Monday, 19 January 2009

Globalization, China Butter Dishes and Chickens: the World Is a Small and Frequently Difficult Place

Dinner on Saturday with friends—a former colleague of Lee, his wife and a couple who had been their neighbors a few years ago. Delicious food, good conversation and some fascinating stories. Our host grew up on a chicken farm in New Jersey—“We didn’t have to kill them,” he said, “someone else did that” when I told the story about my grandmother chopping off chicken’s heads--and went on to become an economics professor specializing in globalization. The other couple were Germans who had ended up in Montreal through a long series of comings and goings, he as an avionics engineer and she as a trained midwife. Our hostess was from Cairo, I knew, but until we’d gone around the table with our stories, I’d never heard of her family’s flight from Egypt.

She was not quite 18 and her family was sitting at breakfast the morning when someone burst in to tell them they should flee because foreigners were being expelled from the country. They had very little money on hand, but they were able to make their way to the port where they got passage on a ship There followed several months going around the Mediterranean, but after several other stops along the way, they were able to settle in Canada.

For several moments we sat mutely after she finished, as we tried to assimilate her tale. Then she reached for the china butter dish sitting in the middle of table surrounded by plates and glasses and the crumbs of a good meal. “This is all that’s left. It had been my grandmother’s and we used it every day. I just picked it up off the table and put it my bag.”

The pattern on the china is very similar to that of the few pieces that have come down to me from my chicken-killing grandmother. They probably were bought in the same epoch and are likely of the same quality—dishes not for state occasions but for ordinary use by comfortably-off families. Emmanuel would say they are good examples of material culture, carrying with them layers and layers of living and meaning.

As our host said, globalization is nothing new. People and objects have been travelling and trading for millenia, witness the name we give to a certain kind of dish--china, of course. Those chickens weren't native to either New Jersey or Washington state, either.

1 comment:

Martin Langeland said...

How hard it is to understand: None of us is native to anywhere because at some point our ancestors came from elsewhere.
Though place may inform us as we grow, yet home is where we are, not where we were.