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.

Fish with head in soup. What part of this fish soup does your culture prize most?

What part of this fish soup does your culture prize most?

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).

My first office at the MF Akhundov Library Baku Azerbaijan

My first office at the MF Akhundov Library Baku Azerbaijan

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?

6 thoughts on “Culturally Speaking, Who Are You… the Chicken or an Egg?

  1. Nice post. One cultural difference that I discovered in the south of France is that things move more slowly and there is an idea that you don’t need to fix something until it is in very bad shape. This is in contrast to the American idea of fixing something before it becomes a larger problem. I had a leak under my bathtub so I called a plumber. He looked and said, “Oh I think it is ok. To fix it you would have to take off the tile.” I said, “Yes, but there is a leak and it could go down into the apartment below.” He replied, “Yes, but it is a small leak, it will be years before it is a problem.” I asked him to send me an estimate anyway and I never heard from him again. Luckily, for me and the person living below me, I finally found someone willing to fix my “small” leak.

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  2. So true… Sounds like a husband I used to have- hmmm, peut-être qu’il était français? 😉 When I read your latest post “Farewell to a French Apartment” I had to smile at the mileage you have gotten out of your French plumbing vocabulary! Interesting differences in cultures. Did you have any similar experience in Italy- would you say the Italians are more similar to the French or Americans in the way of repairs?

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    • I was in Italy for only 4 months and luckily didn’t have the same sort of problems. But just guessing, I would say that Italy is about the same as the South of France. Life is slower and there is never a hurry to do anything.

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  3. Interesting…I grew up in Canada and moved to NY in 1989. I now, like many ex-pats, have difficulty relating to some of my Canadian contacts. esp. when it comes to doing business. They move (never) at a glacial pace, doing anything to avoid making a decision and/or taking a risk. Drives me totally insane and every time I try, I hit the same walls. And I grew up there and went to school and university there so I have the requisite social capital they prefer.

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    • Great observation, Caitlin! This really illustrates the nature or nurture concept. From your “What sets your hair on fire?” post (http://bit.ly/152XCeI) it sounds like you found your comfort zone in American NY. (Glad you’re on this side!)

      Your comment reminded me of something from my “Food For Thought” post about a Canadian friend of mine in Baku who exemplified the risk avoidance: “As I flipped the pages of this little memory book, I remember Donna Hill (another Canadian) telling her story about having to take defensive driving- being a kind Canadian, she was reluctant to ram the offender’s car. “Couldn’t I just maneuver around him?” Not gonna happen… let’s have another go. Finally on the third try, as Donna relayed this story, the instructor stepped on her foot on the accelerator and forced the car into a collision path that she had to use all her skill to minimize and speed away from. She passed and, I imagine, to this day is a very safe driver, avoiding many collisions as she goes.”

      Here in DC, I find many people think they are risk takers but have no concept of really going after anything riskier than signing a year long lease in Adams-Morgan… our experience changes us, as it should.

      Thanks for the perspective. I am really enjoying your “Broadside” blog insights- it’s nice to be connected. -Jonelle

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  4. Pingback: Spear-Phishing for Dinner and Other Off The Grid Challenges | Life Lessons

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