He had forgotten how to smile or become ashamed. His expensive third-world teeth were barely first-world free clinic. And he was still trying to understand the need they felt to stretch their lips and term it a smile. It was, he concluded, in the same league as what his sister termed clapiatis. Americans, she proclaimed, suffer from clapiatis. They clap all the time, for anything and everything. Perhaps she was stingy with applause. But he did notice an endless sense of self-congratulation.
He was more familiar with shame. It was, he supposed, another cultural difference. Here, shame was something terrible. One was supposed to be proud all the time. Proud to be black. Proud to be gay. Proud to be fat. Proud to be married. Proud to buy. Proud to own. Proud to live. Proud to die. Proud. Proud. Proud.
He wanted a little more shame.
Pride, he thought, was so often linked to indifference. It was armor against engagement. Shame, on the other hand, was a relationship of care. Shame embedded one in community. Pride distanced one from the social. No wonder they liked to play in small bumper cars.
Experts claimed that foreign students suffered because they prized self-effacement. They had to learn how to be bold and aggressive, how to speak up and ask for what they wanted. They had to go on a diet of Oprah and Dr. Phil: assertiveness training for the privileged. Taken as a game, the injunctions could be amusing.
He had given up trying to communicate his sense of the world, taken up the label of eccentric. It was less tiring. But he believed in civility and readily participated in conversation.