Yessimbol, from Kazakhstan, had arrived only a few minutes earlier and didn’t speak English. So it was in Russian that he asked me why the zombie mannequin hanging from the ceiling was dressed in lingerie and high heels. My wife and I prefer to host guests who don’t speak English. The first, prosaic, reason is that it gives me a chance to practice my Russian – a language immersion program where I don’t have to leave the house. More philosophically though, after eight years of hosting international visitors for World Chicago, we’ve figured out that guests who already speak English don’t need us much. They’ve probably already traveled, if not to the US, then to another English-speaking country where they’ve gotten used to American-inspired quirks and customs, and are comfortable fending for themselves. Those who don’t speak the language are more likely to need us as ambassadors, to show them around, and to explain the nuances of Chicago life. There is something empowering about having a blank slate upon which to create a first impression of Chicago and the USA, and that opportunity only presents itself with non-English speakers who feel too vulnerable on their own. Now, if that sounds like the mom who added a bit of poison to her daughter’s food every day so that the mom would always have someone sick to care for, well, yes, it is a little bit like that.
I explained Halloween, and zombies, to Yessimbol, but didn’t specifically address the apparel. For one thing, the zombie wasn’t dressed all that different from several of the women in the bar. But also, my Russian vocabulary doesn’t include the garments that were on display (when I started studying the language again ten years ago, I practiced mostly by reading Russian newspapers, so I can speak fluently about “national strategic industries”, “tax evasion”, and “his death was ruled a suicide” – but when the conversation includes “lace”, “peek-a-boo”, or “they’re obviously fake”, I need to use a dictionary).
We were at a bar at the corner of State and Division called Mother’s. Anyone familiar with Mother’s has just stopped reading and is right now on the phone to World Chicago, telling them not to let me make any more first impressions. If you haven’t been there, Mother’s is a high-end frat party for adults who can’t accept that college is over.
Earlier, we had met Yessimbol and Rachael, the coordinator for the World Chicago program, outside the bar. My wife and I greeted them and prepared to take custody. Yessimbol, to his great credit, showed no fear or trepidation towards the ridiculousness ahead of him. With a steel glint in his eye worthy of Cook, Shackleton, or Armstrong, he was ready to explore.
Rachael, on the other hand, must have had at least a passing familiarity with the place, and good taste. She was already backing away as my wife invited her inside for a drink with the birthday party. By the time Rachael answered that she had plans, she was at the other end of the block. The three of us watched her sprint away. I turned, and led Yessimbol in.
Down the steps we went, around the beer pong players, past the UV lamps that made the lint I hadn’t noticed on my clothing glow like a pox, and into the half of the bar with the stage. We parked ourselves under the sexy zombie.
Yessimbol looked around. “This is not what I expected America to be like.” My wife and I exchanged nervous glances.
“Umm, how so?” I asked, expecting to receive a reprimand from the US State Department the next morning.
Yessimbol gestured around the crowd with his hand. “Everyone looks happy. They’re all smiling and talking to each other. In Kazakhstan, if someone smiles in public, we think there’s something wrong with them.”
James, the singer in the band, walked over. “So, I hear you came all the way across the world just to hear us play”. I simplified the translation to “Welcome to Chicago.”
Yessimbol, my wife, and I fired up the cultural exchange-o-mator. It always starts with the children – every country, it turns out, has them. Compare ages – check; what do they like to do – check; which one gets in trouble most often – check (usually provides the first chuckle of the evening). And we were off. We tossed the script aside and soon were trading stories not meant to enlighten, but to entertain. Learning stuff about the other side of the planet was just a side effect.
Given our surroundings, I didn’t need to provide as many amusing anecdotes about life in Chicago as Yessimbol did about Kazakhstan. We were standing in a black-lit bar, glowing, while a fog machine kept everything hazy. We were surrounded by the scantily-clad, both the undead suspended above, and the living, walking among us selling jello shots. These are not the high points of American culture, but they aren’t inaccurate representations either.
Meanwhile, Yessimbol was explaining the best way to drink horse milk while out on the Eurasian steppes. We were nailing it – zombies and yurt-camping. We had found that concord of civilizations we so often look for in our hosting endeavors. Beat that, United Nations General Assembly.
James returned to let me know it was time to go on. I bid adieu to my wife and Yessimbol, and joined the rest of the band on stage. Yessimbol was then treated to an hour’s worth of classic rock cover songs (“Todd, you just ridiculed the patrons in the bar for refusing to grow up, but you play bass in a middle-aged rock ‘n roll band that doesn’t perform any songs recorded after 1972” – to which I reply, “Hey, that Stevie Wonder song came out in ’76.”).
The well-lubricated crowd (that evening I learned that Red Bull and gin is actually a thing – God help us all) continued to educate Yessimbol all through the set – “You mean, you can just go up and talk to someone you don’t know?” he later asked.
After the show I was happy to leave the bar, and hope never to return. But I will give credit where it’s due: thanks to Mother’s, I now know not to smile when I visit Kazakhstan. I hope though, that Yessimbol will smile, at least internally, the next time he hears the bass line to “American Band”, and looks to the ceiling expecting to see something R-rated.