While happily living the expat life in the tropical, exotic country of Ghana in West Africa, my mate and I went on a short visit to non-exotic suburban Virginia in the USA and while there I suffered through an excruciating cultural experience. Whoever says America has no culture has never been to Joe’s Crab Shack. One day my friend Suzanne called to make arrangements for a seafood dinner at mentioned Shack with a group of old friends we’d cultivated during our Virginia days. It was my birthday, and I was in a festive mood. Here’s the nightmare:
CRABBY AT THE CRAB SHACK
“Joe’s Crab Shack is such a fun place,” says Suzanne, all bubbly with enthusiasm. “And you don’t have to dress up!” As if dressing up is a problem in suburban America.
“Really?” I say.
“Yes! You can wear whatever you want. It’s casual. They even give you a bib!”
This is good news. I am not a tidy eater.
“The music is really loud,” Suzanne goes on, information that considerably dulls my cheeriness.
And loud it is. The sidewalk vibrates like a ship on the high seas as the six of us approach the Crab Shack that evening.
Not surprisingly, the place is decorated to look like a tacky fishing shack, but it’s bigger. Much bigger. And it’s filled with people wearing bibs, ripping apart crabs with gusto.
We are seated and given menus. Drinks are ordered and arrive quickly, a white house wine for me. We discuss the various kinds of crab, screaming at each other across the table. I can’t hear a thing and I fight a rising tide of panic at the unrelenting waves of sound assaulting my eardrums. It drowns out my own words, my friends’ voices.
“You’ll get used to it after a while,” Suzanne shouts. At least I think that’s what she’s saying.
I put my hands over my ears and glance around at the other people. They are enjoying themselves, bouncing in their chairs to the rhythm of the music as they smash the crustaceans on their plates. It’s Friday night, after all, and after a week of stress and toil at the office, who wants to have a meaningful discussion? Taking out your frustrations by crushing dead crabs is more satisfying and more fun. I’m jealous, really. I want to have fun too, feel happy and joyful – it’s my birthday!
If only the music were not so loud. If only I could leave and find a less noisy Crab Shack, one for people with sensitive ears. But I cannot leave. I am doomed by friendship and love to suffer through this.
Why am I here? Everything happens for a reason, it is said. So what, in the cosmic scheme of things, is the purpose of my presence here? I have not a clue.
Two young waiters appear at our table and introduce themselves with pomp and pizzazz. They’re Ben and Jerry, I kid you not. They sport earrings and T-shirts with crab-cute legends. One sits down on the only empty chair at our table to join our cozy circle and give us the full benefit of his cool personality and his crab expertise. The other one, apparently a trainee, is left standing, which Suzanne declares is not nice! She always looks out for the underdog, Suzanne does. Ben the crab expert suggests she let him sit on her lap, to which she replies, hollering at the top of her voice and pointing at me, that he should sit on mine, since it’s my birthday!
This I really wanted to be announced.
Crabs are chosen and orders are taken. I select the soft-shell crab not only because I love it, but because I will be able to consume it in toto. Feeling battered and numb, I don’t want to expend energy in hammering, crushing and digging. I do want a bib, though.
I wonder if actually it’s the season for soft-shell crab. Ben informs me that the season officially starts the night of the first full moon in May, but that, to be truthful, the soft-shells he has available come from South Africa, frozen.
“Oh!” Suzanne screams, pointing at me again. “She just came from South Africa!”
“Not South Africa, West Africa,” I explain. Don’t ask me why I feel the need to make this clear since even my own friend doesn’t know. South Africa, West Africa, what’s the difference to a blond hunky American kid with galloping hormones, an earring and probably no high school diploma? These are uncharitable thoughts, I know, but charity gets killed off in the brain first thing when presented with deafening noise. It does, I’m living proof. Just look at this photo. You’d think it was of a decomposing osage orange, but really it’s my brain on CSD (Crab Shack Decibels).
The kid asks me how it is over there, West Africa, South Africa, whatever.
I tell him it’s fine over there and order blue cheese dressing with my salad.
How about the wine? he yells. Do I want a refill? I contemplate a triple Scotch to anesthetize my suffering brain, but decide against it considering that enough gray cells are being killed off as it is. I can feel them wash away in waves. I opt for another wine.
In the mean time some sort of pagan ritual appears to be taking place–a parade of servers swinging between the tables doing the macarena. Customers sway and sing along sitting at their tables, and on the dance floor some brave folks gyrate to the rhythms as well.
This should be fun. I should be enjoying this, but all I can do is beseech the gods to let this be over fast so I can get out of here, reclaim my auditory sanity in silent suburban streets. Elbows on the table, I once again cover my ears with my hands for a modicum of relief.
The second round of drinks is brought to the table. We scream at each other some more. I don’t even try to keep up with the conversation and find myself slipping into a semi-comatose state. This is one of those opportunities to practice meditation – become oblivious to one’s surroundings, withdraw into the inner silence and know only the peaceful calm of the Higher Self.
My Higher Self doesn’t like the noise either and is in hiding, most likely on a very high mountain top in Costa Rica.
The food arrives, which tastes fine, but not spectacular enough to sacrifice my hearing for. As we eat we are entertained by a crew of servers doing a line dance with trance-dull eyes. (How many times a night every night can you dance around the tables before it looses its charm?) They hip-grind their way around the crowded room like a tribe of robots, some looking as if they’d rather be somewhere else – like jail, or a desert island. I can understand that.
In the meantime we have finished our food and our personal crab expert approaches our table and goes down on his haunches next to my chair to position his mouth in intimate proximity to my ear, not to make an indecent proposal, but to make himself understood.
“How bold and adventurous are you?” he yells.
I do not like the sound of this. I glare at him.
He grins blindingly white teeth at me, then invites me to the dance floor where he and his buddy will sing Happy Birthday to me in front of the whole crab-cracking, beer-swilling crowd.
What an invitation! Following him, I navigate myself to said floor in the middle of the shack. PEACE, LOVE & CRABS it says on the back of Ben’s T-shirt. Before I know what’s happening, he’s tying a grass skirt around my waist and the nightmare continues.
“You have to dance the hula while we sing,” he now reveals with a wicked grin, clearly hoping to mortify me. “We stop singing and start over if you stop dancing.”
Getting older has its advantages. One of them is that you care less and less about making an idiot of yourself. So I dance, as it were, swinging my hips and moving my arms in graceful circles. At least that’s the idea. It’s not a pretty picture, I’m sure, but I’m awarded with generous applause from the audience, which I can see because people are clapping their hands together with obvious enthusiasm. This soothes my crabby mood somewhat.
As I sashay back to my table, triumphant, I reflect that it’s very gratifying to be able to contribute to the evening’s entertainment at Joe’s Crab Shack. And with this thought enlightenment strikes:
Life is a struggle. Clearly, people come here to get their ears and brains tortured in the hope of obliterating the mental trauma of a week of trials and tribulations in the work place. If I gave even one of these poor souls a moment of escapist fun with my hula dancing, my time here has had meaning and purpose.
Even if it does give me a bloody headache on my birthday.
* * *
So, you think this was a bit over the top? You are so wrong. But now it’s your turn. Ever had a nightmarish cultural experience? Do tell. And just for fun, here’s the story of a cultural eating experience in exotic Ghana, also in a seafood restaurant, also with friends, and also with music: Expat Foodie: Having Something to Eat Ghana Style