I had a disturbing call recently with a close friend, who lives in Europe. Her husband, one of the nicest people I’ve ever known, is having some significant health issues brought on my work-related stress. I’d seen him a year ago at Christmas and he seemed to be on the mend, but since then took a turn for the worse.
Through it all, his wife and friends are there for him, but his two, now adult (mid, high 20’s) children, are MIA (Missing in Action). Adults in their mid-20’s can get caught up in their own lives and certainly have their own angsts, but this isn’t that.
These two children have decided that their father is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. The youngest one hasn’t spoken to her father in over two years.
What’s the crime that so unspeakable?
He worked hard, while getting a college decree, to enable him to have higher paying jobs to provide for his wife and two daughters, including putting them thru university.
It seems in our ever more indulgent society, his daughters expected him to be there more for them.
Sorry, I have no idea what that means. I saw my father, late evenings and on the Sundays, he wasn’t still working. While some of those Sundays had a planned trip, with us going someplace to visit friends . Many were spent waiting impatiently for him to finish fixing the car or washing machine or something else of necessity.
But thru it all, I understood that my father showed how much he loved us by how hard he worked. It wasn’t about face time or sitting on his knee. It was about never having to worry about whether we would have something to eat or a place to live. Besides, if he got home earlier in the evening, we’d have to watch something stupid on TV or listen to classical music all night (which is what we did on those Sunday visits, but at least we got out of the City!)
I asked my best friend, who is also European, what he thought of this. He said, he never saw his mother because she was working all the time. But in just those words, I gleaned that he fully understood that all he had now, his business and personal success, was because of his hard working mother.
We of the west, expect things to come to us, whether we work for them or not. It is one of our fundamental problems with education and one of the reasons for our dismal success rate in public schools and colleges. And everyone: students, teachers, administrators and politicians own a piece of that failure.
My Vietnam time is coming to an end in a couple of months. So, I am ever more keenly aware of what’s going on around me. Savoring every moment, every observation, like it will be my last, as it will be soon. Thus, I notice the streets packed at 07:00 until 21:00 every day. What are people doing? Working, going to school, doing those things that they must do to be successful, to be happy, to survive.
Vietnam calls itself communist or socialist, but it is less socialist that any European country or even the USA for that matter. It’s a one-party state, but that’s about it. There is no safety net. Children understand that if they do not work hard in school, they will not get a decent job. Adults understand that it’s work or starve. Simple, maybe harsh, but effective.
That’s one of the things I both appreciate and admire about Asian cultures. They seem to be not so far removed from the basics of life. While we in the west, the USA and Europe, seem to ever more indulge ourselves in a fanciful world in which we do nothing, but want everything. We base our very existence on false stereotypes that never existed in the first place.
But it’s hard to have conversations about real life with our children, when we spend all our time arguing whether it’s a wall or a fence and then make millions suffer to make our nonsensical point.
In my post, How Fresh is Fresh? I wrote about my first trip overseas to Italy. What an eye opener that was. But as I reflect on the different cultures I’ve experienced, I realize my first true culture shock happened in the USA, when I arrived in Seattle in the fall of 1969.
Seattle was not as I had expected.
I spent my first 18 years growing up in the heart of the City, New York, not even Brooklyn, nor the many towns of Queens, let alone the Bronx, but New York (Manhattan, for the uninitiated). Being in the heart of it all, makes one think they know it all and have seen it all. I certainly wouldn’t be the first New Yorker accused of a little hubris, especially coming from the heart of the heart, Greenwich Village. New York is nothing if not multi-cultural, and Greenwich Village was its soul.
In those days, Greenwich Village was the inexpensive refuge for people of all creeds, regions, colors, races, sexual preference and artists. The place for “different” people, my parents settled there because there were few places an inter-racial couple could live peacefully at that time, even in Greater New York and the rent in the West Village for our two-bedroom apartment was only $50 per month. Even communists were welcome, as Alger Hiss rented the top floor apartment in our little four story, four apartment building, when he got out of jail. A very nice man by the way. Our upstairs neighbors were two men, they would be called a couple now-a-days, but in the Greenwich Village of the ‘50’s, labels were neither needed or desired. They were simply two nice mean and neighbors for me. I learned to take people at face value, as I wanted to be taken. My brother and I just knew them as them as the good men who would make pancakes for us occasionally; like uncles, in fact better than my true uncles who I never met until I was 50 years old!
Fast forward to 1969, I found myself in Seattle, having decided pretty much on my own that I was going to the University of Washington (UW). (Which is a tale for another time of independent kids who involve their parents only on the periphery). Once I was accepted to the UW in the spring of ’69, I looked up all the information I could find about Seattle.
I knew its population was about 500,000. New York’s was 8 million, but Manhattan was only 2 million, therefore I figured Seattle is roughly a quarter the size of New York. From that factual conclusion, I made some interesting assumptions.
I figured life in Seattle would be like living in New York, if I never went north of 57th street or left the City (any place out of Manhattan). Therefore, I’d be giving up my occasional trips to the Bronx Zoo, Coney Island and going to Mets’ games. But then I figured one has to make some sacrifices to be able to attend a university.
My one quarter the size assumption, implied the quantity of everything I was used to: shops, movie theaters, buses, stores, delicatessens, etc., would be reduced to 25%. So, instead of having a choice of 20 delicatessens, I’d have a choice of 5. No problem I thought, nor did I think quality would be reduced to levels last seen on the Oregon trail in a Conestoga wagon.
Now, the UW knew the out of state kids would have some adjusting to do, so they had come a week earlier. Thus, I bonded with the other out of state kids in the dormitory and one in particular who was from Long Island. He wasn’t even from the City, yet even he could tell something was amiss here.
Bad food, bad coffee, bad everything; not even one delicatessen and the buses stop running at 11 p.m. The bagels that were sold in Safeway appeared to have been made months earlier by people who had never eaten a bagel but had once seen a picture of one (meaning it was round).
Who knew people lived like this? This chubby high school kid lost 20 pounds in 6 weeks.
In the early days, still thinking that civilization would return as I knew it, I’d ask for those things common to New York. In the summer everyone drinks ice coffee. But not in Seattle in 1969, when I asked for an iced coffee, the waitress had no idea what I was talking about. Somehow, the culture of strong coffee mixed with ice in the summer time never made it past Chicago (If it even got that far).
Another time, when asked how I liked my coffee, I replied, with that New York classic, “regular”, meaning with milk and sugar. They gave it to me black, well not really black, as I could see the spoon at the bottom of the cup. The coffee was an undrinkable, light brown concoction, of hot water and coffee flavor.
I survived, but it was my first eye opener, that when one leaves home (however large or small that “home” may be), one has to leave assumptions behind. Nothing was basic, even the telephone operator for my monthly collect call home, usually misunderstood my telephone prefix “Oregon” for “Argon”.
While I consider myself a life-long learner, I never said I was a fast learner. But as life went on, I learned to dump more and more assumptions so that I’d arrive at my new home naked with eyes open. From there one can make the case that there are no true assumptions. Assumptions by definition are conclusions based on spotty data. Good luck with that.
In the next two decades, I found myself in many varied places: Alaska, Colorado, Southern California, Italy and Germany, even the Arctic Ice Cap for half a year. Assumptions melted like a popsicle on a hot summer day. One of the aspects of European life that I like so much is the absence of urban sprawl. In some places more than others, particularity so in Germany.
I ended up living in Germany twice, in small German towns, around 2,000 inhabitants. One day while trying to follow a conversation with my neighbor’s daughter and her boyfriend, who was from the next town up the road about 5 km away, I realized he was speaking in a dialect that was even different than the Rhineland Pfalz dialect I was accustomed to and could reasonably decipher. I asked why his speech was so different. Then I learned that was because his town, which I drove thru twice a day, was a “Catholic town”, as opposed to the Lutheran town I was living in.
And because of this difference, there was much less interaction with this neighboring town, than with other towns.
Well, seemingly everyone but me. To this day, I have no idea if this pattern of towns based on region was a regional thing, a local thing, a national thing, or anything at all, (certainly local people have their own biases, which you must be aware of), but I do know never to make any assumptions about anything.
During that same stint, I met a German meteorologist, who was from Northern Germany, but was now teaching meteorology to pilots in Bavaria (southeastern Germany). We met for work, became friends and I visited him often. He told me that when he moved from the north some years earlier, no one would sell him a house simply because he was not local. He began making weather forecasts for the local farmers and after a few years they did accept him enough so that he was able to buy a house.
My take-away from this, just like the different town thing, was that the label “German”, as most labels, is not helpful in understanding personal interactions that take place on an everyday basis on a small scale.
I thought an of interesting way to look at these differences in macro and micro cultures using numbers.
Think of a number line from zero to 10, we’ll call it the Homogenous population. If we have a population of 1000 evenly spaced between zero and 10, every number is 0.01 or 1/100th apart in absolute numbers. Now, take a different population of numbers, this time from zero to 10,000, which we’ll call the Heterogenous population. Divide by 1,000 again, and every number is now 10 units apart in absolute numbers. Therefore, to the Heterogenous population, the Homogenous population seems much closer in value in absolute terms, and the Small population looks at the big population and sees far more diversity, since the range is not zero to 10, but zero to 10,000.
But looking at both populations from within, on a relative scale, Homogenous sees a difference of 0.01/10 =0.001; while Heterogenous sees the same result, 10/10,000=0.001. Therefore, even in populations that seem homogeneous to an outsider, to those inside the population the perceived differences are just as great as in a population that is viewed as heterogeneous.
My point is that perceived differences are in the eye of the beholder and that the differences one sees are as great to the Homogenous group as to the Heterogeneous group.
We cannot make the false assumption that populations that seem homogeneous to us, like Germans or Koreans or Italians or Chinese or Vietnamese or anyone for that matter, are in fact, homogenous, because for them, inside that population, they see diversity that we are not trained to see.
Or let’s put it even another way.
I believe that Queens County is the most diverse county in the USA based on the number of different languages spoken at home based on the last census.
So, if I am having a coffee in Queens, let’s say the neighborhood of Astoria, it’s likely that at a nearby table there sits: a Bengali, a Greek, an African-American and a Korean. While they may all speak different languages at home, may be both female and male and of different religions, creeds and colors, they will all know what a “Regular” coffee is.
In the last 5 years Dauntless has visited almost two dozen countries. While, I’ve been in couple dozen more in the last 40 years. That’s a lot of different languages and cultures.
It was 42 years ago, that I first set foot in Italy and it would begin a life of living and experiencing new languages, cultures, foods, etc. Sitting on a bus, passing thru the middle of Milan, in just looking out the window, it was obvious this was not the Italy I had expected, nor was it the Little Italy of New York either or the Italy of Italian-Americans. Not one cannolo was in sight. In fact. It would take me a year to find one and that was further south in Florence.
Passing a billboard advertising skin cream which depicted naked women, I vowed then and there to leave my perceptions behind and reboot my expectations. For effective cross-cultural communications, this can be the only starting point. When in Rome, Do as the Romans.
No phrase probably sums up a successful expatriate experience better. I was/am always amazed at the number of Americans I would meet living overseas like I yet complaining that it wasn’t Kansas.
Living so, accepting the people and cultures I’m immersed in, allows me to enjoy my travels and adventures with Dauntless, or like this month, without her, in Vietnam.
Even when speaking a common language, understanding and accepting cultural differences is crucial for good relationships of any sort.
Trinh speaks pretty much fluent English. When she doesn’t understand a word, it’s usually because of my pronunciation. Our miscommunications center around different understandings of the same word or sometimes, while the words are understood, the background isn’t.
Thus, began our discussion about “fresh” chicken. A little question about fresh chicken, became a bridge to cross cultural communication.
Trinh is the best cook I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. I’ve always prided myself on my own cooking and for most of my life, I’ve done most of the cooking in the household. Over the past year, I tried to analyze what makes her cooking so good, even better than almost any restaurant I’ve eaten here in Vietnam. And should we try something new to her, if we like it, she will recreate it at home. I’ve concluded that it’s her meticulous preparation and wholesome ingredients she uses.
By far my favorite dish is her fried or sautéed chicken. I’ve never had such delicious fried chicken any place or any time in my entire life. The skin cooked to almost a hard, crunchy shell, with moist, tender chicken underneath and flavors that just melt in your mouth.
Chicken to die for.
I knew she always bought the packages of chicken wings at Co-Op Food. Co-Op is owned by the government of Vietnam. They have two retail stores that are everywhere in Vietnam: Co-Op Mart, which is like a large supermarket, familiar to any westerner and Co-Op Food, a small, convenience store style store. I like both, initially, I had to leave my preconceived ideas at home about Co-Op Food. When I think convenience store, I think packaged snacks, old hot dogs, mystery meat burritos heated up in microwaves and gallons of colored water, chemical based drinks in large plastic cups.
But Co-Op Food is the place for everyday items and fresher foods than Co-Op Mart (the supermarket) offers and why Trinh only buys the chicken at Co-Op Food, not Co-Op Mart.
Now, if you know me at all, you know I’m skeptical of almost everything I hear and half what I see. So, I pressed Trinh on the difference, why was this package of chicken wings better than that one?
What do you mean the chicken at Co-Op Mart is not fresh? When was it killed in the last week or so?
She looks at me, like I have two heads (because she wouldn’t touch chicken killed last week. Who knew?, not I).
No, she responds, the chicken at Co-Op Food is killed that night.
What do you mean that night? I ask, still not able to get my mind around her expectations of freshness.
She explains: Chicken at Co-Op Food is killed, plucked, packaged at 01:00 a.m. on the morning I buy it. It’s on the shelves around 06:00 a.m.
She doesn’t know how old the chicken is at Co-Op Mart, she guesses a few days at most, but it’s older and she’s not buying it, ever.
For a boy grown up in a supermarket culture, with foods routinely shipped thousands of miles and processed and packed ages ago, it’s fascinating to realize that while the outside package looks the same, the behind the scenes processing is totally different. These supermarkets and smaller food stores are competing with local markets that are everywhere, literally every quarter mile.