and I see two monochromatically opposed blurs approach athwart at the base of my vision. It’s pretty much up to God at this point. 7:30, 7:00, 6:30…
Sometimes when I catch the public bus system home, I get off at the less-affluent interchange and walk an extra few minutes rather than at my stop which is like right on a strip of swanky hotels.
Wham! Our palms somehow land majestically true. Our fingers newtonially continue forward to assume a curl around each others’ hands. My sinewy right arm withstands his force with only a stutter, and I later decide to regard this as having done 15 reps of concentration curls in my Moleskine. The finale is to pull towards each other with a right-foot pivot in and allow our clavicles to meet in a calculated landing. Simultaneous to this is an optional slap on the shoulder with our free hand, but mine is disengaged behind me in a splayed open palm for balance and stress management purposes. So I opt-out. The meet of clavicle and some pec produces a light bounce that returns us back to a resting stance. Everything is lucid and rapturous for a moment. I feel like I’m fitting in.