Thursday, November 18, 2010


I'm not going to sugar coat this. Living in a multicultural environment has its hilarious moments. Whenever a new group of people introduces itself into an established society, there is the inevitable confusion. The adjustment period can last from mere days, to several years, to a lifetime, and the gaffs follow a prescribed pattern.

Exhibit A, The Recycling Bins: The rules about garbage and recycling are confusing for everyone at first, but as a native English speaker, I have the advantage of being able to follow detailed instruction. I also read what we natives refer to as "forward". Many Asian languages do not read "forward", so any positives become negatives. If someone in my building notices that there is garbage in the recycling and vice versa, they post a sign. Within days, the problem grows worse. A second sign goes up with highlighter, exclamation points and underscoring, "Do NOT NOT NOT put garbage in the recycling!!!" Unless they are walked into the trash room with a bag of garbage in one hand and a bag of bottles in the other--and their arms are guided like a tennis lesson--progress is slow.

Exhibit B, The Elevator: Let's pretend that a group of us U.S. citizens decide to move to Africa. Our plane touches down next to a large village, where we are greeted warmly, offered the local fermented beverage and introduced to our new mode of transport--a camel. Now what? How do we mount it, how do we make it move, and how on earth do we prevent a mortal kicking injury? Meanwhile, our friendly townsmen are laughing heartily as we stand there, staring at the smelly beast and wishing for home. Help!

Elevators are baffling to those who have never even seen a multistory building. One of my new neighbors from the deepest depths of the Ivory Coast stepped onto the elevator for the first time the other day, and with what I'm sure was a great deal of trepidation, let the door close behind him. And there he was, this brave man who has probably been witness to the most awful of human atrocities, stymied by 100-year-old technology. The elevator didn't move, the door wouldn't open. Help!

It seems every culture knows that red is an emergency color, so he did what any of us would do: he pressed the red button. A human being on an elevator that won't move is considered a life threatening situation, so shortly thereafter a fire truck pulled up and I happened to be the one to let the first responders in the front door. We pressed the "up" button and the elevator arrived, empty and ready for use. Sneaking quietly up the stairs, my African neighbor made himself as small as he could and vanished in a puff of humiliation.

Exhibit C, Courtesy: This same fellow is the most gentlemanly of gentlemen. If you recall the movie "Coming to America" with Eddie Murphy, you'll know what I mean when I say that his accent and volume are rather, well, loud and ingratiating. He's not used to women doing him a kindness but he's nonetheless grateful, so when holding a door open for him I'm greeted with, "THANK YOU SO MUCH! I'M SORRY SO MUCH!" You're welcome so much, my friend.

Many Asian cultures don't have such niceties. I've been glared at for holding open doors, trying to help with directions or even smiling. They're not being rude, it's simply the way things are. At first I was hurt, but I now know to expect it until the adjustment period is over. Once that period is over, they give small gifts of food, or pirated movies arrive in my email inbox, and I know I've been accepted into the fold.

I also fully expect that they are going to hate my dog on sight, and overtly cringe away from him even when he's nowhere near. One woman will sometimes allow Sam to greet her child, while other times she'll shake her head and say, "No no no no no," rapid-fire, and whip the stroller around a corner with the g-force of 10 rockets. I can almost see her daughter's cheeks flap.

Is there a lesson in acceptance and understanding to be learned from all this? Maybe, but mostly what it's good for is a shared laugh.


  1. I'm open minded. Fuck everyone -> new/old/while/asian/african/black.... What (the fuck) ever.

    I love this post b/c you see what SO MANY MISS (regardless of color/origin/ creed <-- whatever that fucking means)

  2. Exactly. We're all nuts. Makes the world go round and round and gives us all a tummy ache.


    P.S. Everyone that isn't already must start reading !