Culturally Speaking, Who Are You… the Chicken or an Egg?
Cultural differences and language barriers can create awkward moments for sure! Recently some of us have been thinking back on and sharing humorous adventures, mishaps and confusion created by cross-cultural communications.
I particularly enjoyed recent posts from Margo Lestz (Curious Rambler) and Naomi Hattaway (Box 53b) linked here. Their stories drew me back to many times during my years in Baku when I was laughably clueless.
- What Flavor of Goldfish Is Your Favorite? (Box 53b)
- Divided By a Common Language (Curious Rambler)
- Speed Dating with Grammar (Curious Rambler)
In the spirit of the joy of ex-pat sharing, here are a couple of my favorite moments…
First a cross-cultural adventure…
The fish picture here is a lunch we ate one afternoon when a small group of 3 ex-pats and a local friend took an excursion out of Baku into the “regions”- think rough roads, no gas stations/bathrooms, no 7-11’s. As we were hiking by a lake on a dirt road looking over the Soviet radar towers that were the subject of a territorial dispute left over from the fall of the Soviet Union, a man passed by with 7 little trout type fish on a coat hanger… as one does with their fish, right?
Our local friend Khanlar walked on a few paces, then turned around and ran after the fisherman. We turned to see some quick negotiations whereupon Khanlar ended up with the coat hanger of fish. Next he trotted with the trout up to a random house nearby and asked the housewife if she would make fish soup for all of us to eat. Apparently she had a few potatoes, as a good local cook would, and whatever else you would put in this type thing.
Khanlar must have made a good bargain for in about 30 minutes we were sitting at the farmers barnyard table eating fish soup. Bob and I, the two Americans, looked at each other thinking, “After all this, how could we demure, decline or otherwise feign not being hungry?”
Fortunately, Bob’s wife Ani was from Malaysia and she was really looking forward to all the fish heads we could give her. In this case, we figured God giveth, and God taketh away- much to our delight! (The potatoes and bread were excellent by the way!)
In the category of language mishaps…
Not long after I first arrived, I was teaching class in my first office. (The picture here is the library where my office was on the top left corner).
I had a young group of eager students who wanted to learn about American idioms and metaphors- the phrases that color our version of English and set us apart, much the way Margo explains the suspenders and braces confusion.
Now anyone who has ever tried to explain one of these curious phrases in English to another American, knows how difficult it can be. So as I was trying to explain “as difficult as putting a square peg in a round hole” I was using hand gestures to demonstrate.
When I saw one particularly polite young man turning purple, I looked at my Office Manager who was trying to hide her laughter. Finally I stopped and asked to be let in on the joke and everyone burst out in waves of laughter… Something to do with sexual slang that I figured we probably should save for a different lesson.
I put my hands in my lap and everyone howled again- apparently that is also frowned upon. One can only imagine the lessons I got that day! I spent the rest of class with my hands planted palms down flat out on the table, never to move again.
There is a Russian saying I finally understood that day. “Я́йца ку́рицу у́чат” (sounds like Yaitsa kuritsu uchat”), which roughly translated means, “the egg teaches the chicken”. I can say today that this chicken is still learning, and many lessons have been brought to me by the eggs in my life.
(If you’re still smiling, here’s a link to another of my cultural mishaps…“Good steam, she said, after I almost blew up the boiler!” )
Happy reading! I’d love to hear your own adventures and cross cultural life lessons- why not share your thoughts in the comments below?