Saturday, September 19, 2009

Cultural Moments

What's wrong with
this picture?
When we were in training in Chernigov, in our Russian language classes with Lyrisa (the best teacher I ever had), we would stop to talk about misunderstandings that had taken place between one of us novices and our Ukrainian host families. "Cultural moments" we called them.
For example, one Peace Corps Trainee (PCT, not yet PCV), Mike, forgot to leave his shoes at the door when he came in one night. When his host mom didn't see his shoes in their proper place, she immediately called Peace Corps headquarters to report him missing. The police were summoned, the family was frantic, the PC folks in Kiev were on the phone. It was a huge crisis.

The funny thing is, the PCT was in his bed sleeping peacefully through all the commotion. When his host family finally found him, they woke him up to scold him for not taking off his shoes upon entering the apartment!
A total misunderstanding all the way around. But one thing's for sure: Mike remembered to take off his shoes after that. So did we all as this story spread through the PC grapevine. Mike was mad, but we thought it was hysterical!

Another PCT made the mistake of buying a bunch of flowers for her host mom. The mistake was that she had bought an even number of flowers, six rather than five. Before putting the flowers in a vase, her host mom took one out of the bunch and threw it in the trash! It is bad luck to get an even number of flowers.

It's also bad luck to shake hands or kiss across the threshold; to whistle inside the house; to turn your back on a friend. Nor is it a good idea to pick up kopeks (coins) from the street, unless you want to end up poor.

The superstitions and customs are hard enough, but the language barrier makes it worse. Misunderstandings are inevitable. Luba wants me to do something, and I don't understand. I've made the flower mistake. I've whistled in the house. I've forgotten to take off my shoes.

When Luba gets home from work, she wants to know if I have eaten, and if so what. It's her first question, after taking off her shoes. It's ok to yell a question across a threshold. She checks the food she left on the stove in the morning and notices it's pretty much all still there. So WHAT did I eat? It's been a rocky road, but I think we have this routine down pretty well now.

Luba can't help but mother me, although I am older than she is. It's her role. The head of the household tradition. She wants to be sure I look okay when I walk out the door. Several times she's made me stop to iron a skirt or a top! You do NOT go out the door with wrinkled clothes on, or dirty clothes. No way. It reflects badly on the head of the household.
Luba wants me to take off the lights when I'm not in my room, to hang wet towels on the clothesline outside not on the rack in the bathroom, to wash my socks out every night, to wipe water off of counters, to add a flower to the vase where I had two, to eat the potatoes and noodles, as well as the meat and vegetables!

I'm getting better, but most of the time I'm still not sure what Luba wants me to do, or not to do. If she thinks I don't understand, she says it louder, and slower. If I still don't get it, she shakes her head and says, rather forlornly, with a kind of quiet resignation, "Ne panimyu?" You don't understand. I nod, remember Mike's shoes, and just smile.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, Fran, you say it all so well, and with such a sense of grace. Luba and Vera don't know how lucky they are.