31 October 2006

Cross-cultural friendship and other disasters

(Note: at my parents' prodding, I remembered that I wrote this essay a week ago - a week! where is my blog-posting dedication?!? - and decided I might as well post it. Sorry it's been so long! Life here continues to roll on, although I'm finding that I get busier and busier with each passing week (that's a good thing, so far). In other news, HAPPY HALLOWEEN! No costume for me this year, but I'm wearing my orange sweater in honor of the day.)

One of the reasons I often gave when people asked me why I wanted to move to Russia for a year was that I felt that living in a foreign culture is the kind of broadening experience that can really change your perspective on life, turn you into a different person, yada yada, and that everyone should take the opportunity if they have the chance to.

This is obviously just a spiel; tired, trite, obvious, the kind of thing every traveler trots out when faced with someone who doesn’t understand why you’d choose to go somewhere where there’s no hot water six months of the year and all the cold water has to be boiled to avoid giardia and you’re fifteen time zones away from every one of your friends. But it has the virtue of ringing a lot truer than many spiels, and it’s turned out to be less trite than I gave it credit for. So I stand by it.

I’m just at the point in my stay where I’m starting to feel a whole lot less like a tourist. This is true in several ways; most obviously, I don’t get lost every time I leave campus and I now know how to send mail to the U.S. and where the safe ATMs are. Less obvious but more important is the fact that, while I’m still not at the point where I could say I really understand Russian culture, the culture – specifically, the ways in which it really, meaningfully differs from U.S. culture – is becoming clearer to me. By meaningful differences I’m referring to the ones that are less visible than, “Oh my god, most of these people have never eaten peanut butter! And they’re surprised that I’m 22 and not married yet! And they think by letting their child sit on the floor I’m risking that he’ll catch the flu or become sterile!” (Although those – except maybe the peanut butter one, which should be unsurprising to all but the most sheltered Americans – are certainly interesting in their own rights.)

Anyway, the upshot of this, especially in the context of attempting to make Russian friends, is that I’ve gotten a good dose of realizing just how important culture is. That sounds really dumb. But what I mean is that I’m realizing how important having some sort of shared culture can be in shaping our interactions with people. For instance, I only recently came to terms with the fact that as long as I keep using a smile to signal friendliness and politeness (the typical American use for a smile), many Russians are going to think I am shallow and fake.* (Haven’t decided yet whether this means I’ll change my ways – I think training myself to smile less would be very difficult.)

More meaningfully, I’ve realized the extent to which your culture gives you a belief system. When you meet another American, you obviously can’t assume anything about, say, religious or political beliefs (the kind of beliefs we usually think about), but you can and do assume other kinds of beliefs: for instance, a belief in the value of self-reliance and individualism that’s so ingrained in our culture that most people (including me) probably don’t feel like they really have it until they come up against a group of people that looks at individualism differently. As another example, it’s sad but true that when you meet another American you can’t assume anything about his or her beliefs on the subjects of racism or sexism. But you probably make an assumption about what beliefs that individual will espouse in front of relative strangers. It would be shocking for someone to say something like, “I hate black people and think they’re intellectually inferior to whites,” in a polite or especially an academic setting. Here, that assumption is out the window. The rules of what’s ok to say and what’s not ok are completely different. I’ve been floored several times by comments that people I like very much – students and professors both – have said things that in America would be either inappropriate, uneducated, or flat-out ridiculous.

This presents a problem. Your gut reaction in these situations is to start disliking the person, much as you (that is, I) would pass judgment on someone in the U.S. if they made the above comment. But you know that’s not right somehow. It’s especially hard for me with the rampant anti-Chinese racism here. Those beliefs are not ok with me, but these people live in a culture that tells them those beliefs are fine, acceptable, and even the norm, to say nothing of justified or morally correct. Can I blame them for that? I don’t think so. But how to foster tolerance? Is it appropriate to say straight-up that those beliefs aren’t acceptable to me? (This is L’s strategy, but I’m not comfortable with it, especially in the classroom.) My current MO is to always argue when appropriate and use culturally unbiased arguments (that is, nothing that begins with something like, “In the U.S. this would never…” So what? Why should they care what it’s like in the U.S.?).

Anyway, all this is interesting to me. Making friends here requires time. And patience.

Speaking of time and patience, I spent five hours last Sunday shopping for a winter coat with some of the nicest, most concerned, generous, and patient people I’ve ever met. They hardly even knew me, and they drove me around to different markets and stuffed me into about fifty different coats trying to find the warmest, best one. (This was a student from my Wednesday night adult class and her husband.) It was really touching. We finally found one that has an amazing, enormous fur-lined hood that makes me look like Jane Eyre/Little Bo Peep/the cartoon oysters from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland/a daisy (opinions, you see, differ). And starfish-shaped buttons. (Sometime maybe I’ll write about what being in a foreign culture does to your sense of fashion, because it’s… interesting.)


Anonymous said...

Clearly, you should have worn your new coat for Halloween, since it makes you look like Bo Peep or a cartoon oyster. A good follow-on to your Mary Had a Little Lamb costume from senior year in high school.

Your observations about culture and the way it differs, even in polite company, are interesting. Food for thought, there.

Due to a lack of able-bodied carvers under the age of 26 in the house, your father carved a Halloween pumpkin. A good try on his part, but he's clearly an inferior talent.


TJ said...

Damn Bug....funny funny stuff.