Rumble in the grumble

I take pride in how Jiab and I have managed to blend two very different cultures, Thai Buddhist and American Jewish, into one unique intra-family culture. Part of that is our mutual respect and acceptance of our differences. A lot comes from the large overlapping values of the two cultures. We have a running joke that plays upon stereotypes as to whether Asian or Jewish culture is better at math and finance.

Still, we have had occasional clashes that needed ironing out. Early on, we sat at dinner with the boys, and soon there was only one pork chop left (I do not keep kosher, fortunate given the delicious but pork-heavy Thai cuisine). I reached for it at the same time Jiab sought to give it to one of the boys. I explained that I grew up where the dad got the last piece, while Jiab said she grew up with the children getting it. We had to resolve this difference in a mutually agreeable way.

The children got it, and Jiab was not mad at me.

A wedding gift from my brother, an orthodox elephant.

When I went to Thailand, I was shocked that Jiab’s family, including her parents and three siblings, ate dinner in virtual silence. The only human sound was that of her mother, who would talk (and sometimes laugh) to herself. On the other hand, I warned Jiab before her first large dinner with my family that conversations were like an interstate mix-master. There was traffic going in different directions all at once, so just choose your lane and hold it. Our family dinners remain definitely more Jewish that way today, even as we eat Thai Masaman curry.

Jiab has also learned a lot of Yiddish expressions. Like many non-Jews, Jiab is taken by Yiddish’s ability to describe whole ideas with one word. Saying a person is a…

Mensch – an honorable or decent person who helps you when you need it.

Schmendrik – a stupid or foolish person who messes things up and is also a jerk about it.

Schnorrer – a freeloader who is always begging for little things but never gives back.

…gives you a big picture of who they are. There have even been some funny sound-like overlaps of culture. Jiab’s brother’s nickname in Thai is Jue (pronounced “Jew”) and her sister-in-law is Koi (pronounced similarly to “goy,” a non-Jew).

One word/concept of late, however, has been coming up, and we’ve had to work through it.


For non-MOT (non-Members of the Tribe, aka goys), a kvetch is a complaint or someone who constantly gripes. 

But like many Yiddish words, it’s more subtle than that. A kvetch (person) doesn’t kvetch (verb) his kvetch (direct object) so that someone will fix things or make their life better. Jews gave up on that a couple of thousand years/blame-misfortune-on-the-Jews’ pogroms ago. A true kvetch is just a loud gripe as to the way things are and probably will continue to be. It’s an expulsion of negative air that leaves the complainer feeling better because they exasperated their exasperation and now can move on.

Did I mention Jiab is a “fixer?” As an engineer, multiplied by the fact that, well, she’s Jiab, when she hears a complaint, she actively seeks to 1. Make the problem better and 2. Make the complainer (usually me) feel better. This has caused frustration on her part because complainers (like me) never seem to be made well-enough to stop kvetching.

So, Jiab has had to work through that kvetchers like me feel better BECAUSE of the griping. We are not looking for a solution, and certainly not for advice (except maybe “Have something to eat.”). 

I have had allies in my educating Jiab about this. When we were on the reality show The Marriage Ref, Jerry Seinfeld told me to “keep doing what Jews do” by complaining and using humor about it (Jerry even called me a funny guy about my kvetching!). These last two years, Jiab has watched The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel like Jane Goodall studying films of primate culture, taking in how the family all simultaneously kvetches into the air, exchanging gripes while only half listening to each other, and then they move on, often to eat.

Two Kvetchers. One got rich from his, the other got bupkis.

Many of our well-meaning non-Jewish friends still don’t get the concept. I use social media like it’s a Borscht Belt comedy stage. I’ll post “What’s the deal with…?” and then riff to relieve my frustration and maybe help other people laugh at our collective attempts to superimpose the appearance of order on the natural mishegas (craziness) that is life. I call myself, socially and politically in these times, a Groucho-Marxist. Yet, there are still caring friends who just can’t help but try to make things better. I’ll say I’m gassed because God made the mountain I just trekked too high and my legs too short, and the fixers will send me a list of exercises I can do to increase endurance (or even lengthen my legs). I say the neighbors below sounded like they were hosting a bullfight last night and a helpful friend will send me a copy of Spanish law on what animals are illegal to keep in an apartment (and yes, bulls are listed).

I appreciate the advice, but it is kibitz (unwanted/unsolicited). To borrow from a famous Jewish ancestor who kept showing up to Pharaoh with his latest gripe, Let my people kvetch!

As for Jiab, she is learning to just sit and let me expel without reaction, though now she goes a bit the other way. When I tell her she left the bathroom light on, she just stares at me with a half smile. When I ask if maybe we should turn it out, she feins surprise and says, “Oh, you wanted to actually do something about that?”

Not to be schmaltzy (Excessively sentimental; also, chicken fat), but when she gives me tsuris (grief) like that, I kvell (beam with pride) from the naches (pride in the accomplishment of a person I’m close to) that she’s my bubala (sweetie)!

That, and she’s learned to answer a question with a question. 

What? You don’t know this is Jewish? After all we’ve been through?


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