Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cross Cultural Misunderstandings—Part I Truth, Lies, and Laundry

Alpes de Haute Provence

The summer I was 19 I was blessed with an unrestricted cash scholarship for travel, one awarded for academic achievement during the previous university year. I had immediately researched how I could spend the whole 4-month break in France, even stretching the budget to the max. I thought of summer courses, but the timings, the cost, and the thought of being in a class with a bunch of other foreign students were off-putting, not to mention that the effort spent earning the scholarship had me study-weary. Then I thought of how I would normally spend a summer, and started thinking of waterside activities. Working at a Club Med seemed out—wrong gender, wrong morals, no working visa.

French National Synchronized Swim Team

Via the varsity diving coach, who was also an international synchronized swimming judge, I found myself training with the French National Synchronized Swimming team, and living with the solo champion and her family. The diving coach had owed me. One of her divers almost took me out—plunging off the high tower like a torpedo, and breaking the water inches from my head. I considered that a miss and didn’t break formation or position, even though there was an audible gasp from the rest of the 2 teams, and we all paid better attention to location, location, location. In France, I also taught physical education and English at a junior high school, with a wonderful outdoor pool, surrounded on 3 sides by rose hedges—a beautiful scent and view while doing laps.

After 2 months, both of these activities were winding down, and I was looking for a way to spend the next 2 months. One of the school teachers I had become friends with took me to the agency that hired camp counselors. Alas, it was too late in the season and the positions were all filled. We were just about to leave, when a middle-aged man sitting in the secretary’s office said, “I have an extra position, but you have to be able to speak English”. “I speak English”, I rapidly replied (in French). He proceeded to tell me about the job as a camp counselor for adolescents at a hiking camp in the French Alps near the Italian border. Meanwhile, I filled him in on my relevant experience and qualifications. The conversation was punctuated with him repeating that speaking English was a necessity, and me reassuring him that English would not be a problem.

Gradually, he explained that the need for English was because he had a group of boys among the campers who spoke English only. He revealed more details in little drops of information, in between camp location, activities, other counselors’ identities, and the composition of the whole group of campers, etc.: 10 of them, ages 16-18, English only (a lot of that bit), one male counselor accompanying them to France, etc. No problem. No really, English would be no problem. Then he said that the boys were “Koweïtiens” and looked at me. Blah blah blah, “Koweïtiens”, blah blah blah, “Koweïtiens”… For some reason I had no idea what a Koweïtien was--none. Maybe if I had seen it written, or heard it used in a different context. As it was, putting together all the information he had given me, I decided that they must be some kind of English Boy Scout troop, or some such. How hard could it be to spend 4 weeks paid to hike the Alps of Haute Provence, and to interpret English-French-English for a bunch of English boy scouts?

It was obvious on first meeting that this was no English boy scout troop, and suddenly Kuwait appeared in my mental map, and Kuwaitis became a face to face reality—well at least 10 Kuwaitis, boys, aged 16-18, mysteriously sent to France with no French language skills whatsoever, and even more mysteriously sent to a camp with very rudimentary accommodation—large tents for boys, unheated barracks for girls, and verrrrry poor plumbing. And, that was the base camp in the village, not the alpine camps we set up with 3-man tents--a tent called a “Canadienne”, for some reason that never ceased to amuse the French teens, of whom there were 10 nice girls, 10 nice boys, and 3 boys who had survived the streets of Paris solo, as runaways, and were being re-integrated into normal teen life (French social services and police were involved, and I’m not sure I want to think too much about exactly how they survived the streets of Paris).

It was a wonderful 4 weeks, with many adventures, including searching an Alp at 2 AM with a flashlight, looking for a guinea pig—the, until then, secret pet of the smallest of the street survivors, who at 15 smoked 2 packs a day, and had a voice like Jean Gabin’s:

Rather true to cliché, he was a very young boy inside, and the guinea pig offered unconditional love in his otherwise tough world.

Other adventures included: trying to cook on a gas container, with removable prongs attached to hold the pot, during a rainstorm in the “cool” mountain air; being the French-Italian-French interpreter at a dinner held for us by the nearby Italian carabinieri, even though I don’t really speak Italian, and they had a certified official interpreter present; following goat paths until they went where only goats could go, and then being in a quandary; trying to go pipi in a donkey shelter, with the donkey looking on. and hoping I couldn’t be seen by the rest of the gang up-Alp from where I was, with fingers so cold and swollen that I couldn’t get my pants down and so gave up; and, cooking my rain-soaked jeans over a slow fire, along with some of the French teens, each of us with our jeans on a stick over the rather smoky “fire”. All of these are fond and funny memories.

Also fond, but sometimes not so funny, are my memories of my North American self meeting my charges’ Khaleeji selves. Being in France we all conformed to French norms (except for the traditional French kissing greetings between myself and them), or tried. However, although we shared a common language, our life experiences to date were quite different. This was their first trip outside the Middle East for most, and I had never been to an Arab or Muslim country (the Tunisian quarter in Paris didn’t count, even if the food was great). They came from relatively wealthy families, where maids and drivers were the norm, and I came from a home where we had a cleaning lady once a week after my mother started teaching full-time, and taking university courses major part-time to upgrade. None of us had camped much before (or ever in my case), but somehow I had the feeling that the accommodations bothered them a lot more than they did me—but then as a girl I did have the “luxury” of the unheated barracks, whereas they were in a communal tent.

None of us ate pork or drank alcohol (available in the village bar/café), but for me it was a personal choice, whereas for them it was obligatory, and more of a challenge, given the failure on the part of whatever organizing body to take halal food into consideration, when having these Kuwaiti teens experience life in the south-east corner of France. However, the differences that stick with me most, and which were the most perplexing at the time, were two-fold: communication; and, gender roles.


Regarding communication, we seemed to have normal conversations, but in fact we were sometimes “talking past each other”. They were very polite, indirect, and sometimes seemed to never ask or say anything that went straight to the point. I, on the other hand, was very polite but rather straight to the point--rather standard assertive Canadian. At times this led to my having the impression that they preferred to tell silly untruths where the truth was very simple and could be just stated outright. I’m sure they must have thought that I was rude at times, or obtuse in comprehending what was for them a clear communication. While I don’t remember exact details, I do remember, at one particularly frustrating moment, thinking that the main communication strategy was “Why tell the truth when you can tell a lie?” I did, however, realize that this was a cultural artifact as much of my own cultural patterns as of theirs, rather than a genuine reflection of their truthfulness. Where I would now hear different cultural and linguistic codes (beyond ethnic language used), I then heard only words and intonations, and observed body language and facial expressions that sometimes didn’t seem to match.

Kuwait Towers
Gender Roles

Yes, well…

I was raised by 2 feminist parents not to cater to the whims of any Y chromosome person, especially a peer, eg they can serve themselves, do their own housework, complete their own tasks… And these teens had been raised that women did prepare and serve meals, do the housework, help with tasks, and generally cater to their whims. This was especially true as they were used to having maids to provide some of these services.

Diabolo menthe

I was generally comfortable with both genders; did go to the village bar/café (no alcohol though—a diabolo menthe, lemon soda with mint syrup, or a panaché, Orangina with grenadine syrup); and, I honestly don’t remember what I was wearing while trying unsuccessfully to smoke/ grill my jeans into semi-dryness. Somehow I think that along with the sweater one of the French girls lent me for the 4-week duration (I was ill-prepared regarding camping clothes), whatever I had on the bottom was on day-loan from one of the French boys. Or was I wearing a knee-length night-gown with the sweater on top? Hmmm, that is sounding about right. In short, I now wonder if I didn’t overall exhibit “conduct unbecoming”, especially for an “older woman” (well, older than them anyway, by at least a year!).

What I did find funny, and do even now, was that we were on either side of the French norm. Up until that point in my months in France, I hadn’t felt particularly North American, nor was I perceived that way, and yet it seemed more marked in these interactions, perhaps because they happened in English. I still remain perplexed by whose brain wave it was to send these very nice teens to France, where they were largely cut off from direct interaction with the other teens, instead of to England, where they would have been able to participate and socialize more fully. Or maybe that was the point?

Have you had any similar or initially puzzling cross-cultural adventures?
How much do language and/or place condition the degree of cultural distance you feel?
What was your first MENA/Western cultural experience?
What misunderstandings, if any, occurred?
What are the aspects you remember fondly?
Any other comments, thoughts, experiences?

Coming next…Part II Watch what you eat!


Chiara said...

My apologies--there seemed to be a commenting glitch for this post, which is now corrected. Mariam wisely posted on an earlier post to let me know. Here is the part of her comment relevant to this post, and my response:

Mariam said--didn't the actress sound like a young boy? Peut-etre that is why Gabin called her une poupee?? She sounded child-like.

Mariam--"Ma poupée" would be an old-fashioned but standard term of endearment from a man to a woman. I think her voice is supposed to be girlie-child sexy but perhaps the men would be better able to assess that! LOL :)

ellen557 said...

I love this post Chiara, really! So good to hear about your experiences.
My first cultural experience was definitely meeting M. As you know, the first misunderstanding was probably that I was there dropping any hints I could (though had never tried them out before haahha) and he was studiously ignoring them/me. But I do remember that fondly and much in the same way as you - that any cultural misunderstandings I've had have paved the way for much greater understandings, thank God!

Chiara said...

Ellen--thank you for your comment! It is nice that you shared more of your own cultural foibles--fortunately you both went beyond that. One must start somewhere, and hopefully the other person is open and understanding enough to see the good in the other beyond the faux pas, as M did!

Anthrogeek10 said...

Just a quickie Chiara. I first arrived in Bahrain and I said "hi" to lots of people, male and female. My now ex husband stopped me in my tracks on saying "hi" to strange men on the street. He said "they will think you are a loose prostitute..". Uhh..is that not what prostitutes are? Loose? Anyhow, basically, he inferred that I should shut up or all of Bahrain will think I am looking for something. :) Nuts...

Chiara said...

Anthrogeek--Thanks for the quickie! I guess the good part is that your husband helped you with the "error of your ways". It reminds me that I learned not to walk around with a smile on my face reflecting whatever thoughts I was having as that drew unwanted attention in various places other than North America. Also, while waiting for a train in Morocco, on a platform with no seating, I saw other women squatting on their heels, so, being tired, I gathered my skirt carefully, made sure my legs were wrapped, and squatted too. This got me a quick "Stand up!" from my then boyfriend, and of course I stayed where I was, and started saying "but the other women are..." "Stand up!", "but my legs are covered, nothing is showing...", "Stand up, you will be taken for a peasant!". Well, with such an explanation (and THE LOOK) I stood up.

Looking forward to a longer version whenever you are ready! LOL :)

Also looking forward to others' sharing their cross cultural experiences in which ever direction!

Maha Noor Elahi said...

That was very interesting and entertaining to read, Chiara!

The French culture has always been fasinating for me, and i have tried to learn French, but unluckily i wasn't persistent enough...all that i know of the French language now is singing (La Vie En Rose)of which I don't understand a lot :)

Definately, perhaps when i retire and my kids grow up and get married, i would dedicate most of my time to learn about the French culture and literature...

The communication and gender roles differences are very natural...even the slightest details (like waving hands) have different meanings and interpretations...

I remember how shocked my cousin's American wife was when she was first introduced to us (the family young girls) ...all she knew about Saudi girsl is that they were dark, ugly, and covered with black cloaks...when she us in a very typical Saudi gathering, her fist impression was "Hollywood!"

Thanks, Chiara...I wish you had clarified more about the gender roles...it interests me a lot to know the differences between French women and North Americans...for Arabs, they are all western girls :)

Susanne said...

I enjoyed this a lot and laughed at your then bf's comment about others thinking you were a peasant! Ha, ha! God forbid! :-)

My biggest culture "shock" was living in Damascus for 12 days earlier this year. The people were great, but I can see where some might think I'm "loose" for smiling and talking to any ol' person like I'd do back here in NC. I would walk through the souq with a big smile. I was just happy to be a foreigner in such a cool place. :)

One cultural thing that comes to mind is when we visited one young man's house and as we were leaving, he sprayed my husband with cologne which Wasim kept by the door. He said, "So you can remember me." There were so many things....how I miss it.

Enjoyed this!

Michel said...

It's always interesting, often funny to read about cross cultural experiences; one I personally remember is this one: as a young French student learning Arabic I was on my first trip in an Arab country in Cairo; I met an Egyptian guy who invited me to his home; I had a nice chat with his father; after a while he took a bottle of oil, invited me to stretch out my hands then poured some oil in them; I did not have the faintest idea as to what I should do with it; seeing my embarrassment he took some and applied it to his hair; I just did the same... Have you ever seen that ?

Chiara said...

Maha--Glad you liked it! I do hope you make time to explore French literature and culture, both of which are wonderful. I think that the gender role differences between myself and the Kuwaitis were as described in the post. The Arabs I know all make a distinction between European women and North American ones, about the same way as others do, ie based on fashion, behaviour, attitude, and values. To simplify French women are more fashionable, have more social graces, walk better in high heels, are not as immediately friendly, have a more collective sense of self, and a less anti-male sense of feminism, than North American women do; which is why I fit in better in France! LOL :)

Susanne--glad you enjoyed it! Yes, the LOOK made me react more than the explanation, but perhaps there was more to his comment given wider social divides in Morocco. Thanks for sharing your "culture shock". Yes, smiling and being overly friendly are "dangerous", as is travelling anywhere you don't know the local language for "No!". This use of cologne seems to be a custom from east of North Africa, but perhaps others will clarify for both of us. Syria is high on my list of MENA places to visit; you were so lucky to have an opportunity to visit with a friend!

Michel--Salut et bienvenue! Perhaps you would like to give your impression of the difference between French and North American women! LOL :)
It is so nice when hosts help one out of a bewildering new custom in such a gracious way. That is a new custom for me too, so maybe others know more. Merci de votre commentaire!

Anonymous said...

During one of the American Cross Cultural training sponsored by my previous american employer in India, the trainer narrated to us that American Women feel offended when Indians don't look straight at them and shy away from glances.

But the fact is that culturally in India or Saudi, we are taught not to look at women directly in the eye, and it is considered rude/ flirtatious to do so.

Thats one example where good gestures in one part of the world are misinterpreted in another continent.

Chiara said...

Abu Abdullah-that is an excellent example, and one that is very important. Worse than offense, the looking away gives the impression of avoidance, disinterest, lying or lack of confidence. On the other hand, women making eye contact as appropriate in their own culture are often surprised that an Eastern man thinks this was an invitation of a "romantic" sort.


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