Thursday, December 17, 2009


Reading these pages over the past year, you may think that I’m particularly inept at navigating
Vietnamese culture. You’d be right; I was inept at navigating Vietnamese culture. I never had any idea what was going on, ever, and was in a constant state of confusion.

However, this is not solely because Vietnamese culture is so incredibly foreign. My bewilderment is constant, no matter where I am. As my father’s colleague commented when I was a vacant four-year-old, wandering around, bumping into things, and falling over – “Sam is completely unaware of his environment, isn’t he?”

Things confuse me. I'm back in North America, visiting people I met while studying in the hilariously-named Sackville, New Brunswick (pop: 5,000), and I find myself, on occasion, just as befuddled as I was in Vietnam. At times, I am substantially moreso.

I went to a party a couple weeks ago and was reminded of a university tradition that is seldom spoken of but deeply universal. The Grind. This is really a special piece of Western culture, and it has not received the analysis it deserves.

It takes place in a bar with the music at maximum and the lights at minimum. Girls, pack animals to the end, stand in a circle and dance, with heavy emphasis on hip movements. Guys stand on the periphery of this circle and wait until they somehow get some secret signal from one of them that indicates that she’s up for a grind. Without further ado, he moves in and grabs her hips and suddenly they’re a couple.

I’ve given it a shot from time to time, and, with the exception of one very enthusiastic girl who turned out to not be a girl (oops), I have always met with failure.

It just doesn’t make sense to me. When a girl is approached by a guy from behind, how does she immediately know that he is acceptable? She can’t see him, she can’t hear him – what is it about him, then? Does he tap out some secret code on her lower back? Can she smell him over the stale beer and sweat that invariably defines the kind of places grinding occurs?

Maybe it’s just bitterness at being so consistently excluded from this club, but I think it’s one of the last vestiges of our evolutionary past. The whole thing does not seem very human; it’s much more of an animalistic ritual, with the ovulating females gathering in search of an alpha male who can assist them in the nature-given task of passing on their DNA.

It’s not always rainbows and sunshine, though. Two of my friends have been dating off and on for a few years now, constantly breaking up and getting back together. One night, after one of these breakups, I met both of them at a bar that specialised in overpriced beers, sticky floors, and a dance floor with lots of space to get your grind on.

Tensions were running high, as they often will in a recurrinng breakup situation. Indeed, I was wondering why they were spending time together at all, but the subsequent events soon replaced my ponderings with entirely new ones.

Here’s how they interacted. They squared off and started making idle chitchat, as if they were spurious acquaintances. It very quickly disintegrated from “hi how are ya’s” into something far more sinister. Without any trigger or justification, they were soon taking strips off one another.

“You’ve gained a bit of weight.”

“You never were much of a student, were you?”

The odd thing was, though, that they’d deliver these lines as if they were banal pleasantries, with a smile and a nod of the head. Back and forth they would go, until it finally became too much and one of them lost the smile off his or her face.

But would a fight begin? Oddly, no. Whenever one of them got particularly offended, he or she would grab the other one, march him or her out to the dance floor, and furiously grind for ten minutes or so. Then they’d return and take it from the top. This happened again and again and again, with the awkwardness rising as I was left in the non-dancing portion of the bar, taking small, fifty-cent sips of my eight dollar beer and wearing a pained expression.

Like I said, I don't get it. In my youthful idealism, I like to think that we've left mating dances with shrieking and throwing feces, but being at a university again reminded me that we have not quite shrugged off our genetic past.

But I guess DNA has to be spread somehow, and in this regard grinding is nothing if not efficient.