My friends are some of the best people on this planet. You may not have heard of any of these great humanitarians/super awesome people, but they don’t exactly do what they do to see their name in lights.
But even the salt of the earth people mess it up, and how they put up with me and my fowlness is unknown to me.
My friends fight against the crap in this world. They fight for immigration rights, worker rights, gender equality, peace, happiness, and all that other ‘hippie stuff’ my father might call it. But sometimes I find that even we, folks trained to see such things, don’t see the cultural imprints that we carry.
Some of these cultural associations that have been ingrained in us, we see easily. When they ask only the girls to cook for a church event–we see it as an affront to gender equality (if I have to cook on Sunday those boys are doing the dishes, I’m just saying). When someone says that all Mexicans want green cards, black people steal cars, and asians make 1600 on their SATs, most people openly recognize these as stereotypes.
But what about the ones we don’t see?
“I mean, it’s European opera music…. but it’s not cultural immersion…. I was just hoping to be thrown into the thick of things…. I’m also having pizza tonight which I love…. but again, not something I thought I’d be having for a while….”
This is a part of a conversation I had with a friend that had just arrived in South Africa.
And this is a conversation I had just the other day:
E-I need a vacuum for the needles [from my Christmas tree] now embedded in my carpet.
V-You know M doesn’t have a vacuum?
E-I didn’t know that.
V-He thinks they are very American and not Ukrainian so he won’t get one.
E-Everyone I know has a vacuum.
V-I have a vacuum!
In L’viv, I’ve eaten quite a bit of pizza. Is pizza Ukrainian? If I eat pizza in L’viv instead of something like borscht, am I not getting the full cultural experience?
Does the US or Italy hold the corner for pizza appropriateness?
These preconceived notions that we enter a culture with aren’t always that obvious. We go somewhere and expect to see a difference. When we encounter things that we think are out of place, or strictly un where ever, though you are actually experiencing it in the culture, we are showing our bias. We are showing what we hold to be the stereotype of that culture/place.
Stereotypes aren’t always bad things on their own (though they can lead to very very bad things), but they can keep you from being as open to the fullness of the new place you’re in. If I refused to eat pizza every time we went for it/it was cooked for me just because I don’t think of it as “Ukrainian food” then I’d be hungry a lot.
No one place is just one thing. Thanks to the ever growing global economy and nature of our world, what might have been the norm 50 years ago, in any place, has evolved. I’m sure 50 years ago Ukrainians didn’t have a ton of vacuum cleaners, but seriously I’ve not entered one Ukrainian household that doesn’t have one.
So what does all this mean?
We have to acknowledge that our culture infuses some thoughts on what it means to be ____________, and we are not always fully aware of our own projected stereotypes on a place. And we have to adjust our outlook. When we think about vacuum cleaners as not being Ukrainian, and you see the evidence clearly pointing elsewhere, acknowledge that no one holds the culturally appropriate stamp for vacuums.
When I first arrived in Ukraine, I am ashamed to admit, I was terrified of the police for about a week.
I was cool all the rest of the time, except when I saw a po-po. I don’t even know why I was scared of the po-po, except to say that this is a former Soviet country, and we’ve had instilled in us the corruption and badness that is all Soviet and former Soviet things. I was open to lots of things, the people, food (I’ve had heart twice–not bad), the culture, but I was obviously not expecting my reaction to the po-po. And the cops are harmless really. I’ve never been approached by one, and if I did I would immediately play dumb American and they’d let me continue doing whatever.
Nothing to fear, stupid Erica.
This is all a part of this experience of living and immersing yourself in another culture, be that internationally or within the US. We all have some baggage that we need to unload before we can fully work into this, and we have the choice of how easy it will be to unload it. We can be open and willing to acknowledge and receive, or we can continue to function in fear (in my case) or in a pizzaless world.
And really, who wants to live in a pizzaless world?