Friday, July 15, 2011

Social Norms

What makes crossing cultures so complicated?  Many things, and here's one I've been thinking about lately:  We grow up thinking a certain way of doing things is the way everyone does them.  When we encounter a new culture, we know some of these things will be different, but it's surprising how often we assume differences that don't really exist, and how often we take for granted things that are fundamentally different.

Today, in a twist on my series "Is this Normal? (Yes)," I will talk about our mutually faulty assumptions of normal and how I noticed them when visiting my student.

Exhibit A:  At the table.  While picnicking with my student and her family, someone pulled out a canister of pigs' ears.  I was asked, do I want one?  I politely declined but was pressed, so I crunched my way through a single pig ear and watched the show unfold.  There were only a couple pairs of chopsticks at our picnic, so Rita's mom took to using the chopsticks to feed interested party members directly.  If they demurred, she forced the pig ear to their lips until they took it and started to chew.  A good time was had by all.

Their normal:  Eating pigs' ears.
My normal:  Not eating pigs' ears.

Their normal:  Force feeding.
My normal:  Offering once or twice and giving up.

Their normal:  Communal eating and free exchange of germs.
My normal:  If it touched your mouth, it can't touch the serving bowl.

Their normal:  Contented burps.
My normal:  Hold it in.

Exhibit B:  At home.  Every evening when we got back home, all the family members would take a shower in turn, change into PJs, watch TV in their bedrooms, and go to sleep.  The shower was in a separate building that also housed the washing machine and toilet.  The bed, which I shared with Rita, was "comfortable" in her words, but so hard for me that I actually checked in the morning to see if there was a mattress of if we were sleeping directly on wood.

Their normal:  Shower at night.  Use hand-towels to dry off.
My normal:  Shower in the morning.  Where's my nice, big towel?

Their normal:  Hard mattresses.
My normal:  Soft mattresses.

Exhibit C:  Family relationships and titles.  Rita has zillions of aunts, uncles, and cousins, which she calls by their titles rather than their names.  So I met Aunt #1, Aunt #2, and various cousins and in-laws.  Rita told me she once visited her grandmother in the hospital and embarrassed herself by seeing the name on the door and not knowing that it was her grandma's -- she never had heard her referred to by her name.  This type of naming is further complicated by the fact that every family friend older than Rita is also her "aunt" or "uncle," and her peer relatives are various forms of "sister" and "brother."  She has one cousin that she just calls "Fatty."

Their normal:  Titles rather than names.
My normal:  Names rather than titles, usually.  And I know my grandparents' names even if I don't call them that.

Exhibit D:  Going visiting.  On my last day, Rita's aunt #2 called her and asked if we wanted to come over.  Rita said yes but didn't say when, and eventually we went.  When we arrived at her very nice apartment (the front door of which was curiously embossed with the Olympic Bird's Nest), Aunt #2 immediately invited us into her bedroom.  She was sitting on her bed in her nightgown working on a gigantic cross-stitch and watching a period drama on TV.  Rita and I also sat on the bed and nibbled on the lychees and corn on the cob that were offered, while chatting with her aunt and admiring the cross-stitch.

Their normal:  More openness for visitors.  Sure, come into the bedroom.  Who cares if I'm in my PJs?
My normal:  Don't invite someone unless the living room is mostly clean and I'm dressed for the day.

Their normal:  Offer copious snacks and tea to visitors, including random stuff like freshly boiled corn.
My normal:  "Do you want something to drink?"

The reason these differences can throw you for a loop is because each side assumes its own normal carries over to the other side.  Rita wouldn't think to explain to me, "Oh, we'll probably just sit on Aunt's bed and eat corn, and after awhile she'll ask us if we want to visit my uncle's office," so I didn't know until I got there.  And everyone would be surprised if I tried to shower in the morning.  And Rita's mother wouldn't think it would be off-putting for me to eat the huge lump of fat hanging off the pig foot she just gave me.  And I was confused by the fishing poles because ours are different.  And I didn't know in advance when I went to change clothes after river rafting that I would walk into a room of naked ladies.

So I remained perpetually taken off guard by things that were normal for them but never explained to me.  For example, Rita's family eats all their meals in their shop, not their house.  How could I have known that?  But no one told me, because it was so normal for them.

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