Friday, November 27, 2009

Culture Collisions: Home Sweet... Home?

And so begins a second installment of the inevitable awkward or confusing moments that come when you are in a big melting pot of people from many cultures. Today I would like to discuss the home and colliding comforts therein. Particularly as this relates to inviting people into your home and what they do/don't expect or feel comfortable doing. Obviously many cultures outside of America are known for hospitality- the host bends over backwards to host you, the guest. The best food, the best drinks, really lavishing attention and all that. But how this actually plays out, and how the host/guest interactions actually work amongst people from DIFFERENT cultures, well, that's just really funny to me.

So for instance, in America, if I were over at someone's house and had to go to the bathroom, what would I do? If I even bothered to say anything, my question would be "Where is your bathroom?" or perhaps just "I'm going to the restroom." Maybe if the person was a complete stranger (but then again, I probably wouldn't be in their house long enough to need to use the toilet) and they were obviously more formal, I would maybe maybe ask if I could use the restroom. In most cases though, I would just go. No questions, no nothing. This is particularly true at a friend's house. If a friend ever asked me if they could use my toilet, I would laugh at them and tell them that since they asked, NO.

But most of the people with whom I interact here, particularly Africans, almost always ask IF they can use the toilet. This formality at first seemed strange to me, and I honestly had to hold back a giggle at times, because I thought it was sooooo polite. Um, of COURSE you can use my toilet. I didn't know if it was more of a formality like "How are you?" in America- everyone asks it, but few actually really want to know HOW ARE YOU. We just say it. I'm still not quite sure, because at some level of comfort it does actually switch over to No Question Mode, but I think it's well past when we Americans would feel comfortable. It took me awhile to realize this trend though, and all the while I had been carrying on business-as-usual, just finding my way to the bathroom, no questions asked. When I realized it, I just thought, Gosh, I bet all my friends think I'm terribly presumptuous and rude. Excellent. In reality, they didn't think anything of it, just another quirk in an already quirky gal.

Similarly, if I was at a friend's house in America and wanted a drink, I would open the fridge and get one, look in the cupboards until I found the glasses (or would already know where they were, probably), and pour myself a drink. I tend to do this even with casual acquaintances, but then again, I have been told I'm particularly a "make myself at home", "no one is a stranger" kind of gal and that many others don't do likewise. There are worse things for which to be known. But here, people always ask me IF they can have a drink. Without fail, even my closest friends do this. Which ok, that's reasonable, I surely do this sometimes with friends, too. But if I say, "Sure, help yourself," they look at me dumbfounded. The idea of getting into another person's fridge and "helping themselves" is strange. I don't know if they find it invasive or what, but people just don't do it, and I haven't really noticed this one switch over at any point. Here again, I didn't realize this difference at first, and I had been opening up fridges left and right at friend's houses. Oh Liz Liz Liz, much to learn.

The ones that are harder for me personally (ie, grate against me rather than just seem funny) are when the comfort is flipped. Here's an example. If I went to a friend's house, I unquestionably would ask if I could use their laptop. There are very few friends with whom I would feel comfortable just picking up their computer and using it without asking. I would assume the answer to be Yes after I asked, but I would almost certainly ask. That couldn't be further from the truth with most of the cultures represented here. People who barely know me just sit down and use my computer when they're at my house. The funny thing is that I have a Mac which is definitely NOT common outside of America, so people usually have to ask me to help them use it. But I can't tell you how many times I've had to hold back FREAKING OUT because a person HAS JUST INVADED MY MOST PERSONAL OF PERSONAL ITEMS.

The first time it happened that made me want to pull out my hair is when I was hosting a party and had prepared a playlist in iTunes of dance music, but all of a sudden 10 people were using my computer to bring up dance songs on YouTube from their countries to play instead. Oh the agony! Oh the self-control it required not to kick everyone out of my apartment right then and there. And honestly, when I thought about it afterwards, I had no good reason to be upset, it was just flying in the face of MY comfort zone. This particular one is still really hard for me, but I'm letting go little by little.

This type of scenario also applies to food. I don't know why it's different than drinks, but perhaps it's mostly if the food is out and visible. I'll have freshly baked cookies ready for some event and even as they're "asking" if they can have one, a visiting friend is picking several up to eat and a few to take with them. I used to get really annoyed (internally), but then I eventually got over it by making an extra dozen each time so I wasn't "short" (not that I ever am anyhow, just my Type A OCDness). Problem solved.

Another difference I have seen relates to general hospitality. When I have a friend over to stay the night, I give her options- an extra mattress, an air mattress, or the couch. Sheets, multiple pillows, blankets. If I had a bigger bed, as I did in Brooklyn, I would perhaps also offer that... but secretly hope they pick another option so we could each have our OWN space. It doesn't matter if you've come from 5 minutes or 5,000 miles, that's just what we do. To an American, Choices = Hospitality. And I think that's pretty common of Americans.

My roommate, a Romanian, thinks that's absurd. There is only ONE hospitable option in her mind. She gives her guest HER bed, no questions asked. Or she shares her bed, if it happens to be her sister who is staying over. I can't tell you how many times I've asked, "But I don't understand, you have a single bed, we have an EXTRA MATTRESS, and you could put it in your room, why are you SHARING A SINGLE BED?" Particularly in the summer with no AC, it just seems bizarre to my American sensibilities. To which she looks at me confused that I would even think there was another possibility. It's her SISTER for heaven's sake, obviously she's going to share the bed. Obviously. I think the greatest example of this difference came when my friend Hayley from America was visiting me. Simona was out of town for the first few days of Hayley's visit, so she she slept in Simona's bed. Then Simona came home and I offered Hayley either an extra mattress or air mattress. But Simona insisted that Hayley STILL sleep in her bed. Didn't I look like the crap hostess (I know Hayley didn't think so, but still)!

I think many of these may have something to do with how much Americans value independence and autonomy as compared to other cultures. So, our way of "feeling at home" is that we can do as we please in the house, get ourselves a glass of water, know where the toilet is, etc, and yet maintain the other person's autonomy and personal space (e.g., computer). If we can be in that house as we are in our own, we feel welcome. Whereas outside America the way to "feel at home" is by the host lavishing attention and service upon you, getting you a drink, and certainly allowing everything that is theirs to be available to you (e.g., beds and freshly made food). I fully acknowledge there are other things that likely play into each of these individual scenarios, and certainly I am only one American person with one set of friends and experiences that very likely could be TOTALLY WACK.

I have to say that I've grown a lot through this particular area of friction, learning to take myself less seriously, for one. And just generally learning to laugh when these kinds of things happen, because hey, we're all away from our motherlands, so these things are bound to happen. I'm curious to hear from any of you who have lived abroad or in an international community- any culture collisions relating to hospitality/the home that you can add to the list?

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