Living and working among so many different cultures means that I get an education in pretty much everything. Or perhaps I should say a RE-education, because I feel like a lot of what I learned in America about what is an isn’t ok to do/say has just been thrown out the window. Lots of different cultures means lots of different sensitivities, ways of interacting, expectations, and norms. In my 10 months here, I’ve observed and accumulated anecdotes that relate to different ways cultures clash and the often funny results. Read: times when I’m embarrassed or feel totally awkward. Thus I would like to start an occasional series of “Culture Clash” entries that will be sure to amuse you, and perhaps make you a bit uncomfortable FOR me with all the ridiculousness. All in good fun. I’ve learned to laugh at myself, and the next step is enabling YOU to laugh at me.
I would like to start with how and what people say about bodies, specifically other people’s bodies. In America, we pretty much don’t say anything about other people’s bodies, unless it’s behind their backs or about how thin a given celebrity is these days. But in general we don’t talk about bodies. It’s taboo. It’s impolite. It’s not PC. We certainly don’t ask people about their bodies.
Not so in many other cultures. Differences in weight, shape, and any number of other things are just reality. And people making statements are just that- statements. Not commentary, criticism, or judgment. I’m being kind of vague, so I will share a few vignettes to help highlight a few different aspects of what I mean.
One day I was running with a guy friend from Nigeria. We were just chatting here and there, and out of the blue he asked, “How much do you weigh?” Now, I can say with a high degree of certainty that NONE of my guy friends in America would ever dream of asking a girl that. And because of how casually it rolled out, all “This weather is nice. There is a lot of traffic today. How much do you weigh?” made me think it was probably a perfectly reasonable question in his culture. But because I was a little bit taken aback, I resorted to delaying answering while my brain caught up by saying, “In pounds or kilos?” He said either was fine. Which meant I couldn’t say, well sorry, I only know in pounds, so it’s not useful information. I told him, and that was that. A few minutes later I asked him why he wanted to know. He said he wanted to understand the physics/mechanics of running for me, so if he knew how much I weighed, he could understand. Right. I then informed him how utterly inappropriate a question it would be in America. We had a good chuckle and continued on.
Many many times I have been with African women and they just comment on one another’s bodies, in ways that sound, to my American sensitivities, totally inappropriate. But to them, it’s not even remotely so. It’s just a fact that Friend A is fatter than Friend B or that Friend C has more adipose tissue (ah medical students) than Friend D. And it’s totally fine to state that. Or to ask another person if they’ve gained weight. Because gaining weight isn’t a bad thing to them. Certainly in some cultures it’s a sign that you have plenty of food to eat, which thereby means you have enough MONEY to have plenty of food to eat. On multiple occasions I have had women as me if I’ve “reduced” (lost weight) and then listened to two people discuss whether they think I’ve lost weight before I’ve actually answered. One friend told me that she thought all white girls had flat stomachs, so when I got here and didn’t, she assumed I was pregnant. Another friend asked me, completely sincerely, whether I’m doing anything for my pimples. And yes, she used the word pimples. Can you even imagine? Even if someone asked that in America, they would totally case it in some politically correct term, like ‘acne’ or ‘blemishes.’ But to them, well, people have pimples, it just IS that way, it’s obviously not hidden, so it’s obviously fair game to talk about. Super humbling, and super motivational to not take myself (and my body!) too seriously.
But I’d actually have to say that the most shocking comments/questions have come from Romanians, who are notoriously blunt. Maybe because it’s most often (for me anyhow) from people I don’t actually know, yet they somehow feel it’s totally appropriate to comment on my body. Whereas with my African friends, at least they’re FRIENDS and know me well. So a few weeks ago there was a new Romanian guy in church, and afterwards I decided I would just chat with him a bit. About 30 seconds into our small-talky conversation he blurted out, “So… are you pregnant?” Cue awkward silence. Well, um. No, no I’m not. To which he responded by looking down at my stomach, back up at my face and said, “Oh.” To which I awkwardly tried to help him feel not quite so much like a jerkwad by saying, “Um, maybe I just ate a lot for dinner. It was really good.” And then promptly walked away. Totally. Awkward. Ok, so I DON’T HAVE A FLAT STOMACH. You know how every girl has that one place on their body that the fat just doesn’t leave, no matter what they do? Yea, it’s the stomach for me. But gosh, it’s not THAT much. And certainly not worthy of the preggo question? I mean, isn’t that Basic Life Sense 101? Or did you skip out on that class? Yeah, I guess so.
Then a few weeks later, as I wrote about recently, I was at a volleyball tournament, volunteered to do a drawing for a prize, had to introduce myself before pulling the winning name, drew unnecessary attention because I wasn’t Romanian AND was American, drew the name, and sat down. Only to find out that a women a few seats down had said, “Wow I’ve never seen a skinny American.” Really? Have you watched, oh, say ANY movie? Or you mean in person? Because gain, who have you met? But anyhow, at least Romanian Commentary About Liz’s Body had been redeemed a bit. But seriously? Seriously. I just don’t understand.
And that is ok. I don’t need to. I just need to laugh and move along. And write blog entries. Very therapeutic, if I do say so myself. Look out for more fun awkward moments of culture clashing, brought to you from your favorite American missionary in Eastern Europe working with a bunch of Africans and Malaysians. Let the good times roll.