Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings: Part II Watch what you eat!

As I mentioned in Part I Truth, Lies, and Laundry, during the summer I was 19, I became a camp counselor
 in a hiking camp for adolescents, in the French Alps near the Italian border. I was primarily hired to serve as an English-French-English interpreter for a group of 10 Kuwaiti boys ages 16-18, among a group of campers which also included 10 French girls, 10 French boys, and 3 French boys who had survived the streets of Paris as runaways.

The 10 Kuwaitis of course had their own individual personalities, beyond their shared nationality. They were of varying sizes, shapes, and colours, had varying levels of English language skills, varying degrees of comfort and shyness; some were more athletic than others, and some more happy about spending the summer hiking while some were less so. One was an excellent portraitist, which gave him an extra mode of communication and socialization with others.

Cedars of  Lebanon

Amongst them was a Lebanese teen whose family had moved to Kuwait a few years earlier. He emphasized his sameness with the group, but in fact he was different. A big part of his difference was his language ability which was excellent in English and surprisingly good in French. In a way this was unsurprising as Lebanon had been a French Mandate from 1920 to 1943 with the French leaving formally in 1946, and French remains a favoured language. Yet his French was surprisingly good, given that he had now been studying in Kuwait for a few years. He was also more at ease with himself generally, and particularly with me and the other French teens of both genders. In fact, he generally seemed more at ease in a European environment, and different social circumstances, perhaps because he was better traveled than the others, perhaps because he had already experienced a major adjustment by moving from Lebanon to Kuwait, or maybe that was just his personality.

Desert, Kuwait

Because of all this, he was better able to form personal relationships than many of the others, and more a hit with the girls--as where there are teens, there are hormones, and budding romance, or at least flirtation. Come to think of it, all were very well-behaved overall. Must have been all that good Roman Catholic upbringing (the French teens were from a conservative Catholic part of France), and good Muslim upbringing-- or maybe they were just worn out from the hiking.

Still, groupings would form based on athletic abilities, chat groups (real ones not virtual ones), shared interests, where one found oneself in the hiking group (I was one of the first up and the last down because of a fear of heights, go figure), or at lunch, or the after lunch smoking groups (no wonder they were winded!). One day we were all sitting on an Alpine meadow having lunch, or avoiding lunch, (rillettes, bleh).

 The Lebanese fellow and one of the French girls were deep in conversation and laughing, enjoying each other’s company, even in the presence of a smaller group and the larger group just beyond their orbit. He reached for a sandwich and ate a couple of bites. Then suddenly, it was as if an alarm had sounded. Some of the Kuwaitis told him he was eating pork. He didn’t believe them, as he sincerely thought he wasn’t, but eventually was persuaded that it was ham, perhaps because some of the French teens confirmed it, not fully understanding what the big deal was. When he did realize his error, he was mortified, truly aghast, as white as a ghost, and totally in shock.

What happened next took the rest of us very much by surprise, perhaps because until then religion, Catholicism or Islam, had not been a focus or issue. Presumably prayers were performed together during times around group activities, and privately. Food was a combination of what they brought (mainly fruits and biscuits) and what was provided (salads, cheeses, as well as meats). A few bites of ham sandwich, unintentionally eaten, innocently mistaken for something halal, distractedly consumed in the course of a "flirt", became the catalyst for a quite open display of religious repair. The Lebanese fellow began a fast, the others were supportive of this, and saw it as the only solution to repair the offense, along with prayer.

He and the others began to pray more publicly and to withdraw more into their own group rather than mingling as much. This seemed to me to be in part at the instigation of the Kuwaiti counselor who seemed to resent (politely) both my involvement, and their involvement with the other teens. In part, it was also a natural back pedaling that is a common phenomenon in the course of cultural immersion--after an initial effort, people often "rebel" and reassert their difference.

As part of this process, the next afternoon at lunch the Kuwaitis suddenly appeared as a group, all in traditional clothing--12 brilliantly white thobes, ghutras, with black and gold agals, against the green of the meadow, the brownish-purple of the peaks on the horizon, the blue sky, and a strong sun. It remains one of the most impressive visual images I have ever experienced. It was both a stunning display of culture, and solidarity, and a silencing. The rest of us were at best bewildered, and at worst dumbstruck. The group ate apart from the rest of us that day, as apart as their traditional clothing was distinct from their own usual jeans and t-shirts.

Although everything seemed to go back to normal afterwards, there was never the same sense of ease and intermingling as there had been, and the Lebanese fellow just faded back into the group. We all had other adventures together, and more clear groupings of 4 or 5 formed. These groups tended to be more homogenous in terms of nationality, socio-economic status, origin, and gender, although there were mixed groups and reasonable fluidity among groups.

Leave-taking after this month in the Alps was particularly difficult for me, as there could be little illusion of ongoing future real life relationships for me with any of the teens. 2 of the 3 street survivors did visit me though, at the home of the proper French family with whom I was staying. Was the sight of a stocky muscular African-French teen, and a miniature Jean Gabin (minus the guinea pig, who was roaming free on a far off Alp) a contributing factor to the family’s seeming haste to see me off? No, surely not.

What is your impression of the food faux pas described, and the reaction to it?
Have you ever had cultural misunderstandings specifically around food?
Food is a big part of culture, and religion, but how much attention is paid to it in cross-cultural learning?
Have you had a similar "rebellion" against a cultural immersion experience? Or, as an expat, even after years?
How much do travel and living abroad contribute to greater openness and ease with others?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?


Susanne said...

I kind of felt sad for the Lebanese guy for the mistake of eating something that was forbidden. It was innocent enough so I'm sorry it was such a big deal. Poor guy.

How interesting that the Kuwaiti group kind of asserted their difference the way you described. I guess they realized they were mingling too much that they were getting careless in that one of their own accidentally ate pork! So perhaps they realized they needed to be on guard, more vigilant in this regard. Hmmm

Well, when I went to Syria I refused to eat lamb testicles, lamb kidneys or brains & eggs from what I infamously refer to as "The Menu." If I eat that stuff here and I don't know it, fine. But I will not purposefully order something with those names from a menu. :)

And I teased my Muslim friend when he told me they eat lamb intestines, too. Blech! Like I said, if I eat it, don't tell me. Ignorance is bliss for sure sometimes! :-)

Chiara said...

Susanne--I felt dreadful for him too, and I was sitting close enough to appreciate how genuine an error it was on his part, and how truly devastated he was. I also saw him take the ham sandwich, but didn't think to tell him what it was, assuming he knew and that he might have been Christian. I do think that the reason it was pointed out and made such a much of, was because of adolescent male jealousy. Perhaps some of the readers who have been adolescent males will enlighten us!

I think that at some level the group was set up not to like the West, eg at an unconscious level by the organizers, because it is hard for me to explain otherwise how odd it was to send them to France instead of England, and to such a poorly equipped camp, and without their own equipment (eg hiking boots) either. Their counselor seemed to work overtime on their group cohesion, but perhaps that was a misperception on my part.

Your Syrian culinary adventures made me laugh, and reminded me of 2 things: 1) the first time I saw 2 children fighting over who got to eat the lamb's eyeball; 2) the time I was teaching in a French classroom (mentioned in Part I of this 2-parter), and a little girl said she liked England better than France because in England they love horses and don't eat them. I looked at the regular teacher and she nodded--yes they do eat horsemeat in France. Suddenly all those "horse meat butcher shops" I saw around town made more sense than excessive good care and feeding of the family pet dog. I told the mother of the family I was staying with about the little girl's comment, and she said "What do you think you've been eating every Thursday for lunch?" What I thought was a thin very lean beef steak, probably marinated because it tasted a little different than regular beef, was in fact a horse meat steak--or as I prefer to think of it "de la viande chevaline". LOL :)

oby said...

Ah! Horsemeat! At one point I was engaged to a Frenchman and lived quite happily in France. I did all my shopping on my own and especially enjoyed visiting the town square on Wednesday and Saturday as that was when the open air markets took place. The simple joyful memories I have of carting home two full bags of fresh groceries and perhaps stopping at the local cafe for a coffee before heading home! I experienced all the shopping...the Boulangerie, the Patisserie, the Charcuterie but I had somehow missed La Chevaline. One day I was at the home of my finace's parents...they were serving the MOST delicious, tender and lean beef I had ever tasted. It was fantastic with a touch of grey poupon...lots of wine flowing and joyful laughter and at just the right moment(for which I am sure they planned) they very innocently asked me what I thought of the "boeuf". "Oh my goodness it is absolutely the most delicious and so lean", said I innocently. Imagine their delight in informing me that I had just enjoyed horse...

To this day I do not recall my response...I only hope and pray it was as sophisticated and "Continental" as I tried to feign!

As for the boys in Thobes, that seems to me a pretty radical response to an innocent mistake. Maybe it was due to their youth, or maybe they genuinely thought God would be angry...but it seems pretty clear that at least temporarily, they tried to close ranks and "make a statement" which makes me wonder if they thought serving the ham was done purposely or maliciously. Even so, there were ham eaters in the crowd and it should have been available for those people. It would have been so much kinder if they had gently told him of his mistake rather than make a spectacle of him, which may have been the whole point as you said. It's a shame the Lebanese boy felt that he had to go along with the Kuwaitis and could no longer enjoy his time.

Chiara said...

Oby--thanks for sharing your chevaline culinary experiences. It sounds as though your almost inlaws enjoyed a practical joke, wanted to make a point, or were just a wee bit chauvinistic in the French sense of overly proud of their own traditions at the expense of others.

Your market stories are making me homesick! Especially for the Southwest where I've only traveled not lived full time. Great markets, and great accents! Ths South East is wonderful too, and Paris markets are great as well, oh, and Lyon, and the Loire Valley...what can I say, I love almost any market or souk.

It is true that the situation could easily have been de-dramatized and the Lebanese fellow could have been reassured about Allah's judgments based on intentionality, and his innocence in that regard. There was a little too much glee in my opinion about catching him out, and too public a response, but maybe that was culturally necessary, or deemed to be culturally necessary. I never had a comfortable relationship with the man who was their counselor, probably for a variety of reasons: our age difference ie I was only 19 and he seemed to be 30ish; he expected to do all the interpreting himself and wasn't necessarily happy with my presence, maybe gender differences; he seemed unathletic and unhappy to be there, where as I was used to a high level of coed athletic training and was delighted to be there, and my feeling then and now that there was some agenda to sending the boys on that particular camp experience. However, it remains a mystery, and in fact they did benefit from seeing a different lifestyle, and social circumstances, practiced their English if not their French and formed relationships with other teens. They also gave us all an initial exposure to Gulf Arab culture, or at least the Kuwaiti version of it.


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