Sunday, January 4, 2009

Culture Shock Continues: Showers, Mops and Knobs.

During my first summer in America, I worked in a Catholic children’s camp in Wisconsin. For more than a month I was getting acquainted with some brilliant American cleaning solutions like Lysol and Kleenex and learning the advantages and disadvantages of differently shaped brooms, mops and vacuum cleaners. Considering the fact that I was working as a housekeeper, it was quite appropriate. However, American mops and brooms were the only exposure to an American culture that I had in this camp.

All the other non-counselor staff was from Europe; the directors of the camp talked to us only to give us tasks (they either thought we were dumb or they simply didn’t like us too much); kids and counselors ate at different times and at different tables and had their activities when we cleaned and cooked. It didn’t look like it would be “the best summer of my life” which the Camp Counselor USA organization, through which I came to the US, promised to us before we signed the contracts. The idea of the program was to come to America, work for free and as pay, learn the culture, see some of the country and improve our language. Right.

You can imagine my excitement when on one beautiful morning Ben, one of the American camp counselors invited my friend (she was from Kazakhstan) and I to spend a weekend with his family in their suburb home somewhere close to Green Bay. I didn’t have any problem leaving my brooms and Lysol smelling rugs behind and accepted the invitation. So did my friend.

It was my first time going to an American home and spending time with a “real” American family. For almost a month I was dreaming of such an opportunity, but when it came I started panicking. (Three years later I learned from my communication textbooks that it is called cultural apprehension) The fact that the family was Catholic added to my stress, because I wasn’t very religious (or spiritual) at the time and everything unknown was freaking me out. I didn’t know what to wear; what to expect; how to behave and which jokes not to crack. On our way to the house I was cursing myself (and my Kazakhstan friend) for coming, missing my cleaning supplies and regretting the decision to wear a long-sleeved (I was going for modest) synthetic shirt and dark-indigo jeans in 90 degree weather.

I was sweaty and exhausted when we arrived. Ben’s mom greeted us at the door. She seemed nice and her smile was sincere.

- Are you tired, girls? Would you like a drink or a shower?
Now, in my country, you are supposed to say NO to everything, because when people offer something they EXPECT you to say no. If they really want to you have it, they will ask again and then you may say yes. It’s just like “HOWAREYOU” in America. You don’t care and you know the other person doesn’t care, but you still ask and reply.

So I said:

- No, thank you.

Either they have different rules in Kazakhstan, or my friend was so desperate for a drink and a shower that she didn’t care, she said:

- Yes please.

I still don’t know if Ben’s mom was interculturally competent, or I was too stinky, but she brought us two huge glasses of water and two sets of towels.

- I’ll show you where the shower is.

I was the first one to go. I took my smelly clothes off and hopped in a shower stall.
Ok, where are the knobs? Here they are.

In Russia knobs are designed for people with average intellect. Left is for cold; right is for hot. One is blue, another is red. To turn it on, you twist it clockwise; to turn it off,- counterclockwise. Simple.

In this country you need to have at least a Bachelor’s degree in engineering to figure these things out. I twisted the left knob. Nothing happened. Twisted the right one. Nothing. I tried pulling one. Then pressing. Then pressing and pulling and the same time. Then pressing and twisting. Still nothing. I repeated all the manipulations. Tried pressing/twisting/pulling harder. The water still wasn’t coming out.

The smartest choice at that moment would have been to get out of the shower, put my stinky clothes back on and ask someone to show me how this invention works. But I felt embarrassed. I didn’t want them to think I was dumb (better smelly than dumb) and I was in the shower for more than 10 minutes already. Darn!

After pushing both knobs for the last time without any reaction from their side, I said farewell to my dream of taking a shower. With a third try turned the water in the sink on; washed my face, splashed some water on my hands and legs and put clean clothes on…

I did end up taking a shower later that evening. My friend turned out to be smarter than I was. She somehow figured out the monster by herself and generously showed me what to do.

Thankfully, my shower adventure was the only stressful experience that weekend. I fell in love with Ben’s friendly family (Ben also had a father and 4 siblings), who loved God, who sang Christian songs in evenings; who joked with us and prayed for us throughout the weekend.

Even though I wasn’t a real Christian back then, I wrote in my journal: “I haven’t seen anything like that before. There is so much love in this house, that I don’t want to leave. I want to have a family like that one day. Just like that. God, if you are there and hear me, let me have a family like that.”

And you know what? HE heard me!


Faith said...

God is cool like that.

The Inept Aspirant said...

great story! I am totally ignorant of other cultures. They would throw me out on the street I would offend them so much! (Actually, the people here would probably like to do that as well.)